All Debates between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner

Wed 2nd December 2020
2 interactions (819 words)

Draft Plant Health etc. (Fees) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 Draft Plant Health etc. (Miscellaneous Fees) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2021

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Monday 17th May 2021

(1 day, 15 hours ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The two statutory instruments make amendments to fees for plant health services. The draft Plant Health etc. (Fees) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 amend the Plant Health etc. (Fees) (England) Regulations 2018 to extend the current regime of charging for plant health import checks to apply also to checks carried out on consignments from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

It is normal Government policy to charge for many publicly provided goods and services. The standard approach is to set fees to recover the full costs of delivery, which ensures that businesses bear the costs of any measures to prevent harm that they might otherwise cause by their actions or non-actions. We should remember that most serious plant pests and diseases that arrive and spread in this country do so via the commercial trade in plants and plant produce.

The Government have worked closely with individual operators and industry bodies including the Horticultural Trades Association, the Fresh Produce Consortium and the National Farmers Union on developing our approach to dealing with imports from the EU. To give businesses time to adjust to the new arrangements, the fees for documentary, identity and physical checks on higher risk goods and for documentary checks on other goods will not be applied until June, even though checks have been carried out since 1 January. Fees for identity and physical checks on the remaining regulated goods from EU member states, Switzerland and Liechtenstein will be applied from March 2022.

Under the 2018 regulations, there is a single combined fee for a documentary and an identity check, reflecting the fact that both were previously carried out on 100% of consignments. The frequency of the identity check is now linked to that of the physical check. A commodity subject to 50% physical checks will now get 50% identity checks, so it is appropriate that we should lower the associated fee. The draft regulations separate the identity check fee from the documentary check and amend the fee to avoid over-recovery.

I am afraid that we had to rectify a minor technical drafting point in the draft regulations, which was discovered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs after they were laid before Parliament. There is a correction slip that ensures that the published version does not contain the minor drafting point. The instrument we are looking at is therefore entirely accurate. The draft regulations apply to England only. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are following the same phased approach for inspecting EU consignments and applying fees to recover the costs of those inspections.

The draft Plant Health etc. (Miscellaneous Fees) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2021 amend the Plant Health (Fees) (Forestry) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015 as well as the 2018 regulations. The two sets of regulations set fees for the pre-export and export certification services required to comply with third country entry requirements relating to plant health controlled material. All businesses that use those services are charged a fee to recover the cost of delivery. The Northern Ireland protocol means that Northern Ireland remains in the EU plant health regime, so all movements of regulated plants between Great Britain and Northern Ireland must meet EU third country requirements, including being accompanied by a phytosanitary certificate. If the related fees were not amended, they would apply to movements of regulated plants between England and NI, so the amendments provide an exemption from the payment of fees for pre-export and export certification services for goods moving from England to NI.

The regulations apply to England only. Scotland has made parallel legislation and Wales plans to do so. The amendments introduced by the instrument do not include any policy changes. The instrument ensures that the current policy for intra-UK trade is maintained and that services for phytosanitary certification should not be an additional financial burden to businesses when moving goods within the UK internal market. I commend both sets of regulations to the Committee.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hosie.

Here we are again, this time with two statutory instruments. I note that one has already been discussed by the Lords, who spent some 45 minutes debating it. I suspect we will be quicker, but there are some important questions to ask. As ever, the substance has been explained carefully and eloquently by the Minister, and the Committee will be reassured to hear that we will not oppose the regulations. We do have questions however.

I start by drawing attention to the strong comments from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, on which, if memory serves me correctly, the Minister has served. The members of that Committee are not an incendiary group under normal circumstances, but they say in point 41 of their report:

“It is disappointing, however, that the Department did not provide some analysis of the expected financial impact, given that the businesses affected did not have to pay these fees in the past, and that the Department found it necessary to phase in the fees to give businesses time to adjust. We regard this as poor legislative practice and note that DEFRA has previously not provided financial information when this would have assisted Parliamentary scrutiny: both the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills were introduced into Parliament without Impact Assessments.”

“Poor legislative practice” is a definite yellow card offence for DEFRA in my view.

More importantly—this is the serious point—what will be the actual additional cost to industry, and inevitably to consumers? I am grateful to the Horticultural Trades Association for its advice. I was told that the industry is worth more than £24 billion in GDP, supports more than 568,000 jobs, and raises around £5 billion in tax revenue for the Exchequer each year. The HTA was very diplomatic in its representations, saying that it was

“disappointed that the Government have not carried out an impact assessment on the implications of fees on our sector”.

The HTA estimates that the costs run into the thousands and request that the introduction of import inspection fees for ornamental horticulture be delayed until 1 January 2022. I would be grateful for the Minister’s view on that and, more particularly, the Department’s assessment of the costs, if any assessment has been made. If it has, what is it? If, as I suspect, none has been made, that is definitely a second yellow card as far as I am concerned.

If the horticultural sector has an issue, so do those at the Agricultural Industries Confederation, to whom I am again grateful for their advice. The AIC represents the agri-supply industry, which has a farmgate value of over £8 billion. It is concerned that fees will apply per consignment—the same cost for a truck load or a single bag—which could disproportionately affect decisions on small sales and the flexibility of choice. The confederation notes that most imported seed comes from the EU and that

“the seed industry has had to take on new costs following EU exit”,

and it highlights a number of non-tariff barriers. I hope the Minister will bring those comments to the Prime Minister’s attention, because he memorably claimed that, as a consequence of his agreement, there were no non-tariff barriers. He was completely wrong of course. The AIC says that

“non-tariff barriers include a generally increased cost of haulage due to haulier concerns over potential delays”

and that

“exporting GB seed now requires a phytosanitary certificate, an Orange International Certificate, and to be International Seed Testing Association sampled; seed exported from the EU into GB requires the same”.

The Prime Minister may live in a fantasy world where none of this exists, but our businesses do not, so can we have a proper assessment of the costs?

Of course, there are potential benefits. Biosecurity matters to us all. As my noble Friend Baroness Hayman pointed out in the Lords, the Royal Horticultural Society tells us that UK imports of live plants have increased by 71% since 1999, so there may well be advantages in having extra checks—although is an accidental by-product of our changed relationship. What work has the Department has done to assess the best level for checks to be made, as well as the relative costs and benefits? Who knows, for instance, whether moving material from Oxfordshire to Cambridgeshire has attendant risks? They do some strange things down in Oxfordshire. Is Holland to Kent riskier than Cornwall to northern Scotland? Does anyone know? I suspect not, but we now have additional checks, which is probably good, but we also have extra costs, and no one seems to have assessed the relative benefits.

Baroness Hayman also asked what the Government are doing to increase public awareness of the plant health and biosecurity risks. I would appreciate the Minister’s view on that. My noble Friend also queried the capacity of ports to carry out inspections, and I echo that query. We have discussed border control posts before; what assessment has been made of capacity and what additional resources have been provided to ensure effective and timely delivery of the new checks?

I noted that in the debate in the Lords, Baroness Gardner noted that Amateur Gardening has stopped attaching free seed packets to its magazines that head over the Irish sea. She said that continuing the practice would cost £1 million in the necessary health checks and certification, which is astonishing. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? In his reply to the debate in the Lords, the Minister spoke of

“a UK plant health post-transition period operational readiness board”,—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. GC221.]

which is said to meet weekly. Will the Minister tell us more about that? How will all this work with the devolved Administrations? Who is involved? Does the board issue minutes? The Minister clearly leads an exciting life, and we would like to know more.

Let me turn to the second instrument, which deals with the complexities introduced by the Northern Ireland protocol. Again, we do not oppose it, because we do not want unnecessary obstacles placed on the movement of materials within the UK. We recognise that without those changes there would be additional costs to businesses carrying out trade within the UK, but it does prompt a question, because that material will presumably come from the EU into GB via NI, bypassing the checks we already discussed. That makes it clear that none of this is about biosecurity. Will the Minister confirm that?

In conclusion, we all want strong biosecurity, but there is inevitably a trade-off between how often, when and where checks are made, and the costs incurred. The measures are not driven by those considerations; they are driven entirely by the need to sort out the mess created by the Government’s inadequate and rushed agreement on our relationship with the EU. Horticulturalists, readers of Amateur Gardening and the agri-supply industry are all being left to pick up costs.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I do lead an exciting life, never more so than when on the JCSI, which I have enjoyed serving on for many years. I am pleased to be able to answer the hon. Gentleman’s points. I refer him, politely, to the schedules to the statutory instrument, which set out the fees for individual categories of commodities, and will give him a pretty good idea of where those fees will be placed.

We continue to provide support to help businesses. We ran an extensive communications campaign, provided one-to-one support to the largest traders, hosted webinars for thousands of small businesses and provided £84 million to expand the customs intermediary market before bringing forward these SIs. We have listened to the concerns of industry to ensure that the new requirements are practical and proportionate, as well as risk-based. The import controls on plant health EU-regulated goods are being phased in over 14 months from 1 January this year, in order to minimise disruption wherever we can.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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I am sure we have all read the schedules in detail. As fascinating as they are, they do not come to a conclusion about the overall cost. There may be an indication of the individual licensing costs, but we need to know how much is done to get any sense of the overall cost to industry.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I will come on to that in due course. Briefly, I reassure the hon. Gentleman, while I am on the subject, that we carried out extensive consultation and work with industry before bringing in these fees; we discussed a great deal with the trade and had a formal consultation throughout 2020. The British Society of Plant Breeders and the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which he mentioned, were both fully involved with this.

Information on fees was published on gov.uk and the plant health portal in December last year, and DEFRA emailed all businesses that we had contact details for through our arm’s-length body, the Animal and Plant Health Agency. That was followed up in March this year with a more detailed breakdown of the new fees, which was also added to the portal.

On the impact assessment, the answer is simply that the result of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 was of course that we left the single market, and the amendments in the draft instruments reflect that change. They arose as a direct consequence of the terms of the 2019 Act and do not in themselves reflect any change in plant health policy. We have therefore not felt it necessary to provide an impact assessment formally. However, we carried extensive consultation with industry, as I think was proper, during the course of last year to prepare for the draft instruments.

Physical inspections of high-priority plants and plant products will move from places of destination to border control posts from 1 January next year. Physical inspections of lower risk plants and plant products will start from March next year. We are doing and have done a great deal of work to get ready for January 2022. We will identify any ports or authorities with residual concerns and ensure that any response is pragmatic, tested and can be operationalised. On the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about biosecurity, we acknowledge the difficulties facing those who export regulated goods to the EU or move them to NI, and we will continue to engage with the European Commission to ensure that we develop helpful, practical arrangements that take into account biosecurity to contain the threat.

As I described, the draft instruments make necessary amendments to our fees and charging regime and ensure that trade between England and NI is not subject to additional costs. I therefore commend both instruments to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

DRAFT PLANT HEALTH ETC. (MISCELLANEOUS FEES) (AMENDMENT) (ENGLAND) REGULATIONS 2021

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Plant Health etc. (Miscellaneous Fees) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2021.

Draft Food and Drink (Miscellaneous Amendments Relating to Food and Wine Composition, Information and Labelling) Regulations 2021

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 28th April 2021

(2 weeks, 6 days ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
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 the Committee has considered the draft Food and Drink (Miscellaneous Amendments Relating to Food and Wine Composition, Information and Labelling) Regulations 2021.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Ms Nokes. This statutory instrument addresses inconsistencies in our food labelling that arise from our departure from the European Union. It deals with a number of EU exit-related issues, particularly on technical standards, that we were unable to address before the end of the transition period. It amends certain retained direct EU legislation and pieces of domestic food legislation in England, including the labelling of general food, non-beef meats, primary ingredients, and GI—geographical indication—products for wine and agrifoods. It also amends analysis methods and some practices for the production of wine, and rules on their labelling and marketing. Transitional provisions have been included in the SI to allow businesses time to adjust to the required changes.

The aim of the SI is to ensure that our food rules remain broadly the same as they were before, and that the rules and regulation continue to operate well. For example, where a label was required to include an EU address of the business responsible for the information, this will now be a UK or Crown dependency address. This is needed to ensure that consumers and trading standards officers can contact those responsible if necessary.

In addition, where a specific country of original is not provided for certain meats, terms such as “non-EU” will be replaced by UK-appropriate terms on the Great Britain market. UK caseins sold in business-to-business transactions will now have to be labelled with the address of the responsible business operator in the UK. For honey blends comprised of honey from several different countries, the term

“a blend of honeys from more than one country”,

or similar wording, can now be used, although of course a specific country can be named if that is what the producer prefers.

The wine rules reflect the GB context. For example, they will ensure that our rules relate only to products that could be produced here, so not retsina, which can be produced only in Greece. The SI provides for a period of adjustment on geographical indications on labels. That means that for a period of three years, or until wine products are sold, enforcement bodies will not take action if a product is labelled for sale as a wine or agrifood GI but is not in fact protected on our registers. This applies so long as that product name was protected in the UK before the end of the transition period. We are not expecting to use this provision much, as it will apply to only a very small number of GIs, which are included in trade deals that have not yet transitioned to being protected in the UK—so they would have to be GIs from non-EU countries.

The SI provides for adjustment periods to give businesses time to adapt to the new labelling rules. Businesses will have until 1 October 2022 to comply with food labelling changes on the English market, and wine products will also be able to be marketed, with either an EU or a UK importer detail, until that date.

There has been a great deal of business engagement on the changes that we seek to make today, including public consultation on how the retained legislation should be adjusted to fit the UK context. Views were sought in the “Food labelling: amending laws” consultation in 2018. Honey and caseins labelling options were considered in a separate public consultation in 2018. There has been regular consultation with the UK’s wine and spirits industry, and of course with the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. Businesses repeatedly asked for a period of adjustment, and that is what this SI will give them, if approved.

I am pleased to say that the devolved Administrations have been informed throughout the making of this SI and they are content. I commend the SI to the Committee.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I apologise for my near-lateness and the anxiety that it might have induced in colleagues—we do need the lifts in this place to work.

It seems no time since we were discussing our last SI, some 16 hours ago. I enjoyed the Minister’s introductory comments, which were elegantly presented, as always, on the technical issues that could not be resolved before the end of last year because they ran out of time. Of course, we are seeing the consequences now.

This SI is largely about labelling, or “minor ‘real world’ effects” as the explanatory memorandum imaginatively explains. We are not convinced that the effects are quite as minor as all that. Of course, there have been two attempts at this SI. The sifting Committee felt that the subject was sufficiently sensitive to be upgraded to the affirmative procedure so that it could be discussed, so we are grateful to it. The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, as eagle-eyed as ever, noted that meat, excluding beef, will be labelled as “non-UK” rather than “non-EU”—that does not preclude a specific country, as the Minister said. When we think about it, that actually reduces the information available to consumers.

The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee stated:

“We note that, as consumers will no longer be able to tell whether meat (excluding beef) is from the EU or not after the adjustment period, this may have the potential of reducing key information that is available at present about the origin of a product and therefore about the associated food standards.”

That might be an unintended consequence of this change, but I think it is worth exploring. I would say—as ever, I will put it more crudely than their lordships—that many people might like to know that the origin is the high-standard EU, rather than, to pick a random example, chlorine-washed America. I know the Minister is particularly keen that we keep repeating that familiar example. Why should consumers not have that additional piece of information? It is not as if the EU has ceased to exist, much as some Members on the Government Benches might wish that to be the case. The EU is still an important partner and we will still be able to purchase its produce in our shops, so it would be good to know.

There is one part of the UK that will still be applying those very same EU rules. As the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee pointed out:

‘We also note that after the adjustment period, different requirements will apply in GB and Northern Ireland (NI) where EU requirements will continue to apply as a result of the NI Protocol. Defra told us that “further steps will be taken to continue unfettered access for NI food products to the GB market”.’

I therefore have two questions for the Minister. First, why not allow consumers to know that the produce is from the EU? Secondly, what are those further steps to continue unfettered access for Northern Ireland food products to the GB market?

Similarly, the changes to wine labelling also seem to wish away the European Union. As the Minister knows—I pointed this out a couple of weeks ago—the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, despite the happy consultations referred to in the explanatory memorandum, is not particularly happy. The explanatory memorandum, in paragraph 10.7, suggests that there has been “regular contact”, so perhaps she could tell us how often and when. Given that the various consultations mentioned in paragraph 10 took place back in 2018-19, perhaps it was a while ago. The key point of difference here might be that there was contact at official level but possibly not at ministerial level.

I would be very happy to convene a meeting with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and the Minister, perhaps even with that bottle of wine I mentioned the other week, wrapped in red, white and blue tape. I am sure that she will have read the excellent briefing that the association has provided for us today, which argues that under these changes it will no longer be possible to use one label for both EU and UK markets. As the briefing explains at some length, that will increase costs and complexity, which I would have though is undeniable. Sadly, of course, that has been the experience over much of this post-Brexit period.

The Opposition strongly urge the Minister to work with the industry to see whether a solution can be found before the labelling grace period ends in September 2022, which I am sure we all agree would be to everyone’s mutual benefit. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that, as well as perhaps a commitment to join Labour in promising the early end of the VI-1 form, which I have not mentioned since the SI before last.

Finally, let me say a little about honey and provenance issues, because these make headlines quite frequently, with consumers rightly concerned about what they are actually buying—I looked at a jar of honey in my cupboard this morning, and it was not entirely clear to me. I am grateful to the Food Standards Agency for briefing me on these complex issues. I think that a similar point to that made by the Lords on meat may also apply to honey of EU designation, because the distinction between the EU and rest of the world is important.

I am told that it is really quite difficult to test for added sugars in honey, which is one of the difficulties with the cheaper honeys available. At the moment, the test is done best by German laboratories that use a database made up of references that are predominantly European and have been built up over time. It is an historical accident that it has built up that knowledge, and in the past we had access to that, but now we are having to do it differently. The Food Standards Agency is working with retailers and trading standards officers to get the supply chain assurances that we would like, and I am told that good progress is being made. For consumers, however, being able to distinguish between the EU and the rest of the world seems to me to be of some value. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that. Again, why not allow consumers to know and allow them to make that informed choice?

In conclusion, we do not oppose these changes, but we suggest that the ‘real world’ effects may not be quite as minor as suggested.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that large number of questions, which I will try to answer. This was certainly not a case of running out of time at the end of last year. Different rules applied when we were subject to the transition period for leaving the EU, and it was deemed sensible to wait until after the end of the period to make these changes, and we have acted with all due alacrity since that date. It is true that we are dealing with a large number of SIs at the moment. Food labelling is important, and it is right that we get it right and ensure that the system works well.

On the general point, as I repeat several times a day, the Government are committed to maintaining high food standards, and this legislation certainly does not change that. Consumers need food information that is relevant for their domestic market. In order for our home consumers to remain informed, now that we are no longer part of the EU, it is required that they are informed that although information on the exact origin of the food may not be available, it is not from the UK. UK consumers would not be appropriately informed if the origin of the food in our market was indicated as being not from another geographical area.

Regarding the potential impact of hormone-treated or chlorine-washed meats in GB, the use of “non-EU” rather than “non-UK” would in no way better inform our customers of the food’s origin.

On EU food information legislation, annex 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol makes it clear that all pre-packaged food placed on the Northern Ireland market should meet EU rules, but any wine produced in Northern Ireland could bear that provenance. I am sorry if I did not make that clear to start with.

