Amendment 60

Agriculture Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 17th September 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Bruce of Bennachie:

Moved by Lord Bruce of Bennachie

60: Clause 20, page 17, line 28, at end insert—“( ) Before laying regulations made under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must consult— (a) the Scottish Parliament,(b) Senedd Cymru, and(c) the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, in moving Amendment 60, I will also speak in support of my Amendment 92, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, have added their names. Both amendments have a similar purpose, although Amendment 92 is put in stronger terms.

Amendment 60 relates to the Secretary of State’s powers to make regulations regarding markets and storage in the event of exceptional market conditions. While these powers, if used, would apply to England, the implications for agricultural sectors in the devolved parts of the UK could be significant, as much of the output—certainly a significant amount of it—of farms and food processors in the devolved areas is marketed to and through England.

The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to provide financial support or make regulations where there are exceptional market conditions, described as “a severe disturbance” or the threat of such, in agricultural markets. That could create a situation where financial support for English producers, or regulations inhibiting non-English producers, disadvantages producers from other parts of the UK. That could arise without deliberate intent, so I argue that it is in the interests of the Secretary of State to accept Amendment 60, which would require him or her to consult the Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Amendment 92 refers to the powers of the Secretary of State to make provision about the standards to which a wide range of products must conform. The clauses in the Schedule are far-reaching in their applications, covering, among many other things, farming and production methods, labelling and packaging, species, plant variety and breeds. The regulations could impose conditions on market entry, record keeping, inspection, and search and seizure, and could apply penalties, including fines and confiscation.

Scotland, as an example, exports over £1.6 billion of food products to the rest of the UK, and that is included in £4.7 billion of food and drink exports to the rest of the UK. So significant disruption would have serious implications for markets on both sides of the border, especially, but not exclusively, if imposed at short notice. Wales and Northern Ireland also look to England as the market for a significant part of their output. Across the devolved Administrations, agriculture is a more significant part of the economy than is the case in England, although it is clearly as important in some regions of England. Any unilateral changes to market storage, transport or standards regulations for England could have a serious impact on the devolved areas.

Amendment 60 would require the Secretary of State to consult the three devolved legislatures before implementing changes. I hope the Minister will agree that that is the minimum requirement and should be in everyone’s interest. Without the amendment, we only have the assurances of Ministers that they would not normally proceed without such consultation. I suggest that it would show more good faith if that were a legal requirement.

Amendment 92 goes further and, I suggest, tests an approach that might return in the Trade Bill and almost certainly will be in the internal market Bill. The possibility of radical changes to what can be marketed in England, and how it can be marketed, could be extremely disruptive to producers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and, I suggest, should not be proceeded on without their consent. The amendment qualifies this to avoid giving any one devolved Administration a veto by saying that if two out of three Administrations object then the measures should not proceed.

The contentious nature of a number of Bills currently before Parliament requires some serious thinking as to how the devolution settlement can be protected rather than being ridden over roughshod. Yes, the amendments apply to English regulations, but regulations that have implications for the whole of the UK. In other Bills, the Government are going much further and effectively excluding the devolved Administrations, which is negligent or downright provocative. Some form of qualified majority voting should be considered, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has mentioned that in previous debates. I believe this amendment could be seen as a test run for that because we need to give this issue serious consideration.

I am pleased that these amendments have been welcomed by NFU Scotland, which points out that this House’s Constitution Committee concluded that

“overlapping competencies in agricultural policy must be negotiated and managed by the UK and devolved administrations.”

NFU Scotland continues in its brief:

NFUS is a keen advocate of commonly agreed frameworks, established between the four UK administrations to transpose powers repatriated from the EU into domestic law, within an appropriate governance framework. NFUS believes that finding consultation and consensus on issues which are primarily devolved, but which have implications for the UK internal market, is absolutely vital. As such, NFUS supports amendments 60 and 92 in the name of Lord Bruce of Bennachie, which would secure the consent of the devolved administrations before making changes to regulations on EU legislation in connection with exceptional market conditions; and marketing standards.”

Incidentally, NFUS also comments:

“The Constitution Committee has also recommended that Part 6 of the Agriculture Bill, relating to WTO compliance, should require the Secretary of State to consult the relevant devolved administrations prior to making regulations for securing compliance with the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.

NFUS entirely agrees with this recommendation, having taken legal advice during the passage of the 2017-19 Agriculture Bill which found that a UK Secretary of State could, in the future, exercise an ability to set limits on the amount of domestic support which could be targeted at specific measures that Scottish Ministers may seek to apply in Scotland to meet their objectives, and that these limits could be set at a lower ceiling than what is currently the case under existing arrangements. NFUS believes that it would compromise the devolution settlement for unilateral decisions on financial ceilings to be taken by the Secretary of State without prior consultation and, crucially, the agreement of the devolved administrations.”

I appreciate that an amendment on this has not been tabled, although I considered it, but it reinforces the case for the Government to tread carefully on the sensitivities of devolution which this Bill, and other Bills the Government are seeking to pass, simply fail to do. If the Government are serious about defending what they call “our precious union”, they need to find ways of ensuring that the devolution settlements are not put into reverse. These amendments are designed to provide appropriate safeguards.

I do not accept that this Bill represents a power grab, but I believe that it undermines the existing devolution settlement by giving the Secretary of State—who is effectively the Secretary of State for England—the ability to set regulations that could seriously affect the devolved Administrations, and to interfere directly in the devolved Administrations in ways where the reverse is not the case. I believe these amendments would give the Government the opportunity to prove not just the assurances that they are prepared to give at the Dispatch Box but good faith by putting these commitments in the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 6:00 pm, 17th September 2020

My Lords, I support Amendment 109, which is tabled in my name. A similar amendment was considered in Committee, but I wish to probe the Minister further on this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, rightly mentioned the role of devolution and its importance among our devolved nations and regions.

For us in Northern Ireland, the Agriculture Bill mainly contains provisions setting out the future agricultural policy framework for England. However, a number of provisions apply across the UK and some apply specifically to Wales and Northern Ireland. The powers in Clause 45 and Schedule 6 have been included to provide a legal basis to continue existing farm support measures following exit from the EU. The schedule allows the Northern Ireland department to modify direct payment regulations to simplify and improve how they operate in Northern Ireland. The schedule was developed when the Northern Ireland Executive was not functioning, and as a result many of the powers are intended to provide flexibility to develop future agricultural policies to meet local circumstances. Thankfully, the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland and devolved arrangements were restored in January this year.

While the schedule provides much needed certainty in the short term, Northern Ireland is still left without a long-term vision of how agriculture and the environment will be supported in future, with no clarity around what outcomes a future policy framework should aim to deliver. This is despite widespread recognition from stakeholders that the current system is not fit for purpose.

Northern Ireland is facing considerable challenges. Northern Ireland’s economy is largely agricultural, so the challenges centre around species and habitat loss, agricultural and greenhouse gas emissions, poor water quality and market volatility, among others. The way in which we manage and use land will directly impact upon our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as to meet other environmental commitments. There is a need to reform how we farm and manage our land, and to move towards a resilient, profitable and environmentally sustainable farming sector. The need to outline the future direction of travel for Northern Ireland is of paramount importance.

There is a need for timebound provisions for Northern Ireland, which the Minister argued against in Committee. Currently, a risk exists that the provisions within the Northern Ireland schedule could continue indefinitely. This would result in the long-term continuation of direct payments in their current form, which have been criticised by a range of stakeholders and do little to address the numerous crises facing farming and the environment. Although the Northern Ireland department has undertaken valuable work with a range of environmental and agricultural stakeholders on the development of a draft future agricultural policy framework, the direction of travel remains unclear. While the provisions within the Northern Ireland schedule are similar to those which apply to Wales, there is an important difference. The Welsh provisions will expire in 2024, but there is no sunset clause outlined in those relating to Northern Ireland, hence my amendment, which has been supported by other noble Lords.

This is largely because the Northern Ireland schedule was created in the absence of an operational Assembly. This is important, as the presence of a sunset clause relating to the Welsh schedule creates an onus on the Welsh Government to develop domestic legislation in a timebound manner. The absence of a sunset clause in the Northern Ireland schedule creates a risk that the development of a future agricultural policy framework for Northern Ireland will be further delayed. This sunset clause is supported by the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, which has already communicated that. We are of the firm belief that Northern Ireland needs a bespoke, sustainable land management policy, legislated for in the form of a Northern Ireland agricultural Act, which would obviously have to be brought forward by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. As long as these provisions are contained in Schedule 6 and in this errant Bill—so to speak—that acts as a break upon the Northern Ireland department and prevents or dissuades it from bringing forward such a policy.

