Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs) 3:15 pm, 13th May 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, Dr Hudson. I support much of what he said.

We support the spirit of the Bill, especially the movement to reward farmers for public goods. Today, the Government can introduce one of the most successful changes in agricultural policy in history. Equally, today could be remembered for one of the most catastrophic disasters. The principles are good, but the real value of the Bill will be determined in its implementation.

Farmers in Cumbria and throughout Britain could fall at the first hurdle if the Government insist on beginning the phase-out of the basic payment scheme from next January, long before its replacement is ready. Universal credit is the example of what happens when a good idea is introduced in a hasty, penny-pinching, cloth-eared way. I want to spare the Secretary of State the ignominy of being the person responsible for doing the same with the new environmental land-management scheme. Even more, I want to spare our farmers the hardship, spare our environment the damage and spare our people the loss of British food-producing capacity. In the end, it will cost less to do the right thing than it will to do it badly.

The Government’s plan is to remove 50% of basic payments by 2024, costing farmers 46% of their net income, yet the new scheme will be fully rolled out only by 2028. There are currently 89,000 basic payment claimants; how many of those farms do we expect to survive the long period during which their incomes are slashed before a replacement is ready? It is obvious that the disruption will be huge, undermining the good purposes of the Bill. We cannot care for our environment, guarantee food production and deliver public goods if, by 2028, we have allowed hundreds of farms to close by accident. The answer is a no-brainer: do not phase out basic payments until the environmental land-management schemes are ready. The Secretary of State must listen to farmers on this issue before it is too late.

The ultimate public good that farmers provide is, of course, food. Those empty shelves in March and the disruption to the supplies of imported food must be a wake-up call. Almost 50% of the food consumed in the UK is now imported, compared with 35% just 20 years ago. Successive Governments have contributed to us sleepwalking into a real problem when it comes to food security.

We will suffer a huge blow if the Bill fails to impose import standards, which is why I tabled new clause 10 and will support other amendments of similar intent. We must protect our British standards on food and food production. That will not be possible if Ministers allow the market to be flooded with food produced at a lower standard than we would tolerate here. Let us be clear: if Ministers will not accept amendments ensuring that Britain does not compromise these standards in trade deals, they are clearly saying to British farmers, “Please give us the freedom to sell you out in trade negotiations.” Britain has the best standards in the world, and they will be completely irrelevant if we allow Ministers to strike trade deals that lead to imported goods with lower production, animal welfare, environmental and labour standards.

For us in south Cumbria, the landscape of the lakes and the dales is a breathtaking public good—although, given that we have one of the oldest and most vulnerable populations in the country and the third highest covid infection rate, I strongly urge people not to rush to visit us here until it is safe to do so, at which point we will welcome them with open arms. These landscapes are of global significance. As a UNESCO world heritage site, they underpin, in normal times, an economy worth £3 billion a year. Their contribution to the heritage of our country, its economy and the nation’s wellbeing are astounding, and it is our farmers who are responsible for stewarding and maintaining those landscapes. Will Ministers commit to there being criteria within the environmental land management scheme for payments for aesthetic maintenance and for heritage, especially in the uplands?

Finally, I urge Ministers to ensure that the good principles of the Bill are reflected in wise and effective practicalities. I am convinced that this Bill will be seen as truly historic, but it is up to the Government to ensure that it is for the right reasons.