Quite a few years have passed since Sting and I first performed together, forty-one by my calculations. The occasion was the world premier of Rock Nativity at the University Theatre in Newcastle. Written by Tony Hatch, composer of the Neighbour’s theme tune, I was part of the backing choir provided by Norham High School in North Shields and Sting, I discovered years later, was in the band. I wonder if he, like me, remembers such numbers as the shepherds’ song with the chorus, ‘Counting sheep, counting sheep, what a way to go to sleep, when we count the blooming things all day’. Rock Nativity was meant to move on to the West End but it never happened, Sting blames the choir, I blame the band.
Sheep were high on the agenda when I caught up with Teesdale hill farmer Richard Betton at the National Farmers Union for England conference in Birmingham last month, which I attended in my role as Labour’s spokesperson on agriculture in the European Parliament. Two weeks earlier I’d travelled north to St Andrews to take part in the equivalent NFU Scotland event.
Both events were dominated by talk of the forthcoming referendum on our membership of the European Union (EU), which came as little surprise because no other sector of the British economy is more intertwined with the EU than UK farming.
We know that if the UK left the EU then the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) would cease to apply to our farmers. As a subsidy regime it provides 2.4 billion pounds a year in direct support to UK farmers, topped up with 4.1 billion pounds in rural development funds for investments and rural jobs up to 2020.
Richard is the NFU delegate for North Riding and Durham and he left me in no doubt as to how important EU funding is to farmers in the North East, especially in the uplands.
According to Agra Europe, a UK-based agricultural consultancy, only 10% of the most efficient UK farmers would survive in their current form once CAP subsidies are removed following a UK exit from the EU. CAP subsidies currently provide 50-60% of UK farm income. The government has no contingency plan for what happens should the UK vote to leave, a worrying reality recently confirmed by Liz Truss MP the UK Cabinet member responsible for farming during the 2016 Oxford farming conference. This means a leave vote would be a leap in the dark, a journey without a map.
A vote to stay in the EU should not detract from the need to reform the CAP. Labour is already involved in the debate over the future CAP which essentially has to be greener, leaner and re-focused towards generating employment and entrepreneurship in rural areas. In particular, agriculture is a major cause of climate change and it needs to bear its fair share of the burden in delivering emission reductions – it is not a special case.
For farmers the EU is not only about the CAP, far from it. UK farmers also enjoy the benefits of trade and the free flow of labour. UK agriculture is highly dependent on access to the EU single market to sell its produce. Close to two-thirds of UK agricultural exports goes to the EU. With the UK leaving the EU, our farmers would potentially face tariffs ranging from 11% to 48% to enter the EU Single Market. Moreover, the UK would lose automatic access to other global markets with which the EU has negotiated free trade agreements.
On top of all that, UK agriculture in general and its horticulture sector in particular remain heavily reliant on migrant seasonal labour, mostly from other parts of the EU, especially at harvest time. With EU immigration restrictions inevitably imposed following our exit from the single market, access to this workforce will be seriously curtailed.
In sum, it is evident that the UK farming and food sector has disproportionately more to lose from withdrawal from the EU than any other sector of the UK economy. If Richard and his fellow hill farmers in the North East are to go on counting their sheep we had better vote to stay in the EU.