Jamie Green: Now that Brexit has finally happened, Scotland’s ambitions must stretch beyond Europe

12 Jan

Jamie Green is Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education and an MSP for West Scotland.

They say that January is a time for renewal, new starts and new resolutions. After the 2020 we’ve just had, that message of renewal is more important than ever, but I can think of nobody in greater need of wiping the slate clean and replacing the broken record than our very own First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

I appreciate that it’s difficult for a veteran politician of 30 years to find somewhere to start fresh, but I might gently suggest to the First Minister that she embraces 2021 with a more positive vision of what Scotland can achieve going forward. Instead of endless re-running of votes and arguments, all of which she sadly lost, the leader of Scotland’s government needs to embrace the reality of the new world we are in.

“A No Deal Brexit would be a catastrophic outcome for Scotland” – she proclaimed, before ordering her MPs to vote for one in the closing days of 2020. To her, Brexit has always been an emotive weapon used to stir up division and further her grievance with the UK government. But also one of absolute hypocrisy and paradoxical ironies.

She would happily drive our fishermen and their fish straight back into the murky seas of the Common Fisheries Policy, and she would herd our farmers back behind the fences of the Common Agricultural Policy, if it meant achieving her lifelong political mission of Scottish separation, at the expense of everyone and everything else. Her swansong perhaps, at any cost.

Just last weekend, her own deputy labelled a second independence referendum “an essential priority” without a hint of irony, apparently unaware of the global pandemic and the mounting Coronavirus death toll in Scotland.

The truth is that she must be spitting nails at the UK’s orderly managed exit, because the SNP calculated it had more to gain by pushing for a chaotic departure rather than acting in the national interest. The truth is that the SNP was desperate for the final week of 2020 to be marked with disruption and for 2021 to begin with the very No Deal exit from EU transition that it had spent years condemning with the might of a pulpit preacher.

They talked of the cliff edge ad-infinitum, only to then vote for one when it came to the actual crunch: do as I say, not as I do.

Now that Brexit has finally happened, and we have actually left the EU, how on earth can Scotland be reassured that their First Minister will embrace the New Year and the opportunities that awaits us with the zeitgeist it merits? The problem for Scotland is that she won’t.

If only her separatist government put such effort into its domestic policy as it does its interest in repealing referenda, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen the demise of our world-class education, our judicial system or the seemingly perpetual decline of our economy under the reigns of the nationalist government in St. Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.

When you think about it, the only people who should be afraid of the new freedoms we have outside the EU, is the SNP. With more powers devolved to these islands, they might simply now have to deliver for Scotland rather than just pointing the finger at Westminster when things go wrong.

The bogeyman is neither Europe nor London. The power and responsibility lie firmly in Edinburgh. Be it agricultural policy, or fishing infrastructure. Be it environmental ambition or investment in infrastructure – the Scottish Government has much to account for and much to deliver.

The stark reality facing all governments is to make sure that Brexit actually works for everybody in Scotland, not just those who voted for it. Instead of listening to what Scotland can’t do without Brussels, I want our government to start talking about the opportunities on our doorstep. Our global ambition, if you like.

What about a study abroad scheme with Australia? A financial services agreement with the US, so firms in Edinburgh can have unfettered access to the multi trillion-dollar market in New York? Scotland will always be a close partner and ally of Europe, but our ambitions must stretch beyond the continent of the political union we have just taken leave of if we are to succeed.

Nobody is saying that things will be easy, but ambition is core to success.

We begin 2021 with a new deal, a new relationship, and a new future, which does require some patience I admit. But waiting is not a quality that Sturgeon can rely on, because the political life expectancy of SNP leaders who lose referendums is very limited, and she has been on the losing side of every referendum she has ever campaigned on.

Unlike the First Minister, I believe that Scotland can truly thrive outside of the constraints of Brussels. I want those powers of the Brexit bounty repatriated to these shores, so that every corner of the UK can take advantage of a global UK. The deal thrashed out with the EU, and accepted by both sides, means Scotland will succeed by not only having tariff-free access the European Single Market, but by allowing us to benefit from new free trading arrangements with economic giants such as the US, India, Japan, and Canada. Our whisky, our salmon, our smokies: a global market for a truly global Scotland.

It now just needs a First Minister with the resolution, a new found one if you will, to work with and not against the grain and make a success of our renewed place in the world.

Kirsty Finlayson: The Government is making good progress on green issues, but there is much more to be done

4 Jan

Kirsty Finlayson is Director of Communications for the British Conservation Alliance, which launches today. She is a solicitor and has previously stood as a Conservative candidate in the 2017 General Election and the 2019 European Election.

My first school, in rural North Nottinghamshire, had a beaver as its mascot. Despite understanding the symbolism – valuing hard work and aspiring to be “as busy as a beaver” – my four-year-old self was perplexed at never having seen the rodent, despite living on the River Trent.

