‘Shortly’ is a long time in politics (and parenting) – NFU Annual Conference update

Posted on: March 6th, 2019

Partner and Head of Agriculture & Rural Business, Derek Walsh, reflects on the recent NFU Annual Conference, and what he thinks is likely to come next in the industry.

It’s been two weeks since the NFU Annual Conference in Birmingham where Michael Gove, Secretary of State for EFRA said that “an announcement on new UK tariffs in a no deal scenario – with specific and robust protections for farming – will be made shortly”. ‘Shortly’ is what my mother would say to me, as a child, when she meant she did not know when something was going to happen – all I came to understand was that shortly meant no time soon.

And yet, I left the NFU conference thinking an announcement on tariffs was imminent. Two weeks later and we still have no news. Did I never learn?

Mr Gove’s reassurance was something of a necessity, given the assembled audience, as just days before he spoke at the Conference there were reports in the media that the UK would apply zero tariffs on imported food. The Secretary of State confirmed from the Conference stage that this would not be the case in the event of a no deal Brexit.

Whilst not providing any specific detail, Mr Gove indicated that tariffs could be imposed on some imported food to protect UK farmers and producers from the possible shock of cheap imports if the UK leaves the EU with no deal. Certain sectors are more likely to be affected than others – for example, beef, sheep, poultry and dairy were mentioned. By highlighting certain sectors that would be affected, it also seems likely, if not probable, that not all food imports that may affect UK producers will be subjected to tariffs. That remains to be seen once the formal announcement is made.

Tied in with the issue of tariffs is the subject of environmental, welfare and production standards of imported food. In this regard, the Secretary of State repeated previous assurances he has made that environmental and welfare standards would not be lowered in the pursuit of trade deals.

The NFU President, Minette Batters, has previously described Mr Gove’s assurances as “warm words” and called for a high-level commission to be convened to make recommendations on how these standards should be protected and future trade deals scrutinised. Mr Gove indicated his support for this proposal. More warm words?

An amendment to the Agriculture Bill has been tabled to include a provision covering the environmental, welfare and production standards of imported food and will be debated when the Bill comes back before Parliament – whether that amendment gets through remains to be seen. At the time of writing, we do not even have a date when the Bill is due back before Parliament.

The question is whether these repeated assurances from the Secretary of State and scrutiny of future trade deals, perhaps by a Commission or Parliament, will satisfy those pressing to protect British producers from being undercut by cheaper imports that are not produced to the same standards as food in the UK.

I expect we will all know… shortly.

On a wider note, I’ve been attending the NFU Conference for almost 20 years and it remains an excellent opportunity to hear from people across the industry on the critical policy issues affecting agriculture. Beyond that are the sector specific updates, and the enthusiasm and innovation on display shows what a vibrant industry it is – but not without its challenges.

Looking forward, big changes ahead are inevitable, but that also provides opportunities for many and could lead to a significant re-structuring of the industry. I expect we will see much more collaboration between farmers and producers, and a common theme across the Conference was technological innovation and data-sharing.

Finally, it would not do it justice to talk about the NFU Conference and not mention the opportunity it provides to meet friends, old colleagues, clients and many more besides, all with a shared interest. Roll on 2020 and see you there.

For more information on the Agriculture and Rural Business sector, please get in touch with the team here.