Farming: the great betrayal

Meme by Sadie Parker

Various reasons are given for the Liberal Democrats’ stunning by-election win in Leave-voting North Shropshire on 16 December. In Helen Morgan, they had a strong, local candidate who fought a vibrant, positive campaign and was able to inspire tactical voting by members of other progressive parties, notably Labour. The Conservative candidate, impressive on paper, was from Birmingham, showed no understanding of a rural constituency and favoured converting the NHS into an American-style, insurance-based health care system. Then there was the absolute skip-fire that is our government, mired in corruption and reputational scandals, in open conflict with its own backbenchers, and with – no doubt – worse leaks and revelations to come…

Perhaps one of the more surprising reasons for Helen Morgan’s victory is that the Conservatives lost the farming vote. Capitalising on the sulphurous anger of farmers, the Liberal Democrats even based their campaign headquarters at a farm. How had the Tories been so out of touch that they hadn’t even noticed white-hot rage bubbling up in a stronghold with a near-23,000 majority, a 60 per cent Leave vote and a stereotypical Tory demographic?

Farming thrown under the big red bus of Brexit lies…

Farmers were promised a paradise lost. More for farmers. More for the environment. More for flood defences. Protected subsidies. Less regulation. Is it surprising that an estimated 53 per cent of farmers backed Brexit – possibly more in North Shropshire? The government doubled down on these promises, with Michael Gove, when he was secretary of state for DEFRA, vowing that Brexit would work not just for people, but also for animals. It was all a pack of lies, of course, as increasing numbers of people working in farming, food processing and other horticultural businesses are coming to realise.

More than anything else, it’s the trade deal with Australia that has opened their eyes to the truth. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says that while the Australians have achieved all that they have asked for, British farmers are left wondering what has been secured for them. The charity and pressure group Sustain says the deal betrays consumers, farmers AND the environment. A triple whammy of calamity.

The (relatively) new trade secretary, Anne Marie Trevelyan, pooh-poohs this assessment. On 17 December, the very day after North Shropshire voters told the Tories exactly what they felt about them, she was trumpeting the fact that the deal had been finalised and signed. And TORIES had the gall to say they had heard the message! According to Trevelyan (a Londoner who gained the Cornish surname through marriage) the deal “with one of our closest allies and friends” is exciting, deep, full, covers a breadth of sectors and has 40 chapters. (Forty chapters! Imagine that!) All very nice, but what about farming? She hardly touched on agriculture in her response, except to claim that the deal is a really exciting opportunity, farmers can develop their businesses in new ways, and there are very, very clear safeguards for our farming sector.

Oh dear. You always know a Tory MP is lying when they say the words ‘opportunity’, ‘very’ and ‘clear’ in the same sentence.

British farmers have been left straining their eyes trying to see quite what these exciting opportunities and safeguards are. Ms Trevelyan explained there are “very clear” tariff quotas in the first ten years, which will be gradually phased out in years 11 to 15. The “over-arching safeguard measures” are ‘surge’ mechanisms: that is, if imports surge, the government can introduce emergency tariffs or quotas or both.

Previously, farmers competed on a level playing field with European competitors. Allowing Australian farmers free access to the UK market will undermine our farmers and put many of them out of business. Why? Because Australians do not respect or meet the same high animal welfare, conservation and environmental standards that British farmers do, and they benefit from greater economies of scale. The safeguard measures Trevelyan refers to are executed through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and take a long time to implement, damaging British businesses in the meantime. None of this is good news for consumers either: imported food made to lower standards will be cheaper than home-produced food, but not necessarily good value from a price/quality perspective, potentially costly in health terms – and potentially impacting the NHS as a consequence – because of exposure to meat stuffed with hormones and antibiotics. And if our farmers go out of business, we won’t be able to access locally-raised, ethically-produced meat.

What are we getting in return for government throwing our farming industry under the big red bus of lies and flushing our food standards down the dunny? Next to nothing. Official Department of Trade estimates are 0.01 to 0.02 per cent additional GDP, spread over fifteen years! As Minette Batters of the NFU says, “We have given away what is deemed to be the most prized food market in the world for very little back for the economy.” This is sheer madness for a country that produces no more than 60 per cent of the food it needs, and which will now increase its carbon footprint, through imports, to guarantee food security at a time when we are struggling to achieve net zero.

