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Given the importance of this issue, I have asked my Department to begin assessing the impact of a possible British exit from the EU on agriculture and rural ?life in the North. Clearly, an exit from the EU would mean that direct payments to farmers and rural development funding from the EU would stop. However, the many uncertainties surrounding a potential exit makes a quantitative assessment of impacts very difficult.
There are significant uncertainties around the type of trade arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world that could be negotiated following a withdrawal of EU membership. Of particular significance is whether there would be tariff-free access to EU markets for agricultural products and vice versa. If direct payments from the EU stopped, it would not be feasible for the Executive to fund these payments at current levels from the block grant unless additional money were forthcoming from the British Treasury.
It has been clear that the British Government have long wanted to reduce the level of support going to farmers and rural development under the CAP. They do not regard this type of support as value for money. I believe that the Treasury would be unsympathetic to calls for some of the money that is saved from withdrawing from the EU to be used to maintain direct support to farmers and rural communities at current levels.
A significant reduction in direct support would leave many of our farmers in real long-term financial difficulty. A faster rate of structural change in the industry would be inevitable. Small farms would be likely to suffer the most. It is very likely that a reduction of funding for farmers and rural communities would have knock-on effects for the wider environment.
One thing that we have been successful in, particularly with regard to the dairy crisis, is that we were able to get DEFRA onto our page with regard to the needs of the local industry, although it took a long time. We worked very hard to secure that. We made sure that we have a very strong voice in Europe, raising awareness of the significant and unique circumstances of the local dairy industry. That is why it is so important that we have decisions made by locally elected Ministers who understand the local situation, whether it is in farming, manufacturing or any other sector. It is so important that we have locally elected Ministers who can take decisions that are in the best interests. I certainly always take my case directly to Europe because I think that it is important to do that. Do they always listen? Absolutely not, but it certainly does not stop us going out and making as much noise as we possibly can when fighting our corner for local industry.
The Minister has stated that she believes that we are better off in Europe than out of it. Given the fact that approximately £8·2 billion is paid into Europe by the British Government, what is she doing — if the will of the people is to pull out of Europe — to ensure that the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland gets the maximum benefit for farmers out of that £8·2 billion?
I think that you are jumping a lock of skips. We have to look at the reality, which is that the Tories' policy will never be one of subsidising farmers; they will never want to replace like with like. I would never be confident — I do not think that anybody could be — that the Tories would replace that money if there was a Brexit and they pulled out of the EU. It is highly unlikely, given Tory ideology, that they would ever replace £300 million for farmers. There was up to £500 million in the previous programme for the ongoing rural development work, which was about business investment and working with communities on community services and basic services. I would not be confident that the Tories would want to replace that. However long they remain in power, none of us can be sure of that. We are best placed to look towards fighting the challenges and to look for reform, but the interests of our farmers are better served within the EU.