Neil Parish is the MP charged with investigating 2 Sisters after the undercover filming episode last year. He is also the author of a new report into Brexit that criticises his own party’s handling of the whole negotiation process.
PB spoke to Parish at the NFU Conference in Birmingham in February to find out how he wants the poultry sector to be regulated, what he really thinks of Michael Gove, and how he plans to be a champion for food & farming.
The ICC in Birmingham is buzzing with busy NFU staff, security personnel, and farmers, smart in their city uniform of tweed jacket, open neck check shirt, and clean Chelsea boots.
There is a level of expectation on this first morning because Michael Gove is due to address Conference and since he took up his post last summer, the Secretary of State for environment, food and rural affairs has been attacking his brief with relish.
Neil Parish, the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton is also here. He comes from a farming background and before being elected at the 2010 general election was a dairy farmer in Somerset.
He is chairman of the EFRA Select Committee and is here with EFRA colleagues including Labour MP Angela Smith, to launch and discuss a report about the implications of Brexit for the agricultural sector.
Sitting on a sofa outside the conference hall, Parish is a little flustered. He’s come by car this morning from London, so it was an early start, and his phone, which has a cracked screen, is out of battery. A colleague goes off to charge it and find some coffee.
First, we talk about 2 Sisters. Since the undercover reporting incident last autumn that claimed to show breaches of hygiene regulations at the firm’s West Bromwich cutting plant, Parish has grilled 2 Sisters chief executive Ranjit Boparan over standards in the EFRA Select Committee and has been critical of the way the Food Standards Agency (FSA) enforces standards at meat processing plants.
What is Parish’s biggest concern about how the industry is monitored? “My biggest concern is of the assurance schemes that monitor the meat cutting plants,” he says. “All the inspections are carried out by all the major retailers, and then the information they glean from the inspections are not getting through to the FSA.
“Now to be positive I have spoken to the FSA several times and they are very keen to collate and use the information coming from the major retailers, and retailers like Tesco would be very happy to supply that information to the FSA. So, my argument with the FSA is if you are going to act on intelligence there is no better way of getting that intelligence than through the inspections. It seems a waste of time and effort if you are not going to collate it.”
He is keen to stress he doesn’t ‘necessarily want this information to be made public’, but he does want the FSA to have this information.
“I want 2 Sisters to be A1,” he says. “I want it to be A1 plus, because it is in all of our interests to have a very safe poultry industry. I know lots of farmers in Devon who produce a lot of chicken for 2 Sisters. I want to be sure the consumer receives them in a very good state.”
Many consumers, and indeed many people in the poultry industry, might be surprised to learn the FSA doesn’t already have close ties with the retailers in this way in order to share information.
“There seems to be a slight blockage in communication, partly due to resources in the FSA,” says Parish. “Now the FSA are looking to launch a Food Crime Unit which will look at authenticity of food as well as food safety and through this process they are looking at having all this information and collate it, so I think we are pushing at an open door, but I am surprised it hasn’t happened before.”
Since Parish was critical of the FSA’s processes, there have been a whole slew of meat hygiene investigations, including notably Russell Hume, which collapsed into administration in February with the loss of 300 jobs.
Parish acknowledges his intervention may have played a role in bringing ‘out into the open into the light of day problems that might be occurring.’ But he stresses: “I don’t want to give problems to the meat industry, but I do want the meat industry to be absolutely good on safety, on authenticity, on controls throughout their processes so consumers can have absolute confidence.
“So, I don’t apologise for having the inquiry because I think it’s right. And the FSA has continual monitoring and they have found this now and whether it was to do with our pressure or whether it was the fact they had found that information separately, I don’t know.”
When he was being grilled at the Select Committee last October, Boparan said at one point: “We do not have poor standards. I invite all of you to my factory.”
Parish concluded the session by saying: “What he said today was recorded and is on the record. I accept his word that he will improve and put things right. But God help him if he’s got to come here again and he hasn’t put it right.”
So, has Parish and the rest of the Committee taken him up on his offer to visit a plant yet? “We haven’t,” he says. “We are going to, probably in the early summer. But we haven’t announced which plant and we haven’t announced when and we have a particular reason for that – we want to maintain an element of surprise.”
Although he hasn’t toured a plant with Boparan, he has had some slightly tense contact since the Select Committee hearing. Shortly after Christmas, Parish wrote a public letter to Boparan, which was widely reproduced in the national press, chiding him for sending several members of the Committee unsolicited gifts over Christmas period, something he described as ‘an inappropriate gesture’ and an ‘unwarranted attempt to impugn the committee’s impartiality. I would be grateful if you would respect the integrity and independence of the committee and avoid such gestures in future.’
