Defra Ministers responded to questions from MPs in the House of Commons this morning – we summarise the highlights.
Nick Smith, MP for Blaenau Gwent, pressed Farming Minister George Eustice on the issue of seasonal labour, asking for a decision on a new scheme to be made ‘as a matter of urgency’.
Margaret Ferrier, MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West; Helen Whately, MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent; Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge and Mike Weir, MP for Angus, all raised similar concerns.
The Minister responded by saying farmers would be able to source the labour they need from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria up until the point of Brexit, but said Defra was ‘listening carefully’ to representations on the issue.
The Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, also claimed it was ‘just not true’ to say people are reluctant to come to the UK because ONS figures showed there were more migrant workers arriving from the EU than ever before.
Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant asked the Defra Secretary for assurances farmers would still be able to access EU markets after Brexit.
He was told the Government was working to make sure the UK gets the ‘best possible deal on market access for our agri-food sector’.
Mrs Leadsom also assured Chris Davies, MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, that Welsh lamb, not New Zealand lamb, would be ‘at the heart of any negotiations on free trade agreements’.
In response to a question from Sir Desmond Swayne, MP for New Forest West, Mr Eustice said he wanted to ‘maintain and secure’ preferential trade agreements with developing countries after Brexit.
He cited sugar from the Caribbean as an example of food he wanted the UK to continue buying – though he also said the sugar industry in this country has a ‘great future’ when giving an answer to a different question from Robert Jenrick, MP for Newark.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Torfaen MP, asked the Secretary of State for confirmation farming powers would be devolved after Brexit.
She said: “In the Great Repeal Bill we will be bringing all the acquis communautaire [EU rules] into UK law. We in the UK will then be in a position to look at what works best for the UK.”
Scottish Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing was also taken to task by Mrs Leadsom for claiming there was ‘radio silence’ on matters of importance during their recent meeting.
She said: It was a private meeting. In fact, the agreement was that we would not talk openly about the level of discussions. I found our meeting helpful. We made some progress and got a clear way forward. Such discussions need to take place, and I look forward to more of them in the future.”
The new shadow Defra Secretary, Sue Hayman, and MP for Stockton North, Alex Cunningham, pressed the Minister on food prices, asking what the Government would do to protect people who were ‘dependent on cheaper EU food products’.
Mr Eustice responded by saying food prices spiked in 2008 and have fallen 6 per cent since 2014, adding the amount the poorest spend on food has remained ‘remarkably stable’ over the past decade.
North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham asked for assurances poultry producers would not lose their free-range status as a result of bird flu.
No such assurance was given, but the Secretary of State said she had taken ‘extensive scientific advice’ on how to keep the disease at bay in response to Mary Glindon MP’s concerns about a ‘postcode lottery’.