Tories may pay a high price for farming betrayal - Andrew Arbuckle

Eleven days ago there was a major upset in the political world in the constituency previously held by Conservative MP Owen Paterson, former UK Environment Minister.

Paterson had found that his MP’s salary of £80,000 plus per annum was insufficient and had arranged an additional £100,000 a year consultancy to help him make ends meet.

There were shouts of sleaze but after brazening it out, Paterson stood down thus causing a by-election. However, when the architect of the successful Liberal Democrat campaign was interviewed after the new MP was announced, the surprising revelation was that sleaze was not a major factor in the electoral upset.

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Hidden among concerns on the state of the health service and poor communications, one of the issues that was important to voters in the largely rural constituency of North Shropshire was the damage that is likely to happen to the farming industry, as a result of the UK’s headlong dash for trade deals. The survey and the by-election came before last week’s revelation that the trade deal with Australia alone would take more than £10 million away from farming.

Small wonder that farmers in that rural constituency expressed the view that they had been lied to in the 2019 election.

Now that is noteworthy that farming policies played a significant role in the by-election tsuami as it is seldom that a problem facing the farming industry is sufficiently significant on the wider political stage. This reality occurring despite the best efforts of the farming Unions north and south of the Border to raise farming issues at every opportunity.

Earlier in December, the Scottish NFU highlighted a number of issues that remained unresolved following the Brexit split from Europe. Topping the list was the continuing sore brought about by a shortage of labour.

For many non-politicians there is a simple solution to there being a shortage of workers in abattoirs or in harvesting vegetable crops and that is to allow more workers into this country on a temporary basis.

But for politicians who may have been busy organizing their Christmas parties, or work gatherings as they are known by our elected representatives, this would break the spirit of Brexit and should not be allowed.

Jonnie Hall, the Scottish NFU head of policy, said that leaving the EU and the Single Market had created production, harvesting and supply chain issues across many sectors because of permanent and seasonal labour constraints.

He added there were meat sector processing challenges around staffing levels and said these were felt most acutely by those in the pork industry. Hall then confirmed the pain brought about by there not being sufficient workers was being felt across the farming spectrum. “For the dairy, pig and poultry sectors, finding permanent staff has become increasingly difficult following our departure from Europe.”

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The Christmas/New Year time has traditionally been used by farmers to refine their plans for the coming year but this year many have already made decisions to cut their production back with so much uncertainty around.

As the year progresses expect to see fields left fallow, pig fattening sheds lying empty and polytunnels taken out of production.

The net result of this shrinkage in output is a reduction in the level of food exports from this country. The Food and Drink Federation released figures last week highlighting the fact that in the first nine months of this year, food exports were down by £2.7 billion, some 15.9 per cent down.

The loss of business in important markets such as Germany, which is down by 44.5 per cent, illustrates the current situation. Exports to Italy are down by 43.5 per cent with Spain down 50.6 per cent while UK exports to Ireland, the UK’s biggest overseas market, have fallen by more than a quarter since 2019. This drop in trade across the Irish Sea represents almost nearly £0.75bn in sales.

The farming industry is shrinking day by day.

So far, the politicians are turning a blind eye to the growing problem and appear to be more interested in partying.

But the lessons of North Shropshire by-election are clear and could be repeated in order to give the aforementioned politicos a good skelping in the ballot box.

Politicians have long professed their support for farming, underlining its key role in society, but the time has come for a long and hard look at reality.

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