Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:30 pm, 13th May 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should start by declaring my interest: my family has farmed on the Oxfordshire- Northamptonshire border for many years, and I am also a keen smallholder. This is a very important moment for agriculture in this country. This Bill is the first of its kind for more than 70 years and it will allow us to shape farming for the future. This Bill is about farmers, and sets out a framework policy for rewarding them as they produce food and provide public goods.

I thank all Members who have tabled amendments. I apologise if the hybrid nature of the debate prevents me from engaging fully with every point—it is not ideal. I am, however, reassured that the Bill has been thoroughly scrutinised by not one but two Public Bill Committees. I am keen to continue to engage with Members across the House as we develop the details of the policies. I must also record my thanks to those who have worked so hard to ensure that we have all been fed in these frightening times: farmers, manufacturers and retailers. They are food heroes, and they have worked together and struggled on despite workforce shortages and social distancing measures. I hope that a lasting legacy of this pandemic is that we all think a little more about where our food comes from.

The feeding the vulnerable taskforce, which I chair, has worked hard to ensure that those parts of society on whom this crisis falls the hardest can access food. On Friday, we announced £16 million of funding for food charities. Measures in this Bill would have been very useful two months ago. I commend in particular the powers in clauses 18 and 19, which would have made it easier and quicker to support farmers during these difficult times. Under Clause 17, for the first time, the Government will have a duty to take a regular, systematic view of our overall food security at least every five years, giving time to observe trends. That is not to say that we have to wait five years between reviews at all. The majority of data covered will, of course, be available between reports, and we certainly have no intention of waiting until the end of the five-year period to publish our first report. That report will, of course, take into account what we have learnt from the current pandemic.

This is a domestic Bill. It is not about trade. However, I have heard colleagues across the House—I am sure I will hear them again this afternoon—voice concerns about the effect of future trade agreements on UK agriculture. Some are concerned about a reduction in standards, particularly those for animal welfare. Others are concerned that there will not be a level playing field between our products and those coming from abroad.

Like the rest of my colleagues on this side of the House, I was elected on a very clear manifesto commitment—one that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reiterated since—that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. This Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers. We are keen to ensure that parliamentarians, consumers and businesses have access to the information they need on our trade negotiations. Trade talks with the US opened formally last Tuesday. Ahead of that, the Government set out the negotiating objectives and associated documents, and a similar process will be replicated in the coming months as we do the same for deals with Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

I am grateful for the continued contributions of the National Farmers Union and others who sit on our expert trade advisory group, which helped shape this trade policy and feeds straight into the negotiating team. I assure the House that we are actively exploring how to build on that industry participation.

I reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements. At the end of the transition period, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will convert all EU standards into domestic law. That will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcases, and any changes to those standards would have to come before this Parliament. We will be doing our own inspections to ensure that those import conditions are met.

While we all want to support British farmers, if passed, the well-meaning amendments would have unintended consequences. The supply of food would be significantly disrupted if goods that meet our current import standards were blocked. New clauses 1 and 2 would affect UK exports to countries with whom, as part of the EU, we currently have trade agreements. I am concerned that the extra conditions in the two new clauses could result in countries refusing to enter into continuity agreements. For example, accepting new clause 2 would risk whisky exports worth £578 million. Another example is the impact on potato exporters. Some 22% of potato exports went to countries with whom a continuity agreement has not yet been signed.

If the amendments were passed, an assessment of our current UK production standards, followed by an assessment of all relevant standards in a third country, followed by an assessment of how those compared with UK legislation and UK production standards would be required to make sure that any FTA complied with them. That would all have to be done by the end of December.

I understand that Members want to ensure safeguards for our farmers. However, I have serious concerns about the unintended consequences of the amendments for our producers and exporters. Our manifesto commitment is clear that the Government will support farmers and protect our standards. All the rules, regulations and robust processes are already in place for that.

