Andrea Jenkyns: Global Britain can lead the way on farm animal welfare standards

13 Apr

Andrea Jenkyns is MP for Morley and Outwood.

Much of the Brexit debate centred on discussion of sovereignty and freedom; the ability to make our own laws that best reflect our own aspirations.

But my belief in sovereignty and freedom from the EU are not abstract constitutional theories. Rather, they open up a host of real and tangible benefits for our nation.

As a lifelong supporter of animal rights, I have consistently championed these newfound freedoms, and Britain’s ultimate ability to drive farm animal welfare standards post-Brexit. There would be no better area to start than to tackle some of the abuses within intensive farming.

As a vegetarian, I do not eat meat. But that does not mean I don’t care about the state of the meat industry: high animal welfare standards are non-negotiable.

Anyone who sees the images of animals whose whole very short lives are confined to factories will surely know there must be an alternative. Spotlights exposing the practices in the intensive farming industry have increased public consciousness of the issue. The success of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver’s campaign that exposed the cruelty of poultry mega-farms led to an increasing rejection of battery-farmed eggs. Scenes of physical abuse of animals and the sheer filth of conditions hit the British conscience hard.

Since then, families have opted more and more in favour of free-range choices with their weekly shop. Though there is certainly a desire for affordable meat, there is a greater appetite for meat that is fairly farmed.

The premise of intensive farming is to minimise the costs involved with “traditional” farming methods – and to fuel an appetite for cheap meat. To achieve this, space and welfare conditions are reduced to the bare minimum and technology is used to maximise yields beyond natural limits.

Yet animals should not be treated as a mere cog in a factory. There is a high welfare cost that intensive farming fails to include in the equation.

I am pleased that this Conservative Government, led by Boris Johnson, is committed to raising standards and bringing forward wide-ranging Animal Welfare bills in the new parliamentary session. Free from the restrictions of the EU, this Government can lead the way, forging a new and ambitious path to end many of the most barbaric practices of modern intensive animal farming.

From this, there are calls on the Government to consider policies surrounding areas such as the sale of fur and foie gras, trophy hunting and illegal wildlife trading, live exports, and the illegal puppy trade, among others. As a nation of animal lovers, this Government is listening to concerns with recent developments to end cruel practices.

One issue on which I hope to see a difference is intensive pig farming. In particular, reforms to the use of farrowing crates. According to the RSPCA, there are 10,400,000 pigs farmed in the UK every year. Of these, around 58 per cent of sows give birth in farrowing crates. These crates are similar to the illegal sow stall: a narrow metal cage, often on a rough concrete and slatted floor. Very often the space is so restrictive that the sow cannot turn around, and she can only stand up and lie down with difficulty. The UK rightly banned this practice.

Farrowing crates are only slightly different from sow stalls, having space to the side for the piglets, with bars to keep the sow out of the piglets’ lying area to prevent crushing. Yet tragically, they remain in use. Sows are placed in farrowing crates for up to five weeks around the time of giving birth.

The cruelty of this practice is that by restricting their movement, sows cannot behave naturally to build a nest and get comfortable at birth. The crates keep the sow in place and unable to move away from her piglets when they bite her teats. This has the knock-on effect of requiring piglets to then be tooth-clipped without anaesthetic. The impact of such an environment is that sows become distressed, frustrated and bored, leading to aggression and biting other pigs’ tails.

Clearly this is neither a sustainable nor fair method of farming.

So what can be done? Some countries such as Norway and Switzerland have banned farrowing crates. I know the Government plans to be ambitious in its agenda to raise welfare standards. As such, a range of measures to at last eradicate cruelty within intensive pig farming will no doubt be looked into.

Ultimately, I know that meat-eaters will be happier; conscious that back at the farm, the pig was treated as fairly as possible. Getting meat on the table to feed a family ought not to require pushing pigs to the limits.

Post-Brexit, transforming practices and standards across Britain on the issue of farm animal welfare standards can make our country stand out as a beacon of good agricultural practice. This Government has already made strides towards bolstering animal welfare standards, and it is an arena where we can truly become a leader in the field.

Catherine McBride: Truss must free our farmers and consumers from the EU’s shackles

19 Mar

Catherine McBride is an economist and a Fellow of the Centre for Brexit Policy.

