All Victoria Prentis contributions to the Agriculture Act 2020

Wed 4th November 2020
15 interactions (1,379 words)
Mon 12th October 2020
Agriculture Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments
Ping Pong
Ping Pong: House of Commons
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
55 interactions (5,191 words)
Wed 13th May 2020
Agriculture Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage
Report stage: House of Commons
Report stage
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
7 interactions (3,027 words)

Agriculture Bill

(Consideration of Lords amendments)
Victoria Prentis Excerpts
Wednesday 4th November 2020

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Duty to seek equivalence on agri-food standards in relation to future trade

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 16B.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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With this it will be convenient to consider:

Lords amendment 18B, and Government motion to disagree.

Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendments 16B and 18B.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I should start by declaring my farming interests and the fact that I come from a farming family, but that is not the only reason hat I think this is one of the most exciting Bills before the House this year. This Bill matters to everyone who sees a great future for British farming as we leave the EU and the confines of the common agricultural policy. As we have seen from the huge amount of public interest in it, this Bill matters to everyone who is interested in what we eat and in where and how it is produced. Food standards are important, particularly as we forge new trade deals around the world.

This Bill has been much improved during its passage through this place, and I must thank Members on both sides of both Houses for their assistance, starting with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner and the Minister for the Environment, with whom I am working closely on future farming policy, and our marvellous Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who is a strong voice for her farming community, as is Emma Pryor, our Spad. I should also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), Lord Grantchester and Lord Curry of Kirkharle.

I thank the many Members who voted for previous incarnations of the Bill, voicing their concerns privately to me and believing, rightly, that it would come right in the end. We must recognise that a large number of people outside Parliament have been involved in the debate on standards, including the National Farmers Union and the many members of the public who signed its petition, and many British farmers.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
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It would be remiss of us not to thank the Minister for the way that she has engaged in this process, listened to farmers and their representatives and got the Bill to such a good place. May I put on record my thanks to her?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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4 Nov 2020, 4:22 p.m.

That is very kind. We should also thank the farmers, who are rightly proud of the food we produce.

It has proved very difficult to find the right form of legislative words to protect our standards. It is important that we comply with World Trade Organisation rules and that we do not impose impossible conditions on future trading partners. I feel that, following the gargantuan efforts of many people, we have got to a sensible compromise. My concern about amendment 16B is that it would cause problems for our negotiators and impose burdensome administrative measures on our trading partners. Demonstrating equivalence of standards is a complex and technical task that involves delving deeply into the cowsheds, chicken huts and legislatures of other nations. I feel that our amendment in lieu is a better way to achieve the goal.

We stood on a clear manifesto commitment that in all our trade negotiations we would not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards. As I have said many times before, we need a range of tools to help us achieve that goal. The first tool is legislative. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 transferred all exiting EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, to the UK statute book. These include, as I have said several times before, a ban on chlorine washes for chicken and hormone-treated beef. Any changes would require new legislation to be brought before this Parliament, and I do not see any appetite for that.

The second tool is the regulatory body, the independent Food Standards Agency, and Food Standards Scotland. The third tool is consumer information. Earlier this year I committed to a serious and rapid examination of the role of labelling in promoting high standards and high welfare across the UK. We will consult on that at the end of the transition period, so very shortly.

The fourth tool is Parliament, which plays an important role in scrutinising our trade policy. The Government have provided a great deal of information to Parliament on our negotiations, including publishing our objectives and our scoping assessments before the start of talks, and we also work very closely with the relevant Select Committees. However, during the passage of the Bill it has made it clear that further parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals is desirable. That is why we have tabled an amendment requiring us to report to Parliament on the impact of new trade agreements on the maintenance of our food, animal welfare and environmental protection standards. This proposed new clause would add a duty on the Secretary of State to present a report to Parliament before or alongside any free trade agreement laid before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 procedures. The Secretary of State for International Trade has said that the Government will find time for debate. If Parliament is not satisfied, it can delay ratification through the CRaG process.

Turning to Lords amendment 18B, the Government will in fact go further than is proposed. We are putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing, with a provision to review it every three years. This will be done through a Government amendment to the Trade Bill, which has finished in Committee and is about be considered on Report in the House of Lords, where the amendment will be introduced. That will ensure that our trade policy is examined in detail by key experts. This House asked for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, and I am delighted to provide it.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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4 Nov 2020, 4:22 p.m.

Can I take the Minister back to amendment (a), because she moved on before I got to make my point? Subsection (5) of the proposed new clause provides that any report would have to be laid before Welsh Ministers and Scottish Ministers. Can she outline what would happen if those Ministers, or indeed Northern Ireland Ministers, disagreed with the content of the report?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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4 Nov 2020, 4:23 p.m.

The whole purpose of the reporting mechanism is that it will not just be for Parliament, or indeed any of the devolved Administrations, to object to the report; it will be publicly available and, I suspect, widely scrutinised—we have all seen how interested the public are in these matters. In those circumstances, I am quite sure that we would find a way of discussing the matter in this place, so that the views of the Commons could be tested in the normal manner. Were that situation to arise, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman would find a way of making his views and those of his constituents clear.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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4 Nov 2020, 4:23 p.m.

Will the Minister give way?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I will not, because many Members wish to speak and I have been asked to be as quick as possible.

We are putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing. The House asked for scrutiny of trade deals, and I am pleased to provide it. Parliament will have the reports from the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and it will have time to study the texts and specialist Committees in both Houses to examine them in more detail. It will be the lawful duty of Ministers to present both Houses, and indeed the devolved Administrations, with the evidence they need to scrutinise future trade agreements.

I believe that the Government amendment provides a comprehensive solution that really gets to the heart of this important issue. I therefore urge the House to reject Lords amendments 16B and 18B and to accept the Government’s amendment in lieu.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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4 Nov 2020, 12:05 a.m.

Before I call the spokesman for the Opposition, I warn Members that there will be an immediate limit on Back-Bench speeches of three minutes. We obviously have very little time and many people wish to speak, so the shorter the better. I remind Members that brevity is the soul of wit.

--- Later in debate ---
Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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4 Nov 2020, 5:12 p.m.

Goodness—two minutes! I will just rush though this. The Lords were absolutely right to try to strengthen the Bill. They are listening to British farmers and British people, and this House should, too. My constituency of Bath is home to one of the first farmers’ markets in the UK, where local producers sell directly to local people who can be reassured that they are buying quality food produced to high standards. Our city’s UNESCO world heritage status is strongly linked to our green surroundings, and our fields, hedges and trees are all symbols of our agricultural heritage. Many towns and cities across the UK are the same. They are home to small family-owned farms that are run by people who want to farm and who know farming.

I have watched this Government slowly renege on their promises to British farmers, telling them to compete internationally or die. Are we to subsidise them to run their farms as public parks for the recreational benefit of city dwellers? Can the Government not understand why this is causing a great deal of anger? One million people signed the NFU’s petition to protect the British food standards, and this issue is not going away. The Government say that the Trade and Agriculture Commission will have teeth and that there is therefore no need to enshrine British food standards in law, but teeth for whom? Concerns about chlorinated chicken and hormone-produced beef have been dismissed as alarmism, and attempts to protect British food standards have been brushed off as protectionism disguised as self-sufficiency. The Government are not the people who will stand up for British farmers; we on this side are. Instead, they will force farmers to lower their standards in order to compete. That is not good enough, and we will support the Lords amendments.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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4 Nov 2020, 5:12 p.m.

