Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 4:45 pm, 13th May 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; that was an interesting tour of the UK—from Scotland to the south-west and finally to Northern Ireland.

I want to speak primarily to new clause 9 in my name and those of the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) and others; to new clause 1, of which I am a co-sponsor; and to new clauses 2, 6 and 10, which are very similar.

By way of context, I stress the importance of the agri-food sector to the Northern Ireland economy. It represents about 10% of all activity, which is considerably higher than the UK average. Furthermore, the profile of agriculture and associated industry in Northern Ireland is different from that of the UK as a whole; we have a much higher profile of smaller farmers in particular. The Northern Ireland sector is based around quality rather than scale, and standards are critical and are a matter of pride to all stakeholders.

I passionately believe in an open and liberal international trading system, and we had that with our membership of the European Union and its trade deals with the rest of the world. Trade cannot be conceptualised in simplistic terms or around outmoded 19th-century economic thinking. Environmental, food safety, animal welfare and labour issues are now all vital considerations.

It is also important to acknowledge the unique situation in which Northern Ireland finds itself from the implementation of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol. That is of course the inevitable out-working of Brexit and in particular the decision of the UK Government to rule out a softer Brexit based around the customs union and single market, and therefore the ongoing need to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland and protection of the Good Friday agreement. Northern Ireland will consequently remain aligned to large aspects of EU regulation. Furthermore, there is ongoing uncertainty as to how Northern Ireland will interact with EU trade policy and also UK trade policy going forward, with the risk of being marginalised in both respects. Obviously, in the all-Ireland context, matters such as food safety and environmental considerations need to be aligned.

On the substance of new clause 9, I acknowledge that post Brexit there is a need for an initial UK-wide framework to provide breathing space in policy and payments, but there is a sunset clause in the Bill for some measures applying to Wales, and Scotland has already indicated its intention to shape its own policy. This Bill was conceived and drafted prior to the New Decade, New Approach agreement and the welcome restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, but there is no sunset clause for the application of schedule 6 to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is therefore out of step with other devolved nations, yet, paradoxically, it is Northern Ireland that needs the greatest scope to shape policy to fit its particular circumstances, not least given that protocol.

The Bill provides for the local Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister to amend provisions by regulation, but most Members will appreciate the different processes and scope to enact them through primary legislation and regulation. Northern Ireland is at risk of losing the capacity of the much more rounded and participative process that comes from full legislative consideration. There is a broad range of farming and environmental stakeholders who deserve the opportunity to engage more fully in the development of policy.

In the Minister’s opening comments, she indicated that matters covered in new clause 9 were largely for the devolved AERA Minister. However, I have already explained the difference between action by regulation and by primary legislation. Carla Lockhart stated that the local Minister was happy with the Bill and the Assembly had already passed a legislative consent motion, but that Minister was only one voice and his views are not representative of the majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The LCM was passed by the Assembly in anticipation that it could still pass its own bespoke legislation, and, importantly, the agriculture and environment Committee in the Assembly has expressed its support for a sunset clause.

Any sunset clause would run to 2026, which would provide ample time for local measures to be put in place; there would therefore be no risk. It would be a strange thing if the Northern Ireland Assembly did not want to shape policy in an area of its own competence.