On wine specifically, we maintained a constant dialogue and engagement with the key wine production, trade and enforcement organisations in the time leading up to the end of the transition period. I understand that the Wine and Spirit Trade Association has written to me to request a meeting, and officials are currently setting that up. Officials have been in regular contact with the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and with WineGB.

The wine sector prepared well for Brexit, with the result that the trade has continued largely unaffected by the new arrangements. However, in the first few months of this year the wine sector, like some other food sectors, did encounter some ad hoc problems with entering certain EU states, as we have discussed before. We have worked with the companies involved and are doing what we can to ensure that does not happen with future shipments. As I said when we discussed the SI before last, we will meet the WSTA to discuss VI-1 forms, as the matter is under review at the moment.

In order to ensure the continued operability of our food labelling rules, and to reflect that the UK is no longer a member of the EU, it is important that we amend certain retained and domestic food legislation, and provide sensible transitional arrangements to allow businesses time to adjust. For those reasons, I commend the instrument to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

British Meat and Dairy Products

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 28th April 2021

(2 weeks, 6 days ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Ghani. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this timely debate. These are vital industries that are crucial to our food security, to tackling climate and nature emergencies. They proved remarkably resilient through the pandemic. I pay tribute to all those involved: farmers, processors, retailers and shop workers. But I think one or two contributions have been a touch rose-tinted, because it is really tough out there.

Last week, I joined the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) in launching Labour’s rural review, on a family farm in Cambridgeshire. Thanks to the excellent organisation by the National Farmers Union, we heard from a real mix of farms. It is very hard out there. With the changes to farm support, it is obvious that some—perhaps many—will not survive. We have repeatedly warned that that is exactly what the Government’s Agricultural Act 2020, allied with the refusal to rule out undercutting through lower trade standard imports, was designed to do. We will fight that all the way. We are delighted to support Great British Beef Week.

I must point out just how interconnected but we still are with the European Union. EU countries have accounted for 70% of meat exports, 77% of dairy exports, as well as 83% of meat imports and 99% of dairy imports. Sadly, the rushed botched deal at the end of the year has left us facing really serious problems, not least in achieving carcase balance. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that exports of food and live animals were down about 31% on January and February 2020. In absolute value terms, exports of meat and meat preparations to the EU were particularly affected—down 52%. That is a systemic issue.

The British Meat Processors Association has warned that the industry is now facing a potential permanent loss of up to half of its exports. For dairy, exports remained at drastically low levels in February, according to recent figures published by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. The figures, drawn from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs data, show trade with Europe down more than 90% for certain products compared with a year earlier. Cheese exports were down 75%, whey 83%, milk powder 86%, and butter exports were down 89%. Be in no doubt that it is tough for many. We know it is particularly hard for small independent producers. If it is hard to sell to the EU, meat and dairy farmers face a challenge to their incomes.

The Minister and I have been discussing changes to farm support for a long time. A new analysis by the Labour party shows that rural England stands to lose more than £255 million this year alone. That translates to as many as 9,500 agricultural jobs, and that will only get worse year on year. Of course, the schemes are still being designed, tested and piloted, as we have discussed on numerous occasions, but farmers are rightly concerned by the gap between the existing basic payment scheme being phased out and the environmental land management scheme. According to an analysis of DEFRA data by the Country Land and Business Association, 75% of farming enterprises are currently unprofitable without direct payments. According to a recent survey of landowners and farmers by the CLA, 76% fear that the new payments will not be sufficient.

It is hard to sell into the EU, support is being withdrawn and, frankly, British meat is still open to being undercut in trade deals. As we have repeatedly said, the Government should have put the protection of food and farming standards into law, but they have not. Without re-rehearsing the arguments made today, deals are currently being negotiated. UK campaign groups have raised repeated concerns over meat production in Australia and New Zealand, and the Government’s consultation on a prospective UK-Australia deal highlighted concerns about Australia’s farming practices, such as hormone injections in beef, excessive use of antibiotics in food production, high rates of food poisoning and lower standards of animal welfare, including continued use of sow stalls. Just last week, however, the Secretary of State for International Trade was lauding their high standards in the main Chamber. Frankly, it should be obvious that British farming will be sold out. The Trade and Agriculture Commission, which the Government conceded under pressure, has reported that there has been no response from the Government. Can the Minister tell us when we will get it, and will they adopt the recommended standards framework?

There is much more to be said, but let me move on to one of the potential solutions: public procurement. Supporting British farming means buying more British produce, which means looking at the public sector and the £2.4 billion a year spent on catering, and thinking about how more can be spent with British farmers. Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services, or GBSF, provide helpful guidelines, but these are not being applied in too many parts of our public services. That is hardly surprising, given the cost pressures that they face, but that is why leadership is required.

In such circumstances, who better to turn to than the EFRA Committee? As usual, its Chair, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), made his thoughtful and well-considered contribution earlier, but the Committee’s recent report urged the Government to update their buying standards for food into the new decade, address outdated standards on nutrition and animal welfare, and close loopholes in the current rules. The report also expresses disappointment that the Government do not use the GBSF as a mechanism to promote buying British within the public sector, as is the norm within public bodies in countries such as France.

Let me say a word about two specific sectors. There is insufficient time to do justice to lamb and poultry, but there are a range of issues affecting dairy. We all hope that the new dairy code of conduct will be successful and ensure the fairness that many people feel has been lacking. We will be watching closely, but I fear that it may have to be revisited yet again. There are also workforce challenges. A recent survey by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers has revealed that almost one third of dairy farmers would consider leaving the industry due to a lack of labour, with 63% of dairy farmers struggling to recruit in the past five years. On their behalf, can I ask the Minister whether DEFRA is considering supporting the inclusion of dairy technicians in the next review of the Migratory Advisory Committee’s shortage of occupation list?

I turn now to the pig sector, which has had a really hard time. It is not all the fault of the Minister on this occasion—there is African swine fever in China, a surfeit of cheap pork in Europe and skyrocketing feed costs—but it is disappointing to hear that the percentage of British pork on the shelves has fallen in two of our major supermarkets, which is not helpful. Alarming figures suggest that specialist pig farms are expecting to see an 80% decline in average income between 2019-20 to 2020-21. The National Pig Association has described it as a perfect storm.

Some of the problems were indeed down to the post-Brexit export problems caused by the Government, but at its peak, a backlog of 100,000 pigs awaiting slaughter were housed in temporary accommodation on UK farms, which pushed up carcase weights and led to swingeing price discounts imposed by processers. I understand that the pig sector has approached the Government to call for sector-specific support, as was delivered to dairy farmers at the start of the pandemic, and I would be grateful to hear what consideration the Minister is giving to that request.

Let me finally mention our biggest challenge of all: climate and nature. We very much welcome the National Farmers Union’s commitment to reach net zero by 2040, and we want to see more support for farmers to reduce their emissions. That is why it is so important that we get ELM right and make it accessible in good time. British agriculture has to be on the front foot and continue to demonstrate positive progress. We will work with farmers to do anything that we can, and we recognise the efforts that are being made. Be it the dairy road map or Arla’s climate checks initiative, we can see people working hard throughout the farming and processing sector to get the advances that we all need.

There are indeed many paths to a sustainable future. A report from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission in January made a powerful case for an agroecological approach that many will find attractive. Finally, we await part 2 of Henry Dimbleby’s report with keen interest. The country should not have gone without a food strategy for a decade. It will be fascinating to see how palatable the Government find his recommendations. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect it?

We believe that the meat and dairy industries, with the right support and help, will play a key role in achieving the necessary climate and nature targets in the future. I look forward to working with everyone in the industry to achieve that. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to take part in this important debate.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and to take part in this debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). British meat and dairy products have a really good reputation for quality, built on high animal welfare standards, strong environmental protections, traceability and sustainability. This Government will always support our farmers and producers, not only during Great British Beef Week.

It is great to be in a room full of such enthusiasts for their own local products. I will not, however, judge between Angus cattle and South Devon cattle, both of which we have kept at home. Other products are available and are kept by the farmers in the constituencies of those in this room. It is good to hear the enthusiasm in the room for buying local, buying sustainable and buying British. It is encouraging that, despite the challenges of the pandemic, and aside from the recent difficulties in the pig sector, generally our meat and dairy markets remain relatively strong, with good prices for milk, poultry, beef and especially lamb, which has been at 10-year highs since the beginning of this year.

I will not have time to respond to every issue raised, but I briefly mention the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who raised the problem of re-tagging animals moving from GB to NI. This is not required, as I am sure he knows, for animals going for slaughter only, but rather for breeding animals. We are aware of the burdens on those moving livestock and are working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs where we can to try to minimise those issues taking place at the moment.

We heard about a desire to buy British from many Members, and about the commitment that some of our supermarkets have shown to selling British-sourced meat and dairy products. I was grateful to be able to speak to many representatives from our supermarkets on a call last week, specifically, in fact, about pork. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) made a thoughtful speech about the interrelationships in the rural supply chain. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) was keen to support farm shops and, as ever, the fishing industry in her constituency in doing more direct selling to customers.

We are really ambitious, as a Government. We had a manifesto commitment that we want people at home and abroad lining up to buy British. We are working closely with the AHDB, and Members may have noticed that we had a number of successful campaigns during the pandemic, including Milk Your Moments, which is slightly more modern but just as good as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—“Go to work on an egg”.

On trade, the successful conclusion of negotiations with the EU with a deal, ratified only yesterday, based on zero tariffs and zero quotas means that we can now develop new relationships with our trading partners in the EU and globally. We are keen to grow our markets through the Department for International Trade’s new Open Doors campaign and increased market support and help in this area. We have a great agreement with Japan, which opens the Japanese market to UK exports of lamb and beef for the first time in two decades.

It was good to hear the level of ambition from the Cotswolds, represented so ably by a farmer, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown); from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who spoke specifically about the Indonesian market—I will follow up with him directly on some of the points he raised; and from my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), who particularly mentioned the cheese that he is keen to export.

The Government are clear, to reassure the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and other Members, that we are not compromising on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. The strong British reputation for our food is the basis on which we intend to sell our produce, both at home and abroad.

On other points—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) mentioned the possibility of looking at a mobile abattoir scheme. I have spoken to him about that before, and am keen to do so again. We are piloting such a scheme, and look forward to learning from that and if it is appropriate to roll out more widely. A number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), spoke about labelling—an important issue for all the food we sell. We spent time this morning on a complicated Statutory Instrument on changes to labelling. We will talk more about that this year as we go into consultation on labelling, and I encourage him to get involved.

On the environment, the PM has declared that tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity is the UK’s number one foreign policy priority. He saw this first hand when he visited a livestock farm in Derbyshire last week. Achieving net zero for 2050 is an absolute priority for this Government. We were the first major economy to bring this target into law, and this is just the beginning. We acknowledge the ambition of the farming industry in this space, and have great examples of UK dairy companies and others leading the way on this. There is a great deal that the livestock sector can, and will do, to help move towards these ambitious targets.

As many Members have said, we have one of the most efficient and sustainable systems of livestock in the world. Reducing production of our own, increasingly carbon efficient products, and importing less carbon efficient products from overseas, is clearly not the solution. Nor is it sensible to import feeds grown in ways that are damaging to the global environment just to fit our targets—[Interruption.] I will not give way, I have a great deal to get through—I apologise. New feeds will be of a real benefit, and good work is being done to understand ruminant digestion and target both nutrition use and reduce methane emissions.

We must be honest about possible trade-offs with animal welfare when we have this debate. We need to do further work on the use of nitrogen fertilizers and nitrogen fixing mixes in grass. It was interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton talking passionately about herbal leys, which I would echo if I had longer. Carbon sequestered by hedgerows and on farm woodland can help meet our targets, though some of that will not be recognised for many years. It must be recognised that well-managed livestock provides huge benefits, such as supporting biodiversity, protecting the character of some of our most beautiful landscapes, and creating employment for rural communities. It provides important nutrition as well, and we must remember that food is at the heart of what we do. We recognise the delicate balance between these outcomes and the potential environmental trade-offs, and will ensure that decision making is evidence led, but takes into account the full sweep of trade-offs.

I need to let the hon. Lady finish the debate, but I will say briefly that, despite the views of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), targeted support for our farmers is definitely the way to go. Paying people for public goods is a much better way of optimising the environmental solutions than merely sticking with CAP. Henry Dimbleby will report in July. We look forward to a major conversation across the country about buying British, buying local and buying sustainable, and all other aspects of food production, until the Government’s response in December to his report. This has been a great debate, and I thank hon. Members for taking part.

Exiting the European Union (Animals)

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
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 the Trade and Official Controls (Transitional Arrangements for Prior Notifications) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 429), dated 30 March 2021, a copy of which was laid before this House on 31 March, be approved.

It is a great pleasure to be here and to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. This instrument makes urgent and necessary amendments to EU exit legislation concerning border controls to extend the exemption period for the import requirements for plants, animals and their products coming into Great Britain from the EU. Now that we have left the EU, we are bringing in measures to apply the same risk-based biosecurity controls regime to the EU as that which we have for the rest of the world. In our exit regulations, we set out a transitional period for the introduction of controls on EU sanitary and phytosanitary imports. The reason for changing the timescale in the statutory instrument today is simply that we recognise the effects of the pandemic and the effects it continues to have on the business community. Phasing the introduction of controls in a sensible way prioritises flow at the border and is designed to minimise disruption to international trade. The original start date in the regulations was 1 April 2021. That date was announced last June. When the regulations were drafted in the autumn of 2020, we were simply not clear about how disruptive the pandemic would continue to be to all of us and to our business communities, both here and in the EU, over the winter.

On 11 March 2021, the XO Cabinet Committee agreed that we should extend the introduction of checks because of the pandemic. The change to the timetable will enable businesses to familiarise themselves with the new SPS requirements and to bring in new IT systems. It will allow them to do further work on the necessary infrastructure and processes at border control posts. We will in due course introduce a further instrument to reset the later phases of import controls and get the right dates there, too.

As a whole, these regulations will ensure that we can continue to deliver robust, effective controls and checks on all food, animal and plant imports. The devolved Administrations have given their consent for these regulations to apply to the whole of Great Britain, and we also remain fully committed to WTO rules and, of course, to our international trade obligations. This instrument ensures that legislation to maintain our UK biosecurity will continue to function in GB, taking into account the full and unforeseen impacts of dealing nationally and internationally with the pandemic. With this legislation, we will continue to deliver an effective import system that guarantees high standards of food and animal safety while ensuring frictionless trading and movements. I commend these regulations to the House.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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Well, here we are again, perhaps unsurprisingly, with yet more statutory instruments needed to correct the entirely foreseeable problems created by the Prime Minister’s rushed job over Christmas, the consequences of which I fear will be with us for some time. Let me start by saying that we will not be opposing this SI. It has, after all, been in effect for nearly a month, and we acknowledge that it had to be done, because quite simply, the processes that needed to be in place, whether physical or information technology, were not there. The Government simply were not ready, so now they have come back asking for more time —well, not really asking, but telling—even though they promised in early discussions that they would be ready.

I am sure the Minister remembers, in introducing SI 2020/1631 on 20 January, saying:

“ From July this year, we will have controls in place for all imports of EU SPS goods.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 20 January 2021; c. 4.]

Today, the Government tell us that we will not have such controls, in most situations, until next year. They cannot say that they were not warned; I had previously warned them about this. The following week, in a debate on another of our sequence of SIs, 2020/1661, I said:

“My fear is that there will be a lot of bridging in the months and years ahead”.—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 25 January 2021; c. 5.]

And here we are, exactly as predicted. Going back to that first discussion on 20 January, I recall pressing the Minister quite directly on the potential for delay, and particularly on the likelihood of border control posts being ready. I am sure she remembers. She told us:

“The Animal and Plant Health Agency tells us that the building is progressing and it is confident that they can be ready by July.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 20 January 2021; c. 8.]

I entirely understand the problems of the coronavirus epidemic, but this was at a time when I think we could have been aware of the potential problems.

It is therefore reasonable for us to be slightly sceptical about the current promises from DEFRA in response to a query from the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, to which I am sure we are all very grateful. The Committee was told by the Department that it expected the

“infrastructure to be ready as required to deliver each of the revised phases of increased SPS checks in October 2021, January 2022, and March 2022.”

Well, let us hope so, but I have to say that the saga of the row over the border control posts in Portsmouth bodes ill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for his campaigning to get a fair deal for Portsmouth on this issue.

Sadly, it is not just the physical buildings that are late. The Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also rightly queried the readiness of the IT systems. It was told by DEFRA that the import of products, animals, food and feed system—IPAFFS—is working for imports and that the Department

“continues the development of the new exports IT system (formal name to be confirmed in due course).”

As a former IT person, that did not fill me with confidence. I suspect that staff trying to deal with these things may have a few suggestions for names for the aforesaid system.

Even more alarmingly, the Department cites working with a small group of used agricultural farm machinery exporters to develop the system. That is an important sector, but I am not sure that it is entirely typical. The Minister may have seen the recent story in Farmers Weekly about an East Sussex machinery dealer who has stopped shipping abroad because of what he describes as the “lunacy” involved in obtaining the plant health certificates required since the UK left the European Union. Let us hope that the team working on the computer system and their colleagues can make things work more smoothly for him and others. Will both the physical border control posts and the necessary IT systems be ready this time, or will we be back here again having yet another discussion on further extensions?

Although at first the SI looks deceptively simple, making a few date changes, there is more to it than that. A much longer transition period has consequences, and as businesses change their practices to adapt, there may be real costs and risks. Can the Minister tell me what analysis has been made of the potential for smugglers and fraudsters to take advantage of the lack of checks for an even longer period? Frankly, it is an open door. It has even been suggested to me that goods coming into the EU bound for the UK are being waved through because it is no longer of consequence to the EU. If we are not checking either, who knows what is actually coming in? What safeguards are there?

While extending the time kicks the problem further down the road, what progress is the Minister making on encouraging the EU to be ready in time, to ensure that the imports we need will be able to flow smoothly? We are well aware of the problems that UK producers have encountered with exports into the EU—the extra costs for export health certificates, the pressure on availability of vets and the problems with groupage. It is highly likely that the same problems will occur the other way, with European suppliers perhaps having less pressure to get things in place, being able to turn to other European markets. How is the Minister using the extra time secured by this SI to ensure that the problems we may have been facing in a few weeks are not just put off for a few more months?

Given that we may still face problems with supply, can the Minister explain why the Food Resilience Industry Forum has been shut down? A member of the forum quoted recently in The Grocer says:

“Government has kicked the can down the road with various grace periods which will come to an end, and at that point there will be a greater need than ever for the industry to come together with Defra. It’s short-sighted of the government to be cutting these meetings short.”

They are spot on. That is the consequence of this statutory instrument. Can the Minister explain why this decision was taken and what the Government have got against working with the food sector to keep food supplies secure?

The SI changes some dates, but there are wider consequences. After difficulties at the border for British food exporters, with meat left rotting in lorries and the fishing industry thrown into chaos, the Government have now been forced to delay import checks on goods coming in from the EU to allow businesses and port authorities more time to prepare. The Government have left themselves with no alternative but to continue to allow check-free imports for many more months, but it did not have to be this way.