The Bill has been much improved by more than 100 hours of debate, and I do not mean to give it much more. On the trade and agriculture amendments to the Trade Bill, we will work closely with DIT throughout the drafting of this amendment, and we will together agree the final version. Union reps have been involved in TAC roundtables, and I am happy to ask DIT to explore what more can be done. I do not know who the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) thinks NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru and the Ulster Farmers Union represent if it is not farmers from the devolved Administrations. All those bodies are represented on the Trade and Agriculture Commission at the moment.

The report that we promised today would be laid before Parliament, and it would be public. If standards in a future trade agreement were lower than ours, there would rightly be a public outcry. We would expect the Government to give time for debate, whether as an Opposition day or otherwise. The situation in the last Parliament has undoubtedly left us scarred, but it was, thank goodness, very unusual. It would be extraordinary, in the circumstances of the Government laying such a report, to refuse all requests to provide time. I have had a meeting with Clerks from both ends of this building to discuss that and they confirmed that that was the case.

“Consistent with” means exactly what it says. We would look at whether an FTA was consistent with the maintenance of UK levels of statutory protection. That is different from equivalence of standards.

Agriculture Bill

(Consideration of Lords amendments)
Victoria Prentis Excerpts
Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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I am sure that I speak on behalf of Mr Speaker when I say how grateful he is for the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and the way in which he has made it. Those on the Treasury Bench have heard his point.

Clause 4

Multi-annual financial assistance plans

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Lords amendments 2 to 8.

Lords amendment 9, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 10.

Lords amendment 11, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 12, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 13 to 15.

Lords amendment 16, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 17, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 18.

Lords amendment 19 to 46.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, 12:03 a.m.

I should begin by declaring my interests; my family have farmed near Banbury for many years.

This Bill represents a decisive break with the common agricultural policy, as we move to a system that will deliver both for farmers and for the precious environment for which they care. I was delighted to see the Bill pass its Third Reading in the other place, led by my wonderful colleague Lord Gardiner of Kimble. It has now enjoyed over 100 hours of parliamentary debate in its current incarnation, and, of course, had already passed its Committee stage in 2018. Rarely has a Bill been so scrutinised. Although there remain areas of disagreement, it is heartening to hear the loud support for British farming from all parties at both ends of this place. I will speak to each amendment in turn.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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12 Oct 2020, midnight

I thank the Minister for giving way; I spoke to her before we came into the Chamber.

Last week I had a Zoom meeting with Lakeland Dairies, which is one of the major agrifood businesses in my constituency. The company is keen to understand the complexities of east-west and west-east movement, as well as north-south movement—from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland—for its products, which are milk products in liquid form. It is really important to have clarity on this complex issue. I have asked the Secretary of State for a meeting, because he has had various meetings with me in the past. I just want to ensure that we have a meeting with him so that we understand the process before we move forward.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Gentleman. I know that the Secretary of State has met him about Lakeland Dairies in the past, and I am sure he will be delighted to do so again. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is a very complex issue.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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Will the Minister give way?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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If I may, I will make a tiny bit of progress, otherwise we really will be here for another 100 hours.

The purpose behind Lords amendment 1 is to demonstrate the connections between this Bill and the Environment Bill. I am pleased to say that these connections very much exist already. Environmental improvement plans will already definitely be taken into account when determining the strategic priorities that sit within the multi-annual financial assistance plans in clause 4.

It is lovely to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), in her place. She and I work very closely together. Ours is a very united Department, and we view farmers and environmentalists as often very much one and the same. Our future farming policies will be a key mechanism for delivering the goals set out in the 25-year environment plan, but we can take the steps we need to improve biodiversity only if the majority of farmers are firmly on side.

On Lords amendment 9, I would like to reassure the House that work is already taking place in this sphere. We have already commissioned an independent review of the food sector, led by Henry Dimbleby, and his interim report was released in July. We take his recommendations very seriously. We have made a firm commitment to publish a food White Paper within six months of his final report, which is expected next spring. This could well lead to a report sooner than is actually proposed in the amendment.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
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Does the Minister realise why some of us would be a little bit sceptical about her reassurances on timescales, given that the Environment Bill has gone missing for the last 200 days? Why should we believe her when she tells us that this is going to come forward shortly? Why not just accept this amendment? It is going in the same direction as she says she wants to go, so she should just accept it, and it would make it a lot easier.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I am currently on amendment 9. I wonder if the hon. Lady was talking about the previous amendment; I am not sure. Nevertheless, I am delighted to say that enjoying at the moment I am what my predecessor referred to as my loaves and fishes week: I have agriculture today and fish tomorrow. I would say that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs legislation is very much front and centre in the business of the House this week. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is looking forward very keenly to bringing forward the Environment Bill, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will have further news on that shortly.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh
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On the subject of loaves, can I bring a message from the county of Lincolnshire, which produces 2 billion of them a year? It is the bread basket of England. This is a general point, but I was talking to farmers and I think they just want to be reassured on this point. They are the most efficient farmers in the country, and they want to be assured that when we do free trade deals, our competitors under these deals will be working under the same regulations as our farmers. That is all they want, and that was the whole point of the Lord Curry amendment about a Trade and Agriculture Commission with teeth. If the Minister can just give that commitment, they will be reassured.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, midnight

My right hon. Friend will be very pleased, when I come on to that section of my speech, to hear the reassurances that I hope I will be able to give him.

Back to amendment 9, and I think the report we have promised within six months of Henry Dimbleby’s report will in fact come sooner than is set out in this amendment.

The response to the pandemic has demonstrated again and again the resilience of our UK food supply chain, and I am really pleased with how well Government and industry have worked together. I would like to thank everyone in the food industry—from our farmers to those in retail and everybody in between—for responding so quickly and efficiently to some very challenging conditions.

It was a real privilege to chair the cross-Whitehall ministerial taskforce, which tried to ensure that food and other essential supplies reached the vulnerable. We worked with industry to smooth the way wherever possible, including relaxing competition laws and drivers’ hours. We have also worked with retailers to massively increase the number of online delivery slots. We are all too aware that many find themselves in food poverty for the first time. As the taskforce, we were able to secure £16 million, which we gave to frontline charities that are directly helping get food to those in need, and we allocated £63 million to local authorities so that they can provide direct support to people who cannot afford food.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)
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The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently did a covid report, and the £63 million and the £16 million were really important in getting food out to those in society who need it most. May I have an assurance that if it is needed again, we will move very quickly to get it there? Unfortunately, after covid there will be a higher number of unemployed and great pressure on food and food security.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I met the Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society last week to discuss how effective that local authority grant was. I know that my hon. Friend, who has done so much work in this space, has also taken evidence to that effect. I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks right now, but I assure him that I will make sure that those comments are fed through and, if the need is there, that that is seen as one of the options available and a very direct way of getting money to those who are in food poverty. The Trussell Trust is itself preparing a report on how effective that grant has been.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op)
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All the indicators are that food poverty is on the rise, so I ask the Minister, as I asked the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary: why will Ministers not extend the food voucher holiday hunger scheme to the half-term and Christmas holidays?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has campaigned on this matter for some time. He has heard what the Department for Education has to say about that. The scheme that I am discussing is the £63 million scheme, which of course did not go just to families with children, although they were heavily represented among the recipients of that scheme. We will pass on those comments and those of the Trussell Trust and, of course, the EFRA Committee when considering how we tackle food poverty directly over the course of this winter. We all know that this is going to be a difficult time for many.