Nevertheless, living in the countryside close to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest inspired a lifelong love of nature. Studies have shown that a child who experiences nature before the age of 12 years old is more likely to be motivated to protect the environment in adulthood.

Yet over 90 per cent of the UK population will be city dwellers over the next decade.

With Brexit being the focus in 2019, the word “wildlife” was mentioned just once in our Party’s Manifesto. There were, however, several encouraging commitments to conservation, including pledges to tackle deforestation, introduce a new £500 million maritime preservation programme, ensure farmers farm in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next Parliament, and create new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Environment Bill reintroduced in January 2020 has helped re-establish conservation as a Conservative cause. It introduced a mandatory requirement for “biodiversity net gain” during planning, an essential addition to planning rules, given the “requirement” for 300,000 new homes each year.

The Bill went some way to improving long-term conservation with the creation of “conservation covenants”, which allow a landowner and “responsible body” (such as a conservation charity or public body) to fulfil conservation objectives. In the past, conservation obligations were only personal agreements which failed to bind successors in title; conservation bodies had to acquire the freehold of land to secure long term conservation. Now, conservation covenants – as legal commitments – can ensure more permanent preservation of our previous wildlife.

The Bill also introduced a “Duty to Consult”, giving the public an opportunity to understand why an urban tree is being felled and to express their concerns, whilst also strengthening the Forestry Commission’s power to clamp down on illegal tree felling across England – which will be welcomed by right and left wing tree huggers alike.

The improvements in air quality that are brought about by more vegetation are clear; but if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that the benefit of outdoor greenery is not just precious, it is crucial; trees not only help clean and cool the air, but improve people’s mental and physical health too.

A recent National Trust survey revealed that 80 per cent of the happiest people in the UK have a strong connection with the natural world, compared with less than 40 per cent of the unhappiest. The opportunity to enjoy nature can no longer be a luxury enjoyed by privileged garden owners. A pandemic poll by the RSPB showed that 84 per cent of people in England support the suggestion that the Government should increase the number of accessible nature-rich areas in the UK as part of our pandemic recovery. Links to nature are also associated with far-reaching positive effects on the brain. Studies have shown that a window with a view of green space can reduce the crime rate by as much as 50 per cent.

Returning to the busy beaver, the water flow control that natural habitats provide is essential for our flood defences. With the number of extreme wet days in the UK increasing and costing the UK economy around £2.2 billion a year and causing stress and hardship for homeowners, as well as unprecedented challenges for businesses, councils and the insurance industry, the beaver is just one example of a self-sufficient water management resource.

In 2015, beavers were reintroduced to the countryside in Devon; the Devon Wildlife Trust found that the beavers’ effects on the surrounding area was profound. They not only reduced flooding through dam-building, but they caused plant life to flourish (boosting other types of wildlife), held water in dry periods which prevented sediment and inorganic fertilisers from being washed from farmland, and even reduced erosion and improved water quality. Since 2017, 13 beaver licenses have been issued by the Natural England, most recently to the rewilding project at Knepp in Sussex.

Despite the positives to be drawn by the Environment Bill, however, there is still so much more that individual local activists and large lobbying groups can campaign on.

The Government has set out how developers should protect much-loved British wildlife, but we must do the same on agricultural land, encouraging areas of re-wilding which have a positive impact on both land use and surrounding nature. This does not need to come at the expense of farmers and their livelihoods.

There are huge opportunities to rethink how farmland is managed with the overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy. Farmers currently benefit from subsidies such as Agricultural Property Relief. Whilst conservation covenants are a start, why not give farmers a tax benefit for re-wilding? Let’s give businesses economic incentives for wilding land, which can provide long-term public benefit through physical activity and education. Brexit has afforded us the opportunity to view farming and conservation as mutually compatible; improving the quality of our land, which includes reversing land degradation, will also boost our nation’s food production in the long term.

Post-Brexit, we must take the lead in environmental legislation; previously, it took EU subsidies to change soil quality. With a relatively small land mass, we cannot afford to be complacent. The Government has supported the ban on pesticides to protect bee pollination, but has yet to oppose the herbicide glyphosate. Some local authorities such as in North Somerset, Bristol, and Lewes have decided not to wait for Government intervention, and have already imposed restrictions on the herbicide, which various studies have labelled as having serious health implications.

And we must not ignore international cooperation in the wake of Covid-19. Whilst the UK government has implemented a far-reaching furlough scheme, many of the world’s inhabitants do not have such government support, leaving them vulnerable to exploit natural resources (primarily precious forests and oceans) to survive. In the Global South, this is likely to have a devastating long-term impact on the natural world. The Prime Minister’s commitment to cooperate internationally in order to introduce wildlife corridors, cut deforestation and protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans will be welcome.

