Defra Secretary Michael Gove has ruled out zero tariffs on food imports in the event of a no-deal Brexit in an attempt to allay fears that the UK would embark on a tariff-slashing drive after EU withdrawal.
In recent weeks it emerged that the government was considering the option of unilaterally cutting import tariffs.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has said it is one option that could be considered if the UK fails to reach agreement before it leaves the European Union.
It is a move that could have a significant impact on the British agricultural industry, which has demanded that the UK should not throw open its doors to imports of foods produced to lower standards.
British farmers have raised serious concerns that the domestic industry could be undermined in the rush to secure trade deals with countries like the United States.
For example, Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), said research shows that only EU tariffs currently protect British egg products from lower priced and lower welfare equivalents from countries like the US, India, Argentina and Ukraine.
Mr Williams, who says that 16 per cent of the cost of producing a dozen or a kilo of eggs in the European Union comes from EU legislation on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection, has warned that pursuing a free trade policy with such countries would result in British farmers being significantly undercut.
Such fears has led NFU President Minette Batters to urge the government to create a new commission of food and farming experts to help uphold high food production standards after Brexit.
Speaking at the annual conference of the NFU in Birmingham, Michael Gove confirmed that the government had been discussing the issue of tariffs.
However, he said that UK agriculture would not be exposed to the threat of a zero tariff regime.
“The Cabinet have been discussing what the future tariff regime may be in the event of a no-deal scenario,” he said during questioning at the conference.
“I can't pre-empt the announcement that will be made later but one thing I can reassure you is that it will not be the case that we will have zero rate tariffs on food products.
“There will be protections for sensitive sections of agriculture and food production. Beyond that I can't say at the moment, but there were several points in my speech which might bear re-reading,” he said.
Gove added: “The government is, of course, doing everything it can not just to secure a deal but also to mitigate the impact of leaving without a deal.
“The NFU and others have made strong arguments about the need to ensure stronger tariff protection for British farming than any other sector of the economy.
“In particular, you have argued that we need tariffs on sheep meat, beef, poultry, dairy, both milk and cheese and pig meat in order to safeguard domestic production.
“Your concerns have been heard and announcement on new UK tariffs in a no deal scenario - with specific and robust protections for farming - will be made shortly.
“We also have the power to intervene to provide direct cash support to the most vulnerable sectors and I will not hesitate to provide the support required,” he said.
Michael Gove also insisted, once again, that the government would not lower standards in pursuit of trade deals, and that it would use 'all the tools we have at our disposal to make sure standards are protected and you are not left at a competitive disadvantage.'
NFU president Minette Batters told the Secretary of State that Liam Fox seemed to be taking a different line to him on tariffs.
“Do you feel you have support across the Cabinet?” she asked. “Yes,” he replied. “I can't go into detail, but it is the case that sometimes the positions of some of my colleagues in the Cabinet as portrayed by the press is not accurate - and that's not to criticise any individual journalists who do their best to establish what's going on behind closed doors.
“But the debate as depicted in the press is not an accurate picture of the real discussion we have been having, nor is it close to the eventual outcome we will see.”
'Catastrophe for farming'
During her conference speech, the NFU president said that leaving the EU without a deal would be a 'catastrophe for British farming.' She said: “It's absolutely shocking that farmers - and wider British businesses are in this position.
“Secretary of State, in a recent radio interview you warned of the dangers of leaving the EU without a deal. You said, 'winter is coming.' Well, for me, as a farmer, it's starting to feel cold.”
The UK is due to leave the EU at the end of March, but Minette Batters said: “It's still not clear to our 46,000 members businesses what trade conditions we'll be operating in.”
Michael Gove was a prominent leave campaigner during the lead-up to the EU referendum in 2016, and he told NFU delegates that there were benefits to be gained for farmers outside the EU.
He called the Common Agricultural Policy an 'inflexible operation' that needed to be reformed 'fundamentally'.
He said: “The three crop rule, the requirement to apply for support by fixed dates after wrestling with the most convoluted bureaucracy, the requirement for mapping and re-mapping which treats honest farmers with grotesque insensitivity, the rigidity with which rules on field margins and hedge cutting have been applied.”
Life outside the EU and the CAP would allow the UK to apply necessary rules with greater proportionality and flexibility, he said, and the government could 're-make the nature of farm support', directing the money to the most deserving.
“We can target support for small farmers, upland farmers and innovative active farmers for the goods they generate which are not rewarded in the market.
“We can reward better those who are doing all the right things environmentally. And we can support others to make changes they hanker after but whose upfront costs have so far been a deterrent,” said the Secretary of State.
'No deal' warning
However, he warned that there would be difficulties for UK agriculture if the country was to leave the EU without a deal. He said politicians could avoid that by supporting the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May.
He said: “The deal the Prime Minister has secured already holds out the prospect of tariff and quota-free access to the European market, with the minimum of friction and the flexibility to operate wholly outside the CAP.
“If we leave without a deal then there will be significant costs to our economy - and in particular to farming and food production. As things stand, just six weeks before we are due to leave, the EU still have not listed the UK as a full third country in the event of no deal.
“That means, as I speak, that there is no absolute guarantee that we would be able to export food to the EU.”
If the UK left without a deal, the EU had been clear that it would levy the full external tariff on all food, he said.