Returning to the Bill, we already have powers in what was originally clause 17, which commits the Government to

“lay before Parliament a report containing an analysis of statistical data relating to food security”

in the UK. We listened to the concerns raised regarding the frequency of the food security report and, through Lords amendments 5 to 8, reduced the minimum frequency of reporting from five years to three years. Of course, we can still report more often than that, and in times of strain on food supply that might well be appropriate.

Turning to Lords amendment 11, I recognise the positive intentions behind the amendment, but I am afraid I take issue with the drafting. The Government are committed to reducing the risks from pesticide use. We have already tightened the standards for authorisation and withdrawn many pesticides from the organophosphate and carbamate classes. Integrated pest management will be a critical part of future farming policy. Under our existing legislation, the use of pesticides is allowed only where a scientific assessment shows that it will have no effect on human health, including that of vulnerable groups.

The amendment, although undoubtedly well intentioned, is far too broad. It extends to any pesticide and any building, and would include pesticides that are important for productivity but pose no danger whatsoever to health. Even worse, it also extends to any open space used for work, which on my reading would prohibit the use of pesticides in fields entirely. I encourage hon. Members to read the amendment carefully before supporting it.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
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The Minister will know that Lords amendment 11 is based on one that I tabled, which the Lords supported. I think she misrepresents the amendment. It is perfectly clear that it would be possible for the Government to bring forward regulations to specify exactly the minimum distances. It is no coincidence that Lord Randall himself has said how important it is that this amendment is passed to protect human health. That is what we need to do. The Government could go away and design the regulations, but this is the overarching amendment to achieve that.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I am afraid I do disagree with the hon. Lady’s reading of the amendment. My case would be that we already have regulation in place to protect human health from risks, including those in the vulnerable sectors of society, which I mentioned.

Lords Amendments 12 and 16 relate to trade standards and will, I am sure, be a major part of this afternoon’s debate. I know that there are genuine concerns across the House and in our constituencies about the effect of future trade deals on farmers and on the standards of the foods that we eat. I am truly grateful for the wise counsel of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I assure him, and Members across the House, that the Government are firmly on the side of British farmers and high standards. Where the balance should be between protectionism and trade, and between high welfare and price, has been discussed many times in this House over the past 200 years, and it is a debate that I for one have always been keen to have.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
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Will the Minister give way?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I will not just at the moment, but I will later.

I am afraid to say that, despite the considerable thought that has gone into the amendments, we have not yet found a magic form of words that will address all the concerns and avoid undesirable side effects. In asking the House to reject the amendments, I will set out the set of solutions, both legislative and non-legislative, that I hope will allay the fears that Members have expressed. In my view, this range of measures, and constant vigilance on the part of Government and, indeed, consumers, are of more use than warm words in primary legislation.

I will start by reiterating that, alongside my colleagues on this side of the House, I stood on a clear manifesto commitment that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards. As I have said many times, our current import standards are enshrined in existing legislation.

They include a ban on importing beef produced using artificial growth hormones and poultry that has been washed with chlorine. The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 carries across those existing standards on environmental protections, animal welfare, animal and plant health and food safety. Any changes to that legislation would need to be brought before Parliament.

It falls to our independent food regulators, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland, to ensure that all food imports into the UK are safe and meet the relevant UK product rules and regulations. The FSA’s risk analysis process is rigorous, completely independent of Government and based on robust scientific evidence, along with other legitimate factors such as wider consumer interests and the impact on the environment, animal welfare and food security.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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I want to be very clear: the concerns that people have about the Bill and the Government’s decision not to accept the amendment are not about the quality of food. We understand that the product is not a danger. What we are concerned about is the production and the impact on the producer. If we undermine animal welfare and environmental standards, we may well have quality food to eat but we will damage our farmers and the integrity of our farming industry in the process.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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The hon. Gentleman is partly right. Many of the concerns expressed, perhaps more wildly, in the tabloid press—possibly not by the farming sector—are indeed about the safety of food. I seek to reassure everybody that those regulations are in place, and there is no danger to safety or to the existing standards that we enjoy, and have enjoyed for many years as members of the EU. When we come on to the next argument, which we could perhaps characterise as a more protectionist argument, we need to balance the competing factors of trade deals that we already have, continuity trade agreements and trade deals that we want to enter into in the future, and work out how we scrutinise those trade deals to ensure that our farmers are getting a fair deal. I will go on to set out some of the ways that we hope to do that.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
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12 Oct 2020, midnight

In the letter that my hon. Friend sent to all MPs on 6 October last week, she wrote that accepting the amendments

“would make it very difficult to secure any new trade deals.”

That is the bit that makes people suspicious. I do not doubt for one second her sincerity. I have known her for years and she is a Minister of the utmost integrity, and I do not doubt anybody in her Department either, but is the view that she has expressed at the Dispatch Box today shared in heart and mind across the whole of Government, including the Department for International Trade?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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Yes, those in the Department for International Trade stood on the manifesto that my hon. Friend and I were also proud to stand on. We are absolutely committed to high standards.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I promised to give way to my hon. Friend, and I forgot.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
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My hon. Friend has helpfully set out the very high standards that any imports will be required to meet coming into this country. Therefore, is there any reason why this House should not be given proper opportunity to scrutinise any free trade agreements before they are signed, so that we can ensure that those agreements do not enable produce to come into this country that is lower than those standards?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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If my hon. Friend can contain himself, I will get on very shortly to a long section of my speech that details how Parliament will be able to scrutinise future trade agreements. It is important, and I think that we do do that, but I will set that out very shortly.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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Just to refer back to the letter that the Minister sent last week, the Government’s response to the Lords amendments is that they would create a vast set of conditions that do not apply to current EU trade deals. Will she explain that a bit further, please?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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Yes, I will be getting on to that in a minute, too. Members will see that Lords amendment 16 has a large number of conditions that, were it to pass, would apply to continuity—so, rollover agreements—and to any new agreement that we signed. One of my concerns, just to give the hon. Gentleman an example, is that the amendment would require other countries to abide by exactly the regulations that we have in this country. Those might not be appropriate because of climate, for example, or the way a country is physically. Our hedgerow regulation, for example, would look fairly odd in parts of Africa, but that is just one example.

I will make a bit of progress. We have high standards in this country, of which we are justly proud, and there is no way the Government will reduce those standards. Our clear policy, in fact, is to increase them, particularly in the area of animal welfare, and I hope to be telling the House a lot more about that next year.

