Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 2:45 pm, 30th October 2018

That is right. I am not cynical, but I hope that that is not part of the motivation for not including these principles in the Bill. However reassuring the Minister undoubtedly is, we are not only legislating for today. This legislation has to stand the test of time, and it has to provide the protections that we think we need for the future. I hope my hon. Friend is wrong, and that that is not at the back of the Government’s mind, but we are being asked to take an awful lot on trust, which Opposition Members are not generally inclined to do.

Another useful contribution in evidence came from the chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, George Dunn. He said that, if we set domestic environmental and animal welfare standards for food production and do not allow farmers to invest in the necessary fixed equipment required to produce those standards, we are not supporting them in the supply chain to ensure that they get adequate returns for those standards. He also asked how sucking in stuff from wherever, produced to whatever standards that we are unable to attribute, creates food security for our nation, and said that we will simply be exporting our environmental and animal welfare problems abroad. I think he speaks for many of the farmers I have spoken to. That is not something that any of us would want. The best way to prevent that from happening is to put these measures into the Bill—or, if not this Bill, a different Bill.

Minette Batters spoke brilliantly about the politicisation of support for agriculture in the future, and how it will be different. She pleaded for spending not to be politicised, but with the best will in the world, it will be, because spending on support for our agriculture will be in direct competition with spending on the health service, policing and pensions. When the Chancellor delivers his Budget in years to come, he will have to say what he will do for farmers and for agriculture that year. There is a real danger of instability and lack of confidence. The logical response from investors would be to hold back and not invest long term in their own farms because they risk making a long-term investment and, with a change of Government, the support they had anticipated might not be in place. That is not something that any of us would wish to see. This is the best Bill for including some legal safeguards to prevent that from happening.

Minette Batters says that this will not work if it gets politicised and that we need a long-term approach, with cross-party support for the ambition. She says that otherwise—I think she is understating this—there will be a lot of challenges ahead. We can bet there will be a lot of challenges ahead. If I were a farmer, I would want far more clarity on what was expected. Having been told there was an Agriculture Bill, I would expect there to be clarity for me as a producer.

I noticed in the “Health and Harmony” document that the Government talk about the regulatory framework within which they will inspect and maintain standards around the Government’s policy. That is another area of concern. We would probably feel a lot better about it if we had that kind of legal certainty in the Bill.

Unless the Bill is substantially more explicit than the current rather loose and discretionary “it would be nice to do this if we want to” powers, we will leave farmers at considerable risk. They absolutely need to know what is needed to comply. How compliance is monitored will also matter. The “Health and Harmony” document rightly says:

“Farmed animals are an integral part of our countryside. We have a responsibility to maintain their health and welfare”.

Yes, that is so. It also says:

“Excellent standards of animal health can reduce reliance on veterinary medicines”.

To be fair to David Cameron, although I am not sure why I would be, he did talk about antibiotic use and prioritised getting to grips with that, which is a good thing. The “Health and Harmony” document says that at the moment there is a strong regulatory framework in place that ensures that health and welfare standards are maintained.

It is troubling to see other points in the same document. I can see why this is the Government’s mood but, when it comes to animal welfare and environmental standards, we ought to be doing much better. That, combined with the lack of legal certainty in the Bill, causes me anxiety. On page 49, “Health and Harmony” mentions

“seeing how inspections can be removed, reduced or improved to lessen the burden on farmers while maintaining and enhancing our animal, environmental and plant health standards”.

We would all love to maintain the same standards, with no legal framework and light-touch regulation. That would be fantastic—I want to live in that world, but I just do not think that we do. The document says:

“We also have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world: after leaving the EU we should not only maintain but strengthen those standards.”

So, where is that ambition in the Bill? Everybody on the Opposition side has it, as I am sure everybody on the Government side does, but where is it in the Bill? It is okay to say that we all want to be nice people, look after our animals and have a lovely countryside—of course we do—but the Government need to say how they are going to do that and exactly what they will do, as opposed to what they could do if they felt like it. We can do much better than that for our food producers.

On animal sentience, during proceedings on the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, there were claims, unfortunately, especially on social media, that the Government are not interested in animal welfare and that they are relaxed about cruelty. I do not go in for all that. To be clear, that is not the Opposition’s approach to the issue. We are genuine and serious about it, and we think it could be resolved.

I get the impression that if the Secretary of State had clocked the issue earlier, he would have resolved it himself, but because it has become a thing, he has had to resolve it in a different way. That is the reality of political life and we all understand that—there is a “not invented here” chip in some of our brains. The matter does need to be resolved, however, and we have been led to believe that animal sentience will be dealt with, but it is not in the Bill. We are trying to get it into the Bill, but if that is not appropriate or if the Government intend to handle it in a different way, let us hear it. We are not wedded to our amendments as the only way to achieve these things, but the Government need to bend their head around our reasons for tabling them and try to come up with a satisfactory way to deal with the issue.

We genuinely trust what the Secretary of State has said on animal sentience, but the issue is that article 13 of the Lisbon treaty includes a specific recognition that animals are sentient. That wording was transferred into UK law as part of being in the EU, and the UK Government have to do something to keep it in our law after Brexit. After we leave, that law will no longer apply, so we have to get it into a Bill somehow between now and the end of March. I do not understand why the Bill has not been used as an opportunity to do so.