Oxford Farming Conference: UK farm subsidy system is ‘unjust’ claims author

George Monbiot

George Monbiot - Credit: Archant

The UK farm subsidy system is unjust, and it is only a matter of time before taxpayers become aware of this, a speaker at the Oxford Farming Conference warned this week.

Outspoken author and newspaper columnist George Monbiot (pictured inset below) asked his audience: “What do the rest of us 99.7% who do not farm receive in return for farm subsidy?”

Those who benefited the most were already the richest people in society, he argued, as he examined and dismissed the justifications given for subsidy, including food security and environmental benefits.

He pointed out that the system persisted, even in an age of austerity when the poorest in society were having their benefits cut and services were being slashed “right, left and centre” and questioned the merits of farm subsidy and the benefits it brought to UK society.

The £3billion spent on farm subsidy in the UK equated to £245 a year per household, he pointed out.

“The bottom 10% of people in this country across all forms of taxation end up paying 45% of their income in tax, whereas the top 10% pay 33%, so taxation in this country is inherently regressive,” he said.

“There are some very, very rich people receiving an awful lot of money every year, sometimes into the millions.”

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In July 2013, when the Government was imposing a £26,000 cap on total benefits per household, it was also arguing in Brussels against a cap which would have been for 10 times that amount - or £260,000 - on farm subsidies for individual recipients. The cap was discretionary across the European Union, and “unsurprisingly” the UK Government had chosen not to impose it, he said, which meant “the very richest landowners are receiving millions in payments”.

He likened the Basic Payment Scheme to the medieval feudal levy, a tax vassals paid to the landowners. He slammed it as an “astonishingly regressive and grossly unjust distribution”.

There needed to be some “extremely powerful justifications” for diverting public spending from the poorest in society to the exceedingly rich, he argued.

The justification on the grounds that it was needed to sustain food production didn’t hold water, he claimed, as farmers on the productive land would still farm. In less fertile areas, such as the uplands, sheep wreaked environmental damage which could potentially cause flooding in lowland areas, he said, labelling them “a white plague”.

The UK’s uplands should have more trees and less sheep, he said, in order to make them more environmentally sustainable.

He also dismissed the argument that the subsidy was helping to keep people on the land, pointing out that number of farmers was falling by 2% a year under the subsidy system and farm businesses were getting ever larger. Meanwhile, while the poorest in society were facing ever more complex rules and regulations in order to claim benefits, those in receipt of farm subsidy were seeing red tape aimed at protecting the environment cut, and warned of a soil erosion “crisis”.

He accused the Government of “dual standards” on regulation. “This is not fair,” he said.