4th Mar


TFA Blog #03 – Promises, Promises

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The East Anglian Daily Times, published on 29 February 2020.

Securing a majority of 80 MPs in the House of Commons has certainly provided the Prime Minister with the mandate he needs to press ahead with his programme for Government.  The votes of the DUP Members of Parliament are no longer required to prop up a minority administration in Westminster.  This has enabled the Prime Minister to row back on the promise of ensuring no change to the economic and constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and allowing the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU to revert, almost entirely, to the previous version of the Northern Ireland backstop negotiated by Theresa May.  Surprise surprise, as a result, the DUP has found it possible to achieve what it found unpalatable before the General Election – entering Devolved Government at home in partnership with Sinn Fein.

Sadly, breaching pre-election promises appears to be becoming a bit of a worrying pattern for the new Government, not even yet 100 days old, particularly in respect of food and farming.  Take the issue of standards in trade as a first example.  The Conservative Party manifesto gave a clear commitment that “in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.  The recently departed DEFRA Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, repeated this commitment in her speech to the Oxford Farming Conference just last month.  It was perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come, that no delegates raised their hands in support of the question posed by the Chairman of the conference as to whether people had trust in the Government in this respect.

In his first major speech on the Government’s trade policy, delivered at the beginning of the month in Greenwich, The Prime Minister signalled his intention to break this promise on standards.  He made it clear that our trade deals would not be based on requiring importers to adhere to the same standards as apply to domestic producers.  This undermines both the efficacy of the standards we seek to promote and the ability of UK producers to compete on a level playing field with imported product.  Further evidence of this policy shift is the positioning of Julian Braithwaite, the UK permanent representative to the World Trade Organisation, who has indicated the intention to break away from adherence to EU rules on trade and to move closer to standards more often employed by the US.  No wonder then that over 60 farming, environmental, consumer and animal welfare organisations have joined in writing to the Prime Minister to require that his manifesto promise is nailed into primary legislation.

Connected with the issue of standards in trade, the second breach relates to the extent to which we are able to trade freely with the EU.  How many times were we given assurances that following our exit from the European Union the UK would obtain an “oven ready” trade deal with the EU which would allow us to maintain “frictionless trade”?  Fast forward to a speech given by Michael Gove to a Border Delivery Group stakeholder event at which he said, after 31 December 2020 “the UK will be outside the single market and outside the customs union, so we will have to be ready for the customs procedures and regulatory checks that will inevitably follow”.  That sounds like friction to me.

The threat is that this becomes the thin end of a wedge.  We already have a less than helpful statement on access to migrant labour for the agriculture and food processing sectors, so what next?  More than ever, we will need to keep a gimlet eye on ensuring that the Government matches its rhetoric with action and with the Agriculture Bill currently making its way through Parliament, we must insist upon statutory provisions for the delivery of the many more promises that have been made.

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