Defra Secretary Liz Truss clashed with her Labour counterpart Kerry McCarthy over Europe on the opening morning of the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) after stressing Defra was not working on Brexit contingency plans.
There is no Plan B being developed for farming in the event the UK public votes to leaves the EU in the forthcoming referendum, Defra Secretary Liz Truss has revealed.
Mrs Truss was challenged by UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew at the Oxford Farming Conference to divulge the Government’s plans for supporting farmers if the UK cuts its ties with Brussels.
She dodged the question, instead stressing her immediate focus was supporting Prime Minister David Cameron in his efforts to re-negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU.
“We are pursuing a re-negotiation at the moment to get a better deal for Britain which we are going to put in front of the British people. We will need to see what we get when that referendum takes place,” she said.
Asked whether she would be campaigning for the UK to stay in Europe, she added: “There are clearly big benefits in being part of the EU in terms of access to the single market for farmers.
“There are also big questions to be discussed about bureaucracy, including the complexity of the CAP administration system. There are big costs as well.”
The latest polls suggest the referendum vote, which will take place later this year on in 2017, is in the balance.
But asked by journalists if there was a team in Defra working on a ‘Plan B’ for farming in the event of ‘Brexit’, Mrs Truss added:
“That is not the case. We have teams in Defra working on animal and plant health, environmental improvement, increasing exports and supporting farmers. But we don’t have any team working on that.”
Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy, who made it clear she was campaigning for the UK to stay in Europe, criticised Mrs Truss’ stance.
“I think the question of whether the UK would continue to subsidise farming if we did have Brexit is something the Minister needs to be able to answer. We need to know what the alternative is,” she said.
She said the ‘Yes campaign’ to remain in the EU had so far retained a ‘very narrow focus’ so far on jobs and investment and urged it to look more closely at the implications for farming.
“I think we need to look at the Defra side of it far more and I agree there ought to be a team within Defra looking at it.
She said she had discussed the Europe issue with farmers when she worked in the past for an organisation called Britain in Europe.
“I had a lot of discussions with farmers back then not just in terms of subsidies but the export market as well.
“We also spoke about some of the burdens that the EU imposes on farmers. We need to work out how we can address the issues around bureaucracy and we need to make sure we can get a better deal out of EU membership.
“But on balance it is in Britain’s interest to stay in Europe and it is in farmers’ interest to stay in Europe as well.”
Other key points to emerge from OFC’s political session: