Agriculture Bill: Legislative Consent Motion

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 31st March 2020.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 12:15 pm, 31st March 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Agriculture Bill, as introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January 2020, and consents to the Agriculture Bill being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there will be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Agriculture Bill is a UK Government Bill containing some UK-wide clauses, some of which are reserved and some of which touch on devolved matters. It also contains a small number of provisions that are specific to Northern Ireland. Before I get into the detail of those provisions, I want to explain the rationale behind Northern Ireland being included in this UK Government Bill in the first place.

The main body of the Bill is intended primarily to provide the legal basis for a future agriculture policy direction for England and reflects ideas that were shared with stakeholders a couple of years ago in DEFRA's 'Health and Harmony' document. There are also elements of the main body of the Bill that have a UK-wide reach, as they are related to reserved matters. I will come back to those in a few minutes. Legislative consent is not being sought for either of those components — the UK-wide reserved matters or the clauses that relate only to England. Five remaining elements of the Bill are UK-wide in remit but cover devolved matters. Again, I will come back to those. I seek legislative consent to those elements.

Northern Ireland's and, hence, my primary interest in the Bill relates to schedule 6, which has three main objectives. The first is to provide in domestic legislation the legal basis for the full suite of CAP, pillar 1 and pillar 2 options that we had prior to the EU exit. Without that, we would not have the basis to continue direct support to farmers after this calendar year, nor would we have the option of continuing to make new commitments under current or modified pillar 2 schemes. It is vital that we have those powers in place. Secondly, the schedule will enable us to modify, simplify and correct the framework carried forward out of the old CAP. It provides additional flexibility, should we wish to use it. Thirdly, it gives us certain keeping-pace powers to enable us to ensure that we can respond to changes that might be brought forward elsewhere in the UK and that could cause difficulties if we did not have the option. Schedule 6, therefore, is not designed to set up a new policy agenda. That is not its purpose. It is designed to provide certainty and stability whilst we develop our new policy framework. It is also to provide a degree of flexibility in the implementation of the rolled-over regime that we are carrying forward, as well as the ability to keep pace with the changes needed to ensure the functioning of the UK internal market.

The Bill was originally drafted in the absence of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland but was developed so as not to constrain the ability of an incoming Minister, Executive and Assembly to decide the long-term direction and nature of future agriculture support in Northern Ireland. That is an important point.

I turn now to the detail of the UK-wide provisions that touch on devolved matters: the Secretary of State's duty to report to Parliament on UK food security, which is addressed in clause 17; the regulation of fertilising products, which is in clause 31; the identification and traceability of animals, which is in clause 32; the regulation of organic producers, which is in clauses 36 and 37; and the UK's compliance with its obligations under the World Trade Organization's agreement on agriculture, which is in clauses 40 to 42. I will deal with each of those in turn.

Clause 17 places a duty on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to lay a report before Parliament on UK food security at least once every five years. While food is one of the UK's critical national infrastructure sectors and is reserved on national security grounds, it also relates to food and drink supply, which is devolved. Analysing the statistical data falls to DAERA.

Clause 31 allows the UK to continue to legislate in respect of policies contained in EU regulation 2019/1009 on fertiliser products. It provides for the continuation of the current regime, which applies to the whole of the UK. A joint approach allows for clearer and simpler legislative powers.

Clause 32 amends the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to enable the Secretary of State to make secondary legislation allowing the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to undertake a new statutory rule in managing a new livestock information service in England. Some of the functions that could be assigned to the board include:

"(a) collecting, managing and making available information regarding the identification, movement and health of animals, or (b) the means of identifying animals."

Those are devolved functions, and the UK Government have indicated that they will table an amendment to the Bill to require the Secretary of State to seek consent before making regulations for Northern Ireland.

Clause 36 provides the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations with the power to make regulations:

"in relation to the certification of— (a) organic products; (b) activities relating to organic products; (c) persons or groups of persons carrying out activities relating to organic products."

Clause 37 sets out who can regulate organics under clause 36. This will be DAERA where it falls within Northern Ireland's devolved competence. As with clause 32, the UK Government have indicated that they will table an amendment to the Bill requiring the Secretary of State to seek consent before making regulations for Northern Ireland.

Clauses 40 to 42 provide the Secretary of State with powers to ensure the UK's compliance with its obligations under the World Trade Organization agreement on agriculture, and to make regulations that require Northern Ireland to provide information which is a devolved and, more particularly in Northern Ireland, transferred matter. The UK Government's initial view was that the provisions in clauses 40 to 42 were outside devolved competence. However, the Government have recently changed that position and, as a consequence, I have laid an amended legislative consent memorandum in the Assembly.

Clause 45 is quite straightforward; it makes provision for schedule 6 to the Bill to apply in Northern Ireland. That brings me conveniently to the small number of provisions that apply specifically to Northern Ireland, which are contained in schedule 6. It has been deliberately set out in that way in an effort to be as transparent as possible. Put simply, schedule 6 provides powers that will enable maintenance and modification of CAP direct payment schemes; modification of retained EU law relating to the financing, management and monitoring of payments to farmers, and the technical aspects; ongoing support for rural development; collection and sharing of data, and appropriate data collection; intervention in agriculture markets; and setting of marketing standards and carcass classifications. I will deal with each in turn.

Part 1 of schedule 6 provides my Department with powers to modify retained direct EU legislation governing direct payments and support for rural development following the UK's exit from the EU. Importantly, it does not provide for the phasing out of direct payments or for a transition period, which is the position in England.

Part 2 of schedule 6 allows my Department to give, or agree to give, financial support to agriculture producers in Northern Ireland. This would be the case where incomes are being, or are likely to be, adversely affected by exceptional market conditions.

Part 3 of schedule 6 relates to the collection and sharing of data. It introduces a requirement for those in the agri-food supply chain to supply information about the supply chain.

Part 4 of schedule 6 provides my Department with the power to make provision about marketing standards in relation to specified agricultural products in Northern Ireland and to make provision about the classification, identification and presentation of bovine, sheep and pig carcasses by slaughterhouses in Northern Ireland.

Part 5 of schedule 6 preserves the status of existing data protection legislation, including the General Data Protection Regulation. Any exercise of data will be compliant with those regulations.

That sets out the provisions in schedule 6. As I said, they are few in number but nonetheless vital. Before I move on, I want to draw Members' attention to the fact that the powers contained in schedule 6 are mainly subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so their use is entirely a matter for this House. Members will, quite rightly, have an opportunity to scrutinise any regulations.

I turn now, briefly, to part 5 of schedule 7. This part provides details of any consequential amendments to the CMO regulation in relation to marketing standards and carcass classification in Northern Ireland. It disapplies the relevant articles for products marketed, or slaughterhouses situated, in Northern Ireland.