It is important that our future trade agreements uphold those high standards. We can ensure that with a range of safeguards, parliamentary scrutiny being one of them. My right hon. Friend the International Trade Secretary has today confirmed in a written ministerial statement to the House that there will be a full scrutiny process for the Japan deal and all other agreements that we strike. When it is agreed in principle, a copy of the deal will be issued to the International Trade Committee. It can then report on that, and I know that it will scrutinise the deal carefully.

The Government are committed to transparency and to aiding scrutiny. That includes publishing objectives and initial economic assessments before the start of any trade talks, which has been done to date. We have also provided regular progress updates to Parliament. For example, we recently provided updates on the conclusion of negotiation rounds with the US and Australia, and we are engaging closely with the International Trade Committee and the International Agreements Sub-Committee of the European Union Committee in the other place. That includes sharing future trade agreements before they are laid in Parliament through the process set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Today, the Secretary of State set out how that is happening for the Japan deal.

We will always endeavour to ensure the Committees have at least 10 sitting days to read through the deals or potential deals on a confidential basis. We are also sharing a full impact assessment, which covers the economic impacts along with the social, environmental and animal welfare aspects of any deal, and that impact assessment has been independently scrutinised by the Regulatory Policy Committee.

Finally, at the end of negotiations, we are committed to ensuring that the final agreement text is laid in Parliament for 21 sitting days under the CRaG procedure, which will ensure that the House has sufficient time to scrutinise the detail of any deal. I know that there has been some debate in both Houses on the effectiveness of CRaG, but it is the established procedure under our constitution. Our overall approach to scrutiny goes beyond many comparable parliamentary democracies.

Further important scrutiny is provided by a range of expert groups that advise the Government on trade policy. They include the Department for International Trade’s agrifood trade advisory group, which was renewed in July and includes more than 30 representatives from the food industry—I nearly said “heavyweight” representatives, but I would not want that to be misinterpreted. DEFRA also continues to run various supply chain advisory groups such as the arable group, the livestock group and the food and drink panel. They provide expert advice as we negotiate, which is fed directly in to those negotiating.

We also listened carefully to powerful points made by Members of this House and the National Farmers Union, which is why we established the Trade and Agriculture Commission in July. The commission is working hard. It has met six times and set up three working groups covering consumers, competitiveness and standards, bringing more than 30 additional representatives to help with its work. Recently, the commission launched a call for evidence to 200 relevant parties, which asked several questions, including on how standards can best be upheld while securing the benefits of trade. Its report will come before Parliament later this term to be debated.

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall (Totnes) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I hope I am not jumping the gun, but will the Minister look to extend the purview of the Trade and Agriculture Commission to longer than six months? It should be a permanent body that is established to scrutinise our trade deals.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

I am afraid that the Trade and Agriculture Commission is not within my gift; it is a matter for the Department for International Trade whether the work and life of that commission is extended. Further to the point of order made earlier about our inability to discuss Lords amendment 18 this evening, there is no need for any amendment to the Bill in order to set up or continue the Trade and Agriculture Commission. It was done without any need for legislation, and it will be perfectly possible and proper for Members to talk to the Secretary of State for International Trade if they wish the commission to continue.

The commission was set up with a fixed term and a tight scope, which was a deliberate decision, to avoid duplication of the work of the agencies and other groups that I have just set out. It was set up in order to feed directly into our trade negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand. We remain open to listening to any concerns about the operation of the commission and will continue to co-operate with DIT to ensure that it meets expectations.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is speaking laudably about the Trade and Agriculture Commission but then somewhat passing the responsibility to her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is not with us today. What assurances can she give us that her voice will count in those discussions about the Trade and Agriculture Commission? That body is central to the Bill we are discussing, yet the Secretary of State is not here to answer questions.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

I must politely disagree. I do not think that there needs to be any amendment to the Bill in order to continue the great work that the Trade and Agriculture Commission is undertaking. It was set up without the benefit of legislation; it does not need that. I have just set out why it was set up in a time-limited way, in order to produce a report that will be debated in the House this term, which is useful, as it will feed into the negotiations. It was set up with that timescale in mind. Whether we want to set it up for future trade agreements is something to discuss another day, but I do not agree that it has anything at all to do with the Bill.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

12 Oct 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I accept that the Trade and Agriculture Commission is not my hon. Friend’s responsibility. However, on amendments 12 and 16, if the Government could come forward with a proposal to extend its life or to set up a smaller commission to deal with individual trade deals, they would see off any possible rebellions tonight.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

12 Oct 2020, midnight

Oh dear. I remain very fond of my hon. Friend, who continues to tempt me, Madam Deputy Speaker, down routes that we really do not need to go down in discussing this legislation—indeed, we are all busily debating amendment 18 as if it were before us.

To return to what we are meant to be talking about, if amendments 12 and 16 remained in the Bill, they could create a long list of new conditions that imports under trade agreements would have to meet. Such conditions do not exist under any agreement that the UK or the EU have to date, and they could also apply to trade already taking place, which we very much hope will be the subject of roll-over deals.

We will drive a hard bargain for access to our market, and existing import conditions will need to be respected. However, trading partners would be extremely unlikely to agree to all the potential new requirements in the amendments. The amendments are also not totally clear on what we would be asking of our partners. For example, what is relevant to protect the environment in the UK will surely not be what is relevant to other countries with different climates or conditions. From rules on nitrates to rules on hedgerows, our standards are sometimes bound to differ from those abroad.

Given that uncertainty, I am concerned that the amendments could jeopardise the 19 currently unsigned agreements that we are seeking to roll over. Trade, of course, already takes place under those agreements, with existing import requirements met. Unpicking those and demanding the numerous extra conditions in the amendments could upset the current deals if partners refused and walked away. In the worst-case scenario, that could affect whisky exports to Canada, worth £96 million, potato exports to Egypt, worth £30 million, and milk powder exports to Algeria, worth £21 million.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the hon. Lady said a moment ago that the problem with the amendments was that they would impose conditions that the EU has not sought to apply to any existing trade agreements, but is that actually the case? Is it not true that the free trade agreement between the EU and Chile in 2003 explicitly included a reference to animal welfare—the point made a moment ago—and that when the EU negotiated a trade deal with the Mercosur countries last year, it made the reduction of tariffs on egg products conditional for the first time on the countries concerned, namely Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, keeping their hens in line with EU animal welfare standards? If the EU can do that, why are the Government resisting us doing that when we take back control?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, 12:03 a.m.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, the EU has been able to put welfare standards of various kinds and levels in different trade agreements over the years. That is a perfectly proper thing to do, as long as it is done in compliance with international law. The point I was trying to make—I apologise if I did not make it sufficiently clear—is that it would be unwise, particularly in the agreements we are seeking to roll over in very short form, to add a set of conditions that, to my reading at least, are not entirely clear and that are broadly drafted. It would be difficult to agree with the partners with whom we already trade as part of these continuity agreements a whole new set of conditions and, indeed, a method of assessing those conditions in very short order. That might well put them off agreeing a deal with us. That is my concern.

