Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:24 pm on 13th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Vicki Hird, Dr Nick Palmer and James West gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 3:57 pm, 13th February 2020

We will now hear oral evidence from Sustain and Compassion in World Farming. We have until 4.30 pm. I welcome the witnesses and would ask them to introduce themselves for the record.

Dr Palmer:

I am Nick Palmer. I am the head of Compassion in World Farming UK. Compassion is the largest animal welfare charity globally, and we have developed our interests to also look at the environment surrounding animal welfare issues. In the mists of pre-history, I was the Member for Broxtowe for 13 years.

James West:

I am James West, the senior policy manager at Compassion in World Farming—I work with Nick.

Vicki Hird:

I am Vicki Hird, farming campaign co-ordinator at Sustain, which is an alliance of over 100 non-governmental organisations and royal societies, including Compassion and many other people you have had as witnesses.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip

Q This is a question probably for all three witnesses. In your submissions, you refer to some of the public good provisions in the Bill as being positive. I just wondered what aspects of the Bill you thought needed to be improved.

Dr Palmer:

The Bill is a good basis, but it is a missed opportunity in the sense that it provides the basis for a variety of things that the Secretary of State may do, but it does not specify what the Secretary of State will do. In the current situation in particular, after Brexit, the farmers and everyone dealing with the industry need more certainty. This would really be an opportunity to pin down what we are prepared to do and what we are not prepared to do in terms of trade, support for the farming industry and a long-term strategy to ensure that we have a viable farming industry stretching into the future.

James West:

I would add that it is important that the Bill is joined-up in its thinking, in as far as protection from potentially being undercut—as I am sure you have heard lots of times—as a result of trade agreements. That is fairly critical. That is not in the Bill. Added to that would be that you are then providing farmers with subsidies and grants to help them move to higher standards of production. We should also be looking at things such as method of production labelling—as Nick said, that it is a “may” in the Bill, rather than a “must”—so that consumers know what they are purchasing. We should also look at Government procurement policy, so that in addition to protecting farmers from what is coming into the country, you are also rewarding farmers for delivering higher standards and for protecting our animal welfare standards. Just on Government procurement, McDonald’s has better animal welfare procurement policies than the UK Government, which should not be the case, and the Bill could address that.

Vicki Hird:

We were very pleased to see some of the changes in the Agriculture Bill. Overall, we are very positive about the public money for public goods approach and the financial support being listed. We were very pleased to see soil being included in that. We would like to see a stronger reference to agroecological whole-farm systems, because we think that is the way to ensure that you get the in-field changes, as well as the edge of field, wildlife and other nature outcomes that you see. We need the whole of the UK farming system to go towards an agroecological approach in whatever way they can. Those steps should be available through financial support.

We would also like to see, as Nick said, a lot of these things as duties, rather than powers. It seems incredible how much effort—I know, because I have been involved—DEFRA has put into the environmental land management scheme, when it could stop it all in a couple of years and pay a smaller amount of money and not follow through. As MPs, you should have that accountability for you on delivering ELMS.

Finally, I agree with Diana on the protection for workers. We are also pleased with clause 27, which concerns fair dealing. It has been enhanced to really protect farmers. We are grateful to DEFRA for making those changes and to George Eustice, who we welcome as our new Secretary of State. We would like to see that as a duty, because it is so important. It is absolutely vital that we get the protection for farmers in the supply chain. They do have that from retailers, but most farmers do not sell direct to retailers. They need good codes of conduct developed with the industry for every sector, probably starting with dairy.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Good afternoon. I have different questions for Vicki and for Compassion. Vicki, in your written evidence, you make a very strong case for a public health function. Can you elaborate on that a little? To Compassion, you make some quite strong suggestions about the pre-conditions for receiving public money. Can you amplify that for the benefit of the Committee?

Vicki Hird:

Thank you for reminding me about the public health purpose. We think it would be very easy to insert it into the Bill. There are so many ways it is already designed to help, for instance with air pollution and with reducing exposure to plant protection products, which can be harmful. We think that saying that there is a public health purpose for agriculture would recognise what an important thing farmers do in providing us with healthy, safe food. It could help by showing that having animal health and welfare measures that help farmers to manage their stock and change their stocking patterns can reduce the reliance on antibiotics, which we know is an absolute global public good, in order to protect our medicinal antibiotics.

The other area is the huge need to boost our supply of fruit and veg, so that people can have access to closer-to-home, more affordable, fresh, sustainably produced fruit and vegetables. That is absolutely central to a healthier diet for the nation. To be able to say that we were doing that would be a benefit. As James was saying about procurement, we could be saying something about procurement and investing in healthier diets for our children in schools.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Before we turn to Compassion, on the antibiotics point, do you think there should be stronger, more directive provisions in the Bill?

