Leaving the EU represents a great opportunity for the rural economy because we will be free to design from first principles policies that really deliver for our own farmers and our own rural communities, without having to accept a centralised, one-size-fits-all policy set by the EU.
Happy birthday to you from me, Mr Speaker. President-elect Trump spoke last week of the UK securing a very quick trade deal with the US once it has left the EU, which has led to fears that that could mean harsh compromises on issues such as the environment, animal welfare laws and food safety. Will the Secretary of State today reassure the House and people across the United Kingdom that any trade deal with the US will not involve such compromises, which would jeopardise our food safety and animal welfare laws? Will she reassure us that she understands that a very quick deal is not necessarily the same as a very good deal for the consumer or the producer?
The Secretary of State made it clear earlier that the Conservative party is the only party that made a commitment to reflect animal welfare standards in trade negotiations, and that remains a commitment of the Government. There are opportunities for our agricultural sector in the US, particularly in sectors such as dairy, and possibly in sectors such as lamb as well. My colleagues in the Department for International Trade will obviously lead on these matters once we leave the European Union, but there will be potential opportunities for UK industry as well.
In his visit on Monday to Gryffe Wraes farm, which I visited last week, the farming Minister will have heard many Brexit concerns, one of which is about the potentially catastrophic impact on Scotland’s rural economy of ending free movement. At the Oxford farming conference, the Secretary of State hinted at some relaxation of that for the agri-sector. Can the Minister elaborate on that and assure the sector that taking on seasonal workers will not be a costly bureaucratic nightmare?
I had a very constructive meeting with members of NFU Scotland on Monday. We had a meeting for almost two hours, where we discussed a range of issues that are of concern to the industry, but also some of the opportunities that we have. As we move forward, we will work closely with all the devolved Administrations and with industry throughout the UK. When it comes to labour, we have heard the representations. We will be looking at those issues. It is a Home Office lead, but we are contributing to that debate.
Can my hon. Friend assure me that, when he makes his assessment of the impact on farming of leaving the EU, he will actually listen to the farmers and not the so-called experts from bodies such as the National Trust, who seem to be intent on following their own agenda, with scant regard for the farmers who are trying to make a living on the hill farms in High Peak and across the country?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that, having grown up on a farm and worked in the farming industry for 10 years, I will be very much listening to farmers and their views, and wanting to learn from their experience. We will be listening to everybody as we develop future policy.
We hear the reassurances that Ministers give about seasonal agricultural workers, but my hon. Friend will be aware that a great many farms and rural businesses rely on EU workers as part of their regular staffing requirement throughout the year. Will Ministers bear in mind the very real labour shortages that exist in much of the countryside as they discuss with ministerial colleagues how we tighten our immigration controls?
One of the things that I ran on my own farm was a very large soft fruit enterprise, where I had experience of employing over 200 people, so I am familiar with the challenges that certain sectors in agriculture bring to me. We are in discussion with a number of the leading players in this area to try to get an understanding of their needs, and it goes without saying that we are in discussion with colleagues in other Departments.
In Tuesday’s debate, the Secretary of State mentioned that a Green Paper on the long term for the environment and the rural economy is forthcoming, but given that we have been promised that no powers will be repatriated to Westminster from the EU, does she agree that it is obvious that any new rural framework should be the responsibility of the Scottish Government?
These issues are very much a matter that we will be discussing with all the devolved Administrations as we move forward. The Prime Minister made that absolutely clear in her excellent speech earlier this week. We are going to discuss this right across the UK and agree what the right UK approach should be.