Environment Secretary Michael Gove has pledged to use all the tools at the Government’s disposal to avoid British food production standards being undermined in the pursuit of post-Brexit trade deals, as he backed the formation of a new watchdog commission.
The Minister was challenged on his “warm words” at the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) annual conference this week when union president Minette Batters asked him if he would commit to establishing a high-level expert commission to make sure imported food meets the same standards of British produce after Brexit.
As reported by The Yorkshire Post earlier this week, the NFU envisages the commission being made up of government officials, farming bodies and other organisations which would make recommendations on how to ensure environmental, safety and animal welfare standards are maintained, and how trade deals can be scrutinised by Parliament.
Addressing Mr Gove at the conference, Ms Batters said: “You have said that over your dead body will British standards be undermined. Secretary of State, I am reasonable and I obviously don’t want it written in blood, I want it written in ink. Warm words are nice Secretary of State but we need firm commitments and clear actions.”
Responding during a keynote address to farmers, Mr Gove told delegates: “We have been clear – across Government, from the Prime Minister down – that we will not lower our standards in pursuit of trade deals, and that we will use all the tools at our disposal to make sure the standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.
“That is why today I welcome Minette’s call to establish a commission bringing together expertise from across the country and across sectors to ensure that we can maintain the world-class standards which give British food producers their well-deserved global reputation.”
In a discussion after the speeches were over, Ms Batters asked Mr Gove to put his commitment to the new commission in writing, to which he said: “Absolutely, we want to move as quickly as possible to harness the expertise in this hall and beyond to ensure we have a commission that means we can safeguard standards.”
Both Mr Gove and Ms Batters voiced grave concerns for the impact on farming in the event of a no-deal Brexit, with the Minister urging farmers to highlight their concerns urgently with MPs.
EU tariffs on British exports of sheep meat and beef into EU countries are expected to increase by at least 40 per cent if there is no agreement on the future relationship between Britain and the European bloc by March 29, a prospect that the NFU warned would “decimate” the sheep sector.
The combination of tariffs, in some cases doubling or more the price of exports, time-consuming new border checks on exported goods, increased transport “frictions” as a result and other requirements will create significant difficulties for food exporters, meaning small livestock farmers would be among the worst hit by a no-deal, Mr Gove said.
He added that while he remained “optimistic” of avoiding a no-deal, the industry can expect an announcement shortly on new tariffs on UK food imports in order to provide some protection to British farms should an agreement not be reached with the EU.
The Minister told farmers: “You have argued that we need tariffs on sheep meat, beef, poultry, dairy, both milk and cheese, and pig meat in order to safeguard our valuable domestic production. Your concerns have been absolutely heard and an announcement on new UK tariffs in a no-deal scenario – with specific and robust protections for farming – will be made shortly.
“And, of course, we also have the power to intervene to provide direct cash support to the most vulnerable sectors and I will not hesitate to provide the support required.”
Ms Batters told Mr Gove that what was on offer now is not what farmers had been promised when they voted for Brexit – a free trade deal, a bonfire of regulation and more money.
The Minister defended the deal Theresa May had agreed with the EU but which has been rejected in the Commons, saying: “The trade deal the Prime Minister has secured is premised on their being quota and tariff-free access to all European markets, and being outside the CAP so the inflexibilities that we currently have would go.
“At the same time, we have at the moment, a commitment to spend more in farming support for UK farming than any other EU country currently enjoys. Those can be put at risk by a variety of factors but those are all real gains for British farming. The one thing I want to do is ensure that those gains are secured and not put at risk as no-deal might do.”
COMMISSION’S VITAL ROLE
The commission to establish how the Government should protect British food standards in new trade deals is “probably far more important” than the future Whitehall budget for agriculture, Minette Batters said.
In her closing remarks at the end of the NFU’s conference, she said: “If we don’t get this standards ‘piece’ right I think that sets our industry back in a way we have not seen before.”
She welcomed Mr Gove’s commitment to the proposed new commission, saying neither she nor the Minister will be judged on great speeches but on what they deliver.