Ryan Bourne: First, Covid-19 lockdowns. Next, climate change ones – rationed car use, no red meat. Coming soon to a country near you?

9 Dec

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

We are at the beginning of the end. Provided vaccines prove as efficacious as trial results indicate, and absent unobserved side effects, the rollout to vulnerable groups should reduce Covid-19 death risks substantially and rapidly.

Inoculations down through the priority list will then put us within reach of a herd immunity robust to ordinary behaviour. Life, it seems, could be “back to normal” by the spring or summer of next year.

I’ve never been a “V-shaper” Panglossian on the economy. You can’t switch economic life on and off without causing permanent damage. But there is nevertheless reason to be optimistic of a robust recovery next year. What is more uncertain are the longer-term consequences of this experience on our collective psyche and politics.

American economists Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran have warned of a depressive “scarring” effect, as we use the experience to revise our assumptions on the probabilities of major shocks. If we collectively infer that tail-end risks such as global pandemics are larger, then investments become less attractive.

Think alone about the willingness of entrepreneurs to go into the travel, hospitality or leisure industries after this. Then think of the effect of the risk of having to pivot to home working again, generalised across other sectors.

Alongside that are the impacts on the role of the state. Economic historian Robert Higgs’ work has highlighted how crises generate a ratchet of government power. Wars, depressions, and emergencies see powers centralised, before receding again.

But the state never quite falls back to the same size and scope as before. After the Coronavirus, we will see more taxpayer funds for virus-related public health, vaccination research, and the subsidisation of PPE production capacity. Government will also be met with demands to maintain Covid-level welfare benefits and industry-specific stimulus as a tool for future downturns, a la Eat Out to Help Out.

Lockdowns are the obvious area where these two effects could come together most damagingly. Highly crude shutdowns had a strong logic in Spring, given the high uncertainty about the prevalence and risks of the virus, and with Italy highlighting the dangers of overburdened hospitals.

More recent national measures reflect instead an ongoing policy failure to institute better control of Covid-19, but may nevertheless have passed a cost-benefit test given the arrival of vaccines (a case that the Government did not adequately prove).

Whatever your position on the desirability or consequences of lockdowns in this particular crisis, however, it’s clear that suspending economic and social liberties today brings with it the temptation for politicians to utilise such powers again – and for businesses and individuals to suspect that they could.

Given the way that politicians throw around terms such as “emergency” or “epidemic,” it is not an intellectual leap to imagine future leaders demanding similar measures for other ambitions. And therein lies a source of economic discontent—an incalculable drag or doubt for a generation.

Already, the economist Mariana Mazzucato has pitched the idea of “climate lockdowns,” should governments not deliver the green revolution she desires. In the service of mitigating the “climate emergency,” the “state would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

Of course, we can avoid all that, she says, if we are willing to “reorient our energy system around renewable energy” and “evict fossil-fuel interests and short-termism from business, finance, and politics”—the goals Mazzucato wants to achieve with her threats warning of what might be needed otherwise.

Now, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a world where one could face fines or jail time for driving too much, or eating steak frites. But before this year, one could have said the same about meeting four households on Christmas Day, or not eating at least a scotch egg with your pint.

Madeleine Grant worries about how the example of this pandemic might normalise health surveillance or screening for colds or flu. But it’s the everyday lifestyle regulations that have been truly novel – including the forced closure of certain businesses and the bans on gatherings. The threat of repeats predicated on the ends justifying the means is what we should be most attentive to.

To mitigate this temptation requires a reaffirmation of the legitimate justifications for government interventions. From an economic perspective, there is a defensible consequentialist claim that governments should act where huge, dangerous externalities result from collective action problems. Yet in doing so they have a duty to both prove the case and to account for these externalities in the least harmful way possible, only reaching for the most extreme measures when the consequences of inaction are grave or imminent.

The climate lockdowns idea is so pernicious not just because the imminent threat is absent. The reasoning presumes that governments should go beyond accounting for the externality, say through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes, instead using the “emergency” to justify actively ignoring market conceptions of value, threatening vast restrictions on how you live your life unless the planners’ vision of the world is achieved. Mazzucato’s argument is not just about reducing CO2, in other words, but about using the threat of lockdowns to push for abandoning consumer-led markets entirely.

We have seen this type of thinking proliferate during this crisis. Last week, Jenny Kleeman wrote for the Guardian about lab-grown meat, which many see as a useful pathway to reducing the environmental impact of farming and the ethical concerns many have with meat consumption. Rather than embrace these innovations as a way to work with consumer preferences to reduce the impacts of meat eating, Kleeman simply declared it would be preferable if we “simply stopped eating meat, or ate it far less often.” Her inspiration? The sacrifices of the Coronavirus in showing the massive behavioural changes we are “able to make” in extremis.

