“(1) A UK-wide framework for agriculture, agricultural support and land management shall, subject to subsection (2), be established jointly by—
(a) Ministers of the Crown;
(b) Scottish Ministers;
(c) Welsh Ministers; and
(d) Northern Ireland Ministers or, if there are no Northern Ireland Ministers, the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland.
(2) A framework under subsection (1) shall be established if it is deemed necessary, with regard to agriculture, agricultural support and land management, to—
(a) enable the functioning of the UK internal market, while allowing for policy divergence;
(b) ensure compliance with international obligations;
(c) enable the management of common resources;
(d) administer and provide access to arbitration for disputes in cases with a cross-border element; or
(e) facilitate the allocation of funding to the devolved administrations to provide financial support.
(3) A framework under subsection (1) must respect the devolution settlements and the democratic accountability of the devolved legislatures and shall—
(a) be based on established conventions and practices, including that the principle that the competence of the devolved institutions will not be adjusted without their consent;
(b) maintain, as a minimum, equivalent flexibility for tailoring policies to the specific needs of each territory as is afforded by current EU rules; and
(c) lead to a significant increase in joint decision-making powers for the devolved administrations.
(4) Decisions made under a framework established under subsection (1) shall require unanimous agreement between each of the authorities in subsection (1).”.—
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I rise to speak to new clause 11, tabled in my name and those of my Plaid Cymru colleagues, in the hope of probing the Government a little on their thinking about the need for and the operation of common UK-wide frameworks once the Bill—and the respective Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Bills—comes into effect. It was mentioned in an earlier sitting that the EU provided both the regulatory and financial frameworks within which each of the devolved nations has been able to tailor and operate some of their agricultural policies.
If we are to leave the European Union, I cannot see any clarity at present as to how the four respective industries and the four respective Administrations will continue to operate on such things as those listed in the new clause, including: the functioning of the UK internal market, which I am sure we are all quite keen to ensure, while allowing for some policy divergence for each Administration to tailor whatever agricultural policy best suits their specific needs; compliance with international obligations; the management of common resources; and—most importantly, perhaps, from my point of view—how finance and funding under the UK umbrella will be allocated to the four respective nations.
I am very much of the opinion that any proposed framework would have to be agreed by the three devolved Administrations and the UK Government. If we did not have such an agreement, I do not think anything would truly operate smoothly. We would open ourselves up to challenges, legal disputes and so on.
I tabled the new clause because a lot of farmers in Ceredigion and, indeed, wider Wales have approached me with concerns that policy divergence may have severe adverse consequences for them. They fear that some policy divergence may cause adverse market distortion. Given the size of Wales and of the industry in Wales, we are keen to ensure that we minimise disruption as far as possible. The common agricultural policy, of course, does that to some extent: it sets out the broad parameters and objectives by which every nation state must abide while they try to tailor agricultural policies that suit their specific industries. Similar frameworks for the UK, agreed by the four Governments, are certainly appropriate and necessary.
I turn to finance, which I have mentioned not just in Committee but in other parts of the House. Although there is an ongoing independent review, which I welcome —for the record, I also welcome the Government’s commitment to avoiding using the Barnett formula to allocate resources among the devolved nations post Brexit—there is still a question. If we manage to sort out the initial funding allocation—the initial framework, as it were—how will we come to decide the next one in five to 10 years, or whatever that period may be? Just as importantly, how will we ensure the different financial thresholds in each policy do not lead to market disruption and distortion, which we must avoid?
The Farmers Union of Wales and the National Farmers Union Cymru have pleaded with me to stress the importance of ensuring that no nation is left behind and that we do not disrupt the level playing field. Thinking about how the CAP sets broad limits on how much money can be given directly to farmers, I am not confident that we will have any clarity about how we manage finances under this new set-up once we leave the EU.
I have suggested that we should look to create joint frameworks—intergovernmental frameworks—as a way of ensuring not only that each nation gets its fair share, but that multi-annual frameworks can be introduced. I know the industries in each of the nations of the UK are keen on those. If that was agreed by the four Administrations, perhaps the Government could take it out of the three to five-year Treasury cycle, liberating Ministers to set five, seven or even 10-year frameworks—whatever they deemed appropriate.