To sum up, it is my view that the Bill's provisions should extend and apply to Northern Ireland, and I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 12:30 pm, 31st March 2020

The Agriculture Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 16 January and had its Second Reading on 3 February, moving to Committee Stage on 11 February. As already outlined by the Minister, the purpose of the Bill is to provide a legal framework for the transition out of the EU and to replace the common agricultural policy, as well as providing financial support after leaving the EU. There are provisions within the Bill that require legislative consent as they relate to devolved matters, and they are outlined in the LCM and in the Committee report. The Bill also extends a number of provisions to this region in schedule 6, for which legislative consent is also sought.

I will briefly outline how the Committee undertook scrutiny of the Bill. This is important, and I want to emphasise that we had very little time to do this scrutiny — about three meetings in total. The time frame was further stressed because we were doing a similar amount of work for two other Bills that require legislative consent, namely the Environment Bill and the Fisheries Bill. In fact, all three Bills overlap and are interlinked, but time was against us in exploring the extent and practical impacts of that overlapping and interlinking.

The Committee took oral and written evidence in an all-day meeting on 20 February. We heard from a range of stakeholders, and their evidence can be found on our website, but we just did not have time to hear from all of the stakeholders that are going to be affected by this Bill — for example, the hill farmers, horticultural growers and poultry and egg sectors, as well as many of the rural community groups and local action groups (LAGs). The Committee also commissioned a briefing paper on the Agriculture Bill from the Assembly Research and Information Service. The paper was very informative and again it can be found on our website.

The Committee wishes it to be clearly understood that, due to the complexity of this Bill and the limited time that it has had to consider and scrutinise the Bill, it has been unable to fully explore and understand the potential impacts and implications to the local agricultural industry, agri-food sector and rural communities. We were able to identify a range of questions that we have not got straight answers to as yet. Those questions have enabled us to identify some important issues that we want to bring to the attention of the Assembly. It is those issues that I will focus on in the remainder of my speech today. Before that, I want to outline that the Committee deliberated on and agreed not to take a Committee position on the draft Legislative Consent Motion.

The first issue is around the interaction between the Bill, the proposed common frameworks and the Irish protocol. It appeared to the Committee that the protocol means that agricultural produce will have to comply with a range of EU rules and regulations and that, over time, Britain may move away from those rules and regulations. This has created concern around the regulatory divergence between this jurisdiction, Britain and the EU.

Some of the witnesses who presented to the Committee indicated that regulatory diversion could ultimately mean increased costs. There is a lack of clarity in this area and a large degree of uncertainty. The Committee does not expect that this lack of clarity and uncertainty will be addressed in the short to medium term and is concerned about the impact that this may have on farmers, rural communities and agri-food businesses. In light of where we are now with the COVID-19 crisis, it is highly unlikely that clarity and certainty will be provided to our businesses anytime soon.

Furthermore, members of the Committee also expressed concern about the impact of the protocol and balancing of trade North/South and east-west. The Committee is aware that there may be different levels of preparation for the protocol across various Departments. That has caused concern to some of our members, and I expect that they will address that concern during today's debate.

The second major matter that the Committee draws attention to is the sunset clause for the DAERA provisions in the Bill, specifically schedule 6. This is similar to that provided for the Welsh in clauses 43 and 44. The Committee is aware that, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, DAERA was unable to bring forward primary legislation to the Assembly as is the case in Scotland. In order to address the potential legislative and governance gap created because of EU exit, DAERA took the tactic to deliver this via a Bill, an option-based approach, based on the roll over of the existing regime with the ability to deliver some modifications and simplifications.

DAERA officials told the Committee that the schedule 6 provisions are not a new policy approach but provide breathing space, so as not to prejudice or constrain the ability of an incoming Minister, the Executive or the Assembly to decide the long-term direction and nature of agricultural support policy here. However, one of the disadvantages of this approach is that provisions are enacted by decisions of the Minister and the Assembly using the statutory rule approach. If the Minister does not want to enact a provision, he does not have to. While most of the provisions are enacted using the affirmative method, which allows for a higher level of scrutiny, statutory rules generally provide less opportunity for scrutiny and less opportunity for the Assembly to amend and change than would be the case with primary legislation.

The Committee indicated that it would endorse a sunset clause on the provisions in the Bill, similar to that in Wales, which is 2024. Furthermore, the Committee recommended that the DAERA Minister bring forward local policies, followed in due course by primary legislation tailored to the needs of the agricultural sector, agri-food and rural communities, within a similar timescale of the Welsh sunset clause.

The third issue that concerns the Committee is clarity on the future of rural development, specifically the availability of a ring-fencing of funding for rural development. Rural development is largely funded from CAP pillar 2 and other EU sources. It is envisaged that the replacement for EU funding for rural development will come from the shared prosperity fund (SPF). Stakeholders from rural communities indicated that, while work on a new rural development policy framework has begun, they had major concerns regarding the funding for rural development. It was understood that the SPF would be the mechanism to replace all EU structural funds, including rural development, but no details of the SPF have yet been put forward by the British Government, nor is there any guarantee that such replacement funding will be ring-fenced. This is creating a degree of concern and uncertainty about the future for rural communities. The Committee is very concerned about the lack of clarity and information on the shared prosperity fund.

I also wish to draw attention to some of the provisions in schedule 6. These are enabling provisions and allow options for the DAERA Minister to bring forward by secondary legislation a number of provisions relating to issues such as financial support after EU exit; intervention in agricultural markets; the collection and sharing of data; marketing standards and carcass classification; and data protection.

Part 1 of schedule 6 provides provisions for the DAERA Minister to make, amongst other payments, payments for ANCs and for coupled support. The Committee noted a range of different views from stakeholders and from political parties on the two issues in particular. I will not rehearse these now, as most Members will be well aware of them and they are also outlined in our Committee report.

I will move on to some of the clauses in the Bill, focusing on some of those that the Committee had issues with. Clause 17 sets out a duty to report to Parliament on food security, placing a duty on the Secretary of State to produce a report to lay before Parliament on food security. This report will provide a broad understanding of what food security is and the challenges and risks to food security in a global context. It is to allow a current assessment of the state of food security to inform policy thinking on the resilience and security of food supply. This is something that is perhaps even more appropriate in current circumstances. The key provision is that the report is to be laid once every five years, and the clause also covers a number of themes such as global food availability and resilience of the food supply chain. The Committee's major concern is that it would like to see these reports produced more frequently than every five years, particularly in the initial transition years. It considers that one such report per parliamentary term is insufficient and that an annual report with specific reference to the devolved Administrations on any local issues would be more appropriate.

I will address the concern that the Committee had with clause 31, dealing with fertilisers. This is one of the areas where the impact of the protocol comes into play. This clause will amend and create a broader definition of what constitutes a fertiliser. What it means is that the framework of regulations governing fertilisers across Britain can vary from that currently established by the EU Commission. For example, this clause enables the amendment and potential repeal of the EU regulation that currently regulates fertilisers. However, that EU regulation is referenced in annex 2 of the protocol, which means that this region must adhere to the EU regulation, with no variation except as agreed by the EU, while Westminster will be able to create variations and differences. That could lead to variations in fertiliser regulations between this jurisdiction and Britain. As our industry keeps telling us, variation inevitably leads to cost differences, sometimes in favour and sometimes not.

I already outlined the Committee's concerns on the interaction overlap with the provisions of the Bill and the protocol, and, again, due to lack of time for proper scrutiny, the Committee has not been able to explore the possibility that such variation will or could occur. Likewise, we were unable to explore the implications and impacts of variation on our local industry, for example the potential that it could create an uneven playing field. There are also issues around the supply of fertilisers and of whether this potential variation will pose any problems for supply and cost of supply in the future.

I will move on to clause 32, which deals with the identification and traceability of animals.

The clause provides for a new statutory role for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) to manage a new livestock information service in England. It entails using animal ID information obtained from all the devolved Administrations. Various stakeholders had concerns with this clause and felt that it should not apply here. There were concerns that, under the protocol, we would have to adhere to EU regulations and standards for animal identification and traceability. This clause allows Britain to have its own system that creates a complexity of divergence.

Due to lack of time, the Committee has not been able to explore the questions raised around clause 32. However, in a late submission from DAERA, on the day that the Committee approved its report, we received some clarification on the policy intent behind the clause. It included that DAERA livestock traceability systems will not be subsumed into the wider system, and that we would continue to adhere to EU standards and the requirements of the protocol. It also clarified that we will continue to approve our own identification tags, and that AHDB will not perform a role in livestock identification. It is expected that the animal and public health information system (APHIS) will continue to interface with the British systems.

In that late submission, DAERA provided some clarification on the consent provisions in clause 32. Minister Poots has written to the DEFRA Minister, seeking provision to be included to the effect that DAERA's consent would be required with regard to the assignation of certain functions. DAERA indicated that DEFRA was now seeking collective agreement to a British Government amendment being tabled to clause 32, to the effect that consent provisions would be included. We expect to be kept up to date with developments on the matter, including the role for the Assembly in that consent provision.

The Committee would like to emphasise that both it, and the industry, are very proud of our traceability systems. The Committee wishes to receive regular updates on how our identification system interfaces with any new systems arising in Britain from the provisions in the Bill.

Clauses 36 and 37 deal with organic products. In a late submission to the Committee, on the day that it approved its report, DAERA provided some clarification on the consent provisions for clause 37. It noted that Minister Poots had written to the DEFRA Minister seeking clarification to be included, to the effect that DAERA's consent would be required, should the British Government wish to make organic regulations under clause 36 in relation to devolved matters. It further indicated that DEFRA is now seeking collective agreement to the Government's amendments being tabled, to the effect that consent provisions would be included. We expect to be kept up to date with developments on this matter, including a role for the Assembly in that consent provision.

Clause 35 relates to provisions for the North and enables schedule 6.

Clauses 43 and 44 provide similar provisions for Wales. It is interesting that the Scottish Government have confirmed that they intend to bring forward a separate Scottish Agriculture Bill, rather than have a schedule in the Westminster Agriculture Bill. Clause 44 of the Bill provides a sunset clause, at the end of 2024, for some of the provisions that apply to Wales. I have already outlined the Committee's provision on the sunset clause, and I will not rehearse it again.

However, as we have noted, the Minister is seeking amendments to the Bill in connection with organic products and with animal identification systems. I therefore ask the Minister to indicate whether he intends to seek a sunset clause for schedule 6.

Schedule 6 enables DAERA to continue to make payments to farmers and land managers after EU exit and ensures that the Minister has the flexibility to develop policy here. The Committee's report outlines the issues raised by the various stakeholders, and I have already outlined some of the major concerns with schedule 6. I will not go over them again in detail, but I can summarise the Committee's concerns as follows: the lack of a sunset clause; the lack of clarity around funding for rural development and payments to farmers; major policy issues will be brought forward by subordinate legislation; and it is entirely at the Minister's discretion whether he brings them forward.

I now look at the WTO clauses. At the last possible moment, on the day that the Committee agreed its report, DAERA informed us of a change in its position on clauses 40 to 42, which deal with the WTO agreement on agriculture. Those clauses include power to set financial ceilings, to the level of agricultural support paid in the four jurisdictions. The WTO agreement on agriculture sets limits on how much domestic support can be provided by a country, and it is categorised into different boxes, depending on the extent to which support distorts trade in the agricultural markets.

DAERA noted no concerns with this matter, as it felt that there was plenty of headroom that would not interfere with the ability to make financial support to farmers. In a late submission, DAERA informed the Committee that there had been a change in the Government's position on the aspects of those clauses that were outside devolved competence. Previously, the British Government's view was that provisions in clauses 40 to 42 were outside devolved competence. However, clauses 42(4) and 42(5) confer a power on the Secretary of State to make regulations that may require a devolved authority, which includes DAERA, to provide information to the Secretary of State. The Government's view is that that, arguably, amounts to an alteration of the Executive's competence and of Ministers here, and that those specific subsections, therefore, engage the legislative consent process in the Assembly. The Department's view remains that those clauses will not impose any constraint on policy decisions on agriculture support in practice. Based on the caveat that the Committee had very little time to consider that change in approach, the Committee expressed no major concerns on that matter.

I will now turn to the final section of the report, concerning matters that are outside the provisions of the Bill that will have a massive impact on its operation and implementation. The first of those is funding. The amount and method of distribution of CAP funding between the four regions, including that it should be ring-fenced, has been in place for some time. What it will be replaced with in the amounts of funding, its distribution between the regions and possible Government centralisation of subsidy levels is still unclear. Many of our stakeholders make reference to the Bew review and the possible adverse impacts of its recommendations, which may see reduced amounts of funding in the North for farm support.

We know that the British Government have committed to working with the devolved Administrations on funding allocation, including that the current annual budget for farmers would be guaranteed for every year of the Parliament, namely until 2024. However, what happens beyond that is not guaranteed. That is a major area of concern for the farming community and the wider rural community and it is something that the Committee intends to follow up on in due course.