The Department of International Trade’s (DIT’s) latest report on the benefits of trade for UK employment is reassuring. However, if trade is to benefit British consumers, then our markets must be open to import competition allowing the best value global products to be sold here.

While Liz Truss’ department has done a fantastic job signing trade agreements with non-EU countries, too often these deals have simply rolled over EU agreements, and continue to exclude or limit more competitive agricultural products. This means that the UK is still a captured market for EU farmers and food producers.

Use FTAs to facilitate farmers’ natural advantages

The UK is not large enough to supply all of its agricultural needs. It must therefore concentrate its agriculture on products where it has a natural advantage and improve its farm productivity with innovation previously prohibited by EU regulations. In parallel, DIT should be opening up two-way trade agreements with other agricultural producers, not just rolling over EU trade agreements designed to limit agricultural trade.

Meanwhile, British producers should be helping their own cause by developing higher value products and creating recognisable brands. For instance, the UK is a net exporter of milk but a net importer of dairy products. The UK could be processing its surplus milk into value-added dairy products such as butter, yogurt, kefir, lassi or cheese. These products have longer shelf lives and are easier to transport.

The UK could follow the example set by Denmark, Ireland, and New Zealand who export their dairy products globally. This may need some Government marketing assistance, in addition to some trade deals, if a British butter brand is to compete with Lukpak, Kerrygold or Anchor. But with a high quality British product, this would not be impossible.

Similarly Sweden’s ‘oat milk’ brand, Oatly, seems to be lacking competition even though the UK is a net exporter of raw oats. Oatly should be an inspiration to British agricultural entrepreneurs: a Malmo-based company that has capitalised on the growing international market for milk substitutes and is about to list publicly in the US with a value between $5 and $10 billion. The UK also exports a large amount of barley, but exporting Brtish barley, pre-brewed as beer or pre-distilled as whisky, would be a more profitable exercise.

Use most efficient suppliers for necessary imports

While Truss’ speech to the National Farmers Union Conference a few weeks ago was correct that the UK should be targeting the growing middle class Asian markets, Britain is unlikely to be selling these markets any commodity where it is itself a large net importer, such as pork and beef.

The UK is a net importer of roughly 20 per cent of its beef and 40 per cent of its pork – these are areas were the UK should be prepared to open its import markets to non-EU suppliers. According to DEFRA’s annual survey of UK agriculture 2019 , the UK imported a whopping 756,000 tonnes of pork from the EU in 2019, while exporting only 158,000 tonnes in return.

While there is obviously some potential for import substitution, where British farmers supply more of the UK’s consumption, we should also be considering if the huge amount of pork the UK is importing from the EU is the best value available, or if there are more efficient suppliers.

If British farmers demand protection from more efficient suppliers – having grown used to this protection under EU trade barriers – then fixing the total import quantity at the five-year average might quell their anxiety. That would give the UK a maximum import quantity of 530,000 tonnes of pork and 200,000 tonnes of beef, yet still benefit local consumers as imports would move from protected EU production to world prices.

But these import quota limits must be temporary and gradually increased to force British farmers to become competitive in the international marketplace through innovation and farm consolidation.

Furthermore, there will be some obvious two way trade with other agricultural producing countries. The US, for example, exported over 2.1 million tonnes of pork in 2020, increasing their production by over 300,000 tones to supply the increased demand from China after its Swine Flu outbreak. So the US could supply most of the UK’s pork requirements. Yet the US produced only 63 thousand tonnes of lamb in 2019, while importing 120 thousand tonnes of lamb from Australia and New Zealand.

This is good news for British farmers. Lamb is seasonal, so our lamb farmers won’t be competing directly with the antipodeans. And supplying lamb in the spring may suit US seasonal menus better than Australian and New Zealand lamb produced in the American autumn.

Does EU harmonisation serve our farmers?

Truss is right: there are real opportunities for British farmers outside of the EU. But these will also require that the UK is outside of the EU’s non-tariff trade barriers such as their sanitary and phytosanitary regulations.

There is currently an EU-rophile lobby pushing the UK to align with EU regulations by claiming that this will solve the problems created by the ill-thought through Northern Ireland Protocol. Giving in to this lobby would be a mistake. There are much larger markets and much better food suppliers outside of the EU – with both higher quality and lower prices. Trading with these markets would reduce British food bills, increase farm exports, and benefit the economy as a whole.