Instead of sticking their head in the sand, the Government could have worked with industry to get ready. They could have focused on practical action to support businesses—measures such as recruiting and training the 50,000-plus customs agents we knew were needed to help with checks. Instead of delivering a limited deal at the last possible minute, they could have rolled their sleeves up and gained more for our country around the negotiating table. Due to the Government’s last-minute scramble to extend the deadline on import checks, this legislation had to be made so hastily that it has been left incomplete. As I think the Minister confirmed, yet more SIs will inevitably be needed to implement fully the planned timetable for import checks.

Labour has a very different vision for a post-Brexit Britain. We want businesses to thrive and for the gaps in the deal that are piling up paperwork and red tape to be properly addressed. We want an end to these stopgaps and real engagement with our European neighbours, to ensure that our complex and interrelated food systems can operate effectively and efficiently and not be undermined by Government incompetence, which risks disadvantaging UK producers.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 22nd April 2021

(3 weeks, 5 days ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I know that the hon. Lady shares my desire that the world will be in a much better place for our children, and may I congratulate her on the birth of her recent grandchild? The Government are therefore completely committed to reducing chemical pesticide use. Protecting pollinators, for example, is a real priority for the Government. They are an essential part of the environment and play a crucial role in food production. As I said, we are analysing the many responses—probably some of them from her constituents—to our recent consultation and we will set out our proposals in due course.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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There was widespread relief this year that the colder weather meant that the risk of aphids spreading virus yellows was reduced. Before that, the Secretary of State had authorised a neonicotinoid pesticide to be used, and he has indicated that that will be the same again for the next two years. What is worrying is that the expert advice has been hidden from us—it took freedom of information requests from Friends of the Earth to get it. The Health and Safety Executive recommended refusal, so will the Minister explain why the advice was overruled? At a time when the UK is being looked to for global leadership on the environment, hiding that expert advice is not a good look. Who was pressing the Government to overrule that advice and will they do better in future?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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The Government are committed to the neonicotinoid restrictions that we put in place in 2018, and to the sustainable use of pesticides. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was a signatory to the letter that we answered in January this year. As we set out in our letter, when making decisions on pesticides we took advice from the HSE, from the expert committee on pesticides and from DEFRA’s own chief scientific adviser. The specific exemption that the hon. Gentleman has referred to was for a non-flowering crop that is grown only in the east of England, to protect against possible aphid predation, which we were very concerned about at the time. I share his relief that it was not necessary to use neonics on that occasion, and I would ask him to welcome the fact that the authorisation was strictly controlled. We put in place a reduced application rate and a prohibition on growing flowering crops afterwards. I am pleased that it was not necessary to use it on that occasion.

Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Wine) (Amendment, etc.) Regulations 2021

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Monday 19th April 2021

(4 weeks, 1 day ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I hope that I will not need to take us to 6 o’clock, because at first sight the Committee is considering a simple change correcting a previous error, which the Minister has elegantly explained and for which no apology is required. An honest mistake was made, but it was spotted and corrected. I have to say that I am rather pleased that I was not involved with the previous SI. Looking at paragraph 7.1 of the explanatory notes, it is clear that there is no way that many of us would have noticed the issue. As I have observed before, there is a huge level of complexity and detail in these regulations that, frankly, most of us do not have the capacity to work through. We are very reliant on civil servants and grateful to them for doing that.

I should also like to note the importance of geographical indications in general, and for our domestic wine industry, which we all wish to see go from strength to strength. I can assure you, Mr Hollobone, that the Opposition will not oppose the instrument, but—of course there is always a “but”—there is an issue on which I will be slightly less gracious, on which we have touched before when SIs relating to wine are discussed, and which I suspect that the Minister may have anticipated. The VI-1 may sound like a horrible warhead, but it is actually a horrible form, and it is exercising many people. It was the main issue raised when the SI went before the Lords last week. I certainly found Lord Moynihan’s contribution very telling and powerful.

I shall briefly remind the Committee of the issue, which is about wine import certification and the blue tape with which the Government are currently strangling parts of the British wine industry. The Government have chosen to roll over EU rules on wine imports that require a detailed import certificate in addition to standard customs paperwork, the VI-1 form, for all wine imports from third countries. These detail how strong a wine is, what grape it is made from and how many containers are being sent. Each different type of wine in a consignment must list all these details and the form requires a stamp from customs officials, presenting a significant logistical challenge and cost burden for wine importers in the UK.

While a slightly simpler version of the VI-1 form has been negotiated in the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement for wine imports from the EU, this still requires a customs stamp, which will delay transit through ports and place a significant burden on our importers. The Government have delayed the introduction of these new forms twice, but as it stands they are still going to be introduced at the end of the year. The British wine industry is quite frankly at a loss to understand why the Government are so set on introducing this import documentation at all.

The EU’s rationale for having an import document that is effectively a technical barrier to trade is, in reality, to protect its wine industry. For the UK, which is a net importer of wine, it makes very little sense for us to maintain rules designed to disadvantage our imports; we import over 99% of the wine we consume in this country, and around half those imports are from the EU.

As I said, we want our own wonderful wine industry to flourish and grow—there are great English and Welsh wines produced in this country, which is why we support the correction to ensure that geographical indications work properly. In terms of volume, however, we remain a significant importer. The Minister will know that we also have a vibrant export industry based on this trade, with the UK acting as a major wine hub for the rest of the world and wine being our sixth biggest food and drink export in 2019. So this is important.

Yet the Government seen happy to wrap these vibrant industries in blue tape. These forms are a measure that will be significantly damaging to our UK wine importers, who already have to deal with a raft of new barriers to trade as a result of leaving the EU. It will disproportionately damage SMEs, particularly independent wine merchants like Cambridge Wine Merchants in my constituency, as well as pubs, bars and restaurants, for which a wide selection of niche and interesting wines is a unique selling point. It will be damaging to UK consumers, who could see cost increases and decreased product choice, and to the Government themselves, who could see a loss of revenue to the Exchequer and are committing themselves to carrying out yet more form stamping at the border due to the customs stamp requirement.

Daniel Lambert, who will probably be well known to the Minister and who imports up to 2 million bottles of wine a year for 300 retailers including supermarkets, has been vocal in the media about the situation he now finds himself in due to the Government’s decisions. He has likened the impact on the sector to a

“multiple pile-up in the fog”.

He is not happy and neither are others. Yet again we see the Government’s incompetent Brexit deal wrapping ribbons of red tape around the UK’s wine sector for no good reason whatever.

As the Minister said, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association has been clear that, as far as it can tell, the additional bureaucracy is unnecessary. There is no customs requirement for it and no safety issue involved. Wine is already heavily regulated by rules such as the geographical indications to ensure quality control and no other alcoholic drink requires a similar form, so will the Minister clarify the Government’s practical reasons for introducing the forms? If there is no real consumer protection purpose for them, the Government must have another reason for their introduction.

I understand that it has been suggested that maintaining wine import certification rules will level the playing field for wine from the rest of the world. I am sure that the Minister recognises that there are two different scenarios here. I am reliably informed by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association that the supply chain for wine imported from third countries thousands of miles away, often moved in bulk, is very different from the supply chain for wine imported from the EU, which is often imported by SMEs. Importing 25,000 litres of Australian wine in a flexitank with one VI-1 form is much less burdensome and costly than importing 20 wines in bottles from the EU that require 20 additional pieces of documentation.

Rather than imposing a requirement on all imports, the Government could just as easily create a level playing field by not introducing a requirement for import certificates for EU wines and scrapping the current requirements for non-EU wine imports. The only explanation for the Government’s action—Lord Moynihan made the point powerfully—is that it is a negotiating ploy in ongoing trade negotiations with third countries. I am sure that the Minister will deny it, but in my view, the Government are using the British wine industry and particularly British small businesses as pawns in a bigger trade game and happily leaving them endure extra bureaucracy just for extra leverage. Small wonder that Ministers are so reluctant to respond to the sector’s concerns. I am told that repeated requests from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association for a meeting to discuss the issue have been ignored.

At a time when the Government are already having to delay the introduction of mandatory customs procedures, it makes no sense to introduce additional controls if they are non-essential. As a minimum, it would be far more sensible for the Government to delay the introduction of the forms until an electronic version can be established, but the British wine industry is clear that it would be far better to scrap the unnecessary forms. It is entirely within the Government’s gift to do that.

The Government have a perfect opportunity to put their money where their money is, scrap the red tape and support British businesses. Will the Minister explain why on earth they are choosing not to do so when they have been given the chance—a Brexit benefit, no less?

Will the Minister commit today to meet me and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association at the earliest opportunity to discuss the issue further? If not, I fear there will be an empty chair, perhaps occupied by a bottle of wine wrapped in red tape, or even red, white and blue tape. We do not oppose the statutory instrument but we are cross about the Government’s continuing failure to engage.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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Clearly, it is essential that we have the right legislation in place for the effective operation of the UK’s GI scheme. That is of course what we are here to talk about this afternoon. However, I am prepared to deal briefly with the hon. Gentleman’s points about VI-1s, though they are not directly in scope, so I will be brief.

VI-1s already exist for other nations—Australia, the US and Chile. Those wines are very competitive in the UK market and the existence of a VI-1 form does not prevent them from being enjoyed here. The hon. Gentleman is right that leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to consider whether we should review the policy to suit our needs. As he said, it is possibly a Brexit benefit and it certainly gives us the opportunity to ensure that the scheme that we have in the UK is right for us, our importers and our exporters.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we are an important wine-trading nation, second only to the United States in the value of our imports. We also export, and re-export mainly, large quantities of wine to the EU—about £400 million- worth a year. Leaving the EU gives us scope to review our policies and we continue to monitor all areas of retained EU law, including those concerning wine certification, to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association was pleased with our plans to issue an easement to the need for VI-1 certificates to accompany imports of wines from the EU. It also welcomes the introduction of a simplified VI-1 certificate—the arrangements for the EU and UK wine trade that were set out in the trade and co-operation agreement at the end of last year.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs treats the geographical indications regime very seriously. The UK has a proud and growing food reputation and GIs play an important role as exemplars of our quality producers. We are committed to celebrating the success of those products and driving further market access to ensure that they are enjoyed around the world, as symbolised by our new UK scheme logos.

It is right that we put the correct legislation in place and that we took steps to correct the error as soon as possible. I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss other aspects of our wine trade—both import and export—whenever we can find a convenient date.

I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Draft Direct Payments to Farmers (Reductions and Simplifications) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 Draft Agricultural (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2021

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 18th March 2021

(2 months ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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It is a great pleasure to serve—for the first time, I think—under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. The matters in these statutory instruments are closely related. They will be made under the powers in the Agriculture Act 2020, and will implement important aspects of the new agricultural policy that we set out in our agricultural transition plan, which was published in November last year.

The first SI sets reductions that will be applied to direct payments made in the 2021 claim year. The Government are committed to phasing out untargeted direct payments over a seven-year agricultural transition period, which will free up money so that we can pay farmers to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare, and reduce carbon emissions. All funding released from the reductions will be reinvested in new schemes in this Parliament. The reductions will be applied fairly, with higher reductions initially applied to amounts in higher payment bands. The reductions for the 2021 scheme are modest, at 5% for around 80% of farmers. We published the reductions back in 2018, so that farmers would have time to prepare for the changes. The SI sets the reductions for the 2021 claim year only; we will set out the reductions for later years in future SIs.

The SI will make minor amendments to reflect the fact that direct payments will be calculated in sterling from now on. It will also amend the direct payments rules to remove the euro thresholds below which the Rural Payments Agency does not need to recover overpayments or payment entitlements, or to charge interest.

Finally, the SI will make two consequential amendments that were not covered in the Direct Payments to Farmers and Cross-Compliance (Simplifications) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020. This SI will remove a redundant cross-reference—I believe it was helpfully picked up by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments—relating to the greening rules that were removed by the 2020 regulations. The SI will also change the percentage figure used to calculate young farmer payments, which makes it clear that the value of those payments will not be affected by the removal of the greening payment.

The second SI will put in place financial data publication, enforcement and monitoring requirements for four new financial assistance schemes: countryside stewardship, the farming investment fund scheme, the tree health pilot, and the environmental land management national pilot scheme, which includes the sustainable farming incentive.

The SI will provide a critical opportunity to test, refine and develop environmental land management and tree health schemes in pilot form ahead of their full launch. It will require information about the financial assistance given under those schemes to be published. Information published will include the total payment received by a beneficiary for each scheme they are in, and a description of the activities financed by the payment. Publication of personal data will not be required for payments below a de minimis level or in respect of payments made under the tree health pilot where, instead, aggregated data will be published.

On checks, enforcement and monitoring, this instrument provides for a flexible and proportionate framework. Provisions include checking eligibility criteria at the application stage and monitoring compliance with individual grant agreements and scheme conditions. A range of enforcement options is available under the instrument in the event of a breach, including withholding payments and recovering payments previously awarded. The instrument will also provide powers of entry and inspection to enforce compliance—for example, to check or inspect land, livestock or machinery. A formal complaints and appeals process will be available if agreement holders are aggrieved by certain decisions.

In drafting the instrument, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs engaged with key stakeholders in a targeted consultation exercise between 4 August and 1 September last summer, which very much informed the way in which we wrote this SI.

Taken together, these instruments will implement provisions provided for by the 2020 Act. They will begin the move away from the inefficient direct payments model of the common agricultural policy and provide an important framework allowing new financial assistance schemes to operate effectively, in line with our agricultural transition plan. I commend the instruments to the Committee.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, for what I think is the first time, and, of course, a pleasure to continue the ongoing dialogue with the Minister. As ever, she has laid out the measures clearly. As she would expect, I have a critique of them, although I can assure her that we will not be opposing the SIs, because we have no desire to bring an unnecessary number of people into the Committee Room. However, we do have some concerns. We are, as she rightly said, a year on from the discussions on the 2020 Act. We now finally have the tables of reductions that we were considering over a year ago in the legislation, which is a start.

I am interested in the fact that both measures relate to England—paragraphs 3.2 to 3.5 of the explanatory memorandums for these regulations make that clear. I think the wording is quite interesting: it almost lays down a challenge for devolved institutions to follow. Of course, different strategies are being adopted in different parts of the United Kingdom, and English farmers might well feel that they are immediately put at a disadvantage and might wonder why, especially in a week in which Sainsbury’s has followed Tesco in demanding lower prices from suppliers. With all the problems facing people at the moment, some might feel that they are not so much being squeezed as strangled.

However, perhaps the key point in the Minister’s opening comments, as is now clear from the documents, is that this is the 2021 scheme year—that is, one year only. The Minister will remember discussing what I used to describe as my favourite document. I still have a dog-eared copy here, from a day I will never forget: the rushed-out photocopied versions to give the Secretary of State cover at the Oxford farming conference, as I recall.

In that document, we had the implications for, or what would happen in, subsequent years, and, as the Minister has rightly said, late last year we saw the figures for subsequent years. I wonder why we are doing this one year at a time. The EU used to have a seven-year budgeting period. It seems to me that we are in danger of regressing to annual short-termism, which I do not think is welcome, so I wonder whether the Minister can confirm that—other issues permitting—we will be back here this time next year discussing the 2022 figures, and I suspect in subsequent years, too.

However, that is only half the story, because this is about the reductions. What many people want to know is where the money is going, and how it is to be used. Will all the money being saved go to farmers? I note that the Minister’s words were, as ever, carefully chosen, in that it would be used within this Parliament. That is an interesting point, because she is probably much more expert than me on how departmental budgets are managed, but is there a roll-over facility, and if so, where is it? Can we see it? Can we question it? How much do we expect to be spent this year, and how much to be carried over into following years? That matters, because if the money is not spent, I fear that in the current financial climate there may be eyes in the Treasury looking to recoup some of it. The Minister shakes her head knowingly, but I suspect that there are.

Part of the reason I am concerned is that when the SFI was announced last week—I think that was the latest announcement—a few hundred pilots were suggested. A few hundred is very different from the 80,000-plus who receive basic payments. The Country Land and Business Association tells us that, using DEFRA’s own figures, 75% of farming enterprises are unprofitable without direct payments. The problem seems pretty clear to me: there is a major mismatch.

What was also disappointing about last week’s announcement is the fact that those on stewardship schemes at the moment do not seem to be eligible to apply for the pilots. While that is perhaps not a departure from a specific promise—clearly, they will be able to transition at some point—people could rightly feel disadvantaged. I worry about where the money might be.

I want to be clear that we want the environmental land management scheme to work. We understand the need to do pilots, and to learn, but it seems very slow and I must remind the Minister that I asked many of the questions I am asking today a year ago. A certain amount of vagueness at that point might have been reasonable, but we need to move on. I hardly need tell her that farmers have to make decisions. The cycle is long, and people need to look ahead, but it is hard to make business decisions when they are uncertain about levels of support.

The Minister might remember that on one or two occasions I was quite cross about some of the language used in my favourite document. I thought that we had got past that, but on the policy background, paragraph 7.2 of the explanatory memorandum to the direct payments regulations contains this assertion:

“Direct payments are untargeted, can inflate land rent prices and can stand in the way of new entrants.”

All that is true, but it could also be said that they are universal, relatively simple to administer and a vital lifeline for tens of thousands of farmers, with key knock-on benefits for many rural communities. Would it really be so difficult for those who draft such points to acknowledge, when other things are also true, that the issues are complicated?

The document also says, revealingly:

“Phasing out Direct Payments will free up money to support agriculture in different ways, including paying farmers to improve the environment.”

Why “including” when the word could have been “by”? It is reasonable to suggest that there are questions to be answered. Has there been a casual oversight in the wording, or does the document, as I suspect, suggest that money will leach out, away from farmers? Quite possibly it will be well spent, but farmers deserve to know.

May I query why the 5% reduction with respect to payments over £150,000 is being omitted? How much money will that save, where will it go and what will it be spent on? The suggestion is that it is complicated to do the calculation, but I am sure that the Department has a spreadsheet somewhere that could do it. I wonder whether there will be an effect on the overall amount that others receive, because my recollection is that calculations start and work back from the overall financial ceiling. That may have an impact.

Wales and Scotland used capping to divert funds to environmental and rural development measures. We have had that discussion before, and I gently remind the Government that when they were criticising the EU scheme for failing on environmental grounds there was the opportunity to use those mechanisms, but they chose not to do so.

The Minister frequently accuses me of being too gloomy, so I should say that there are some positive things. Clearly, simplifying the overpayments system and doing calculations in sterling make sense, as does changing the percentage to calculate young farmer payments to reflect the changes already made with respect to the removal of the greening payment. However, I must draw attention to the phrase

“no…significant…impact on business”

at paragraph 12 of the explanatory memorandum. Really—when money is being taken away? Maybe that is now the Conservative line. I look forward to the Conservatives taking the same view when Labour redistributes resources in future. I suspect that there is an impact, and we all know it.

The second SI is, I think, more straightforward. It concerns measures to ensure that there is proper oversight of financial assistance. I have to say that this is interesting: where is the environmental equivalent? Perhaps the Minister will tell us, because it looks as though the integrated administration and control system and cross-compliance system are being gradually dismantled. It is telling that it is the money, not the environmental concerns, that seems to be the priority. Yet again, this measure is England-only. We really are becoming a very disunited kingdom.

