Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:20 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 4:20 pm, 13th May 2020

I want to speak on three key themes that intertwine with the amendments and new clauses that we are considering: first, the need to protect domestic food supplies; secondly, the need for joint decision making over the new British state internal food market; and thirdly, trade policy as it will apply to agriculture.

On our economy and food supplies, the current pandemic has exposed long-ignored issues, including our dependence on imports. Now is the time to rethink, reset and rebuild our food supply from the ground up. The regrettable long-term withdrawal of both the British and Welsh Governments from food policy has allowed our food retail industry to become ever more concentrated, so that just four companies now control 70% of the UK food retail market. The oligopoly of several large food retailers has given them unprecedented power to dictate ever lower prices to farmers, continually sapping the financial health of domestic agriculture and expanding an ever wider trade imbalance that undermines our food security. In short, a complete U-turn is needed in agricultural policy to promote food production. Central to that should be the development of local processing capabilities, so that we can help to build a stronger local economy where people can buy local produce more directly.

Following the debate since the EU referendum, it is plainly obvious that the proponents of leaving the EU have given little thought to its consequences for the British state. My preferred policy would have been to remain in the single market post Brexit—a luxury available to the six counties of the north of Ireland, but not Wales—and then there would have been no need for me to make this point. However, in leaving the single market, a new internal market will need to be created for Scotland, Wales and England in order to facilitate the free movement of goods, not least agricultural products. I am sure that, as time goes by, businesses in my constituency and across Wales will start asking why they cannot have the same access to the European single market as Northern Ireland. However, I digress.

The key issue that faces us now is how the new Welsh, Scottish and English internal market will be governed and regulated. I have little doubt that, due to the centralising tendencies of Westminster, British Government Ministers believe that that will be a matter for them and them alone. I remind the British Government, however, that Wales and Scotland have moved a considerable way in recent decades, and the people of our respective countries will not take kindly to the sidelining of our national Governments and national Parliaments. After all, during the EU referendum, Brexiteers were promising Wales a “bonanza” of new powers. To avoid the destructive contradictions caused by Brexit, it is clear that the British state needs to be restructured. Joint decision making between those constituent parts of the British state within the new internal market would be an obvious way of creating some stability.

I turn to trade policy. There is a complete absence in the original Bill of any commitment or means of upholding Welsh and British farming production standards in international trade negotiations. As UK negotiators are reportedly finding out in their deliberations with the US, every one of the 50 states has the right to impose conditions in their trade deals, so as to protect their respective core economic interests.

Welsh agriculture is the bedrock of our food and drink industry, worth nearly £7.5 billion in 2018. A core component of that is overseas trade, particularly with our European friends and allies, where nearly three quarters of all Welsh food and drink exports were destined in 2018. This trade underpins the employment of over a quarter of a million people in Wales. Trade in foodstuffs is therefore a national strategic imperative for my country.

Unrestricted, cheap, poor-quality imports threaten to not only damage the immediate vitality and strength of our domestic food sector, but also pose wider challenges to our environment and our rural economy. As things stands when it comes to trade policy, Wallonia, a region of Belgium, will have more influence over European Union trade policy than Wales will have over UK trade policy. The checks and balances in the EU, the US and other trade blocs are not intended to create problems. They are there to ensure coherence to trade policy.

We are fully justified in our concern in Wales. The absurdity of current British Government trade policy means that trade negotiations with the US are given equal billing to those with the EU, despite their own figures indicating that it would take 60 deals with Trump to make up for what will be lost as a result of a botched Brexit transition phase. Again, Northern Ireland’s farmers will be protected as they will effectively remain in the EU customs union. The British Government seem to think they can leverage concessions from Europe by holding parallel talks, but President Macron, as usual, has completely outmanoeuvred the British Government by saying plainly that if the UK pursues a US deal and agrees to the importation of cheaper, lower-standard food, they can forget the trade deal with the EU.

In closing, my message to the British Government is this: stick as close to the EU as possible and create joint decision-making structures between Wales, Scotland and England over internal market and trade policy. I fear, though, that ideological zealotry will trump my advice. Diolch yn fawr.