Clause 4 - Multi-annual financial assistance plans

Part of Agriculture Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 12th October 2020.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00 pm, 12th October 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Neil Parish, who made a passionate speech.

I rise principally to speak in support of amendment 16, although I will have a few words to say about the missing amendment 18. Amendments such as Lords amendments 9 on a national food strategy, and 11 on pesticides, are clearly devolved matters and properly decided by our Government in Scotland. However, in solidarity with our friends in England, I wish to express disappointment that this Government have chosen simply to strike all the amendments down, rather than to amend them and use them to improve the Bill. I cannot understand why they have not taken that opportunity. Regrettably, however, I think I am right in saying that very few—if any—Opposition amendments or new clauses were accepted by the Government throughout the course of the Bill, so perhaps I should not be so surprised.

I welcome Government amendments 10 to 15 and 20 to 29, which mean that the UK Government will have to gain the consent of the devolved authorities in further areas such as organics, but once again I contrast that approach with the bulldozing of devolved competences in the internal market Bill. I wonder if one hand of the Government is aware of what the other hand is up to.

There remains plenty to be worried about in the Bill, and the dismantling of England’s farm support system, to be replaced by some amorphous idea of payments for public goods, must rate high on that list. The issue that causes the most concern to food producers in Scotland, and to Scottish consumers, is that of food standards. The extra scrutiny measures that the Minister has announced are of course useful, but I look in vain for something with real teeth that can quell the very real concerns that we hear from all corners of the House.

One provision that has been inserted into the Bill will do something to address that gap and place the issue of food standards in the Bill, and we should keep that provision. Lords amendment 16 relates to clause 42 of the Bill, as it was bounced back here from over there, and it should be kept in the Bill. It is not perfect but it is serviceable and it offers some protection against what are sometimes appallingly poor standards of food production in other countries.

Shoppers have some idea of the quality of what they buy in the shops because of the regulations in place to ensure the quality of food from farm to shelf. Those regulations—those safeguards—will be dumped if this Government get their way. We know that because there have been plenty of opportunities to put protections and guarantees into legislation. This Bill, the Trade Bill, the withdrawal Bill and the internal market Bill have all been passed up by the Government, denied, done down and refused.

This Government sometimes seem hell-bent on reducing the quality of our food supplies and, frankly, it is not entirely clear why. Some have suggested that it is to secure a trade deal here or there, but that seems too high a price to pay. I am left considering only the possibility that they simply have not thought this through because the alternative explanation is that they intend to drive down food standards and consumer protections. Some say that that is because they have the wealth to ensure sufficient high-quality food for themselves and so give not a jot for the health and wellbeing of others. That, frankly, would seem a strange attitude for elected representatives to have. However, I see few other explanations for the refusal at least to replicate our existing food protections. The former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, promised us several times that UK food standards would not be undermined by future trade deals. Here is the best and very possibly the last opportunity for this DEFRA Secretary and his Minister to do something about it.

I must say a few words about the rather hamfisted use of parliamentary tactics by the Government to prevent debate and a vote on Lords amendment 18, which would require the Trade and Agriculture Commission to make a report on recommendations for policies to protect food standards, domestic production, the environment and animal welfare, and the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament. It has long been suspected that the Trade and Agriculture Commission was created so that the Government might evade the wrath of their Back Benchers and a likely defeat in this Chamber. Here was an opportunity to create a Trade and Agriculture Commission with some real purpose and strength, instead of leaving us with the weak sop to the Government’s MPs that it is currently. Instead of creating a commission that had the ability to overturn any decisions made by Governments that might threaten the viability of our farming and food and drink sectors, we have a body that is frankly nothing more than a poodle of the International Trade Department. It looks like yet another internal battle between the Department for International Trade and DEFRA has been comprehensively won, or lost, once again.

We in the SNP have repeatedly expressed concern about the body over its lack of any real teeth and the lack of regard for the devolved authorities. These proposals do not go far enough, or did not go far enough, as reports do not provide concrete protections or requirements for the Government to act, but they also do not reflect the reality of devolved competences, and we insist that the devolution settlement be considered and respected in any reports so produced. With all that said, the Tory Government are offering nothing more than empty words as a protection for food standards and a report by the Trade and Agriculture Commission would at least do more than that to protect food standards. However, as we see tonight, even that wee bit of protection has been blocked by the Government.

All Scottish MPs received a letter signed by dozens of farming, health, environmental and social justice organisations recently pleading with us to support higher food standards through these amendments—from the National Farmers Union Scotland, to Citizens Advice Scotland, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland, the Leith Community Crops in Pots, Unite Scotland, Unison Scotland, the Trussell Trust and many, many more. The question for me is: will the Scottish Tories ignore them all?

I note from the most recent survey of Which? on the subject that some 95% of the respondents from Scotland who voted for the Conservatives in 2019 called for food standards to be maintained, with around three quarters of them saying that they were uneasy, first, because the UK Government had not entirely ruled out for good lifting the bans on chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef; and, secondly, because such bans could be lifted with a vote in Parliament. Again, I call on the Scottish Tories to do the right thing by all their constituents—to give them the protection that our citizens look to their elected representatives to provide and vote for this amendment to stay within the Bill. We challenged Scotland’s supine six to do the right thing by their constituents and by the people of Scotland at the time of the Trade Bill debates, but they meekly followed their Westminster leader through the Lobbies once again. Will they finally, this time, do their jobs and represent the interests of the people who elected them to this place?

The SNP has voted to protect food standards almost a dozen times over the course of the debates on the Trade and Agriculture Bills, and we will not stop there, unlike this Government. The very latest poll released this weekend showed once again that Scotland has tired of enduring a series of Governments we did not vote for dragging us into situations we do not want to be in. I am delighted to say that it showed once again clear majority support for Scotland making its own way and deciding its own priorities for vital issues such as the quality of the food we eat and protections for our environment, our animals, and our food and drink and agriculture sectors. It is clear that the Conservative party had better get used to it.