In summary, the tools we have to ensure high standards are, as I have tried to set out, many and varied. They are strong enough to protect standards, even under pressure. We have existing regulation under retained EU law, which is watched carefully and controlled by the Food Standards Agency. Parliament can scrutinise new trade deals, as indeed the Select Committee on International Trade is about to do for the Japan deal. Other experts, including those on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, can advise us on trade policy. Last, but by no means least, we have the buying power of the British consumer, who is increasingly committed to high standards of animal welfare.

We will carry out a serious examination of the role of labelling in promoting high standards and high welfare across the UK market. We will start to consult on that before the end of this year. That combination of measures will protect producers of high-welfare British food, while allowing us to import when we wish.

Turning to amendment 17 on emissions reduction targets—

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine
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Will the Minister give way?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, 12:03 a.m.

I have turned, I fear.

Amendment 17 is another well-intentioned amendment, but it would add an unnecessary layer of complication. The Secretary of State is already required to have regard to the Government’s commitment to achieving net zero under the Climate Change Act 2008. The Government have also introduced carbon budgets, which cap emissions over successive five-year periods. If we are to achieve the UK’s net zero target, emissions reductions will be needed in all sectors. Not setting sector-specific targets allows us to meet our climate change commitments in the best and speediest way. Agriculture has an important role to play in reducing emissions, but we must recognise that planting trees and restoring peatland will take a very long time—probably not my lifetime—to deliver the best results.

We will continue to work closely on that issue with the NFU and others, including the greenhouse gas action plan partners.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Given that emissions from agriculture have not decreased—they have remained static for years—there is every good reason to focus on the role of agriculture in driving climate change. It is not just a question of planting trees, which, as the Minister says, takes a long time. She could start by not burning the peatlands, which is leading to more and more climate change right now. That is the kind of immediate measure that could be in the Bill.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

I am sorry if I did not explain myself clearly enough. Of course we are committed to reducing emissions from agriculture, which produces about 10% of emissions, as the hon. Lady knows. It is important to work on that. I commend the NFU, which has set an ambitious target for doing just that. Many measures will be set out in the Environment Bill, which will come before the House shortly. Of course, the Agriculture Bill will be a key part of delivering net zero, as our future farming schemes are a powerful vehicle for achieving that goal.

Richard Fuller Portrait Richard Fuller
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Perhaps the counter-argument to that of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) is that farming needs long-term stability and sense. Governments sometimes change, but this target will remain. How does my hon. Friend balance the requirement for the dexterity that she has described in the Environment Bill with the overarching target, which could provide some stability as we achieve some of the goals that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has asked us to achieve?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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12 Oct 2020, 12:07 a.m.

That is exactly what I am trying to do. I am seeking a balance between a laudable aim that we are all signed up to and not setting sector-specific targets, for which amendment 17 provides. I do not think that would be helpful. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that we need to do everything we can in the agricultural sphere to work on this important issue.

I will now deal with the Government amendments. Amendment 2 requires all new multi-annual financial assistance plans introduced after the end of the agriculture transition period to be published 12 months before coming into effect. The first multi-annual financial assistance plan, which covers the seven-year agricultural transition, will be published by the end of this year. All subsequent plans will be published at least 12 months ahead of their coming into effect. Those in the other place felt strongly that building in time between the publication of multi-annual financial assistance plans and their coming into effect would allow farmers to prepare for them and adapt to any potential changes. The Government agree and are pleased to propose that amendment.

Amendments 5, 6, 7 and 8 change the frequency of reporting on food security—to which I spoke briefly earlier—by requiring reports to be published at least every three years. The first report will be published before Parliament rises for Christmas next year, 2021. This report will include an analysis of statistical data relating to the impact of coronavirus on food security in the United Kingdom.

Amendments 10, 13, 14 and 20 to 29 were requested by the devolved Administrations and reflect the positive working relationship that we have with our counterparts there. I am pleased that each of the devolved legislatures has given legislative consent to the Bill.

Amendments 10, 13 and 14 require the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the DAs before making regulations within their competence under clauses 32 or 37. Amendments 20 to 29 give the DAs the power to make supplementary and consequential provisions in all areas of the Bill for which a legislative consent motion was sought. Amendment 15 removes the provisions in clauses 42(4) and 42(5), as devolved Ministers have assured us that they are not required in law.

Amendments 3, 4, 19, 30, 31, 45 and 46 are technical amendments that ensure that clauses 14, 15 and 16, as well as their equivalent provisions in the schedules for Wales and Northern Ireland, will operate as intended. The clauses rely on a body of retained EU law being created at the end of the transition period. We have recently been advised that that may be necessary to allow us to continue to fund existing common agricultural policy legacy schemes.

Finally, amendments 32 to 44 enable legislative powers created by the Bill to be exercised on or after the day on which the Bill receives Royal Assent. This will enable us to act quickly to ensure that there is no gap in the powers required to operate existing schemes and to provide financial assistance to farmers.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. I am sure that colleagues will be aware that this debate must finish at 9 o’clock and there are still two Front-Bench contributions to come. I will therefore set an immediate limit of four minutes on Back-Bench speeches, although I fear that may have to go down if we are to have any chance of getting everybody in.

--- Later in debate ---
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

12 Oct 2020, 12:03 a.m.

I agree. At least British Ministers will not have to utter the phrase, “It won’t get through Parliament,” because Parliament has, sadly, voted itself out of having a say, making it one of the few Parliaments in the world that will not have a say on any trade deals with Britain.

Let me address briefly some of the reasons the Minister gave for not supporting the amendments, because it is important that we consider the arguments. Last week I heard the International Trade Secretary say that if we have high standards, that would risk having a crippling effect on agricultural exports from developing countries such as Kenya. I know that Members are concerned about that, but the problem is that it is not right. At the moment, thanks to our membership of the EU, the Government have nine trade deals with sub-Saharan African countries, and so far not a single one of them has been rolled over. We risk losing those trade deals with sub-Saharan Africa if we do not renew them by 31 December. If we care about our agricultural exports, that should be the priority. The Minister also knows that the Government should have a better plan for improving the post-Brexit UK version of the EU’s generalised scheme of preferences, which sets lower tariffs for developing countries in exchange for meaningful protection of human rights, labour rights and the environment.

What else is used as an excuse for the Government not putting their promise into law? The Minister mentioned labelling. I have spoken proudly from this Dispatch Box about the need to buy local. I want consumers to look out for the red tractor and other local accreditations when they are making purchasing decisions. But let us be real: an extra label will not stop lower-quality food being sold in Britain. It offers a meagre apology on the packaging, but only where there is packaging. Ministers know that 50% of our agricultural production does not go into retail. It goes into food service—to cafés and restaurants, food processing and the like—where the origin of the ingredients is, at best, hidden. That is precisely where chlorinated chicken would be sold and eaten first. It would go to big caterers and into mass production—places where consumers cannot tell where their food has come from or know the standards it is produced to. It would go into hospital food and into meals for our armed forces and our schools. The Government claim that the amendment is unnecessary because standards are included in the withdrawal Act, as we have just heard. However, the EU’s import restrictions apply only to products banned on the basis of safety and, as was mentioned earlier, they do not deal with animal welfare or environmental protections, which is what this amendment seeks to do.