Another area of concern is future trade deals and the possibility of allowing in food that is of a lower standard. That has caused considerable public and media concern, given the British Government's approach to new trade deals with countries that have lower animal welfare standards. Many have called for the Bill to be amended to protect standards and prevent imports of food that is cheaper because of lower food standards. The Committee discussed an amendment that was laid in the House of Commons by Simon Hoare MP that sought to protect our food standards. We agreed with that amendment and we were disappointed that it was not considered by the Public Bill Committee for the Agriculture Bill. The Committee noted that the amendment was resubmitted for the debate at Report Stage and would like to see it made by the House of Commons.

Another major issue for the Committee is the agri-food sector's access to migrant labour. Our agri-food industry is heavily reliant on migrant labour and it has expressed concerns about the British Government's policy position on the UK's points-based immigration system. We are aware, from the evidence that we gathered, that on average, 60% to 70% of those who work in meat plants were European economic area workers whose roles varied from so-called unskilled to semi-skilled and skilled jobs. There were concerns that if the points system was applied to the processing sector, 80% of the staff that had been brought in over the last 10 years would have got only 20 points. That presents a massive challenge for the industry.

Concerns were also expressed about the potential movement of capital to where labour is. In essence, we could have free movement of goods across the island but not have free movement of labour. The Committee is aware of the considerable concerns that have been raised by the agri-food sector that the policy does not appear to take account of the unique circumstances of this jurisdiction. That, again, is an issue that the Committee will be following closely in future.

The final matter that I wish to raise is compliance. We are concerned that there is little or no information in the Bill or its accompanying documentation on what the new system of compliance, offences, enforcement and penalties may be. That, again, is an area that deserves to be explored further and the Committee is disappointed that it has not had the time to do so.

I will now add a few comments in my capacity as Sinn Féin's spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs. There are a number of key issues, one of them being the lack of time that we have had to scrutinise the LCM. It is a serious piece of legislation that deserves wider and deeper scrutiny and the SR approach is not the best way to do things. We are not content about the lack of a sunset clause. Certainly, from our position, we propose that 2024 would be reasonable for a sunset clause, similar to that in Wales. That would give us a couple of years in the new mandate to thrash out our own agricultural policy, tailor-made for the North.

We share concerns about the lack of clarity on rural development issues. The Minister will be aware that, from the current multi-annual EU budget, £80 million is set aside for the Rural Development Programme's priority 6 schemes to support rural communities. We can see, in the fight against COVID, how vital rural communities are. The prosperity fund must replace the lost EU funding for communities.

All this, unfortunately, is the product of Brexit. Whilst the world is focused on battling the global threat of COVID-19, the British Government and, by association through the LCM, here are burdened with developing new legislation. We have been taken out of the EU against our will. The rest of the world must think that we are crazy. In the middle of this crisis, we are trying to thrash out a new agricultural policy.

I note that the British Government have parked the Fisheries and Environment Bills, and I appreciate the fact that we are at a very advanced stage with the Agriculture Bill. I think that the Minister needs to looks at parking the LCM process until we can, hopefully, all get to the other side of the pandemic. Members from other parties have contacted me, in my capacity as Chair of the Committee, to express their similar, very strong views on this, and, no doubt, they will raise them today.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 12:45 pm, 31st March 2020

The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm. I, therefore, propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be the continuation of the debate on the legislative consent motion and the next Member to speak will be Sinead McLaughlin.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.56 pm.

On resuming (Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair) —

Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Agriculture Bill, as introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January 2020, and consents to the Agriculture Bill being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 2:00 pm, 31st March 2020

Order, Members. We return to the legislative consent motion for the UK Government Agriculture Bill. .

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before I begin my remarks, I want to join Members across the House in extending my most sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have already, sadly, lost their lives as a result of COVID-19. In the midst of a pandemic such as this it is easy for those deaths to become mere statistics, but we must remember that behind each and every one of them there is a grieving family. We must do all that we can, as elected representatives, to try and save as many lives as possible.

It feels unusual, and perhaps maybe surreal, that we in the Chamber are talking about something that is not directly related to COVID-19, as, justifiably, the bulk of our attention has been focused on fighting that deadly virus. We have talked a lot about the importance of essential workers, our heroes on the front line, but it is crucial that we do not forget our farming community.

Across the North, farmers are working tirelessly, often in the context of grave financial difficulties and uncertainty, to provide food supplies for all of us. I say to farmers that we in the SDLP understand the financial challenges that they are working under and are currently facing, with reduced orders for their produce and lower incomes. Recently, we have been told of farmers who are getting further squeezed in the marketplace because of the pandemic. That is just not good enough. They are another essential part of our economy and they are facing serious difficulty.

That is why I welcome this opportunity to speak on behalf of the SDLP and to support the motion. Given all that our farmers are doing in challenging circumstances, supporting this motion and giving them some financial certainty, even if it is limited to this year, is the very least that we can do.

Colleagues will be aware of the importance of direct payments to farmers across the North. Those payments have gone some distance to improving environmental, public health and animal cruelty standards. Crucially, those payments make up a significant proportion of the income generated by our farmers. They have been a lifeline for our farmers in these difficult months and are worth more than £250 million in income. As soon as the referendum result in 2016 became clear, SDLP representatives consistently pressed the British Government to make clear their plans to replace that vital income. Those payments and the millions more that we receive from the EU are part of the reason why the SDLP was resolutely opposed to Brexit.

It is clear that the uncertainty caused by Brexit over the past three years has impacted negatively on many different sectors, not least farming. We have the opportunity today to finally provide some clarity to farmers across the North and to support the continuance of single payments over the next year.

Given the urgency of the issue, resulting from the absence of legal powers needed to continue making direct payments to farmers across the North in the 2020 scheme year, it would be appropriate to deal with these provisions in the UK Bill.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I listened to the Member's concerns about farmers in Northern Ireland. Could she explain to me how farmers were shackled by the bureaucracy of the European Union? It cost farmers in Northern Ireland millions of pounds in added regulations that they had to abide by, when the rest of Europe paid no regard. Our farmers have always been good, responsible caretakers of the land and the environment, and yet they were penalised by the bureaucracy of Brussels, when others in the rest of the European Union paid absolutely no regard. We are glad that we are unshackled from Brussels. Our farmers deserve all the freedom that they have to do what they have always done, and that is to produce the best possible product in the best possible circumstances for the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you. To be honest with you, I have spoken to quite a few farmers in the last few weeks and that is not what they are expressing to me, so I will move on. There is a great deal of fear out there within the farming community, and our party fully supports them in these circumstances. It is not a time for playing politics with that sector.