I urge the Minister to review the situation in relation to this and to talk to the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister. I would be extremely grateful if he could see what can be done. He might then consider tabling a government amendment to that effect at Third Reading, because the bottom line is that we need to set our own agriculture policy and frameworks now that we have a devolved settlement in Northern Ireland. We want to encourage and underpin that, and to ensure that an important sector of our economy is facilitated to do just that.

Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales)

My Lords, I support Amendments 60 and 92 in the name of my noble friend Lord Bruce, and have added my name to them. As he has already said, Clause 20 gives the Secretary of State the power to modify the retained direct EU legislation for England relating to public intervention and private storage aid, and, as the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee points out, this power is replicated for the Welsh Ministers.

I welcome these powers, of course, as it cannot be expected that legislation should remain relevant in perpetuity; as time passes and situations change, the requirement for legislation to be modified will become inevitable. But nowhere in this clause is there a recognition that, with all four countries in the UK having the power to modify and intervene, a mechanism will be required to ensure that a decision taken by one country does not have an adverse effect on the other three countries of the UK. Nowhere is there a recognition that a mechanism will probably be required to avoid or resolve disputes. My noble friend’s Amendment 60 highlights the issue and offers a solution.

The DPRR Committee’s report on the Bill refers to the devolved Administrations at a number of points in its deliberations on Clause 20. For example, in its reference to the ability to repeal or phase out market intervention schemes for England, it says:

“Such a decision would require further discussions with the devolved administrations.”

Throughout this section of the report, the language might seem rather tentative but the implication is clear: discussions and consultations need to happen.

I appreciate that this part of the legislation, together with Clause 35 on marketing standards, which Amendment 92 addresses, applies to England only. But a recognition of the vital lead role that it plays in the UK should be highlighted. If England, through the UK Parliament and as the largest of the four nations, is seen to adopt a co-operative and collaborative approach, that will be reciprocated. If it adopts an indifferent or belligerent attitude, that, too, will be reciprocated, and will add fuel to the increasing calls for independence emanating from both Scotland and Wales.

As my noble friend has already stated, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House concluded that overlapping competencies in agricultural policy must be negotiated and managed by the UK and devolved Administrations. This is a view echoed by Jeremy Miles, Counsel General for Wales and Member of the Senedd. In an article yesterday addressing the UK single market, with comments equally relevant to today’s debate, he makes it clear that the Welsh Government

“have no issue with the objective of ensuring that a UK internal market can work smoothly after the end of EU transition.”

He points to the fact that the Welsh Government were the first to highlight the need

“to develop a new form of joint governance … in order to manage the intersection between devolved competence and the internal market.”

Ignoring the rights and powers of the devolved Administrations or, even worse, attempting to take some of those powers back from them, as we see in the internal market Bill, is, quite frankly, a lazy way of legislating. Co-operating with one’s neighbours takes time and effort; valuing them takes even more time, and an added pinch of humility, but the outcome can be far more positive for all concerned. This is a really important issue for Wales and the other devolved Administrations, and I hope that the Minister recognises this. I shall listen carefully to the nature of his response, as I suspect that it will set the tone for government responses to devolution issues in other upcoming Bills. I hope that he can give me the reassurances I look for on behalf of the people of Wales.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 6:15 pm, 17th September 2020

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 109, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, to which I have attached my name, and I also wish to express my support for Amendments 60 and 92.

On Amendment 60, which concerns a promise to consult, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, indicated, the Government have said that that commitment has already been made, so surely it would not be too difficult to agree to put it on the face of the Bill. Securing consent would be stronger, and to avoid conflict or rows, and to make things clear, transparent and open, surely that would be the best way forward.

To address primarily Amendment 109, the absence of a sunset clause in the Bill as it currently stands presents a risk that Northern Ireland will be left with basic payments regulations indefinitely. A sunset clause such as proposed would create an expectation that Northern Ireland’s Government would develop their own specialised agriculture legislation and a fairer, more environmentally friendly alternative to the basic payment scheme. Of course, they could just decide to roll over the existing provisions in 2026. The amendment, or something like it, would not force action but would open up a democratic window and opportunity for debate about action.

