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Ed's Brexit round-up

23rd Feb 2018 / By Ed Barker

A distinctly hectic week for the NPA, as it was the NFU conference that took centre stage.

EdBarkerNPAGove announces some announcements

This year, attendees at the NFU annual conference and AGM waited with anticipation to hear the keynote speech from Michael Gove. We were told to expect a swathe of announcements, what was to come up under the forthcoming Defra ‘command paper’ (a sort of mixture between a white paper, a blue sky wish list and a consultation). We hoped to hear firm policy announcements and exciting proposals that built upon his Oxford Farming Conference. Unfortunately we didn’t really get that much firm detail.

Lots of heady aspirations, yes, but clear vision – not so much. In fairness, he did outline possible industry-led pilot schemes to offer payments to farms for delivering higher welfare outcomes and readdress migrant labour seriously, as well as committing to no lower standards of food being imported under new trade deals. However his long winded discussion of broadband, procurement, reducing inspections, changing support payments and market failure was something any delegate could be forgiven for thinking it was groundhog day. A more seasoned attendee than me suggested at least one of those issues had come up by a Secretary of State every year for the last 20 years.

I made a somewhat innocuous tweet during the speech that, days later, was still going viral: Michael Gove at #NFU18:'Today I will announce some announcements that will shortly be announced'. Evidently it resonated with the many.

Lister challenges Labour on 'mega farms' 

The second part of the session saw David Drew, shadow farming minister (George Eustice’s opposite number) in the chair, deputising for the ailing Sue Hayman MP. A question from the audience came from one Richard Lister: According to the Labour Party, my family pig farm in Yorkshire is a ‘mega farm’. Investing and expanding in my business in recent years has allowed me to employ more specialist staff whilst reducing antibiotic use and emissions. Why is it felt that larger scale farming is bad for pig health and welfare, and what evidence is out there to suggest this is the case? Cue, a round of applause.

The response from the Labour MP was hardly conclusive. After having said he didn’t like the term ‘mega farm’ (despite it appearing as Labour Party policy), he stated that it wasn’t that Labour disliked big farms, they simply wished to favour support towards small farms: Larger farms can support themselves through the market. We tend to make sure the priority is in supporting those farmers who would go out of business without it. Would you agree? And would the taxpayer? Mr Lister spent much of the day taking compliments for his question; thankfully he did acknowledge his team of speechwriters.

Pro-leavers state their aims 

Outside of the conference this week has seen a rare public display of support from pro-Leave backbench MPs to the Prime Minster, in a letter outlining what they seek from Brexit. In the letter, they state the UK should have full regulatory autonomy, take full control of WTO schedules and that the UK should start its own trade deals immediately (the EU says this cant be done until we are out, after a transition).

The first point is perhaps the most striking – namely that there was no mention of the Northern Ireland border or how to sort out rules in trading products to and from Europe. As I have said many times before, and no doubt will again, it will always keep coming back to the border in Ireland. As further Cabinet discussions intensify, it is understood that the current idea in vogue is to have a ‘Canada plus’ model – between EFTA and Canada…if that makes any sense at all. Scepticism reigns in Brussels however. Next month sees the March European Council – with a year from the exit date it really will be a crunch meeting to see if we have any light at the end of the tunnel at all.

Brexit affects breeders, too

Brexit isn’t always about food. On Monday the NPA, along with representatives from the primary breeding companies operating in the UK, met with Defra officials to discuss concerns with regards to post-Brexit trade in breeding stock and germplasm, as well as concerns around calls to ban exports of live animals for breeding. Much of the discussions so far have been very food focussed, and we need to bear in mind what a badly negotiate Brexit could do for the trade in live breeding animals or germplasm, and the effects that could have for all producers.

EFRA evidence

And finally, good luck to Zoe who will be giving evidence to the EFRA Select Committee next week, as they reopen an inquiry into migrant labour, a year on from their last inquiry of the same issue. The political rhetoric is still very focussed on seasonal labour and we need to bring the issue back to permanent as well, on top of the effects of Brexit on migrant labourers before we even have left.