Leaving the EU presents tremendous opportunities to develop new agricultural, fisheries and environment policies tailored specifically to the industry and landscape of the United Kingdom, as well as our wildlife, which a majory report this week suggested was under threat. The key priorities must be to grow the rural economy, improve the environment and protect the country from plant and animal diseases.
As I found during my negotiations as Secretary of State for Defra, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has morphed from subsidising production to imposing a pan-European environment policy, which has proved impossible. Many farmers today are struggling with the complexities of implementing the CAP, and we have to endure heavy fines for failure to comply with complex regulations which we voted against.
Under the CAP, our self-sufficiency in food has fallen below 60 per cent, and it should be the priority of any new policy to develop a concerted, national approach to change this. The food and drink sector is Britain’s largest manufacturing industry, bigger than cars and aerospace combined – it employs one in eight people. Many of these jobs are in rural areas, and a UK policy must encourage import substitution and the export of quality products. We must also embrace new technologies, in contrast to the EU, which is rapidly turning into the Museum of World Farming.
The UK taxpayer spends £2.4 billion on public procurement for hospitals, schools, defence and prisons. This procurement must be directed towards UK producers in a manner that is compliant with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. We need also to ensure that farmers have access to seasonal and non-seasonal workers, developing an analogue of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme, attracting skilled labourers from across the world.
The new rural policy must, however, take into account that there are large areas where the landscape cannot generate enough income from food production alone. A tourism industry worth £30 billion depends upon our mountainous regions and national parks being properly maintained, and we must seize the opportunity for a more flexible, independent policy to encourage this. There is a clear role for government subsidies to reward farmers and landowners for the work they do in maintaining and improving these most precious environments.
It is vital to maintain current support from the Treasury to fund a comprehensive rural policy, growing the rural economy and improving the environment.
The Common Fisheries Policy has been a biological, environmental, economic and social disaster. In 2005, I published a Green Paper on fisheries, learning best practice from visits all around the UK, as well as the Falklands and successful North Atlantic fishing nations. I know that by using the very latest techniques our marine environment and fish stocks can be restored. Wealth and prosperity can be brought back to some of the most remote areas of the UK. Fundamental to this would be replacing hated quotas, which have forced fishermen to discard a million tons of healthy fish each year. A sane system would be based on “Days at Sea” and see a return to local control, giving fishermen a long-term stake in the future of marine resources.
Britain has a long history of leadership on environmental policy. We were early signatories of international environment conventions, including Berne and Ramsar, which have since been hijacked by the EU to create pan-European policy.
Free from its grip, we will again be able to adapt the terms of those conventions to our own fauna and flora; we will concentrate our efforts on our most endangered native plants and animals with real vigour, providing a serious response to the State of Nature report this week which highlighted the peril many species are facing.
Being an island gives us an enormous natural advantage in our biosecurity affairs. With the latest developments in technology, we can capitalise on that advantage to develop a modern, robust, responsive system of border checks to predict, monitor, and control the spread of pests and disease to ensure that Britain becomes and remains a haven for healthy plants, crops, livestock and wildlife.
For while global co-operation on environmental matters is essential, global regulation must be interpreted at a national and local level.