There is one more excuse, which has not been spoken about so far, that is absolutely key to the Government’s future trade strategy, and it is about taxes. Could not Ministers just tax these products a wee bit more with an extra couple of pence on tariffs and let the market decide? This is something I have heard and read about in Tory-leaning media, but let me be clear with Ministers, because all those in this place know what the Treasury and the Department for International Trade are planning. Charging a few extra pence on lower-standard food import tariffs while public anger is at its highest will give Ministers a convenient soundbite to offer a nation ill at ease with the Government’s policy. They will then be able to drop those tariffs through secondary legislation when the anger dies down. The end result will be that we still have chlorinated chicken and food produced to lower standards on sale, whether it is for a few pence more or a few pence less. That will not stop those products being sold in the United Kingdom. It will authorise and legitimise it, and it will sign the death warrant for farm businesses the nation over. That is why we want these standards put into law.

In the midst of a climate and ecological emergency, it is imperative that we have a clear road map for agriculture to reach net zero. The NFU has done a good job in its work so far, and I want to thank farmers for the efforts they are making to cut carbon emissions, which are a sizeable chunk of UK emissions. That is why we back efforts to have clear, sector-specific plans that farmers can follow, and we also back efforts including the amendment tabled by Lord Whitty in the other place on pesticides. That matters because of the impact not only on the environment but on human health.

I fear that, in seeking to disagree with these amendments tonight, the Government might be trying to hint at the Salisbury convention, which is that the other place should not interfere with manifesto commitments. However, the Lords are doing something different from that: they are doing a reverse Salisbury. They are asking the Government to stick to their manifesto commitments. In such circumstances, the Salisbury principle does not apply, and the Lords should ask the Commons to reconsider these amendments on food safety and on the Trade and Agriculture Commission again—and again, if necessary. Every time this House votes on these amendments, more and more farmers will be looking at the voting list to see which Members support the farmers and which have chosen not to. We cannot take any votes for granted, and I warn Conservative Members against doing so.

Just last week the Leader of the Opposition and I visited the farm of the NFU president, Minette Batters, in Wiltshire. That was our second meeting with the NFU president in a month, but the Prime Minister still refuses to meet her. I would be grateful if the Minister could pull a few strings to get the PM to meet farmers to talk about this issue.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

12 Oct 2020, 6:58 p.m.

I believe that the president of the NFU will be visiting Downing Street later this week.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

12 Oct 2020, 6:58 p.m.

Where the Leader of the Opposition leads, the Government follow. I am grateful for that. That visit to Wiltshire was not in vain, I see—[Interruption.]

What kind of country do we want to be? [Interruption.] I do not think that a country whose MPs shout at each other in a debate like this is a country that is good—[Interruption.] I have not heard that from this side and I encourage those on the Conservative side to recognise that as well. There are people watching this debate in farming communities up and down the country. They are tuning into BBC Parliament and parliamentlive.tv for the first ever time, and they should see parliamentarians performing at our best in this debate.

I want Britain to be a nation of quality—[Interruption.] Let me start that again, because the people at home might not have heard me over the chuntering. I want Britain to be a nation of quality, of high standards, of ethical treatment of animals and of stewardship of our landscapes; a custodian of high environmental standards; and a nation that challenges other nations to compete with us fiercely but to do so on a level playing field. I want Britain to be a beacon country with our values proudly on show, not just in soundbites and manifestos, but in our laws, trade deals and behaviours. That is what the amendments on food standards seek to achieve. It is a moral compass that this Agriculture Bill desperately needs.a It is because of that, and because Labour backs our farmers, that we have voted at every opportunity against the Bill, which singularly fails to protect our farmers from being undercut by food produced to lower animal welfare and environmental standards abroad. Our farmers are not afraid of competition but, when we maintain high standards for them but allow potentially food produced at lower standards to be imported, that is unfair. It is not a level playing field. That food would be illegal for British farmers to produce here, but somehow it would be okay to have it through the back door. That cannot be allowed and that is why our food standards must be put into law.

--- Later in debate ---
Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Unlike many Members here, I have just one small farm in my constituency, but a large number of constituents have written to me expressing great concern about the implications of the Agriculture Bill, particularly if the Lords amendments are not incorporated. My constituents expect Parliament to scrutinise the detail of all trade deals, but Parliament is yet again to be cut out of full scrutiny and agreement on trade deals—a trend that is becoming something of a habit for this Government.

After listening to some Government Members, I really do wonder about their understanding of the dynamics of trade deals. Many of my constituents fear that the Bill and the Government’s approach to trade will open up our consumers to chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-impregnated beef and so on. The Minister said at the start of the debate that we should not worry about standards falling because British consumers will choose good-quality food, but as consumers we do not see the labels for much of our food, because almost half the food we eat is made up of processed ingredients or is catered and therefore hidden from consumer vision. As many Members have said, cheap imported foods with standards lower than the EU’s threaten the viability of many British farmers.

If the Government actually believed in the climate and environmental emergency that this Parliament declared a year ago, the Bill would set a clearer path for our farmers to reach net zero. Why do the Government not accept Labour’s amendment 17, which would set interim net zero targets for the agricultural sector?

If we do a trade deal with the US that has no conditions on animal welfare, our farmers will be at risk, because they will have to compete with low-cost agricultural mega-corporations, such as those US pork farmers still using sow stalls. To prevent the cruelty of practices such as sow stalls, we need a law which says that, in all trade deals, any imports must meet the same standards of animal welfare that British farmers are required to meet. Britain has historically often led the world on food standards, but sadly, this Bill means that our food quality is at risk, our farmers’ future is at risk, our environment and our climate are at risk, and the welfare of farmed animals are at risk. I support the Lords amendments.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

12 Oct 2020, midnight

We have had a treat this evening—we have had Cotswold lamb, mince and tatties, Aberdeenshire beef, and berries and all sorts of other things. I, for one, have particularly enjoyed hearing farming voices this evening. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, who is basically in favour of the Bill. He was able to explain clearly how it would help the farmers of the future. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who very much enjoyed growing up with fields green with grass. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Keighley (Robbie Moore) and for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), who both spoke in quite quiet, but experienced, passionate farming voices about how the trade of the future was going to help others in the industry.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), and we had perhaps the quote of the evening from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who said that farming is not a religion; it is a business. I would like to reassure him that I see a bright future for British farming under our new agricultural policies. Productive, environmentally sustainable food production—that is what we are going to support, and businesses.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), and I am looking forward to a glittering career for him at Harper Adams. I think we will all benefit from what he learns there. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). I was pleased to speak to him a great deal about gene editing earlier in the year and I am glad that we will be consulting on that. These were experienced farming voices, passionate about trade.

There have been other speeches of note, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook), who was proud to say that he does not earn a pair of wellies but he cares about standards, and about trade. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), who has served on the Agriculture Committee, and who spoke thoughtfully about the cost of production and the work that she had done to take the Secretary of State for International Trade to her constituency to speak to her farmers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) is right: the fear-mongering must stop tonight. We are not going to be importing chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. That is the law of this land. [Interruption.] There is no question of “Not yet”. This Government are not going to change it under any circumstances. We have said very clearly that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards.

