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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:23 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion 8:23 pm, 3rd February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Chris Loder. I congratulate him on a very impressive maiden speech, and have no doubt that he will make a great impression on this place and serve his constituents well.

As other hon. Members have said, this Bill will determine the future of agriculture for decades to come, so it is crucial that the course it charts is the right one. Several aspects will need to be addressed in Committee, but in the time allocated to me this evening I shall concentrate on two areas that have not been addressed in the second draft of the Bill: the need for a pan-UK intergovernmental structure to agree, establish and monitor common frameworks on agricultural policy and funding; and, as other Members have mentioned, the need to uphold UK farming production standards in the context of international trade negotiations.

On Second Reading of the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill a fortnight ago, I made the point that replacing some of the CAP’s associated frameworks would be to the benefit of all four nations of the UK. As the nations develop future policy, the question of how they will co-operate to ensure the effective functioning of the internal market of these islands looms ever larger. It is disappointing that the Bill before us today does not answer that question, but luckily for the Government, the Farmers’ Union of Wales has produced a policy paper outlining how common frameworks could work in practice, and how the four Governments—in the form of an intergovernmental body—could come together to agree the principles underpinning them, oversee their operation and resolve any disputes that may arise.

Agreeing common objectives need not limit the ability of any Government to tailor policies to best support their respective industries, but by establishing common parameters and thresholds, damaging market distortion and disruption to supply chains can be avoided. This is not an academic or hypothetical concern. For example, reflect for a moment on the consequences of the Bew review into allocations for UK agricultural funding, which over the next two years will see the difference between average annual Scottish and Welsh farm payments diverge to about £16,200 a year, or 175%; or consider this Bill, which offers Welsh Ministers scope to maintain financial assistance to farmers in the form of the basic payment scheme in a way that is not replicated for farmers in England and is not even needed for Scotland. There are already signs of divergence. The only question is how harmful a distortion it will cause.

There is danger from divergence in other areas, such as equivalence in standards, labelling, eligibility rules for different schemes, rules defining what constitutes a farmer who is genuinely eligible for support and interventions, or the rates at which direct support, environmental payments, payments for providing public goods and other interventions should be capped. Agreeing common parameters in those areas will ensure a level playing field for farmers across the UK and should be prioritised in the Bill.

I turn to an issue that has already been discussed this afternoon: the lack of commitment in the Bill to upholding farming production standards in the context of international trade negotiations. In this regard, I support the efforts and comments of the NFU, particularly its call for a standards commission to ensure that any imports meet the standards of UK products. I suppose it is quite disappointing that the Bill and this evening’s debate do not give us an opportunity for a detailed and meaningful discussion on what sort of standards or outcomes we wish to see in international trade negotiations, or how best to determine equivalence and what we actually mean by the word. Instead, it seems as though we must persuade the Government of the importance of making such a commitment in the Bill, and of the futility of developing a comprehensive and ambitious domestic policy whereby our farmers produce quality food in a sustainable manner, only for their efforts to be undermined by the importation of products not produced to equivalent environmental and animal welfare standards. As far as I can glean, the Government’s argument is that such a commitment on the face of the Bill is not required, and that instead we should take Ministers at their word—after all, as has been said this afternoon, it was a manifesto commitment. But as Gerald Jones will know, if manifesto commitments were always adhered to, particularly by this Government, I would have travelled here by an electrified south Wales main line from Swansea; of course, I did not.

When one considers the words of the Prime Minister at the UK-Africa summit only a few weeks ago, when he proudly proclaimed his wish to see more Ugandan beef shipped to the UK, it is no surprise that hon. Members from across the House are anxious to see a commitment in law that food imports will be of an equivalent standard to UK produce. It was good to see the Prime Minister recognise in his written ministerial statement today the importance of maintaining existing sanitary and phytosanitary measures, but as he stated that the Government’s goal is a Canada-style free trade agreement, the question arises as to whether that will apply to sectors such as beef and lamb. Although the Canada-EU trade deal eradicates tariffs on the majority of goods, sensitive products such as some food products—including beef—are not included. There is a danger of the Prime Minister, on the one hand, appearing to project himself as the champion of free and frictionless trade while, on the other, partly conceding that there will be some technical barriers to trade where once there were none. This inconsistency is a cause for concern, as is the Government’s apparent unwillingness to introduce some friction to UK-EU trade.

It must be stressed that this approach would be damaging to Welsh agriculture. I know that the Minister fully recognises the importance of the EU market for Welsh agricultural exports, particularly sheepmeat. It need not be highlighted again that approximately 35% to 40% of all lamb produced in Wales is exported, of which over 90% is destined for the EU market. Following today’s statement and the possibility that Welsh farmers will have reduced access to the EU market, it is even more important that we see a commitment in this Bill that future trade policy will not also expose them to competition from imports of a lower standard.