1st Jan


TFA Blog #01 – It’s Now More About How Rather than If We Leave the European Union

Happy New Year and welcome to 2020!

This first blog of the year is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 27 December 2019.

It’s Now More About How Rather than If We Leave the European Union

With Boris Johnson securing a comfortable majority in the General Election, the question of our membership of the European Union appears to have been answered once and for all.  The focus now will be not on whether we should leave the EU, but on how we leave and the extent to which we use the 11 months of our transitional period to prepare for life outside the membership of the club of 28 Member States.  Before the election, various senior Conservative Party sources ruled out the possibility of the UK asking for an extension to the 31 December 2020 end date for our transitional period.  If that is the case, then the Government needs to engage quickly to ensure that we are truly ready to make a success of Brexit.

Having had access to the EU market for our agricultural exports, we haven’t had to focus too hard on winning, securing and profiting from export markets further afield.  Whilst it will be essential to ensure continuing access to EU markets, particularly for our sheep industry, we do need to be ramping up our efforts in securing markets further afield.  Some embryonic work has already begun in the Far East, but we now need to turbocharge this work.  DEFRA needs to reopen the file on the review of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) and quickly promote a restructure of that organisation so that it can spearhead the necessary work on market development.  As a body which levies £65 million from farmers on an annual basis, AHDB needs to be at the leading edge of the industry driving market access.

At the same time, the Department of Trade needs to be willing and able to use all the equipment in our trade toolbox to tackle threats from imports.  UK farmers already produce to world-leading environmental and animal welfare standards.  Alongside the Government considering an unnecessary agenda to raise the bar even further on these standards, we have the threat of opening our domestic market to imports produced to standards that would be against the law for our farmers to follow.  If our environmental and animal welfare standards mean anything, we must enforce them at our borders.  It is no use Ministers simply making empty promises about not allowing inferior products to be imported into the UK, without those same ministers putting those words into legislation.

Before we start our trade negotiations and give away any of our market access, we need to start with a sensible schedule of tariffs which, at least, gives us something to negotiate about.  It would be madness to allow tariff-free access to our market for any of our domestically produced commodities the moment we leave the European Customs Union.  The draft temporary tariff schedule, published by the Government earlier in the year, fell quite a way short of this goal.  It is essential that we take a precautionary approach in applying sensible levels of tariffs and only look to reduce them if there is a significantly clear negative consumer impact and we are confident that it will not lead to unfair competition with home production.

We saw, in the Agriculture Bill, which reached Committee Stage in the last session of Parliament, an attempt to widen the scope for tackling unfair trading practices within retail and foodservice supply chains, causing unfair returns to primary producers in their contractual relationships with processors and first purchasers.  This initiative was widely supported even though there was a reticence on behalf of the Government to use the Groceries Code Adjudicator to oversee this new regulatory framework.  The Government must reinvigorate this activity and use the opportunity of the competition to appoint a new Groceries Code Adjudicator to expand their remit to encompass any widened statutory code.

The Government should stop listening to the Migration Advisory Committee which seems to have developed a short-sighted perspective on migrant labour based on a wrongheaded definition of skills.  Instead, the Government should listen to the food and farming industries about what it needs in both primary production and processing to ensure that domestic productivity is not undermined while we work together with Government to find ways to encourage more domestic born labour into these roles.

The manifesto commitment to maintain the level of funding currently committed to supporting the food and farming industry for the full five years of the new Government is good news.  However, in the development of the new policy framework, it is essential that the focus of attention is on supporting active farmers rather than providing enhanced returns to inactive landowners.  Coupled with this we need DEFRA to grasp the nettle of farm tenancy reform whilst encouraging the Treasury to use the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s first budget to reform the taxation environment within which landlords make decisions about letting land to promote greater security of tenure.

Alongside the vital importance of developing export markets, we must maintain free and unfettered trade amongst the four countries of the United Kingdom.  Finally, the Government must require that all public bodies responsible for the procurement of food prioritise fulfilling those needs from British sources.

With new Agriculture, Trade and Environment Bills expected to be introduced to Parliament early in the New Year, we need to see these priorities being addressed.

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