The NFU is calling on ministers to ‘do the right thing’ and postpone reductions to farm payments, totalling more than £700 million, until problems rolling out new environmental farm payment schemes are resolved.
Otherwise, it said, farmers are facing a ‘bleak end to 2023’, it said. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) should have been up and running to deliver payments by December, but critical delays in the roll-out of the new scheme mean most farmers are unable to access it. Crucially, this coincides with major reductions in payments under the old scheme which SFI was meant to replace, leaving farmers facing a double whammy in the run-up to Christmas.
The problems with SFI do not only affect farmers. The Government has legislated for environmental targets through this ‘public money for public goods’ scheme – and farmers have embraced that concept, the NFU said. With the scheme delayed, a lot of on-farm environmental work it is designed to pay for cannot begin.
Therefore, the NFU is calling on ministers to halt any further reduction in existing farm payments – due to fall by another £720m this year alone – until delivery problems with SFI are resolved.
NFU President Minette Batters said: “We now know that farmers will not be paid this year, despite assurances that they would be.
“With farm input costs through the roof and interest rates soaring, this leaves farmers in a perilous place. The old scheme goes, the new one’s not ready, and farm businesses are caught in the middle. That’s not fair and we are calling on ministers to recognise that and make it right.”
“All we’re asking for is government to bridge the gap it has created by taking away one set of payments, but not delivering access to their replacements on time.”
Ministers had committed that SFI 2023 would be open in August, with payments coming in December. But it will now only be partially open and not until September 18. It takes some months between a farmer being accepted on to the scheme and payment being made.
A handful of farmers were able to register ‘an expression of interest’ on August 30 and await ‘an invitation to apply’, meaning the scheme was ‘technically’ open, but the reality is very different, the NFU said.
Consequently, payments farmers were relying on will not come this year and will come to only a handful of farmers in the early part of 2024. By comparison, the old EU farm payments scheme, known as BPS, had 83,000 claimants.
The ‘false start’ for SFI 2023 comes as another key scheme also designed to replace EU payments, called Countryside Stewardship, has also run in to problems, the NFU added.
NFU Vice President David Exwood said: “Paying farmers this year was one of the government’s own key tests for delivery of the scheme.
“With the scale of the roll out of SFI 23 still unclear and with many farmers still not sure what they need to do to apply, the current situation needs to be resolved quickly.”
Mr Exwood added: “Government needs to pause BPS reductions until it can fairly deliver their replacements, otherwise it is farming businesses and farming families which are left bearing the cost.”