Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45 pm, 13th May 2020

I will speak to amendment 39, which is in my name.

This is a strange beast of a Bill—a hybrid that covers reserved and devolved competences, and a Lazarus that has had to rise again after that odd election in December. It now looks as if it will be the first UK Bill to be passed under the new hybrid procedures, and therefore the first UK legislation to be passed using electronic voting—so even Westminster can look a bit modern when it needs to. Perhaps electronic voting and other good developments might be retained after this pandemic is over.

Of course, the Bill is only needed because we are leaving the EU, so it is a case of cauterising a self-made wound. The Bill will pass because farmers—our food producers—need to be provided with the support they need to keep going. I will say it again, because it bears repeating: farmers are good stewards of the land; they take good care of it. It is, after all, one of their biggest assets, and it is essential to their ongoing businesses and livelihoods. Good farmers manage the land well and improve it.

I urge the Government to offer farmers more immediate support to help them get through this crisis, so that they can come out the other side with working farms and productive land. There might even be opportunities for them to use this time to innovate—to adapt their farming and business practices to a new model with an eye to future operations. We recently passed legislation that set up a new payment system. I do not see any reason why the Government should not use that to support farmers now.

We have a few choice selections on the amendment paper, and the SNP will be backing sensible improvements to the Bill. We support writing the need for high standards in imported foods into the legislation, and will be voting for that. It is of great concern to farmers, fishers and other food producers that any low-quality, mass-produced, low-price rubbish from elsewhere might be allowed to flood the market and squeeze them out. Our food producers have high-quality, high-standard and high-welfare products that provide consumers with excellent nutrition. We would be doing the food producers, the end consumers and the retailers a disservice if we allowed those high-quality products to be squeezed out by any low-quality products that have to be, for example, dipped in bleach to kill pathogens before they are dumped on the shelves. It is also a massive concern for consumers, who do not want to see their choices shut down by low-grade products.

Save our farmers, save our cooking and save our families. We must support continued high standards in animal welfare, plant hygiene and end product quality. Do not dump rubbish in our kitchens and on our plates. Let us have standards on imported food that are as high as the standards on food produced on these islands. I noted the Minister’s commitment in her speech to maintaining those standards, but I cannot understand why it is not on the face of the Bill. I look forward to her explaining that a little further later, because I am afraid that her explanations were not sufficient for me.

We also support the principles the shadow Secretary of State has written into new clause 7. Food poverty in these wealthy nations was always a disgrace, but the pandemic has brought that inequality and inhumanity into sharp relief. Action is needed to address that. I can only hope that the Government take that under advisement and look to extend the principle in the long term. People should not go hungry, or have to rely on charity to feed their children; decency and humanity are not too expensive.

Public Health Scotland looks at the effects of poverty on health, including food poverty, and analyses possible solutions as part of its work. I would imagine that Public Health England must be doing something similar, so the preparation for this would not be as big a task as it might seem, and Scotland might also offer a template you can adapt to serve England better. The “Fairer Scotland” action plan seeks to address gross inequalities. Recommendations from an independent working group on food poverty informed the creation of a fair food fund, which is now part of a larger fund investing in communities. A large lesson from that is that you cannot address food poverty properly unless you address poverty properly, and you have to roll back austerity fully if you are going to do that. You also need to ensure that there is nutritious and untainted food available, which brings us back to the principles underpinning the need to keep import standards high. There is not, however, a recognition of the devolved Governments in the amendment and it is a devolved competence, which leaves us unable to support it.

I turn now to the amendments we have lodged, including mine on import standards. I want to mention the timeous commencement of the proper operation of the red meat levy. I understand that the boards themselves are in agreement about the way forward and have been for some time, and it is incumbent upon the Government to accommodate the ambition they are showing by making sure that the machinery of the scheme is up to scratch and ready to rock ‘n’ roll as soon as possible. Scotland’s farmers have already waited far too long to get their money back so that their investments can support their businesses. I note the Minister’s commitment on this, but we will be continuing to press the Government on their commitment to April delivery.

The amendment I would like to put forward for a vote today is a bit technical. It is explained in some detail and at length in Holyrood’s Sewel memo, or legislative consent memorandum to give it the fancy title, if anyone needs the background, but it concerns the reporting to the WTO. My amendment 39 addresses the concerns in the Sewel memo and would remove the scheme that renders the devolved Administrations subject to the whims of the Secretary of State. It is surely a central principle of devolution that the devolved Administrations should be free to operate in devolved policy areas without interference from the UK Government. As the Bill currently stands, the power to determine how farming support is treated for the purposes of WTO reporting, and therefore the ceilings in each classification of support, are reserved to the UK Government rather than the devolved Administrations, which will still be tasked with providing the support to farmers. I must stress that this is a new reservation; it is a centralisation of function that does not currently exist, so I urge Members to support amendment 39 to remove that from the Bill.

I am conscious that we have a restricted timetable for these proceedings, so I will end my contribution there.