We have a range of tools to protect us. We have the existing regulation. We have parliamentary scrutiny, which I detailed earlier, including the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which I, for one, think is significant. We have other experts feeding in, including the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which many Members have spoken about. It was designed to be helpful, to feed into the trade negotiations we are conducting at the moment. There is nothing to stop it being stood up again if it was felt that that would be helpful. There is absolutely no need to put this in the Bill. I am very happy to take as an action from tonight that I will discuss this with the Secretary of State for International Trade. Given what she said in her written ministerial statement to the House today, I am not anticipating that she will be surprised by that conversation, but I undertake to conduct it.

I also think that consumer labelling is important, while understanding that, of course, a lot of products are not directly labelled at the point of consumption. I think, however, that our consumers are canny and that they can make many of their own decisions. We also heard one other tool discussed this evening in favour of differing tariffs—my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Norfolk and for The Cotswolds both spoke about that—and that is something that we should perhaps think about in future.

You will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that children play mummies and daddies or going to the shops. They tend to ape what the adults around them do. Well, my sisters and I played going to NFU meetings, because that was what the adults around us did. I welcome the work that the NFU has done to get consumers talking about standards, but we do not need primary legislation to have a Trade and Agriculture Commission. Amendment 16 does not enshrine these standards in law; rather, it obliges the Government to impose a wide and, in my view, slightly ill-defined set of conditions on new and roll-over FTAs. And if Labour Members truly are champions of farming, they should not support amendment 11, which bans the use of any pesticide in any field.

This Bill is great. The future of agriculture in this country is great. I commend it to the House.

Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.

Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).

Agriculture Bill

(Report stage)
Victoria Prentis Excerpts
Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I now call Minister Victoria Prentis, who is asked to speak for no more than 15 minutes.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
- Hansard - -

13 May 2020, 12:02 a.m.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should start by declaring my interest: my family has farmed on the Oxfordshire- Northamptonshire border for many years, and I am also a keen smallholder. This is a very important moment for agriculture in this country. This Bill is the first of its kind for more than 70 years and it will allow us to shape farming for the future. This Bill is about farmers, and sets out a framework policy for rewarding them as they produce food and provide public goods.

I thank all Members who have tabled amendments. I apologise if the hybrid nature of the debate prevents me from engaging fully with every point—it is not ideal. I am, however, reassured that the Bill has been thoroughly scrutinised by not one but two Public Bill Committees. I am keen to continue to engage with Members across the House as we develop the details of the policies. I must also record my thanks to those who have worked so hard to ensure that we have all been fed in these frightening times: farmers, manufacturers and retailers. They are food heroes, and they have worked together and struggled on despite workforce shortages and social distancing measures. I hope that a lasting legacy of this pandemic is that we all think a little more about where our food comes from.

The feeding the vulnerable taskforce, which I chair, has worked hard to ensure that those parts of society on whom this crisis falls the hardest can access food. On Friday, we announced £16 million of funding for food charities. Measures in this Bill would have been very useful two months ago. I commend in particular the powers in clauses 18 and 19, which would have made it easier and quicker to support farmers during these difficult times. Under Clause 17, for the first time, the Government will have a duty to take a regular, systematic view of our overall food security at least every five years, giving time to observe trends. That is not to say that we have to wait five years between reviews at all. The majority of data covered will, of course, be available between reports, and we certainly have no intention of waiting until the end of the five-year period to publish our first report. That report will, of course, take into account what we have learnt from the current pandemic.

This is a domestic Bill. It is not about trade. However, I have heard colleagues across the House—I am sure I will hear them again this afternoon—voice concerns about the effect of future trade agreements on UK agriculture. Some are concerned about a reduction in standards, particularly those for animal welfare. Others are concerned that there will not be a level playing field between our products and those coming from abroad.

Like the rest of my colleagues on this side of the House, I was elected on a very clear manifesto commitment—one that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reiterated since—that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. This Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers. We are keen to ensure that parliamentarians, consumers and businesses have access to the information they need on our trade negotiations. Trade talks with the US opened formally last Tuesday. Ahead of that, the Government set out the negotiating objectives and associated documents, and a similar process will be replicated in the coming months as we do the same for deals with Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

I am grateful for the continued contributions of the National Farmers Union and others who sit on our expert trade advisory group, which helped shape this trade policy and feeds straight into the negotiating team. I assure the House that we are actively exploring how to build on that industry participation.

I reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements. At the end of the transition period, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will convert all EU standards into domestic law. That will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcases, and any changes to those standards would have to come before this Parliament. We will be doing our own inspections to ensure that those import conditions are met.

While we all want to support British farmers, if passed, the well-meaning amendments would have unintended consequences. The supply of food would be significantly disrupted if goods that meet our current import standards were blocked. New clauses 1 and 2 would affect UK exports to countries with whom, as part of the EU, we currently have trade agreements. I am concerned that the extra conditions in the two new clauses could result in countries refusing to enter into continuity agreements. For example, accepting new clause 2 would risk whisky exports worth £578 million. Another example is the impact on potato exporters. Some 22% of potato exports went to countries with whom a continuity agreement has not yet been signed.

If the amendments were passed, an assessment of our current UK production standards, followed by an assessment of all relevant standards in a third country, followed by an assessment of how those compared with UK legislation and UK production standards would be required to make sure that any FTA complied with them. That would all have to be done by the end of December.

I understand that Members want to ensure safeguards for our farmers. However, I have serious concerns about the unintended consequences of the amendments for our producers and exporters. Our manifesto commitment is clear that the Government will support farmers and protect our standards. All the rules, regulations and robust processes are already in place for that.

On labelling, I am looking forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on her labelling amendment. I understand that she will be championing consumer choice in the domestic market, which is very important. Other colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), and my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder), have asked us to explore whether labelling approaches could be used to differentiate products that meet domestic production standards from those that do not. This would include exploring mandatory labelling. Any scheme could not be devised until we have completed the transition period and would of course need to recognise World Trade Organisation obligations, but I assure Members from across the House that this is something we will consider closely and on which we are prepared to consult.

We all hope that UK food producers will benefit from increased export opportunities as we open up foreign markets. For example, in the last year, we have seen the lifting of a 20-year ban on the export of UK beef and lamb to Japan. Our “Food is GREAT” campaign targets consumer audiences abroad and is boosting global demand for our food and drink.

I turn now to amendments relating to financial assistance. I defy anyone to maintain that the common agricultural policy was good for either environmental protection or the productivity of British farming. It has held us back. It has paid those with more land more subsidy, regardless of what they did with it. It has favoured some parts of the industry over others. We are really keen that that changes now. We have an exciting opportunity to reset and plan for the future.

