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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:59 pm, 3rd February 2020

I am sure I have seen this Bill somewhere before but, as it seems that we are destined to repeat this whole thing, and we will no doubt be going over the same ground, let me say upfront that the Bill does not respect the devolved settlement and that that cannot be a basis on which to proceed.

Let me deal first with the issue of farming support payments. We discussed it during the passage of the Bill that became the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Act 2020. That Bill was, of course, needed as a result of the Government’s failure to plan, which, I suppose, is why we find ourselves repeating a failed Agriculture Bill.

Questions that were asked during the passage of the direct payments legislation were not answered at the time. I wonder whether Ministers have had an opportunity to consider them yet, and whether they find themselves in a position to answer them now. In order to be as helpful as possible, let me refresh their memories. Like the debate itself, this may seem rather like an episode of déjà vu, given that I asked those questions twice, and other Members asked them as well. None of us received an answer, but I am eternally hopeful. It must be my Aussie optimism.

First, let me ask about currency fluctuations. Will any drop in the value of sterling see a corresponding uplift in farm payments to take account of the increased costs of the imported products that farmers will need in the event of legislation requiring the Scottish Government to make payments on the basis of existing EU rules? We know that the currency recently took another beating as a result of Brexit; do the Government propose to help farmers a little with that, and with future fluctuations?

Will there be a multi-annual framework for farm support, or will there just be ad hoc, “make it up as you go along” nonsense? We were told that the details had not been worked out. Has any thought been given to that framework since then? Even the merest idea of how the basic framework of the scheme will look would be a start. When will that be available?

When will we hear details of the shared prosperity fund—details of how much money it contains, and what conditions might be attached? When will we see the global funding figure, and the proportions for Scotland and Wales? Will we have any guarantees that they will be at least maintained in real terms and on international comparators? Will support for our farmers at least keep pace with the support that farmers in the remaining states of the EU will receive? Farmers need some idea of the long-term support that they will receive, or not receive, so they can plan their businesses. The Minister is a farmer himself, and he must be aware of that. Brexit is enough of a disaster for farmers without their not being made aware of the funds that they are likely to receive.

Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether it will be open to owners of grouse moors, shooting estates, private forestry and other such land to apply for the new English scheme for public goods. Will public money, having been directed away from food production, be finding its way to them? I personally think—and I believe that many other people think so too—that the proposed new English system will store up long-term problems in England’s food supply, which will, of course, affect Scotland’s production chain. I hope that we shall hear some answers from the Minister tonight, even if there is a timetable for substantive answers.

We have some other concerns. The viability of many of our farms relies on getting produce to European markets, but the only word that we seem to have had on the future relationship is the Prime Minister’s lukewarm hope for a trade deal. We do know that there are a couple of deadlines on the horizon in June, with the questions of financial services and fishing to be decided. We are fairly sure that fishing will be sold out in favour of the City of London’s access to the European markets. However, that wrangling and betrayal dance will mean less concentration on agriculture and the movement of goods—food produced here, to be sure, but also the fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and other crop products that our farmers use, as well the animal feed on whose import they rely.

That, of course, feeds into the subject matter of part 2: food security and the supply chain. There will be little point in the Bill if farmers cannot farm in any case. What conversations are Ministers having about ensuring the free flow of goods into and out of the EU? Just this morning we read that the Prime Minister would rather accept tariffs than EU laws, and would not follow EU regulations. Imagine the feelings of farmers and crofters hearing that from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom! What guarantees can be offered on the future of their trade? Without some guarantees, the structures and rules being set up by the Bill are meaningless phrases and empty promises.

The other deadline in June is, of course, the decision on applying for an extension of the transition period beyond the end of this year. I do not think that anyone will be surprised if there is a great deal of hubristic chest thumping and a great many refusals to extend, but the truth is that farmers will need that extension while the deals to ensure their survival are being hammered out.

In the midst of all of that chaos, the Bill contains measures that cut into devolution, trampling on devolved competences such as livestock identification and organics. That is not acceptable, and it must be reversed if the Government want to respect the voices of the Scottish people.

One final issue worth addressing, given the promises made by the Government time after time, is the failure to include protections for food quality and protected geographical indications, of which we have heard much today. We have no guarantees, our food protections are being stripped away, our food quality and welfare protections are going, and support for farmers is under threat, as is their ability to farm. This is not legislation; it is a Brexit fire sale.

In an area of “government by clever wheeze”—or what the Government think are clever wheezes, anyway—good management and sensible government have gone, and we are left with assertion, bluff and bluster. Far from the ideal of evidence-based policy making, the Bill is a hope-and-prayer pitch at filling a giant hole with a tiny pebble. In Brexit England, evidence seems to be treated with the same suspicion as experts, and we are left with this nonsense instead.

This Bill does not respect the devolved Administrations, and the SNP will be withholding our consent for its progress.