Four schemes are outlined. I quite understand that, but it seems that we may have different rules applying to different schemes. This seems to be only for the environmental land management scheme pilots, so presumably it will have to be revisited at the various stages of ELMS, and we will probably have a countryside stewardship system running alongside the current EU countryside stewardship system. So, there is quite a lot of complexity. I am sure farmers will welcome advance notice being given on some of those checks, but where is the assessment of potential downsides? We all hope there is not abuse out there, but are we sure? This is quite a lenient approach. Given that enforcement is already an issue, is there some naivety here?

The virtual inspections sound intriguing and could be a good model for the future. It would be interesting to hear a little more from the Minister about how they will work.

I have a query about paragraph 10.5 of the explanatory memorandum, which says:

“Land Management Plans… will not be published.”

I recognise that that might be a response to representations made, but as I asked during consideration of the Act, where is the public voice in that? I think taxpayers and local residents have a role. I am disappointed and would like to hear the reasoning behind that.

Finally, the plan outlined remains through to 2027. Frankly, when we were discussing it in this room a year ago, no one could have anticipated the year we were about to have, and there is a question whether we plough on regardless or move at a pace that reflects the difficulties of the past year.

The schemes were all supposed to be about simplification. I was talking to someone the other day who pointed out that CAP effectively had three schemes, but, by their reckoning, we are already up to 14 and counting. We might well need a new dictionary for our conversations as we sort our ELMSs from our SFIs and our ATPs. It is all getting very complicated.

I reflect on the fact that this country has many virtues, but self-knowledge is useful, and we sometimes tend to over-complicate and over-bureaucratise. In the past, we blamed that on Brussels. It is now down to us, so my plea is, can we ensure that these schemes are simple enough to deliver the outcomes we all want? In particular, we do not want funding being taken from farmers and going not to the environment—we do want funding there—but ending up in a sea of bureaucracy.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I, too, enjoy our ongoing dialogue on the future of agriculture, and I would never accuse the hon. Gentleman of being too gloomy. As I listened to him, I wondered whether he would like to visit one of the tests and trials. There are some near his home.

There is a good wildlife trust test and trial in Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire that demonstrates well the significant environmental benefits that we think will come from our future agricultural policies. From memory, the trial involves farmers working together, and it is a good model of our mid-tier schemes. That is not precisely what we are discussing, but I think it would give the hon. Gentleman an idea of the iterative and careful process that we are going through in creating our new policies.

We have about 3,000 farmers involved in our tests and trials. The pilots we launched last week for the sustainable farming incentive are slightly different from the tests and trials in that they look to pilot the whole process, whereas the tests and trials are there to deal with specific issues and questions that we have asked farmers to test for us.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would dearly like to come to see one of those—that is part of the problem of the past year—but, while I understand that those engaged in the process are probably positive about it, my worry is not for them, but for the huge number who are not engaged. That is where my concern lies.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

We are undertaking policy as we go; we are testing and trialling it as we develop it. That is innovative and not usual for Government, but I remain convinced that it is the right way to go about making these significant changes to our agricultural policy, which will affect not only how our food is produced, but what our environment looks like, is, and produces over, I hope, many years to come. It is important that we do this slowly and carefully, which is why we are testing everything so carefully as we go along.

The pilots we launched last week are there to test how the administrative aspects of the process work, whereas the tests and trials are there more to test individual aspects of the land management. With the enormous amount of outreach done by DEFRA—oh boy, have we embraced technology to do that over the past year—and the vast number of meetings and Zooms we have had with farmers, much more widely than those involved in our trials, we hope for and see all the signs that the industry is coming on board with these new policies. This is an exciting time for farming, and the more people outside the industry we can get to understand the value of that, the better, in my view.

Yes, the SI deals with payments for one year only. We did that with our eyes open, in order to retain flexibility. We know the overall envelope, and we set in November last year the direction of travel and the reductions farmers could expect. That gave them the ability to plan, but there will be further opportunities—many further opportunities—for Parliament to debate future reductions. I accept that we will be back here repeatedly as the policies develop, and I do not apologise for that, because it is right that this is an iterative, piloted process and it is right that we develop it carefully.

All the money saved will be going to farmers. The Treasury has demonstrated again and again that it is keen to support farmers in this, and I am convinced of its backing for these new schemes. The environmental element is the priority in what we are doing. We want farmers to produce food, but we want them to do so in a way that is more environmentally friendly than has been encouraged under CAP.

It is true that a large number of farmers—probably about 30%, who own about 60% of land—are already engaged in extra environmental schemes. I for one am keen always to conflate the idea of a farmer with that of an environmentalist in many cases. All we are doing is enabling, encouraging and training farmers who want to help the environment to continue to do so.

I do not think this is the place to rehearse the shape of our new agricultural policies. We are here today to talk about the financial aspects and some of the more enforcement-like aspects of the policies, but we have a clear structure, set out in many different documents. We will continue to inform both the public and the industry, slowly and carefully, as we learn from our tests and trials and our pilots.

Countryside stewardship is a critical part of what we do at the moment. We have simplified it drastically over the past year to make it a much more attractive offer for farmers to get involved in. I would say to farmers who are considering an environmental scheme but are sadly not able to be in the pilot, as not everybody can be, that they should join up to a countryside stewardship scheme. I undertake that the transfer for anybody who joins up with a countryside stewardship scheme into the new policies will be as painless and automatic as possible.

Indeed, one of the changes we are making is that there will no longer be any penalty for coming out of a countryside stewardship scheme early. We will ensure that those who are in an existing environmental scheme are not penalised, and we will make the transfer as smooth as we can.

On land management plans, one of the learnings we took from last year’s consultation was that, while they are a very useful tool, we and those we consulted with did not feel the need for them to be published. We will find many different ways to ensure that the general public are aware of what is happening on farms and where their taxpayer money is being spent. Access is a critical part of our new policies.

Question put and agreed to.

DRAFT AGRICULTURE (FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE) REGULATIONS 2021

Resolved, 

That the Committee has considered the draft Agriculture (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2021.—(Victoria Prentis.) 

Draft Fertilisers and Ammonium Nitrate Material (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 11th February 2021

(3 months ago)

General Committees

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

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Fertilisers and Ammonium Nitrate Material (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021.

It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

The draft statutory instrument, which was laid before the House on 9 December 2020, has two main purposes. First, it will make technical amendments to the Fertilisers and Ammonium Nitrate Material (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, to correct certain inconsistencies that have arisen in the light of the Northern Ireland protocol. Secondly, it will apply the provisions of the retained EU law version of regulation 2003/2003 to Northern Ireland, subject to modifications. That will enable the marketing of UK fertilisers in Northern Ireland, which was the intention of the original exit SI before the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed.

The previous SI was made in 2019. It replaced the “EC fertiliser” label with a new “UK fertiliser” label, which was to function in the same way. That “UK fertiliser” regime would have operated across the whole of the UK from the end of the transition period. However, we agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol and, as a consequence, the SI needs to be updated. This draft instrument will apply the provisions of the retained EU law version of regulation 2003/2003 in Great Britain to Northern Ireland, subject to modifications, in order to enable UK fertilisers to continue to be marketed in Northern Ireland.

By way of context, the regulatory framework for the manufacture and sale of fertilisers is unusual compared with that of other agricultural products, as fertilisers are partially harmonised at EU level. That means that member states may operate their own domestic regulatory regimes alongside the European regulation of the EC fertiliser regime, which is provided for in EU regulation. Accordingly, alongside the EC fertiliser regime, Great Britain and Northern Ireland have historically operated separate domestic regulatory regimes under the Fertilisers Regulations 1991 and the Fertilisers Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1992, respectively.

Manufacturers in both GB and NI, therefore, have several routes to market and are free to choose which framework to use, although they must of course comply with the requirements of whichever regime is chosen. For example, they would need to be established within the EU or NI to sell EC fertilisers in Northern Ireland. The key provision of the draft instrument is to ensure the retained GB version of EU regulation 2003/2003, which allows products to be marketed as a UK fertiliser, applies in Northern Ireland, as was originally intended in the 2019 exit SI.

Given the partial harmonisation of fertiliser legislation, making the UK fertiliser regime applicable in Northern Ireland does not affect the continued application of the EU version of regulation 2003/2003, which will continue to apply in Northern Ireland by virtue of the protocol.

The draft SI is important, as a common route to market across the UK for fertilisers is required, so that a manufacturer in Great Britain who only trades in the UK may market products across Great Britain and Northern Ireland and use one label to do so. Although there are several routes to market for UK producers, there are particular concerns that, without this SI, the supply of certain products that are regulated under this regime—for example DMPSA, a nitrification inhibitor—would be reduced and that in turn could impact on the sustainability of UK food production.

We worked with the devolved Administrations on this SI, and they have given consent. The draft instrument is necessary, as I have explained, because it makes technical amendments in the light of the Northern Ireland protocol and will ensure that we can continue to operate a unified fertiliser regime across the UK. It will make life easier for manufacturers because they will be able to use one label. I commend the draft regulations to the House.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to continue our discussions once again, Mr Robertson; I am sure you enjoy them as much as we do. I thank the Minister for her introduction, although I am not sure I am quite as optimistic about this as she is. I will explain why.

We will not oppose the draft statutory instrument today. We consulted the Agricultural Industries Confederation, and I am grateful for its advice and reassurance. It tells me that it is in the interests of fertiliser suppliers and UK farmers for the SI to be approved as it will allow detonation resistance test, or DRT, certificates to be accepted if they originate in the EU for EU-sourced products, meaning that imported fertilisers will not have to be detained and re-tested in the UK, incurring additional costs to importers and suppliers. The AIC also points out that that is significant because there is currently only one laboratory in the UK that can undertake these tests—HSL Buxton, which it tells me has at times been subject to closure due to covid-19—and that this lack of UK capacity underlines the urgent need for the SI to be passed.

The AIC also says there has been concern in the industry that the Government were seeking to use only UK laboratories to pass ammonium nitrate DRTs. The SI changes that position, which the AIC welcomes, as being unable to use EU laboratories would represent a major impediment to importing ammonium nitrate fertilisers, the predominant nitrogen fertiliser used in the UK, which would of course have a knock-on effect on farmers. The SI will extend the use of EU-sourced DRTs until the end of 2022.

The AIC also asks the Government to look at the entire regulatory strategy for fertilisers now that we are outside the EU, which it says would be welcome as it will allow a new look at DRTs and their position in primary legislation. It also asks that any new legislation should permit any International Organisation for Standardisation laboratory to conduct DRTs, rather than limit that to one UK lab or a limited selection of EU labs. It also wants to look at ways in which the industry can be less reliant on a handful of laboratories. I am interested in the Minister’s views on that.

Effectively, the SI allows for the continued application in Northern Ireland of the European regulation on the EC fertiliser regime. Since under EU law there can be a dual regime for fertilisers, as the Minister explained, UK fertilisers, so labelled, are able to be marketed in Northern Ireland, which means that there will be a UK-wide regulatory regime for the marketing of UK fertilisers, and that manufacturers in Great Britain can market their products across the UK, both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. EC fertilisers can still be marketed in Northern Ireland alongside them.

We are basically producing yet another tweak to the Northern Ireland protocol. I have to say that it seems to me increasingly obvious that, given that we seem to be having endless discussions on further amending legislation to meet the NI protocol, there are some fundamental problems with it. That was highlighted in the excellent discussion in the House of Lords two weeks ago. As ever, full answers were given by Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the Minister in the Lords, but only where possible; it seems to me that, given the fundamental and fatal internal contradictions, some answers were not forthcoming. I do not blame the Minister for that, because in some cases there are no answers to be given, but it is my duty to put the questions again, to expose some of these problems.

One example followed some probing questions from my colleague, the shadow Minister in the Lords, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, on how we might deal with divergence in the future, given that EU rules will still apply in Northern Ireland. She said:

“We accept that it is important that UK manufacturers can trade products across GB and Northern Ireland using the same label. Can the Minister clarify that the existing regulatory standards will remain the same in GB and Northern Ireland?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2021; Vol. 809, c. 161GC.]

She also said:

“The Minister has explained that we are in a period of transition regarding controls over future fertiliser policy and that a consultation is being drawn up. Although it goes beyond the scope of this SI, we would welcome such a review and an opportunity to ensure that the regulations are fit for purpose. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and other noble Lords have said, there is clearly potential for modernisation, based on the best science available, together with a greater understanding of the need to protect and enhance our soils. Can the Minister reassure us that any new proposals will maintain our commitment to the precautionary principle and to our high environmental standards?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, Tuesday 26 January; Vol. 809, c. 161 GC- 162GC.]

In the elegant reply given by the Minister in the Lords, he avoided dealing with the first conundrum. Of course, if EU standards change in future, we will not automatically follow them. Or will we? Perhaps the Minister can explain. Baroness Jones also asked about the precautionary principle being applied. I am afraid there was no answer to that either. Again, there was an elegant answer outlining a move to a risk-based approach, which I see as being the laxer American approach, as opposed to the more cautious European approach. Can the Minister tell us which one we will be adopting in future?

There are also questions about paragraph 7.3 in the explanatory memorandum. A number of noble Lords highlighted it, and I spotted it too. It says:

“Manufacturers who market EC fertilisers will need to be Manufacturers who currently market ‘EC fertilisers’ in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland will need to be established in the EU to continue to market ‘EC fertilisers’ in Northern Ireland after the end of the Transition Period.”

I studied closely the exchange between Baroness McIntosh and the Minister in the Lords, but I am not sure I am any the wiser afterwards. Again, it was a very skilful response, but it seems to me that there will inevitably be some duplication, which must lead to additional cost. To market EC fertilisers, a base will be needed in the EU to continue to market EC fertilisers in Northern Ireland. The “UK fertiliser” designation helps, but it still means there will be duplication. Ultimately, that must lead to extra cost. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister can provide clarification.

In conclusion, we do not oppose the regulations, but I echo many of the concerns raised in the other place, particularly around ongoing problems faced by importers into Northern Ireland in general. I can anticipate the Minister’s response. I am sure she will tell us that the Government are doing all that they can, but I would point out that it is a mess entirely of the Government’s own making. It did not have to be like this—there were other options—and the Government bear a heavy responsibility for the problems facing both Northern Ireland and the Union.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with the Agricultural Industries Confederation, which is of course the body that is most involved in this area. We work with it very closely as a Department. I will deal first with the detonation resistance test issue. We have passed legislation that allows the DRTs to be accepted, if they originate in the EU, until December 2022. That should give us time to conduct our reviews, and I will briefly set out a bit about where we intend policy to go.

We feel that the existing domestic regulatory regime for fertilisers in both GB and NI is outdated and in need of some modernisation. Leaving the EU and the current modernisation of regulation that the EU is conducting at the moment, which I think is due to be published in July 2022, gives us an opportunity to undertake a full review of our domestic framework. I would enjoy talking further to the hon. Gentleman about that outside the Committee.

Although I do not speak with the elegance of the Minister in the Lords, I do not think we will necessarily be following the American model or the EU model. We will go for the UK model in future. As I said in my opening speech, fertiliser regulation is quite unusual, because there has always been both a domestic set of regulations and an EU set of regulations. In many ways, perhaps it can provide a model for other types of regulations that are open to us in the future, so I do not think there is any need to take either one path. What is important is that we work with the Agricultural Industries Confederation, farmers and growers, and that we make the best regime for us in the future.

New powers relating to fertilisers in the Agriculture Act 2020 mean that we are now well placed to take forward the new work. We are starting the process of engagement with growers at the moment. We will of course undertake a public consultation to inform our views of where the legislation should go.

We began the process of review by considering how to use the provisions of the fertilising products regulation that became retained EU law to put in place a conformity assessment framework for fertiliser manufacture in the UK going forward. New policy will be informed by the findings of the nutrient management expert group, which has been tasked with identifying evidence-based options for reducing diffuse pollution by fertilisers, for example. We aim to have done a full consultation on the options by the end of this year. The final framework should become fully operational in the next few years.

I was asked about divergence specifically. I have dealt with that partially, but I will say that we will work with growers and other stakeholders and then consult on our new regulations. That will take into account any potential risks and impacts of divergence from EU rules. Any potential divergence is likely to be connected to some of the very detailed and technical requirements around fertiliser content and guidance on usage. As I said right at the beginning, there has always been a level of what I call divergence, for want of a better of word—a level of difference—in the regulatory regimes in this area.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I accept that point, but surely the difference will be that, should we end up with a different set of rules in future, that will create a different regime for Northern Ireland, inevitably. Will that not inevitably lead to additional cost—not immediately, but after 2022?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I do not feel that our trade and future relationship with the EU should be affected by the extension of the “UK fertiliser” terminology to Northern Ireland. The EU fertilisers regulation will continue to apply directly to Northern Ireland by virtue of the NIP, so trade in EC fertilisers will continue in Northern Ireland. I think that is without prejudice to the EU’s fertilisers regime.

We will look at all such matters closely. Fertilisers are quite special in the way that they have been regulated in the past. It is important that we work with the industry to make our new regulatory framework, and I have no doubt that we will be able to do that in a perfectly satisfactory way.

With that, I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 3rd February 2021

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela, particularly given your long record of fighting for animal welfare.

I want briefly to echo many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. Labour entirely supports the Bill and would like it to have reached the statute book years ago, when the previous Member for Redcar introduced its first iteration to the House in 2016. It is disappointing and frustrating that it has taken so long to get to this stage, and that the Bill is the second of its nature to be considered in Committee. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset on his perseverance and wish him luck in getting the Bill on the statute book. We are concerned about time running out and, as my hon. Friend has said, we are looking for guidance from the Minister and want to hear that the Government will get behind the measure. We urge her to be clear about the timetable.

We fully back the Bill. It is imperative that those who perpetrate cruelty against animals should be subject to a penalty that matches the seriousness of their crime. It is clear that the maximum penalty in England and Wales of six months in prison, an unlimited fine and being banned from keeping animals is inadequate. Many of us were present on Second Reading and heard numerous examples of sentences whose severity simply did not match awfulness of the crimes.

There is already a five-year maximum sentence in Northern Ireland, and Scotland matched that in July. It seems to us that we need parity of sentencing across the UK and an end to the bewildering state of affairs whereby England and Wales are left with some of the lowest maximum sentences in the world.

As my hon. Friend has said, there are concerns that we want briefly to explore through our amendments. We very much agree with the previous MP for Redcar, who introduced the first Bill, that the filming of cruelty against animals should be considered an aggravating factor by courts in considering the offence. It is already listed as one in the sentencing guidelines to the 2006 Act, but we think it is important that that should be in the Bill.

We have heard that one of the overwhelming issues in the deeply distressing case of Baby the bulldog was the fact that those involved filmed themselves. People not only abusing animals, but recording it and, nowadays, sharing it on social media, with the intention of glorifying and amplifying the abuse, should be taken into account.

We are in a changing world. The Internet Watch Foundation is close to the Cambridge and frequently tells me about its work, which is an ongoing struggle in the online world. Exactly as my hon. Friend said, I hope the Minister will have a word with her colleagues in DCMS about making sure that that aspect of the matter is taken into account in any future legislation.

As the available technology changes, the law must keep up. To abuse innocent animals and, not only that, to record the abuse for entertainment shows, I am afraid, a malicious intent that should be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing.

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

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela.

