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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:30 pm, 3rd February 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for that very good point. Farmers will be watching this discussion tonight who are unfamiliar with parliamentary process. For them, the idea of letting the Bill pass Second Reading without making a case for this might seem appealing, but unless the Government and the Secretary of State, in particular, will accept an amendment or propose one that sets the promises in law, it is important that we make the case now. I say to all the farmers who do not want their standards undercut, who are genuinely worried about this, that they have an opportunity to ask their Member of Parliament, whichever side of the House they sit on, to make that case, because that challenge about putting this into law is important. Every day that passes when it is not proposed, including in the Bill, we have to ask why.

We do not need to look too far back to find a precedent that would help the Secretary of State. Last week, the Government whipped their MPs to vote for the NHS Funding Bill to set into law their commitment to spend more on the NHS. Why do the Government need a law to implement promises on the NHS but not a law to implement promises on animal welfare and environmental concerns? Let us look at what the Health Secretary said about that Bill:

“The crucial thing in this Bill is the certainty: the Bill provides everyone in the NHS with the certainty to work better together to make long-term decisions, get the best possible value for money”—[Official Report, 27 January 2020;
Vol. 670, c. 566.]

Indeed, certainty is a good thing. The certainty that British farmers will not be undercut by cheap imported US produce grown at a lower cost with lower standards would help them as well. Why is legal certainty good for one election promise but not for another? We know the reason: one they intend to deliver, and one they do not. That fact has been pointed to by leaks from DEFRA officials that were unearthed by Unearthed. A report published in October said:

“Weakening our SPS regime to accommodate one trade partner could irreparably damage our ability to maintain UK animal, plant and public health, and reduce trust in our exports”.

That is why this matters.

I am proud of British farmers—not just the ones who are in my family, but all of them. Because the Bill fails to uphold animal welfare and environmental standards in law, Labour cannot support it. We need a legal commitment not to allow imports of food produced to lower standards or lower animal welfare standards. We need advice and support to help smaller farms transition to more nature-friendly farming methods that tackle the climate crisis, and we need the Government to set out a clear direction of travel for future agricultural regulation. Food grown to lower standards, some with abusive practices, must never be imported to undercut British farmers.

I have no doubt that Tory MPs will dutifully vote for the Bill tonight, but each and every one of them must know that my argument has merit. They might be wise to ask themselves why the NFU, the RSPCA and Greenpeace are saying the same thing as that Labour chap at the Dispatch Box. Why did the re-elected Chair of the EFRA Committee present a similar argument in the last Parliament? Could it be that collectively we are on to something? If we are—spoiler alert: we are—I encourage Members to make a beeline to the Secretary of State to encourage her to propose an amendment to the Bill as swiftly as possible to set in train the promises made at the general election, not only by the Prime Minister but, I believe, by nearly every Tory MP here.

I and my colleagues on the Opposition Benches will be voting for the reasoned amendment to deny the Bill a Second Reading because it omits the legal protections to prevent our British farmers from being undercut. I hope that the Bill can be improved—and swiftly—because in proposing a greener and better future it will also allow for that future to be undermined by imported food grown more cheaply and to lower standards. Who will eat that food? It will be the poorest in society. Who will be able to afford food grown to higher standards? The better-off. It will lead to deregulatory pressure to ensure that Britain’s farmers can compete with US industrial agriculture, which is the opposite of the spirit of the Bill and of what the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box, and it is the reason we need legal protection to ensure that no food is imported that has been produced to lower standards than we have today. The Secretary of State has the opportunity to do that. Every day that she lets that opportunity slip by is an indication that they intend to renege on their promise.