The key thing is that there needs to be joint agreement. It was stressed in the evidence sessions and our earlier debates on the Bill that at present there is no adequate or appropriate body to oversee the policies in the four nations of the UK. There is no dispute mechanism that is trusted by the four Administrations and the four industries. That should be explored as part of the discussions on the Bill. I am willing to say that Welsh Labour First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has touted a council of UK Ministers as a possible solution. That would replace or even enhance the existing Joint Ministerial Committee, which does not command much confidence in the industry, at least in Wales.
I can see the need post Brexit for an oversight body or some sort of governance structure to adjudicate whether the respective policies of the four nations abide by the UK’s commitments under the World Trade Organisation agreement on agriculture. I can also see the need for some sort of independent dispute resolution mechanism when it comes to exceptional market circumstances. For example—touch wood—drought in one part of the UK may lead the Government in that part of the UK to offer assistance with buying foliage. Inevitably, that would have an impact on the other countries if they did not decide to offer similar assistance. There needs to be some sort of body so that such concerns can be discussed in confidence and, I hope, addressed in a way that ultimately ensures the smooth running of the internal market and, most importantly, avoids harmful disruption to our farmers. I am sure we can all agree about that.
The issue of cross-border properties and farm holdings applies particularly to Wales; I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, my friend and neighbour, is here. Again, there needs to be a little more clarity so that we know exactly how these will operate post Brexit. If there are disputes on the Welsh or English side of the border, how can those farms take up those issues? Will they have to resort to costly legal action? Will both Governments be arguing and playing politics? My contention is that, if we were to have some sort of an oversight—an overarching body, an independent council of UK Ministers—that would at least afford us the opportunity to take the matter out of politics and have independent arbitration, which would, I hope, ensure that a particular farm on the border of Brecon or Radnor, for example, did not lose out.
The hon. Gentleman has given me a great opportunity to come in. I sympathise with a lot of what he is saying, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, sitting in front of me, has been nodding in agreement on various things. However, does the hon. Gentleman not have concerns, as I do, about certain things that come out of the DEFRA Department of the Welsh Government as a result of having too much authority in cases such as this? I understand his request for a framework, which we are all working towards, but if we give that Department too much power, Brecon and Radnorshire, and Ceredigion, will be in hot water indeed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I acknowledge and accept what he is saying: there is always a danger that we may not agree with what the Welsh Government want to do, particularly with regard to agriculture. I share that concern. However, I assure him that he need not worry and wait for too long—before long, my own party will be in government.
I might be tempted later.
We need to look at how the four industries and Administrations will work following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, because the EU provided a sort of overarching framework within which we all knew the parameters and rules. Any new framework would have to be agreed by the four Administrations if they were to work effectively and smoothly. I am probing the Government to see what their thinking is on this matter. I may then bring it back for a vote on Report.
The hon. Gentleman said that this is a probing amendment. He raises some important issues about how we co-ordinate policy around the UK. I will first explain why we do not agree with the approach taken in the new clause; secondly, I will outline some of the things we are doing.
First, we do not have a federal system in the UK. We have a devolved settlement. There is a good reason for that: federal systems tend to work best where there are a number of constituent parts all of roughly the same size. Our challenge in the UK is that England is so much bigger than the other parts of the UK; if we had some kind of qualified majority vote, England would end up dominating the decision making. Equally, if we had equal votes and effectively required unanimity, smaller parts of the UK would have a veto on what England did. That is why we have developed a devolution settlement where certain powers are clearly devolved and certain powers are clearly reserved. In the middle, where it makes sense to co-ordinate and work together, we have a good track record of putting together voluntary frameworks and memorandums of understanding.