Any fears that British farmers would be unable to compete in international markets demeans them. If allowed to innovate outside of the EU’s precautionary principle, encouraged to consolidate their farms; and to focus their production on higher value products, our farmers should be able to compete with the best in the world. It is time that the Government let them do so.

Adrian Mason: Brexit offers Welsh farmers great opportunity

18 Mar

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

It is always pleasing to write about positive developments that are happening in troubled times. The opportunities that present themselves to Welsh farmers, now that we have left the European Union, are enormous.

Farmers care for around 80 per cent of Wales’s land area. Agriculture, along with tourism, is the economic lifeblood of the country. What happens to the farming industry will have a profound effect on the future of Wales in the post-Brexit era. If our farmers can prosper, then the benefits for Welsh communities will be significant.

We are at a crossroads. For the last 47 years, Welsh agriculture has been subject to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which allowed farmers to export their produce to the Eurozone tariff free and, in many cases, receive subsidies determined by Brussels. Since January 1st, this has all changed. The CAP no longer applies to the UK. Agricultural policy is now a national issue. The Basic Payment Scheme, the biggest of the rural grants and payments that provide help to the farming industry, will be maintained into 2021. Pleasingly, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) concluded by the UK Government with the EU will ensure the continuance of tariff-free access to the European market for our farmers.

However, whilst there is much to be positive about, there are some worries. Agriculture in Wales is a devolved matter, so the responsibility for the industry resides with the Welsh Government (WG). Setting out its policy in a White Paper for the Agriculture Bill, Wales’s Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths, criticised the historical CAP payments for not adequately supporting efforts to protect the environment and enhance the Welsh countryside. The WG therefore proposes that future payments to farmers should be subject to additional environmental caveats, which are likely to prove onerous. These include satisfying economic, social, and cultural criteria. It is intended that such benefits be secured through the Sustainable Farming Scheme, which is primarily focussed on environmental outcomes.

The scheme is perhaps typical of Welsh Labour’s generally hostile approach to commercial activity, putting ideology before economic reality. At a time of change, the opportunities presented to Welsh farmers should not be constrained by further regulatory burdens of the type proposed by the WG. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of CAP was of the overburdening bureaucratic red tape taking up a disproportionate amount of farmers’ time. Whilst safeguarding the environment is of course important – and farmers are the first to recognise their responsibility for ethical husbandry – there needs to be a balance that does not damage their competitiveness in a world market at this pivotal moment of exciting change.

The WG White Paper comes at a time when there is renewed optimism in the Welsh farming industry. Now the fears and doubts of ‘no deal’ have disappeared, farmers can look forward to the future with certainty and confidence. However, whilst the WG is hatching its plans for burdensome regulation, the agri-industry is getting on with building the future.

Huw Thomas, Political Adviser to the National Farmers Union Wales, comments:

“Brexit uncertainty has meant that many farmers have delayed on-farm investment and development decisions; now that we know what sort of trading relationship we have with our largest export market, I very much hope that farmers will have the confidence to start investing on farm and growing their businesses.  I hope we will see new export opportunities open up for Wales’s farmers, and a return of confidence across all sectors allowing them to invest and plan for the future.”

There is evidence of this renewed optimism on farms all over Wales, though many are still cautious in their approach to the future. There are some shining examples of how the entrepreneurial spirit within the industry has reignited in recent times, and this can surely only increase now we have left the CAP.

Take, for example, the farmer from Corwen, in North Wales who exports 1,000 Welsh lambs to Norway every week and has opened up a supply line to the Middle East. Others are taking the opportunity to diversify from traditional farm produce and are producing quality cheese, yoghurts and butter.

Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) (HCC) is keen to ensure that Wales’s premium lamb produce finds its way to non-EU countries. Currently, around 85 per cent of beef and 92 per cent of lamb goes to Europe. This is the legacy of 47 years of EU membership, which militated in favour of sales within its single market but did not encourage farmers to look elsewhere to export their produce.

However, now the UK Government is free to enter into free trade agreements with other countries, there are now real opportunities to export, tariff-free across the globe. The TCA gives our farmers the best of both worlds, maintaining access to the EU market whilst offering the prospect of new markets elsewhere in the world.

Kevin Roberts, the HCC chairman, said recently:

“We [also] look forward to building new trade relationships right across the world as we have been for the past few years – lamb exports to the Middle East are growing quickly, and there’s huge potential in North America, Asia and elsewhere.”

