- Dame Carolyn Fairbairn DBE, Director General, CBI
- Minette Batters, NFU President
Chaired by: Penny Haslam, Broadcaster and Author
NFU Conference got straight to business when Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), backed NFU calls for a commission to advise government during post-Brexit trade talks.
She feels discussions with business leaders, consumers and industry experts must feed into the negotiations or the UK will “not get the right kind of deals”.
With just 14 weeks until a crucial European Council meeting, and the UK yet to set out clear trading objectives, there was a crucial window to influence, she said.
Pictured L-R: Penny Haslam, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, Minette Batters
During a session chaired by broadcaster and author Penny Haslam, Dame Fairbairn said:
“We can scramble, we can get the right voices around the table and that’s our offer to government. We haven’t done these kind of trade deals for 40 years, and if you look at who’s good at doing them and what characterises a good trading set-up, it’s really close engagement between governments and business groups.
"Standards are dominating the debate on trade in many sectors - that is absolutely appropriate."
“Standards in trade sounds like a techy thing, but they encapsulate who we are as a country. We are just beginning to realise that we need an evidence-based conversation about the kind of place we want to be. That’s why we are saying to government, ‘create that proper framework for debate and discussion’. When the NFU talks about the need for an expert commission, the CBI absolutely supports the principle behind that.”
NFU President Minette Batters wants legal provisions in the Agriculture Bill to ensure food imports do not undermine British farmers. During the session, Mrs Batters said that a recent trip to the US with Dame Fairbairn had highlighted how much uncertainty remained in the UK’s trading position.
Mrs Batters said:
“The US published its negotiating positions in 2017 and the overriding part of our conversations over there were around ‘Where are yours?’”
Dame Fairbairn said:
“Trade is a contact sport and there’s always a lot of noise, but the business community has started with a sense of optimism after the gridlock of last year. We are hoping to see pragmatism and a strong evidence base.
“We absolutely respect the government’s mandate, and they have said we are going to see some friction. I think there is a recognition that this government is prioritising sovereignty over rules. There is some waking up and smelling the coffee to do, but within that I still think we can have a pragmatic trade deal.”
In a post-stage press conference, Dame Fairbairn said recent immigration proposals had provided confidence to some sectors but that she was “under no illusions” that sourcing labour would be challenging for others. She called for flexibility and a rapid review of arrangements if shortages were identified. Some of the language around ‘low skills’ had been “insulting and wrong”, she said.
And while the CBI represents 190,000 businesses of all types, she said some of the media attention on farming and was “deeply unfair”.
“There is something particularly harsh about it. We must remember you have such a strong story to tell. It’s about getting the good news out.”
In case you missed it, here are some easy ways to catch up with the highlights from both days at the ICC, Birmingham: