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ANDREA Leadsom, the Secretary of State at Defra, made her debut before the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) last week, to talk about Defra's priorities, preparing to exit the EU and the future of UK agriculture policy. Sadly, her answers to the MPs on the select committee did not shed a great deal of light on what might happen during and after Brexit, although they did say a lot about where we are now. In particular, they confirmed what many suspected soon after the EU referendum result was known, namely, that no one in government had prepared for the outcome. Asked specifically about how much work Defra had done in preparation for Brexit before she took over as Secretary of State, Mrs Leadsom replied that work had begun ‘the day after the referendum’. This, she told the committee, put Defra in the ‘top three’ government departments in terms of preparedness.
While reluctant to give a ‘blow by blow account’ of what the Government was doing, and conceding that there was much to do, the Secretary of State was confident that Defra was well placed to take advantage of the opportunities provided by Brexit. ‘We have a significant programme that is assessing the issues that we need to address as we leave the EU,’ she told the MPs. ‘I can absolutely assure the committee that my department is motoring; it is really getting on with the job.’
One might have hoped that, by this stage, the Government might have got a little further than assessing the issues that need to be addressed but, that aside, Mrs Leadsom answered questions on a wide range of topics, some of which directly concerned the veterinary profession.
Asked about animal welfare, and what role it might play in Britain's agriculture and trade policy in the future, Mrs Leadsom said that animal welfare was ‘a real unique selling point’ for the UK, along with food safety and food traceability, and that she would be promoting ever higher animal welfare standards as part of its ‘selling pitch’ to the rest of the world. The Government, she said, had a manifesto commitment to ensure that the food we import, as well as the food we export, meets certain standards. ‘As we seek to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries around the world, and as we expand our activity in exports and we start to look at imports, it will be absolutely vital that we maintain high standards, not just for the sake of animal welfare but also for the sake of not leaving ourselves uncompetitive on a world stage.’
Asked whether the UK had the veterinary capability to deliver the regulatory standards required in relation to red and white meat exports, she said that the UK's science and veterinary capability was ‘extremely high’. In this, as in other areas, Defra was looking at all aspects of the implications for resourcing and for ‘gearing up in certain areas and doing less in other areas’. It was making progress all the time, and she was ‘absolutely confident’ that it had the right work programme in place to address such issues.
She was similarly confident that Defra had the expertise and resources required to deliver on Brexit while meeting the department's ambitions for farming and the environment. ‘For my department, 80 per cent of what we currently do is pretty much determined by the EU. If you like, there is now an opportunity to think creatively; to look at things that are real bugbears that do not work for the UK. What could we do better that would really improve the environment or animal welfare in the UK that we have been unable to do previously?’ The prospect of Brexit, she said, ‘has unleashed a level of enthusiasm that, together with the existing expertise, is really quite a delight to behold.’
At the same time, she acknowledged that there might be areas where more or different types of expertise might be needed, and said that the Department for Exiting the European Union was looking at that.
Asked about biosecurity and the UK's ability to respond to disease outbreaks, the Secretary of State said that Defra had maintained the number of vets involved in disease detection, preparedness and control, and was ‘absolutely committed to the existing strength of our biosecurity commitment’. However, she would not be drawn when answering a question on whether budgets would be protected, suggesting that that was like asking ‘Will the sun shine tomorrow?’
A number of other matters were discussed at the EFRACom meeting, including the relationship between agriculture and the environment, deregulation, how Defra is working with the devolved administrations in relation to Brexit, and what sort of trade deal the Government is aiming for. Mrs Leadsom would not be drawn on whether Britain planned to stay in the single market, simply stating that it would ‘continue to trade with the EU, and we will be looking for an arrangement that works for all of us in the best possible way for the UK’. She emphasised that the Government was fully aware of the importance of the food and farming sector to the UK economy, twice noting that it was ‘bigger than cars and aerospace combined.’
It was clear from her appearance before the EFRACom that the Secretary of State has every confidence in the work being done by Defra as the Government motors towards Brexit, and also feels confident about the eventual outcome. Others might feel happier if the destination was clearer and they could perhaps have a glimpse at some sort of map.
▪ The EFRACom meeting was on October 19. A video and transcript are available at www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2015/work-of-defra-evidence-16-17. Accessed October 26, 2016