Brexit barriers are causing massive harm to humans and animals

It’s not just the Australian trade deal that is causing consternation. Boris Johnson’s not-so-oven-ready deal with the EU has put up so many barriers to trade that some agri-businesses have become unviable. The anguish caused to humans and animals alike is cruel. It is estimated that 100,000 pigs will have to be culled, meaning they will not be professionally killed through abattoirs and will be incinerated rather than enter the food chain, despite our empty supermarket shelves. The population is not about to become vegetarian overnight, so this matters.

Does our government care? Here is what Johnson had to say in October:

In a word, no. Johnson doesn’t give a damn about farmers or their animals. As far as he’s concerned, all death is the same, whether it’s for a cull or done humanely to serve the purpose of feeding families. “Have you ever had a bacon sandwich? How many bacon sandwiches have you had?” he barks, as if that is in any way relevant to the trauma of a cull. He plays for laughs when, if he is sincere about being Captain Net-Zero, he should be concerned about the waste of healthy food. Farmers are not compensated for the lost livestock, putting their businesses at risk, and incineration results in pointless carbon emissions, taking us even further from our net-zero target.

Some of the South-West’s local MPs DO care

Local South-West MPs played a part in helping to raise voters’ awareness that Brexit is devouring the British farming sector, sacrificing it on the altar of purity of putrid political dogma without any practical mitigations to save our once-proud British farming tradition.

As it happens, the EFRA select committee is chaired by Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish. It also includes South-East Cornwall MP Sheryll Murray and St Ives MP Derek Thomas amongst its membership. On 14 December they held a tempestuous session, grilling a fellow local MP, Kevin Foster, about the tricky subject of visas for agricultural workers. (Mr Foster represents Torbay and is the parliamentary under-secretary of state for immigration and future borders.) Food and ornamental horticulture (flowers) have been left rotting in the fields as the army of Brexiters willing to fill the arduous jobs formerly filled by EU pickers failed to materialise. For many of our farms this is an existential threat.

Derek Thomas was keen to highlight the plight of the non-food horticultural sector, which is not surprising given that Cornwall accounts for 86 per cent of the world’s daffodil crop. Varfell Farms in his constituency, for example, grows 500 million daffodils per year and needs 700 staff for three months at the start of every year. “It’s a high value business,” he said. “It’s a flower that cheers people up.” Now to this must be added a shortage of skilled workers in the poultry sector, causing a 20 per cent decline in production, and of butchers in the pig sector, resulting in pigs staying on farms later, exceeding weight specifications and eventually being culled.

Kevin Foster did not show an iota of sympathy for their plight. He hid behind Home Office processes, with the usual Brexity boasts of being “best in class”. His line, similar to that espoused by Camborne and Redruth MP and DEFRA secretary of state George Eustice, is that farmers have become addicted to “cheap foreign labour” since 2004 and must now invest in robotics, improve their terms and conditions and train up British workers. It’s a line straight out of the tabloids that is not supported by the evidence. Dozens of reports have found that freedom of movement did not exert downward pressure on wages, which is why Theresa May reportedly suppressed nine such reports when she was home secretary, because they conflicted with government spin.

The high-profile “Pick for Britain” campaign, meant to attract Brits to the fields, has not worked. There is a record number of job opportunities across UK industries, let alone agriculture, and unemployment is at an all-time low. Then again, perhaps the Waitrose #PickForBritain ad was too honest?

Foster would make no allowances for Brits not wanting to do the job, Europeans feeling put off by the hostile environment, or the fact that we have a problem right now. What he fails to get through his stubborn head is that adjustments can’t happen overnight and that investing years in recruiting and upskilling workers is a long-term solution that cannot solve the immediate problem. Plus, getting workers in from abroad is a last resort, as Home Office processes are so expensive and bureaucratic.

Each visa costs £244, but to employ such workers, a company has to become a sponsor at a cost of £1,476 for four years (£536 for small businesses or charities), and the immigration health surcharge may also apply in some circumstances. Foster wrongly blamed the meat processors for failing to sign up to the scheme and has been given until 5 January to set the record straight. One provider had devoted 125 hours of staff time and spent £110,000 for the staff they needed, for example. A large-scale business might absorb costs like that, but small and medium-sized businesses struggle.