The approach that we envisage taking is that there would be frameworks, in the form of memorandums of understanding or concordats, and that those would facilitate co-operation, collaboration and co-ordination so that we can work together on a number of key areas. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there are elements of the Bill that are devolved but on which we would probably want to work together, to co-ordinate the impacts. Notably, there needs to be some sort of administrative agreement in place to manage cross-border holdings. We have that already under the existing, CAP so it would be relatively easy to roll something similar forward.
Perhaps most important is the use of powers in exceptional market conditions. Those intervention powers could have impacts on other parts of the UK, so having a memorandum of understanding about how we would use the powers is important. Other areas in which we believe that having an MOU would be important include approaches to data collection, contracts and market transparency, but also issues such as the changing of marketing standards.
We already have in the DEFRA family good examples of concordats working well. We have a number of them in relation to fisheries. Some of those have within them a dispute resolution mechanism. The Scottish Government have at times been in dispute with, for instance, the Isle of Man about scallop fishing—it is always scallops, for some reason—but a resolution process exists in the fisheries sphere to deal with that.
Well, they are similar. Neither has to have a dispute resolution process. Some do and some do not. We have a number of concordats in the fisheries sphere. A concordat tends to be slightly more formal than an MOU, which is a looser agreement.
Let me turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion. On subsection (1) of the new clause, we envisage concordats and MOUs pulling Ministers together in the way that I have described. On subsection (2)(d), as I said, we already have processes for managing cross-border cases. On subsection (3), we already have, as I said, the devolution settlement. On subsection (3)(b), about maintaining,
“as a minimum, equivalent flexibility for tailoring policies” to that which we have in the EU, that is not saying very much—we do not have a lot of flexibility, to be honest, and we would like to give more.
One of my most memorable experiences in DEFRA has been being informed of a dispute that the Welsh Government were having with the EU about ear tags. In Wales, where there are hedges, ear tags can sometimes be pulled off by the brambles in a hedge, so animals used to have one small tag—a metal clip tag—and one larger tag that could be read, but the EU said that that was not good enough and the two tags had to be the same size, so that there were two dangling tags. The matter ended up going to court, and we had to get involved to support the Welsh Government in arguing their case. That is the kind of flexibility that we have in the EU—not very much. We would like to have far more.
My final point is this. Yesterday I was in Cardiff: the occasion was a joint ministerial meeting with the DEFRA Ministers. The meeting was hosted by Lesley Griffiths of the Welsh Government. Lesley put forward a proposal, which we agreed yesterday, that we should put that group of, in effect, the Agriculture and DEFRA Ministers on to a more formal footing, with clear terms of reference established, so that it could manage the EU exit process and possibly have a role thereafter, but also work up a memorandum of understanding about how we approach some of these issues together. Therefore, in addition to the Joint Ministerial Committee process, which itself is being reviewed to try to iron out some of the difficulties and make it more effective, we have a memorandum of understanding under development through the meeting that has been convened with the DEFRA Ministers. As I said, I was in Cardiff discussing that only yesterday.
Always, in a memorandum of understanding or concordat, we are in effect talking about issues that are devolved. They are issues that are technically devolved but on which we all recognise that there is sense in having common frameworks, so we voluntarily come back together for a concordat—to reach an agreement. We do that already in the veterinary sphere, for instance, in agriculture. There is a veterinary concordat whereby all parts of GB sign up to an Animal and Plant Health Agency surveillance programme, and it works very well, so we have demonstrated that we can do this. But ultimately these are areas of policy that are devolved and devolved provisions of the Bill.
I should indicate that those policy areas may technically be devolved because they are devolved. That is important.
In the notice given by the policy paper “Agricultural framework progress update: September 2018”, the Government talked about a period of 18 months to reach that concordat with the Scottish Government. Can the Minister give us any indication of a firmer timescale for that, given how long the discussions have been going on and—if I may infer—some of the challenges that he has perhaps skipped over in reaching agreement on these concordats or memorandums?
There is a lot of work to do. There are 92 different statutory instruments that we have had to put down in preparation for Brexit. Each of the devolved Administrations have had to do a large number of SIs themselves, and there has been an enormous amount of joint working at official level to share clauses and the legal drafting that our own parliamentary counsel has done, with the assistance of other devolved officials. We also now have 54 different Brexit projects, all of them about areas where we effectively have to either agree joint approaches or concordats, or agree that we will leave things fully devolved.
