The Direct Payments to Farmers (Crop Diversification Derogation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 19th May 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 4:15 pm, 19th May 2020

I beg to move

That the Direct Payments to Farmers (Crop Diversification Derogation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker and Members. It is good to see you all. Contrary to rumours, Mr Stalford and I did not go to the same hairdresser.

[Laughter.]

It is a do-it-yourself job. I see that Mr Dunne is practising a bit of cleaning-up work. MLAs do have other uses and can do other jobs. That is good to see.

The Direct Payments to Farmers (Crop Diversification Derogation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 implement the derogation from the crop diversification requirements for the 2020 scheme year, which I announced on the 26 March 2020. This is possible under article 69 of regulation1307/2013, which provides for a power to derogate from the requirements in an emergency. The resulting regulations are subject to confirmatory procedure, as provided for in the operability amendments to EU law.

The regulations were made on 30 April 2020 and came into operation on 1 May 2020. The confirmatory procedure allows the regulations to come into operation quickly, which is important, given that applications for 2020 direct payments have to be made by 15 May, and farmers need certainty about their requirements.

In brief, crop diversification requires farmers who have between 10 and 30 hectares of arable land to grow two crops, and those who have above 30 hectares of arable land to grow three crops. There are some exceptions, as well as specific requirements that crops must cover certain percentages of arable land. In 2019, 316 farmers had a two-crop requirement and 333 had a three-crop requirement. I should point out that the derogation applies automatically to all farmers and that individuals will not have to make a specific case. It is important to note that both winter and spring plantings have been impacted by the high rainfall, although you would not know it now. However, it certainly was the case in February.

As the House will be aware, Northern Ireland had a particularly wet winter, with rainfall over the December to February period of 399·8 millimetres, which was 127% of the 1981-2020 average. Indeed, February of this year saw the highest rainfall for that month since records began: 222·7 millimetres, which was 267% of the 1981-2020 average. That left farmers facing waterlogged and impassable fields when planting decisions were being made in March. I therefore came to the view that farmers were not able to comply with the crop diversification requirements in 2020 or could do so only with great difficulty. Therefore I announced the derogation that the regulations seek to implement. England, Wales and Scotland are implementing similar derogations for the same reason.

In relation to the Republic of Ireland, the EU has not put in place a derogation from the crop diversification requirements for 2020, but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) has announced that it will consider force majeure, where farmers cannot comply with the crop diversification requirements due to the weather.

I appreciate that, since the derogation was announced, there has been a prolonged period of dry weather, but that does not alter the situation faced by farmers in March when planting decisions were being made. The decision applies to 2020 only; it is not a long-term policy announcement. To sum up, it is my view that the regulations should be approved in order to provide for an automatic derogation from the crop diversification requirements for the 2020 scheme year. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

As Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I take this opportunity to represent the views of the Committee.

The crop diversification rules were introduced in 2015 as part of the greening requirements under the EU common agricultural policy. It meant that farmers who adopted or maintained farming practices to meet environment and climate goals were rewarded with a green direct payment. The rules placed an obligation on the farmer to plant two or three different types of crops, depending on the size of the farm. Since then, arable farmers have continued to abide by the rules, with 316 arable farmers planting two different crops, and 333 planting three different crops in 2019.

The spell of adverse weather over the winter made it difficult for farmers to comply with the crop diversification requirements. February saw sustained periods of rainfall; it was recorded as the wettest month on record. Arable farmers expressed concern that they would not be able to plant the usual range of crops required under the regulations in order to meet the obligations of the greening payment.

That led industry representatives to request that the Department consider the unique circumstances that arable farmers found themselves in and ask whether a derogation from their crop diversification requirements could be made.

The Department brought forward an SL1 for consideration by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on 6 May. Whilst broadly content with merits of the statutory rule (SR), the Committee questioned whether the derogation would be applied automatically or if the farmers would have to apply them themselves. We heard that they would apply automatically. The Committee also enquired about whether a similar derogation had been introduced in the South of Ireland. The Department advised that arable farmers were being asked to submit an application for force majeure. Finally, given that crop diversification regulations are a part of the overall greening requirements, the Committee was keen to know if there would be any adverse impact on the environment due to the derogation that was being applied. The Department advised that there would be no detrimental impact on the environment, due to the short duration of the derogation. The Committee considered the SR on 14 May and agreed that it should be confirmed by the Assembly.

