Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 3:00 pm, 30th October 2018

I will confine my remarks mostly to amendment 71, although I will say that it is really frustrating that the animal sentience Bill disappeared into the ether after the agreement that it would be split from the sentencing Bill. We have not heard anything about it since then. It is not enough to get assurances from the Minister; we need to see that legislation if we are to be convinced that it will really happen.

My amendment is about higher animal welfare. I have seen a timeline from DEFRA that says that a definition of higher animal welfare standards will be set by 2020. I would like to know why it cannot be set sooner, because it rather complicates things if we do not know the parameters that we are dealing with. The key point of my amendment is to ensure that we are not rewarding farmers who just do what is required of them by law.

We are a little too self-congratulatory and complacent about animal welfare standards in this country. There have been numerous exposés of even some of the higher assurance schemes where the letter of the law was clearly not being followed and standards were being breached. We should always be vigilant about that, particularly as we know that future trade deals might result in a race to the bottom, with food that has been produced to lower animal welfare standards, food safety standards and environmental standards flooding into the country. There will be a temptation to cut corners. I know Ministers have said that they will not allow British standards to fall, but I cannot get them to say that they will not allow into the country, for example, US food that is produced to lower standards. Once what I would call substandard produce is allowed into the country, the pressure will clearly be on to compete by, as I say, cutting corners.

At the heart of the amendment is the fact that the Bill does not have a regulatory baseline, and we will lose cross-compliance as we leave the common agricultural policy. I am not quite sure how we will monitor whether farmers are meeting the regulatory baseline. Because we cannot do that, how will we reward them for meeting higher standards? At the moment, I think farmers get their payments withheld if they do not meet certain standards. The current wording of the Bill would make it possible for a farmer to break the law when transporting calves, for example, but still to receive payments for higher animal welfare. Are they going to be judged in the round, or just by particular things that they have cherry-picked?

I want to ensure that financial assistance under clause 1 will be given only to farmers whose welfare standards are higher than those required by law. The definition of higher animal welfare will be very important to that, and it should take into account the desirability of both preventing negative experiences and promoting opportunities to give animals a positive quality of life; those are two slightly different things. Scientists are increasingly recognising the importance for animals’ physical and mental wellbeing of their ability to engage in exploration, investigation, problem-solving and play. That is recognised by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee as well.

A second condition for receiving funding should be that the farmer is a member of a comprehensive assurance scheme.