There is a large number of those projects. We discussed them yesterday. About one third of them are rated as being in the green box—everything has to be red, amber or green these days—recognising that there is already an agreement about how to proceed. On a number of others, more discussions are still needed, but that was highlighted yesterday. In the month ahead, there will be a lot of detailed working between officials.
I hope I have been able to reassure the hon. Member for Ceredigion that, through both the review of the JMC and putting the group that the Welsh Government proposed yesterday on a more formal footing, together with our plan for concordats and memorandums of understanding, we will address his concern, and that on that basis he will consider withdrawing his amendment.
We think there is considerable merit in this new clause, and we hope that the hon. Member for Ceredigion will think hard before he gives away too much to the Government. The reality is that there is a need for a framework; if we are not careful, we will effectively have four different systems of agriculture developing, and I do not think we are very careful. I have waxed lyrical already about the problems in Northern Ireland, which have become more acute after yesterday. The Democratic Unionist party has already told me that it is not necessarily going to follow this particular bit of legislation—at the moment, it is not even going to follow this Government, so watch this space.
We must be very careful that there is some degree of co-ordination—dare I say it, a single market—within the United Kingdom, let alone a relationship with the Republic of Ireland, which is crucial for them but also important for us. We think the hon. Gentleman’s new clause deserves debate, and maybe more than debate. We must secure this agreement. It is interesting that the Fisheries Bill provides powers for Welsh Ministers, Northern Ireland Departments and Scottish Ministers in a more formal sense, yet this Agriculture Bill does not. Why not? I ask the Minister that—he can intervene, or sum up accordingly.
This is not just about farming. The new clause is strongly supported by Greener UK, which feels strongly that there is a real need for cross-border co-operation and collaboration to deliver on the environmental protection improvements that the Bill is all about. We the Opposition advocated that during debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, because we feel strongly that there is a need to at least keep the four countries together in terms of the different provision. Unless that is done by consensus, it will have to be done by imposition; consensus is by far the better way.
The specific requirements set out in new clause 11 would provide those legislative safeguards. Otherwise, there is nothing in the Bill to make the issue something substantive—rather, it is just on a wing and a prayer: one of the criticisms we have advanced throughout this Committee. I hear what the Minister says about how the different conventions apply with regard to meetings with the other three countries. This is very much an England-only Bill, so of course the Government can say warm words and make gestures, but those will not necessarily be tied in by the Bill.
On the need for environmental collaboration, Greener UK’s view is that the new clause is important, because those environmental considerations do not respect national borders. Unless we do similar things—we will not do the same thing, but we might do similar things—agriculture will be not just devolved but different in each of the four countries, as I have said.
What my hon. Friend is saying is important, especially when we think about the proposed backstop arrangements for Northern Ireland, which could lead to significant divergence in standards and regulations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK over time.
That is true. Northern Ireland is the most acute case, because it has a land border with another country. The two countries have to have some sort of similar agricultural system because farmers farm on both sides and environmentalists want to see what is happening. While I was in Belfast, I talked to Friends of the Earth, which identified a serious and growing methane problem because of what has happened to farming in the north. I also talked to various parties in the south, which identified a similar problem. That indicates how much we need a common framework.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that different schemes already operate in the four different parts of the UK? There is already plenty of co-operation on agriculture and the environment, so I do not think that that sort of UK-wide framework is required at this point.
That is the point of devolution—that the different parts of the UK can do things differently according to their conditions and needs.
I hear what the hon. Lady says, but for a farmer farming on the Scottish or the Welsh borders, of which we have some constituency examples here, that is not good news. They need to know that there is some certainty in the systems—not to put a straitjacket on what happens in those devolved parts of the UK, but because unless we are careful, we will end up with a hotch-potch of different systems.