I want to make a couple of comments not in my role as Committee Chairperson but in my spokesperson role for Sinn Féin. DAERA has proven itself a Department that can be flexible in responding to the needs of our rural community. That is true of the crop diversification regulations before us, which, on the basis of last year's figures, will have a beneficial impact for upwards of 600 to 700 farmers out of the 23,000 farm businesses that we have in the North. There are examples of good work, such as the partnership work that the Department has been engaged in with the Department for Communities and the Department for the Economy in helping to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

In supporting the motion today on behalf of the party, I also say that there are other instances, I fear, where the Department has not shown the same flexibility in responding to local needs, and I will give examples. The Department was strident in its decision to axe the area of natural constraint (ANC) payment to farmers in less-favoured areas (LFA) but, so far, has failed to implement the motion passed in the House in March that called for the restoration of the ANC scheme. The Department was also swift to halt the transition towards a flat rate of single farm payment entitlement, again disadvantaging ANC areas, but, so far, has not provided support to farmers, for example, in the Sperrins whose farms, buildings and livelihoods were destroyed by a huge landslide in August 2017. Similarly, the Department did not take on board the Committee's wish for a sunset clause in the Agriculture Bill and demonstrated no flexibility on the 15 May deadline for the return of single application forms. In failing to do so, it has not taken into account the pressure that that has caused for elderly farmers and farm agents in areas with no broadband, while in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On behalf of my party, I am happy to support the derogation, as it is a sensible response to the unique circumstances that farmers found themselves in earlier this year. However, I stress that the Department must work harder to extend the same responsiveness across all sectors.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 4:30 pm, 19th May 2020

Thank you. I allowed the Chairman leeway to wander from the content of the provisions before the Assembly because he is the Chairman — the chairman of the board. Other Members will not receive the same leniency.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I will make my comments short. I welcome the crop derogation. We had an extremely difficult autumn and winter for planting winter and spring crops. Farmers across Northern Ireland will very much welcome the derogation. It makes sense, and I commend the Minister and his Department in regard to it. I also commend the Minister for his continued hard work on a number of issues on the agriculture front. He has worked tirelessly to bring forward a package to help farmers, so I wholly support and congratulate the Minister in his tireless efforts at this difficult time.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

On behalf of the SDLP, I welcome the derogation, particularly in the light of the very wet winter that we had, with the difficulties that that poses the farming community. The COVID-19 pandemic and crisis has taught us many things, but one is who the important people are and the important roles that farmers and those who provide, prepare and serve our food play, so it is important that we support them at this time. If the Minister allows, I will tell a story that my father used to tell me about a neighbour. I am from the Montiaghs area, and, in the wintertime, this farmer used to sign on the dole. They used to ask him how many acres of land he had, and he used to say, "Well, in the summertime, I have 21 acres, but, in the wintertime, I have three". I am sure that the Minister will be able to work that one out. I am sure that many farmers face that difficulty in trying to eke out a living.

Many farmers are custodians of the countryside. As we know, many farmers do not want to retire, and they work on. We all know about the difficulty in enticing young people into farming. I very much welcome this support. It is the right thing to do at this time.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

"What a wet day", "There was a lot of rain last night": those are statements that we are all too familiar with in Northern Ireland, a country where the weather has a great impact on our lives and on our economy, including agriculture, which is, perhaps, the most weather-dependent sector of the economy. The land conditions determine when cattle can be released out to grass after winter housing. The seasonal warming in spring determines when one shears the sheep and the condition of the soil determines the sowing of crops. This winter, especially in February, the weather was particularly adverse, presenting huge problems for arable farmers working the soil, due to the waterlogged conditions when the crops should have been planted. It, therefore, became impossible for the farmers to adhere to the greening requirements under the CAP and comply with the two-crop diversification rule, resulting in them being non-compliant and needing a complete derogation from the crop diversification requirements for the 2020 scheme. The regulations will give farmers certainty and permit them to grow only one arable crop that has a later planting time and is exempt from the crop diversification regulations introduced in 2015. The Ulster Unionist Party supports the motion.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

In keeping with the position taken by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, referred to by the Committee Chair and others, I rise on behalf of Alliance to support the regulations. I offer support recognising that the derogation is limited in time and in scope and that, hopefully, there will not be any adverse effect on the overall efforts and aims to assist in the greening of farming through environmental schemes. It appears that these actions are aimed at a few hundred farmers out of the many thousands in Northern Ireland. It is, therefore, fair to assume that costs are minimal, if any.

It is important that we recognise and react to the problems that faced arable farmers following a winter that brought record rainfall. Such a situation will have introduced additional difficulties and challenges separate from crop diversification issues. The regulations, of course, bring with them reminders of other factors apart from weather-related and seasonal matters and the responses required at times to assist our agriculture sector. The processes that are currently in place are enacted in the context of local alignment with EU regulations, in accordance with the withdrawal Act, although those arrangements are in place only until the end of 2020. We need to give serious consideration to how we deal with those matters post 2020. The clock is ticking, and circumstances, not least in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, present additional difficulties in preparing for the future.

