MPs on Public Accounts Committee warn farmers are being ‘left in the dark’ about reforms to post-Brexit agricultural subsidies

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have delivered a blistering assessment of the government’s plans to reform post-Brexit land and farming subsidies, warning the proposed new schemes are beset with problems, overly complex and bureaucratic, and the cause of widespread anxiety within among farmers.

The new Environmental Land Management (ELM) system, which came into partial effect this month, aims to move away from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) where payments are made based on the amount of land owned and instead reward farmers for carrying out works that benefit the climate and environment.

The first subsidy schemes to come online under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), one of the ELM’s three pillars, reward farmers for taking actions to protect and restore the soil and enhance their moorland and grassland management. Earlier this week Defra said that two more schemes would soon be added to the regime – the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery Schemes – to incentivise farmers to take actions to restore nature and natural habitats.  

The concept behind the reforms – to phase out the widely criticised CAP and ensure public money helps deliver benefits for society at large – has been broadly welcomed by environmental and farming groups alike. But both farmers and environmental campaigners have grown increasingly critical of the plans, voicing fears that provide insufficient support to the farming sector and could struggle to deliver promised environmental improvements.

And today a new report from the PAC argues that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has provided no detail for how the scheme intends to meet its aim of delivering significant environmental benefits alongside increased farm productivity. It also says the department is yet to explain how it will offset the scheme’s “dramatic” effect on English farmers, who could see their income from direct payments halve by 2024-2025.

The report notes that Defra itself concedes that its “confidence in the scheme looks like blind optimism” and warns that the initiative is “beset with many of the same issues that have undermined ambitious government programmes in recent years”.

The Committee warns that Defra has not established the metrics or objectives to enable it to demonstrate that the £2.4bn a year it plans to spend on agricultural schemes is providing value for money, or contributing to government’s wider environmental and climate goals, including the plan to deliver a net zero emission economy by mid-century.

“We have known we were replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) since 2016 and still we see no clear plans, objectives or communications with those at the sharp end – farmers – in this multi-billion-pound, radical overhaul of the way land is used and, more crucially, food is produced in this country,” said PAC deputy chair Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. “Farmers, especially the next generation of farmers who we will depend on to achieve our combined food production and environmental goals, have been left in the dark and it is simply wrong that Defra’s own failures of business planning should knock on to undermine the certainty crucial to a critical national sector.”

The searing criticism of the payments programme comes just a few months after the National Audit Office warned the post-Brexit agricultural subsidy regime was at risk of being hampered by a lack of detailed objectives and limited engagement with farmers.

The report warns that Defra has not done enough to gain farmers trust that it can deliver the programme, noting that confidence in the department among farmers has been “severely damaged” by a history of poor delivery of previous agricultural subsidy schemes. It has called on the department to review its entire communications strategy before the end of March, taking special care to set out how it plans to incentivise young farmers to enter and remain in the industry.

Elsewhere, the PAC today reiterated concerns among farmers and environmental groups that Defra is yet to clarify how it plans to prevent the post-Brexit regime leading to food being imported from regions that have less strict environmental standards, as the government continues to pursue trade deals around the world akin to the controversial new agreement with Australia.

“The UK is also already a large net importer of food and we heard in evidence that the ELMS’ vague ambition to ‘maximise the value to society of the landscape’ may in reality mean that increases further,” said Clifton-Brown. “The recent energy price crisis should be a salutary warning of the potential risks to the availability and affordability of food if the UK becomes even more reliant on food imports.”  

Defra was considering a request for comment at the time of going to press. But earlier this week Environment Secretary George Eustice told the Oxford Farming Conference that the new subsidy schemes would deliver substantial benefits to the environment and farmers alike, while giving farming businesses the flexibility to select the approach that was best for them.

“We want to see profitable farming businesses producing nutritious food, underpinning a growing rural economy, where nature is recovering and people have better access to it,” he said. “Through our new schemes, we are going to work with farmers and land managers to halt the decline in species, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase woodland, improve water and air quality and create more space for nature.

“We are building these schemes together, and we are already working with over 3,000 farmers across the sector to test and trial our future approach. Farmers will be able to choose which scheme or combination of schemes works best for their business, and we will support them to do so.”

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