Amendment 236A

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 9:45 pm, 23rd July 2020

I am very pleased indeed to speak after the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. This is a very wide-ranging set of amendments in this group: it covers food labelling, climate change and greenhouse gas labelling, marketing standards—including the importing of wine—and a geographical indications scheme. That is pretty wide-ranging, it seems to me.

However, I only wish to speak to Amendment 256 on standards. I have added my name to it and was happy to be able to support the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on it because, as she said earlier, she and I—together with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—pursued the issues of high-quality food and high standards of animal health, welfare and hygiene in the context of the Government’s Trade Bill last year. We were very pleased eventually to get a form of words agreed with the then Minister, which were included in the Bill. Amendment 256 is very much based on that amendment that was agreed last year.

Therefore, I am rather disappointed that we now seem to be back to square one, with the Government once again talking about the importance of high standards in these important areas but refusing to turn these words into any form of legislative commitment. We know how widespread and strong public support is across the United Kingdom for our existing high standards of animal hygiene, health and welfare and for high-quality foodstuffs. I could cite any number of public surveys on these issues, and they all show strong public support for the existing United Kingdom regime and high levels of opposition to cheap food imports from abroad reared without regard for animal health or hygiene and often, as we know, in extremely insanitary conditions.

It is not often that I have to tell the House that I have found myself in full sympathy with both the National Farmers’ Union and the Mail on Sunday. However, on this issue, I am at one with their campaigning and, clearly, so are well over a million of my fellow citizens, who have signed their petitions.

It is very clear to me—though I am sure the Minister will deny it—that the Government are pursuing two incompatible goals. They are expressing their verbal support for high food and animal hygiene and welfare standards, but at the same time they are pursuing trade deals with the United States and potentially other countries whose farm lobbies are working aggressively to open up new markets in the United Kingdom for their inferior but cheaper products.

I thought that the issues this raised were put extremely well by a Conservative former Cabinet Minister in the other place—again, I do not often agree with former Conservative Cabinet Ministers but, on this occasion, she said something that rang absolutely true. She said:

“Exposing our farmers to uncontrolled competition from lower-cost, lower-welfare imports would not only undermine our commitments on protecting the environment and on the compassionate treatment of animals, it would have a huge impact on the rural economy. There is a great risk that many livestock businesses could go bust across the country.”

I could not agree more and, in fact, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said something very similar about Wales. Is this risk something that the Minister is prepared to countenance as the new agricultural framework takes shape?

A further serious issue for the Government in relation to standards has also just been raised. Northern Ireland, as we know, will remain in the EU’s single market and customs union, so its standards will be protected. However, Scotland is not in this position, much as it would like to be. There is no way that the Scottish Government will agree to any trade deal that allows for the reduction of existing food and animal welfare standards. The United Kingdom Government have the power to negotiate treaties, but they have to work with the devolved Administrations to implement those provisions, and I can see serious differences developing here, which would inevitably drag the devolved Administrations further away from London. Hence, I very much support Amendment 263A.

I fully understand and respect the Government’s determination to ensure that their ability and flexibility to negotiate trade treaties in the best interests of the United Kingdom is not undermined by legislative provisions. The noble Lord made that point in his letter to noble Lords after the Second Reading debate. Of course, the problem is that the great majority of people in England and the devolved Administrations do not believe that lower food and animal welfare standards are in the best interests of the country, and that is where the problem lies. This issue of standards is not going to go away; it will continue to be a big issue and I am quite sure we will return to it on Report.