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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:46 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs) 8:46 pm, 3rd February 2020

I seek to underline the importance of the Bill, and the way that we transact and scrutinise it, and the provisions contained therein. My ambition is for a very different Scotland—a Scotland that speaks to the world on her own terms. We are not there yet, however, so it is important to my constituents, and those elsewhere across Scotland who are involved with the farming sector and food production, that the Bill is carefully scrutinised and amended where necessary. We must ensure that the priorities of the Scottish agricultural sector, and those of other devolved Administrations, are not swept aside in the interests of what is thought to be optimal for England, should any divergences exist in priorities or ambitions.

I raise that point because in my short time in this place I have witnessed Ministers offloading certain issues as simply “devolved” and therefore not requiring a response. Something can be a devolved responsibility when that suits the Government’s agenda, but they are much less enthusiastic to consult those devolved Administrations about meaningful ways to inform policy, with the principles of subsidiarity very much to the fore. A Union of equals? It does not feel like it if we consider the ways that powers are repatriated in post-Brexit Britain.

A key example of that is the total indifference of Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and their colleagues in the Home Office, when listening to calls from the agriculture sector—farmers, suppliers, processors, and others—who say that 10,000 seasonal agricultural workers are patently insufficient for the industry’s operational requirements. All we get from the Government is a deaf ear. That is simply not good enough, and it threatens the sector severely and imminently. I urge the Government to take urgent steps to address that matter soon.

The National Farmers Union of Scotland supports the application of Scottish Government policy and Scottish Parliament scrutiny of agriculture policy to the greatest extent. That must be unconditional in its application, not just when it suits UK Ministers—it should be a co-operative endeavour.

Confidence in UK Ministers is also an issue. We are reassured by the Prime Minister that

“There’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB and GB/NI…we’re part of the same customs territory”.

Yet today, Stena Line, a key ferry operator in the Irish sea, confirmed its position that there will be checks and inspections on goods transiting between the two islands. The degree of inconsistency the industry is exposed to by the Government is simply not acceptable. It adds another layer of uncertainty for agricultural producers, processors and especially hauliers in Britain and Ireland.

We have, appropriately, talked at length about the need for producers and consumers in the UK to be protected from cheaper imports of meat produced to lower standards of animal welfare and environmental protection, but the Government must go further. Many people are choosing to eat less meat, for a range of personal reasons, but whether they are concerned about health, animal welfare or the environmental issues, including food miles, the Government can wring their hands or get on the front foot and try to ensure that when consumers are deciding what meat to buy in this country, they will choose the best prospect, which is meat produced in Scotland, Wales, England or Ireland. I see nothing in the Bill that will prioritise that.

Notwithstanding the minimal provisions of the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Act 2020, forecasting for future operational planning and the purchase of capital equipment remains far too uncertain for the sector. The Government must get their act together, and nothing in the Bill gives us any confidence that that will happen.