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Leaving the Eu: Negotiations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 10th July 2018.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:31 pm, 10th July 2018

We are having a slight let-off from the hot weather, but it strikes me that we have become a bit of a cliché with our similarities to a Mediterranean country over the past few weeks. We have had incredible weather, we are good at football and we have chaotic politics. In the chaos of the past 48 hours, many things have been revealed, not least the fact that the now former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union spent a grand total of four hours this year negotiating the deal with Michel Barnier. I can inform the House that I have spent more time filling in my World Cup chart than the former Secretary of State spent doing his job.

I want to focus on our countryside and on the production of food. Cumbria and the Lake District won their own world title a year ago this week when the area became a world heritage site. We are very proud of that, and it was clear in the document that the world heritage site status that we were afforded by UNESCO was just as much down to the work of the farmers who maintain the landscape as it was down to the physical nature and the geology itself. It is massively important to recognise that it is not just the landscape that makes our countryside so beautiful, not only in the Lake District but in the dales and all the other beautiful parts of the United Kingdom; it is largely down to the work of our farmers.

The production of food is also of massive significance. I am sure all Members will share my concern that we have seen a massive rise in the amount of food that we import over the past 20 years. In 1990, we imported about 35% of the food that we consume. The figure is now about 45%. As the process of leaving the European Union trundles on, one thing that will undoubtedly have an impact on this country’s ability to feed itself will be the agriculture Bill that we are expecting to see, perhaps before the summer or perhaps shortly after.

It will also massively depend on what kind of deal we get. What situation will we face when it comes to tariffs or no tariffs on our imports and exports? That is why it is right, and respectful of the British people, to decide to engage fully in what kind of deal we get and to object if the Government present us with a shabby deal or if others in the Government wish to have a deal that is even shabbier than the one that the Government are presenting.

I am one of the 6% of Members of Parliament who bothered to go and look at the Brexit impact assessment documents in Whitehall when they were sort of semi-released earlier this year. Obviously I would not leak a single word of what I read—oh go on, since you’ve twisted my arm. One of the things that most struck me was the war-gaming that the Government had done for some rather terrifying prospects. For example, it is worth bearing in mind that, whether we like it or not, membership of the European Union has removed from this place and this country the imperative to debate whether it was right to subsidise food over the past 40 years, but by golly we have, and we will notice if we stop subsidising food.

Over the past 40 years, the average spend of a lower-middle-income household on food has gone down from 20% of the weekly wage packet to 10%. At the same time, housing costs have doubled. If we remove direct payments for farmers and/or if there are tariffs on imports into this country, the reality is that we will see a significant rise in the price of food on the shelves. The wealthiest people in this country spend 10% of their income on food, but the poorest spend 25%. I do not care how anyone voted two years ago or what they think about the Chequers deal, because they should care about impending food poverty on every street in this country. That is likely to be the most worrying aspect of what we get if we have a bad deal.

The Government are mindful of the problem, which is why they war-gamed what it would look like if the EU charged tariffs on UK exports into the single market, but the Government chose not to retaliate with import tariffs on EU goods. I can understand that the Government would do that to protect the interests of the poorest consumers in this country, but UK farming would be thrown under a bus. It would be decimated within a decade. That is why such issues matter. That is why the content of the deal matters. It is not anti-patriotic, anti-democratic or anything of the sort to question the nature of the deal, not based on esoterica about sovereignty or anything else, but based on the hard, visceral reality of whether people in this country can afford to feed their children.