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A no-deal Brexit is by far the biggest threat to farming and to our successful food and drink sector. A wealth of Government and independent research concludes that the sheep sector will be worse off in every possible alternative trade arrangement.
It is disgraceful and quite extraordinary that we are so close to 29 March yet still do not know what the tariffs will be. As I understand it, they were supposed to have been published for the past three weeks, but publication has been delayed by the UK Government. It is a very serious point. The sector of farming—and, arguably, of the whole economy—that is most at risk is sheep farming. That is because the EU is a vital export market and, if there is no deal by 29 March, as things stand, we will not even have the legal right to export at all. Even if that right is secured, the tariffs will be above 40 per cent. If the pound depreciates as experts on the economy believe, the combination of the depreciation of the pound and the imposition of a tax of 40 per cent will see a massive loss of market in Europe and a loss of income to primary producers. The saddest thing of all is that Michael Gove understands and agrees with all that, but the UK Government will still not remove a no-deal Brexit from the table. It is not too late to do that and I repeat the First Minister’s call urging the UK Government to do so, not least for the sake of our hill farmers in Scotland.
As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the UK Government confirmed this week that, because of the uncertainty of Brexit, it is unlikely to introduce a change to sheep ageing for the purposes of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies control. Under the proposed new system, sheep producers would have received far greater certainty on the price that they receive from the abattoir for sheep. Will he take the matter up with his good friend Michael Gove, to see whether the UK Government could instead go back to the previous arrangement that the UK Government assured us that it would achieve?
I am glad that Mr Scott has raised this important matter. We have been working with the UK Government to remove the teething test. I am not a farmer myself so I have had to learn about this test, but every single lamb needs to have their mouth opened to check whether their adult teeth have come through as a proxy to tell how old they are. If a farmer has 500 sheep scattered all over mountains and hills, that is not the easiest thing to do.
My colleague Mairi Gougeon has been working with the UK Government on this and we were confident that a scheme would be agreed to remove the need for the test in a way that was perfectly practical and consistent with animal welfare standards. However, in the past few days, without consulting us, the UK Government has said that it will not go ahead with such a scheme. I find that extraordinary and I very much hope that the UK Government will reconsider its approach. In the meantime, we are having discussions with the National Sheep Association and others. I am keen to keep Mr Scott and others advised on how those discussions proceed. There may be difficulties in pursuing a Scotland-alone project in this case; it would be far preferable if there were a UK solution for the matter.