Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:14 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 2:14 pm, 13th May 2020

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, I welcome this Bill. It is the first piece of agricultural legislation to come before our country since 1947, and what a glorious opportunity it is to set out what is important to us both in what our policies should be and how we can help to shape and lead future thinking.

The events of the past few weeks have given our country pause for thought as we have evaluated what is important to us—what we value, what we stand for, who we are. While covid has presented that as an opportunity, this Bill does the same with regard to agriculture: what does a global Britain in a non-membership of the European Union world look like? Just as this country has been a trailblazer against female genital mutilation, modern slavery and the trade in ivory, so I believe we can be in our high standards that prevail in agriculture today with regard to animal welfare, food production, agricultural practices and environmental standards. So important are these issues that they were writ large in the Conservative party manifesto of only December last year. Every Minister—the Prime Minister, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary and others—when questioned on these important issues before, during and after the referendum campaign has asserted their absolute, cast-iron guaranteed support for them.

Our farmers and food producers work under those high standards of regulation willingly. They understand their importance and the consumer confidence that they bring. They understand that they add value to the provenance of our food and drink exports. I was therefore not very pleased to have to table new clause 1. The thrust that lies behind it says, in essence, that any food product imported into the United Kingdom under a free trade agreement should be raised to standards either equal to or greater than those that prevail within the UK, and that the Secretary of State should annually update a list of standards. That would not force countries that have entered into an FTA with us to change all their practices. It would simply be up to producers to work out if they were not hitting our standards and then, if they wished to access our lucrative markets, to change their practices in order so to do—the ordinary operation of the market.

My new clause is not about stymieing free trade agreements, and neither is that in the name of my hon. Friend Neil Parish—we understand the huge potential benefits that can accrue from them. But this is not about firing the starting gun for a race to the bottom. There is no merit in deliberately setting out in Government policy the creation of an unlevel playing field. Food imports to this country would be cheap for no reason bar the fact that they were raised to lower standards. Anybody can look at a variety of websites and realise some of the pretty horrendous ways in which livestock is raised in a number of countries across the world. We should shun that and be a beacon for excellence and high standards.

Those cheap food imports would remain cheap only while there was a viable scale of domestic production to create some sort of viable competition. As soon as it was choked off or choked down—reduced to a scale no more than meeting the artisan market or a farmers’ market—those prices would start to rise, and we would have lost our agricultural sector. I represent the constituency of North Dorset, where agriculture and farming is absolutely pivotal. My manifesto in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 elections was very clear that I would speak up and stand up for farmers, understanding the importance that they play in our economy.

The new clause is not anti-free trade or anti-American, but pro our standards being a beacon and pro ensuring that there is a future for our agricultural sector and for our consumers to purchase securely and safely. The new clause has attracted support from across the House and from both wings of my party: people who voted to leave the European Union and people who voted to remain. Anybody trying to dress this up as some sort of closet attempt to remain within the European Union does so at grave peril.

The new clause is also supported by a host of radical crypto-anarchic organisations: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; the Country Land and Business Association; the Soil Association; that well known anarchic group the Wildlife Trust; LEAF—Linking Environment and Farming; the Tenant Farmers Association; the National Farmers Union; and, worst of all, that Leninist organisation the Woodland Trust.

This is not a crypto-communist move against capitalism; it is about trying to create a level playing field. It is not a coercive approach to those who might enter a free trade agreement, but an invitation to meet our standards if they wish to trade. If one accepts that food production and food security are important, it would require an incredibly brave Minister of the Crown, and an incredibly brave Parliament, if our farmers came to us and said, “Look, we are just about on the brink. You will have to lower our standards and change our regulations in order to allow us to compete.” I do not want to see that, and nor does my party.

Our Prime Minister takes animal welfare very seriously, as do the Farming Minister, my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis, and the Secretary of State. However, most countries in the world value their food production, value their food security, and seek out and adopt policies in order to ensure that they have a viable future. New clause 1 does just that, and I hope that either the Minister will be in a position to accept it this afternoon, or we will see what the House has to say about it later.