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The Government Must Ensure Our Environment Is Protected As We Leave The EU

04/01/2017 09:08
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The holiday season is a time for enjoying good food - sometimes too much food - with friends and family. As we clear out our Christmas trees and look ahead to 2017, we should spare a thought for the farmer who reared the bird or grew our Brussel Sprouts. This year the Government will make big decisions that will determine the shape and cost of future Christmas dinners. A new report from the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, finds that EU has been good for British food, farming and the UK environment. Whatever Brexit eventually means, consumers do not want the Government to negotiate a deal that trades away vital food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards.

Leaving the EU will be the largest administrative and constitutional task since World War Two. Theresa May wants to cut and paste 40 years' worth of EU law - including around 800 pieces of environmental legislation - into UK law. Government cuts mean Defra lost 900 staff in 2014-15, and Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom hinted to us that her department is struggling to cope. She also told my Committee that up to one third of EU legislation that affects food, farming and environmental protection, could be difficult to roll forward into UK law.

That is why, today, in our report, we are calling on the Government to pass a new Environmental Protection Act before we leave the EU, so that our most treasured natural places and wildlife are protected for future generations.

Brexit carries a triple risk for the UK's farmers and environment. They risk losing Common Agricultural Policy subsidies vital to their livelihoods; being exposed to increased competition and tariffs in new trade deals; and the erosion of the UK's world-leading environmental protections.

The EU's Common Agricultural Policy is one of the most maligned EU policies, but subsidies are vital for the survival of many UK farms. CAP payments make up, on average, 50-60% of farm incomes. CAP supports rural towns and villages, environmentally friendly farming, and helps to keep UK produce on supermarket shelves. The government has guaranteed that basic farm subsidies will be paid until 2020. But in a 2007 blog post, before she was elected, Andrea Leadsom argued that farm subsidies should be abolished. When she gave evidence to my Committee she did not resile from her previous position and refused to guarantee that farm subsidies would continue in any shape after 2020.

Those arguing for a "hard" Brexit say we'd be better off leaving the single market and trading with the rest of the world. But our inquiry found this wouldn't be easy for British farmers. If we leave the single market and fall back on WTO rules we might suddenly find tariffs and extra paperwork hitting our farmers and food producers. Almost all British lamb goes to the European Union, but farmers could face tariffs on those exports if we leave the single market. Coupled with the loss of EU subsidies, this could prove catastrophic for farm businesses.

The third risk is that, outside the EU, British farmers could face increased competition from countries like Brazil or India with lower food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards. This could lead to pressure for environmental protections to be watered down in the UK. Brexit Secretary David Davis has said the Government "will do anything necessary" to protect the City from Brexit. We heard concerns that food standards and environmental protections could be negotiated away in trade deals, in return for preferential market access for the UK's financial services sector.

These issues were not debated in the heat of the referendum campaign. The evidence is clear: leaving the EU poses profound risks for the future of our countryside, environment, farmers and rural communities. A new Environmental Protection Act is essential to ensure the health and wellbeing of future generations, and to protect the UK's most precious places, plants and wildlife.

Mary Creagh is the Labour MP for Wakefield and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee

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