So what were these inappropriate gifts? “They were biscuits,” he says. “Not a vast value, it’s just I’d rather he hadn’t sent them and I just said please don’t send them in the future. It’s not a massive issue, I’d just rather we’re not sent biscuits. The other members who did receive them sent them to charity so they went to good use. I am not anti-Mr Boparan, but we are a committee of scrutiny both of government and industry so I prefer to play a very straight bat.”
Following all this scrutiny, does he have any concerns about the poultry industry? No, he says. “I think I have got every confidence in the poultry industry. I think sometimes the large retailers keep the cost of processing down to the very lowest and so sometimes the processing is under very great pressure. So, I think we have got to be conscious that as we pay very competitive prices for our poultry meat we don’t push it down too low and put too much pressure on the processors. I did say that to Mr Boparan when he came in and gave evidence because I think there is too much pressure.
“It’s a bit like the Horsegate scenario a few years ago when you had very cheap beef burgers. In the end if they had the right amount of beef in there you couldn’t produce them for that amount of money. So, you mustn’t press things too hard.”
In February, plans to introduce CCTV in abattoirs as a legal requirement reached parliament and if unopposed, will come into force in May. Parish has long spoken out on welfare issues, so it’s unsurprising he is fully in favour.
“I think if you want to reassure public confidence in animal welfare in slaughterhouses, I think CCTV is essential. The costs involved to some of these big plants is not a big percentage and I don’t think it does too much good to complain too much about that because I don’t think they’ll win either the moral or the public argument on that one.”
The other major priority for Parish and the EFRA Committee is Brexit and how it will affect agriculture. Although Parish voted to remain in the referendum, he was one of a group of MPs who supported the idea of giving the British public the right to vote on EU membership.
The big concern is the sector will be sold out for the sake of a trade deal with America, resulting in cheap food produced to lower standards being brought in and undermining British production standards. What does Parish think is going to happen? In short, he doesn’t know any more than anyone else.
“I asked Mr Gove at an evidence session, if the last thing at stake in a trade deal with America was the chlorinated chicken, would he stand up and stop it? He said ‘yes’ he would.”
This is a point Gove reiterates during the course of the Conference, telling farmers “I want to say this in as big and as bold letters as you like. We will not sign any trade deal that undermines British farming.”
That seems unequivocal. But Parish has some doubts. As many others have pointed out, Michael Gove is an ambitious man.
“He’s a very lively chap is Mr Gove and very able,” says Parish. “Do I necessarily see his ultimate ambition in life as secretary of state for Defra? Probably not. He is likely to move on. But you see he could be in a more powerful position so as long as he takes his same views with him to his new role, that food and farming is to protected then that could only be of benefit.
“We are mindful there is the City of London, there is financial services, there are all the service industries that are very powerful. But also the food industry is necessary for this country. We employ one in eight people in the industry and food processing as well as food production is hugely important.”
Parish believes any trade deals with nations outside the EU are “five to eight years down the line, you could be talking ten. I think four or five would be quite optimistic, I think it’s probably seven or eight years.”
In the meantime though, there is a lot of work to be done. And Parish – as he points out – is a farmer with vested interests in representing the sector, keen to continue holding both his party and the industry to account.
Recommendations of the EFRA Brexit report:
- The UK has an international reputation for high animal welfare, environmental and food standards. These must not be sacrificed on the altar of cheap imports. Doing so could undermine the premium British brand and might affect our ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries. We will hold the Secretary of State to his assurances that there will be no compromise on animal welfare, environmental and food standards.
- The Government must make it clear to industry how it intends to deal with potential regulatory divergence with the EU, and the mechanisms it will put in place to track divergence in the future.
- The Government must ensure that protected geographical indicators are retained in a similar form after the UK leaves the EU.
- It is imperative that the Government invest in IT systems to support a more efficient export certification process in order to minimise delays to trade.
- Non-British EU veterinary surgeons are critical to the UK veterinary workforce. The Government must set out how it intends to ensure working rights for non-British EU vets currently working in the UK and to support the veterinary workforce going forward to ensure that it can meet the needs of the UK’s food industry in the future.
- Delays at border inspection posts lead to increased costs, and are a threat to perishable goods. It is imperative that the Government sets out how it intends to ensure that the right IT systems and infrastructure are in place for the import and export of agricultural produce so that businesses can continue to trade smoothly with Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, and the rest of the world.