Indeed, exports to the Middle East, a market worth an estimated £7.8 billion in 2019, have increased ten-fold. Whilst still modest, the potential for Welsh farmers is enormous. Welsh lamb can now be found on the shelves of three supermarket chains in Qatar, for example, and is exported to Japan and Canada. And whilst Welsh farmers would find it difficult to compete with New Zealand on quantity, the USP for Welsh lamb is its premium quality. HCC is taking enormous strides in promoting Welsh meat into the global marketplace.

Whilst it is still very much early days in our post-Brexit journey, there are positive signs that this new era will bring with it fresh opportunities for Welsh farmers and others in the agricultural industry. The only caveat to that, as always, is the attitude of the Welsh Labour Government, who are seemingly hell-bent on replacing the EU’s onerous regulations with their own.

The WG should take the opportunity to deregulate the industry to allow our farmers the scope to engage in entrepreneurial schemes which will further diversify and expand Welsh agriculture. A ‘light touch’ approach, within reason, would free our farmers from non-productive paperwork, allowing them more time to use their expertise in positive ways. This will be good for, not just the Welsh economy and the land, but also the environment generally. Such an approach is more likely to achieve the objectives set out in the Agriculture Bill, rather than imposing a raft of rules and regulations.

What matters to me, as a vegetarian, is less detail than vision – one of a long journey towards a better future.

9 Mar

As someone who hasn’t eaten meat for 18 years (albeit I have been pescetarian for some of this), I was delighted by two recent stories in the papers. The first was that the Government plans to ban imports of foie gras with its new Brexit freedoms. The second was that pig farmers will be banned from confining sows in cages. At present they are allowed to keep thousands of sows for up to seven weeks in narrow metal cages before and after giving birth.

Personally I find the practice of making foie gras, and the idea of caged pigs, horrible. But I know not everyone is as excited about the measures to tackle them. Currently, Britain imports an estimated 180 to 200 tonnes of foie gras a year, which shows how much demand there is for the product, and some farmers say the ban on cages for sows will result in them crushing piglets. There will be arguments about whether Britain should dictate imports in this way. Where does it end? And so forth.

These are all reasonable concerns. But I have to confess that if someone wanted a long debate about these points I would have a limited amount to say. Do I know what’s best for pig farmers? No. Or whether the foie gras import ban counts as evidence of the “nanny state”? No. Like anyone else who shares my views on meat, I see things through an idealistic, rather than technical, lens; a move towards a wider, long-term goal. I simply believe that societies (that can) should phase out eating meat and using animal products, and support changes that take us closer to that idea.

I know what you may be thinking at this point. “Phase out meat! Are you mad?” That or “Have I stumbled onto the Extinction Rebellion blog?” I don’t tend to broadcast my views on animal rights because they are quite “radical”. I also don’t want to lecture people because of that stereotype, captured by the joke: “How do you know someone is a vegan? They’ll tell you”. Although I find the opposite is true, as most veggies want a quiet life, while others ask repeatedly: “why don’t you eat meat?”. Perhaps we should all say that we “just love rescuing things”, as Meghan Markle said of her chickens while talking to Oprah.

Luckily the Veggie Crew, as I shall shorten it, hasn’t needed to be too preachy in recent years as there are now so many dietary options and there’s been a huge cultural shift towards *whispers it* veganism. It’s now cool to do veganuary (well, I think so at least) and if you tell a dinner party host you’re vegetarian, you’ll find others coming are too. The speed at which these things have happened is amazing, with so much choice for Team VC.

Choice does take me back to the Government’s import ban, which I want to make one point on. I do agree with the direction it’s gone in given how cruel the aforementioned practices are, but as a general rule I don’t believe you can force attitudes to meat/ animal rights. For instance, was it really a good idea for universities to ban meat from campuses? It’s surely counterproductive as no one likes being told what to do, and they might rebel by way of a McDonald’s splurge. Just make everyone watch Babe is my solution.

That being said, one reason the Government has enacted these policies is to send a strong message on post-Brexit Global Britain. Militant Remainers argued before and after the referendum that Brexit would be a “race to the bottom” for animal welfare, but the Government can now show that’s wrong. As a Brexiteer, I never believed in those scare stories anyway, because of the enormous shift we’ve seen in dietary habits.