In yesterday’s debate on the immigration Bill, the Government Benches spent a great deal of time expressing a desire for non-discrimination. Surely this proposed new clause would put Northern Ireland on the same footing as Scotland and Wales in deciding agricultural policy. This is non-discrimination that should surely apply in this crucial case, given that agriculture is very important to the economies of all three of those nations.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, the absence of a sitting Assembly from 2017 to 2020 meant that little consultation took place on this issue, but the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, in a single day of very packed evidence on a number of issues, said that it wanted this sunset clause, and that is surely where the Government should take their guidance from. It recommended a timescale of 2024, but in terms of the electoral cycle there are good reasons to provide a bit more time. Your Lordships certainly know how long these considerations can take.

In the interests of ensuring that the Minister does not feel too uncomfortable, I shall not refer specifically to internal market issues, which have been creating difficulties for some of his colleagues, but I hope that the Government will take on board this call. It is not political, except in the broadest sense of seeking to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have democratic control over their own future. Amendment 109 would provide flexibility and the opportunity for action, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, these powers under Chapter 2 of Part 2 of the Bill make a declaration that exceptional market conditions which trigger financial assistance of a varying kind are to be exercised by the English Minister by way of regulations made under the negative procedure. That means that they will escape extensive parliamentary scrutiny, as we are well aware.

The sort of market conditions that Clause 18 has in mind is where there is a severe disturbance or a threat of such disturbance to agricultural markets that would have such a significantly adverse effect on producers in England as to constitute exceptional market conditions. That is to be judged by the limited criterion of the prices farmers receive for the sale of their agricultural produce. It is made clear in the Explanatory Notes that the devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland have the ability, under their devolved powers, to make similar arrangements within their own jurisdictions. The noble Baronesses, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick and Lady Bennett, have outlined the unsatisfactory position in Northern Ireland, and I support their call for clarity. However, I suppose that that is the reason it is thought these clauses do not require legislative consent from the Welsh Senedd or the Scottish Parliament —let them do their own thing.

But of course, if exceptional market conditions exist in England, they are bound to have an effect, certainly in the borders of Wales that I know best. I recall that Welshpool was once the largest market for sheep in Europe, but there are equally strong markets in both Oswestry and Shrewsbury, and what happens in one affects the others. I remember that when I was chair of Marcher Sound, broadcasting to north Wales and Cheshire, our farming report every morning at six o’clock broadcast the price of hoggets in markets on both sides of the border. This was vital early intelligence as I headed for the London train.

It seems common sense that introducing financial assistance to English farmers under Chapter 2 would have a vital effect on prices and risk unfair competition. Moreover, agriculture is a significant part of both the Welsh and Scottish economies, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, pointed out. Surely decisions of this nature should be subject to consultation with, and consent by, the devolved nations. I have no knowledge of the markets of Carlisle and Berwick, but I have no doubt that there would be serious financial implications for those agricultural markets, and equally for those in Northern Ireland.

It may be suggested that exceptional market conditions could be so exceptional that an English Secretary of State would have to move quickly with no time for consultation, but surely he would move and should move in step with the devolved Administrations, and certainly not with any of the belligerence to which my noble friend Lady Humphreys referred.

The Minister will recall that, at the Second Reading and Committee stages of this Bill, I raised the issue of internal markets and price stability, not knowing that the now infamous Internal Market Bill was about to be unveiled to the world. Did the devolved Administrations know of the contents of that Bill? Their alarmed reaction demonstrates that they did not. It is a Bill that is perceived to be a unilateral grab at former EU powers which ought to be directed immediately to the devolved Administrations, and I promise that I will not even mention the attack on the rule of law.

