Tim Farron: Farmers left in limbo by lack of Brexit strategy

What will Brexit mean for Yorkshire's cheese industry?
What will Brexit mean for Yorkshire's cheese industry?

WHATEVER side of the argument you were on over Brexit, one thing is now beyond argument: the Government had no Brexit plan.

And in few areas is this more apparent than agriculture, an important industry for Yorkshire. For decades Britain has outsourced regulation of farming to the EU, and now must start from scratch in creating a new system – with no expertise.

The Chancellor’s recent announcement that subsidies would be protected to 2020 seems on the surface reassuring. But to treat it as such would be a big mistake. The guarantee given is for just four years – and we don’t know when we will actually leave the EU. This is simply a holding message while the Government works out what on earth to do next.

The picture of life after Brexit is still deeply uncertain, and farmers need to plan over a far longer time scale.

With Brexit predicted to increase the cost of borrowing by an extra £60bn over this Parliament, Ministers will need to make savings somewhere. It is quite possible that when we approach 2020, both the Government and the public will be less sympathetic towards maintaining agricultural subsidies – especially when the false promise of an extra £350 billion for the NHS has become more evident.

The National Farmers’ Union is consulting members on life post-Brexit, and among farmers there is growing realisation that the Government is highly unlikely to cover, in the long term, the £2.1bn in EU direct subsidies – which made up more than half of farmers’ income last year – or the £600m in rural development payments. Money that the family farm can’t afford to lose.

Beyond this, so many questions remain. If we leave Europe, and the Government pays any future subsidy, will it be for food production, or for land husbandry?

What conditions would be attached?

Would direct subsidy be moved from landowners to tenant farmers, who sometimes miss out under the current system? Will there be a reduction in immigration, and if so how will this impact on farms that rely on seasonal labour?

Will there be training in agriculture for young British workers to take up the slack?

And will great local products such as Yorkshire Wensleydale and Swaledale Cheese continue to receive EU protection from cheap foreign imitators?

Above all, farmers need to know if we will remain part of the Single Market. They want assurance that they will retain the freedom to sell brilliant produce without tariffs or, just as harmful, restrictions. So far, Conservative ministers do not seem to agree even on this fundamental question, with Theresa May sounding more positive about the Single Market while the heavily Eurosceptic Liam Fox and David Davis are trying their hardest to yank us out of the world’s most lucrative market.

While Conservative ministers squabble, Liberal Democrats have been trying to sort the mess. I am delighted that Nick Clegg, our former leader, has accepted my offer to return to frontline politics as our Brexit spokesperson. Over the summer, he has been assembling teams of experts in all areas affected by Brexit, including agriculture, to work out what happens next and what questions need answering. He will be publishing this work in due course.

With these reports we have a simple aim: to make sure that we are fully aware of what impact the decisions relating to Brexit will have before they are made. Britain should not miss out any more than it has already from the reckless Conservative gamble to call a referendum without a clear strategy either how to win it or what to do if they lost.

We respect the result of the referendum, but equally the Government must make clear urgently what Brexit means. The uncertainty is killing confidence, with the pound plummeting, and the possibility of zero interest rates to kick-start flagging growth.

I live in rural Britain as MP in the Lake District. I understand the economic challenges faced by rural communities. Yorkshire has pressing economic needs, and has received hefty financial support from the EU – it is one of the biggest beneficiaries of EU regional funding. It would be a travesty if the Conservatives, a party that cares so much about the already wealthy, were allowed to cause further hardship by taking away this vital help.

There is also broader concern for anyone who, like me, loves the rural British landscape. If EU subsidy is removed, and British farmers are denied access to the Single Market for their produce, the landscape could change beyond recognition in a decade.

As a frequent visitor to the beautiful Yorkshire countryside, I think that would be a tragedy. Our farms are a man-made patchwork of fields, all producing something different. If we are not careful they soon won’t be producing very much at all, wrecking rural communities and making us dependent on foreign imports with all the consequences for our balance of payments and environment.

I am not prepared to let the Government sell-out on Yorkshire in this way.

Please join my fight to save British agriculture for the long term.

Tim Farron MP is leader of the Liberal Democrats.