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Defra Ministers fail to provide Brexit answers at Oxford conference

4th Jan 2017 / By Alistair Driver

Delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) hoping for answers from Defra Ministers on some of the big Brexit questions were left largely unsated. 

AL OxfordIn fact, Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom’s response to searching questions only reinforced concerns relatively little progress has been made so far on key issures for the food and farming sector, such as trade, labour and the future of farm support.

Opening the conference on Wednesay morning, Mrs Leadsom said the vote to leave the EU presented an ‘unprecedented opportunity’ to design a farming system fit for the 21st century.

She revealed the Government will be publishing two green papers this year – one for food and farming and one for the environment.

But pressed on some of the detail behind Defra’s food and farming policy, or at least its underpinning principles, she had few answers, suggesting the topics raised would be covered in the 'major consultations' on the green papers.

Farming Minister George Eustice was more forthcoming, particularly on the subject of a future UK domestic farm policy but the discussions raised as many questions as answers. 

Some of the issues covered included:

Single Market access

Asked whether she could guarantee the UK would retain access to the EU Single Market, Mrs Leadsom said this would be ‘part of the discussions’ in Brexit negotiations with the EU.

She stressed her desire for tariff-free trade with the EU, or as close to that as possible, to continue post-Brexit.

Imports and welfare standards

Mrs Leadsom was asked if future free trade deals could force the UK to lower its welfare standards to facilitate imports.

“No not at all,” was her firm response. She stressed that welfare and health standards would be a key part of discussions in future deals concerning livestock products.

“It is absolutely clear what we don’t want to do is undermine our own standards or import cheap low welfare products that undermine our own sector,” she said.

She and Mr Eustice reiterated their desire to the UK use Brexit to build on the UK’s reputation for high health, welfare and traceability standards to develop a ‘USP’ for British food as it competes in the domestic and international marketplaces.

Future of farm support

GE oxMrs Leadsom stressed her commitment to supporting British agriculture in the short and long term but refused to be drawn on any details, for example, whether direct payments would be retained after the current CAP expires in 2020.

Mr Eustice had more to say, however, expressing his desire to do away with the current area-based direct payment system.

Instead, he spoke of a desire to reward farmers for providing public goods, such as ecosystem services, high animal welfare and reducing antibiotic use. This could include the provision of capital grants. He also raised the prospect of a possible Government-industry insurance scheme and stressed any future policy would support productive farming.

On the budget, he said the priority would be to develop the right policy and then see how much it would cost.

Access to labour

Mrs Leadsom said she was aware of ‘how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your business’. Access to labour would be ‘very much an important part of our discussions’, she said.

But, questioned on future access to full-time workers who want to live and work in the UK, she indicated this would be dependent on the Government’s post-Brexit policy on immigration, but stressed she was making the case for food and farming at Cabinet level.

Red Tape

Mrs Leadsom announced the Government would get rid of some of the less palatable rules associated with the CAP, such as the three-crop rule and ‘6 foot EU billboards littering the landscape’. There was a promise to prioritise ‘common sense’ rules but little indication of where else regulatory changes could be made.

Defra resources

The two Ministers were repeatedly pressed on the lack of detail in place so far on the above issues and on whether Defra had sufficient resources and expertise in place to negotiate a good deal for the UK food and farming sectors.

Mrs Leadsom sought to reassure the conference that the necessary expertise is in place. But when the sizeable Oxford audience was asked whether they shared her confidence only one hand was raised – that of George Eustice.

Loyal to the last… but with a big task ahead.