I am happy to be able to make my observations on the Bill, its process and the material considerations at stake. As an MP representing a Scottish seat, I will necessarily keep my references confined to the narrow, yet vital, provisions that affect constituents in Angus and more widely in Scotland.
The Bill and its passage through Parliament afford us another example of the straining construct that the UK Parliament increasingly reveals itself to be. This is principally a Bill to provide legislative guidance, a regulatory framework and sector-specific support for English agriculture, yet here we are—MPs from all four nations of the United Kingdom—invested in its passage through this place. A far better proposition in recognising and respecting the devolved nature of agriculture would have been for the Government to table an English agriculture Bill under the EVEL—English votes for English laws—procedures so valued by Government Members, and a further agricultural co-operation Bill, which could have been agreed by consent with the devolved Administrations, with competencies over budgets, food standards, the single market in the UK, animal welfare, environmental protections, and crucially of course, trade, but that ship has well and truly sailed.
That being the case, I must turn to the provisions of the Bill, or in fact, the absence of a key provision that most concerns stakeholders in the agricultural sector: the standard of imported agricultural produce to the UK. Representatives of farming, consumer, environmental and animal welfare organisations across the United Kingdom have been crystal clear on this point. Parliament must take this opportunity to ensure that the Bill introduces vital safeguards for the maintenance of high standards of production on food imports, founded in statute, mandated by law and applying no more than that which is applied to producers of food in the domestic market.
During this period of unprecedented turmoil in our history, farmers and food producers have ensured that the cycle of food production has continued no matter what. That is the calibre of this industry and the people who work within it. We owe it to them in this context, and referencing the generations of food production before it, to ensure that our farmers are not undercut by lower standards of imports that result from some future trade policy.
This import standards issue is a matter of unparalleled concern within the industry, and moreover, it enjoys political support from across all parties in this House—a rare thing indeed. It is not a new issue either and it has been prevalent throughout the course of the Bill. Ministers have been asked many times by Members to consider it. What is concerning is that when I and other right hon. and hon. Members ask this question about standards of imports, we receive the same response from the Secretary of State as we did from his predecessor in the role, Theresa Villiers: that the Government are committed to high standards of production within the UK. That is a hollow and unconvincing yet very telling response to a question that nobody is asking, and it speaks to tension between the Department for International Trade and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that Members must circumvent today.
An early casualty, if we fail to act, will be the outstanding egg producers of these islands. It is a success story within food production that an industry that receives no subsidies provides countless farms with their egg cheque every month—so vital to the cashflow of seasonal enterprises such as farming. Yet, if the Bill fails to uphold their high standards of production on imports, they will face unparalleled if not insurmountable challenges in competing with foreign imports of egg products, dried and liquid, that could be produced to horrifically low animal welfare standards before ending up in unwitting consumers’ food products here. Scottish and UK farmers and producers are not asking for any special deal or to be protected from cheaper products of the same or higher standards. The industry in Scotland and across these islands is well able to compete on the world stage. All they are asking for is that the competition is fair and on a level playing field. For this reason, I will be voting to introduce this most basic of provisions to the Bill in the interests of consumers, environmental protection and animal welfare.