Either way, I am excited to see Conservatives show how much they care about animal rights. Sometimes these areas are portrayed as “woke” ones, but I believe they are important steps – not least for the economy (it’s fantastic to have all this choice). Fundamentally it’s not really a “policy” thing for Babe lovers like me, though; it’s one of a long journey towards a better future.

Shanker Singham: Breaking the Gordian knot of agricultural trade negotiations. How the TAC has risen to the challenge.

2 Mar

Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere. He is a former adviser to Liam Fox when he was Secretary of State for International Trade, and to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Agricultural trade is one of the most difficult areas to negotiate, and has long been the bugbear of international trade negotiations. The lack of liberalisation in developed country markets has done significant damage to developing countries and is a profound source of friction between developed and developing worlds.

In its report for the Secretary of State for International Trade, the UK’s Trade and Agriculture Commission might have just come up with a way of breaking the Gordian knot of agricultural trade negotiations.

I was privileged to be a TAC commissioner, and while, as commissioners we came to the subjects with very different perspectives, we have, I believe managed to resolve the tensions in a way that makes a major contribution to trade policy. We have done so on a unanimous basis – a credit to my fellow commissioners and our chairman.

The heart of the TAC report’s import policy contains an innovative proposal that attempts to simultaneously promote a trade liberalising agenda in agriculture, while at the same time protecting the UK’s high standards in food production and ensuring the UK fully complies with WTO rules on animal and plant health, as well as technical regulations that apply to food trade.

This proposal includes a mechanism to deal with some of the most difficult issues in agricultural trade which relate to animal welfare, environment and labour rules. The heart of this mechanism is the potential for the application of a tariff in cases where an aggrieved party can show that a trading partner is violating agreed standards in an FTA.

The result of the mechanism is a tariff based on the scale of the distortion which operates like a trade remedy. The mechanism can also be used offensively where a country is preventing market access by the UK as a result of the market distortion, or defensively where a distortion in a foreign market leads to excess exports from that market.

Unlike the UK-EU TCA rebalancing mechanism with which it has some similarities, the tariff would be calibrated to the scale of the distortion and would apply only to the product category in which the distortion is occurring. The advantage of this over a more conventional trade remedy is that it is based on cost as opposed to price and is designed to remove the effects of the distorting activity. It would not be applied on a retaliatory basis in other unrelated sectors.

In exchange for this mechanism, the UK commits to trade liberalisation and, within a reasonable timeframe, zero tariffs and zero quotas. This in turn will make the UK’s advocacy of higher standards in international organisations much more credible, another core TAC proposal.

The TAC report also notes that behind the border barriers and anti-competitive market distortions (“ACMDs”) have the capacity to damage UK exports and therefore suggests a similar mechanism or set of disciplines could be used offensively. Certainly, where the ACMD is being used to protect a particular domestic industry, using the ACMD mechanism to apply a tariff for the exports of that industry would help, but this may not apply where the purpose is protective, and the industry does not export much.

I would argue that in this case, it would be important to ensure that UK FTAs include disciplines on these ACMDs which if breached could lead to dispute settlement and the potential for retaliatory tariffs for sectors in the UK’s FTA partner that do export. This is certainly normal WTO-sanctioned practice, and could be used here to encourage compliance. It is clear from the experience in dealing with countries that engage in ACMDs for trade or competition advantage that unless there are robust disciplines, mere hortatory language would accomplish little or nothing.

But this sort of mechanism with its concomitant commitment to freer trade has much wider potential application than just UK agricultural trade policy. It could also be used to solve a number of long standing trade disputes such as the US-China dispute, and indeed the most vexed questions in trade involving environment and climate change in ways that do not undermine the international trading system itself.

This is because the mechanism is based on an ex post tariff as opposed to an ex ante one which contains within it the potential for protectionism, and is prone to abuse. Because the tariff is actually calibrated to the cost advantage which is secured as a result of the violation of agreed international standards, it is much more likely that it will be simply limited to removing this cost advantage as opposed to becoming a punitive measure that curbs ordinary trade flows.

It is precisely this type of problem solving and innovative thinking that the international trading system needs as it faces a range of challenges that threaten liberalisation itself and the hard-won gains of the post war GATT/WTO system itself. The TAC report represents UK leadership that has been sought after since the decision to leave the EU. It has much to commend it.

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.