European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:13 pm, 30th January 2018

My Lords, as has been said, this is an extremely complex and legalistic Bill. While I may be able to cope with the complex, the legal ramifications are beyond me and are much better left to those who have had the necessary training and experience. Nevertheless, the Bill and all that it stands for will have huge implications for people in what was the United Kingdom. Many are extremely frustrated at how long it is taking to extricate the country from what they see as the “clutches of Europe”. Others are extremely apprehensive about what their future will be in a stand-alone island.

Today’s debate is important, as it sets the tone for the debate to take place during Committee and Report, when those here today will drill down into the detail. The Bill seeks, as the Leader of the House so eloquently set out, to ensure that our laws under the EU are transposed into UK law at the point in March 2019 when the country no longer has EU membership; it seeks, that is, to align UK law with that which pertains before March 2019. There is a great deal of disquiet about exactly what this will mean and how it will affect businesses in the agri-food sector.

Agriculture in 2015, was 1.4% of the GVA in England, 2.7% in the south-west and Scotland, and 4.8% in Wales. But—and it is a big but—it represented 70% of the land use across the UK. Food growth feeds into food production. Food supply is one of the 13 critical national infrastructure sectors. In 2015, the food chain relied on imports of £40.3 billion, of which £28.4 billion came from the EU. In terms of food manufacture, 25% of employees were born outside the UK.

The current subsectors of land use are: agritech, which is very important for new and innovative ways of both growing and harvesting crops; plant breeding, another area where investment brings huge returns; and forestry. According to the 2014 VAT statistics—goodness know why there are not more up-to-date statistics—there are 3,685 forestry businesses, 555 sawmills, 130 wood-based panel businesses and 230 pulp and paper businesses. Of the private owners, 90% have holdings of less than 10 hectares. This equates to 30% of privately owned forests. Yesterday’s debate on the 25-year environment plan showed that forests are essential to the quality of the air we breathe. We must preserve these businesses after the exit from the EU.

Post Brexit, what will happen to the National Office of Animal Health—aptly named NOAH? Veterinary medicines are essential. As with food production and safety, the UK needs access to developments in animal welfare and medical advances in order to ensure healthy crops and livestock. Currently, EU rules protect livestock from foot and mouth, blue tongue, avian flu and the Asian longhorn beetle. These diseases have a damaging and long-lasting effect on farmers. EU rules ensure there is immediate cessation of trade from infected areas, and swift resumption once appropriate controls are in place. Farmers and growers will wish to have the security of such controls post Brexit.

Although agriculture is vital, many will point out that food manufacturing, wholesaling, retailing and non-residential catering produce 10 times the GVA. However, without a sustainable, vibrant agricultural base, will food manufacturers increasingly have to import from all over the world? Our fishermen currently land cod in UK ports, where it is sent to China for filleting; China then sends it back to the UK for breading. What total nonsense is this? No doubt it is then served up in the restaurants in and around the House.

We live on an island with brilliant coastlines and countryside. Ireland has a similarly vibrant fishing industry which needs protecting. As we all know, fish are not respecters of borders—how can they be? I look forward to both the agriculture and the fisheries bills coming forward later this year. In the meantime, I have flagged up my concerns about how this Bill will align our laws in reality and how important it is to amend it to make it fit for purpose.