The very unfortunate delay in the passage of the Bill was caused, as hon. Members across the House will understand, by the need to find an appropriate parliamentary slot in what has been a stretched timetable in the past few years. We have had to deal with Brexit and then, of course, we were hit, just as every workplace has been, by the covid pandemic. That naturally reduced the number of hours we could sit, and severely curtailed what we could do, but I reassure Members that the Government are absolutely committed to increasing custodial penalties in sentencing for animal cruelty. We will do all we can to support the Bill’s swift passage through both the Commons and the other place.

Perhaps I may have a useful conversation with Opposition Members about how we all work together to manage that. This morning, I had a very useful conversation with Mr Speaker about the Bill, and he is a big supporter of animal welfare. We all wish the Bill—and its champion, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset—well during the next stages of consideration. The more we can do to work together, the better.

Both hon. Gentlemen who have spoken mentioned the great deal of consensus across the House on the passage of the Bill. Sadly, we have also heard once again about Baby the bulldog. That tale gets no easier in the retelling. I thank both hon. Gentlemen, who set the scene well. I am, I am afraid, going to resist the amendment, not because I do not agree with their sentiments, but because I am not sure that it is the best way in which to deal with the issue.

Aggravating factors are most often dealt with in the sentencing guidelines for an offence, not within the statute. A select number of offences relating to terrorism and domestic violence are exempt from that general rule. For most offences, normal practice is for other aggravating factors to be included in the sentencing guidelines. Those are not unimportant documents. From my experience as a lawyer, I know that the courts are required to follow those guidelines when determining the appropriate sentence in any particular case.

The sentencing guidelines on animal cruelty were drawn up by the Sentencing Council and were last reviewed in April 2017, following public consultation. Those include guidelines on

“the use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty”,

which is already considered an aggravating factor. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been in contact with the Sentencing Council about the Bill and, if we park the Bill, the council will need to reassess its guidelines. It will conduct another review. It will also consult publicly on the new guidelines.

I have been looking at other examples of guidelines relating to filming. Perhaps the best, and the one that I suspect I would suggest to the Sentencing Council, is found in the sentencing guidelines for robbery when sentencing children and young people, which includes the aggravating factor of

“the filming of the offence… or circulating details/photos/videos etc of the offence on social media or within peer groups”.

That is to be considered specifically by the court when sentencing the offender.

Agricultural Products, Food and Drink (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 Organic Production (Organic Indications) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Monday 25th January 2021

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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It is good to serve with you in the Chair again, Mr Robertson. I will deal first with the food and drink regulations.

This instrument was made using the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 principally to make operability amendments to retained EU law. It is technical and does not introduce new policy. It was made using the made affirmative procedure under the Act to ensure that provisions were in place at the end of the transition period. The provisions could be confirmed only within the timeframe that required an urgent procedure because of the ongoing negotiations with the EU and third countries. The amendments made by this instrument primarily concern geographical indications. This includes transitioning obligations in EU wines and spirits agreements. It also extends to trade between the United Kingdom and the EU of wine and organic products.

GIs, as I am sure the Committee is aware, are a form of intellectual property protection for the names of food, drink and agricultural products that have qualities attributable to the place that they are produced in, or the traditional method by which they are made. They are highly valued in the communities that produce them, and as examples of the range of quality British products that are enjoyed around the world. They are also produced around the world and are an important part of the international trading landscape. The UK has signed a number of trade agreements that ensure continued protection for GIs, such as those that were previously protected under EU trade agreements. In some cases, trade deals were agreed but could not be ratified until the end of the transition period, so this SI concerns the bridging arrangements that were introduced to continue the effects of the previous agreements until ratification. It allows us to continue to protect GIs where bridging arrangements are in place. This ensures that the GIs that are already protected in the UK do not lose their protection because of a long ratification process elsewhere.

The instrument also adds an additional category of GI to ensure that a Japanese GI, Kumamoto Rush, remains protected in the UK. It was previously protected in an EU-Japan trade agreement, but it did not fit with any of the new GI product categories that we inherited from the EU. The addition of this category provides a clear basis on which to continue to protect the GI under our own agreement with Japan.

Turning to spirit drinks, the instrument provides for the continued protection of US product names in the UK to reflect the transitioned US spirit agreement. It does the same for Mexican product names once the agreement has come into force. It also enables the retained spirit drinks regulations for GIs to function correctly with regard to procedure and enforcement. As with the spirits amendments, with respect to the transitioned US wine agreement, this instrument makes retained regulations operable.

There are also a number of non-GI provisions. On wine, the regulations provide for a six-month easement on the new requirement for EU wines imported into the UK to be accompanied by a VI-1 certificate, which provides information on the type and analytical composition of a wine. The easement should minimise the potential for disruption to the UK market by allowing EU imports to arrive on the same commercial documents that were used while the UK was a member state. New, simplified certification arrangements are set out in the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement, which should cover movements of EU and UK-origin wines.

On organics, we have extended our recognition of the EU and EEA states as equivalent, and we have updated their list of control bodies. We have also ensured that organic products from the EU, EEA and Switzerland are allowed to continue to flow smoothly by providing a six-month easement on the requirement for certificates of inspection for such products.

I turn now to the second SI before us, which amends the legislation that applies to organic product labelling in order to ensure that it was operable at the end of the transition period and continues to be so. More specifically, the SI removes the mandatory requirement for the EU organic logo to be featured on organic products sold in Great Britain, and it provides the legal framework for our organic logo, which I have shared before with previous Committees and with the hon. Member for Cambridge, when we have finished developing it. It is still in discussion, as the Committee knows.

The SI also amends the requirement to include a statement of agricultural origin on packaging, so that it refers to the UK rather than to the EU. Where a product has been only partly farmed in the UK, organic operators should use labelling to show whether it is UK or non-UK agriculture. Failure to approve the SI would put our organic operators at risk of regulatory disruption, which could really affect their ability to trade.

In conclusion, the SIs are essential for smooth transition. Without them, we could not meet some of our international obligations. Retained legislation would not be operable, and vital transitional provisions would not be in place. I urge the Committee to approve the SIs.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. As ever, I thank the Minister for a full and comprehensive account of the latest pair of statutory instruments that we are discussing, which cover geographical indicators, wine and organics.

Let me start with the SI on agricultural products, which, as the Minister said, is already in effect. We understand why it is in effect: by the end of last year, urgent action was needed. The Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy, based on brinkmanship, determined that, and this weekend’s newspapers were full of the consequences. He said that there would be “no non-tariff barriers”, and the Minister will remember my fury on the day she briefed MPs, just after Christmas, at what I consider to be an outrageous misrepresentation. Everywhere we turn, we see businesses struggling with new rules and complexities. Although it is hard to imagine how much worse it could have been, it could have been even worse, so we understand why the legislation was needed urgently. In many cases, however, these are interim or bridging arrangements, as described in the explanatory memorandum. My fear is that there will be a lot of bridging in the months and years ahead, but we will deal with that as it comes.

The SIs relate to two areas where the Government published specific annexes in the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU: wine and organics. Some of my comments will relate to the interaction between those annexes and these SIs—not least the range of timescales in which things may happen, and the degree of uncertainty that that brings to everyone involved. In some cases there will be changes in a few months, as the Minister mentioned, but in the longest case it will be three years. Of course, there is always change in the world, but it is fair to say that in the last few decades, most businesses have operated in a fairly stable environment, which is what they tend to like. That is no longer the case. That is why it is so important that even if there is no certainty, there is transparency and clarity from the Government so that people have some idea of what to expect.

Geographical indicators are hugely important to our food businesses, and they are much prized. Indeed, reports suggest that they were one of the key areas in the negotiations with the EU. The Minister may wish to comment on whether the UK’s negotiating objectives were achieved. The lack of transparency throughout this entire process is illustrated by the fact that we rely on leaks and speculation, but today is an opportunity. Can we be told what the UK sought, and whether this is it? Personally, I rather doubt it.

Paragraph 7.3 of the explanatory memorandum suggests that the way out of the problem of running out of time and the complexity of ratification procedures in different countries is what would, in other walks of life, be described as “holding it together with some bits of string”. It is euphemistically described here as a “political commitment”. The Minister, as I have observed previously, knows the law well. I would be interested to get her view on what legal standing such political commitments confer, how any challenges might be dealt with and how long such bridging arrangements, supported by political commitments, will be in place. We may not get a clear answer, because I suspect no one knows.

Importantly, the instrument also deals with the rules on wine imports. I am sure the Minister has seen some of the stories in the media in recent days concerning the problems encountered by wine importers. There is a six-month transitional period before the rules in this instrument apply, so one could say that the troubles have only just begun. I am sure she will have seen the coverage of the problems faced by Daniel Lambert, which have been widely reported. He has speculated about the extra costs and what they might translate into. An extra £1 a bottle on a bottle of wine may not slip down well with some Government Members’ constituents, so there may be some explaining to do.

In my constituency, Hal Wilson, who runs the excellent Cambridge Wine Merchants, tells me that it has 19,000 bottles of red wine from Spain currently stuck in the system. I fear from past experience that the Secretary of State will tell us that this is an excellent opportunity for English wine growers, but I would gently say to the Government that it might be worth their while getting this sorted out. Like most people, I want my red wine in a glass, not a warehouse.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association argues that 99.5% of the wine consumed in the UK is imported, and it therefore makes little sense to roll over EU-based legislation—in the WSTA’s view, the legislation was designed to act as a non-tariff barrier to protect EU wine producers—now that the transition period has ended. The WSTA makes a serious point, and I wonder whether the Minister could comment on it. It says that, even with the new simplified approach to wine import documentation for EU wine imports in the TCA, the requirement is still burdensome for producers and importers alike, while the requirement for the costly VI-1 form for non-EU wine remains.

The WSTA suggests removing the requirement completely. It also says that although the form offers self-certification, it still requires a customs stamp. If that were to be introduced electronically, it would need to be linked to the customs declaration service, and that would take a number of years to implement. Given that there were previously no certification requirements for EU wines coming into the UK, the WSTA argues that it makes no sense to introduce the requirement for a paper-based system when the ultimate goal is to replace it with an electronic system as soon as is practicable. The WSTA therefore recommends deferring the requirement to provide wine import documentation from the EU until the electronic system foreseen in “Trade in Wine”, article 3 of annex TBT-5 to the TCA, can be introduced.

That annex also says that within three years, there will be further discussion between the parties to facilitate trade in wine. In other words, there is absolutely no certainty for the future. Can the Minister tell us what the Government seek to achieve in those discussions? I would welcome her comments, because there is a theme emerging in all our discussions of these detailed statutory instruments. Here we are discussing the law, but in the real world, the practical implementation and the systems are causing the problems. As the Executive, the Government are particularly responsible for the latter.

The interim nature of the arrangements for wine is mirrored in the provisions for organics in the statutory instruments that we are debating. Welcome as they are, many of the timeframes are short. It is just six months before certificates of inspection for imports will be required. The second instrument, on organics, raises a number of questions. Paragraph 2.4 of the explanatory memorandum refers to rules for a UK organic logo “when developed”. As the Minister said, we have looked at the designs previously, but perhaps we can be told when that is likely to happen, and why there are delays.

OF&G Organic certifies more than half the UK organic land, and Roger Kerr, its chief executive officer, tells me that the securing of an organic equivalence within the free trade agreement was welcome. However, this is only for a limited period of time, and unless both the EU and UK recognise the other party as equivalent at the end of the current arrangement, it will fall away, leaving UK operators denied access to the European market. He says:

“This is only 36 months away and leaves UK organic businesses in a position that they will be unable to secure long term supply contracts due to the on-going uncertainty. The delays around securing the FTA and the uncertainty with whether there would be an organic equivalency agreement within that, has already had a negative impact on UK operators through the loss of hard won markets.”

The Minister will remember we discussed that point in an SI debate before Christmas, when that recognition was still in doubt.

I am afraid the problems go further still, as Roger explains. He says:

“The FTA also does not make provision for the ‘selling on’ of unprocessed products that are imported into the UK. For example at the moment organic soya imported into Hull cannot be subsequently shipped to NI under the current terms of the FTA, leaving NI organic livestock producers potentially without the correct balanced rations for their animals. Import/export businesses which currently import products from Europe and then consolidate loads for export again are no longer able to do this. Specialist food manufacturers who have their products packed by specialist packers in Europe and then import the finished product back into the UK for distribution to their customers cannot export these products to their European customers. This will have significant impacts across the UK organic supply chain and needs to be resolved as soon as possible.”

We recognise the importance of having arrangements in place on GIs, on wine and on organics, so we will not oppose these statutory instruments. However, we believe that in too many cases, they are just bridging measures. With so many businesses struggling at the moment, there are many questions to be answered, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some answers.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I will do my best. This is not the time or the place for a discussion of the rights and wrongs of Brexit, or indeed the rights and wrongs of the TCA. I am extremely pleased that we were able to agree a tariff-free arrangement for trading with our friends and neighbours in the EU.

The UK GIs are already on the EU register and, as such, they remain protected. We have agreed a review clause in the TCA, so that we can agree the rules with the Commission in future on how we protect GIs. I think that is a perfectly satisfactory arrangement. I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman before how ambitious the Government are in the GI space, and I feel that this system will work well for both sides.

I turn to some specifics. VI-1s are already established for imports from other non-EU sources of wine, of which there are many, as we all know. We have a competitive market for wine in the UK, and we decided that the existing rules should be retained for imports from the EU, rather than establishing a new and specific EU policy. The policy was decided in the interests of treating the wine industry as a whole. Nevertheless, this instrument provides an easement to give traders time to get used to the new arrangements until 1 July. That will allow EU wine to continue to be imported using commercial documentation, as it was when the UK was subject to the previous EU rules.

The hon. Gentleman pressed me about the future. It is true that leaving the EU gives us the ability to look critically at the laws we have inherited from the EU, to ensure that they remain fit for purpose. In a world where we drink wine from all around the world—including from on our own shores—we will consider in due course whether there is a case for revisiting the requirements of the VI-1 certification.

The hon. Gentleman asked about organics. We are committed to the highest organic standards and will carefully consider any enhancements to them. This is the beginning of a new chapter for the UK. We will use the Agriculture Act 2020 to set an ambitious new course for the organic sector. We are working to ensure that organic goods can continue to move freely between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In terms of movement into Northern Ireland, through the Joint Committee agreement and the UK-EU TCA, we have secured easements to allow time for adjustments to take place. The easement on the requirement of certificates of inspection will ensure the smooth flow of the majority of organic products at the border for three months. During that time, we are engaging heavily with the organics sector, the Northern Ireland Executive, port authorities and others, to help them to prepare for the end of the easement in April. In the light of that, I ask that the Committee approve these statutory instruments.

Question put and agreed to.

ORGANIC PRODUCTION (ORGANIC INDICATIONS) (AMENDMENT) (EU EXIT) REGULATIONS 2020

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the Organic Production (Organic Indications) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 (S.I. 2020, No. 1669.)—(Victoria Prentis.)

Official Controls (Animals, Feed and Food, Plant Health etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 Draft Plant Health (Amendment) Regulations 2020

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 20th January 2021

(3 months, 4 weeks ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

The regulations and the draft regulations were laid before this House on 22 December and 9 December last year, respectively.

The regulations complete the suite of European Union exit amendments set out in the Official Controls (Animals, Feed and Food, Plant Health etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, which were debated unopposed in the House on 30 November 2020, and came into force shortly before midnight on 31 December. As with the first SI, the second one—the regulations before us —amends EU retained regulations governing official controls on imports to Great Britain of animals and animal products, and plants and plant products, including food and other imports relevant to the agrifood chain, collectively known as sanitary and phytosanitary or SPS checks.

The EU regulatory structure being retained and made operable by the amendments is extensive and complex. Owing to the intricacy of the amendments required, we took the decision to divide the necessary legislation into two instruments. That is why we are debating this second one today. The first focused on operability amendments to the main body of EU official controls regulations. This one makes similar operability amendments to more than 30 separate tertiary regulations, covering procedural aspects of the official controls regime, including regulation of model certificates, transits and transhipments, operation of border control posts and specific requirements for certain categories of animal and plant import control. The SI ensures that we can continue to deliver robust, effective controls and checks on all food, animal and plant imports.

We have now started to phase in border controls on imports from the European economic area. That prioritises flow at the border and gives business and industry longer to prepare for the full controls regime. It is a temporary, pragmatic step to support international trade and mitigate disruption, made necessary partly by the impact of the pandemic. From July this year, we will have controls in place for all imports of EU SPS goods.

Moving on, the draft plant health regulations will help us to achieve unfettered market access for Northern Irish businesses moving goods into Great Britain, which is a key commitment of the Northern Ireland protocol and of the UK internal market. The draft regulations specify the mechanism to allow regulated plants and plant materials to move from Northern Ireland into Great Britain. The instrument will not introduce any policy changes, and the devolved Administrations have given their consent.

The draft regulations will protect biosecurity and support trade by amending retained EU law to allow movements of qualifying goods into Great Britain under an EU plant passport. For Northern Irish businesses trading with Great Britain, nothing will change compared with the situation at the end of last year. It makes amendments to the format of UK plant passports, to allow identification of qualifying goods on the GB market, which should ensure traceability in the event of a biosecurity issues arising.

Once in Great Britain, an EU plant passport can continue to accompany the qualifying goods—it will look simply like a label. Authorised operators will also have the option to replace the EU plant passport with a UK plant passport, should they, for example, want to split a consignment where each trade unit is not already covered by an individual plant passport.

The draft regulations also provide for goods to be assessed against GB plant health standards where those differ from those of the EU, and there is an option for the authorised operator to issue a UK plant passport where goods are assessed as meeting GB plant health requirements. Under the terms of the protocol, Northern Ireland will maintain alignment with the EU plant health regime rather than that of Great Britain. Finally, the regulations make consequential amendments to domestic legislation.

The regulations and draft regulations will ensure that legislation to maintain UK biosecurity will continue to function in Great Britain and that we shall continue to deliver an effective imports system that guarantees our high standards of food and animal safety, while ensuring frictionless trading and movements.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve with you in the Chair, Sir David. It brings back happy memories of considering the Bill that became the Agriculture Act 2020. Of course, we are returning to the ongoing dialogue about the changes to checks and controls on food and plant movements that we were enjoying last year.

I note that the first of the statutory instruments has a similar title—with the helpful addition of a bracketed No. 2 for clarification—to the one that we discussed at the end of November, to which the Minister has made reference. On that occasion our exchanges were brief, and lasted no more than 10 minutes. Once again I assure the Minister that the Opposition will not oppose the measures, because we want the systems to work. However, I cannot promise to be quite so brief today.

The fact that we are not opposing the measures and that once again the discussion is likely to be relatively short raises the question of why Members have been brought to London, which in my view puts staff and Members at risk. Ministers can do Zoom calls with 250 participants. I am not sure whether they always do them very well, although perhaps I am being unkind. However, I wonder why on earth seven or eight of us must be physically in this room at a time of maximum danger. Perhaps that point could be relayed to the authorities that make such decisions. I understand that we shall be doing the same on Monday.

