Exclusive: Shadow Defra secretary Rachel Maskell talks to Farmers Weekly

Rachael Maskell swapped her job in the NHS for a career in politics and took up the post of shadow Defra secretary in June this year. Ahead of the Labour conference she spoke to Farmers Weekly.

Her top priority for farming, she says, is setting a clear path ahead for Brexit.

She believes the government must get the best trade deal for farmers and continued access to foreign labour to create the stability needed to produce, grow and process our food.

See also: Farmers must do more for environment, says Defra secretary

Another priority, she believes, is getting a fair deal on farm support .

She says CAP payments are currently tilted in favour of larger producers, so more effort is needed to ensure smaller farms get a fairer deal on subsidies.

Political profile

  • Elected Labour MP for York Central in May 2015
  • Appointed shadow defence minister for Armed Forces Personnel and Veterans in September 2015, working under Maria Eagle
  • Served on the Health Select Committee since July 2015.
  • Promoted to shadow Defra secretary in June 2016

However, when asked if a future Labour government would commit to a similar level of support for UK agriculture under the CAP post-2020, Ms Maskell is non-committal saying, “I’m not going to be making announcements.”

Rural connections

Ms Maskell was raised in a rural community, but admits her only connection with farming was visiting her uncle’s smallholding.

Since her appointment, she has been getting out meeting producers and people working across the sector.

In August, she visited Guy Poskitt’s farm in the East Riding of Yorkshire to discuss the key issues facing UK farms and businesses following the vote for Brexit..

Although Defra has suffered budget cuts, she insists the department was wrong to have no ‘Plan B’ on Brexit.

Now the country has voted out, however, there is a need for “rapid, but not rushed” decision-making.

Ms Maskell stopped short of calling for a second referendum, but believes the government should put together a framework for any negotiation deal with the EU.

Food security

Ms Maskell says the NFU is right to focus on food security, but at the same time the country mustn’t neglect its commitments to tackling climate change and reversing the losses to wildlife.

The public says it wants to buy more British and local food, but this will come at a price in future.

“Austerity has had an impact and many people clearly shop on price. I think we have to have that conversation about the true cost of food.”

Maskell’s views on…

Bovine TB

“The vast majority of bovine TB cases stem from cattle-to-cattle transmission. Therefore better husbandry, biosecurity and better testing is absolutely crucial.

“I appreciate there is a global shortage of BCG vaccine, but we need to invest in vaccination – both in cattle and badgers. The government’s own experts have condemned the badger cull and the scientific evidence is weighted against it.”

GM crops

“I personally think GM crops is the wrong direction. I don’t think people in this country want them. We have got to be careful about food productivity.

“If we continue to farm intensively on the same land, the soil quality is impacted and there are consequences. You end up paying more to put nutrients back into the soil.”

Rewilding

“The arguments don’t stack up in favour of rewilding. We’ve seen the experiments in the River Tay and the introduction of the beaver.

“Farmers are very unhappy about the impact that has had on crops. I certainly don’t think we should reintroduce wolves or lynx back into the countryside.

“These animals are predators and they will put an increased risk on our farming stock.”

Food versus fuel debate

“It is not either/or. The reality is, we need to improve our energy security as well. With renewables we could have a far greater input.

“Wind and solar is a good use of land. We don’t utilise our coasts and natural assets enough.

“It’s right that farmers have these opportunities to diversify. It brings greater diversity to their businesses.

The dairy crisis

“We’re a nation with a fresh milk model, as opposed to more processed milk which is more of an EU continental model. We need to pay for that work to keep dairy farmers in business.

“I also think we need to tighten up the voluntary dairy code and make it mandatory to strengthen the support for dairy.”

Broadband access

“The government has set a target of 95% coverage for broadband – clearly they have left a loophole there.

“Our rural communities and farmers are going to miss out. Labour has committed to 100% broadband coverage in our digital vision.”

Backing British farmers

“We need to make sure our farming sector is maintained, particularly in these current uncertain times.

“We need the public to understand how important British farming is by making the connections from plough to plate.

“We need to source food as locally as we can to ensure businesses can be sustained in the long term.

Did you know…?

  • Rachael Maskell is a keen cyclist and walker. She once cycled from Land’s End to John o’Groats
  • Before she became an MP, she graduated with a degree in physiotherapy from the University of East Anglia in 1994 and worked as a care worker and physiotherapist in the NHS
  • Took great pleasure in growing peas as a child

Rachael Maskell is due to speak on Labour policies on food and farming at its party conference fringe meeting in Liverpool on Monday 26 September

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