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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:41 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 9:41 pm, 3rd February 2020

There we have it—an Agriculture Bill that is not really about food or public good; without public voice; an open door for our food producers to be sold out in a trade deal with Trump; and English farmers put at disadvantage compared with other nations in the UK, while doing too little to tackle the climate emergency. No wonder farmers will be here in droves on 25 March. I hope that Government Back Benchers heed that last call and wake up to the problem, because the Opposition are not prepared to sell out English farmers, workers and our countryside.

Yes, of course we want public money to be used to buy environmental benefits, and we have argued for reform for decades, but the Bill needs massive improvement. It needs deeds, not worthy aspiration, and a much tougher Environment Bill alongside it to make sure that it works.

We have heard seven maiden speeches tonight, and a number of Members had the delicate task of paying tribute to somewhat troublesome predecessors. It is quite a list they had to deal with—Ken Clarke, John Bercow, Heidi Allen and Oliver Letwin—but they all managed that delicate task with great tact and grace. Virginia Crosbie paid full tribute to her predecessor, Albert Owen, which is much appreciated by the Opposition. She invited the Secretary of State to the Anglesey show. The right hon. Lady is unable to attend, but I am sure that shadow Ministers are willing to oblige. Ruth Edwards had the best line of the night, about fake shoes. Steven Bonnar had a list of sporting heroes that any constituency would be proud to borrow, especially Cambridge United, which could do with Jimmy Johnstone or John Robertson. Greg Smith delivered a speech that was probably every Cambridge leftie’s nightmare, but we could agree on one point: we do not want the Oxford-Cambridge expressway. Selaine Saxby took us on a tour of the most beautiful parts of the west country, and tactfully reminded the Government of the NFU’s ambition to achieve net zero by 2040. My near neighbour, Anthony Browne, highlighted the hugely important role of life sciences, and many of the wonderful institutions that abut the city of Cambridge. We have a slightly different take on the European Union, but I am sure that we can work together on the future of life sciences. Finally, Chris Loder gave a delicate account of the status of the Cerne Abbas giant, and it was deftly delivered.

While we can all agree in the House on the need to shift financial assistance in the way proposed in the Bill towards the principle of public money for public good, particularly to help those who work our land to restore and improve the natural environment, it is worth briefly reflecting on why the CAP was needed in the first place. Historians will be well aware of the cycles of dearth and plenty that afflicted previous generations, with miserable and long agricultural depressions still living in the memory when I moved to eastern England over 40 years ago.

The CAP was intended to deliver stability of food supplies and security for farmers, and it did what it said on the tin, but it was of its time, had unintended consequences and has come at huge environmental cost. It is right that we now reshape our own agricultural systems to meet the new challenge. But there is a glaring omission, as has been pointed out. While supporting greater environmental, animal welfare and production standards at home, the Bill does absolutely nothing to prevent food products with lower standards than our domestic products from being imported in future trade deals. Without any legal commitment protecting us against that, the door is wide open to products such as American hormone-injected beef, chlorinated chicken and so on flooding our markets. Statements and manifesto commitments from the Government saying that they will not allow such lower standards are nothing but warm words. Just look at what US Secretary of State Pompeo made clear last week—the US Administration want this as part of any future trade deal.

We heard from the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that it concluded in its scrutiny report of the previous Bill that the Government should put their money where their mouth is and accept an amendment to the Agriculture Bill stipulating that food products imported as part of any future trade deal should meet or exceed British standards. There is an unprecedented coalition of agreement on this, as 62 farming and environmental organisations wrote to the Prime Minister just last week, urging him to amend the Agriculture Bill with this guarantee, and farmers are planning to rally outside Westminster to press the point. Labour simply cannot support the Bill without that cast-iron guarantee, which is why we have tabled our reasoned amendment.

There have been some improvements. Thanks to the work of farming and environmental organisations, there have been some positive changes. The inclusion of soil quality as a public good is particularly important given that our soil fertility is in decline. The reforms to agricultural tenancies and the new requirement in relation to multi-annual plans are also welcome. But in what is essentially a Bill about food production, we find ourselves asking, “Where is the focus on food?” As my hon. Friend Janet Daby made clear, the Bill contains no clear vision for the future of the nation’s food supply and no commitment to protecting the people of this country from food poverty. There is no recognition of the production of food as a public good, as my hon. Friend Nadia Whittome explained so powerfully.

For all its faults, the CAP was at least focused on ensuring stability of food supplies and prices. All this Bill does is require the Government to have regard to encouraging the production of food in an environmentally sustainable way. We have to ask whether the Bill actually matches up to the scale of the environmental and climate crisis that we are facing. At the moment, I think the answer is no. There is no duty for Ministers to do anything, and crucially there are no targets for the agriculture sector to reach net zero emissions—points powerfully made by my hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Nottingham East. There are no provisions to secure the high baseline standards of farming and land management that we are going to need, as my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy powerfully stated in a particularly thoughtful speech. That is particularly important if we are going to tackle the ecological crisis that we are facing, including standards for those agricultural actors who choose not to engage with the environmental land management schemes.

By granting the Secretary of State mainly powers rather than duties, the Bill leaves farmers in the dark as to how and when the Government will implement the supply chain provisions included in the Bill that are designed to secure a fairer price for farmers for the food they produce. Where is the advice and support for farmers to help them in the transition? The Bill is silent on protections for workers, lacks overall vision for the future of rural communities and misses key opportunities to support agroecology. And then there is the question of whether the key provisions in the Bill will actually work, how quickly and successfully a new system of ELMS will be brought into operation, and the key matter of handling the devolved issues, which was raised very effectively by Ben Lake. We should remember that there will be different approaches in the different nations; while England will go down one path, Scotland and Wales will take a different one.

So there we have it—the Bill is 14 months late, and there is ultimately no plan for food and no plan for public goods, and there are standards that will be unachievable if they are open to being undercut. It is a policy devised by some very clever people in Notting Hill; I think the House probably knows who they are, and, quite frankly, one has to wonder whether any of them has ever been on a farm. But the good news is that the Government can start making progress, by committing tonight to our amendment to guard against imports with lower standards. They do not even have to agree with the Opposition. They just need to agree with themselves, because the Secretary of State has made the promise and it is in the Conservative manifesto. Our challenge to the Government is: put it into law. If the Government do not want to listen to me, they can listen to the president of the NFU, the chief executives of the British Poultry Council, the National Sheep Association and the RSPCA, and the Chair of the EFRA Committee, who are all saying the same: put it into law.

I extend a welcoming hand to Government Members, and ask them to join us in standing up for the English countryside. They may not know this, but it is not just the Women’s Institute who sing “Jerusalem”; it has always been a Labour anthem. We will defend our green and pleasant land, and Government Members can help us to do it: put the amendment into law. Today is the first big post-Brexit test for the Government. I fear they are about to flunk it.