Having got those matters off my chest, I will turn to the statutory instruments. As the Minister said, the issues are important and complicated, with a panoply of controls being transposed into UK law. Now we are in the possibly more advantageous position of having some experience of how things are going. Sadly, I am afraid that we see on a daily basis that the promises about many of the systems—that they would be ready and working—were just that: promises. The reality has been rather different, and the extraordinary assertion by the Prime Minister that there were to be no non-tariff barriers has been shown to be completely inaccurate, as we said at the time.

In the explanatory memorandum to the first of the statutory instruments, on official controls, we begin to get an explanation of what was happening in December as the UK sought essential third-country status. I remember questioning the Minister at the time, and as always she was helpful, if discreet. Paragraphs 7.4 and 7.5 explain the time constraints and the fact that effectively a two-stage process was needed, with more than 30 regulations intended for inclusion in the first statutory instrument being held over. As is outlined in paragraph 7.6, the regulations were implemented first, and are now being debated. So much for taking back control.

My first question is relatively simple. If there was to be a two-stage process, why were we not told that in November? I have no recollection of that being explained. Clearly the Government knew what they were doing, but why could not the British public or, indeed, Parliament, be trusted with the information about what was going on, given that it has such a direct impact on us? Why the secrecy? Of course, it raises the question of what we are not being told now.

It is always interesting to scrutinise statutory instruments when they have already been discussed in the other place. Not only does one get to hear the Government speech twice, which is of course a great pleasure, but the Minister in the other place is particularly diligent and exhaustive in his replies, and his inquisitors are often highly experienced former occupants of the role. I therefore watched yesterday’s exchanges closely and noted that there were so many pressing questions from the noble Lords that the Minister promised to answer in what he described as a “substantial letter”. Today, officials have had a further day to mull over some of the points that were raised, and I hope that we can have some more direct answers immediately.

Lord Rooker as ever asked incisive questions on reference laboratories, and others, including my colleague the shadow Minister, Baroness Hayman, joined him in pressing on that issue. The answer seemed to me to be somewhat vague, so I ask directly again about the reintroduction of European Union reference laboratories into this instrument. DEFRA’s answer to the questions—some of which were posed by Friends of the Earth in response to the points raised by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee—implies we do not currently have a reference laboratory that uses the standard operating procedures. Could the Minister elaborate on that? In my view, saying that the intention is that it will be done does not seem good enough.

We also learned about the staged implementation of measures, with pre-notification requirements from April and full controls from July. Yet, when responding to Baroness Hayman, the Minister told of 29 applications to build new border control posts, and 14 in Scotland—applications to build. Could the Minister tell us how long will that take? Will they be in place and operating in 24 weeks’ time? On staffing, as Lord Rooker asked, how many of the staff needed for April will be in place? It is mid-January now. They need to be recruited and trained.

When it comes to the computer systems, as a former IT person myself, I rather enjoyed the naive optimism of the Minister, as he gamely admitted computers were not really his thing and that systems were “under development”—for July! In my experience, I do not think that is likely. We have already seen the myriad problems being faced by businesses with systems that do not work. It looks as if it is going to get a whole lot worse yet. I ask the Minister to explain to us today, or maybe add to her colleague’s “substantial letter”, which systems are under development and what stage that development has reached.

Let me pick up some of the further points raised by Friends of the Earth. I am grateful for its detailed reading of these instruments, which helpfully highlight the reduction in oversight and transparency of import conditions under regulation 2 of the lead SI. I have complained to the Minister before about the negative SI procedure. I gently remind her that the relaxation of competition rules in the grocery sector, which were prayed against last summer, have still not been heard. Indeed, in that time they have lapsed, so competition was restored, and then they were relaxed again through, I imagine, a further negative instrument. Yet there has been no discussion and no scrutiny. I have no objection to prompt action, but I do object to a lack of transparency.

I must conclude that the system does not work, and Friends of the Earth is right to question the cumulative potential impact. The Minister will be aware that following the votes on the Trade Bill last night, critics are pointing to examples where Government can now make changes, lowering standards out of sight. I am afraid that we are now seeing many examples of exactly that happening.

The answer to Friends of the Earth’s questions includes the extraordinary assertion by DEFRA that the exercise of the power referenced by one of the questions was,

“unlikely to be sufficiently serious or contentious to justify using the affirmative resolution procedure”.

Of course, DEFRA would say that, but it is not for Government to decide whether their actions are contentious; that is for Parliament.

Could the Minister clarify the meaning of regulation 13 and the minimum specific requirements for vets? I really do not like the sound of it. It is pretty clear that we do not have enough vets. Does this give Ministers the powers to solve the problem by reducing the veterinary oversight? I hope not, but hidden in the labyrinthine details of these regulations are too many opportunities for what many would see as deregulation by stealth.

Friends of the Earth also queries the pest risk emergency lists. The answer given was again, essentially, “We have an expert group, the UK Plant Health Risk Group, so trust us.” Well, we broadly do, but yet again, it looks to me that there is again a reduction in transparency. I hope the Minister can persuade me that I am wrong.

Let me move to the draft regulations on plant health. Again, we will not oppose it, because we want the system to work, and we are reassured that the Horticultural Trades Association is happy with this. It tells me:

“The key SI for us is the Plant Health Regulation which sets out the requirement for Qualifying Northern Ireland Goods to enter GB under an EU Plant Passport and sets out how these EU Plant Passported goods should be treated once in GB. However, a key point we would make here is that this SI exempts goods traveling from within the EU plant health area traveling NI to GB, whereas the EU has not made the same exemptions for goods traveling from GB to NI.”

This is, of course, a recurrent theme. Could the Minister update us on any representations being made, and whether she thinks this is an advantageous arrangement for us? I suspect, like me, she does not.

The Horticultural Trades Association has also helpfully developed a seven-point plan to improve the phytosanitary and border control process with a series of detailed recommendations around developing better relationships and protocols, simplifying data entry and so on, of which I am sure the Minister is aware. I would welcome an update on progress on those points.

I will conclude by giving a practical example of why all this matters so much. It is a case passed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) involving a harrowing account from a business located in Hampshire. The company says—I am paraphrasing—that a system that worked perfectly well for over 20 years is now in chaos. It details extra costs of between £130 and £150 for inspection of each consignment coming from Europe, which it estimates will add an extra £30,000 per annum to its costs. The business says there are only two inspectors in northern Holland to check thousands of consignments, leading to huge delays. According to the company, “it’s insanity.”

Particularly relevant to this SI is what the company says about the UK plant passport, which I will quote in full:

“It is now required for plants to have the U.K. plant passport printed or displayed on them either on the pot or on the label or sleeve. What that means is that a sticker has to be attached to each item/carton/case with this new U.K. plant passport printed on it. So for imported food for the U.K. the EU growers EU plant passport is no longer enough (which has been perfectly acceptable for 40 years) now the U.K. plant passport has to be added. Each U.K. importer has a different U.K. plant passport number so it is impossible to have a generic or multi user solution. The extra work and cost involved in printing and attaching this U.K. plant passport is quite simply astonishing. Typically a truckload with plants can contain in excess of 20,000 plants. That is 20,000 stickers that need to be attached to each and every plant for just 1 truckload. It’s total madness!! I currently have 150 truckloads coming to UK. That is roughly 500,000 plants. All need to have new labels stuck on them!!”

Discussions of statutory instruments often seem dry, but they have an impact on the real world—on our constituents. It might be that there have been some misunderstandings here, and I hope the Minister or her officials can provide clarification. I will pass the details of this case to the Minister in the hope that some help can be offered. In the experience of those who need them, the systems currently in place are quite clearly not working.

The Prime Minister initially said there were no non-tariff barriers, but now the line is that there are “teething problems”. Frankly, they are not teething problems, but structural problems. I understand the Minister said as much during a Westminster Forum event this morning, although I would be grateful if she told me I am wrong about that. The first step in tackling a problem is to recognise and understand it, and not deny it. These are difficult issues that are not going away, and we need to resolve them quickly.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

I will, as ever, try to answer all of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. If I miss one, it is inadvertent. I know that the Lords Minister will be writing a substantial letter, so I will ensure that reaches the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble will pick up on some of the points that have been made in both Houses in the last two days.

On the general point, I will not get involved in the discussion about whether we should be here, but I heard what the hon. Gentleman said to you, Sir David. Negative SIs are published and are fully available for parliamentary scrutiny and debate, so I will not get involved in that debate either.

On why this SI was not debated at the time of the first official controls instrument, we laid that at the start of November and debated and published it by mid-December, because that was a condition of the Commission for us to be listed as a third country, which was critical for the movement of some goods that are imported into the UK. Given the complexity of the legislative amendments made to the whole body of retained EU legislation, we decided to deliver the amendments through two separate statutory instruments. There was no secrecy or peculiarity about that; it was merely a practical step and it is why we are here today. Both SIs were laid before the House in December—one on 9 December, and the other on 22 December—so they have been available to be scrutinised openly. That was what they were there for and the explanatory note makes that clear, so I do not think there has been any secrecy about the position.

I have read the Friends of the Earth queries, which are technical. The Minister in the other place made it clear that they required a detailed response, so I will leave those for the substantive letter from the Department. On border control posts and infrastructure, I have not read the Lords debate, but I suspect the other place was told that DEFRA had approved expressions of interests for 29 new BCPs from providers in England and Wales. The Animal and Plant Health Agency tells us that the building is progressing and it is confident that they can be ready by July. Two further applications are under consideration and further expressions of interest are expected in Scotland. That work is under way, and the teams working on it are hopeful—indeed, they expect—that it will be completed in time.

DEFRA is working with port health authorities, APHA and the Food Standards Agency to recruit and train the additional staff required for each stage of the import regime. We have recruited 176 plant health and seed inspectors who are in post now, and we expect their number to increase to up to 300 by July. For animals and animal products, we expect to employ 200 inspectors by April and a further 80 by July, together with 360 administrative staff. Recruitment has been ongoing since at least November and training is happening. A great deal of work is being done to get ready for our sensible, pragmatic and phased approach to bringing in the border checks. The EU reference laboratories are not covered in the official controls regulations, but I will write separately to the hon. Gentleman on that matter.

Continuing to try answer the questions in order, we are confident that we have enough trained vets. We made surge capacity of vets available over this period but not much has been used, so there is still spare surge capacity. I would never say that the situation is not challenging for exporters; I know it is, but we are confident that there is enough capacity at the moment and surge capacity is there if individuals need it.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to refer specific cases to me and my officials, who are working hand in hand to support companies that are trying to export. We will willingly take them up. I also encourage anybody trying to export to make full use of our training programmes, webinars and individual support. There is a great deal of support to get businesses ready for the new checks.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That was not quite the question I was asking, although we are all concerned about the availability of vets. The suggestion from Friends of the Earth is that within these changes Minsters may have given themselves the ability to reduce veterinary oversight, which is another way of dealing with the problem but not one that many would be happy with.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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Certainly, the intention behind the statutory instruments is to have a robust system in place for protecting our biosecurity. I remember debating last year with the hon. Gentleman how to tailor our approach so that biosecurity in this country could be done better than over an entire continent. I will make sure that the my noble Friend Lord Gardiner answers the point made by Friends of the Earth, because I am not absolutely certain what point it is worried about, but I will look into it and make sure that the hon. Gentleman is copied into that letter.

Even though the second SI is clearly about NI to GB, a question was posed about what progress has been made on equivalence, and although that issue is not specifically in scope, I think it is only fair that I answer it briefly. If I may summarise, the question is what progress has been made in UK-EU equivalence negotiations. DEFRA submitted applications for third-country equivalence on a number of occasions, as I outlined many times last year. In late December, the EU formally confirmed that it would grant equivalence for seed and other propagating material and would lift prohibitions on ware potatoes, for example. The EU has published an equivalence decision for fruit and vegetable propagating material, which also included lifting the prohibition on ware potatoes, and we are currently waiting for it to reach a Council decision on forest reproductive material and agricultural seed. We are pushing the EU very hard for a timeline for that decision. We continue to push on a regular basis for the lifting of the prohibition, and we are pursuing an application under article 44 of the plant health regulation on the equivalence of plant health measures generally.

I hope that that deals with the substance of the questions, and I commend these two instruments to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

DRAFT PLANT HEALTH (AMENDMENT) (EU EXIT) REGULATIONS 2020

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Plant Health (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.—(Victoria Prentis.)

Draft Animal Welfare and Invasive Non-native Species (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 9th December 2020

(5 months, 1 week ago)

General Committees

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

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Animal Welfare and Invasive Non-native Species (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. This statutory instrument amends earlier EU exit regulations in three areas: animal welfare, leghold traps and pelt imports, and invasive non-native species. The amendments ensure that retained EU law continues to remain effective and operable at the end of the transition period and in accordance with the Northern Ireland protocol.

The SI amends the regulations relating to the welfare of animals during transport, at control posts and at slaughter, to ensure that they remain operable in accordance with the Northern Ireland protocol. It will end recognition in Great Britain of transporter authorisations, driver and attendant certificates of competence, vehicle approvals and journey logs that are issued by an EU member state. From the end of the transition period, EU transporters will have to apply to a competent authority for those documents in order to be able to continue to transport animals in and through GB. That will allow for better enforcement, create a level playing field and ensure that GB transporters are not commercially disadvantaged, because the EU is applying similar rules. Transport documents issued in Northern Ireland will continue to be acceptable for use in Great Britain.

Additionally, the SI ensures that we meet obligations under the UK-Ireland common travel area by making provision for training that is carried out in the Republic of Ireland to be recognised as equivalent to that in GB for the purpose of giving a driver or attendant certificate of competence in GB. It makes amendments to regulations protecting animals at slaughter and will ensure that slaughterers’ certificates of competence issued in any part of the UK will continue to be recognised across GB.

Without the SI, EU transporters could continue to move animals into and through the UK, but we would lack the ability to take enforcement action if they breached the rules on the welfare of animals in transport. Following an animal welfare incident, the ability to suspend or revoke a certificate of competence or a transporter authorisation until that transporter has been retrained is an important enforcement mechanism. Live animal movements should be carefully planned, based on predicted journey times. Long journeys must be approved by the competent authority, as any delay could result in significant welfare issues. The SI will ensure that from the start of the year, EU transporters will need to apply to the GB competent authority to gain approval for their planned journeys.

The existing exit instruments amend the retained EU leghold trap regulation. The regulations that prohibit the use of leghold traps and the import of pelts and manufactured goods from certain wild animal species make the retained legislation compatible with the Northern Ireland protocol, and they ensure that the import of pelts and pelt products from the EU will be treated in the same way as imports from any other third country. The regulations will continue to prohibit the use of leghold traps in Great Britain and to ensure that only pelts sourced from captive-bred animals, or pelts from approved countries that abide by humane trapping standards, are imported. They will maintain the high standards and controls that are currently in place for pelt imports.

On invasive non-native species, the SI makes technical amendments to ensure the proper working of retained EU law and the management of the Northern Ireland protocol. The changes make provision for the devolved Administrations to be consulted properly about species listing and decisions on reserved matters. That is particularly important in relation to grey squirrels in Scotland, for example, where they have particularly strong views as they are working hard to promote red squirrels. The changes also allow traders in Northern Ireland to continue to use established rules on the sale of commercial stocks after a species has been listed.

The regulations ensure that specimens seized at the UK border do not have to be transported to England or Wales: border officials in Northern Ireland and Scotland, for example, may send seized animals to local facilities instead of having to ship them to England or Wales. They also make a minor change relating to civil sanctions to bring clarity on the procedure and appeal rights for non-compliance. Furthermore, the changes allow for temporary emergency restrictions on previously unlisted species to be introduced and enforced promptly where that is necessary.

The draft regulations will ensure that the Northern Ireland protocol is upheld and that, in line with Government policy, we can enhance and continue to enforce our high animal welfare standards and protect the UK’s biosecurity at the end of the transition period. I commend them to the Committee.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Cummins. Last week I commented on the eclectic grouping of statutory instruments and today we have an eclectic group of things within a statutory instrument—never let it be said we do not have variety in our lives.

The regulations have already been discussed in the Lords, so let me echo some of the points made by my colleague, Baroness Hayman. It is clear that the SI makes necessary changes in three areas: to secure the continuity of an effective regime for animal welfare in transport, slaughter and other areas; to continue the ban on leghold traps and the import of pelts obtained by that method; and to ensure that the strict protections placed against invasive non-native species are maintained. It also, importantly, provides continuity to business in those areas after the end of the transition period.

Much in the SI is about the reciprocal arrangements being discussed with the Republic of Ireland. Last week, Baroness Hayman inquired about progress and, of course, there was a statement in the Chamber earlier today, but will the Minister say whether those arrangements have any impact on the areas under consideration? This is perhaps a bit mischievous, given that the Prime Minister seemed unwilling or unable to answer a direct question earlier, but can she perhaps tell us how many of the 50,000 promised customs agents are in place? I am sure that Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs follow that closely.

To return to the detail, as the Minister explained the SI will end the recognition in Great Britain of a number of documents that relate to animal welfare maintenance, including transport authorisations, driver and attendant certificates of competence, vehicle approvals and journey logs. EU transporters will need to apply for those documents to be issued by a competent authority in Great Britain if they wish to continue to transport animals in Great Britain after the end of the transition period. According to the explanatory memorandum:

“Doing so will cause these individuals to incur a small cost.”

However, it seems that no impact assessment has been prepared for the provisions relating to the changes in documentation. Why is that? What might the impact be? How many such EU transporters are there? Are they expected to continue to operate? If not, what effect would that have? How have the new procedures been communicated to them?

The regulations are about ensuring that welfare in transport is respected. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee looked at them and the Government responded to its questions by saying:

“Although EU and GB standards will remain aligned at the end of the transition period, we have ambitions to strengthen welfare in transport standards in the near future.”

Of course, that was a prescient observation on the Government’s part, because last week DEFRA announced its welcome consultation on how to improve animal welfare during transport. Of course, that was intended partly to trumpet the great triumph of Brexit that we can now end the live export of animals; for some of us, that is one of the few tangible benefits that has been discernible, which is doubtless why it is cited so frequently. But let us be grateful, because although live exports may have declined considerably over the years to some 35,000 animals a year—although I am told that the figure varies—that is 35,000 too many, and we want to see an end to it.

I will point out a couple of issues on which the Minister might be able to provide clarity. Compassion in World Farming has long campaigned for an end to live exports. CIWF is puzzled and disappointed, as we are, by the proposed length of maximum journey times within the UK, which in our view are far too long. It is proposed that pigs could be transported for 18 hours or sheep and cattle for 21 hours, and for even longer with permission from the Animal and Plant Health Agency. CIWF says that in its view that is ridiculous. There are few journeys within the UK of that length. It argues that the maximum for each species should be eight hours, with a maximum of six hours for unweaned calves. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

CIWF also says:

“The underlying principle should be that animals should be slaughtered as near as possible to the farm of rearing and fattened on or near the farm of birth.”

I suspect that, like me, the Minister would largely agree with that principle, but, as was raised in the Lords, that hinges on the availability of local abattoirs, and I wonder if the Minister could therefore comment on both the journey times, and the Government’s policy on the availability of local abattoirs, for which I think a powerful case has been made by campaigners in recent times.

To return to the detail of the SI and the transport arrangements, it seems likely, as with any new system when it is introduced, that there will be teething problems. Is there any form of discretion that can be exercised if a transporter arrives at a port without the relevant paperwork? If not, have the Government considered what kind of delay this is likely to cause and at what potential cost? What plans are in place to deal with such potential problems?