The Government sometimes tell us that we have already left the EU, so get over it. Well, devolution is a fact of 20 years’ standing, and it is about time that the Government understood that one of its main implications is the need for consultation and consent. There is a limit to the extent to which lack of time can be pushed when there is no consultation. As the whole country knows, the reason for the rush and haste and us being here until midnight discussing this Bill is due to the hazard which this Government chose to construct for themselves. I support Amendments 60 and 92 in this group, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I should like to speak to Amendment 109 in this group and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, on bringing this point to the attention of the House. This part of the Bill, which concerns the devolved nations, is a particularly grey area as regards how it is to be administered. The noble Baroness and the authors of other amendments in this group have done the House a service by throwing light on these issues. I had hoped to put my name to Amendment 109, but I was not surprised to see how much support the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, has had.

I want to pay tribute to the noble Baroness’s work in this regard. She is a former Member of and was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and she was a great support to me in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place. Rather unnervingly, she was always in her seat before I took my place, which is a little disconcerting when you are chairing a committee. I am sure that she will play a prominent and active role in the new Select Committee on Common Frameworks Scrutiny, to which she has just been appointed, and I congratulate her on that.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister will have regard to the concerns that have been raised in this group of amendments. He and I have had conversations before on the common frameworks and what progress has been made on them, so I will pay close attention to his response. Once again, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, for bringing forward her amendment in this group.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am delighted to support the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, along with other noble Lords, in Amendment 109. As usual, she has set out the arguments clearly and in substantial detail, and I do not intend to rehearse what she has already said. However, on 23 July, I made a number of points when we were discussing a similar approach to these things in Committee. I want to repeat some of those and add to them because the situation has changed and developed in a very unhelpful way.

The first thing that I pointed out—and I point it out again because it is increasingly relevant—is that Ministers in the devolved institutions are serious decision makers in their own right. They are not simply to be rule takers from somewhere else. The Government have been very strong about not being rule takers from somewhere else.

Secondly, in trying to ensure that Northern Ireland representatives continue to work together, despite their difficulties and differences over constitutional questions, this is an opportunity for them to be encouraged to work together on the practical issues in what is still the largest industry in Northern Ireland—agriculture. And it is, of course, a cross-border industry. The agri-food industry ensures that many of the products are dealt with on both sides of the border and, therefore, cross-border co-operation is vital.

Thirdly, it is clear that there will be developments in the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the next number of years before 2026, when this sunset clause is intended to become active.

I said that on 23 July but could not have contemplated that the Prime Minister might take action and decisions that would disturb and indeed disrupt developments on the island of Ireland in the way that has been done with the Internal Market Bill. This has been referred to by my noble friend Lady Humphreys. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said that she did not intend to bring in a political dimension, but I hope that the Minister understands that in Ireland it is wholly impossible not to do this. It is not merely an internal matter. Nor is it even a matter of Brexit. It is a matter of relationships between Britain and Ireland that go back to previous agreements—the Good Friday agreement, the Anglo-Irish agreement—and to the very delicate and nuanced framework of relationships developed over years, at great cost and sacrifice, including even the physical sacrifice of people’s lives. It is not to be tampered with and tossed around lightly.

I hope that the Minster understands the deep concern there is in Ireland, north and south, about what is happening with the Internal Market Bill. It is also important to find out that the people of Northern Ireland made quite different decisions—as, indeed, did the people of Scotland—about the approach to their future relations with those outside the United Kingdom. That was the case with people in England and Wales. However, somehow or other, this seems to have been tossed aside.

One way of trying to ensure that there is an appreciation of the sensitivities and difficulties that this raises would be to pass Amendment 109, because it would point out that Her Majesty’s Government recognise that it is crucial for the people of Northern Ireland through their representatives to make their decisions about the future of their most important industry—an industry whose production and marketing require co-operation not just within the internal market of the United Kingdom but throughout the island of Ireland.

I am happy to support the amendment of the noble Baroness. I am just unhappy that it has to be done in such disruptive circumstances.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative 6:30 pm, 17th September 2020

My Lords, as a number of Members have said, this debate is in the context of exceptional market conditions. I had the privilege in 1979 of being a PPS in the Northern Ireland Office and spending many happy hours in Northern Ireland, where it really comes home to one that agriculture is absolutely vital to that part of the United Kingdom.

I shall make the simple point that, as one who was responsible for a fair amount of drafting in another role in the other place, it seems that officials would much prefer to have an automatic reference in a Bill than an implied one, particularly when it is in sensitive areas. For instance, we are likely to see changes because of climate change. To take an example that I used earlier, who would have thought 20 years ago that Sussex and Kent would be competing in the viniculture market, with enormous opportunities to export? There may well be other developments because of climate change that happen in just a section of England and, unless they are automatically referred to the other three devolved Parliaments, we may find that they too have micro-industries in their particular part of the UK.

