Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 2:15 pm, 30th October 2018

Mr Wilson, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship as your constituency neighbour. I know that you have many farmers in your constituency so I hope that you are finding our deliberations interesting and stimulating.

I have particularly enjoyed the contributions of the hon. Member for North Dorset. He has made insightful remarks on amendments 44 and 45. However, I take issue with him when he talks about a rural-urban split between our parties; that is not something that I recognise. Part of our reason for tabling many of these amendments, including the ones to which I am about to speak, is that we want to future-proof this legislation. We want to make sure that the outcomes that we probably all desire are more assured, that we can be more confident and, more importantly, that farmers and those involved in agriculture can have more certainty about what the future might mean for them. It is important that we get this right.

It has been said to me several times that the Bill is a huge opportunity for the sector and I agree. This is the first time for many years that the UK has had the opportunity to decide precisely how it wants to support farming, food producers and those involved with caring for our landscape. We need to take this opportunity seriously and grab it with both hands. I know that many interested parties are watching carefully what we say and the tone in which we say it—and also what it is that finds its way into the Bill. It is no good to the sector to hear warm words from Ministers and be given hints at possible future decisions.

Things laid out in consultation papers are very interesting, but they do not provide the certainty that is going to be needed. Until now, support for farming has come from obligations that we have had as a member of the European Union, which have been very clear and long term, though imperfect in very many ways—I would not dare to argue. Those obligations will now become discretionary, to a certain extent, and it is possible that at the next general election, whenever that may be, there will need to be a chapter in every one of our manifestos about what we think we ought to do to support farmers and agriculture. It would be helpful if we had a clearer framework, which could be laid out in the Bill and is currently lacking, within which those policy decisions and priorities could be placed. Unless we do that farmers are going to be left in an uncertain position, subject to the whims and competing priorities of different political parties—and, perhaps, pressures from minority parties. That is not a secure framework within which to proceed.

I am not a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs farming agricultural specialist, as the Committee will know. I am here because I have been involved with our Brexit team. I have been asked not to bang on too much about retained EU law and that side of things in my contribution. I am also mindful of the fact that if we maintain the pace that we have achieved so far in our considerations, we will actually conclude in the first week in April, and given that the purpose of the Bill is to prepare us for our departure from the EU, that would be far from satisfactory; so I will try to get on with things.

As well as speaking to Amendments 74 and 75, I wish to speak in support of amendment 71, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East. I must say that since I was elected in 2010 I have been inspired and encouraged by the approach she takes to many of these issues, particularly food, reducing waste and the availability of quality food. She has an incredibly impressive track record on those issues and it is great that she is here. I hope the Government will benefit from her observations as we proceed with the Bill.

All three amendments, but amendments 74 and 75 in particular, concern animal sentience and its place in our law, and the need for minimum animal welfare and, similarly, environmental standards. It is important to establish those in the Bill so that they can inform future policymaking and be contestable in our courts—an important feature that is currently missing from this Bill.

The Bill is too much of a blank sheet of paper. It is a blank canvas, which is great for the Government because it means their critics, or people with an interest in this policy area, can paint whatever picture they like on that canvas, feel good about it and think, “Great, we are going to get what we want,” when actually they might not get any of the things they want. While it really is good to hear a Minister talk about the things he spoke about in the last debate, it is possible that none of those things will happen as a consequence of the Bill.

That is deeply concerning, and it is the principal reservation about this Bill on the Opposition side; if not for that, I think we would find a huge amount of agreement in this Committee. We may take a different attitude to how we vote on the Bill as we go forward, but this is a fundamental flaw of this piece of legislation that we cannot be expected to overlook. These amendments are needed following the passage of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and those who follow these things closely might recognise the wording of some of the amendments, because it would be a fair criticism of me to say that we have had a go at this previously. When we did so, we were assured by Ministers that our concerns would be taken care of in forthcoming legislation.

This is the first substantial piece of legislation we have had and we are disappointed that what was indicated at that time to try to reassure us has not happened yet. I accept that there may be opportunities in the future and the Minister may attempt to reassure us by again hinting that that is a possibility, but it is a disappointment that those things are not in this Bill.