The Sustainable Farming Scheme

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative

(Translated)

5. Has the Welsh Government done an up-to-date impact assessment on the sustainable farming scheme? OQ60712

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:11, 20 February 2024

Llywydd, an integrated impact assessment was published on 14 December last year, as part of the current sustainable farming scheme consultation. An updated assessment, together with supporting evidence, will be published before any final decisions are made.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative

Thank you for your answer, First Minister, and I should hope that you will do an updated impact assessment as soon as possible.

Over the last week I've visited farms, livestock markets, agricultural suppliers, and I attended the YFC drama finals in Radnor. All the people that I spoke to are worried, they're scared and they're angry because of the uncertainty around their futures. Rural mental health charities are also being inundated with calls from people who need help and support due to the huge pressures they are currently under because of unrelenting form filling, TB and a Government here that seems to ignore their concerns.

First Minister, so with the colossal 5,500 job losses, the £200 million loss to the economy and the massive reduction in livestock numbers, outlined by an impact assessment that this Government commissioned, how can farmers trust you and the rural affairs Minister when you say that you will listen to the consultation, when it seems to many that this Government ignored farmers during the co-design phase and also did not take account of the evidence that outlines the untold damage that this scheme would do to rural Wales?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:13, 20 February 2024

Well, Llywydd, let me begin by recognising that, when change happens, people find that challenging, and in rural Wales, there are many changes that are inevitably on their doorstep. They're there because we left the European Union, with the security and certainty that that gave to farming here in Wales. It is just unavoidable that, while we are no longer members of the arrangements that had sustained farming in Wales for so many years, we have now to put alternative schemes in place. And when change happens, people are anxious and people are worried and people are indeed distressed. I understand that. That is why we go on having the conversations that we do.

It absolutely does not help those conversations, it absolutely does not help to address the stress to which the Member referred, when he ends his question with the sort of alarmist nonsense that he offered. And I just put that point to him, because he's often quite a sensible contributor to debates on the floor of the Senedd, but if we are anxious for people and their futures, then it would be better if we all conducted those conversations in a more measured way than he did in the way that he ended his conversation, because this Government has certainly not ignored the voice of farmers. We have had a seven-year conversation. I am very grateful—I said in an earlier answer, I am very grateful—to the 12,000 responses that we had to the 'Brexit and our land' consultation as far back as 2018. I'm grateful to have over 3,000 responses to the 2019 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' consultation, to the 2,000 people who participated in the co-design exercise in the following year; 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, we have a White Paper on the Agriculture (Wales) Bill, 2022, 1,600 contributions to the second phase of co-design, and this year more than 3,000 farmers coming to the consultation exercises, the roadshows, that have been held in every part of Wales. I think they deserve better than his contribution, because their views have not been ignored, because, at every iteration, there have been amendments to the scheme, and I am confident there will be further amendments to the scheme as a result of the consultation and conversations that are currently being held.

But it is a conversation between two parties. It is a conversation between farmers, and it is a conversation between the Welsh public who provide the money that goes into the sustainable farming scheme. And in a conversation, there will be more than one point of view. That's why we carry out the conversations so carefully and over such a sustained period. It's not over and we will go on listening and go on responding, and, once again, I urge as many people as possible to take part in the opportunity that is there in front of them to influence the future of the scheme.  

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 2:16, 20 February 2024

Can I ask you, First Minister, to put yourself in the shoes of somebody maybe who's trying to eke a living out of a family farm? You are asking them, as a Government, to make a choice: effectively, to set aside potentially 10 per cent of their land for tree cover, another 10 per cent maybe for habitat. That will squeeze what are already very fine margins in terms of the viability of that business. The alternative, of course, when you're giving them that choice, is that they don't enter a scheme and they forego the basic payment equivalent, which is what's absolutely been keeping many of those business afloat over recent years. So, my question to you is: do you get it? Do you really get what you're asking the sector to do? And I say this in as constructive a way as I can. Is that alarmist nonsense, or is that the reality that people are facing? Is it any surprise that there's utter dejection and despair out there in the country at the minute?  