Turning to leg traps, I think we will all agree that we want to ensure that there are strong provisions against these barbaric traps and that we exclude products associated with them. In paragraph 7.5 of the explanatory memorandum there is a fairly standard claim about our wonderfully high welfare standards. I do not entirely agree with the Government’s view. In some aspects of animal welfare, we frankly are not world leading.

I am told that we are only one of five countries in Europe that do not prohibit the use of snares, which, in the words of the League Against Cruel Sports are “cruel and indiscriminate”. In the league’s view, they are

“used extensively for the extermination of native animals simply to produce as many birds as possible to be short for sport”.

The league has calculated, based on the Government’s own research, that 1.7 million animals a year are killed in these traps. Although the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that they should be set only for rabbits and foxes, many other animals are regularly caught in them, and, as Baroness Bennett noted in the Lords debate on this SI, there is particularly horrific film footage of badgers being entrapped, and frequent reports about domestic pets being caught in, injured by and sometimes even killed by snares. Will the Government take the opportunity, when reconsidering animal welfare, to look at the whole issue of snares and to consider joining most of the countries of Europe in banning them?

On the invasive non-native species element of the SI, the Government say that an impact assessment has not been prepared for the provisions on invasive non-native species, because this instrument relates to the maintenance of existing regulatory standards. However, they also say in paragraph 2.24 of the explanatory memorandum that they are making improvements to the domestic enforcement legislation relating to invasive non-native species. In that case, why has no assessment been carried out of the impact of these changes?

We recognise the need to ensure that retained EU legislation in these important areas remains operable, and therefore will not oppose the draft regulations, but we would like clarification on the points raised.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman. I will do my best to answer the many questions he raised. On the impact assessment on live animal exports, we have not done a formal public consultation, but we have engaged directly with industry representatives on the issue. The SI relates to the maintenance of an existing regulation. We would not anticipate an enormous amount of impact as a result. There are, as the hon. Gentleman said, limited impacts on European business, but there is no effect on GB public services, for example. The EU has made it quite clear that the provision is reciprocal. We are quite clear that we have extra staff in APHA to process any new EU business applications, so we feel that we have done what is necessary there.

On the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s statement, I was pleased to be in the Chamber and hear what he had to say. He announced a really useful grace period for supermarkets and those in their supply chains. We have not yet got all the details of what the Joint Committee has agreed, but I look forward to engaging with them fully in the coming days as they become available. It is a welcome statement and I am pleased that we came to that level of agreement.

On live animal exports, I heard what the Member had to say on the consultation. It is an eight-week consultation and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman joining in with it. We will also be consulting on transport for animals more generally, for example on maximum journey times, the amount of space available for animals while they are being transported, stricter temperature controls and the specific rules for sea transport. It is important that we view this as about not just live animal exports, but the whole conglomeration of issues about animals being moved. On that note, on small and local abattoirs, I noticed that the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare has produced a useful report on the role of the small abattoir, which is something that I personally have long been interested in, and indeed the role of the mobile slaughterer.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I, too, was very impressed by that report. Going back to those journey times, there is genuine puzzlement—it was not simply a criticism—as to why those long times have been proposed. It might help some of the people responding to understand the thinking behind that.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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I will not go into the ins and outs of the consultation, but I encourage those responding to be forthright and frank and to make their views clearly felt, and the evidence behind them. Of course, the Government acknowledge the important role of small abattoirs. The decline in their numbers is due to a combination of factors including, for example, consolidation in the retail sector and the drive for greater efficiency, which has led to consolidation in a small number of large abattoirs. Officials in DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency are working with the Sustainable Food Trust to understand why that has happened and to see whether steps can be taken to reduce regulatory burdens, which might help small abattoirs to survive.

I come to the INNS part of this SI, on non-native species. The policy change, which is not related to EU exit, relates to a sensible provision that means that enforcement officers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who seize a cargo of live animals that should not be there will not have to transport them a long distance to England or Wales to be processed. This is not something that will be often used, we very much hope, but it is a completely sensible and practical provision to reduce the stress and burden on those live animals. That is why we feel an impact assessment is not necessary. The whole point is to improve animal welfare and prevent the associated costs and bureaucracy caused by sending the animals on a long journey to where they have to go at the moment to be correctly processed—that is the purpose of that.

I reiterate that these regulations will not amend any current animal welfare standards. They make operability changes to ensure that existing EU law works appropriately at the end of the transition period. With that in mind, I commend them to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Exiting the European Union (Plant Health)

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. These statutory instruments are broadly transferring rules into GB law, but we are able to use this moment in our history to ensure that they are better suited to us and the biosecurity risks that concern us. As he says, in the midst of a pandemic that takes on a special and added significance.

Protecting biosecurity is of enormous importance for any Government. It is important that we facilitate the import and movement of plant material, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said earlier, but this must be done in a biosecure manner. That is why these operability amendments, with their focus on risks to GB, are so important. They establish our future plant health regime and ensure that the current phytosanitary protections, which are vital to protect our biosecurity, are maintained at the end of the transition period. I commend the draft regulations to the House.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I echo the Minister’s points about just how important these measures are. At first sight, they perhaps seem slightly impenetrable and very lengthy. The two instruments run to some 272 pages and 76 pages, and I doubt whether any of us has the energy or the expertise to be absolutely certain that everything is correct. As we have said in many other statutory instrument debates, it is probably only the people who are drafting them who really know that for sure. So there is always some cause for concern. On a personal level, I remember visiting the fantastic Sainsbury laboratory in the University of Cambridge a few years ago to be briefed on ash dieback. It is striking to see not only the excellent work that is being done to tackle these issues but the constant threats that we are facing. That is why it is so important that these controls are in place and that they are transposed in the correct way.

We are told that these two SIs have been laid using powers under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and that their stated aim is to protect biosecurity and support trade by ensuring that effective phytosanitary controls continue to operate within GB and between GB and the EU at the end the transition period. We are also told that they establish the future plant health regime for Great Britain by ensuring that EU legislation related to phytosanitary controls is retained—and corrected as necessary, as the Minister has explained—to maintain the existing risk-based approach. The Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Forestry Commission will be delivering the measures in these regulations, and we are told that they are developing an implementation plan and that associated guidance will be published on gov.uk. We are also told that separate legislative arrangements will be needed for Northern Ireland in order to maintain alignment with sanitary and phytosanitary-related EU regulations and to specify requirements for GB goods entering Northern Ireland. Well, that is probably an understatement. I would echo some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and I will return to that later.

The Government say that the amendments introduced are technical operability amendments and do not include any policy changes. That is what is said, of course, of many statutory instruments and we may beg to differ at some point. It appears that no impact assessments have been carried out, and that the regulations were not reported by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and had not been raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. As we have heard, the draft Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 make operability amendments to the retained EU plant health regulations, as well as consequential amendments to domestic law. The draft Plant Health (Phytosanitary Conditions) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 defines at some length, as I have said, the list of regulated products and pests, and prescribes the requirements for entry and movement of regulated items into GB and within GB to reduce the risks in connection with those pests to an acceptable level.

Since the result of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is that the UK leaves the EU single market, the operability amendments contained in this instrument create a single market covering GB and the crown dependencies. The EU will thus become a third country and, as a result, will be subject to third country import controls. The Government tell us that the current policy of risk-based plant health controls applied under EU legislation will continue, and that the GB risk assessment process will follow the same internationally accepted principles and approach used in previous pest risk analysis under the EU regime. Internal controls will also continue to apply to the movement of goods within the GB internal market.

We are also told that the revised approach for EU imports will be phased in over six months from 1 January next year, in the Government’s words, to

“stagger the operational implementation of controls on EU products to allow trade to continue to flow whilst businesses adapt to the application of third country import controls. This will be a temporary and risk-based transitional arrangement, with the aim of ensuring consistent and technically justified import controls which apply to all countries exporting to GB.”

The instruments also include a requirement to use UK rather than EU plant passports for intra-GB movements of plant-passported commodities. This will require businesses that move plant-passported commodities within GB to modify the reference code they use when issuing plant passports, replacing EU with UK. The process for authorising businesses with plant passporting, we are told, will not change. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tells us that

“businesses who will need to use the system from 1 January 2021 are likely to already be registered. Therefore, we expect no extra impact on business from this change.”

Some questions follow from all of that. In 7.2 of the explanatory notes for the draft Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, it says that under these regulations our risk-based plant health controls will now

“focus on risks to GB, rather than risks to the EU”.

I was going to ask the Minister to explain what that means in practice. I think she has made reference to that already, but to repeat my question from previous debates around report and review, can she tell us when these policies will be reviewed and where that sits in relation to reviews already promised to be undertaken by the EU? Should the EU tighten their standards, would we be doing likewise and vice versa?

As I have said, Madam Deputy Speaker, these are very, very lengthy, detailed instruments. I am eternally grateful to Greener UK, which has found the time to look at them in some detail. It raises some points, as it often does, that I suspect the Minister may wish to write to me on, because they are detailed and I would not expect her necessarily to have an answer to hand. She may do—she may surprise me. Greener UK tells me that regulation 28(24)(c) changes the requirement in article 25(4) of EU regulation 2016/2031. This is in the draft Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020—the first one, I think. Deep in that regulation there is a change for the UK to establish priority pest plans for all listed pests within four years of the 2019 EU regulation, to instead set a deadline of 1 January 2023. This is in line with the previous timescale. However, the clause also adds a line, 4A, disapplying that requirement to any priority pest removed from that list before the same date. While the intent behind that may be simply to clarify, it would be superfluous to create a plan for a pest that is no longer considered a threat. In the view of Greener UK, this explicit reference appears to potentially incentivise the late development contingency plans. It may well be that that is covered by some of the points that the Minister has already made about the differing threats that we face. However, will she outline the UK’s progress in developing such plans to date, clarify whether the Government still intend to produce such plans for further priority pests currently listed in the EU level, and provide any details on intended timescales? Will she also tell us whether the Government have any plans to change the current list after the end of the transition period and whether any changes will be subject to the same risk assessment process used currently by the EU?

On equivalence investigations, regulation 30(7) amends paragraph 2 of article 44 of regulation 2016/2031, and removes a reference to the Commission’s ability to carry out investigations in third countries to determine whether equivalence is being properly achieved. It does this without replacing it with a reference to an appropriate UK body. Determinations of equivalence in biosecurity and control measures will be vital to protect the UK’s natural ecosystems in future. This reference therefore appears unhelpful, and the reason for deletion is unclear. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister could explain the reasoning and outline how the Government propose to ensure the legitimacy of claims of equivalence from third countries, and whether investigations will form a part of this approach. That seems to me to be a rather important point. As I say, I do not necessarily expect an answer today, but it would be helpful to have one at some point.

The third point raised by Greener UK is on amending regulations. In a number of places, references in EU regulation 2016/2031 via article 107(2) to a specific examination procedure for scrutinising and adopting amendments to regulations, as contained in article 5 of reg 182/2011, are removed. The examination procedure was designed to provide an additional level of scrutiny to implementing decisions relating to specific areas of concern, including the environment, security and safety, or protection of the health or safety of humans, animals or plants. These references to the examination procedure are replaced now with a power to amend regulations that does not feature an opportunity for scrutiny. For example, reg 30(17) replaces a requirement to follow the examination procedure with:

“The appropriate authority may by regulations amend Annex 9 to the Phytosanitary Conditions Regulation where the amendment is appropriate in the light of a risk assessment in relation to a plant, plant product or other object.”

Removing a defined process for strong committee-level scrutiny—that is, us—and decision making and replacing that with a standard reference to the right of the appropriate authority to make regulations represents, in the view of Greener UK, an unhelpful weakening of oversight, and I rather agree. This will be particularly pertinent if the Government choose to pass future regulations via the negative procedure. Will the Minister explain why the EU examination procedure could not be replicated within the UK context to provide clear democratic oversight of amendments? Will she outline how the Government propose to ensure that levels of scrutiny for secondary legislation pertaining to

“the environment, security and safety, or protection of the health or safety, of humans, animals or plants”

will not be weakened as a result of these changes?

I am grateful to Greener UK for finding these detailed points. As I said, I do not necessarily require a reply today. I will conclude with some more basic questions. At paragraph 7.3 of the explanatory notes for the Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 we are told:

“This will be a temporary and risk-based transitional arrangement for plant health controls”.

How long is temporary, and how much risk, because I am not entirely sure that I like the sound of that? It sounds like an excuse to me.

There has been no impact assessment of these regulations on businesses, yet there are clear indications that businesses will be impacted. Under these regulations, the revised approach for EU imports will be phased in over six months from January 2021 to

“stagger the operational implementation of controls on EU products to allow trade to continue to flow whilst businesses adapt to the application of third country import controls.”

Businesses moving plant-passported commodities within GB will need to modify the reference code that they use when issuing plant passports from EU to UK, so why has there not been an impact assessment of these regulations? Is it really presumed that there will be no impact on businesses at all?

The logic of paragraph 12.4 of the explanatory notes for the Plant Health (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 is, frankly, “Alice in Wonderland” stuff. It outlines the extra checks that will be done, which I applaud, but goes on to say that because they are a result of the terms of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and therefore do not reflect a change in policy, there is no need for an impact assessment. Can the Minister explain whether there has been an impact statement somewhere else? If so, where?

Finally, as I suggested at the outset, the bald statement that

“For Northern Ireland, separate legislative arrangements will be needed in order to maintain alignment with Sanitary and Phytosanitary related EU regulations and specify requirements for GB goods entering Northern Ireland”

is an understatement. Could the Minister outline what those separate legislative arrangements will look like and when they will be ready?

As ever, there are many questions. Ensuring plant health really matters. We are an island, but sadly, we need to be careful, and that is why we have a body of established law. It should not be weakened in any way, and while there is no desire for unnecessary extra checks, we all benefit when we stay safe.

Agriculture

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Wednesday 2nd December 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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It is a delight to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman. It is not absolutely on point with this statutory instrument, but it is always a delight to talk about Welsh lamb. I am still very hopeful that we will get a zero-tariff deal with the European Union, which would be a good outcome for Welsh lamb. In the event that we do not get such a deal, as I hope he knows, we worked up various schemes in our previous planning for a no-deal exit, and I am sure that, if needed, those can be got out and worked up once again.

To return to the regulations, this new traceability system, which will be available for sheep in the future, will allow us better to manage disease, which is what we are talking about. We are not talking about deal or no deal at the moment; we are talking about management of disease in lambs, Welsh or otherwise. The system should also enable us to protect human health, giving confidence to trading partners—with whom we hope we will be able to trade—and enable better use of data to manage on-farm productivity and efficiency.

I turn to the Direct Payments to Farmers (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2020. The legislation governing direct payment schemes contains financial ceilings that are used to calculate direct payments to farmers. However, the legislation only includes financial ceilings up to and including the 2020 claim year. These regulations specify how the Secretary of State will set financial ceilings for England beyond the end of this year. These regulations also make minor changes to ensure that the schemes continue to work effectively in England beyond 2020. That includes replacing dates specific to the 2020 scheme year with equivalent dates that are not year-specific. The regulations also remove rules that are not relevant to England, such as those relating to voluntary coupled support.

No substantive policy changes are made by these regulations. They ensure the continuity of direct payments in England beyond the end of this year and are largely technical. Farmers will see no change on the ground as a result of them. The Government remain committed to beginning to phase out direct payments from 2021 as part of their ambitious agricultural reforms in England. We will bring forward separate legislation to make those changes. Direct payment schemes fall within devolved competence. The devolved Administrations plan to make their own legislation in relation to direct payment schemes in their own territories.

I turn to the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Agriculture (Domestic Support) Regulations 2020. The World Trade Organisation’s agreement on agriculture divides domestic support into green, blue or amber depending on the support’s potential to distort trade. Under the agreement, each country must limit the amount of trade-distorting amber box domestic support given to agricultural producers. The UK’s overall amber box spend limit remains unchanged after EU exit. These regulations specify the amount of amber box payments that may be given in each country of the UK. Those limits have been set at a level that will not constrain policy choices, meaning that there should be no impact on farmers. The regulations also outline the procedure for classifying such schemes and permit the Secretary of State to request information from the DAs where that is needed to enable the UK to satisfy its obligations under the agreement on agriculture.

These statutory instruments implement provisions provided for by the Agriculture Act. In the case of direct payments, they provide important and necessary continuity for farmers. I urge Members to agree to these regulations, which I commend to the House.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to be here and to speak to these statutory instruments, Madam Deputy Speaker. Indeed, they are an eclectic mix of instruments, and I say at the outset that we will not be opposing them. May I say something positive about the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board? I know it is not always supported throughout the sector, but my experience has been very positive, and it does very valuable work.

On livestock movement, we know how critical a tracing system is. We need only look back to some of the awful experiences with foot and mouth back in 1967 and 2001 and, indeed, to the lessons learned by 2007, and we have only to think about bovine TB and, I fear, African swine fever, which is currently moving across Europe. There are worrying developments around avian flu, which is a different issue, and the Opposition will do everything we can to work with the Government to tackle that.

May I also make reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is sitting patiently? There was a suggestion from the Secretary of State as to what should be done in these circumstances, which I think rather unhelpfully was a suggestion to switch to beef. I suspect that will not satisfy my hon. Friend. He may wish to intervene.

Draft Import of, and Trade in, Animals and Animal Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 Draft Official Controls (Animals, Feed and Food, Plant Health etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Monday 30th November 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

General Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, even though I confess that many of us would quite like to be listening to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the Chamber. The draft Official Controls (Animals, Feed and Food, Plant Health etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 and the draft Import of, and Trade in, Animals and Animal Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 were laid before the House on 2 November and 20 October respectively.

The first instrument amends our existing system of official controls on sanitary and phytosanitary imports to ensure that they work after the end of the transition period. It makes amendments to EU retained regulations governing official controls on imports to Great Britain of animals and animal products, plants and plant products, including food, and other imports relevant to the agrifood chain. The amendments set out in this instrument will allow regulations in this area to continue to be fully operable once the UK completes the transition period. They will allow us to continue to deliver controls and checks on all imports subject to SPS checks according to risk.

The second instrument makes amendments to ensure that provisions relating to the import of live animals, including horses, animal products, reproductive material used for animal breeding, and the non-commercial movement of pets continue to work at the end of this year. It also makes minor technical amendments to five previously made EU exit SIs and 30 retained EU instruments. It also revokes a previously made EU exit SI and eight retained EU instruments to ensure that our imports will continue to function at the end of this year.

The changes are, for example, to ensure that references to EU regulatory bodies become references to the Secretary of State or other appropriate authorities. Amendments also include changes to reflect the status of the European economic area as a third country and to introduce the Government’s phased approach to import controls on goods arriving from the EEA.

The Government previously announced that we will phase in border controls on imports from the UK beginning in January. That will prioritise flow at the border and give both businesses and industry longer to prepare for the introduction of full controls. We remain fully committed to the World Trade Organisation and our international trade obligations. The phased approach is temporary and pragmatic in order to support our international trade and to avoid border disruption. We will have controls in place for controlled goods from January 2021 and for all goods, both controlled and standard, in place from July next year. We have taken the decision to list the EEA to import live animals and animal products because, following an assessment of the EU’s SPS regime, with which we are of course very familiar, we do not believe that the risk will change on 1 January next year.

