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MPs echo NPA concerns in Agriculture Bill debate

11th Oct 2018 / By Alistair Driver

MPs from across the political spectrum raised issues close to the NPA’s heart as the Agriculture Bill received its Second Reading in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

ParliamentThe NPA had been busy briefing MPs ahead of the important debate and the messages appeared to have got through, particularly around the lack of policies to support food production in the Bill and concern over import standards.

Opening the debate, Mr Gove said: “Above all, I am grateful to our farmers, who are Britain’s backbone and on whom we are reliant for the food that we enjoy and for the health of our rural economy and society. Every measure in the Bill is designed to ensure that our farmers receive the support that they deserve to give us the healthy food that we enjoy and the beautiful rural environment on which we all depend.”

He said the Bill ‘will set a clear direction for the future of agriculture’, ensuring that farmers have time to make the appropriate changes required thanks to the seven-year transition period from 2021.

But in her response, Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman said: “This country is in desperate need of an Agriculture Bill that provides certainty and clarity for our food and farming industry, but instead the Secretary of State has laid before us nothing but a huge missed opportunity.”

She said the Bill ‘fails to ​provide a strategy to safeguard the nation’s food supply at a time when food poverty and foodbank demand are rising rapidly’ and ‘fails to recognise the central importance of UK sustainable food production and supply’, she added. As a result, this could lead to a ‘greater reliance on imports, while failing to provide for controls over the production methods, working conditions, or animal welfare and environmental standards in countries from which the UK’s food is imported’, she said.

Farming Minister George Eustice highlighted the fact that the pig sector has never been subsidized as he defended the end of direct payments. He said: “The current system is not about food production. We should also recognise that some of our most successful and vibrant food-producing sectors of agriculture have never been subsidised. Look at the poultry industry, the pig industry, the horticulture industry or fruit and veg producers. They have never had subsidies.”

You can view the NPA’s briefing on the Bill here

NPA senior policy advisor Ed Barker said: “This was a chance for MPs to challenge the Government on its policies for agriculture after we leave the EU. There were a huge number of MPs who echoed the general points we have been making on imports of lower standard products, the risk of exporting production and the lack of reference to food in the Bill.”

Ed has selected a sample of relevant comments by MPs briefed by the NPA:

Priti Patel (Witham, Con)

“Farmers in my constituency often find themselves dealing with the costs of rearing animals to welfare standards that are higher than those in the rest of the European Union. As we have heard today, our EU membership has prevented us from blocking imports when they fail to meet our high standards, but we can now address such concerns. For example, while pig farmers in my constituency adhere to the ban on sow stalls, they know that producers in other EU countries are flouting the rules. We should get on the side of our pig farmers and bat for them on the challenges that they face. Farmers want assurances that our post-Brexit agricultural policy will not place them at a competitive disadvantage when there are lower standards across the EU.”

Steven Kerr (Stirling, Con)

“Members will be aware that quite often the levy is imposed at the point of slaughter of cattle, sheep and pigs. It is a devolved matter, with revenues collected by Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. To cut a long story short, a lot of the cattle, sheep and pigs that are raised in Scotland are shipped across the border to England where they are slaughtered, so there is a sum of money that should go back to Scottish industry for the promotion of Scotch beef and lamb. I urge the Secretary of State to make provision for that simple change in the Bill, as it would require primary legislation. It is worth about £1.5 million for the promotion of Scotch beef and lamb.”

Owen Paterson (North Shropshire, Con)

He has a pretty good list of public goods, but I would add soil and animal welfare, which is very important. I do not think that there is a single person in the House who would not like to see improved animal welfare standards. That is a clear public good that costs. We saw what happened when Lord Deben [John Gummer] unilaterally improved our regime on tethers and stalls; there was a huge cost to our own industry and we ended up importing pork products from regimes that are less beneficial. But animal welfare is a public good; we would all support it; and there is room in this Bill to pay for that.”

Kerry Mccarthy (Bristol East, Lab)

“The Bill alone will not be enough to safeguard farming in this country. The real battle and the real danger come from the global Britain Brexiteers and their enthusiasm for cheap food imports and the scrapping of standards post-Brexit. The US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, made it clear that any post-Brexit trade deal will hinge on the UK ditching its higher, EU-derived food safety laws, which currently prohibit chlorinated chicken, hormone-pumped beef, ractopamine growth promoters in pork and much more. The implications of that would be huge for UK food and farming. It would drive out higher-welfare and smaller-scale UK farmers, who would be unable to compete on price, and make it more difficult for us to export to the EU.”

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale, Lib Dem)

“I welcome the Bill’s commitment to maintain our environmental and animal welfare standards in farming, but it makes no mention of standards for imported food from trade deals. If standards on imports are not guaranteed, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage. The Secretary of State must therefore ensure that all food imported into the United Kingdom is produced to at least equivalent standards on animal welfare, environmental protection and production quality.”

Sandy Martin (Ipswich, Labour)

“What the Bill does not do is lay out a duty, a process, a funding mechanism or any other indication of how the Secretary of State will ensure that farmers in this country will produce food that is healthy, environmentally friendly, animal welfare friendly—or, indeed, any food at all.

What on earth is the point of our giving the Secretary of State vague and plenipotentiary powers to encourage and enforce the highest possible environmental, health and animal welfare standards in English agriculture if we end up buying all our food from non-European countries where we have no influence whatever over the environmental impact of their agriculture and cannot be certain of the animal welfare regimes or employment regimes under which that food is produced?

If the Government are serious about promoting healthy food, why is there no food and farming framework? Why are they not willing to use any future funding regime to promote the production of healthy foods?”

Simon Hoare (North Dorset, Con)

“As others have mentioned, we also need to educate about the importance of agriculture and what it does to our economy, water, air quality and tourism. We live in an increasingly urbanised country with a very urban-centric media, and we should be trying to find ways through to a new agricultural support scheme of rewarding farmers who open their gates and bring people in, teaching schools and others about the importance of farming.

 We must have up front and centre at the heart of the Bill food production and security; I make no apology to the Minister for repeating that.”

Sue Hayman

“It is a really important point: we were increasing production, but then it [self-sufficiency under CAP] began to drop. It is an issue that we need to address. If there is a dramatic reduction in UK food production, greater reliance on imports would result in a lack of control over production, animal welfare, and environmental and working standards.”

David Simpson (DUP)

“I have talked about opportunities. I believe there are opportunities, but the Government must take the issue of the workforce in the agri-food sector more seriously. Some companies in Northern Ireland are 60% dependent on people from other countries. We must get that situation right in some shape or form, and hopefully we will resolve it.”

Derek Thomas (St Ives, Con)

“I also want to talk about protecting access to labour. In a rural constituency such as mine, which takes ages to get to, accessing labour is a real challenge. The truth is that food production in West Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly requires foreign workers to be employed permanently, not just in seasonal jobs. I was nervous and concerned after announcements last week about ​how our approach to skilled labour will go forward. I have met these farmers many times since being elected, as has the Minister, and it is clear that they are keen to secure a foreign workforce not just on a seasonal basis, but to provide the labour they need.”