There had been fears that the Barnett Formula might have been used to distribute the UK government’s expenditure commitments to agriculture in the devolved regions, once Whitehall became the driver of farm policy. Such a scenario would have seen Northern Ireland losing out significantly, relative to Scotland and Wales.
Mr Gove visited Northern Ireland earlier this week. He confirmed that Brexit would not be allowed to impact on current cross-border trading practises, where farming and food are concerned.
He added: “I fully recognise the significance of food exports to the local economy. The UK government is committed to securing new, international trade deals. These agreements will help boost the fortunes of the farming and food sectors.”
Mr Gove highlighted the specific opportunities to be gained from the UK doing significantly greater levels of business with China.
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“Northern Ireland’s pig industry will directly benefit from such developments,” he said.
Commenting on the types of farm support structure that will be available to farmers in the UK, post-Brexit, Mr Gove said that the favoured a strong linkage between environmental protection and the funding packages that are on-offer.
“But it won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach,” he added. “There is a strong need for regional flexibility, when it comes to the implementation of effective farm support measures.”
Mr Gove met with representatives of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) during his visit. The organisation’s president, Barclay Bell, said it was encouraging that the DEFRA Secretary accepted the overriding need for farms to be profitable.
“This is the second meeting we have had with the Secretary, and I believe he is taking on board the issues raised by the farming industry,” said Mr Bell.
The UFU was encouraged by Gove’s commitment to not only continue the existing level of support during the current Parliament but also his willingness to see decision making devolved to the UK regions, in line with existing funding commitments.
“We discussed his suggestion of a freeze in individual payments to farmers during a transitional period until a new support system was introduced and of the potential to pilot new support mechanisms, which we could possibly implement at a regional level,” said Bell.
According to the UFU, Mr Gove was clear about his support to maintain the current trading arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and also with the European Union.
“We were pleased to hear him restate his position that lower standard imports should not be allowed to undermine UK producers,” said the UFU president.
“We also received assurances about farming and the food industry maintaining access to labour, which was welcome.”
The UFU believes that the DEFRA Secretary fully understands the problem with regulation and the key difference between outcomes and process – the latter being red tape for the sake of red tape.
“If he can bring this into a new support policy for UK agriculture it will be a major gain for the industry,” said Bell.
“There’s no getting way from the fact that at Westminster and in the Conservative party Mr Gove is seen as a political big hitter and that will be good for agriculture. He has clearly been in a listening and thinking mode since we last met him, and that is better than snap judgements about the way ahead.
“We now know that while he wants to see farmers deliver for the environment, which we all support, this has to be in the context of profitable, family farm businesses.”