I thank the Secretary of State for his work in progressing the Bill to this stage.
No Member needs reminding of the importance of a sustainable UK agriculture industry and of our own food security. Amid the covid-19 crisis, it is the UK’s farmers who are feeding the nation. We owe them not only our thanks for working day and night to provide us with food but a future that is economically viable, that ensures farmgate prices are fair and that supports them as they face growing challenges, be they market driven or environmental.
Agri-food is one of Northern Ireland’s greatest economic assets, sustaining approximately 100,000 jobs and bringing an added value of almost £1.5 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. That underpins our need to ensure a sustainable platform moving forward. We must protect those jobs and this cornerstone of our economy, and to do so we need to ensure that the Bill not only allows for the continuation of financial support for farmers but offers protection.
With those two core tenets in mind, my party and I broadly support new clauses 1, 2 and 6. We need to protect our farmers and consumers from cheap imports that do not meet the standards we demand of our farmers. The standards that British farmers work to come with significant cost implications. They ensure that our food is safe and our environment is safeguarded for future generations, while our animal welfare standards are exemplary. Speak to any British farmer: their desire is to maintain these standards—indeed, they want constantly to develop and innovate so that they always ensure that best practices are adopted. In our opinion, it is a major failure of the Bill that it does not enshrine standards for the future. We must not sacrifice these standards, which we demand of our own farmers, on the altar of free trade. That must be rectified.
I also wish to speak directly to the amendment tabled by my colleagues the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry), for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna). I, like my colleagues, am a devolutionist. The Northern Ireland Assembly debated and agreed a legislative consent motion on
With that in mind, and given the respect we ought to afford the devolution settlement on this and other matters, we will not be supporting the amendment. We do not believe the Northern Ireland Assembly requested it.
Indeed, adopting the amendment and imposing such a timeline could leave a legislative gap, leaving our Minister with no legal authority to issue agricultural support payments, which currently total some £300 million, to Northern Ireland farmers. Such a situation would spell disaster for our farmers, particularly in the context of challenging farm-gate prices.
As we move forward with the Bill and with a new post-Brexit agricultural platform, we need to ensure that financial support remains in place for the future, and I urge the Minister to seek further guarantees from the Treasury on that. I would also be keen to see how rural development is to be supported. We must not lose the support being given to farmers for environmental schemes. Let this Bill and those that will come from the devolved Administrations be the first steps in a new era for British farming and our agrifood sector. Let us be fair to our farmers on standards and import tariffs. There is a slogan in Northern Ireland, “no farmers, no food, no future”, and it encapsulates perfectly the importance of getting this right.