Principal Deputy Speaker, in keeping with your instruction to limit speeches to the remit of the regulations, I will miss any further reference to the Committee's publicly expressed desire for a sunset clause to be introduced to the Agriculture Bill. I will sum up by saying that what I see before us is a very relevant example of local issues requiring local solutions. Perhaps, in his response, the Minister can expand on his thoughts on how local and regional factors, not least the proportionate importance of agriculture in Northern Ireland compared with other regions, can be factored in to catering for these specific needs in the future. Other than that, I am happy to support the Bill.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I join colleagues around the Chamber in paying tribute to the Minister for bringing this forward. I am a townie who lives in the countryside. I am from agricultural stock. My grandfather had a large farm up in Dungannon, but the family moved to Lisburn. Like you, Principal Deputy Speaker, I was brought up in the concrete jungles of our towns, but I very much value and appreciate what our farmers do. Now, more than ever, as a lot of the townie folk have been out in the countryside, they appreciate even more what service our farming community does to the whole of society. There is a much greater appreciation now of farmers and the importance that they have, particularly in the supply chain and what they do in getting food on people's plates.

Farmers in my constituency raised concerns with me around the weather and the implications and, potentially, any penalties to the single farm payment as a result, so the derogation is an important step in providing support to the farming community, who need it at this time.

The Chairman of the AERA Committee indicated a number of areas where, he felt, the Minister and the Department needed to do more. The Chairman should be thankful: I am sure that other Chairs of Committees would love to have a Minister like this Minister to report to their Committee. Fighting for the fishing industry, he got a package to support them. He championed our garden centres and got the result. He championed anglers and got the result. There is more, Minister, that I want you to do, and I want you to assure us in your response that you will keep fighting for those areas within your responsibility, as you have been doing.

In respect of farmers and the further support that we need for our farming community, a £25 million package was secured today and announced earlier. Will the Minister provide an update to the House on how that will be administered to provide support to farmers who have been impacted by COVID-19?

I commend the Minister for the work that he been doing and encourage him to do more, because the people support him in what he has been doing.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. The Givans moved from Dungannon to Lisburn: maybe, one day, they will make it all the way to Belfast.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I will respond to Members, starting with the Chairman of the Committee. I am happy with the support that he has given as Chair of the Committee. With reference to the issues that he raised, in terms of ANC, as I explained at the time, that would have had to be taken out of the budget that existed and redistributed. There was no additional money to spend, so I could give money to ANC farmers only by taking it off other farmers. The remarkable thing is that, when we get the figures in, they demonstrate that the lowland farmers are actually less profitable than the upland farmers. That is what the figures say, and they are hard to argue with. Consequently, we would be taking money off farmers who earn less to give to farmers who earn more. That is not something that I could stand over in any way, shape or form.

We will look at issues in terms of how we can better ensure that farmers will, over the period, be best able to manage their business, be profitable and to encourage that to take place. Ultimately, farmers do not want handouts; farmers want profitability. That is our aim: to make our farms as efficient as possible, to get the best possible prices, to market ourselves well and to ensure that the premium product that is produced in Northern Ireland is marketed as a premium product. We should not compete with commodities from other countries that are not of the same quality. We should market ourselves as a premium product and get a premium price, which would help ensure profitability.

I thank other Members for the points that they raised. Mr Givan asked about the £25 million. I would have liked a lot more than £25 million. I sought more, but that is what we managed to achieve from the Department of Finance, and I welcome it. It is good to have something to go back to our farming community with in this time of need. That will be targeted at those who are impacted most as a result of COVID-19 and the downturn in prices. At the moment, that appears to be mainly beef and dairy farmers.

That is a matter for discussion with the Committee and the farming bodies over the next couple of weeks. I want to make a decision very quickly and start to get the cheques through people's doors within a short time, as opposed to engaging in a long debate on who gets what. From the outset, I will be honest: as always, someone will miss out. However, we will try to get to as many people as possible who have been impacted by this.

Mr McAleer asked whether derogation will have any detrimental impact on the environment. It will have the opposite effect. Winter crops tend to need more spray and fertiliser than spring barley. This year, winter crops have not been planted, and there is probably an abundance of spring barley being planted. Growing a decent crop of spring barley takes less spray and fertiliser. Consequently, it will probably have less environmental impact. I am not convinced by the greening that was introduced by the European Union. Spring barley in particular, and perhaps spring wheat, can be grown with a very modest input. Consequently, this year's derogation will probably be better for the environment. I trust that that will help to reassure Members. I welcome the opportunity to bring this forward. It will have a beneficial impact on the relatively small number of farmers who are affected. I thank Members for their support today.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Direct Payments to Farmers (Crop Diversification Derogation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.