As we exit this crisis, we must not forget that underpinning a healthy market economy is the idea of the sovereign consumer, who knows what he or she wants, and whose welfare is enhanced by acting on those preferences. The bar for curbing activities that bring us joy or happiness should be very high indeed. And to the extent that economic or social problems do require government interventions, they should work with the preferences of consumers, not treat them with contempt, lest the economic welfare costs spiral.

Lockdowns were a panic button reaction to an acute emergency. Their re-use was a signal of the government’s dismal failure to mitigate the virus in less costly ways. But we must quell talk of them becoming a model for solving future economic and social challenges, or else the expectation of them could itself be economically corrupting today.

Theresa Villiers: Ministers must ensure Britain’s trade partners meet our agricultural standards

4 Nov

Theresa Villiers is a former Environment Secretary, and is MP for Chipping Barnet.

The Agriculture Bill is due to complete its final Parliamentary stages today. This is a Bill which I introduced to the House of Commons when I was Environment Secretary. In putting the environment at the heart of our new system of farm support, it is one of the most important environmental reforms for decades.

Dismantling the Common Agricultural Policy is a key benefit of Brexit. But this legislation has been overshadowed by arguments over trade. I recognise the benefits of trade liberalisation, but applying purist Ricardian economic principle in an unconstrained way to agriculture would be wrong – which is why almost no country in the world treats food in the same way as other commodities when it comes to trade policy.

Exposing our farmers to unfettered competition from lower-cost, lower-welfare imports, such as intensively reared feedlot beef fed on soy (contributing to deforestation in the Amazon), would undermine our commitments on the environment and animal welfare, as well as damaging the rural economy.

That is why I voted for amendments to require food imports covered by new trade agreements to comply with environmental and animal welfare standards which are equivalent to our own.

These amendments were defeated, but the Government has responded to the concerns I and others have raised on trade and food. It has established a Trade and Agriculture Commission Trade to advise ministers on ensuring that our approach to trade does not undermine our animal welfare, food production, and environmental standards, and to identify new export opportunities for UK farmers.

At the weekend, Ministers gave a commitment to place the Commission on a statutory footing and tabled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to place a duty on the Government to report to Parliament on whether commitments in new free trade deals relating to agricultural goods are consistent with maintaining UK levels of statutory protection in relation to human, animal and plant life and health; animal welfare; and environmental protection.

This is a significant step forward in the campaign to ensure UK farmers are not unfairly undercut by imported food produced to lower standards than would be lawful in this country.

But another key development came in the article written for the Mail on Sunday by George Eustice and Liz Truss, the Environment and Trade Secretaries, in which they said that “chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef are already banned in the UK and we will not negotiate to remove that ban in a trade deal”.

Ministers have frequently highlighted the bans on these controversial products, but up until that article, they had been equivocal on the question of whether the Government would ever ask Parliament to repeal them. Now we have confirmation that allowing food into the UK which violates these bans has been removed from the negotiating table, despite pressure on this from the US negotiators.

In the light of these important compromises, the Lords are unlikely to persist with the amendments they have adopted on food and trade, and I would expect the Agriculture Bill to complete its passage through Parliament this evening.

But whilst real progress has been made, the battle to ensure our trade policy goes in the right direction continues. There are other important restrictions on food imports which we need to defend, such as the ban on ractopamine in pork, bovine somatropin in dairy products, and excessive use of antibiotics.

Like the rules on hormones in beef and chicken washed in disinfectant, the primary purpose of these rules is to protect human health. But their effect is also to secure higher animal welfare. For example, deploying an “end of pipe” disinfectant treatment of chicken carcases is used to compensate for poor hygiene practices during the lifetime of the chicken, and facilitates more cramped and unhygienic conditions for rearing birds.

I would acknowledge that requirements which explicitly focus on animal welfare are rare in trade treaties.

But this is a Government which has been elected with stronger commitments on animal welfare than ever before. We should use our new status as an independent trading nation to build a global coalition for improved welfare. After all, the US frequently uses trade deals to impose conditions on its trading partners, for example on matters such as intellectual property. Indeed, the US has itself fought lengthy battles in the WTO to defend its rules on protecting animals such as turtles and dophins.

The debate on the Agriculture Bill may be about to draw to a close, but the task of scrutinising UK trade negotiations is only just starting, and will require continued vigilance by Parliament. Our negotiators should stand firm and refuse to remove restrictions or reduce tariffs on food unless it is produced to standards of animal welfare and environmental protection which are as good as our own.

The UK market for food and groceries is the third largest in the world. It is a massive prize for any country to be allowed greater access to it. We should not sell ourselves short.

Richard Holden: The Japan trade deal, future CPTPP membership – deliverers of wages, prosperity and work to my Durham constituents.

