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Farming leaders frustrated at ministerial change during 'critical time for agriculture'

PUBLISHED: 10:48 25 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:29 25 July 2019

New environment secretary Theresa Villiers arriving for a cabinet meeting at Downing Street. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

New environment secretary Theresa Villiers arriving for a cabinet meeting at Downing Street. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

Norfolk farming leaders voiced "disappointment" at a ministerial change during a critical time for their industry, following the appointment of the sixth environment secretary since 2010.

Following new prime minister Boris Johnson's first cabinet reshuffle, pro-Brexit MP Theresa Villiers has replaced Michael Gove at Defra, who has become chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

During his two years as environment secretary, Mr Gove's policy decisions included the publication of the draft post-Brexit Agriculture Bill, which contains his plans to phase out EU farm subsidies in favour of a system of paying farmers "public money for public goods" such as environmental work.

Nick Deane, Norfolk county chairman for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said he was disappointed at the lack of continuity as the farming industry faces up to the challenges of Brexit, but welcomed the new minister to the role with an invitation to visit the county.

He also said highlighted the importance of another key cabinet appointment which saw South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss - another former environment secretary - moving from the Treasury to become international trade secretary.

Mr Deane said: "I'd like to thank Michael Gove for his work as Defra secretary of state. It is disappointing that we are seeing a change of minister at this critical time for agriculture, and the country, but at least Mr Gove goes into his new role fully briefed on food and farming. He understands the serious impact that a no-deal Brexit would have on agriculture.

"South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss has a key role to play in her new position as well, ensuring that our high food, farming and environmental standards are protected in future trade deals.

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"I'd also like to welcome Theresa Villiers to her new role and hope she will be able to visit our region in the near future.

"Her first priority must be to avoid a no-deal Brexit but we look forward to working with her on longer term priorities including tackling climate change, ensuring a fair share of water for food and developing a new domestic agricultural policy that delivers for farmers, the public and the environment."

Ben Underwood, regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) in the East, welcomed the new Defra appointment but also reiterated warnings about the effect of a no-deal Brexit on farmers and rural businesses.

"We look forward to working together to ensure a healthy farming sector can help to meet the environmental challenges we collectively face across our region, while delivering a prosperous rural economy," he said.

"We've noted Mrs Villiers' recent comments on a no-deal Brexit, but we know there are many farmers across the country with grave concerns. Currently 60pc of our food exports go to the EU. Were draconian tariffs put in place, world class British produce would become uncompetitive in our largest market overnight."

Ms Villiers served as Northern Ireland secretary from 2012 to 2016 under David Cameron, having previously served as transport minister.

Writing on her Facebook page, she said: "I feel very honoured to have been asked by the Prime Minister to return to the Cabinet, taking on the role of secretary of state for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"I have championed a number of the issues covered by the department, including animal welfare and improving air quality. My new responsibilities will therefore complement many of my local campaigns in my constituency, such as protecting our green spaces."

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