With the Liberal Democrats meeting for their virtual spring conference this weekend (12/13 March), agriculture spokesman Tim Farron MP has tabled a motion condemning the recent free-trade deals agreed with Australia and New Zealand which, he says, “sells UK farmers and consumers down the river”.
Here, he sets out why these deals are flawed and what his party believes should be the solution.
Farmers are vital to our future. They protect our countryside and are key allies in the fight against climate change and the ecological crisis, all while producing the food we eat. Yet the government has been taking the sector for granted.
It has rushed to sign new trade deals, but is forgetting farmers in the process. The new deals with Australia and New Zealand aren’t going to help farmers. In fact, the deal with Canberra is going to result in £100m of adjustment costs for the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors, according to the government’s own impact assessment.
That’s hardly a surprise, given that the government’s failure to guarantee standards means farmers are unable to compete with food produced in other countries to lower standards.
Meanwhile, it is expecting farmers to do more with less. While we as Liberal Democrats support the move from direct payments to “public money for public goods”, the current government approach to transition amounts to penny-pinching.
Last December, farmers saw a minimum 5% cut in their basic payments, while the government is expecting them to start doing more environmentally friendly farming practices, alongside everything they’re doing already.
Each year from now on, farm payments will continue to be reduced and only in 2028 will the new Environmental Land Management scheme be fully rolled out.
This approach risks driving hundreds of farms out of business, leaving no one to deliver the new environmental goods.
It is not a fair deal. Having a payment system phased out before a new one is brought in is unfair. Having international trade deals undercut our standards is unfair. And having arbitrary rules that lead to a mass labour shortage and damage business is unfair.
At our party conference I will be presenting a “Back British Farmers” policy motion.
Our paper calls for comprehensive changes to the way the Australian and New Zealand trade deals have been executed.
It calls on government to publish impact assessments and introduce legislation to ensure that future trade deals and imported food do not undermine the UK’s animal welfare and environmental standards.
And it seeks to strengthen the role of parliament in trade deals. Parliament has been all but sidelined as the government has negotiated these deals.
Instead MPs should have much greater say – including scrutinising and signing off agreements, as well as being able to set the mandates prior to talks.