Vicki Hird:

I think that would be very helpful. We designed a clause for the previous version of this Bill that mentioned that, along with exposure to pesticides for consumers, workers and the community, and other aspects of public health. There therefore is a clause available, if anybody wants to table it.

Antibiotic reduction is important. I know that the industry has already gone some way. It is doing a good job, but it needs to be supported in that, through animal health and welfare financial support, and through training, advice and demonstration. The Budget should definitely be strong enough and big enough to provide farmers with that kind of support, to take things in the direction of lower antibiotic use.

James West:

The question was about subsidies, and bars on subsidies. We support the use of subsidies for delivering the public goods that are in the Bill. Again, we would like that to be a requirement rather than a “may”. Essentially, public money should deliver genuinely higher standards of welfare; it should not be for meeting the regulatory baseline or going marginally beyond it. If you are looking at the top line, you might consider such things as allowing animals to express their natural behaviour, access to pasture for dairy cows, and the provision of enrichment materials for pigs. Obviously, depending on which species you look at, there will be different requirements, but broadly speaking, they will be lower stocking densities, slower-growing breeds, if we are talking about meat chickens, and access to pasture outdoors.

You might also look at things that would disqualify someone from receiving an animal welfare payment. One of the things that Compassion works on is ending the live export of animals. From our point of view, if you are involved in the live export trade, you should probably not receive the public subsidy for good animal welfare. In the area of mutilations, going back to pigs, you have enrichment. In Germany, they provide a premium for pigs at slaughter when the pig gets to the slaughterhouse with an intact tail, because that means that you have almost certainly run a very good system. The amount of space, enrichment and so on that you will have given the pigs during the rearing process will have been such that you will not have needed to tail-dock the pig, as you might in more intensive systems. We have fairly detailed documents with what may or may not qualify you for a subsidy, but broadly speaking it is natural behaviours and space.

Dr Palmer:

The absence of a clear percentage commitment regarding the amount of support that will be given for animal welfare purposes means that a degree of uncertainty remains, which is bad for the whole agricultural industry. A farmer needs to know that what amount of money is potentially available, so that they can try to work for it. With respect to the new Chancellor, we are unlikely to get an infinite amount of subsidy in the Budget, so it makes sense that the available money is used to help farmers to become among the best in the world, rather than to move marginally from a fairly low base to a slightly higher one.

In the long term, the future of British farming has to be at the top of the scale. If we try to race to the bottom, we will fail. The British farming industry will not succeed on that basis, so we should consider the areas where we can help farmers to move towards higher welfare—for instance, ending the use of farrowing crates. There is a one-off cost, which it is reasonable to help them with. Once they have moved away from that, there should not be an additional cost. They will then, in association with the better labelling scheme, be able to tell consumers that British farming has produced higher welfare, higher quality meat.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q To follow smoothly on from that, British farmers pride themselves on having the highest welfare standards in the world. Indeed, in some ways we were held back by the European Union, because we tried to ban things like dry sow stalls, but we could not stop their pork coming in.

However, I noticed that the Compassion in World Farming website talks about ending “the horror” of factory farming. I just wondered if you felt that there were any farms in this country that that definition would apply to. You talked about housed livestock—for example, dairy cattle that are housed in winter. Do you think that is acceptable? Where do you set the bar in describing what British farmers are doing, perfectly legally, as “horror”?

Dr Palmer:

When we are talking about horrific factory farming, we are talking about the caging of egg-laying hens, which is still one third of the total in Britain; we are talking about the use of farrowing crates, which keep the sow unable even to turn round for up to five weeks.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q It saves piglets’ lives, though, does it not?

Dr Palmer:

There are very well-established alternative methods. At the moment, British farming is 50:50—roughly 50% have moved away from farrowing crates and the other half have not. That is a record that is less good than some countries’, and really we should strive to be the best.

One can always argue about the exact wording, but I think that anyone familiar with the range of systems in British farming would agree that it ranges from the very good—where we can really be proud and tell the world that we are the world leader—to areas where the farmers themselves would say that they would like to do better but cannot afford the conversion costs. This is a classic example of a public good. I think the overwhelming majority of British consumers would be pleased to know that farmers were moving up the scale. Farmers themselves would like to, but they need assistance for the one-off transition costs.

This is not an area of huge controversy between us and the National Farmers Union and others. We are all pulling in the same direction, and we should use the opportunity of Brexit to try to make sure that we actually get to that point.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

Q You mentioned that you want to look at banning live exports. Have you talked to people— certain farmers—who say, “Look, let’s be honest: in the south-east of England, to export live exports is quicker than travelling hundreds of miles to an abattoir, given the numerous closures of many of the abattoirs”? Do you have a solution to that?