26 Oct

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Maddisons Cafe, Front Street, Consett

In the year I was born, 1985, Consett had unemployment of 35 per cent – multiples of the average across the country.

The decline and, finally, the end of heavy industry and mining in the hands of a few, nationalised employers, poor management and poorly led, often over-politicised unions brought down the industrial North – and the demise of these industries decimated communities that had been reliant for generations on an increasingly small number of large employers.

By the time of the last election, employment in North West Durham had recovered to around the national average. A significant part of that is down to Nissan and its supply chain in the region.

This is why the agreement that Liz Truss has signed with Japan last week provides a very much-needed good news at a very difficult time, particularly for North East England but, more widely, for the whole country.

Trade deal signings come with plenty of fanfare and diplomatic niceties. But, beneath the pageantry, these agreements are a fundamental catalyst for delivering growth and investment of the type that we will need to ensure that our economy recovers from Coronavirus. This is especially the case for places in the Blue Wall, including my constituency in North West Durham.

The Prime Minister was right when he said trade can help us build back better, and make Britain a leader in modern areas like the green economy, high-tech manufacturing and technology.

The Japan deal is proof that we can strike good trade deals for Britain, despite the derision of arch-Remainers. Britain is out there and we’re winning.

It proves we can go further and faster than the EU in such areas as digital and technology, including enabling the free flow of data, a commitment to uphold the principles of net neutrality and a ban on data localisation that will prevent British businesses from having the extra cost of setting up servers in Japan.

The agreement also goes much further than the EU deal in terms of food and drink. We have secured a deal which benefits our farmers and fishermen as British meats, cheese, and fish will face lower tariffs in Japan.

It also contains over 70 geographical indications – compared to seven under the EU deal – that will mean iconic British products from all over the UK such as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Cornish Pasties, Welsh Lamb, Scottish Salmon, and Wensleydale Cheese receive legal protection from cheap imitations in Japan.

It helps provide critical continuity for businesses and secures many thousands of British jobs, not least those at the Nissan plant down the road, where many of my constituents’ work and which I recently visited with the International Trade Secretary.

And the Japan deal is just the start.

It is a signal not only of our capability as an independent trading nation, but also of our intent to strike great deals around the world and move well beyond the EU – particularly with Commonwealth countries and parts of the wider Pacific.

British industry, innovation and intellectual leadership shaped the world of international commerce that we recognise today. The work of Smith, Ferguson, Cobden and political giants like Robert Peel established Britain as the world’s pre-eminent trading nation, and set the stage for the creation of the international rules-based system a century later.

This Government’s ambition is to reconnect with that heritage, and re-establish Britain as a pre-eminent global trading nation that looks well beyond its own shores.

Leaving the EU gives us the chance to do that, and to lead the world in areas like the green economy (with hydrogen set to play a major role down the road in Teesside) services and technology.

The Japan deal is an important staging post in that journey. As well as driving economic growth across the country, it paves the way for us to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), one of the world’s largest free trade areas, covering 13 per cent of the global economy (and growing), comprising 11 major Pacific nations.

Membership of CPTPP is vital to our future interests and vision for Global Britain and, more broadly, we must decrease our reliance on large dictatorships whose ‘actions short of war’ – like intellectual property theft and cyber warfare – leave us under permanent attack.

By joining a high standards agreement with countries who play by the rules, we will strengthen the global consensus for free and fair trade at a time of heightened global uncertainty and rising protectionism – keeping markets open and trade flowing. Increased trade and connections with such countries is vital not only in economic terms, but also in geo-political and strategic terms.

Diversifying our trade and supply chains will also help our economy become more resilient to future shocks, and put us in a stronger position to reshape global trading rules alongside like-minded allies, including old friends such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

Strategically, this diversification is an exciting part of the Government’s plan to put Britain at the centre of a network of modern free trade deals, making us a hub for services, technology and cutting-edge manufacturing and green technology.

Ultimately, CPTPP membership delivers gains that would be impossible as part of the EU. And do so in a way that doesn’t impinge on our sovereignty. There is no ECJ, no harmonisation of domestic regulation and no ceding of sovereign powers.

All of this matters. Trade – and the notion of Global Britain – can seem divorced from the everyday worries and priorities of people here at home. But at its heart, trade is a powerful way to deliver the things people really care about.

It means more opportunities for local people, higher-skilled jobs, better standards of living, and happier, wealthier, more vibrant local communities in places like North West Durham, building on relationships abroad, as with Japan, to deliver local jobs so that we never again return to the bad old days of decay and decline that ultimately cost jobs and communities.

Liz Truss, who I recently spent time with on the production line at Sunderland, and the Government are working hard to secure CPTPP accession, and am pleased to see that a lot of the groundwork has been laid already – including exploring membership with all eleven countries in line with the official process.

Britain is at its best when it is an optimistic, outward-looking nation that engages with the world. CPTPP membership is the next logical step in the fulfilment of that vision.

