Farmers’ livelihoods put at risk by unspent budget, says Farron

The Liberal Democrats have accused the Conservative government of risking farmers’ livelihoods over its “botched” handling of the agricultural transition.

The latest Defra figures reveal the government underspent £265m of its annual farming budget for England of about £2.4bn for the 2022-23 financial year, the Lib Dems said.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and the party’s rural affairs spokesperson, said farmers in England had seen their basic payments cut by 35% on average this year, with the overall reduction increasing to 50% by 2024.

See also: Defra provides clarity on farming budget spend

The last time he checked, Mr Farron said fewer than 40 out of the 1,100 farmers in his constituency had signed up to Defra’s new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, the first component of its Environmental Land Management (ELM) programme.

Removing BPS money that farmers depend on and not replacing it in other areas, including ELM, was causing many to suffer financial hardship, go broke or go backwards, he added.

“They are phasing out the old [EU CAP] scheme and they are not replacing it with the new money,” Mr Farron told an NFU reception at the Lib Dems autumn conference in Bournemouth on Monday 25 September.

Threat of closures

Some family farm businesses were facing the real possibility of closure after five, six, seven generations of farming, he explained.

“For the want of a bridge financially to keep farmers going with an income that they can depend on while we move over to ELMs, we are risking breaking many farms and breaking many farmers,” said Mr Farron.

“That’s not acceptable. We care about the mental health of those who feed us and care for our environment.”

In some situations, farmers who had seen their BPS payments cut were deciding to intensify and increase their livestock numbers “just to keep the wolf from the door”, Mr Farron said.

This was the “exact opposite” of the ELM policy’s aim to improve the environment, said Mr Farron, adding that “the greenest thing any government can do is keep farmers on the land”.

Conservatives response

The Conservative government has guaranteed the current annual budget to farmers in every year of this current parliament.

Defra farming minister Mark Spencer has insisted that every penny of the agricultural budget allocated by the Treasury would be spent on farming and any money not spent would be rolled forward into 2024.

He said: “The truth is the Liberal Democrats want to take us back into the EU and the hated Common Agricultural Policy which saw 50% of payments go to the wealthiest 10% of farms.

“Only the Conservatives are supporting farmers with better targeted payments through our ELM schemes, giving farmers the sustainable, long-term support they need.”

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This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

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