Dr Palmer:

Having more local abattoirs is clearly desirable. It is a marginal business for many, and you cannot force people to set up a local abattoir, but I think there would be a great deal of cross-party and cross-industry support for the idea that it should be encouraged.

The problem with overseas shipment is partly the time involved, and you can get pre-weaned calves transported for over 100 hours. That is with pauses, but it is nevertheless a grim business and is really difficult to defend, and a lot of farmers will not defend it.

Also, there is the lack of control. It is very difficult, with the best will in the world, for DEFRA to say what will happen at all stages of a journey once a vehicle moves outside the UK. I used to be Parliamentary Private Secretary to a DEFRA Minister, and this was an issue we struggled with. Live exports is a very small part of the British farming industry, and we think it is one that should come to an end.

James West:

I would add that people can take the journey length to be the time it takes to take the channel tunnel from Dover to Calais, for example, but we are talking about live exports going on a boat that is not really designed for sea crossing. The crossing from Ramsgate to Calais normally takes about six hours, so by the time you have got to Ramsgate and across to the other side, you are talking about a fairly lengthy journey time, which in most cases would probably get you to an abattoir in the UK.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Conservative, Stafford

Q I am pleased that the Secretary of State now has direct responsibility for the nation’s food security, but I wonder whether it should be a national priority to support domestic agriculture. What is your view on the frequency of reporting? I know at the moment it is being suggested it should be every five years, but we have heard differing views today. What do the panel think about that?

Vicki Hird:

I think it is welcome to have that in there. There is a case for making it more frequent, given that we are facing a climate and nature emergency that will threaten our supplies and production here and overseas. We should be building that into the review, in terms of anticipating how that will affect land use both here and overseas. That is currently not in the Bill, and it would be a welcome addition to recognise the sustainability factors that will increasingly come into play before the next five years are up. We already know that flooding is more frequent, and drought is affecting many parts of Africa, which supplies us with a lot of fruit and veg.

There is a case for more frequent reporting; it is a welcome element in the Bill, but as the previous speaker mentioned, we already do much of this food security assessment already, so it is a question of building on that and making it an integral part of the sustainability of our food system. [Applause.] May I congratulate George Eustice, our new Secretary of State? I will end there, on food security.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q I am trying to tease this out, because we have heard previous witnesses say that there is concern about the lack of baseline regulation in the Bill and the fact that we no longer have the cross-compliance checks. There are concerns that people will drop below the minimum standards. How does that work? Clearly, you do not want to use public money for public goods just to reward people for keeping to the standards required of them by law, because there is no additionality to that; they ought to be doing it anyway. We could reward farmers for doing the higher welfare stuff, but at the same time, we really ought to have an ambition to say, “If they can do it, why can’t all farmers treat their animals that way?” Will we end up always having to keep raising what counts as higher welfare for farmers to get money? Do you see what I am saying? You could almost end up not raising standards, because the farmers would not get paid for the higher welfare standards.

Dr Palmer:

Yes, I see the problem. As in other areas of public subsidy, we have to start from where we are. Because we have the range of quality that I mentioned in response to the previous question, there are a lot of farmers who would genuinely like to raise their standards, but need assistance in doing so. I accept that there is an element of moral hazard in that, if someone already has superb standards, they may feel a bit irritated that someone else is being given money to come up to them.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Is that how it would work? That is the other thing. It is the same as with planting trees or improving soil health; there is a danger that, in a bid to use public money to encourage other people to do that, the people who were ahead of the curve are penalised.

Dr Palmer:

I believe DEFRA envisages, which I think is right, two types of support. One is to assist with specific one-off costs—I gave the farrowing crate as an example—but the other is to reward people who are meeting a higher standard. To my mind, that must be linked to a good labelling scheme, because if we are spending public money to assist farmers to reach a higher standard, we should also be able to tell consumers about it, so that they can respond, in the same way that we have seen with eggs. When there was a choice between free-range and battery eggs, people migrated overwhelmingly to free range, to the point that it is now very difficult to get the lowest standard of egg in supermarkets. You are right that, over time, we will probably develop further ideas on how to give farm animals the best possible life, and that is right—we should not stay at the same level forever—but for the time being there is a lot to be done to reinforce the farmers who are striving to be the best.

Photo of Fay Alicia Jones Fay Alicia Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q I have a question about kitemarks found on products, such as Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured. How could future Government policy recognise that?

If I may, Mr Stringer, I have a small supplementary. In Compassion’s written submission, you welcomed the Secretary of State’s ability to make regulations regarding farming method in relation to labelling. Could you elaborate on that, please?

