Anne McIntosh: Yorkshire farmers need clarity over competition in post-Brexit world

Can Brexit help fix farming policy?
Can Brexit help fix farming policy?
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CURRENTLY Yorkshire farmers, food producers and fishermen operate within a single market of 505 million consumers. From March 29, 2019, that market will be replaced by an internal market of 65 million individuals from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in which goods, services and people will flow freely.

The comfort farmers have drawn from what has been essentially a domestic market of that size on its doorstep will be replaced by a much smaller home market with potentially much greater competition. Essentially, Yorkshire farmers could face increased competition from two separate sources.

One is from the internal market of the United Kingdom, in which competitors producing food in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may continue to enjoy support for food production from their devolved governments under the new post-Brexit arrangements, which could undercut Yorkshire and other English producers.

The other source of potential increased competition would be from international trade, such as sub-standard food from, for example, the United States in the form of hormone-produced beef and chlorine-rinsed chicken.

These issues will be debated over six days in the House of Lords, starting today. How could this unfair competition come about and how could it be prevented?

Farming is a devolved policy and decided by the devolved legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and by Westminster for England. Currently there is a process underway whereby policy matters are being determined as to how they will be treated post-Brexit across the country.

However agriculture is one the 24 so-called framework agreements to be negotiated with an emphasis on achieving a level playing field within the internal market of the UK. This could be threatened by one of the constituent parts passing laws, or adopting policies, that could threaten the integrity of the market.

A situation which could impact on farming, and the ability of Yorkshire farmers to compete, would be where the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales chose to continue to give direct farm support to their producers while this could be replaced in England with environmental schemes and countryside stewardship schemes that reward farmers for public good like flood protection. This is what Defra Secretary Michael Gove intends.

This is what happened when the UK unilaterally introduced a sow stall and tether ban in the early 1990s, whereas our EU competitors did not do so for another seven years. British consumers bought on price, favouring the cheaper EU pork imports, which decimated the pig industry here.

The dash to conclude free trade deals could have perverse consequences for Yorkshire and other English farmers too. Any such deal must be concluded on the basis of reciprocity and a recognition of the very high levels of animal welfare, health and hygiene achieved by our farmers. Any imports from third countries have to recognise and match these standards. We can simply not afford, nor should we wish to accept, inferior products failing to meet our high standards of production.

We must recognise the fact that most countries that we are seeking to negotiate free trade deals with already have preferential access with the EU, including our Commonwealth partners through 
the ACP-EU arrangements. As the EU will remain an attractive market of 440 million consumers, what can we offer them in free trade that can compete with that?

Administering the internal market at home will also need tweaking as devolution was set up in 1999 against a background of our membership of the European Community since 1973 and a Single European Market which had come into effect in 1992. All decisions at present are made on that basis.

Time marches on and it is now only 11 months until Brexit Day. The Government must demonstrate a sense of urgency: to our European partners as to what we want our future relationship to be; to the devolved parliaments as to what the decision-making process will be and to farmers in Yorkshire and the rest of England, just what is expected of them and what will be the rules of engagement?

These are crucial questions that need to be answered.

Anne McIntosh is a Tory peer and the former MP for Thirsk and Malton. She is due to speak in a Lords debate today on Brexit.