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Meet the think tank shaping the future of Britain's food and countryside

Why you should be worried that Legatum is lobbying the government about farm subsidies and a UK-US free trade deal.

The Brexiteer's favoure think tank the Legatum Institute has met with the UK Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) at least six times since the EU Referendum, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Friends of the Earth has revealed.

DEFRA’s response states that:

“Defra met with Mr Shanker Singham on post-Brexit farm subsidies or any future US / UK trade deal trade six times since 23 June 2016. These meetings occurred on the following dates: 03/11/2016, 20/03/2017, 29/06/2017, 03/07/2017, 13/09/2017 and 24/10/2017.”

‘So what?’, some might ask. After all, getting access to politicians is what lobbyists do – and environmental charities like Friends of the Earth are no exception.

But here’s why this fresh information is of interest – and gives cause for concern. Firstly, it’s rare to get successful FOI responses on matters relating to Brexit from any Whitehall department at the moment. It’s even rarer to get anything on the meetings that the Legatum Institute has been holding with numerous civil servants and Ministers: campaigners and journalists have been constantly rebuffed when asking for details of meetings Legatum has held with the Department of International Trade, the Brexit department, and others.

Secondly, Legatum’s agenda on agriculture and the environment is deeply worrying, both to farmers and environmentalists.

On the matter of post-Brexit farm subsidies, Legatum has consistently advocated what is called the ‘New Zealand model’ – the removal of all farm subsidies and complete trade liberalisation. (The fact that Legatum’s funder, Christopher Chandler, made his fortune in New Zealand during its period of deregulation in the 1980s, may or may not have anything to do with this).

Pointing to New Zealand conjures images of a bucolic utopia – something encouraged by the Lord of the Rings films and New Zealand’s ‘100% Pure’ tourism promotion campaign. But the reality is rather different. I worked for a year in NZ’s Ministry of Agriculture & Forestry, and the fact of the matter is that NZ farming intensified greatly after trade liberalisation in the 1980s, with a boom in dairying driven by exports to China. That’s led to soaring greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and more water pollution from nitrate run-off due to higher livestock densities.

Farmers, landowners and conservationists alike have pointed to the economic and environmental dangers of removing all farm payments and applying the ‘New Zealand model’ to UK agriculture. It’s worth remembering that Vote Leave’s campaign literature on farming promised that “After we Vote Leave… we can: Protect farmer’s subsidies – and even increase them”. But that’s not what the UK’s leading hard Brexit think tank is calling for.

As for a UK-US trade deal, the other topic that Legatum has been raising with DEFRA: well, we know that Legatum would love for Britain to sign one with Trump’s America as soon as possible. Matthew Elliott, founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Director of Vote Leave, is now working for Legatum on a UK-US trade deal. It’s ironic to note that when he ran Vote Leave, Elliott approvingly tweeted pictures of campaign banners reading ‘Vote Leave – Stop TTIP’. Yet any future trade deal with the US is likely to be “TTIP on steroids”, according to Global Justice Now. The prospect of the UK being opened up to US exports of chlorinated chicken, hormone beef and GM crops is of great concern to both farmers and greens alike.

We don’t know exactly what Legatum discussed at these meetings with DEFRA, but we now know the broad issues covered. And if Legatum was doing its job properly, it would have been presenting its stated policy proposals to DEFRA officials loudly and clearly.

Despite Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s welcome string of green policy announcements – from backing a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, to promising to repurpose farm subsidies to pay for environmental protection – suspicions remain about his vision for post-Brexit environmental regulation and farming policy.

After all, while Mr Gove has publicly called for a ‘Green Brexit’ and announced plans for a new environmental regulator post-Brexit, he has also been teaming up with Boris Johnson behind the scenes to press for “regulatory freedom” from the EU – as his recent leaked letter to Theresa May revealed. It’s since been reported that Gove won that fight for ‘regulatory divergence’ within Cabinet – meaning the government may now be pushing for a Brexit deal that makes deregulation easier. Gove is on record as having high regard for Legatum’s Shanker Singham, and has met him on a number of occasions.

What’s more, we know that behind closed doors, various industries are pushing for deregulation after Brexit. Chemicals and fracking giant INEOS has been lobbying for cuts to green taxes after we leave the EU. The National Farmer’s Union has been demanding an end to the Nitrates Directive (which governs river pollution from farms), and its deputy president Minette Batters has continued to attack what she sees as the EU’s “overly precautionary approach” to licensing pesticides. The Red Tape Initiative, a think tank set up to propose which regulations could be slashed after Brexit and funded by property developer Lord Marland, is examining how the EU Habitats and Birds Directives could be amended post-Brexit to make life easier for developers.

These and other lobbying efforts by vested interests have only come to light, however, after concerted efforts by campaigners and journalists. It’s vital that lobbying about Brexit is open, transparent, and open to scrutiny. After all, when people voted to Leave, they were urged to do so to ‘take back control’ – not cede control to a shadowy network of think tanks and back-room lobbyists.

About the author

Guy Shrubsole is climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Previously he worked for the Public Interest Research Centre and the Department of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.


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