Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The quest for a Brexit settlement

Until we finally achieve a settlement to the current political crisis regarding our exit from the European Union, it is impossible for politics to fully move on and address the many other issues which are in need of attention. So, however much everyone is weary from the argument, it must continue until a conclusion is reached and the reconciliation of our divided country can be secured.
My view has long been that we must deliver the referendum result, but that the type of partnership we put in place after we have left should also address the concerns and anxieties of those who fear change and voted to remain. The 2016 referendum result was clear but, at 48 to 52 percent it was also close. People collectively voted for a clear but slightly cautious and apprehensive step away from the EU. We should recognise that Greenland voted to leave the EU in the early eighties by exactly the same margin and they managed to do it, so why are we finding it so hard? We should also recognise that in the 2016 referendum, millions of people voted for the first time in their lives. 
Since resigning from the government two months ago, I have been arguing strongly that we must be willing to walk away from the EU without an agreement in the first instance if necessary. You cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless you have the courage to walk through the door. There is a strong case for taking our freedom first and talking afterwards. If the EU knew that we were serious about leaving, then it would change the nature of the discussion. 
There were two legitimate courses of action that the Government could have taken after the 2016 referendum. The first was to decide to plan from the very beginning on the basis that we would likely leave the EU without an agreement as a “third country” and then allow a new partnership to evolve after that point. However, if the Government was unwilling to leave without an agreement because it feared for the implications for Northern Ireland or the possible risks to the economy, then they needed to recognise from the beginning that we would have to make significant compromise with the EU and that in turn would have required the government to seek a cross party consensus. The problems we have at the moment are largely because the current Prime Minister has failed to choose either course with clarity. 
In the next two weeks we must redouble our efforts to identify where that consensus lies and get a cross party settlement within parliament about the type of approach we want and then we will have the mandate needed to nail down a final agreement with the EU. If it turns out that the PM cannot command a consensus for her own Withdrawal Agreement or a variant of it, then I have been pushing an alternative plan b, namely that we simply rejoin the European Free Trade Associating which we founded in 1960 as an alternative to political integration in the EU. It could be delivered in a matter of months, would give us control of agriculture and fisheries and an independent trade policy but we would agree to align some of our technical standards to reduce problems at border crossings. I have been making the case for this alternative in recent weeks, and it’s time may yet come.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

A new Bill to protect Hares

As we approach Easter, there is still precious little change in the ongoing Brexit saga. However, since it is Easter, I have been working on a new Bill to be put before Parliament that would help to protect hares during their breeding season and prevent so many baby hares from being orphaned and left to perish. 
My forthcoming Hares Preservation Bill aims is to introduce a close season on the killing and taking of hares during the breeding season. This is predominantly an animal welfare issue in that dependent baby hares (leverets) are left to starve if their mother is shot. However, there are also some concerns about our Brown Hare population which is coming under pressure from disease at the moment. 
The need for a close season was actually recognised by our Victorian forebears. In 1892 they introduced the Hares Preservation Act which established a close season but did so by having a prohibition on the sale of hares. In those days a ban on sale was seen as the most enforceable option since there was no wildlife licensing regime nor licencing authority in the way we have today through Natural England. Also, there was no refrigeration nor freezer technology and most hares were in fact killed to be eaten in an era when food was less plentiful. However, the 1892 Act no longer works to deliver its intended purpose since hares are not typically to be found hanging in markets these days and are shot for sport rather than food. 
My new Hares Preservation Bill would provide a long overdue update to this 127 year old law. It would simply introduce a modern close season consistent with that which we already have on other mammals and birds in legislation like the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. There would be a prohibition on the killing and taking of hares during the breeding season. The breeding season in the 1892 Act was deemed to be from the 1st March to the end of August, however, there is some evidence that a February to August period might be more appropriate and we will consider this during the passage of the Bill. 
The Bill would recognise that there could be some circumstances where, in very local situations in parts of East Anglia, hares could cause damage to crops so it would also make provision for Natural England to be able to licence localised culling within the breeding season if the hare population were judged to be a serious threat agricultural crops or land. However I would envisage this power being used very sparingly. 
Finally, the Bill would also repeal the outdated 1892 Act since a ban on selling hare meat when it may, for instance, have been in a frozen game pie, no longer makes sense in the modern age especially once it has been replaced with a modern close season that delivers the original purpose more effectively. 
Our Brown Hare population has been placed under pressure from many threats including diseases and the switch to earlier mowing of grass to make silage rather than traditional hay meadows. There is also an animal welfare issue since orphaned leverets are abandoned to starve when their mother is killed. As long ago as 1892, the Victorians recognised that it was essential to protect hares during their breeding season but and an update in the law is long overdue. It is shameful that we do not currently have anything effective in place when even the Victorians took this seriously. 

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Post-Brexit immigration plans will leave us short of key workers

Before going into politics I worked in the farming industry growing vegetables and strawberries. I therefore fully understand the challenges facing farmers at a time when we have record low unemployment and labour shortages. This week I tabled a motion in Parliament calling on the government to immediately convert its planned pilot scheme into a fully operational Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme by 2020. Not only would this address the urgent nature of the current labour shortage facing the agriculture sector, it would show that we are willing to be open to non EU countries and allow people to come here on short stay working visas.
I campaigned to leave the EU and I want us to have an independent immigration policy but with our new freedom comes the responsibility to get it right. We should think of the cleaners working late tonight, the care worker who will help your grandmother start the day tomorrow or the farm workers who have been out in the rain to put fresh vegetables on our tables. Do we value these people and the work they do? 
We should, but sadly the message from the Home Office is they don't. They envisage a post Brexit immigration policy where so called "low skilled" people, who have fewer formal qualifications and are on lower incomes will not be allowed into our country. Instead they only want what they term the "brightest and the best", people like them who went to university and are on a big salary. Under the approach, Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s own father would have been denied entry to our country. That's indefensible. 
One of the achievements of the Conservative led government after 2010 was its success in creating jobs. Levels of employment are at record levels but businesses across many sectors report real challenges recruiting staff. We have no shortage of under-employed graduates. What we lack is enough people willing to do hard graft and any coherent policy must recognise this. 
The Home Secretary has been badly advised by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). It is a panel of narrow minded economists. Not one of them has ever run a business nor created any wealth. Therefore to turn things around, the first thing we need to do is shut down the current MAC and replace it with a new advisory council made up of serious people in business with real experience of employment. 
Secondly, the government should convert the planned pilot on a seasonal agriculture workers scheme into a fully-fledged one. We successfully ran a scheme from 1945 to 2013 so what's the point of a pilot? Finally, the government must make clear that when we leave the EU and free movement ends, we will open up an appropriate provision for Tier 3 work permits for lower skilled and lower income occupations since this is where there is a shortage that needs to be addressed. 
People voted to take back control of immigration but they didn't vote to pull up the draw bridge and they certainly did not vote to give preferential access to the wealthy or those on big salaries so it is time for a rethink about immigration policy. 

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The UK can’t accept backward US food standards – or chlorinated chicken

Measured by import value, the UK market for food is the third largest in the world. Everyone seeks access to it, including the US. I believe in open markets and want us to have an independent trade policy. However, if the Americans want to be granted privileged access to the UK market, they will have to learn to abide by British law and British standards. 
In the UK, we have built one of the most sophisticated and discerning markets for food in the world. Consumers have become more informed and show more interest in the provenance of their food and how it is produced. The British retail sector has contributed to building a strong brand around provenance and standards. Regulators have also made sure that we strive for the highest standards of animal welfare and food safety in the world. 
However, agriculture in the US remains backward in many respects. It retains a position of resisting more information on labels to limit consumer knowledge and engagement. Its livestock sectors often suffer from poor husbandry leading to the prevalence of disease and a greater reliance on antibiotics. Whereas the UK looks to manage disease and contamination risk throughout the supply chain, the US is more inclined to simply treat contamination of its meat at the end with a chlorine or similar wash. 
However, the greatest difference between the British and US farming systems is their attitudes to animal welfare. The UK has legally recognised the sentience of farm animals since 1875 and since then has introduced various acts in 1911 and 1933 to improve animal welfare culminating in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. Put simply, we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. 
In the US, legislation on animal welfare is woefully deficient. There are some regulations governing slaughterhouses but they are not as comprehensive, and there is a general resistance to even acknowledge the existence of sentience in farm animals which is quite extraordinary. 
US consumers have started to drive a change. There has been a growing demand for “natural” beef that has not been treated with hormones. There has also been a growing organic sector. The most important change has been delivered by emerging policies from large companies such as McDonald’s. Steve Easterbrook, a British citizen and the former head of McDonald’s in the UK has developed a suite of policies to promote higher animal welfare on farms supplying McDonald’s. He has since become the global CEO of McDonald’s based in the US and has taken British values of compassion with him helping to drive improvement in welfare on some US farms. 
A modern trade deal is not simply about commerce, it is also about values. One option might be to suggest that the US introduce a similar piece of legislation at federal level to drive the modernisation of its own laws. We could even send British advisers to Washington to help them do it as part of our trade negotiations. 
The international trade secretary understandably wants to talk about opportunities for new industries such as services or digital but, in the court of public opinion, if the choice is between the commercial interests of banks or the welfare of chickens, the chickens will win every time. The sound of clucking chickens will never be far from the negotiating table, tugging at our consciences so we might as well get used to it. We should use the power of the UK to project British values of kindness and compassion in any future trade deals.