Given the urgency of this issue, resulting in the absence of the legal powers needed to continue to make direct payments to farmers across the North in the 2020 scheme year, it is appropriate to deal with these provisions in the UK Bill. As the party of devolution, it does not come naturally to us to support legislation coming directly from Westminster, but these are the circumstances that we face. I ask Members to join me in supporting the motion.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the legislative consent motion for the UK Agriculture Bill. The national, indeed world, crisis that we are in demonstrates the importance of the agricultural sector from the farmer, who is the primary producer, right through the processing aspects and to the retailer. It highlights the need for a successful agri-food sector. I certainly hope that we do not have food shortages before this crisis is over. We have heard terrible stories in the past of dairy farmers pouring the milk from their tanks down drains due to quota restrictions. We hear of the burying alive of chickens and ducks in other countries due to a movement ban. We need to ensure that unnecessary restrictions do not create situations in which perfectly good food is destroyed. We must ensure that our farmers and producers can continue to provide a high quality product to the marketplace.

Much of the Agriculture Bill is for England only or is UK-wide legislation, and none of that needs approval from the Assembly. It is mainly the Northern Ireland provisions that we need to deal with. The Bill will give us the powers to support farmers when the current EU mechanisms come to an end. This is an important element in that it gives farmers support to produce a quality base product that continues to be affordable for the consumer. The Bill does not provide any policy or long-term strategy for the agricultural industry; it is merely enabling legislation to allow for further provisions to be made.

There will be much more scrutiny and debate when the future policy and direction is brought forward to this place, whether that is direct support to farmers, changes to EU regulations like the nitrate action plan, required standards for imported products or anything else. I support this legislative consent motion and look forward to our discussions on the future plans for the industry.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister, all those in the Department, Business Office staff and indeed all the staff of this House for their work in what are very challenging circumstances in the Province. I wish you all well in the days and weeks ahead as we get to grips with COVID-19 and the challenges that it is presenting. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

I welcome the motion. I will not labour further many of the points that I have already covered in contributions in the House in the last few weeks. Suffice to say, this unprecedented current crisis has highlighted just how important our local food supply chain really is. We are seeing, each and every day, just how vital our farming community is in producing food and in ensuring that we have enough food to last through the difficult days of restrictions.

Much has been said of our medical teams operating across the province, and rightly so. They are standing in the line of fire, fighting the virus right at the coalface. Our gratitude and words are simply not enough to express just how indebted we are to all those brilliant staff. However, there are others. I think of those involved in agri-food production, processing and retailing, who are all also at the sharp end of the fight. We are indebted to them for keeping our supply chains open and working through production in the processing sector, and we salute all those involved in direct retail to the public.

Focusing on the issue at hand in this debate, I welcome the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland and the important support measures that it permits, in the short-term, such as payment continuity that will give our industry some clarity and stability in the immediate future; that is widely welcomed. The fact that parts of the Bill will be shaped locally through our devolved Administration to reflect our circumstances in Northern Ireland, is vital. I know that having a Minister who has an acute knowledge of the industry will be of importance and, indeed, significance as we move through the process of creating a system of support and regulation in the months ahead.

Agri-food is one of Northern Ireland's greatest economic assets. It has 71,000 jobs and creates an added value of almost £1.5 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. I believe that the process that we will be involved in in post-Brexit Northern Ireland and the post-Brexit United Kingdom will unlock many opportunities. Of course, there will be challenges ahead, of that I have no doubt, but I believe that the work that will be undertaken in creating the support management and monitoring structures for industry should harness and bring the potential for growth, profitability and sustainability. That will be a debate and a process that I look forward to taking part in through our Committee structure.

As someone with a lifetime's involvement in the industry, I will put forward the views of the farming community at each and every opportunity. I want to see a system that tries, where possible, to right many of the wrongs of the EU's structures that have, in many cases, had a stranglehold on agriculture and have been a massive burden on farmers. That opportunity will present itself in the coming weeks and months. I support the motion and the Minister as he works through the detail and I look forward to playing my part in the weeks ahead.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I start by associating myself, and my colleagues, with the condolences expressed to the families of those that have already lost their lives in these sad circumstances. There are also those who are deserving of our thanks for their efforts in these sad and challenging times. I want to thank those working in the agricultural and agri-food sectors who are doing their best, in the most challenging of circumstances, to ensure that we have food on our tables. Members across the House will know that, from the farm to the local butcher, from production plants to the excellent voluntary contribution and effort that has been made in our rural communities, there are a lot of people outside the House who are deserving of our recognition and thanks.

I also thank the Minister for the information he brought here today and the DAERA officials, including his direct staff, who are doing their best to provide us with answers and information. I have received that information in the most timely way in recent days and I am grateful for that. I wish to put that on the record.

On behalf of the Alliance party, I support the motion and its continued passage, if nothing else. However, there are some concerns on outstanding and unresolved issues that I must mention. I raise those concerns not to rehearse previous discussion on what brought the Bill here, but as an expression of support for our vital, valued and quality agricultural and agri-food sectors.

Evidence from the crucially important sectors that I have mentioned was given to the AERA Committee and has provided us with a list of concerns that warrant continued scrutiny, review and, if necessary, a further legislative response for the greater economic and community good.

Overshadowing all discussion on the Bill is, of course, the continued uncertainty over the Northern Ireland protocol, coordination of preparation for that protocol and lack of clarity on the implications of any future regulatory divergence in these islands. I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will address and provide some clarification on that.

The AERA Committee has considered and expressed a preference that has also been referenced for a sunset clause that would, as we have seen, for example, in Wales, facilitate a future bespoke Bill that would work best for Northern Ireland, our rural industries and our rural communities. We must also at this stage seek more clarification of rural development funding, which was also referenced and for which there is no concrete proposal, as I understand it, or guarantee that future funding would be ring-fenced. Food security also remains a concern for the sector and, I suspect, for many customers. Given the current commitment that the GB Minister would report every five years on these matters, there is surely good reason to seek more regular and more localised updates, especially during any transition period for trading and agricultural support.

Not dissimilar to that is the remaining uncertainty over the traceability of animals and whether any diminishing of local DAERA control could impact negatively on competitiveness, especially in that regulatory divergence scenario. It has been referenced as well — I apologise for any repetition, but there are matters that have been referenced that are important to me, my colleagues and those we engage with on a regular basis — that the Minister will be aware of concerns raised about Northern Ireland's reliance on migrant labour and about the perceived threat of the proposed points system to that workforce and the impact that could have on a region where, in 2017, for example, 20% of agricultural and 43% of agri-food workers were from a non-UK background. I hope that the Minister will address those matters in his response and in forthcoming discussions so that the importance of Northern Ireland agriculture not only to the economy but to everyday life will be at the forefront of the outworkings of the Bill and of any future replacement or enhancement that comes before us.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP 2:15 pm, 31st March 2020

I support the motion. As much of the Bill is not applicable to this region, I will limit my remarks to the provisions that are. The Agriculture Bill, alongside the provision for direct payments under the direct payment regulations, which were previously before the Assembly for consideration, will provide certainty in the short-to-medium term until such times as the Department brings forward further legislation. I will briefly address a number of issues in the NI-applicable provisions.