Is there not another danger? If there is no framework for dealing with differences or for helping the Scottish and Welsh Administrations to create systems that work for their farmers, large supermarket chains, which often determine the conditions under which farmers can produce, might use those differences to undercut farmers trying to do the right thing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—of course they will. There is a real danger that something akin to turf wars will develop. This is not just hypothetical; it is about the need for common frameworks because of issues such as soil erosion and water management. We have to have cognisance of the fact that border areas need to take account of one another and of what is happening. Otherwise, we will end up with a race to the bottom, which we all want to avoid.
Another issue that has not been raised yet is the way that we will meet our international obligations post Brexit. As much as we have devolved Administrations, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith rightly says, we have signed up to many international conventions as the United Kingdom. We need some method. I hear what the Minister says about how regularly Ministers meet from the four Administrations—well, three; I do not know whether officials from Northern Ireland were there—
The hon. Gentleman is right to say we have international commitments, not the least of which, relevant to agriculture, is to the World Trade Organisation. I was somewhat surprised, therefore, that he decided not to vote with us on establishing the clauses that would enable us to deliver those commitments.
It is not surprising. We are the Opposition and you are the Government. The Government are supposed to be moving the measure, which we scrutinise. There are ways in which we scrutinise it, which might involve some reflection.
And we did, but I suppose the point I am making is that there are elements of the Bill that enable us to deliver the UK’s international commitments.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I wanted to intervene on fisheries, and he is right that there are two areas in the Fisheries Bill where provision is made for joint working, but the difference with that Bill, which we will have time to debate in the future, is that it is very much to do with international negotiations. That is why we have committed to having a joint fisheries statement. It is all about international environmental commitments that are UK-wide. Secondly, there is provision for joined-up thinking when it comes to joint licensing, which, again, relates to an international agreement. We see agriculture policy as slightly different. There needs to be more scope for the devolved Administrations to do what works for their own landscape.
I thank the Minister for that, and it is a perfectly valid case to make. That would be fine if we did not have a common border with another country that is going to remain in the EU. I do not quite understand. Although the seas are different in the sense that, yes, of course, there is a question of international access across all our waters, we have the same issue, whether we call it the backstop or just the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. We have to face up to it and look at some commonality, which is best achieved by common frameworks.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Scottish Government’s point that the implementation of international obligations in devolved policy areas such as agriculture is in fact a devolved matter?
That is the whole point. It is a devolved matter, but it is a question of whether, as I have said, there is some degree of agreement on how to take things forward. What we are considering is just a framework, not something that will demand that different parts of the UK follow exactly what other parts will do. The reality is that they will not. We know that. In farming policy, the word “policy” is important, because legislation is one thing, but the underlying policy equally needs to be scrutinised, which we have not really been able to do. We had a rushed series of evidence sittings, and the Government’s policy paper is, at best, fairly sketchy. We shall be looking at that.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion said he wanted to probe the question, and I hope that he will consider going further, having heard what has been said, to try to be clear about the future of British agriculture—if such a thing exists, given that the issue is devolved. The people in border areas really need to know that.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Does he think, particularly with regard to frameworks, that it is important that we protect the internal market, or unitary market, of the UK? It is important that potato farmers in Scotland, growing seed, can sell potatoes into England, and equally that livestock can move back and forth across the border. The east and west of the country have more in common with one another than, necessarily, north and south, and it is important that we recognise the unitary market.
That is a point. We were talking about relationships with the EU post Brexit and about whether we have some form of common market, if not a single market. It would be helpful if we knew that that would happen within the four nations of the United Kingdom, let alone in the relationship with the Republic.
The issues are pretty important, and even more so in environmental terms, so I want not just to concentrate on farming but to talk about environmental requirements. On issues such as air quality, climate change and sustainable development obligations, unless we move forward with some degree of unity, we are pulled apart individually. I hear what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith says about agriculture being a devolved matter, but air pollution is not, because it comes from one country to another. That is the whole point about methane: the problems in Northern Ireland do not stay in Northern Ireland but affect the Republic, and that is why the Republic is worried about what is happening in the north, as well as dealing with its own problems in the south. These problems have to be identified through some degree of co-operation. Why not have a way to lay that down? This is not a straitjacket. This is not about shoehorning four nations’ agriculture into the same box. We cannot do that, as the Bill says. Instead, we are saying that there needs to be a proper framework.
