House of Lords committee echoes NPA concerns over Brexit
3rd May 2017 / By Alistair Driver
The NPA has welcomed a comprehensive Parliamentary report into the implications of Brexit for agriculture that echoes virtually all its major concerns.
The association submitted evidence to the House of Lords Energy and Environment committee’s inquiry, along with a range of other industry experts and associations, and much of it appears to have been taken on board.
The report also issued a serious warning to Government on future access to labour, reiterating the NPA’s argument that the focus must be on permanent, as well as seasonal labour.
Among the evidence cited to reinforce this point was an NPA survey showing one in five farms and businesses connected to the pig industry would struggle to survive without migrant labour.
The report said: “In the short term, technology cannot materially reduce the need for EU agricultural labour; nor is there sufficient local labour to address the shortfall. Unless arrangements are made to preserve access to labour from outside the UK, the agri-food industry will suffer major disruption.
“The UK agri-food supply chain employs both seasonal and permanent EU workers, so a seasonal agricultural workers scheme alone, though a priority for our witnesses, will not be a sufficient measure for preserving access to labour.”
The report urged the Government to recognise that many workers in the agricultural sector are often regarded as ‘unskilled’, but are in fact ‘extremely skilled at sector-specific’ level(?).
It said: “We recommend that the Government recognise these skills when assessing labour needs and access to foreign labour after Brexit.
“We also welcome the Minister’s recognition that continued access to EU labour should be based on an assessment of the needs of the industry, rather than a simplistic distinction between skilled and unskilled labour.”
EU market access
The report also stressed that the Government must agree transitional arrangements with the EU, in order to mitigate the potentially disastrous effects of leaving the union without a trade deal in place, warning that the pig sector would be particularly vulnerable under certain post-Brexit trade scenarios.
With about 80% of the UK’s agricultural exports going to the EU, the committee concluded:
“UK farmers risk facing high tariffs and significant non-tariff barriers when exporting, and competition from lower-priced imports domestically. Both tariff and non-tariff barriers could disrupt integrated supply chains between the UK and the EU, and pose a particular challenge for the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland.”
The report said there was broad consensus among experts, including those on the EU side, that it will not be possible to negotiate and conclude a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU within two years.
If the UK leaves the EU without agreeing a comprehensive UK-EU Free Trade Agreement, or a form of transitional arrangement, UK-EU trade would have to proceed according to WTO rules.
“Many of our agricultural producers, and our food manufacturers, would incur substantial costs associated with tariff and non-tariff barriers when exporting to the EU, with sectors such as pig and sheep meat at particular risk,” the report concluded.
“It is therefore essential that the Government should agree transitional arrangements with the EU, in order to mitigate the potentially disastrous effects of trading on WTO terms on the agricultural and food sectors.”
Non-EU trade deal risks
The report also highlighted the risks and opportunities for the UK agricultural sector of new trade deals outside the EU.
The peers welcomed the Government’s commitment to maintaining high levels of animal welfare in the UK. But the committee concluded there is ‘some doubt over whether animal welfare can be used as a rationale to restrict imports from other countries under WTO rules’.
The report said: Our witnesses were concerned that increased trade with third countries that operate different—often less stringent—regulatory standards than the UK could render UK producers uncompetitive in the domestic market due to an influx of cheaper products produced to lower standards.
“It could also lead to increased pressure on the Government to reduce standards domestically in order to lower the cost of production and increase price competitiveness. Yet we note that UK producers are proud of their high standards, and that our witnesses questioned whether consumers would welcome such a downward trend in current standards.”
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “We submitted comprehensive evidence to this inquiry and are delighted the committee's excellent report has recognised most of our concerns.
“In particular, when it comes to future labour supply, the committee fully understands the importance of focusing on permanent labour, rather than just seasonal worker schemes. This is absolutely critical to the British pig industry’s prospects of being able to survive and thrive outside the EU and is an area where the Government really needs to step up.
“We fully endorse the committee’s recommendation about the need for transitional arrangements if no trade deal is secured with the EU at the point of departure.
“We also echo its warning about the need to protect UK agriculture from cheaper, lower standard imports and will continue to call for pork to be classified as a ‘sensitive’ product, if necessary."