Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow 4:00 pm, 30th October 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, and to follow the hon. Member for Stroud, whose amendment bears a striking resemblance to mine. The prime difference between my amendment 88 and his amendment 52 is the order of the subsections, and I do not think that is substantive. As he just described, my amendment came from the wording in schedule 3 relating to Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, who inexplicably left the room just before I rose to make my contribution, asked me to assure the Committee that he supports the amendments.

One reason for tabling the amendment was to pick up on some of the comments made in the evidence sessions, in particular from the representative of the farming industry in Scotland. They welcomed as close an alignment as possible of the regimes that will stem from the Bill, and once we leave the CAP regime, to try to minimise difference among the four schemes. I am conscious that we do not have any of the regulations that will implement the schemes but, in terms of the regulatory environment and the legislation, the more commonality we have between the four nations, the better for farmers and the industry.

I must remind the Committee of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a farmer who will be affected by the regime, in common with other farmers. The purpose of the amendment is to probe the Government’s intent in relation to agricultural support. I agreed with much of what the hon. Member for Stroud said. We are designing a scheme that replaces the legislative environment of the 1947 Act, which put in place an initial set of agricultural support. We are also replacing the CAP system that we have been operating under since the 1970s. The legislation is designed to set in place agricultural support for the future. Yet the challenge to us, as members of the Committee, is that the purposes as set out under clause 1, thus far, are not agriculture-heavy; they are agriculture-lite; or barely existent.

There is a challenge, which I think we will see when the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs comments on the Bill. It is keen to see specific references to agriculture, horticulture and forestry in the purposes of the Bill. That was what lay at the heart of my amendment 88, and in particular proposed new subsection 2(d) of clause 1, which refers to

“supporting the production of such part of the nation’s food and other agricultural produce as it is desirable to produce in the United Kingdom.”

When I intervened on the Secretary of State on Second Reading, I asked him what his view was about food security being an important purpose of the Bill. As a former journalist with an ability to encapsulate pithily what he means in as few words as possible, he replied with four words: “Food security is vital.” That is why I felt that it was important to probe where the Government stand on the issue, because that objective is not as apparent in the drafting that has emerged in the Bill as the Secretary of State was on Second Reading. Amendment 88 would help to make that objective explicit.

The Secretary of State went on to describe how he sees food security providing the opportunity for UK-based farmers to compete internationally by way of exports. Of course, the UK competes internationally in global food and food product markets. At the moment, we produce about 60% of the food we consume in this country, so we are importing 40%—not quite as much as we are producing. There is clearly a risk that once we move to more internationally competitive markets, we will find imports coming in to a greater degree. We are now setting up a legislative programme that will allow for unforeseeable events in the future, and future Secretaries of State may therefore find it advantageous to have a power on the face of the Bill that allows future Governments to design or redesign a scheme in the event of market conditions changing.

We will talk about exceptional market conditions later in our consideration of the Bill, and I welcome the clauses that deal with that topic. They represent a very good idea. However, when responding to the amendments, I urge the Minister to consider whether it is desirable for Secretaries of State to have that power, which may—rather than must—be used. At some point in the future, in the event that there are challenges to local production, that power may be called upon. Food security is not just about how much food we grow in this country; it is about how readily accessible food is to our populations in the event of difficulty. We have already seen from previous incidents of industrial disturbance and severe weather that, on occasion, distributing food to the population is not as easy as it is during normal times. Having the ability to grow as much food as we can in this country will be of benefit for the future.