Duty to report on international obligations

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 15th November 2018.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament reports on the extent to which the provisions of this Act have helped the UK meet its obligations, including (but not limited to)—

(a) the UN Paris Agreement,

(b) CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora),

(c) the Convention on Biological Diversity, including the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity,

(d) the Convention on the Law of the Sea,

(e) the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and

(f) the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

(2) The first report under subsection (1) shall be laid no later than 31 March 2020, and subsequent reports shall be laid no later than 31 March in each calendar year.

(3) The Secretary of State shall consult with—

(a) the Scottish Ministers,

(b) the Welsh Ministers, and

(c) the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland

before laying a report under subsection (1).

(4) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements for a report under subsection (1) to be laid before—

(a) the Scottish Parliament, and

(b) the Welsh Assembly.’—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report annually on the contribution made to the UK’s international obligations as a result of the provisions of the Bill.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We will get active again now, having had a thorough but rapid run through some parts of the Bill. New clauses often deal not with what is going to be in the Bill but with what should be in it. We make no apology for saying that this should be a comprehensive Bill that looks at some of the big issues of our day.

There is nothing more important than the relationship between agriculture and our international obligations, so I make no apology for tabling new clause 8. Of course we want the Government to say that everything in the new clause will be in the forthcoming environment Bill—provided there is a Government and an environment Bill—but we thought we would test the water to see whether there were ways in which this Bill could at least take cognisance of those vital international obligations.

Let us look at our proposed changes, which are all vital in their own way. We are asking that the Bill take notice of what the different vital international obligations require us to do. In so doing, as subsection (3) says, there should be a duty to consult the relevant authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is important because it is putting some building around the scaffold, to use the analogy that has been applied to the Bill several times. The Bill is quite limited in what it seeks to do, so we are asking the Minister to go further.

The new clause requires a report. It does not require huge changes in legislation, but some cohesion in the way in which the Government approach how they intend to use the Bill. I hope that it is not seen to be outwith what the Bill is about but that it is helpful, because it will allow the Secretary of State, or whoever is required to do it, to bring forward a report on how those international obligations are met through the Bill. At the moment, of course, we are part of the EU, so that will take place automatically through some of the ways in which the EU meets its international obligations, but we are presupposing that the UK will not be part of the EU. Brexit means that we need to put into domestic law what was previously implied through our membership of the European Union.

I will immediately sit down and not go any further if the Minister tells me that this will all be in the environment Bill, so the new clause is premature and the issue does not need to be spoken about at length now. Unless we get that assurance, however, we will press the new clause, because we think it is important to signal how British agriculture and the environmental support systems that we are putting in place will operate through the different international obligations to which we are party. If the Minister cannot confirm that, one wonders what we will do to meet our international obligations and targets in the future.

I will not go into any detail about the individual agreements, but clearly the Paris agreement is vital to our commitment to tackle climate change. We tried to get the Government to accept amendment 50, and if they had, the new clause would probably not have been necessary. Sadly, they did not listen to us and we lost the vote on that amendment. In moving this new clause, we make it clear that the Paris agreement is crucial in terms of how the Bill should meet that commitment.

We do not have a good story to tell. Agricultural emissions have flatlined in recent years—there has been no improvement—and we have a major problem with methane and carbon, so we have to do much more. The new clause implies that agriculture must do more, as the 2018 IPCC report said. It is not just that producers have to do more; we should lay down some clear guidelines for consumers about sustainable diets that include what we should eat rather than what we do eat. There should be guidelines about reducing food waste, soil sequestration, livestock and manure management, reducing deforestation, afforestation, reforestation and responsible sourcing. They are all part of what the IPCC is asking us to do.

In the new clause we are bringing forward an important piece of potential legislation—we would all sign up to sustainable development, but we want to do so in the Bill. We ask the Government to recognise that including those obligations is appropriate. If not, we want assurances from the Minister that the environment Bill will include them. If the Government intend to include those obligations in the environment Bill, let us put on record here that including them at this juncture, in the Agriculture Bill, is less important.

The Government need to recognise how important those different obligations are and explain how we are meeting them. I have only identified a small number, but those are, to my mind, the most relevant to agriculture, and the ones that really matter to ensure that our agriculture meets its international obligations. I hope that the Minister has listened to what I have said, because it is not just in the interests of people on this side of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East raised this matter in an earlier sitting of the Committee, and it is supported across the board by Greener UK, which feels strongly that we should be setting longer term objectives—that is why the new clause is popular. We hope that, in due course, it will stand part of the Bill, or that its aims will be clearly spelled out in future Government legislation—namely, the environment Bill.

We have read how the 25-year environment plan will contextualise what the Government intend to do and it contextualises the Bill. It would be good to hear what the Government and the Minister intend to do to ensure that those warm words are put into a statutory framework, so that we know exactly what the UK will do when—or if—it leaves the European Union, and know that we are signed up to a better environmental world and one that agriculture plays its part in creating.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Government take our international obligations very seriously. The list of international conventions and forums to which we are a signatory is long. I will not fob the hon. Gentleman off by saying that the obligations will be included in the environment Bill. I can go one better: we already produce many reports under all of those conventions.

