After four energetic years as president leading the National Farmers’ Union through one of agriculture’s most turbulent periods, Meurig Raymond is passing the reins to Minette Batters.
Speaking to PB at the NFU Conference, Raymond reflected on the challenges facing food & farming and what he’s going to do now.
Poultry Business: Addressing the Conference, Michael Gove, Defra secretary of state, promised to ensure no trade deals are signed that undermine the British food industry. However, he was unable to give any specific commitments on access to non-British labour. What’s your reaction?
Meurig Raymond: Well it is up to the NFU now to argue the case and make sure he does deliver on the promises he made yesterday. I honestly do believe he is passionate about the industry and he is genuine in arguing the case. In the conversations I’ve had with him he does recognise the need for a non-British labour requirement that is seasonal and permanent because he wants to see the industry grow, he wants to see production and productivity grow and he recognises you can’t do that without people.
PB: Is there still frustration about lack of clarity over exactly what will happen?
MR: Without being too controversial it is about convincing other government departments. Decisions around access to labour will be made around the Home Office and Number 10 but I am confident because [Gove] is making that case very strongly at the Home Office. So are we at the NFU, I’ve had other conversations with Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary. Sadly, the labour issue, the issue around competent labour, is tied up around the immigration debate. We still need to distance the need of competent skilled labour away from the immigration debate.
PB: Access to labour is a major concern for poultry because some processing plants have up to 90% non-British staff.
MB: It’s a concern across all sectors. Whether it is poultry, whether it is dairy farming, where there is the need for permanent, competent staff, in the horticultural sector and in the processing sector whether it is white meat or red meat, all sectors are very dependent on highly competent non-British labour. I do honestly believe Gove does get that. He understands that. And for us as an industry, it is paramount he delivers on the promises he’s made.
PB: Last year at the NFU Conference the secretary of state for Defra was Andrea Leadsom, and she was far more ambivalent about the labour issue and she was open and honest here saying there is a conflict, but Michael Gove appears to be making stronger promises, which is strange because he advocated for Brexit. Do you trust him?
MR: As a secretary of state, I think he recognises the need economically. But he has still got to win that argument around the cabinet table. And his respect in the industry would fall off quite dramatically if he doesn’t deliver on some of the promises he made yesterday but he recognises that.
PB: When will we get a clearer picture?
MR: I wish I knew. I was hopeful we would have had greater clarity yesterday so there is some disappointment about that additional clarity, so we the NFU will be keeping pressure on all government departments to get that information.
PB: You are leaving now as president. What are you going to be doing?
MR: Taking a break to start. Taking a month off. Then probably do a little bit of farming. Become a pain in the butt for the rest of the family. I’d like to think there would be some opportunities to make the case for British food and farming in the years to come. I feel passionate about the industry.
I think there are some great opportunities for the industry as long as the right policies are put in place. So, if there was that opportunity to further the arguments in food and farming I would take them up but it would have to be on a less strenuous basis, a less time consuming than I’ve been involved in the NFU. But I’ve had a fabulous four years as president of the NFU, thoroughly enjoyed the journey, met some wonderful people and I’ve met some wonderful people in the poultry industry.
PB: What does a best-case scenario look like this time next year?
MR: Well this time next year we will be in the process of six weeks of leaving the EU. I think the best-case scenario will be there will be a trade deal agreed with the EU. It’s paramount that trade deal will be free and frictionless, that will be the biggest challenge.
Whether the Prime Minister can achieve a customs agreement which does not have any tariffs or non-tariff barriers, that is the big challenge for government and Europe, our European negotiators. But I am confident that we as the NFU have the professionalism in our Brexit department under Nick Nick von Westenholz, Director of EU Exit and International Trade, who can make the case.
Brexit: what the NFU wants
Key quotes from Meurig Raymond’s address to the NFU Conference in February:
- Brexit must mean British food and farming has access to a competent and reliable workforce which means British farming and food production builds on the £112 billion it already contributes to the economy and supporting jobs for almost 4 million people.
- We must have frictionless trade with the EU. Everything else, including the final shape of any domestic agricultural policy, is dependent on that. And of course, those who advocate a cheap food policy, of scouring the world for low cost food should bear in mind the price paid in traceability, in standards and in the off-shoring of environmental impact.
- We must have a food supply chain which shares the risk equally – rather than piling all the risk onto the farmer.
- British farmers are extremely proud of the standards they adhere to – most of them linked to the Red Tractor, which ensures the very best in traceability. We mustn’t let those standards slip and be undermined by a bad trade deal during Brexit negotiations.
- Britain’s farms need access to the EU market, we need access to a reliable workforce and we need measures to help our food and farming industry be more productive.