We must not destroy our agriculture sector via no deal
Farmers are the breadbasket of Britain and the prospect of a no deal scares them, writes Antoinette Sandbach MP
The threat of a no deal Brexit “do or die” may appeal to the prime minister’s new shock troops in Government who are insulated from the consequences of their decisions. However, for many farmers that I know it is their business that will die if we go for no deal.
Tariffs, customs checks and countless other new issues face a farming industry for which the EU represents 60% of its exports. If there is one sector that has clarified my mind about the utmost importance of avoiding no deal, it is the one on my doorstep: agriculture.
Under WTO rules, the average EU tariff on dairy products is over 30%, while tariffs could be as high as 87% for frozen beef. We also could face a tariff of 46% for cheese or 21% for tomatoes. These are not isolated cases, but the prevailing reality of trying to export food under WTO rules.
The agricultural sector is worth £109bn to the economy and employs 3.8 million people. If these tariffs are imposed it will cost billions of pounds and decimate employment in the sector.
Trade in food is not an issue that will only hit farmers. Those tariffs on our food going to the continent will also be levied on goods entering the UK from the EU – by value, this represents 70% of the food, feed and drink imported by the UK. As the UK only produces 60% of the food we eat, that means higher prices for all of us – a reality accepted even by Michael Gove last weekend.
I’ll be frank. Many farmers I speak to are scared. Scared for their businesses, for their employees and their livelihoods, but also scared for the country. They take pride in being the breadbasket of Britain, providing the food we eat, food which the rest of the world envies. What is more, while they see some opportunities from an orderly exit, they resent being told to welcome with open arms a no deal Brexit they know will hurt their farms and humiliate their country.
''Many farmers are scared for their businesses, for their employees and their livelihoods, but also scared for the country''
Westminster may seem a world away from the farm, but I can promise you, farmers are some of the most astute and dedicated Westminster watchers in the country. This is because they know that what happens here will affect their businesses and that the wrong choice by the wrong minister can cause chaos.
So, while last week’s prorogation announcement generated a lot of argument in Westminster, farmers noticed something many others did not. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of prorogation itself, the prime minister has just effectively killed four bills which were necessary to get the UK ready for Brexit. One of those is the flagship Agriculture Bill. There has been no reassurance that it will be carried over or that its contents can be fully introduced through secondary legislation.
Despite this, a hazy hopefulness has descended on many of my colleagues that has persuaded them that the prime minister must have some secret plan either to avoid no deal entirely or to manage it. While I hope they are right in the face of all the experts and facts of the last three years, I cannot bet my farming constituency’s livelihood on hope.
Whenever I raise this with ministers, there is a lot of hand waving. They say that there will be financial support for farmers, and others who lose their businesses. I’m told that there’s a plan, but never the details. This approach is heart-breaking to see. Farmers don’t want their businesses trashed followed by a pay-out. They want to be able to compete on a level playing field and to have their hard work rewarded by a fair market. This cannot be guaranteed under a no deal Brexit; instead decades of work will go up in flames for farmers across the UK. I cannot vote for that, and I hope that my colleagues cannot either.
Antoinette Sandbach is Independent MP for Eddisbury
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.