I rise to speak in support of Lords amendments 1, 11, 16 and 17, and on amendment 18 I send my best wishes for a speedy recovery. I declare an interest: my little sister is a farmer in Cornwall. I thank all farmers for their work throughout the covid-19 pandemic.
This is a crucial moment for British agriculture. Today, Members on both sides of the Chamber are given a choice about what kind of country we want Britain to be. Do we want to be a nation that shines as a beacon around the world, standing up for our farmers, for the welfare of our animals and for the environment? Or do we want to throw all that away, just for the vague promise of a trade deal, so that poor-quality food is served to our children, standards are undercut and carbon and animal-welfare responsibilities are exported? I do not want to see Britain be the kind of country where our farmers are forced out of business, decimating our proud rural tradition.
I do not think anyone in this House wants lower-quality food on our plates, but unless the Government show some leadership and back British farmers, there is a real risk that that could happen. Labour has been clear that the Bill must include legal guarantees that our high UK food and farming standards will not be undercut in post-Brexit trade deals, whether with the USA, Australia or any other country. That is because Labour backs British farmers. In calling for food standards to be put unequivocally in law, I wish to speak not only for Labour but on behalf of the 1 million people who signed the NFU’s petition on food standards and, of course, on behalf of British farmers from Cornwall, Plymouth and Devon to the east of England, to Wales and to Scotland when I say: put high food and farming standards into law. Do it now—do it today.
It may seem a long time ago, but less than a year ago the Conservatives made a pledge on food standards in their manifesto. This is how it started:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
This is how it is going: our farmers risk being undercut by cheap imports from abroad within months. If the Government are serious about keeping their manifesto promise to safeguard standards, they should put that guarantee into law. If that promise was good enough for the Conservative manifesto, why is it not good enough for the Agriculture Bill, this Government’s flagship piece of legislation on food and farming? I say to the Minister that refusing to put that piece of the manifesto into law raises the question as to whether thar part of the manifesto was truly meant and whether that promise can be believed.
Undercutting our farmers at the very moment that farm support payments are being radically overhauled creates a lot of uncertainty for those working in agriculture. Farmers are already facing massive uncertainty over our trading relationship with the EU, our biggest export market for agricultural products. They are up for the challenge of decarbonising food production and they largely back the new farm payment scheme, as Labour does, although more detail on that, to be published shortly, would go a long way to building support among farmers for it. However, all that good will is going to be for naught if Ministers allow the economic foundation of farming to be washed away. They will do that by rightly holding our farmers to high standards, but opening a back door to the import of lower-quality food.
Labour MPs will tonight back amendments that protect Britain’s food standards, not just because that is the right thing to do, but because we have listened to farmers and we stand alongside them. The Conservative party, save for a courageous few, must look carefully at what they will be voting for tonight. This Bill needs cool heads, not firm party Whips. I saw a lot of Conservative Members pose for photos for Back British Farming Day in September—every day should be Back British Farming Day. On this day, when our farmers need us, we have a chance to see who are the real friends of farming, who are there when the weather is bleak and a job needs to be done, and who are there only when the sun shines.