First, I welcome clause 17. Food security was not provided for in the 2017-19 Bill, which, of course, fell with the last Parliament, so I am pleased to see it in this Bill. The measures will, hopefully, increase transparency and fairness in the supply chain for farmers and food producers. However, further work is required in that area; for instance, the requirement to report on food security once every five years is a time frame that I do not believe is sufficiently frequent, especially in the short-to-medium term. Given the current context of uncertainty and change for the agri-food sector, it would be beneficial to have more frequent reporting. Similarly, tailoring that to the devolved regions would be of benefit, particularly for Northern Ireland, given the unique challenges that we face.

Secondly, clause 31 deals with fertilisation, which is an area that acutely flags the difficulties that could present themselves further down the track with regard to overlapping with the Northern Ireland protocol. It is essential that we are treated equally to the rest of the United Kingdom, our largest trading partner. We cannot be placed in a situation where we are at a disadvantage in trading terms to the rest of the UK as a result of additional burdens placed on us by the EU. Such difficulties, in any event, remain an unknown quantity at this stage.

Finally, in respect of rural development, I have concerns about the SPF policy and how it will operate and shape rural development provision beyond CAP. Rural development has always been a profitable element in the past, and, indeed, in my constituency, many projects have benefited from the local action groups (LAGs). Unfortunately, no firm policy proposals have so far been put forward by Westminster, and there is little reference in the Bill to rural development. There is no guarantee, as yet, that replacement funding will be ring-fenced. However, I hope that that is an area that will receive the necessary consideration in due course.

I welcome the flexibility provided for in schedule 6 for Executive Ministers to develop policy moving forward. Whilst I note the absence of an applicable sunset clause, I know that the Department will not be found wanting in its efforts to bring more tailored legislation to the Floor in the future.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I join everybody who has spoken to offer my sincere sympathies to the families who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus and to the many more facing the devastating reality of what lies ahead with many more people set to lose their lives here. I know that everyone here will do all in our power to mitigate the number of deaths that we could see here.

Brexit has changed the landscape for many. The Bill sets out a new road map for the decades to come, and, for that alone, this needs to be taken seriously and scrutinised at every stage. So far, we have not had that full opportunity. Over the last three years, we have had no Executive, no Assembly, no Committees, and the newly appointed EARA Committee has not been able to fully scrutinise or hear evidence on the Bill. What I have heard to date raises more questions than it answers, particularly given that the Bill is so closely interlinked with the Fisheries Bill and the Environment Bill, which have yet to come. Many contradictions become apparent when you start to unravel the three Bills. It is for that reason that the Green Party would like to see a sunset clause similar to that being worked on in Wales to address their needs. In Scotland, they are drafting their own primary legislation to deal with their future agriculture industry and sector. The Committee Chair has already raised in the debate many issues that the Committee have listened to and taken on board already, including the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and the potential impact of the Bill given our Prime Minister's threat about regulatory divergence, if need be.

For the purpose of this Bill, it is schedule 6 that applies to Northern Ireland. In schedule 6 we are allowing for "Business as usual". We know that "Business as usual" in our agriculture sector causes damage to our environment and to human health, due not least to our disproportionate over-reliance on the livestock sector, which is a huge contributor to the continued and scandalous levels of ammonia in Northern Ireland, as well as to greenhouse gases.

We hear, during this time of crisis, that non-essential business puts people at risk and flies in the face of government messages and legislation compelling people to stay at home. If "Business as usual" has ended, I call on the Minister to please pause the bringing forward of more legislation and LCMs, if they are non-essential at this time. Allow us the opportunity for proper scrutiny, because these Bills, as they sit, will change the direction of travel and can set a new scene. We need to get as many people on board and behind the Bills as possible. I know that the Agriculture Bill was much more developed than the others, and it is for that reason that we will support the LCM today. I will, again, implore that, if it is not essential in dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19 measures in place at the minute, please allow us the time to scrutinise and do essential work only.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Obviously, the Bill was put together before the coronavirus situation developed, but its content is directly connected to that issue and the development of zoonoses more generally. When we understand that the coronavirus development is being attributed to practice in food production, how we obtain our food in the period ahead will be an essential question to grapple with. The question we have to ask of the Department is this: how can we ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that we are protected from a similar virus developing? What measures are we taking here around food production to protect everyone in our communities? On that basis, we have to scrutinise this Bill and any other measures introduced down the line.

It is worth saying that, in the 1990s, as part of its economic transformation, China ramped up its food production systems on an industrial scale. One side effect of that, as various anthropologists have stated, was that small farmers were pushed out of the way. Eventually, more wild animals were introduced, and the edges of forests became rapidly explored and overcultivated. As a result, dangerous viruses began to spread. Ecosystems that were previously untouched or undisturbed globally are now being up-ended with the need to constantly push the limits for profit, which, in turn, causes an adverse reaction. In this case, it has been the coronavirus, but, previously, we have seen SARS, H1N1, Ebola and the Zika virus, to name a few. The H5N1 avian flu was linked to migratory birds getting too close to factory poultry farms. Several studies have suggested that H1N1 swine flu is linked to the movement of pigs and poultry between North America, Asia and Europe. It is clear to people who are far more qualified than me that factory farming and, in particular, poultry factory farming is at the heart of the development of so many zoonoses and is causing untold death and suffering across the world. The powers of intervention in food markets brought in with the Bill should be used to ensure that a high level of food safety is put in place.

I recognise that, due to time constraints, the Committee did not have enough time to look at and scrutinise in detail the LCM, so I think that it is important to offer points on it, to scrutinise it and to flag issues that may arise going forward. I share the concerns of others that there is a lack of mention of food in the Bill, which covers a massive area of agriculture. We have a massively fragile, just-in-time supply chain for food that could easily collapse. We are at the mercy of international markets, and, when we understand that just eight companies control 90% of our food supply, we should recognise that we are in an unsustainable situation. For example, of the six million hectares of cultivatable land in Britain, only 168,000 hectares are used for fruit and vegetables. We see, therefore, a reliance on importing vast amounts of crops into our country and into here as well.

The emergence of the coronavirus should urgently focus minds on how we need a food system that is primarily based on providing local, sustainable produce, to ultimately minimise the possibility of dangerous and deadly viruses developing and spreading. Additionally, we cannot have a scenario where we ship food hundreds of miles across the globe, increasing our carbon footprint massively, and suck produce from other parts of the world. I remember as a child the prevalence of fruit shops across my constituency, but they are practically non-existent there now, with food being funnelled primarily through large corporations, which is very worrying indeed.

