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 Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer 3:15 pm, 13th May 2020

I start by drawing Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I want to speak in support of new clause 2, new clause 1 and amendment 6. Like other Members, I very much support the broad thrust of the Bill, which has been much improved over time. The revised text, which we debated on Second Reading in January, now recognises the importance of food production and food security, funding to support innovation and productivity improvements, and the proper financing of environmental provisions.

However, the laudable aims of the Bill will come to nothing if the Government do not secure fair terms of trade for UK producers. The new public money for public goods and innovation funding model has to be considered together with the Government’s broad trade policy. Having the right framework for British agriculture is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the future prosperity of the sector, which is why I warmly endorse the amendments proposed, which seek to provide a concrete guarantee on future import standards.

Our producers have worked and invested for decades to raise our standards, and that could easily be lost if they are set at a structural disadvantage by our allowing in a flood of low-quality imports produced with poorer animal welfare and environmental standards, which could ultimately cause economic damage to British agriculture and the social fabric of our rural communities. There is also the risk of environmental damage across the globe if the UK became more reliant on imported produce.

The climate change angle will be increasingly important. UK farmers have a key role to play in our progress towards the 2050 net zero carbon target, as British agriculture accounts for 9% of national emissions, but that opportunity could be wiped out if we allow the importing of food produced overseas in a far more carbon- intensive way—for instance, bringing in Brazilian beef grazed on former rainforest land.

I do not believe that these amendments would damage our ability to strike reasonable trade agreements, so I do not agree with what the Minister said at the start of the debate. The whole argument on standards in trade deals is not unique to this country. We should be looking to base much of our trade on the exchange of quality products. Trade deals should be about the desirable goods we can offer to overseas consumers, not just the market access that they can seek to gain from us. UK agriculture has a huge amount to offer in that regard, already earning the UK some £22 billion a year and representing 6% of overall exports.

I also strongly support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, which would delay the start of the transition to the concept of public money for public goods from the basic payment scheme to 2022, rather than 2021. This would allow the transition to run more successfully and much more smoothly by giving producers more time to restructure their businesses in order to provide those all important public goods. Though DEFRA’s approach is evolutionary, as everyone has said so far, this is still a big shift for British agriculture, and I believe the Government want UK producers to make good decisions, not hasty ones, during the transition. They should therefore give them time.

The amendments I have touched on all have powerful arguments behind them in the best of times; for me, those arguments are substantially strengthened by the new landscape that coronavirus has created. The current situation demonstrates the value of maintaining a strong UK food sector, so that our national food security does not depend on long international supply chains, which have proven fragile in such periods. The outbreak has also showcased the importance of small-scale and regional supply chains that can be relied on for food and drink when all else fails.

I hope the Government will listen to the arguments behind the amendments, and I look forward to hearing their response.