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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:48 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Mallalieu Baroness Mallalieu Labour 3:48 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I also welcome the two maiden speakers today and say how much I enjoyed their contrasting styles. I look forward to more episodes.

I will speak about agriculture, and therefore I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register. This country is about to embark on a number of huge changes, one of which is to create the first British agricultural policy in 40 years, since we handed it over to the EU. As we all know, there will be a movement away from the current system of direct acreage-based payments towards support which is directed at environmental outcomes and productivity. That is welcome, but it is also fraught with danger for the small family farms which are in many places still the backbone of rural Britain, and with them, a threat to their communities and, even more so, to upland livestock farmers for whom the present level of direct support is the difference between loss and breaking even. Sadly, this major change is set to happen against an unfortunate political background: a Government in paralysis; prolonged uncertainty, which is crippling British business, including the agricultural industry; and an Opposition who, I have to say, are currently denying the electorate the chance to change its Government by denying an election. Trust and confidence in politicians of all parties and in both Houses is at pretty near rock bottom. When I gave my destination to the taxi driver who brought me here today, he said, without approval, “Oh yes. The House of the old remainers”.

The country urgently needs certainty, and the last thing the nation needs is any further delay—and definitely not of another six months for yet another referendum. I see from my telephone, which sent me a notification during this debate, that the President of the EU, Monsieur Juncker, appears to rule out any further extension. The country also needs a Government with the power to pass essential legislation and one whose priorities extend beyond short-term party-political advantage. It cannot be a good reason to refuse to give the public a chance to elect a new Parliament because you lack confidence that either your leader or your policies will win the support of the electorate.

Going back to the land, the danger of this new policy is that many of those small farms are the very ones which protect our iconic landscapes and the rarest habitats and their wildlife. The new system needs to recognise that what they do is for the public good, not just for agriculture or themselves, and that they are currently not supported by the market for the work which they do gratis. They should be supported under the new system, and I ask the Minister to confirm that that will be the case.

We also need legislation to reflect adequately the need for support for farmers to increase food production. We have heard a huge amount, rightly, about environmental protection in this debate, but every one of us needs food, not just the planting of trees and sowing of wildflower meadows, good though that is. The food and farming industry generates £108 billion a year, our food manufacturing industry employs 3.8 million people and its exports bring £21 billion into the UK economy. That is not small beer. We have to get this policy right and balance the competing priorities.

I have a wish list for the Minister when he comes to reply. I have often heard him say when asked a difficult question, “That’s beyond my pay grade”, and I suspect that he may say that to some of the questions I ask him. However, I have a number of red lines, some of which are very personal and some of which have been touched on by others in this debate.

First, any future arrangements with the EU on food and agricultural produce need to be tariff-free both ways. Secondly—others have mentioned this red line—non-EU nations must protect our standards, both on safety, as my noble friend Lord Rooker mentioned, and animal welfare, as was said by my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, the noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Byford, and others. Thirdly, we will need the reintroduction of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, or our crops will rot, either in the ground or on it. We simply do not have the workforce for our harvests. Fourthly, we must change the rules on food labelling to both protect British produce and promote it. It simply cannot be right that a chicken that has been hatched, reared and dispatched somewhere with much less good welfare standards can undergo some minor processing here and then have a British label stamped on it. Consumers are increasingly concerned not just about where their food comes from but that it results from good animal welfare standards and practices.

In some respects, sadly, we are not world leaders, as the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, said opening the debate; we are off the pace. This is my personal red line. In countries across the world, non-stun slaughter is already prohibited, including in parts of the EU. The British Veterinary Association is very clear that millions of farm animals are slaughtered here in a manner which causes unnecessary suffering. I recognise the cultural and religious sensitivities and applaud the Muslim population who, in many parts, have agreed to changes to what would have been the requirements. Indeed, the majority of halal meat is now pre-stunned. I would prefer a ban here but surely, at the very least, consumers who want to buy only pre-stunned meat should be able to identify it.

I am very disappointed that the new Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, who had hitherto an excellent record on animal welfare, apparently recently ruled out such labelling. I hope her view will change, especially in the light of the Government’s emphasis on the importance of animal welfare and the development of new stunning methods which appear to comply with religious requirements. If this Government are really serious about animal welfare, the millions of our farm animals destined for slaughter should be at the very top of the list.