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:17, 20 February 2024

I don't regard the point that the Member made as alarmist nonsense, because he's right that this goes to the heart of the bargain that we want to see there in the future for Welsh farming. It's why the total amount of the BPS has been sustained here in Wales and is on the table for that future scheme. We're not asking farmers to simply set aside 10 per cent of their land. We'd like to pay them to do it. We're offering them to be first in the queue to grow the trees that will be needed in the future. I remember here on the floor of the Senedd being bitterly criticised by the then leader of Plaid Cymru for the failure to grow sufficient trees here in Wales to meet the climate emergency. And the way we want to do it is to put farmers at the front of the queue, to give them first refusal on growing the trees we will need in the future, and then to reward them for it.

It is, as Llyr Gruffydd said, in the end a voluntary scheme. About half the farms in Wales today aren't part of BPS, but, because it is a voluntary scheme, we want to design that scheme together. That is an absolutely genuine offer from the Welsh Government. As I've said many times this afternoon, I am very grateful to those thousands of farmers in Wales who turn up to be part of that joint endeavour.  

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 2:19, 20 February 2024

Good afternoon, First Minister. I think the language and the tone of this issue needs to be respectful on all sides. The place that we might have got ourselves to is actually not really helping anybody and affecting the mental health of those who are going to have to deal with this going forward. I was one of 500 people who attended a meeting in Brecon a couple of weeks ago where we heard about the 17 universal actions and the two schemes that are required of farmers to adhere to in order to get the basic payment. The presentation of that took around an hour and a quarter, and, in that, believe me, I was particularly confused, and I was sitting near farmers who were very distressed by what they heard. One farmer said—and it was with sadness, it really was—'I just want to farm.'

We know the consultation is ongoing, and I’m grateful to the Minister for rural affairs—I’ve had a meeting with her and I know that she has met with the Farmers' Union of Wales and the NFU only recently, because there really is sadness and distress at what farmers can see is going to be a very upsetting and stressful time ahead. I know the consultation deadline is still to come, but I wonder, in your ongoing impact assessment, whether you would look at the impact on farmers’ mental health not just of this scheme, but of all of the other requirements as well, because we need our farmers to be healthy, to be able to work on their land and to keep our communities—particularly our Welsh-speaking communities—alive and thriving. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:21, 20 February 2024

Well, Llywydd, I agree with what the Member says, but, when any community is facing change, then mental health pressures will be part of what any Government would need to respond to. When I was at Tata Steel with my colleague the economy Minister only a few weeks ago, we had a very serious conversation there with the company about the mental health impact that losing between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs in a community the size of Port Talbot will have in that community. So, wherever we see change, we are aware of that wider impact on people’s lives. It’s why we invest in mental health services, particularly, for farmers here in Wales, and have some fantastic organisations in Wales, like the DPJ Foundation, which do so much good to respond to people who face that distress.

In the quotation that the Member has offered us, you sum up, in a way, the dilemma that is there: people 'just want to farm', and I’m afraid the future isn’t like that. The future isn’t going to be just allowing people to do what they themselves have always done. Change is absolutely inevitable, and that’s what this Government is embarked upon—change that we want to carry out in a way that secures a successful future for Welsh farming. I’ve no doubt that, for some, that change will be difficult and painful, but by thinking that we solve the problem by saying we won’t have change, that we can avoid change—that isn’t an answer either. So, change is inevitable. We want that change to be brought about together with the sector. We want to go on investing in its successful future, while recognising that that will be a difficult journey for some people who see change not just as something that is peripheral to their lives, but is in some ways requiring them to think again about the whole way in which they are able to go on living on the land and to be supported to do so.

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 2:23, 20 February 2024

First Minister, thank you for your clarity on this matter, but, for the avoidance of any doubt, can you confirm again that you will consider every response to the consultation thoughtfully and with great consideration, and that those responses will help to shape and to finesse a final programme of support for the farming community, and that no conclusions should be drawn at this time about that final shape of the programme?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:24, 20 February 2024

It's very important, Llywydd, as Ken Skates says, that people recognise that this continues to be a deeply iterative process. I don't think it does help the process when people portray it as a process in which no change has been made, because changes have been made at absolutely every stage in the consultation process, in the co-design process, and I'm absolutely sure that there will be further changes that emerge from the current consultation. And people ought to invest in the consultation with the confidence of knowing that their views are listened to, that there are practical things that change as a result of what we are told, and that nothing will be final in this scheme until all the responses to the current consultation have been read, considered, that a new integrated impact assessment will be carried out, and then final proposals will be brought in front of the Senedd.