Letter to Kent on Sunday
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s support for the continued support that Kentish farmers will need after Brexit was apposite. After the next general election in 2020, any guarantees on spending commitments for agriculture will be competing with the NHS and many other priorities (Kent on Sunday, 21 August).
What we do know is that both the new senior and junior ministers responsible for farming under the new May administration, Andrea Leadsom (a former Tonbridge Grammar School pupil) and George Eustice, were prime movers in the ‘Fresh Start’ group, which recommended a 1980s New Zealand ‘bonfire of farm subsidies’ in a 2013 policy manifesto document.
The main difference here is that New Zealand is much smaller than the UK and heavily reliant on one sector, dairy, for its farm income and exports, whereas Britain is much bigger, has a far more diversified farm industry, and has increasingly become more import dependent, with now only around 60% of its food supply derived from domestic sources. Hence the urgent need to adopt fresh policies for a more dynamic and innovative UK agribusiness, in crop protection, new hybrid seeds, and animal husbandry.
The other key aspect of the debate is seasonal migrant farm labour, on which many of the UK’s fruit and vegetable farms currently rely. In the run-up to the referendum vote, the now foreign secretary Boris Johnson hinted at a potential ‘special dispensation’ for those temporarily working in horticulture from other EU countries, but since June 23 there has been complete silence on this necessary annual movement of labour.
What is instructive is that in the recent Australian general election, a proposed ‘Backpacker’ tax had to be postponed due to a backlash from farmers and rural voters. Ironically, the largest supplier of such seasonal farm labour to Australian farms is the UK.
Once suggestion from Brexit spokesman and former farm minister Owen Paterson, was that pensioners should be employed a casual farm labourers. As someone who picked berries and hops on Kentish farms when a teenager, it was back-breaking work then, and would likely lead to health and safety concerns for those now in their sixties, such as myself.
Dr Alan Bullion
Lib Dem Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Sevenoaks and Swanley