The farming sector estimated it needed 55,750 visas and told the Home Office so, but the Home Office only granted 30,000, not all of which have been taken up. Fewer than 100 people applied for the new 800 butcher visas on offer, but none of them are yet in the UK.

Arrogant to the last, Foster would not admit the possibility that lower-than-expected take-up might be due to the cost of his blessed processes, or unrealistic requirements, like demanding the same level of English for an agricultural worker as for a medical doctor, or because the Home Office always opens the schemes after breeding or planting, when it’s no longer possible to do workforce planning, ie too little, too late. Nor would he entertain the idea that the duration of the visa was too short, brushing aside Thomas’s suggestion that a nine-month visa would make it more worthwhile for a seasonal labourer to come to Britain because they could move from the daffodil harvest in the first quarter of the year, to, say, picking asparagus in the second quarter, and on to soft fruits in the third.

It was like talking to the proverbial brick wall, and tempers flared.

“I just cannot accept it – we are seeing our industry slowly being destroyed,” Parish said. “I thought Brexit was about encouraging production in this country, not discouraging it. This is down to labour shortages. All I want you to say is that you are looking at these things and that you will take action quickly in the future.”

Sheryll Murray focused on another Home Office failing: they gave the contracts to recruit the butchers to four companies which have no experience in recruiting butchers. Foster could not see it. For him, a seasonal fruit picker is no different from a butcher. Government MPs don’t do detail, do they?

Meme by Sadie Parker

Murray: “It’s about time we see a little bit of humility from you… I’m not saying to you that you come here and you say, ‘I’m wrong.’ But actually, you aren’t perfect, and what you’re outlining is far from perfect, and what we’re seeing is pigs slaughtered on the farm, because of your slow processes.”

Foster: “Well, the idea that we have a slow process when we have one of the quickest visa application processes for skilled workers in the world, I think that’s bizarre. I think it’s the fact that – and I appreciate there are some who would rather that free movement had continued, that was never, that was not a policy – ”

Murray: “I don’t think that’s what any of us were asking for. Chair, I rest my case.”

In short, there was frustration that the Minister was deploying ‘exactly the same arguments’ as a year ago.

“I really don’t know why don’t you take it more seriously, rather than just having your blasted processes that you have in the Home Office that take forever and you prevaricate and prevaricate and the situation gets worse!” Parish thundered.

The result of all this “state control” is British farmers planning to grow less food!

It will get worse before it gets better

Farmers are worried because it is “very clear”, to use those words in a non-weasel sense, that the Home Office is not listening. And with Trevelyan saying that the Australian deal would be used as a blueprint for all future trade deals, more woe is on the way. Furthermore, it is not just the NHS that needs to worry about unscrupulous government ministers (ahem, Rishi Sunak) flogging it off by stealth to the Americans. Mere hours after the EFRA session, Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North and minister of state for trade (serving under Trevelyan), gave a speech at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, in which she effectively put the British farming sector on the block.

“… perhaps the most critical partner for us is the US. For the US to wait to seize this opportunity would be to all our detriment, but also to its own. It is in its own interest to step up its trade policy and negotiations… It is vital to every agenda – domestic and foreign – that the US holds dear. You want to level up and regenerate communities? You need to increase opportunities for business and attract investment. Want the prospect of a best-in-class deal on agriculture? Think you will get that from the EU?”

Meme by Sadie Parker

Why should we care and what can we do?

Screenshots of a bizarre exchange in the Tory “Clean Global Brexit” (CGB) WhatsApp group emerged late on 17 December, in which another local MP, Marcus Fysh (MP for Yeovil), said:

“The whole point of Brexit is radical supply-side reform…”

Meme by Sadie Parker

Some of us have been warning for years that Brexit was merely a Trojan horse for a “Singapore-on-Thames” model of government – a few Tory MPs even used that exact phrase. It consists of low-wages/high-taxes/low-to-no benefits for workers, and low-to-no regulation/taxes for corporations and high-net-worth individuals, with an unhealthy dose of authoritarianism on top.

If that’s not where you want to end up, and if you care about the quality of food on your family’s plates, then forgive (or ignore) the 53 per cent of farmers who voted Leave, and raise your voice in defence of the British farming sector. Write to your MP, to your local newspaper, and contribute to this EFRA enquiry here too. The song may go “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”, but we DO know and it hasn’t gone…yet.