Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom quizzed by East Anglian farmers
- Credit: Archant
Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom was quizzed on topics ranging from pesticide regulation to post-Brexit labour issues during her long-awaited first official visit to Norfolk and Suffolk.
The cabinet minister attended a 'very positive' farmers' meeting at the regional headquarters of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) in Newmarket, before heading to a similar gathering near Norwich.
Industry leaders recently questioned why the cabinet minister had not visited such an important agricultural region in the nine months since her appointment last July.
But when she finally arrived, farmers attending said they were satisfied with most of her responses to their concerns – although they said some urgent questions remained unanswered.
Ms Leadsom said: 'This is an absolutely key area for food production, so I am really pleased to be here today. The farmers I have met here clearly have a huge amount of experience and they've got a very strong story to tell about the success of the region's farm production and it was a huge pleasure to meet them.'
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When asked what pledges she could make to reassure East Anglia's farmers over uncertainties relating to support payments, access to foreign workers and trade relations after Brexit, she said: 'We've already had very positive discussions on issues around the need for both sides, for the EU and UK, to have continued zero tariff-barrier trade and I am very optimistic about the prospects for that to continue.
'As far as issues around seasonal labour, we will have a review by the migration advisory committee later this year and a consultation with businesses on exactly what the needs are and I did urge farmers today to give me their input on what they feel the current situation is and the emerging position.
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'It is in all of our interests to protect a hugely successful UK food and farming sector, and that is what we will do.'
The issue over seasonal foreign workers was one of the urgent questions raised by farmers at the meeting including Andrew Blenkiron, estate manager at the Euston Estate near Thetford.
He said: 'She asked for evidence that there was a problem. The point we were trying to make, and I think she understood it, was that we are going to need labour for 2019 but we need to get those people in place in 2018. So it cannot wait until after Brexit. That is where we were concerned until we met her here today.
'I thought she had a very good understanding of her brief. Some of the background information she gave us made me think there have been working quite hard behind the scenes.'
Colin Clifton-Brown, Suffolk county chairman for the NFU, said because Andrea Leadsom's future position as an MP and a cabinet minister cannot be assured until after the general election, he preferred to ask her about immediate concerns which she could influence before June 8 – including the 'fiasco' over late and incorrect BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payments, and the EU proposal to extend the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, which currently only applies to oilseed rape.
He said: 'Our number one point was the regulation of neonicotinoids. We have had a temporary ban on oilseed rape, but the problem now is that they want to extend that to field-scale crops and in this region that's is a particular concern for sugar beet and salads. She is aware of the problem, she says, but she didn't give us a concrete answer.
'There is a European Commission vote on May 17 and we have heard the government is planning to abstain on that vote, but she didn't answer that.
'Another issue we talked about was the labour situation, but we felt it was more urgent than Brexit. She said she was aware of it, but didn't believe there was an urgent issue at the moment – but we said it is no use waiting until there is a crisis and we are not able to harvest a crop.'
Another issue discussed was the future of glyphosate, widely used as an agricultural weed-killer, which awaits a re-authorisation decision in Europe later this year amid conflicting scientific reports about its risk as a carcinogen.
Andrew Blenkiron, estate manager at the Euston estate, said: 'We also raised the glyphosate issue, which she was slightly more robust about. She was considerably more supportive on that and talked about the scientific evidence in place that shows it is not a carcinogen.'