It will show the world we are back as an independent trading nation and that we are not only a major force in global trade, but a major force for good across the globe.

Minette Batters: Today, MPs should insist on better scrutiny arrangements for future trade deals

12 Oct

Minette Batters is the President of the National Farmers Union.

Today, MPs will once again be debating the Agriculture Bill in the Commons, and once again the critical issue of how we can strike out as an independent trading nation while safeguarding our food and farming standards will be addressed. But time is running out for Parliamentarians and government to come up with a definitive answer.

This has become one of the defining issues that has emerged from Brexit. Now we have left the EU, we have the freedom to negotiate our own trade deals and to define our own standards.

I want to be part of that – selling more of our great British food abroad, and using our import policy to drive the competitiveness of our farmers. But we are also facing the reality of a world with different values and priorities to our own, and with different approaches to food and farming.

It is difficult to disentangle this debate from the wider question of what it means to take back control and to take a new role on the world stage as Global Britain. Our voice will have regained its individuality, but we are no longer backed by the economic status of being part of the largest economy on the globe. This forces us to make some tough choices – and so it is vital that those choices are made by our elected representatives in Parliament. Proper Parliamentary accountability: that is what this current debate on trade and standards boils down to.

I was struck by the recent furore over the Internal Market Bill and the Withdrawal Agreement. It seems that many of those who vocally supported the Withdrawal Agreement earlier this year were disappointed with some of the fine print. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular issue, it was a stark reminder of what can happen when critical, international agreements are not properly scrutinised.

The Withdrawal Agreement runs to some 540 pages. A typical trade deal can be three times bigger. The EU/Canada agreement, for example, runs to nearly 1600 pages. Without proper scrutiny, it’s obvious that our future trade deals could hide all sorts of commitments we should at least be aware of.

A former Tory Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, compared the development of the UK constitution with an old country house, added to over the years with a window here and a gable there. Well, that is the nature of the system we are relying on to scrutinise trade deals – cobbled together from different materials accumulated over centuries.

But with Brexit, we have cleared the furniture and can now take care of the leaky plumbing and fraying electrics. We should take the chance to create a bespoke system of trade scrutiny while we can.

We are told that our current arrangements for scrutinising trade deals are fine. But this is not the opinion of a number of recent Parliamentary select committee inquires and independent assessments.

The truth is, if you wanted a system that ran a high chance of side-lining MPs from having a really good say on trade policy, then the current arrangements under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG) would do the job.

Yes, MPs can vote against a trade deal, but they have 21 days to read these enormous tomes, and – as a negative resolution process – they then need to get themselves organised to pray against it. And repeatedly, every 21 days. There is no requirement for government to provide time to debate or vote on the deal.

It’s also important to recognise that changes to our domestic standards that result from trade deals will require domestic legislation to implement, including changes to our food standards.

This is an extra layer of Parliamentary involvement – but, again, it is very weak. Nearly all would be via secondary legislation, mostly through negative resolutions. I wonder how often any of our current MPs have voted against a Statutory Instrument under the negative resolution procedure – the last time such an instrument was defeated in the Commons was 1979. Robust Parliamentary scrutiny it isn’t.

Perhaps most concerningly of all, there are in fact no safeguards in domestic law for standards in areas such as animal welfare or environmental protection which can be used to control imports. I believe our food safety standards are strong. But in trade policy these cannot be extended to concerns over the way food is produced – for instance on animal welfare or environmental measures.

This is a reflection of international trade law, not on the Government, but it throws into sharp relief the reality behind the assurances we are given that our standards have been safeguarded in law after Brexit. Quite simply, they haven’t.

To be fair, Liz Truss and the Department for International Trade have recently indicated that they are looking at ways of facilitating greater Parliamentary scrutiny – providing select committees with advance sight of deals, making Parliamentary time available for debates, and providing impact assessments to inform MPs. But all of this is somewhat cobbled together and informal and could easily be reversed in future. There is no safeguard that such a system will remain in place, or even used for each and every deal. We need more.

So what would that look like?

First, we need a clear and simple process that ensures Parliament is given time to consider the details of any trade deals – 21 days is too short. Next, here needs to be formal, independent and expert evidence on those trade deals for Parliament to consider too, again something that needs more than 21 days. Finally, Parliament needs to be formally provided with sufficient time to debate these deals and to vote on whether they should be ratified or not. Relying on an outdated system that only allows them to continuously delay ratification every 21 days, without debate, is quite plainly not fit for purpose.

Lord Curry’s amendment to the Bill – New Clause 18 – would have helped considerably. It would give MPs expert advice on the impact of trade deals before any such deals are signed. Unfortunately, it appears that the Speaker may not move the amendment for debate. Nevertheless, the principles behind it stand, and the issues will still be debated under New Clause 16, which calls for imports under future trade deals to meet equivalent standards to those in the UK.

