UK ‘consistently waters down’ reforms of EU farming subsidies

Buckingham Palace, home to the Queen, a recipient of CAP subsidies the UK government could have capped. [Flickr]

The UK government could have stopped wealthy landowners including aristocrats and a Saudi racehorse owner receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds from the EU’s common agricultural policy, the European commission has said.

An investigation of the top 100 recipients of CAP subsidies in the UK last year by the environmental campaign group Greenpeace revealed that at least one in five were farm businesses owned or controlled by members of aristocratic families.

They included the Queen, the Duke of Westminster, the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Plymouth. The billionaire household goods inventor Sir James Dyson, who campaigned for Brexit, is also in the top 100.

Greenpeace said 16 of the top 100 recipient farms are owned or controlled by individuals or families on the 2016 Sunday Times rich list, receiving a total of £13.4m in farm subsidies.

But the European commission said in a statement that EU rules allow member states to substantially cut CAP “basic payments” to large landowners, such as most of those cited in the Greenpeace report, by applying a ceiling. Nine countries do so, the commission said, including Britain which applies an upper limit in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where the funds generated are generally spent on rural development projects.

“The UK government chooses not to apply a ceiling in England,” the commission said, adding that repeated proposals for more radical reform – including a compulsory ceiling on basic payments to large landowners – have “consistently been watered down by national ministers”.

Brussels sources said Britain played a leading part in a small group of EU members that opposed the measure. As a result, a major 2014 CAP reform package did not include a compulsory upper limit – but left open an optional ceiling that could be applied at national level.

Beeswax Farming (Rainbow) Ltd, which Dyson owns, received almost £1.5m, while Prince Khalid Abdullah Al Saud, the owner of champion racehorse Frankel, got nearly £407,000 for his Juddmonte Farms, owned through an offshore holding company in Guernsey.

Sandringham Farms, the estate owned by the Queen, received £557,707, while Grosvenor Farms Ltd, which farms the Duke of Westminster’s estate, raked in £437,434. The billionaire landowner died in August and left his fortune to his 25-year-old son.

The government has promised to maintain CAP subsidies after Britain leaves the EU, until 2020 when a domestic system will be put in place.

Hannah Martin, of Greenpeace UK’s Brexit response team, said: “It is untenable for the government to justify keeping a farming policy which allows a billionaire to breed racehorses on land subsidised by taxpayers. It’s clear that there cannot be a business-as-usual approach to farm subsidies after we leave the EU. Some of the recipients of these subsidies are doing great work which benefits our environment – but others are not – and it makes no sense that the CAP’s largest subsidy payments don’t distinguish between the two.”

Greenpeace said the top 100 received £87.9m in agricultural subsidies last year, of which £61.2m came from the single payment scheme, where the size of the land owned largely determines the grant amount: more than the bottom 55,119 recipients in the single payment scheme received together.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The secretary of state has underlined the need for continuity for farmers and together with her ministerial team is looking forward to working with industry, rural communities and the wider public to shape our plans for food, farming and the environment outside the EU.”

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