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Import of agricultural goods

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 12:00 pm, 5th March 2020

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but there is a subtle difference between witness evidence and the evidence that has been given in the important Dimbleby review on our future food policy. I think there is a difference, but, as always, I respect his observation.

Moving on from jousting about newspapers, it is important that to have a discussion about levels of food security, as I have mentioned. It is an intellectually plausible position to say that we do not have to produce our own food and that we could become like Singapore. That is an important political debate that should be had transparently, not in private emails between advisers. Without proper legal protection in place, many people will feel that whatever the Government say will just be warm words.

To go back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, at the last DEFRA questions the previous Secretary of State said pretty much what she just said. She said:

“Our high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards are already in law, including legislating to prevent the importation of chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef”.—[Official Report, 6 February 2020; Vol. 671, c. 438.]

We were interested by that statement. Can the Minister clarify further the statement that they are “already in law” by providing the details of the legislation where those standards can be found? Can she explain what mechanism would be used if the Government are required in a trade negotiation to amend or remove any of the standards and describe, in that scenario, the level of parliamentary scrutiny that would apply?

That should be good ground for the Minister as she is an esteemed lawyer. I am neither esteemed nor a lawyer, so I was grateful that, after the exchange at DEFRA questions, the shadow Secretary of State sought advice. We have advice from the House of Commons Library and—guess what?—it is complicated. Inevitably, trying to unravel the complexity of bringing EU law into domestic law and the overlaps is difficult. I suspect the law would need to be tested and, as ever, different lawyers would give different advice; that tends to happen. Some think that EU-derived domestic legislation covering these matters could, in some circumstances, be changed by the Government using delegated powers in the Food Safety Act 1990, without the need even to seek parliamentary approval, let alone primary legislation.

We are questioning the Government on this. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State queried it with the previous Secretary of State, and we await a response with interest, because it is an important point. However, the seeming lack of clarity hardly fills us with confidence, because this is such an issue. Clearly, in the interests of certainty and clarity—which, in fairness, we can agree we do not have—we should put this in the Bill. We should agree an amendment to create a proper legislative guarantee that future trade deals will not allow imports of agricultural goods used to lower environmental, public health, and animal welfare standards. This is that amendment.

Farming and environmental groups are, as far as I can see, pretty unanimous in their agreement that we need that guarantee. We have heard reference in the evidence sessions and in some previous discussions to the 60-plus farming, environmental, animal welfare and food industry organisations that have all written to the Prime Minister, calling for that safeguard. As I am sure we are all aware, in a couple of weeks we expect many farmers to be lobbying Parliament on just that issue.

Interestingly, that is a consensus not just across organisations, but across the party divide in the Chamber. The words of the new clause are not ours, not Labour’s words, but the exact same words tabled in the amendment of the Minister’s colleague, Neil Parish, the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I suspect the words of one of the senior members of a previous Committee at the end of Second Reading are still ringing out—he certainly expected to see improvements, and if we cannot deliver those today, they will certainly be introduced on Report.

To add to the evidence, the cross-party EFRA Committee clearly concluded in its scrutiny report of the earlier Agriculture Bill in 2018 that, in its collective opinion:

“The Government should put its money where its mouth is and accept an amendment to the Agriculture Bill stipulating that food products imported as part of any future trade deal should meet or exceed British standards”.

This is that amendment.

The direction could not be clearer. I ask the Minister to take a long think. Are the concerns of that wide range of organisations, almost every witness seen by this Bill Committee and the Government’s own Back Benchers really as hysterical as the Prime Minister seems to think? Or could it be that there is actually a serious issue?

What would be the point of the Bill if all its good work in encouraging farmers to adopt higher environmental and animal welfare standards is undermined on day one by imports with lower standards flooding in and undercutting them? If farmers have to face that competition from cheaper food produced to lower standards than those they will rightly be expected to work to in the environmental land management schemes, the real danger is that they will be forced to walk away from delivering those public goods entirely. That has a further consequence. The danger is that all the environmental improvements we are hoping for from the Bill would be undermined. In fact, our environmental standards could fall. That danger was raised repeatedly by the witnesses the Committee heard from.

The Government have already rejected our amendment calling for proper baseline environmental and welfare standards, so the reality we will be faced with, if they do not respond positively to our new clause, is that the new green world of farming that we had hoped for will be one where the environmental public goods are not delivered, where our farmers are forced to produce food at lower animal welfare and environmental standards, and where we will have imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef on our supermarket shelves, which we do not wish to see.