That just seems sensible in Amendment 60. I am not going to be tempted to go to Amendment 109 and I actually think Amendment 92 is wrong.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords)

I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled or supported the amendments in this group, which raise various issues relating to devolved competence. Amendment 60 makes what seems a very sensible suggestion of consulting the devolved Administrations before laying regulations under Clause 20. Given that certain modifications to retained EU legislation are likely to impact on the devolved nations, perhaps on some more than others, it seems perfectly right that there should be a formal consultation requirement. However, I note that even formal consultations on many important matters have not been taking place as regularly or as needed in other matters, and I urge the Government to work much more proactively in this manner.

For the past 20 years, we have had three other legislatures in the UK, and none of the new laws resulting from our withdrawal from Europe should be an opportunity for a power grab of devolved responsibilities back to Westminster. I am therefore glad to see that Amendment 92 proposes a requirement for the devolved Administrations to consent to any regulations being made under Clause 35 on standards relating to the marketing of agri-food products. While we would certainly welcome a mechanism for meaningful consultation, we recognise that a requirement for consent could, in certain cases, delay the implementation of important changes to marketing standards.

Amendment 109 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, my noble friend Lord Hain and others proposes a sunset on the Northern Ireland provisions contained in Clause 45 and Schedule 6. As the noble Baroness noted earlier, Northern Ireland has an economy based largely on agriculture and needs a long-term future policy framework without further delay. The case has been strongly made for that amendment and I look forward to the Minister’s response in relation to it.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, this has been a very interesting and thought-provoking debate. I would like to open by setting out a little background, because I think a lot of this would be helpful. The UK Government have been working closely with the Welsh Government, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland—DAERA—and the Scottish Government to develop a UK agricultural support framework. My noble friend Lady McIntosh made this point. We expect to be able to agree this soon.

Defra Ministers already meet our devolved Administration counterparts on an almost monthly basis as part of the inter-ministerial group IMG EFRA, where any modifying of legislation can be discussed. In addition, there are already good working relationships in place within the Defra situation—particularly, from my direct knowledge, between the devolved Administrations. If I am allowed to say so, I very much respect Lesley Griffiths, who is a Minister in Wales. For example, the IMG EFRA meeting, which takes place almost monthly, is used as a forum for discussion on policy changes. The Government intend to keep the devolved Administrations informed on any early thinking on possible policy changes to marketing standards in England.

I also agree with the tenor of this debate, and I want to raise what the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, said about collaboration and tone. That is absolutely key, particularly in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, where agriculture is such a strong feature of national life. I would like to think of England as a rural country but, my goodness, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales it is at the core of the national economy.

Thinking of Amendment 60, the UK agricultural support framework includes crisis measures, public intervention and private storage aid for collective discussion to ensure there is an opportunity for any concerns to be raised about the effect of changes in one part of the UK or another. The UK Government work collaboratively with devolved Administrations on this matter, and I will give a complete assurance that it is in everyone’s mutual interest that that continues and is successful.

Amendment 92 seeks to ensure the Secretary of State would need to secure consent from devolved Administrations before laying regulations under Clause 35(1). Clause 35 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations on marketing standards for products marketed in England only, so it would not be appropriate for devolved Administrations to be able to veto these England-only changes, which would be the effect of this amendment. In the same way, we have not taken provisions to require the UK Government to consent to change in devolved areas.

I say this because the UK agricultural support framework states that Administrations should refer all planned changes in marketing standards for collective discussion to ensure that there is an opportunity for any concerns to be raised about the effect of changes to standards in one part of the UK or another. The Government think that is the best way forward. It is a way we can collaboratively and collegiately work on such an important issue—the agricultural framework.

Everyone knows that agriculture is devolved, and the Welsh Ministers in DAERA under this Bill have taken powers themselves in Schedules 5 and 6 respectively. Wales can modify retained EU law itself under paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 5, and Northern Ireland under paragraph 2 of Schedule 6.

