Richard North, 16/09/2021  

One does not have to be unduly cynical to suggest that Johnson's reshuffle was aimed at replacing his low-performers with ministers who have the potential to do even worse.

That would certainly explain why Defra secretary George Eustice hasn't been reshuffled. Quite evidently, Johnson was unable to find anyone who could make as big a mess of his new farming policy, thus protecting his administration's reputation for incompetence, limited, it seems, only by the number of activities in which it partakes.

Certainly, the farming policy, is the latest in the long line of clusterf**ks perpetrated in the post-Brexit world of team Johnson. It's the government's idea of a replacement for the EU's CAP, but it turns out to be so bad that most farmers don't want anything to do with it.

So utterly destitute of good sense is it that even the National Audit Office has noticed, issuing yesterday a lengthy report, accompanied by a press release, heralding its critique of what the government calls a "once in a generation opportunity to reform agriculture".

We've actually touched on this recently, remarking on the uselessness of Defra secretary Eustice and his fabled hedgerow policy, but this is only part of a broader initiative which goes under the name of the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM).

The ELM, we are told, is the primary mechanism for distributing the £2.4 billion subsidies previously paid under CAP. Instead of the direct payments under the EU's scheme, which accounted for about 80 percent of disbursements, ELM (in theory) will pay farmers for environmental improvements, through the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes.

Farmers, we learn from our own sources, have been discussing these schemes and have concluded that they are basically "tick box" exercises run from Whitehall. This is bolstered by the general view that Defra desk jockeys in charge would be hard-pushed to manage a window box – even a paved one – much less a farm, an observation borne out by the NAO's observation that: "Defra has not yet established objectives to support its high-level vision for ELM".

One of the many weaknesses of the scheme is that, for assessment purposes, the country is lumped together as a single unit, with no quarter given to temperature, structure, crops or weather conditions in different regions, thereby replicating the central flaw in the CAP.

Grass crops, for instance, cannot be taken before 8 May in any year – irrespective of the area, whether in balmy Cornwall or frigid Northumbria. Subsequent cuts of silage can only then be made after 8 weeks. These may be arcane details but experienced farmers will tell you that these restrictions would impact severely on their ability to crop grassland profitably.

Another little gem is the way fallow wildlife strips are treated. Under the CAP, farmers were required to leave one metre uncultivated between the hedge margins and the crop. But Mr Eustice wants 4 metres, either side of a "hedge", regardless of whether that's green or stone or earth banks. That takes such a huge chunk of the working area that cropping some smaller fields would no longer be viable.

Payments are also smaller than farmers have been getting for the CAP scheme and the indications are that they will not be index-linked. Thus, cash paid in year one could be the same as in year ten, despite increases in the costs of inputs to comply over the period.

With so many petty tick box "must do" requirements for so little reward, enforced by legions of inspectors knocking on doors and imposing penalties for non-compliance, it is hardly surprising that the take-up has not met with Defra's expectations. Of the 44,000 eligible farmers in England, only 2,178 have expressed an interest in taking part. Johnson's reputation for securing policy disasters remains intact.

Despite, or because of this, the prime minister was one of the virtue-signalling MPs attending PMQs yesterday sporting heads of wheat in various places on their attire to celebrate the NFU's "Back British Farming Day". Johnson had three heads stuffed in his top pocket, but so far distant has the very idea of farming become that The Sun described them as "sheaves".

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the only national paper which seems to have run the NAO story is The Times. It leads on the NAO warning that that lack of participation by farmers could undermine the government pledge that Brexit will benefit the environment by allowing farmers to be rewarded for improving soil and water quality and protecting wildlife.

The audit office says that: "Defra has not yet regained enough trust from farmers to be confident in achieving a high level of participation in the environmental land management scheme".

The Department, it asserts, lost farmers' trust as a result of difficulties with its management of past agricultural subsidies. But delays in informing farmers which actions they will be paid for, and how much they will be paid, have made matters worse. "Defra sees rebuilding trust as vital, but both the NAO's and Defra's own evidence show it has not yet succeeded", the NAO warns.

The NFU agrees that there are "significant challenges to overcome" to ensure that the Defra schemes are successfully delivered – typically pulling its punches when it should be slamming Defra in general and Eustice in particular for their incompetence.

One might think though that even this mild rebuke might have Eustice springing into action to make his schemes more palatable to hard-pressed farmers, who are already having to complete against better-subsidised EU farmers who are still able to export their produce to the UK without border checks.

But the only response we have seen so far, though, is another half-baked plan, this one supposedly to help farmers export their produce.

Amongst the goodies on offer are more, dedicated "agri-food attaches" to act as "representatives on the ground" in UK embassies "to unlock key markets across the world". The government will also appoint another quango, a "Food and Drink Exports Council" which – as farmers are doubtless excited to learn – will "work collaboratively to expand our food and drink exports strategy".

And if this wasn't enough, the government will strengthen our technical expertise as well as our farmers and producers' understanding of export markets to ensure that food and drink exporters are able to benefit from market opportunities. I am sure farmers will be delighted to have their understanding strengthened.

All this, though, will have to wait as the "initiative" isn't going to be launched until later in the year, on some as yet unspecified date. The only thing immediately on offer is a raft of patronising slogans from the egregious secretary, who describes our hard-pressed sons of the soil as "the lifeblood of our nation – producing home grown food and acting as stewards of our natural environment".

As if that wasn't bad enough, they also have to suffer the newly-appointed foreign secretary, Liz Truss, telling them that "our food and drink is among the best in the world and [as] an independent trading nation we're seizing new opportunities that were previously denied to us".

Their cups overfloweth as they learn from this source that, "We have already secured better access to lucrative Asian markets, including for UK beef in Hong Kong, Japan and the Philippines". This might be absolutely peachy when or if any UK slaughterhouses are approved to handle this trade.

On the other hand, farmers may just be a little wary after the gushing announcement back in 2019 of a beef export deal to China. With none of the small-print details yet having been satisfied, nearly two years later, not so much as a hoof-clipping has been exported.

Nevertheless, the sycophantic NFU president, Minette Batters, is easily pleased, welcoming this "positive step in the right direction", not specifying how it is possible to have a positive step in the wrong direction. While her membership is being starved of cash and fed a diet of platitudes, she looks forward "to seeing more detail on this proposal and working with government to boost our agri-food exports abroad".

And still, as Mr Eustice is claiming that: "We will incentivise sustainable farming practices and reward farmers for environmental assets on their land", we can see Johnson's point. It is hard to imagine that he could hire anyone worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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