Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:23 pm, 10th October 2018

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, because my constituency includes Teesdale, which is part of the north Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty, and I represent 400 sheep farmers. The area has a very rich environment, with 17 sites of special scientific interest. Not unconnected with that, a large part of the land is in the commons. A high proportion of farmers are tenants and incomes are low, last year averaging about £14,000.

Clause 1, which provides financial assistance for public goods, improving the environment, restoring the natural heritage and supporting public access, should be welcome in such an area. However, the total lack of detail in the Bill means that it is not at all reassuring. The implementation of clause 1 could be very arbitrary. As the Secretary of State explained in his description of public goods, they are non-rival and non-excludable. That means there is no market price, so how will DEFRA Ministers put a value on public goods when they decide on payments to farmers?

Over the summer, I talked to a large number of farmers who stressed the uncertainty they face, which the Bill does very little to allay. It is, like the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, simply proposing a bundle of delegated legislation and Henry VIII powers, and DEFRA Ministers are not even showing us them in draft, even though clause 3(2)(h) creates criminal offences.

In the Bill the Minister is taking the power to write regulations and giving himself the power to make payments, but we do not know what the criteria will be, to whom the payments will be made and what the amounts of the payments will be. There is a seven-year transition, which is not like the general 21-month transition under the Prime Minister’s Brexit proposals. In fact, it is not really a transition at all, because the current payments will not continue beyond 2022 and on any day in the following five years the Minister can make changes to those payments. That might be a series of steps down, or a cliff edge.

This is the ultimate in what it is now fashionable to call a blind Brexit. We need to see the draft statutory instruments before Third Reading and we need a proper agreed scrutiny process—the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should be able to undertake that, or we need an explanation of whether Sir Patrick McLoughlin will be covering it in his Bill.

Let us be clear: farming cannot be environmentally sustainable if it is not financially sustainable. Farmers in the uplands have low profit margins and face considerable volatility, and Ministers must guarantee that the new payments will be equal in value to the basic payment and rural development schemes. They should consider making income support and stabilisation purposes for which payments can be made. Clause 18 is drafted to provide short-term market support, but it needs to cover chronic disruption in the event of changes to trade regimes that damage domestic farm incomes.

There is a real risk of a disorderly or no deal Brexit, and Ministers must be able to deal with that. Clause 26 gives the Secretary of State powers to comply with WTO obligations, but all the future trading arrangements remain a mystery. They will have a massive impact on farmers, whether we are talking about access to the EU—personally, I believe we should stay in the customs union and it seems that the Prime Minister is coming round to that—or the regime for imports.

The Bill should contain provisions to require all food imported to the UK to be produced to at least equivalent standards as they relate to animal welfare, environmental protection and labour. I have asked DEFRA Ministers 39 times whether they will guarantee that they will not have imports of cheap lamb from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and America. They have a 40th chance tonight to answer the question.