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Lords Diary: Baroness Miller

Ussac, France, 29 January 2024: French farmers demonstrate against their government | Image by: Hugo Martin / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

From demonstrating French farmers to post-Brexit trade deals, food security and fairness in the supply chain

I saw the big traffic queue as we drove towards the little French town whose Saturday food market was voted the favourite market in France in 2014 and is just as great now. French farmers from miles around had blocked most of the exits from the roundabout, particularly the exit to the out-of-town hypermarket.

Tractors, tyres, and huge hay bales barred the way. When we eventually reached the roundabout we explained we were going to the town market. The burly farmer said, “Bien sûr et bonne journée.” Shopping for food from the local producers was definitely an approved reason to drive into town. The police were totally hands-off and the local population are very supportive of the farmers. French farmers have led the way in highlighting just how broken the food system is.

As UK farmers contemplate similar action they could well claim they have more to protest about. Post-Brexit trade deals are opening them up to global competition. The export market to Europe has become much harder to access as the bureaucratic nightmare of post-Brexit export to the EU bites. Our farmers and growers and our food security face multiple threats and challenges. I hear another small abattoir closed last week and those producing our fruit and vegetables have big issues of fairness in the supply chain. The consultation on that closed last week. Farmers face the wild pendulum swings between an emphasis on food production or wildness and biodiversity. A sensible policy choice would be nature-friendly food production.

French farmers have led the way in highlighting just how broken the food system is

So many towns in the UK have lost their markets. Markets that would keep the urban population connected with their local food producers and seasonal produce. It takes me back to my time in the 90s as a Somerset councillor when I started an organisation called Somerset Food Links to enable local people to access locally produced food more easily.

It’s been a while since I have been on a select committee. So I am excited to have just joined the Built Environment Committee, whose new inquiry is High Streets in Towns and Small Cities. (We must look at markets in the high street). 

It’s great to work with people from all sides of the House in-depth on matters of mutual concern. I am sure half term has reminded colleagues who are grandparents or carers of one of the big issues of concern in the high street: a lack of public toilets. Very stressful when you hear “I’m desperate”.

My other highlight this month was being able to take part in Lord Melvyn Bragg’s debate on the arts. He and many speakers highlighted the ghastly funding assaults on the arts, the way arts in schools and higher education have been devalued and marginalised. He highlighted the economic contribution of the arts to the UK and many of us gave examples of how the arts speak so powerfully to social issues. I had just been to see Tate Britain’s Women in Revolt!. Nostalgic to see but salutary too.

Then – shockingly – two weeks later, Arts Council England issued a warning that “political statements” could break funding agreements. What! Surely all art is political. Some overtly, some very subtly. It seems ironic that only three months since Paul Lynch won the Booker prize for his terrific novel Prophet Song, warning of a sleepwalk into an authoritarian state, Arts Council England would take such a giant step in that direction.

My mum was born in 1907. She lived through two world wars, Spanish flu and the Cuban missile crisis. Yes, she was 48 when I was born! To stave off great pessimism given the current climate-change crisis, Alexei Navalny’s murder, wars escalating… I must remember her comment when I was wondering whether starting a family was wise, given the 1980s nuclear arms race. “There’s always something,” she said. 

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer is a Liberal Democrat peer

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