James West:

We submitted details to DEFRA a while ago. Essentially it would be different labels indicating the method of production. The range of methods of production would differ according to species, but in effect you would indicate whether it had been produced, say, intensively indoors versus extensively outdoors and everything in between. That would be on the packet, so when you go to the supermarket or shop you can see how the product was produced. As Nick was saying, with eggs that moved the market towards free-range eggs and away from caged egg sales—barn egg sales in the UK are low—to the extent that roughly half the supermarkets have phased out caged egg sales and the other half plan to do so by 2025.

It goes back to the point that you need to support the farmers in the subsidy scheme we introduce, but there also needs to be an outlet for them to show that they are delivering at a level that consumers may want. It does not mean that consumers have to buy it—they can see the stuff produced to a lower standard and still choose that—but at least they are informed. At the moment, it is really hard to find meat or dairy products labelled as to method of production. Possibly the only other one is outdoor-bred and outdoor-reared for pork; other than that, it is essentially free range/organic or you are in the dark. It would cover the whole spectrum.

Dr Palmer:

That is also really important when you come to trade, because if we are to sign a free trade agreement with the United States or other countries, we really need to give our negotiators a clear steer on what we collectively are willing to see. If we have an evolving labelling scheme, we have a basis for doing that. As you know, international trade negotiations usually start from the point that each side says what their red lines are and what they cannot move on and the negotiations operate around those to see what is possible. We are keen to see specifications in the Bill on minimum standards for animal welfare—Ministers have said this many times—so that our negotiators can say to their American, Brazilian or other counterparts, “I’d love to help you, but I’m afraid I can’t because it is in the legislation.” That would give farmers and consumers the reassurance that we are absolutely not going to end up with British farming being undercut by what you vulgarly call cheap and nasty imports.

Vicki Hird:

I think that goes for other aspects of food standards and production standards. I totally agree with Nick. It is very important that we see something in the Bill around trade—I am sure you have heard this a lot over the last week—so that we have a way to stop agri-food imports produced to lower standards of food, animal welfare and environmental production systems. I would add labour standards as well.

One of our members is supporting the idea of an 100% grass-fed label, because there is some confusion about grass-fed labels and claims being made. There is a very good Pasture-Fed Livestock Association producing animals with really strong environmental, as well as animal welfare, benefits. It is only fair that that should be recognised through a proper labelling scheme.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q We had George Monbiot here earlier; I do not know if you were listening. What did you think about his point about grass-fed beef?

Vicki Hird:

There is a balance to be struck. People are still going to eat meat. It is a highly nutritious product and there are people who want to eat it. Recognising that, we should be eating much less but better meat, produced here in ways that we can recognise, enforce and celebrate, alongside the rewilding that can go along with those animals.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q And carbon capture of beef herds?

Vicki Hird:

There is a lot of science, and people pick the science they want to use. There are a lot of differences. You can go from one meter in one field, to another meter, and it can be a different carbon reading. We have to be careful with this and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For instance, small-scale producers will not be able measure their carbon with expensive tools, so we need to make sure we are doing right but also supporting farmers for agroforesty, for rewilding with animals and for silvopasture, which is fantastic and can have big animal welfare gains. There is a spectrum that we need to recognise.

George has a particular approach and we do have a crisis ahead. We need to recognise that, but we take a less is better approach. We can envisage the Bill supporting farmers to deliver that. It does not include factory farms, I have to say.

Dr Palmer:

I am not sure I fully answered your question regarding Compassion’s submission on labelling. This is an area where the international debate is moving very rapidly. France now has a very extensive scheme, pioneered by Carrefour and Casino, two of the big supermarket chains. Germany is proposing that the European Union as a whole looks at labelling, specifically for animal welfare. There are also schemes in Italy and Denmark. It is important that we do not fall behind the curve here. People are looking at us and asking, after Brexit, are we going to be better or going to have to fall behind? This is a classic example. The Bill offers the opportunity to pin down some of the reassurance that people are looking for.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Just before we finish on the issue of labelling, I see that France has introduced regulations to allow misleading words, such as sausage, burger or steak, to be used in connection with non-meat products. Do you think we should follow that lead?

Dr Palmer:

Personally, I would not go in for legislating on what people call things, unless there is a deliberate attempt to defraud. If someone goes to the vegan section in Sainsbury’s and sees a sausage, it is unlikely that they will say, “Aha! That’s a pig.” I do not feel it is worth parliamentary time. Companies are quite capable of making clear what it is they are selling.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

If there are no more questions, on behalf of the Committee I thank the witnesses for their evidence this afternoon.