George Eustice might be a friend of the industry, but he did not get an easy ride in his first major appearance in front of farmers since being promoted to the Cabinet.
After seven years at Defra, serving under five Secretaries of State, Mr Eustice finally landed the top job earlier this month, replacing the sacked Theresa Villiers during Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle.
The first sign of his new status was that he was forced to delay his appearance at the NFU conference from the usual Tuesday morning political slot to first thing Wednesday due to Cabinet discussions on flooding.
When he did appear, NFU president Minette Batters was genuine in welcoming the Cornish MP as a friend of the farming industry who knew policy inside-out and understood the challenges farmers face.
Mr Eustice reminded the audience of his farming credentials. “Now as many of you will know, I also grew up on a farm and my family have farmed in West Cornwall for six generations. So I understand the responsibility and commitment that a farmer feels to the hard work and toil of previous generations,” he said.
But the challenges Mr Eustice faces in convincing farmers he is the right man for the job quickly became evident.
Arguably, his first mistake was to stress that he was designing an agricultural policy, not just for the farmers of today, but for the ‘farmers of tomorrow. The farmers we do not yet know. Who are not in this room. Those who yearn to go farming but cannot get access to land’.
“All very well,” the hundreds of farmers in the room thought. But what they really wanted to hear was how Mr Eustice intends to address their many immediate concerns – including the thousands of hectares currently lying under water, the uncertainty the start of the seven-year transition towards the abolition of direct payments brings, the threat that future trade deals could blow a hole through the drive to raise domestic farm standards and the question of where they are going to find their staff in future.
Mr Eustice’s second mistake was to describe how he has witnessed flooded farmland ‘from my train window’. “So, when are you going to actually visit those flooded areas?” he was asked in a press briefing. He is busy this week on the Environment Bill, but would visited flooded areas next week, he replied, before facing more questions about not only his, but Mr Johnson’s absence from the flood-hit areas.
But the biggest hole he found himself in was when Mrs Batters asked him why, given how the torrential winter had destroyed so many cropping plans, Defra hasn’t yet agreed to industry requests for a general derogation on the much-maligned three crop rule.
After all, we are now out of the EU and it was Mr Eustice, himself, who led the farming Leave campaign on the basis we would free ourselves from the grip of ‘bonkers’ Brussels rules – like the three-crop rule. ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ was his message in 2016.
Mr Eustice’s suggestion that Defra could process force majeure claims on an individual basis did not go down well. Neither did his comment that the EU rules meant that no decisions were needed until June to August July, giving farmers more time to comply, eliciting groans from delegates and increasingly exasperated responses from Mrs Batters.
“These farmers might be the best in the world but I doubt they will be sowing crops in July,” she pointed out.
Mr Eustice, who insisted he understood the rule and that he never agreed with it, pointed out that the transition period meant the CAP had effectively been brought over lock, stock and barrel this year. In other words, his hands were tied. He described it as ‘bonkers’ and made it clear its days are numbered – but, seemingly, just not yet.
Mrs Batters was unimpressed. “We have left the EU, half the country’s under water and we are still going to abide by that rule and process thousands of force majeure claims. It just seems absolutely extraordinary. I am amazed, having left, that you are not shredding the thing,” she concluded.
Mr Eustice, who yesterday set out more details on Defra’s future farming policy, also had little time for Mr Batters’ pleas to delay the start transition period until 2022, a move that will put the England out of step with the rest of the UK and EU.
“It is because we are designing a policy for tomorrow’s farmers as well as today’s, that there can be no reprieve for arbitrary area-based subsidy payments” he said, listing the failings of direct payments, including subsidising land land ownership and tenure, benefiting the wealthiest land owner and standing in the way of new entrants, while being ‘useless as a risk management tool. “Let’s not cling to the railings of a sinking ship that is the CAP.”
In other key areas, it was clear Mr Eustice was listening and is in tune with farmers’ needs. He promised, for example, that there would be payments for farmers to store water under the future land management policy, a key ask of the NFU for a long time.
He clearly takes a different stance to the Home Office on EU workers. He recently announced a quadrupling of the Seasonal Seasonal Workers Scheme to 10,000 workers for 2020, but was told by NFU horticulture chair Ali Capper that this was nowhere near enough.
Describing how his family farm was dubbed the ‘United Nations’ because of the workers it employed, he assured the conference he will make the case to the Home Office for a further extension, as well as trying to persuade it to give farming a place on the Occupation Shortage List, which would ease some of the current fears over access to labour from January 2021.
On post-Brexit import standards, he, as others have done, reiterated the Government’s manifesto promise not to compromise UK standards, but fell short of firm commitments. He insisted that it was possible for the UK and US to come to a mutual agreement on standards that would facilitate a future deal.
There is no doubt he means it when he says he wants to protect the UK’s standards in future trade deals. But, of course, he could no go as far as pledging that when, as is likely, the Agriculture Bill comes back from the House of Lords with this enshrined in law, it will not be removed in the Commons.
That will be the acid test, said Mrs Batters, who spoke passionately on the subject on Tuesday.
But, in reality, many of these policies decisions will be taken in other parts of Government.
Asked in the press briefing if she felt Mr Eustice had the necessary clout to carry farming’s message across Government, Mrs Batters was equivocal, praising his ‘passion for the industry and understanding of the brief’.
“But this is all about resonating with the rest of the Cabinet and creating understanding with them and the Treasury,” she said, highlighting how Michael Gove, built what was initially a limited understanding of the industry, while also making the case across the Government and to the Treasury.
“That is the challenge that George Eustice faces. Is everything that he is saying going to resonate right across Cabinet? Is he going to be able to influence the Home Office on labour? Is he going to be able to influence the Department of International Trade on standards?
“I said to him: “You are our ambassador, there is a lot on your shoulders.””