Obviously, going forward, the common agricultural policy payment will be replaced by a new mechanism of payment to support farmers, and, whilst it is still unclear what that will look like, we need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. At this point, I pay tribute to the work of Nature Matters NI and share its concerns that:

"the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) has driven agriculture down an unsustainable path, with many of the declines in our natural capital (clean air, water, soil and biodiversity) attributed to agricultural intensification."

Those are concerns and mistakes that we should not repeat.

I note the Minister's comments previously about support for moving farming and support for farmers away from solely maximising production, and I hope that he will support all measures possible to ensure that farming is sustainable and friendly to the environment.

That will be key going forward.

I share the concerns that have been raised by other Members that, down the line, there could be regulatory divergence, North and South, on food safety and production. We need to avoid maximising confusion for farmers and food producers, and not have a situation where farmers in Donegal abide by a set of guidelines that are different to those for their counterparts in Derry. If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it is that there should be one approach across the island.

I note that clause 17 places a duty on the Secretary of State to produce a report on UK food security to lay before Parliament. That report has to be produced once every five years. That is simply not good enough. There needs to be regular updates on food availability and safety, especially in the current period. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is not good enough to have a report every five years, and that he will commit to provide much more regular updates to the House, hopefully, at least, annually.

We are at the mercy of large corporations when it comes to our food supply. We are beholden to price fluctuations and the whims of the market when it comes to food. Not only is that ecologically unsustainable but it is totally unfair. We cannot have a situation in which companies can make massive profits, yet their workers are paid low wages. That is despite their providing essential services at this crucial time; supplying us with food throughout the coronavirus situation. In the short term, we should nationalise those massive corporations and reroute the profits into the pockets of the workers and community at large. Ultimately, though, we need to break up the big conglomerates and have a much more democratic form of food production and planning, one that includes a bottom-up approach and has the voice of workers, producers and the community generally at the heart of it.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to our migrant workers. Without them, our food production would stop. Without them, the NHS would not be able to operate at all. I will leave my remarks there.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 2:30 pm, 31st March 2020

Before I call the Minister to make his winding-up speech, I want to ensure that everyone who wishes to speak in the debate has actually spoken. In keeping with the new social distancing rules, people are not able to approach the Table. As no other Member wishes to intervene, I call the Minister to make his winding-up speech.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Agriculture Bill is a UK Government Bill. The rationale for extending the limited number of provisions to Northern Ireland has always been to ensure the continuation of a legal basis that provides for the current suite of agriculture support payments, Northern Ireland having exited the European Union; to provide the Executive with maximum flexibility to develop future agricultural policy in Northern Ireland; and to ensure that no constraint is placed on the Executive's ability to continue the current schemes and options that are available. Without those powers, there could be problems with making payments to farmers beyond the 2020 scheme year or responding to changes elsewhere in the UK. We see this as a necessary piece of legislation.

With regard to a Northern Ireland agriculture Bill, I am focused on ensuring that policies are in place that will be good for local farmers and provide the basis for an environmentally sustainable future. That is likely to require primary legislation in the Assembly, which I will introduce at the appropriate time, subject to the Executive's agreement. Good policies and systems are a priority to ensure that the agricultural industry is sustainable and that all farmers are supported equitably. It is that objective which will make a Northern Ireland agriculture Bill more likely.

The Chairperson and others raised the issue of direct payments to farmers post-2020. I am seeking to ensure that our future share of the UK agriculture budget will reflect Northern Ireland's current combined CAP pillar 1 and pillar 2 share. I have already raised the issue of future support arrangements with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and, indeed, with the Secretary of State. My Department is liaising closely with the Department of Finance in order to ensure that the future needs of the Department are identified clearly and that future funding is maximised.

With regard to future years, the Conservative Party manifesto stated that funding for farm support would be maintained at existing levels until the end of this Parliament. While the schemes themselves may change across the UK, I am hopeful that the funding levels will be maintained until at least 2024. That is a longer period than it would have been had we stayed in the European Union, as it is currently looking at addressing funding. That will almost certainly mean cuts to the funding for the larger countries and those that have been in the European Union for a longer period. The accession countries will almost certainly have theirs raised and, consequently, the countries that are more established will have their support for agriculture cut. I want to ensure that, in having a sustainable agriculture industry, we have equity.

Moving forward, it is important to ensure that Northern Ireland farmers can compete with English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh farmers as we develop our own future agriculture policy. We need to ensure that we have the ability to design something that is fit for purpose for us, for the place that we live in and for the people whom we serve. I will also be keeping a close eye on the future CAP arrangements to ensure that Irish farmers do not gain a significant advantage over their Northern Ireland counterparts. Given the nature of our all-island supply chains, in particular, it is important to ensure that Northern Ireland businesses can remain competitive and are able to operate on a level playing field against competitors, whether it be Ireland, the European Union or elsewhere.

The future agriculture policy was raised by a number of Members. An agriculture Bill will provide the Northern Ireland Executive with maximum flexibility to develop future agriculture policy in Northern Ireland. I am committed to ensuring that, moving forward, we have an agricultural policy framework that meets the future needs of the local industry, makes farms sustainable and protects and enhances the environment. In that proposed framework, my officials, in conjunction with key food, farming and environmental stakeholders, have identified four desired outcomes and long-term visions for Northern Ireland agri-food industry: an industry that pursues increased productivity in international terms, closing the productivity gap which has been opened up with our major suppliers; an industry that is environmentally sustainable with regard to its impact on guardianship of air and water quality, soil health, carbon footprint and biodiversity; an industry that displays improved resilience to external shocks, such as market volatility and extreme, evermore frequent, weather events to which the industry has become very exposed; and an industry that operates within an integrated, efficient, sustainable, competitive and responsive supply chain, with clear market signals and an overriding focus on high-quality food and the end consumer. Those four outcomes complement each other, and they are broadly supported by stakeholders. Our focus needs to turn on how we can deliver them.

I have no plans, at this stage, to introduce a sunset clause with respect to the Northern Ireland provisions in the UK Agriculture Bill. Introducing such a clause could leave me with no legal authority to make agricultural support payments, moving forward, and it would remove powers for DAERA to give aid in exceptional market conditions. That is something that we are currently looking at, given COVID-19.

Markets are changing very quickly. We have lost all of the restaurant and hotel trade and all that goes with that. The consequence of that is that meat processors are reporting that mince and forequarter meat, for example, are flying out the doors, but steaks, which account for a third of the value of the carcass, are not. Previously, those cuts were used extensively in the restaurant trade. Already we see a distortion in the market.

The dairy sector is reporting pressures on prices; lambs are not being exported to the extent that they were previously, as a consequence of the current situation; and our fishing sector has been badly affected, as it is heavily reliant on exports and their markets are not available at this time. We see how we need to have the flexibility to do such things. Therefore it would be foolish of the Assembly to introduce something into the Bill that would hamstring the Department and Minister in bringing forward proposals to the Assembly which would be to the benefit of the people they represent, whether they be in farming or fishing. For that reason, we need to be very careful about going down such a route.