If the Government are not minded to accept new clause 11, I hope that the Minister will make it clear how the ongoing meetings with Ministers across the three territories and the officials in Northern Ireland can stay in place. With all the turmoil of Brexit and the way the world is becoming more complex, how will this stay in place? Unless we have some framework to ensure that this co-operation is ongoing, it could be subject to a completely voluntary approach to how the different Administrations want to get on.
I will be brief. I understand why the hon. Member for Ceredigion has brought the new clause forward, but I cannot agree to support it. In particular, the Scottish National party position is that there is no need for a legislative UK framework of this sort. There are different common agricultural policy schemes in operation at the moment, for example, that do not disrupt the ability to trade across the UK, and land management needs are, frankly, too disparate to be covered under a single framework.
I want to make a few points about this and to split them into the political and the legislative aspects. We have an opportunity with the Agriculture Bill to do what the National Farmers Union in Scotland has been crying out for—namely, to shape the decision-making process and establish it within the field of agriculture, for production and the environment. It would be a missed opportunity not to pursue that, given the length of time between agriculture Bills in the United Kingdom. We have an opportunity to provide farmers with a level of certainty and confidence, both of which, from the reflections that I have come across, are deeply lacking.
I said on a previous matter that the Bill is a framework and that there is little to see within it. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to be seeing in it whatever they want to see. In doing that, we run the risk of creating something that means different things to different people. Agriculture is, rightly, devolved, but it does straddle the borders. There are farmers who do not necessarily have farms that straddle the border, but who are landowners on both sides of the border. This is an opportunity to give some certainty through a UK-wide framework, so that all our farmers and land managers and those who take an interest in the land are able to decide how they want to move forward with that confidence and certainty.
Secondly, I would like to address the politics of the Bill. We are in this position regarding this new clause and the Bill because there has been an inability for politicians to come together, consider and reach an agreement. I was grateful to the Minister for indicating the uphill challenge with regard to the memorandums that sit in front of the three devolved nations and England. However, he has highlighted the great problem that people have been unable to sit down and come to an agreement. That agreement has been desperately sought by the National Farmers Union, landowners, farmers and others on both sides of the border. There is still an opportunity to do achieve it. It would be very helpful, as the Bill progresses, if the politics of it could be removed, so that some reality, certainty and, most of all, confidence can be given to our farmers.
A UK-wide framework would give an overarching picture in which each devolved area and England can continue to develop its own agricultural practices and those nuances that make a farm in Northumberland different from a farm in the borders and East Lothian. However, both those farms actually need certainty.
I thank all those who have participated in the consideration of the new clause. I emphasise just a couple of things. It is of course true that there are policy differences between the different nations at the moment. However, we should also remember that there is—in effect, if nothing else—a UK-wide framework: the EU framework within which all the different nations tailor, operate and administer their policies. I therefore think there is a need to look again at how the four industries and four nations will work and co-operate post Brexit.
I understand what the Minister said about the memorandums of understanding and the concordats. I am particularly interested in the proposed dispute resolution mechanisms, or at least the potential for such mechanisms. I still argue that it would probably be neater and easier to understand if we were to have a single dispute resolution mechanism. My preference would be some sort of council of Ministers for agriculture, in which the four devolved Administrations could come together and agree on a more formal basis.
However, the point about the decision-making process was very well made by the hon. Member for East Lothian. I reiterate that we now have the initial frameworks and memorandums of understanding. There will come a point, whether in three, five, seven or 10 years down the line, when we will need to renegotiate, whether on the tricky issue of regulations or the even trickier matter of funding. An approach that sees us have an array of static concordats and memorandums of understanding would possibly not be appropriate.
This was a probing motion. Having now listened to the points made by Members on both sides of the Committee, I am tempted to go back and draft something else for the next stage of the Bill’s passage, and to then push that to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.