Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 13th May 2020.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:00 pm, 13th May 2020

It is a pleasure to be able to continue to debate these vital issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Victoria Prentis. We had many hours in Committee.

This Bill has been a long time coming: almost two and half years since it was started, with three Secretaries of State and two Prime Ministers. It seems a world away from when it was launched back in October 2018. Some things have not changed, however. The climate crisis, finally properly recognised by this Parliament last year, remains more than pressing. There is much in this Bill on which we can all agree. We welcome the improvements on the first version, but, as the debate this afternoon has shown, we still think that there is room for improvement and that there are some fundamental points of disagreement.

We can all agree that we want to use public money to drive a more environmentally friendly farming system and help farmers to make that transition to a destination, which many of us would like to see, based on agro-ecological principles, recognising the need for good soil health and wise and sustainable use of water. Those points were very well made by my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy, who has been campaigning on these issues for many years, and by my hon. Friend Geraint Davies.

We would also hope that most could see the sense in a coronavirus emergency food plan, which we suggest in new clause 7, particularly given that I am sure the Government will want to implement as quickly as possible the ideas coming out of the work that is being done on the now much-needed national food strategy. We should also be able to agree that the new Environment Bill can set the context for tackling the climate crisis, although I am sorry to say that the Government sadly declined to use this Bill to set the net zero targets so badly needed to make progress in agriculture.

We can also mostly all agree on wanting to raise animal welfare standards. It is often much more a question of how we do it. Although we appreciate that this is a framework Bill, we are disappointed that the Government rejected our attempts to strengthen standards in many areas through amendments in Committee. We strongly agree on the principle of moving to a system of public money for public goods, but as the lengthy and detailed discussions in Committee around environmental land management schemes showed—I am sure the Minister will remember them—there is much still to be resolved, and we share the concerns of many in the farming community about the financial uncertainties that lie ahead. The debates about the purposes to which public money should be put were a genuine attempt to flesh out and develop some fundamental issues. The tension between avoiding undue bureaucracy and ensuring positive environmental outcomes is not always easy, as some Members referred to earlier, but the opportunities are hugely exciting, and we will engage constructively in the iterative process promised by the Minister.

I must say, though, that all that agreement is worth nothing when it is distorted by a dash to remake our relationships with the rest of the world and to put in place new trade relationships in a hurry. We do feel that this is being done in the wrong order. The Environment Bill and the food strategy should have been determined first, but we are now driven by a timetable to replace the basic payment system and get those new trading relationships in place. It is on that new system in particular that agreement dissolves; it is that issue that divides this House fundamentally. The question of whether potential imports should meet our food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards has been at the heart of the arguments about this Bill from the beginning, and I shall return to that later.

Some sections of the Bill have drawn less attention today, but as recent events within food supply chains have shown, there is clearly, in our view, scope for improved regulation. Some of the issues in the dairy industry are long-standing, and any industry suffering the shock of losing a major part of its market overnight will struggle. None the less, pictures of farmers having to discard milk are testament to the need for reform, and there are other parts of the food production system where power imbalances distort the situation. That is why we and others continue to press for an extended role for the Groceries Code Adjudicator. A number of our amendments continue to make that case. I noted the characteristically robust comments from my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) about the dairy industry, and also from my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare, who sat on the Bill Committee. They all made points about the need to secure our food supply system.

We also supported amendments in Committee on helping tenant farmers with access to financial support schemes, and we are slightly disappointed that the Government have not taken those forward. I hope they might look closely at amendment 1, tabled by Neil Parish, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on ensuring that funds available previously through regional development schemes remain available, particularly for small farmers. That point was strongly made to us by the Landworkers Alliance. We do share worries that the emergence of different financial support systems across the devolved nations could create significant distortions and problems in future, perhaps creating particular challenges for farmers in England—we heard reference to that from some speakers today. Hopefully, many of these points will be pursued as the Bill goes through the Lords.

The two issues on which we seek Divisions this evening are the fundamentals. Our new clause 7 has been spoken to eloquently by many colleagues, and the crisis has shone a light on pre-existing problems of hunger, poverty and food insecurity in our country. The new clause would give us a chance to tackle them as the country would expect.

We heard some powerful contributions from colleagues earlier in the debate. My hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck has, of course, been campaigning on food insecurity issues for many years, and my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell very powerfully described the shambles around the free school meals voucher system, which many have suffered from in our constituencies.

All the positive aspects of the Bill that I have referred to will be meaningless, however, if our farmers face imports from countries that apply lower standards. We all know that, in a delicious irony, it is clear that the current Secretary of State shares our view because, in his brief absence from the Government Front Bench last year, he tabled a comprehensive set of amendments to guard against that problem. He now, of course, has to disown that position and fall back on the promises that other colleagues in Government are offering. Good luck with that. This is his chance to be true to the 62 organisations who wrote to the Prime Minister in January, making this very point. They have written again this week to MPs. It is an extraordinary coalition—unprecedented, probably—of environmentalists and farmers united in a common cause, and we know that many Conservative Back Benchers actually agree with them.

An unusual vote is coming up—the first virtual vote on a real issue of substance. New clauses 1, 2 and 6 all seek to achieve the same thing—to safeguard our environment, our high food safety standards and our high animal welfare standards. Labour will support them all but, given the political arithmetic, the decision rests with Conservatives. I am still hopeful that at the last minute the Government will see sense and we will see a conversion, but if not, I hope that Conservative Members who are voting at home will think hard before they cast their vote. This is important.

The Minister assures us that our high standards will be translated into UK law. I have to say we had a debate about this in Committee and, as ever with things legal, we are not convinced that the position is so clear. How much better to put it into law tonight. We all want a transition to an environmentally friendly and sustainable food and farming system, and our pledge on this side is to work constructively with the Government to bring that about. We believe the best way to do it is to be proud of our high standards, not to undermine them, and to challenge others to meet them. On that basis, I seek support for our amendments.