I am also determined to ensure that the UK's internal market functions effectively when it comes to the protocol, which was also raised by Members, and that Northern Ireland's ability to have continued and unfettered access to and from Great Britain is maintained. That accounts for over 50% of our trade, each way, and it is critical that we do not allow ourselves to be hamstrung by the protocol in receiving goods from and delivering goods to our main market. We are continuing to assess the impact of the protocol; clarification is still required, and detailed arrangements will be subject to discussion between the EU and the UK Government through the specialised and joint committee structures outlined in article 165 of the agreement. This detail will very much depend on the precise nature of the future trading relationship between the UK and the European Union. As agriculture policy is a devolved matter, I am very aware of the potential impacts that there could be with regulatory divergence between GB and the EU. This is not an issue which is unique to the UK Agriculture Bill and its provisions.

In terms of environmental schemes, the Bill will help ensure that we can put agriculture policies in place that will be good for farmers but, at the same time, provide the basis for an environmentally sustainable future. Mr Carroll, I think regrettably, talked about sustainable farming and then brought in the issue of these diseases that we have been hit with over the last number of years. Let me just make it absolutely clear: there is no comparison between anything that happens in this country and the diseases that have been brought to our door by people who have the most awful practices. The wet markets in China are a disgusting practice, and that is what has brought this horrible coronavirus to our door. The avian bird flu allegedly started with people who were cockfighting in the Far East and who actually sucked the saliva out of the roosters after the cockfight. That is how that was spread. Awful, horrid practices that should not be compared with any farming practice in Northern Ireland, because we uphold high quality standards.

We will seek to ensure that what we do on our farms makes them better environmentally, while being sustainable farms that can deliver good-quality food going forward. I think coronavirus has been a wake-up call. Just a month ago, there were two senior officials in Downing Street who were saying, "We don’t really need Britain to produce food any more." What fools. What absolute fools, as we are going into the circumstances that we have over the next number of months. Never before has there been a greater need, since the Second World War, for us to have good-quality food on our own doorstep that we know has been produced to the highest standards. It is absolutely incumbent upon us to ensure that that continues to be the case.

That brings us to the issue of food security. Quite a number of Members raised the issue of the five-year check. I will raise this with Westminster. I do not believe that reporting every five years is often enough, as the Assembly has also indicated. Food security has to go very, very high up on our agenda. There is a population of some 65 million here. We can feed around 10 million of them from Northern Ireland. Ireland feeds a lot more. It is absolutely essential that the high-quality food that is produced in these islands is utilised in these islands, and that we rely less on imports from other places that do not produce food to the same standards, either in animal welfare, the environment or, indeed, the welfare of their employees. We should not be in a position where supermarkets or anybody else are drawing in produce from these places that does not meet the same standards and then setting that as the bar for prices, making people who are working at home, here in their own country, work at a loss to compete with those people who are not operating to the same standards.

The issue of fertilisers was also raised by Members. The fertiliser clause will amend the Agriculture Act 1970 and provide for the continuation of the current regime, allowing the UK to continue to legislate on fertilising products. It was said that it is important that we do not allow regulation to drive up the costs, and I absolutely support that.

I will respond to a couple of other issues that were raised. Some people have referred to parking the Bill. I have made it very clear that we cannot park the Bill and we will not park the Bill because that would lead to non-payments to the farming community in 2021. It would be a fundamental and gross mistake — an error of judgement — to go down that particular route.

Mr Carroll also mentioned food being local and sustainable and moving away from the large supermarkets. Whilst that might be desirable, it would be dependant on the public. It is good to see a lot of farm shops springing up and shops that are more closely linked to where the food comes from. Those shops will survive on the basis of people buying from them. I remember, as a young boy, going down to a wee shop close to where my grandmother lived — about 10 miles from home. Mum would have a list and there were three ladies who were in and out of the back, bustling around, getting the sugar and all the different products. We did that, as a ritual, on a weekly basis, and I remember it so well. However, the supermarkets came in and they took over. That wee shop is gone, and numerous wee shops like it are gone, as are the people who ran them. Whilst it might be desirable, it is not something that we have control over, other than supporting local shops and supporting local businesses. Again, the message from coronavirus is that we need to look at local, we need to look at how we sustain and support the people who actually work in our own country, who are providing jobs in our country, who are doing things to a standard that we like, as opposed to importing from the cheapest place. We need to forget about importing all these goods from various countries in the world based on price alone. We need to look at the quality and sustaining people who actually pay taxes in this country.

I welcome the fact that most Members indicated that they will support the Bill today; we cannot afford any further crises. It would be an unacceptable outcome if we did not put this Bill through today and we would have to explain to the farmers why we are not acting to protect their interests. They are flat out at the minute, and I want to pay tribute to the people in the food industry. There are around 100,000 people who are continuing to work. We have had some issues, and I welcome the fact that, for a lot of the issues that were raised last week, we are in a better place around them. There may still be some to be ironed out, but we are definitely in a better place. We need our food industry because, if we do not have our food industry, we will not have the food on the tables. If we do not have the food on the tables, that will create a whole new problem. If we do not take the food off the farms, we will create an animal health crisis that will develop into a public health crisis, and we will also have a financial crisis. So in all of that, it is not necessary — it is critically important — that these businesses continue. They cannot be done without. We need to ensure that the food continues to come off the farms and onto the tables for people's forks. That is absolutely critical. I want to pay tribute to everybody who is involved in providing the food at this time when others are not able to work.

We cannot indicate that we have insufficient time. The House needs to apply itself to business. When coronavirus is gone — and it will pass — we need to have an economy and we need to have a Northern Ireland that we can pick up on. There is not much point in surviving a nuclear bomb if, when you come out, there is nothing left. When it comes to coronavirus, we want to save as many lives as possible. That has to be our first and primary focus — saving lives. However, on the back of that and having done that, we need to ensure that Northern Ireland has an economy, jobs, opportunities for people, schools that can pick up once again and that our hospitals can go back to normal and start to tackle the waiting lists and all the problems that were so evident before coronavirus.

It is absolutely critical that we focus in the Assembly not just on coronavirus — it goes without saying that we will have to do that — but on other issues. For Northern Ireland to progress beyond coronavirus, we must be prepared and ready and doing work on those things. I commend this legislation to the House. I believe that it is positive and will help us to keep moving forward even after coronavirus is gone.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly endorses the principle of the extension to Northern Ireland of the Agriculture Bill, as introduced in the House of Commons on 16 January 2020, and consents to the Agriculture Bill being taken forward by the Westminster Parliament.