The moment has come. The implications of the result of the EU referendum must now be addressed. If Brexit was about anything, it was taking back control. Many farmers, who have close and strong links with their MPs, had become exasperated by decisions they saw as being made by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. They will not be impressed if in future decisions that could be existential for their businesses are taken by faceless negotiators in Whitehall and the negotiating rooms of Washington, Canberra and Wellington. Tonight, during the debate on the Agriculture Bill, I hope MPs will make these points loud and clear to government.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Tony Hockley: The future of farming must be diverse

1 Oct

Tony Hockley PhD is Director of the Policy Analysis Centre and a Visiting Senior Fellow at LSE.

When Farmers Weekly magazine used an image of five white male speakers to promote an event entitled “What does the future of farming look like?”. No irony was intended.

 

Like many working in policy I cannot recall the last all-male panel at a mainstream event. I suspect that most would also agree that the change has been for the better. It is now the case that most men who would bring value to a policy event will decline an invitation to participate in one that is comprised entirely of white men of a certain age. Whoever organised the September 30 Farmers Weekly event was probably just lazy and unimaginative, rather than prejudiced. But this speaks volumes on how much must change if the countryside is to live up to the rhetoric, to play a leading role in the pandemic recovery and to deliver a “Green Brexit”. If ever there was a time for fresh thinking then that time is now. This also requires fresh voices.

The UK has arrived at a point in which there is almost no connection between the population and the countryside that sustains its food and landscape. Divisions in debates around the countryside reflect this disconnect. There are very few voices of mutual empathy between the increasingly divergent worldviews. Positive progress needs an end to groupthink.

This year has shown what happens when a population cut off from the countryside are forced to staycation and have nowhere else to go. Decades of failure of engagement have led to huge damage to precious sites for nature. From the pristine ponds and biodiverse grazed heaths of the New Forest in the South to the summit of Snowdon, some of the UK’s best sites for nature have been driven over, dumped on (in all senses), and burnt by disposed barbecues. It is hard to blame the families involved, when so little has been done to engage for so long.

There is an opportunity to change this after the pandemic and outside the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farmers must be willing and able to engage, and to welcome renewed interest in our own countryside. Appreciation of nature and fears for its loss and for climate change are high. But few seem to connect these fears with the UK landscape, or with our own behaviours. We seem to worry more about the fate of the pangolin than the fate of the hedgehog, the adder, or the curlew. It is, of course, easy to blame others in foreign lands or faceless corporations, rather than look closer to home.

The Agriculture Bill includes public access, enjoyment and understanding of the countryside in its short list of public goods worthy of receiving public money. This needs to be a priority, not an afterthought. It is not something to be left to agencies, but for everyone in the countryside. Despite the alarming damage to precious landscapes in 2020, a warm welcome needs to be the default approach, not the “Keep Out” sign. This will be a far cry from the insular mentality of the CAP, where the occupation counts more than anything.

Outside the CAP we can now invest properly not only in restoring nature, but also in building understanding of it and in helping everyone enjoy the countryside sustainably. Inside the CAP those who would like to do more have had to rely on the National Lottery to support local, time-limited projects. The Agriculture Bill offer the chance to scale up; the Heritage Lottery Fund has, for example, allowed New Forest commoners to create a free toolkit which local primary schools have incorporated into their curriculum.

This is helping re-connect the next generation to the countryside on their doorstep, and its special nature sustained by centuries of common grazing. The new GCSE in Natural History is an important step in the same direction. There is no silver bullet, but without much greater inclusivity and engagement damaging behaviour will only get worse. Then those who access the countryside for the first time will only see barriers, warning signs, and policing.

It is too easy for those of us who benefit from regular countryside access to fail to understand the psychological and behavioural barriers to those who do not and who are often visibly “different”. The Glover Review of designated landscapes highlighted this collective myopia, reflected in appointments to our national park authorities. Landscape conservation has become insular and process-driven. Politicians cannot deliver adequate public funding unless the population at large appreciate the need and feel the value.

That is why, even from a position of self-interest, it is deeply dangerous for discussions about the future of farming to lack diversity. It not only excludes half of the population by gender, but also ignores wider demographic change: The proportion of the “White British” population in the UK is declining. The proportion of the population who are not White British or Irish is forecast to continue to grow, from 17.5 per cent in 2016 to almost 40 per cent over the next 40 years.

There is, of course, also a strong moral obligation to change. The events of 2020 have added emphasis to this obligation. Ethnic minorities in the UK and disadvantage groups of all ethnicities have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. Many of the towns and cities worst hit by Covid-19 are on the doorstep of incredible landscapes, but engagement is low. The pandemic has drawn attention to the health benefits of regular access to green spaces and of a deeper connection to nature.