Passing the Bill will give farmers and land managers a clear direction. In England, it will enable us to deliver direct payments, simplified countryside stewardship schemes and productivity grants next year. I assure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that that is why this Bill is top of the queue. The gradual seven-year transition will allow farmers and land managers time to prepare for the new environmental land management scheme, which is currently being tested. Upland farmers, for example, will be well placed to benefit from it. We will also create a UK shared prosperity fund to address the needs of rural businesses and communities. Delaying the start of the agricultural transition to 2022 would just delay the many benefits of moving away from direct payments. To provide reassurance again, for 80% of farmers, our maximum reductions for 2021 will be modest at under 5%.

Improving the health of our environment as set out in the “25 Year Environment Plan” is a priority. The measures in the Bill will help us to combat climate change, but the Bill is not the place for targets. Environmental land management will be critical in helping us to deliver against our legally binding target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. We recognise that for these policies to be effective, they need to be properly funded. In our manifesto, we committed to maintain current agricultural spending for each year of this Parliament. Of course, this is a framework Bill, and this is only the beginning. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House and with groups such as the NFU to develop the policy that will flow from this legislation.

I turn now to amendments tabled on agroecological farming practices, and on reducing the use of pesticides. We are already testing how ELM can support farmers to take a whole-farm holistic approach. We have 50 tests and trials in progress, with many more planned before the national pilot starts in 2021. We are considering innovative solutions such as integrated pest management, which aims to reduce pesticide use on farms. We absolutely agree that pesticides should not be used where that use may harm human health, and we have a robust regulatory system in place to ensure that.

I turn now to the many benefits that the Bill will bring farmers in the devolved Administrations. Clause 33 tackles an unfairness in the red meat levy system and will allow the levy collected from animals that have crossed a border for slaughter to be returned to where the animals were reared. The levy boards are working very hard to devise a scheme, and our aim is to have one in place by April 2021. New Clause 9 is for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister to consider. I understand that he has no plans, at this stage, to introduce a sunset clause. The UK Government will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations. I reiterate our commitment to consulting with the devolved Administrations on our proposals for regulations to be made under the WTO clauses.

I turn to the amendments on fairness and transparency in the supply chain. No decisions have yet been taken on the subject of the appropriate enforcement body. We are exploring options with the industry first before designing the enforcement regimes and appointing a regulator, but I will keep the House up to date on that.

I turn to the amendments on tenancies. Tenants should be able to benefit from our new payment policies, and we will continue to work closely with the industry—we had a large consultation last year—as we develop these policies further.

Finally, three minor technical Government amendments have been tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the request of the Welsh Government. These are needed in order to bridge the gap until new powers are provided by Welsh legislation in the Senedd.

The Bill provides a framework for an exciting future for farming. It will ensure that those who produce our food are properly rewarded, and that farming efficiently and improving the environment will go hand in hand in the future. I very much look forward to working with colleagues across the House to develop the environmental land management policies, and to working out how they will work not only on the ground, but above and beneath it.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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13 May 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I call Deidre Brock, who is asked to speak for no more than eight minutes.

--- Later in debate ---
Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I now call Minister Victoria Prentis to wind up for the Government. I ask that her speech lasts no more than 10 minutes.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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13 May 2020, 5:25 p.m.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed the debate this afternoon. I do not think that that is just because it is my first time out of the house for some weeks. We have heard from passionate colleagues on both sides of the House—colleagues who are passionate about farming, food and food security. We have heard from distinguished former Secretaries of State. We have heard from farmers. We have heard from those from farming families. We have heard from many Members who represent farming constituencies. We have heard from a vet, and we have heard from a number of colleagues, some mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who love both food and food security. We also heard, indirectly, from the cows of Wantage.

I would like to take this opportunity to reassure Members that the Government understand the importance of agriculture to the nation. I know that British farmers are the best in the world. The Bill will ensure that they receive the support that they need to give us the food that we need and enjoy; to protect and enhance our beautiful rural landscape; and to ensure the health of the wider rural economy.

We have had a robust debate, which was well-intentioned on both sides. I need to reiterate at this point that there can be no question of sacrificing the UK livestock or other farming industries for the US trade deal. To the contrary, it is our view that a US trade deal is perfectly compatible with a thriving UK farming industry and very high standards. We have heard mention of the dreaded chlorine-washed chicken several times, and I would like to reassure the House that under existing regulations, which we will put into English law at the end of this year, chlorine-washed chicken is not allowed, and only a vote of this House can change that.

I think I also need to restate that the Government are willing to commit to a serious and rapid examination of what can be done through labelling, to reassure colleagues. It may well be that that would help colleagues to understand that we do intend to promote high standards and high welfare across the UK market. I agree that we must consider the case for consumer choice more fully when we look at this in some detail. I agreed earlier in the debate, and reiterate now, that we will consult on this at the end of the transition period. It is important that we look at how it would affect both the industry and consumers, and indeed retailers. I am keen to take that forward.

I thank my predecessor—now the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—for making the Agriculture Bill such a great piece of legislation. We will hear from him later, on Third Reading. I would like to gently tease the hon. Member for Cambridge about this. Isn’t it great that we have a Secretary of State who stands up for high standards of British farming; and isn’t it great that this framework Bill, and what has been said by our trade negotiating teams, and indeed by the Prime Minister and in the Conservative manifesto, again and again has reassured that champion for high standards in farming, who is behind this Bill, as I am sure he will tell us very shortly?

I am very grateful to the members of the Public Bill Committee for their diligent scrutiny. It is fair to say that this Bill has evolved, and indeed improved, during its passage through the House. I am so sorry that many of them have not been able to speak in this debate, but I think that given the hybrid nature of the proceedings we have had a pretty good go at discussing the issues that, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said, concerned the Committee.

I would like personally to thank especially our Parliamentary Private Secretaries to the Department. They have been towers of strength at a difficult time, when it is difficult to communicate with colleagues in a way that we would like to and are used to. I express my thanks and gratitude to all the civil servants who have worked on the Bill, especially Nathalie Sharman, the Bill manager, who is in the Box this afternoon.

I thank, more widely, those across the four nations who have worked hard on the Bill to get it to this stage. During the work that we have done in the taskforce for feeding the vulnerable over the past four months, we have worked very closely with my colleagues across the four nations, and I hope that we can continue with that spirit of co-operation as we take these policies forward.

I would also like to thank the Clerks and the House authorities for helping us to make history as the first Bill to be voted on using electronic voting. I hope I have not spoken too soon, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that it works!

This is, as we have said many times, a framework Bill. We have a long, long way to go, and many tests and trials, before the agricultural transition period comes to an end in 2028. I would like to reassure farmers that the Government will support them and ensure that consumers will continue to have access to great-quality British food to eat. We very much hope that that will mean consumers from all over the world.

Farming is more than a job. We must cherish the deep personal connection felt by those who farm the land to the soil and landscape they care for, and build upon it in the reforms that we make. This Bill gives us that framework for the future for farming and for our countryside outside the EU. It will allow us to reward public goods such as environmental improvements, it will support investment in technology and research to improve productivity, and it will help our farmers to produce the high-quality food that they are renowned for and that we all so enjoy eating. I commend this Bill to the House.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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13 May 2020, 5:29 p.m.

I now call Simon Hoare to wind up, and ask that his speech lasts no longer than two minutes.