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Brexit / Routine assurances do nothing to allay fears, crofters say

THE possibility of a no deal Brexit has been described as “nothing short of catastrophic” for Shetland, the Scottish Crofting Federation has warned.

The crofting union’s locally-based director Eleanor Arthur said on Monday that assurances given by UK ministers during a virtual round the table talk, organised by isles MP Alistair Carmichael last week, were simply not enough.

“Our members are very worried about the effect of a no deal exit from the EU on the agricultural sector,” she said.

The Scottish Crofting Union’s Shetland director Eleanor Arthur. Photo: SCF

“Sheep are by far the main product of agriculture here, and if there are tariffs of 40 or even 50 per cent sheep production will simply become unviable for most of us.

“The ministers at the meeting representing the UK Government just don’t seem to get it. They admit that the sheep sector is the most exposed and say that, in the event of no deal, mechanisms for supporting the sheep industry are in place.

“What is the budget and when would it kick in? Surely it is an admission of failure that there needs to be mechanisms to mitigate the effects of Brexit?”

Arthur’s message to politicians chime with worries raised by representatives of various industry sectors nationally that little real information on future trade relationships was available from the UK Government beyond the generic message to “get ready for Brexit”.

During the meeting last week UK cabinet ministers Michael Gove and George Eustice gave commitments to support sheep farmers in the event of a price crash or a no deal Brexit.

But Arthur, a Whalsay crofter, said rather than assurances a workable plan was needed: “They say that all is well but the evidence simply is not there.

“Assurances are one thing but we need a workable plan and we are not getting one. It does not inspire confidence in the UK government to manage the whole Brexit process.”

The crofting federation’s lead on agriculture policy Russell Smith added: “Routine assurances on tariffs and welfare standards were given, as expected, but the reality is that multiple deadlines on negotiations have been missed, the opportunities to enshrine standards in law were not taken and the Internal Market bill threatens Scottish decision-making.

“It doesn’t look like all is well, with less than five weeks to go to the end of the transition period. Then we have a pandemic crisis, which crofters are coping with, but with Brexit disruption piled on top, it is not surprising crofters are feeling a bit cynical and very worried.”

Meanwhile Carmichael said UK minister George Eustice urgently needed to offer some clarity to crofters and farmers.

The UK Government says the Scottish Government will receive £595 million for the post-EU agricultural scheme but “that figure is not going to last forever”, Carmichael said.

Eustice told him in the House of Commons on Tuesday: “The government set out in our manifesto that we will keep the budget for each part of the UK the same in cash terms for every year of this parliament, and that is what we intend to do.”

Speaking afterwards, Carmichael said: “Farmers need certainty about their future after Brexit that George Eustice cannot give them.

“We are less than a month away from the end of [the] transition period which could leave farming exports subject to massive tariffs in their most important markets.

“Farmers and crofters are facing a potentially radical change in their trading conditions and so clarity on the future of support funding is essential.”