Scottish Secretary Alister Jack should fight back or resign over a “damaging” free trade deal with Australia that would threaten the future of Scottish farmers, the SNP’s Westminster leader has said.
Ian Blackford said Scotland’s farmers and crofters would be disproportionately affected by such a deal, with the country’s beef, dairy, sheep and grain sectors particularly at risk.
UK international trade secretary Liz Truss has held talks with her Australian counterpart as the two sides edged closer to a free trade deal amid rising concern among British farmers that full liberalisation would see them severely undercut by their Australian rivals.
The call took place after ministers met on Thursday to thrash out their differences, with UK environment secretary George Eustice and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove leading the resistance to the zero tariffs, zero quotas agreement the Australians are demanding.
In a letter to Mr Jack on Saturday, Mr Blackford said: “The continued uncertainty surrounding the prospect of your government signing up to a post-Brexit trade deal, which would grant tariff free access to Australian farmers, is a source of deep and growing concern for our own farming and crofting communities.
A disastrous deal
“This morning’s speculation of a UK Government offer to phase in a zero-tariff, zero quota regime over a number of years could, in effect, place a time limit on the future of farming livelihoods across these islands.
“Given that this speculated offer is currently only a negotiating position, the real threat exists that an already disastrous deal for farmers can only get worse.
“Such a trade deal would represent a bitter betrayal of rural communities, undermining and undercutting our agricultural sector and would amount to a genuine threat to future viability.
“As you should know, Scotland’s farmers and crofters would be disproportionately impacted by such a damaging deal, with our beef, dairy, sheep and grain sectors particularly at risk. There is also the added concern that a deal of this nature will set a precedent for other trade deals, which would further harm our agricultural sector.”
Downing Street has indicated that prime minister Boris Johnson hopes an agreement can be concluded by the time of the G7 summit in Cornwall next month.
Any deal we sign with Australia will include protections for the agriculture industry and will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.
Mr Blackford urged Mr Jack to “stand by Scotland’s farmers and crofters and robustly oppose a deal that threatens to put them out of business”.
He wrote: “I urge you to break your deafening silence on this crucial issue and fight back against this damaging deal. That means opposing any trade deal that will, at any future point, grant tariff-free, zero quota access to Australian lamb and beef.
“Given the seriousness and scale of this issue for Scotland’s farmers and crofters, it is also clear that your only credible option is to make clear that this is a resigning matter should your views be ignored in Cabinet.”
Australia’s biggest beef exporter has predicted it could increase UK sales tenfold under a zero tariff, zero quota trade deal of the kind being proposed.
In a statement released on Friday, NFU Scotland chief executive, Scott Walker, warned: “To be crystal clear, an Australian Free Trade (FTA) agreement, with no tariffs or quotas on sensitive products, will put some Scottish farmers and crofters out of business and set a precedent that all other countries looking for free access to the UK market in the future will be desperate to replicate.
“No consultation has been had with NFU Scotland on such a proposal and any such transition would be wholly unacceptable to Scottish farmers and crofters. Regardless of whether unfettered access on sensitive products like beef or lamb is offered now or in 15 years’ time, the impact on family farms would be devastating.”
‘We will work with the industry’
A UK Government spokeswoman said: “Any deal we sign with Australia will include protections for the agriculture industry and will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.
“Typically, any tariff liberalisation is staged over time, with safeguards built in. Australian meat accounts for a very low proportion of total UK imports, and is produced to high standards.
“We will continue to work with the industry, keeping them involved throughout the process and helping it capture the full benefits of trade.”
A UK Government source added: “It is clear from Ian Blackford’s increasingly embarrassing interventions he has no interest in engaging seriously on the issue of trade deals.”