On labelling, I am looking forward to hearing from my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch on her labelling amendment. I understand that she will be championing consumer choice in the domestic market, which is very important. Other colleagues, including my right hon. Friend Esther McVey, and my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder), have asked us to explore whether labelling approaches could be used to differentiate products that meet domestic production standards from those that do not. This would include exploring mandatory labelling. Any scheme could not be devised until we have completed the transition period and would of course need to recognise World Trade Organisation obligations, but I assure Members from across the House that this is something we will consider closely and on which we are prepared to consult.

We all hope that UK food producers will benefit from increased export opportunities as we open up foreign markets. For example, in the last year, we have seen the lifting of a 20-year ban on the export of UK beef and lamb to Japan. Our “Food is GREAT” campaign targets consumer audiences abroad and is boosting global demand for our food and drink.

I turn now to amendments relating to financial assistance. I defy anyone to maintain that the common agricultural policy was good for either environmental protection or the productivity of British farming. It has held us back. It has paid those with more land more subsidy, regardless of what they did with it. It has favoured some parts of the industry over others. We are really keen that that changes now. We have an exciting opportunity to reset and plan for the future.

Passing the Bill will give farmers and land managers a clear direction. In England, it will enable us to deliver direct payments, simplified countryside stewardship schemes and productivity grants next year. I assure Luke Pollard that that is why this Bill is top of the queue. The gradual seven-year transition will allow farmers and land managers time to prepare for the new environmental land management scheme, which is currently being tested. Upland farmers, for example, will be well placed to benefit from it. We will also create a UK shared prosperity fund to address the needs of rural businesses and communities. Delaying the start of the agricultural transition to 2022 would just delay the many benefits of moving away from direct payments. To provide reassurance again, for 80% of farmers, our maximum reductions for 2021 will be modest at under 5%.

Improving the health of our environment as set out in the “25 Year Environment Plan” is a priority. The measures in the Bill will help us to combat climate change, but the Bill is not the place for targets. Environmental land management will be critical in helping us to deliver against our legally binding target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. We recognise that for these policies to be effective, they need to be properly funded. In our manifesto, we committed to maintain current agricultural spending for each year of this Parliament. Of course, this is a framework Bill, and this is only the beginning. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House and with groups such as the NFU to develop the policy that will flow from this legislation.

I turn now to amendments tabled on agroecological farming practices, and on reducing the use of pesticides. We are already testing how ELM can support farmers to take a whole-farm holistic approach. We have 50 tests and trials in progress, with many more planned before the national pilot starts in 2021. We are considering innovative solutions such as integrated pest management, which aims to reduce pesticide use on farms. We absolutely agree that pesticides should not be used where that use may harm human health, and we have a robust regulatory system in place to ensure that.

I turn now to the many benefits that the Bill will bring farmers in the devolved Administrations. Clause 33 tackles an unfairness in the red meat levy system and will allow the levy collected from animals that have crossed a border for slaughter to be returned to where the animals were reared. The levy boards are working very hard to devise a scheme, and our aim is to have one in place by April 2021. New Clause 9 is for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister to consider. I understand that he has no plans, at this stage, to introduce a sunset clause. The UK Government will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations. I reiterate our commitment to consulting with the devolved Administrations on our proposals for regulations to be made under the WTO clauses.

I turn to the amendments on fairness and transparency in the supply chain. No decisions have yet been taken on the subject of the appropriate enforcement body. We are exploring options with the industry first before designing the enforcement regimes and appointing a regulator, but I will keep the House up to date on that.

I turn to the amendments on tenancies. Tenants should be able to benefit from our new payment policies, and we will continue to work closely with the industry—we had a large consultation last year—as we develop these policies further.

Finally, three minor technical Government amendments have been tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the request of the Welsh Government. These are needed in order to bridge the gap until new powers are provided by Welsh legislation in the Senedd.

The Bill provides a framework for an exciting future for farming. It will ensure that those who produce our food are properly rewarded, and that farming efficiently and improving the environment will go hand in hand in the future. I very much look forward to working with colleagues across the House to develop the environmental land management policies, and to working out how they will work not only on the ground, but above and beneath it.