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Britain’s international trade minister has refuted suggestions UK farmers are at risk of being undercut on price and standards following the country’s trade deal with Australia.
Ranil Jayawardena, who was visiting the West of England on Thursday to meet with food and drinks exporters, said the agreement would instead lead to an “export boost” for the region – and wider UK.
He visited a number of organisations including Dorset-based Black Cow Vodka, which exports to Australia, Norway and the US, and Yeo Valley Farm in Blagdon, Somerset.
Mr Jayawardena told BusinessLive the West Country alone had exported some £240bn of goods and services to Australia in 2020.
“As an independent trading nation, for the first time in almost 50 years we have the opportunity to export all over the world including to Australia.
“Our goal is to make sure British farming has a long-term sustainable future and it is based on high standards.”
The minister said the agreement with Australia, which was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week, would “pave the way” towards the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The alliance currently includes 11 nations – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – and covers a market of around 500 million people.
Mr Jayawardena said the government was currently in discussions with bloc member New Zealand over a trade agreement – and was creating opportunities to “secure more” deals.
He also dismissed a suggestion by the National Farmers Union (NFU) the government was opting for “PR over policy” on its international trade deal with Australia.
“I think the deal with Australia demonstrates we are delivering real benefits now,” said Mr Jayawardena.
“I don’t think having secured 68 deals, plus the EU, worth £744bn last year, that the suggestion is valid.”
On Monday, NFU president Minette Batters wrote a letter to Mr Johnson demanding the government invest more in helping British farmers, according to the FT.
The union has raised concerns there are not enough measures in place to protect farmers, claiming Australia is being given “unfettered access” to the UK market.
It has said any further trade agreements must balance access to UK agricultural markets with the same level of opportunities for British agri-food exports.
Mr Jayawardena said he was “sorry” to hear the NFU’s view.
“I believe we have delivered significant benefits already for the British economy and to British farmers, and the rest of the world, and we are very confident of [farmers’] ability to adapt and prosper as demand for their food grows.”
‘We may not rely only on our near neighbours’
When asked if the UK’s trade deals outside the EU were enough to replace ones lost since Brexit, the North East Hampshire MP said it was “not an either or” situation.
“We want both,” he said. “We do have an agreement with the EU and we want to be able to trade with our friends in the European Union, but we want to go further as well.
“That is what we were not able to do before Brexit. We were not able to control our own trade policy and we now can.”
In March, a report found that Brexit trade disruption had led to many South West firms cutting staff and moving operations to the EU.
But Mr Jayawardena said he believed there was still “trade flow” into the EU from the UK.
“My understanding is trade flow is continuing to remain for many businesses across the country,” he said.
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“There are opportunities all over the world… We may not rely only on our near neighbours. We can have a great relationship with the EU and beyond.”
The MP said the government was working to “bring down” the barriers to entry into new markets for British food and drinks exporters.
“We will really investigate [any barriers] at government-to-government level. Although it has been a tough time with Covid there are trade shows and global expos going on to showcase the best of British.”
He also said the government was “keen to listen” to industry and support it in response to a question about potential staff shortages for UK firms following Brexit.
“People are very keen that we have our own immigration policy in the UK to make sure we are able to allow people into Britain to contribute to our society and our economy,” Mr Jayawardena added.
“We will always keep measures under review.”