I have often said, in the context of calls for statutory requirements for consultations, that DEFRA loves consultations, so there is no need for a statutory requirement. I can also confirm that in my time as a Minister, I have discovered that DEFRA loves annual reports as well. Indeed, I often say to officials, “Am I the only one who reads this report?”. Given that the hon. Gentleman said that we should be publishing reports, he clearly does not read some of those that already get published, so I will cover some of them now.

There are already reporting requirements under decision 24/CP.19 and decision 2/CP.17 of the UN framework convention on climate change; under article 26 of the convention on biological diversity; under article 33 of the Cartagena protocol on biosafety; and under article 8, paragraphs 6 to 8, of the convention on international trade in endangered species. Under the Paris agreement and the Climate Change Act 2008, an annual statement of emissions is provided to Parliament. Every five years we provide a similar statement to Parliament stating the final performance under a given carbon budget.

Under the convention on international trade in endangered species, there is an annual CITES trade report, summarising the number and type of permits granted, countries traded with, and quantities and types of species involved. There is an annual illegal trade report summarising seizures made, and source and destination countries. There is a biennial implementation report summarising legislative regulatory and administrative measures taken to implement CITES.

Under the convention on biological diversity there have been five progress reports: in 1998, 2001, 2005, 2009 and, most recently, in 2014. The sixth national report is being prepared, ready for submission this December.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 4:45 pm, 15th November 2018

Will that report make clear the effect the Bill will have on the ability to meet our commitments under the convention on biological diversity?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The report will not have commenced by December. Obviously the report will cover December. Absolutely, there are obligations under the CBD and where policies we have in this document help us to deliver some of our objectives under some of these international conventions—there are many different ones that are not listed here, such as the Bern convention and others—we would be able to reflect it.

Under the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, which is also cited in subsection (1)(e), the UK is obliged to report every five years on how the rights outlined in ICESCR are being implemented. The next report to the UN is expected in 2021.

Under the UN sustainable development goals, progress is demonstrated via the single departmental plan process. There are departmental annual reports and accounts, and data that is reported by the Office for National Statistics.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I was waiting for the Minister to get on to the sustainable development goals, because that is where his response is weakest. There is not a clear mechanism. When the Environmental Audit Committee took evidence the other week on the progress being made on the goal to end hunger, we asked four Ministers from four different Departments whose responsibility it was in Government to deliver on that goal, and they all looked completely blank and turned to each other. We need a proper mechanism to report on what we are doing on the SDGs. It is not enough to say that it is buried in the detail of departmental plans.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Lady makes a legitimate point. That is one example where there is not a requirement within the convention or commitment to publish, but we pick up those obligations through the departmental plans.

The other area that we do not currently have a specific provision for is the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. I can tell the hon. Member for Stroud that the Fisheries Bill commits us in clause 1—I will not go too far down this point, because it is a separate Bill, which we have to look forward to—to a whole set of sustainability objectives and a joint fisheries statement to outline how we will deliver those objectives. The environmental objectives under UNCLOS will be picked up through the provisions in the forthcoming Fisheries Bill.

I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we take these conventions seriously, that we already have a multitude of requirements to report through articles within the conventions themselves and, therefore, that the new clause is unnecessary.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for giving us a long list by way of explanation. This was more of a probing amendment, but we want to put it on the record that one of the difficulties with legislation is the degree to which it needs to be bound into other legislation. I think that this proposal is probably more appropriate for the environment Bill, but again, we need to put it on the record that the Government should be saying how they will meet their international obligations, not only through reports, but through the way in which they meet those obligations, which can then be manifest in the reports.

Sadly, the IPCC stated categorically—and I was there when Lord Deben, who was John Gummer, told me and a very big audience—that agriculture emissions were flatlining. Something somewhere is going wrong. International obligations are not being met; there should be a decrease. As it is, the only sector where there has been a significant decrease in the use of carbon is energy. Manufacturing, agriculture and the service economy are all flatlining. They are not reducing their dependence on carbon.

It is disappointing that we must bring the matter up, but bring it up we do. I shall accept what the Minister says at this stage, but I hope that he will listen to us and that when the environment Bill comes along there will be a clause on agriculture. In the 25-year environment plan there are quite a number of references to agriculture, as is right and proper, given that it is the most important user of the landscape. We want joined-up thinking and joined-up action.

We also want to know that the Government are dealing with areas in which, so far, they do not have a good record—I mean not just the present Government but predecessor Governments. They have simply failed on emissions standards. The Climate Change Act was only passed in 2008, so that is an easy cop-out for the previous Labour Government, but the reality is that we have not met our international obligations on agricultural emissions. I hope that the Government will do something more—they have to.

From talking to various people in Northern Ireland, I gather there is a huge problem with methane there, partly because of the growth of factory farming. That may or may not be acceptable—certainly to me it is not, but to some people it is. The downside is that methane emissions are growing rapidly. The Republic admits that it has a problem, although less than the north. We must recognise that change in agricultural systems is not always good; there can be a downside for the environment.

I shall not press new clause 8 to a vote, Members will be pleased to hear, but I hope that the Government will consider what has been said in this mini-debate, and think about how to make sure there is a strong component in the forthcoming Bill to reflect the role of agriculture. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 9