Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 26th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 7:34 pm, 26th June 2017

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. I agree with everything he said. It is good that we have such interest in rural affairs and the countryside in its entirety. It is for that reason that I think we have all enjoyed the contributions made so far, certainly from colleagues who have just joined the House.

It is appropriate at this hour to concentrate for a few moments on the food and drink industry. As the Minister opened the batting, we were reminded that the economy is very much dependent on economic stability. That has to come first, and so it should. Industry is part of agriculture and agriculture is part of industry. The growth in agriculture in recent years has been phenomenal in the sense that the development has been due to technology and the ability of the younger people who are coming into the industry—and they are. Possibilities exist for yet more to be produced.

We already employ nearly 4 million people in the food and drink industry—14% of the population are involved in this sector—which generates over £100-billion worth of product every year; all that in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. It is well known that farming knows how to be resilient, particularly against knocks of volatility.

I wish to raise an issue that I think is of great importance, as those who are dealing with Brexit start to come to grips with each other. Agricultural support post Brexit is not something in which the United Kingdom will have a free hand—far from it. It is essential to understand that whatever the UK does must fall within the framework of rules set by the World Trade Organization. The reason the CAP has changed so radically over the years is not because EU politicians saw the need for reform but much more because successive world trade agreements made reform inescapable. I know what I am talking about because I have been heavily involved in that over the last 30 years. Therefore, the United Kingdom will need to be a full member of the WTO and its related customs conventions to permit trade to move smoothly, and this will have to be agreed before Brexit. WTO rules will be the crucial framework for both the United Kingdom and the EU 27. I would very much welcome the Minister’s response on the possibility of involving the WTO in the talks that are taking place.

Of course, the UK will have decision-making on issues such as animal health, plant health, pesticides and genetically modified crops, but the rules will have to be acceptable to export markets if trade is not to be damaged. Consumer and environmental lobbyists are increasingly vocal about so many issues, such as animal welfare and pesticide use in countries that export to the United Kingdom.

The UK market is therefore itself vital for some regions more than others. We have just heard about the importance of making sure that we can grow, like others do, the horticultural products that are so important in this country. So we should and so we can. The UK market, which itself is of course so important, has to recognise that we are a trading nation, just as the others are, and we must take what advantage we can from it. This is therefore vital for many regions. One thinks, for example, of Welsh lamb going to France—we have had problems in the past. We frequently hear the comment that the EU will fall over itself to do a deal with the United Kingdom because the Germans want to sell their cars and the French want to sell their cheese. That is a pretty glib and unconvincing assumption. Nor it is obvious that all the countries which are supposed to be queueing up to do a trade deal with the UK as a whole are motivated entirely by philanthropic sentiments: for instance, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and the like have their own interests. They will demand major concessions on products like beef, lamb, dairy products and pork. Such imports could drive down prices in the United Kingdom for the producer. It may be said afterwards, “It helps the consumer”, but WTO rules would make it difficult to provide compensation.

So where do we go? That of course depends on what we want from agriculture. If all we want is food, it is pretty difficult to defend the expensive support we have had. I say that clearly, as one who has been concerned with it for so long. What we want is of course a policy that will stand up and be there for ages. It has to encourage efficient production—that was in the 1947 Act. We therefore continue with those demands. In short, we should simplify the payments system without losing accountability, change the area payments mechanisms—for example, should payments continue to go to landowners even for unfarmed land?—and pursue a more scientific approach to plant and animal health, including GM.

The last point—which I must make—must be hammered home. The Government must produce a simple scheme to permit migrant labour to work in agriculture. The horticultural sector—although not exclusively—is dependent on such labour. At present it is a huge uncertainty, and the Government could dispel that very simply indeed.