Anyone who doubts that the countryside has much more to do on engagement would do well to read a blog by the earth scientist Dr Anjana Kathwa for the Council for National Parks. The future of farming after the pandemic and after Brexit must be very different to the past. Diversification of practice will need to be matched by diversification of culture if the general public are to be expected not only to put their money into the countryside’s public goods but also prioritise support for domestic farming within future trade deals. There will certainly be no shortage of alternative and very popular uses for public money as the UK recovers from the pandemic, nor of other priorities in trade talks. The future of farming really is a choice between diversity or decay.

Alicia Kearns: Levelling up must mean protecting our rural communities

6 Aug

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton

This week NFU Mutual released their Rural Crime Report. It is not good reading. In the midst of the worst crisis our nation has faced since the Second World War, our rural communities are being hammered by organised crime.

£54.3 million stolen in 2019, the highest in eight years and a nearly nine per cent increase on 2018.

Agricultural vehicle and land rover theft up by over a quarter.

No region of the UK reporting a decline in the cost of crime. Scotland’s numbers up nearly 45 per cent.

This is a crisis in our rural communities, and it must end. But we need resources, and rural people need to be heard and supported. It’s time to level up on rural crime.

Too often when policymakers, the public and the press think of rural crime, it’s almost idyllic: the stakes often low, thefts the actions of overly boisterous young men, and the impact minimal. But in fact, much of rural crime involves the theft of heavy equipment, the very tools that farmers and businesses rely upon to make their living, put food on our tables and maintain our beautiful countryside. The stakes are anything but low. According to the latest yearly figures from the National Police and Crime Commission (NPCC), over £39 million of insurance claims were made because of crime in rural areas.

The NPCC has documented the sophisticated cloning, exporting and asset stripping of farms by organised crime groups. In my constituency, I know of one case where a tractor left a farm one evening and arrived on the shores of Poland the next. This isn’t your opportunistic likely lads nicking a quad bike for a couple of hours.

This has a real impact on local communities – not just financially, but also in terms of the mental health of farmers. The NPCC says that “being watched or ‘staked out’ is the biggest concern for people living in the countryside.” A local NFU representative said to me recently, “country people feel that they are under siege”.Farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.

But what response have constituents received when seeking help from the authorities? When one constituent had his ATV stolen, the first response from 101 was ‘are you sure your kid hasn’t taken it for a spin’? A local farmer, when he told the operator that several of his sheep were missing, was asked ‘are you sure they haven’t just wandered off?’.

When you have spent your hard-earned money, time, and effort on investing in vehicle immobilizers, the latest CCTV technology, remote tracking, five-lever mortice locks, secure compounds for fuel and remote tracking and cyber tech, only be assumed to be careless when you first ring the police, how can you help but feel anything but disenfranchised and defeated. It’s frankly galling.

Our Conservative Government is making record investments in police capacity, but this must be used to tackle rural crime properly too. We can’t afford not to. We are living in a pandemic, where farmers and businesses have already been clobbered by the drop in food prices and in consumer demand. The costs of crime, the burglary of the very tools that farmers and rural businesses need to survive, will hurt our communities harder than ever and hamper our recovery.

We can’t allow the gangs and organised criminals any more leeway. This will take investment, yes, but it also takes planning from every level of Government to fight this issue.

We need to learn from how we tackle serious organised crime, and county lines and adapt it for rural crime. What would this look like?

  • We need to incorporate the Plant and Agriculture National Intelligence Unit into our policing efforts so that the latest tracking data can be brought to bear.
  • We need to level up and standardise our approaches to rural crime across the UK so that every part of the country gets a comparable level of service.
  • We should invest to make sure that the UK Border Agency can play a more active role in rural crime. When the proceeds of crime can end up in mainland Europe, co-ordination is essential. We must ensure that large machinery stolen on a Monday doesn’t end up across the Channel on a Tuesday.
  • We need to invest in 111 operator training so that complaints about serious rural crime are taken seriously. This training should also include updated Home Office and police guidance on how to best respond to rural threats. I am strongly encouraging the Government to also consider how the review into Police and Crime Commissioner powers can better serve rural communities.
  • We need to invest heavily in mental health in rural areas and think seriously about how we can best support victims. The NHS Long-Term Plan’s £2.3 billion for mental health is an excellent start, and some must go to improving services in rural areas.

The Government has already made landmark commitments to tackle crime, with 20,000 more police officers, a 2.5 per cent pay-rise, and targeted local investments. We have the momentum to truly transform rural policing, and rural lives, for the better. As we level up the nation, we must also level up on our approach to policing and protecting rural communities. I look forward to working with our strong Home Office and Justice Ministerial Teams, as well as our strong contingent of rural MPs to get justice for our communities and stamp out serious organised crime in our countryside.