The Royal Norfolk Show 2017: Defra secretary Michael Gove hears Brexit priorities from East Anglian farmers
PUBLISHED: 15:35 28 June 2017 | UPDATED: 18:27 28 June 2017
Environment secretary Michael Gove said he was in “listening mode” to understand the Brexit concerns of East Anglia’s farming community during his visit to the Royal Norfolk Show.
The cabinet minister acknowledged he is “new to the world of farming”, but keen to hear the views of farmers as he was shown the region’s latest agri-tech and science developments at the Innovation Hub, and met local producers in the food hall.
Many of the issues discussed revolved around the nation’s looming departure from the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will demand new policies to be written which will dictate farmers’ ability to trade and compete, the degree to which they are financially supported, and their ability to recruit seasonal migrant workers.
“I’m listening,” he said. “The single most important thing I can do at this stage is to listen so I can be an effective advocate for farming in government.
“The first thing to say is I have friends in Norfolk. I have a friend who farms just outside Great Yarmouth and a friend who farms near King’s Lynn. So I already have some familiarity with the issues.
“The other great thing is that people have been completely candid with me today and I think that their concerns and hopes boil down to a number of specific areas.
“One is what would be the nature of subsidy and support in the future, and as we leave the CAP and as the CAP changes itself, will money be there for environmental support and countryside stewardship? And, if so, what will the criteria be, and will there be other ways that farmers are supported in the valuable work they do? So money is ‘issue one’.
“Issue two is labour. People want a guarantee that they will be able to secure the labour they need in order to make sure our rural economy keeps going.
“One of the things I am determined to do as we fashion a new migration policy, is to ensure the needs of agriculture and the rural economy are at the heart of it.
“I think the third thing I would mention is the opportunities presented by our new trading arrangements. Farmers recognise that as we leave the EU there are opportunities because of the high quality produce that the UK is famous for, and Norfolk in particular is noted for, there is an opportunity to sell more abroad – but we also need to make sure that as we do sell abroad that we do not compromise our high environmental and animal welfare standards.”
Mr Gove, a key architect of the “Leave” campaign during last year’s EU referendum, said Brexit represented a “huge opportunity for British agriculture”, opening up new markets overseas and freeing farmers from the “onerous bureaucracy” of the EU.
He also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to maintain current subsidy payments at their current level until at least 2022, and whatever happened beyond that, he was determined to ensure farmers could compete in international markets.
“Subsidy, if it is applied in the wrong way, can actually make farmers less productive,” he said. “So just because some other countries have subsidies it does not mean they are as productive as we can be.
“We can compete best on quality. The critical thing about British farm produce is that in a world where provenance matters more, where people want to know the journey from farm to fork in intimate detail, Britain is in a very strong position because of the high environmental and animal welfare standards that we maintain.”
Among the farming industry representatives who spoke to Mr Gove were Jon Duffy, chief executive of Anglia Farmers, who said: “I am impressed that he is here in the first place, and that he wants to go out and take soundings on people’s views. He asked questions rather than telling us what would happen.
“I said I would like to see agriculture further up the agenda within Defra, and Defra further up the agenda in Brexit. He listened, and he understood that.”
Shipdham dairy farmer Ken Proctor, Norfolk’s county delegate for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) also spoke to the Defra minister. He said: “I was impressed that he listened to the subjects we were portraying, he took evidence and asked questions, which showed the message was received loud and clear.
“He was saying that Defra is going to be a much more important department in the government now and after Brexit, and I think that is very important.”