Turning to Amendment 109; I have thought about this a lot because perhaps there is some confusion at my end. I have heard words such as “parity” on this matter, and a number of noble Lords from Northern Ireland have spoken. My understanding is that the Northern Ireland Assembly has debated and agreed its legislative consent to the Bill. Therefore, we do not believe this Parliament should seek to override the constitutional view agreed by the Assembly.

Reference was made to the committee that recommended a sunset clause, but the Northern Ireland Assembly recommended the LCM without it. Our view, and I entrench this very strongly, is that it is for DAERA to decide and to liaise with the Assembly, not the UK Government. I am intrigued that we are seeking to impose a sunset clause when it has been made clear to me and Defra, as the honest brokers of this, that the Northern Ireland Assembly does not want to set an arbitrary date, and it will be for Northern Ireland to decide how and when it has a new agriculture Bill. We agree with that, and sometimes devolution means that we will have separate ways forward. That has been the LCM from the Assembly and DAERA, and we believe that the Agriculture Bill—of which, as I say, I have been the honest broker regarding the Northern Ireland schedule—gives Northern Ireland plenty of scope to involve its thinking on the delivery of agricultural support. I therefore tactfully suggest that, if we believe that this is a devolved matter, it is for the institutions of Northern Ireland to decide.

As I say, I am very happy to have further discussions—not because the Government will change that view but because I am interested in understanding why the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, thinks that we in this Parliament should seek to change the wish of the Northern Ireland institutions. I would have thought that runs very much contrary to some of the very important things said by noble Lords about respect for devolution, the devolved arrangements—so far as agriculture is concerned—and the imperative of working together sensibly because we all have a vested interest in that.

The Government’s view is that, for the UK agricultural support framework—this covers all the things I have said about collective discussion and the way we want to work closely together while respecting the devolved abilities—the way forward is through this mechanism of a framework, which, I believe, has the best ingredients for it to work very well for the four nations.

I will respond to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and others on the first two amendments, as well as to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. It is precisely in these areas that I emphasise the respect for the devolved arrangements and, indeed, the respect that my ministerial colleagues have for their fellow Ministers, recognising their responsibility and ours to work collaboratively. It is in this spirit that I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:45 pm, 17th September 2020

I have received no requests from noble Lords to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in this debate for their support for my amendments and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and noble colleagues who have spoken on the Northern Ireland sunset clause so clearly and unequivocally. I believe that all three of these amendments are central to how our devolution settlement is to proceed.

The Minister is a face of government that we all find attractive: he is constructive and conciliatory, and I am sure that, given his background, when he talks about engagement and discussion across the devolved Administrations, he does it in entirely the style that we see here. However, I am afraid I have to say to him that there are other members of the Government whose style is far less conciliatory and can be abrasive.

We have legislation coming down the track that is absolutely crucial to the future of the devolution settlement, especially the Trade Bill and the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, where it would appear that the Government, frankly, are bent on centralising control and weakening the devolution settlement. Given the point about agriculture being so important to the devolved Administrations, there is perhaps an opportunity in this Bill to put those markers down. Actually, I would have liked it if the Minister could have accepted Amendment 60; I accept that Amendment 92 was a tease for further discussion about some form of qualified majority voting.

However, with regard to just saying, “We consult; therefore, we do not need to consult”, I say that the time will come when some decision will be taken without consultation, and there will be no recourse because there is nothing in law to prevent it. That will be disruptive and a shame. The Prime Minister says that he is moving his legislation to protect the future of the union. The reality is that nobody threatens the future of the union more fundamentally than our current Prime Minister, and Ministers should understand that the precious union is very delicate at the present time.

Ministers need to reach out not just with reassurance but a willingness to create a mechanism, as my noble friend Lady Humphreys said, that will enshrine the way decisions are taken and disputes are resolved in ways that do not leave it—because this it is where the Bill leaves it—to Westminster and the English Secretary of State to override devolved decision-making. The Bill allows that to happen; these amendments were designed to prevent that happening, and I regret—but am not entirely surprised—that the Government have not accepted them. However, I can assure him—and I am sure that other noble Lords will agree with me—that these issues will return in spades in the debates we will have on the coming legislation between now and Christmas. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 60 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 61. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.

Clause 27: Fair dealing obligations of business purchasers of agricultural products