Minette Batters Interview: The Farming Industry Has Been Ignored Over Post-Brexit Trade Deals
Minette Batters said it had been "impossible" to meet Home Office ministers
From driving a tractor to driving government policy, NFU chief Minette Batters talks about the many challenges facing farming.
As the first female president of the National Farmers Union since its creation in 1908, Minette Batters is the leading voice of an industry that is facing a perfect storm. The pandemic, Brexit and a litany of new trade deals across the globe have put British farmers under pressures not seen since the Second World War, and unlike many other lobbyists, Batters continues to work on the frontline of the industry. Spending as much time on her tractor as she does on the train to Westminster, the NFU boss is increasingly concerned about the health of the UK’s farming sector.
"It's an extraordinary continuing set of events. Our departure from the European Union is slightly paling into insignificance compared to the here and now of what the next 12 months are going to be. And that's primarily been really exacerbated by Covid," she says.
With fruit left rotting in the fields during the summer, and healthy pigs being culled en masse because of a lack of butchers, Batters is clearly frustrated at the government’s lack of action over what she claims is a "blockage" in Whitehall. While other departments have worked with the industry, she claims it has been "impossible" to secure a meeting with any Home Office ministers to discuss workplace shortages.
"I've not met with the Home Secretary. I've not met with the immigration minister," she says. "I've requested continuously for meetings with both of them."
"The lines in the Home Office around immigration are very tough and I understand completely that the British people voted to leave the EU and a lot of that was about immigration, but they didn't vote to disadvantage themselves or to put others here out of business, let alone have a cull of healthy pigs."
As the pressure continues to rise at home, the UK's rush to sign post-Brexit trade deals is creating its own challenges. While Batters welcomes the opportunity to open new markets, she believes farmers' voices are not being heard.
"The industry's thoughts have not been listened to at all," she says. "It has left me, if I'm honest, absolutely flabbergasted as to why not. Because leaving the EU is all about putting the British economy first.
"It's great to do a deal with Australia. We always wanted to do a deal with Australia. But we never thought that it would be a deal where we just gave the most prized food market in the world over for nothing. I think that is what people in this country find hard to understand."
But there are tentative signs of change as public awareness and support grows. She pre-empts questions about the impact of Jeremy Clarkson’s hugely successful farming programme that alongside the impacts of food shortages have sparked a resurgence in interest in eating and buying British.
"It has been unbelievable. I have urban MPs coming up to me at party conferences, saying: 'We get it. We've been watching Jeremy Clarkson.' It is slightly frustrating, but I think programmes like Clarkson’s Farm have reached an audience that hasn't been reached before.
"On the back of Covid, when every single person in this country faced a time when they couldn’t buy the fundamentals [for] their fridge when they wanted to, that was a real shock.
"It really resonated, and in conversations with retailers they have never known greater demand for people wanting to buy British, wanting to buy local, wanting to play their part in the sustainability agenda. And we’ve really got to work with that."
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