The statutory instruments will ensure that legislation to protect our biosecurity will continue to function in Great Britain after the transition period, and that we will continue to have a functioning imports system that guarantees our high standards of food and animal safety, while ensuring frictionless trade and movements. For the reasons I have set out, I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I echo the Minister’s opening comments: I think we are all keen to hear the action going on in the main Chamber. These SIs appear to be largely technical and uncontroversial, although I am always loth to say that when I read through the many pages of changes—and I will come to that in a moment—but the Opposition will not oppose them, because we, too, want to ensure that UK trade remains as robust as we can make it after the end of this period.

However, these are very important issues, and it is hard to overstate the importance of sanitary and phytosanitary controls. There has, of course, been considerable controversy on this around the links between GB and Northern Ireland and, of course, safety issues are in our minds given avian flu and, sadly, the African swine fever in much of the rest of the world. Getting these things right and making sure that our defences are strong are really important, so there are some important questions.

Turning to the official controls SI, paragraph 2.2 of the explanatory memorandum outlines our current

“appropriately designated border control points and other points of entry”

and says that controls are

“also carried out at other locations, such as slaughterhouses, to verify the compliance of imported SPS goods with Official Controls Regulations”.

Will the Minister say a little more about where those kinds of places are? I cannot quite imagine exactly how that works, so I would be grateful if she will explain that. There is not much more that I wanted to ask about other than the impact question because—Labour has made this point with other SIs—it seems hard to imagine that there are no impacts.

On detail and the accuracy, I could not help notice that the previous time this matter was discussed—in the pre-no-deal discussions when it was in the form of SI 2019/1488—the then Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee highlighted a couple of things that were, in effect, errors or needed clarification. I just wonder how we can be sure, as one looks through the huge array of changes, that it is all entirely correct. I suspect it is not, but that is no criticism of those who are doing the drafting. I do not think that we in this place have the capacity to scrutinise such things closely enough. If someone wanted to slip something through, it really would not be hard to do, and it would be hard for people to spot it. We rely on people elsewhere to draw attention to these things, but there is nothing else on the official controls SI that requires further questioning at the moment.

Moving on to the second SI on the import of and trade in animals and animal products, I have one or two questions around the pre-notification requirement, which appears to be changing. Paragraph 7.5 in the explanatory memorandum—I think the Minister touched on this—recognises that imports into Great Britain using existing health certificates will be maintained

“for a period of time after 31 December 2020”,

without any reference to how long that process will continue. Again, the Minister may not have the answer to hand, but there is always a danger that temporary and interim arrangements can drag on in the future. It would be good to have some clarification and on how long that situation may last.

On the impact side, an impact is actually recognised with the import and trade SI, specifically on the pre-verification procedure and the differing computer systems that will be needed. It is estimated that the change will

“add to the staffing costs of a proportion of the 21,600 firms who are estimated to be involved in”

these import activities. Will the Minister give us some indication of the level of those additional staffing costs? It clearly is not the case that things are going remain exactly the same.

The Opposition do not see anything further to clarify at the moment, and we will not oppose the measures.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

I will try to answer the questions in turn. On inland sites, which I think the hon. Gentleman asked about to start with, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has confirmed it will require two inland border control posts in England, both in Kent. One will be for Eurotunnel at Sevington, and another is required for the port of Dover.

On impact assessments, none was produced for the first SI as it maintains existing border controls and therefore does not introduce new policy. We have, however, estimated costs as a result of the policy being applied progressively more widely as a result of the phased introduction of border checks, and that is set out in the explanatory memorandum. The border operating model was published in October this year and sets out our phased introduction. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to that document, and I am happy to share it with him later, if that helps.

The import of products, animals, food and feed computer system, which is being set up, will allow importers or agents to create import notification of consignments bound for Great Britain before arrival. Notifications will be received by port health authorities or the Animal and Plant Health Agency, which can then record checks on the system. I recently asked for an update on how that was progressing, and I was told, “Extremely well,” so I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that.

These statutory instruments are critical for ensuring a functioning imports regime at the end of the transition period. Without them, there would be a threat to Great Britain’s biosecurity and lack of clarity for industry. I therefore commend them to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

THE DRAFT OFFICIAL CONTROLS (ANIMALS, FEED AND FOOD, PLANT HEALTH ETC.) (AMENDMENT) (EU EXIT) REGULATIONS 2020

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Official Controls (Animals, Feed and Food, Plant Health etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.—(Victoria Prentis.)

Food Supply: Covid-19

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 5th November 2020

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Nov 2020, 3:45 p.m.

The Chair of the Select Committee is right. I will come on to the very pressing fresh food issues that we face, but I agree we need to ensure that that works.

I will touch briefly on the right to food, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned, and which featured in Labour’s manifesto last year. I am pleased that the Committee is recommending that that be looked at. It is a complicated issue, because is not quite as obvious as it might seem in just a few words, but it encompasses a range of issues around income security and how we judge what is appropriate in a modern, civilised society. I suspect that that will come in time.

The report mentions how our food is produced. This was a remarkable achievement by everyone involved in the food chain, from farmers right the way through to food processors, but one thing that the report could have touched on a bit more, and that the Government need to look at much more, is how we hear the voices of the people involved in the food processing sector. I have been struck by the lack of transparency. It is a hidden workforce to some extent, and of course it is not always a UK workforce.

That workforce is a key part of how we will ensure that food gets on our shelves and to our people. However, at the moment, we are seeing week by week more incidents of sickness—in East Anglia, my part of the world, we have had some very difficult outbreaks—in some of those factories. The bit that is missing from the analysis is the voice of those workers. I am disappointed that more evidence was not taken from trade unions and particularly some of the national officers. I know that the Government are not necessarily particularly keen on all trade unions, but my work and conversations with national officers show that they have a huge wealth of knowledge, and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and I have been pressing the Government to make more use of that knowledge. I think we all know that if we go to any trade organisation or any major organisation, we will hear a whole series of things about what they would like to be the case. When we talk to the people who are actually doing the work, we very frequently get a rather different account, and it is the lack of that account that is contributing in some cases to the problems that we are seeing.

At the beginning, there were problems about ensuring that there was adequate statutory guidance. There were problems with personal protective equipment. There were problems about social distancing. We hope that that is now sorted, because there has been plenty of time to get the information in place, but there are good employers and less good employers. We want to ensure that the practice of the good employers is spread widely, and there is a real opportunity to do that. I would suggest to the Minister that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might look at commissioning some research on whether there is any link between the work practices and the spread of the disease, because there is a worry about that, which I hear.

There is also, of course, the issue of proper sick pay, because without that people cannot afford to isolate. Even if we get the testing system sorted out, if people are not isolating, it will not work, and if they cannot isolate because the statutory sick pay is too low or they are not getting it properly, we will be able to see exactly why the problem has got worse.

Back in July, the shadow Secretary of State did write to the Secretary of State, urging the Government to follow what we think is the good example of risk assessments being carried out in Wales. I would encourage the Minister to look at that.

We are hearing from our trade union colleagues that they do think that there is a problem, not least because in some cases people are working on agency contracts, which moves them from factory to factory. That has been, I think, addressed in care homes, but I do not think it has been addressed in the food processing sector, and that is in all our interests, frankly. Obviously, we need to get on top of the virus, but if there are people who are putting themselves at risk, that puts others at risk, too.

Some research was done by an organisation called PIRC—Pensions & Investment Research Consultants—which I think did a desk job of looking at some of these things. It found that the number of covid-19 cases at food factories could actually be 30 times higher than those being reported to the Health and Safety Executive. I have been pressing the Department of Health and Social Care with a number of questions on this, but frankly, we have not been getting very good answers, so I think that there is more work to be done, and it would be to everybody’s benefit.

We have of course been supportive of the lockdown measures, but I do think that, right at the beginning, more could have been done to anticipate some of the problems that arose from the closure of the hospitality and food service sector. Again, this is not an easy thing to do. At the beginning, there was criticism, including from the National Farmers Union, of the Government for being too slow in responding to the problems in the dairy sector. It is not an easy thing to shift so much product from one area to another. And on the financial support scheme—the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton mentioned this—there is a sense that by the time that the scheme was finally in place, the complexity of it and the eligibility criteria meant that probably not that many people benefited from it, so I hope that that can be looked at again.

I have raised this point informally with the Minister. At the beginning, there were, rightly, measures to relax some of the competition laws, to allow co-operation, particularly in the dairy sector, that would not normally be allowed. I spoke to Dairy UK at the time, and it was very disappointed that one of the statutory instruments was not actually brought before the House for discussion. It said to me that it would have been extremely useful for some of the points to be clarified. As a consequence, the first measure did not really work and a second one had to be laid. I will just make the point. Ministers say of the CRaG—Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—process, for instance, that we can absolutely rely on it. But what happened when we came to try to use this procedure? I spent a lot of time and effort on this. I got the Leader of the Opposition to lay an early-day motion, pray and all the rest of it. When we came to try to use this procedure, what happened? It was earlier than July. The measures have come and gone. They will probably have to be introduced again and we will still not have had any opportunity to query them or, as would be in the Government’s interest, to clarify them. The competition laws are very tight and many producers are nervous about discussions because they have been stung before and ended up with big bills. It is in everybody’s interest. I say gently that we need to make that work better.

It is difficult when the public is worried about supplies, so one has to be careful about one’s use of language. I understand why the Secretary of State was careful. But we asked for a proper, national public advertising campaign at the beginning. That did not seem to be done quickly enough. The Government’s communication messages need to be refined.

We felt that leaving frontline retail staff to deal with some of the issues they faced was rather unfair. We have seen continuing incidents of violence against shopworkers, up 9% this year compared to last year. In response to the report, the Government said they will take lessons from the first lockdown, to deliver better aligned and joined-up communications. I ask the Minister, what communications will they be making to reassure the public that they do not need to stockpile?

I will conclude on a subject, Ms McVey, on which you and I will not agree, namely, the future relationship with the European Union. Looking at what is coming down the line in a few weeks, I would echo the comments of the chair of the Select Committee. Some have thought that it will be fine, because we got through covid-19 with the food supply chain. I think it is exactly the other way around, I am afraid. I would not say we were lucky—people worked very hard—but it was close. When I see all the things exporters and importers will have to do over the next few weeks, it is eyewatering. I am hearing that it is very difficult. However much communication the Government do, it will not be solved.

Everyone is on tenterhooks as we come to the end of the transition period. We will need some urgent planning to get us through all of it. There are some fundamental differences between the approach this Government have taken and the approach of a Labour Government. I do not think we would have relied so much on the private sector to provide solutions. The school meals fiasco showed why that did not work.

As we face a second wave of the pandemic and the second lockdown, I ask the Government to up their game in ensuring people have access to nutritional food, and particularly that food businesses and retailers get good sound advice, so that the buck is not passed on to them to take responsibility. Finally, we must give all the support we can to the farmers, food producers, delivery drivers, factory engineers and all the other people. It is a just-in-time system, and we do not have much time to secure it before we face the problems of the epidemic and some of our own making.

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

5 Nov 2020, 3:54 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank all those who have worked so hard to keep the nation fed throughout this difficult year. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and his Committee for the work they have done on this excellent report. I also thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) with whom I have discussed food security and insecurity before. I know he works very hard and is very knowledgeable in this sphere. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who I know will also continue to work with us on these difficult issues.

I will start with the Government’s preparations for the new restrictions that have come into place today. On Monday, the national shielding service system was switched on, allowing clinically extremely vulnerable individuals to register their need for support. That should get them a supermarket delivery slot within seven days as a maximum—so, with any luck, before that. I have done the gov.uk website click-through myself. The system is simple to use, and it can be done on behalf of an older person or someone who cannot access technology.

If that does not work for anyone or for anyone’s constituents, please get in touch with one of the charities that I shall list later, or local authorities which are able to provide direct access to online delivery slots. Having said that, there is good supply of online delivery slots at the moment, commercially. I keep checking that as well, and slots are available today, or they were when I checked earlier.

Today, too, there was further good news from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the coronavirus job retention scheme. That is worth checking, but I do not intend to go into any detail, because we have enough to do to go through the recommendations in this extensive report in order, which I will now do.

We welcome recommendations 1, 2 and 3. We have been in daily contact with retailers throughout the pandemic. They told us what was happening abroad before it started here. We in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—given that we supply a lot of food abroad, not least at the smarter end of the fisheries sector—were very aware of what was happening on the continent of Europe before the pandemic got bad here. We knew that the strains on demand experienced in March and April were inevitable as the numbers went up, but the supply chain response demonstrated real resilience.

--- Later in debate ---
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

This is a difficult and delicate area, but the point I am trying to make is that we need to address the needs of all those who are in food poverty. Obviously, children are particularly important but so are adults. If, sadly, we need to get welfare systems up and running later in the pandemic and to address the economic problems that might follow it, we will need to ensure that a holistic approach is taken to all those in food poverty. I will come to more detail in a moment. In terms of the welfare net, universal credit has been increased by £20 a week, and increases to local housing allowance rates have also been helpful to families. We also continue to spend over £95 billion a year on working-age benefits.

In the last few weeks I have had useful conversations with the Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society about the targeted support for which DEFRA made a bid in May and which local authorities dispersed. Some £63 million-worth of food and essential supplies was distributed to the people who local authorities knew were in most need, about half of whom have children. The Trussell Trust and the Children’s Society say that that money was helpful and very well spent. It is being assessed at the moment, not least by those two organisations and other frontline deliverers that communicate regularly with DEFRA.

In May, £16 million was provided directly by Government to food charities, such as FareShare. That was an unusual step for Government to take. Some of that £16 million went directly to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, as none of us likes to see good food go to waste. There is other funding available to WRAP, which is doing excellent work.

In respect of today’s lockdown, for which the hospitality sector did not, given the nature of the disease, have long to prepare—restaurants, for example, still have food that they had ordered—WRAP has today been sharing knowledge, at very short notice, on increasing redistribution. If businesses with multiple pallets of surplus food cannot find a recipient, they should contact WRAP, which will help facilitate connections with people who need it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was a key part of my taskforce. We work closely together on the issue of children who access free school meals during term time. We know very well that Christmas is coming and we understand that there will be winter pressures. I am not able to make any announcements today, but I am confident that the right work is being done to prepare for winter.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I do not expect the Minister to make an announcement late on a Thursday afternoon, but if local authorities are going to be in a position to help, they need to get funding fairly soon. May I also say that the Member I was referring to earlier was my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck)?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

On recommendation 12, food boxes contained a basic selection of food and other essential items for those who were unable to leave home. They were a standardised package, designed to be suitable for the majority of people. They had been reviewed by a nutritionist. I know there were complaints, but I am very proud of the fact that 4.5 million boxes were delivered at short notice to people who needed them. It was not a long-term solution—a box of ingredients delivered by the Government is not how we want people to be able to feed themselves in the long term.  We are not planning currently to do it again for this lockdown because we have online delivery slots, the volunteer network—the GoodSAM volunteers who are prepared to go and shop for anybody—and the excellent local authority systems. We therefore think we have a good and robust system in place to deal with those who are shielding now. The message for those experiencing difficulties is: please do get in touch with the local authority.

On recommendations 13, 14 and 24, we remain committed to publishing a White Paper within six months of the publication of Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy, which we still expect next spring.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 25th June 2020

(10 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

I absolutely agree with hon. Friend on that. The Government are proud of the high animal health and welfare, and environmental standards that underpin our high-quality produce. The UK’s growing reputation for quality food and drink, with high standards of food safety, animal welfare and sustainability, serves as a great platform from which to expand our exports.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister has been hearing a strong message from the House this morning about animal cruelty, because, sadly, the lockdown has seen an increase in it, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reporting 47,000 incidents —the Daily Mail calculates that that is one case every two minutes. As we have heard, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill has been constantly delayed. The Bill has cross-party support. The Government are supposed to be supporting it and they are supposed to be running this place, so will the Minister guarantee that Finn’s law will be on the statute book by the end of the year and available to the courts?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

As I said a moment ago, 23 October is the date available for Second Reading. I have supported the Bill from the beginning and I am pleased it will be moving forward just as quickly as we can do it.

Caging of Farm Animals

Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Monday 16th March 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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

16 Mar 2020, 6:52 p.m.

I think I will call you “Mr Chairman”, Mr Davies. I do not think I will call you anything else in the circumstances.

I thank the Petitions Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this very important subject, and it is a pleasure to follow excellent speeches from Members of all parties—particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), who I have heard speak passionately about such issues many times. Indeed, we rehearsed many of the arguments in the Agriculture Bill Committee when he was the Chair and was prevented from opining on the subject, so it is good to hear from him today. I also thank the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition and brought this issue to our attention, and I acknowledge and praise the animal welfare campaigners who have played an enormous part over the years, with celebrity endorsements, advertising and general encouragement to improve our animal welfare standards. We have come a long way, particularly with the welfare standards of chickens such as Trevor.

The Government have made it clear that we place great importance on the welfare of farmed animals. The “End the cage age” petition calls for a ban on the use of barren and enriched cages for farmed animals, and I assure hon. Members that the Government are keen to explore the issue. Indeed, the Prime Minister noted in Parliament last year that he was keen to introduce animal welfare measures. We will continue to focus on maintaining world-leading farm animal welfare standards through both regulatory requirements and statutory codes.

The welfare of our farmed livestock is protected by comprehensive and robust legislation, backed up by the statutory species-specific welfare codes. The codes encourage high standards of husbandry, and keepers are required by law to have access to them and to be familiar with them. As part of the welfare reforms, I am pleased to say that the third of our newly updated welfare codes—for pigs—came into force on 1 March, and I will say a bit more about that later.

The Government have set ourselves a challenging agenda of animal welfare issues that we will tackle, and we are taking action on many fronts to improve the health and wellbeing of farm animals. A major example is that we are committed to ending excessively long journeys for live animals going for slaughter and for fattening. We will soon launch a consultation on how we deliver that manifesto commitment, and I am keen to press ahead with that as soon as we can. Our “Farming for the future” policy statement, which is favourite reading for the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), was published last month and reiterates that, in line with our national values, we wish to continue improving and building on our position.

As part of our reforms to agricultural policy, we are developing publicly funded schemes for English farmers to provide public goods—including animal welfare enhancements, which are valued by the public and not sufficiently provided by the market. Such enhancements could include improving animal welfare in relation to the use of cages and crates. Not all the examples that I am about to mention are absolutely relevant to the debate, but given that this is a matter which the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I have discussed many times, it is important that I explain our thinking. We intend to develop publicly funded schemes to support farmers in England to deliver enhanced animal health and welfare, so the schemes are intended to reward them for going above and beyond already high standards, which I think the hon. Member for Bristol East recognised.

To take broiler chickens as a specific example, delivering enhancements may include farms using slower-growing, high-welfare breeds of chicken that have the freedom to exhibit natural behaviours through increased communication and a stimulating environment, or through the freedom to roam, peck and scratch outside. For dairy cattle, the enhanced freedom to exhibit natural behaviours could involve increased access to stimulating loafing or outdoor space, and the freedom to access and graze good-quality pasture. I will come to welfare enhancement for pigs later, but they could include rooting and foraging as well as addressing the issues of crates and tail dockings.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I assume the enhancements will be delivered through environmental land management schemes. Would the measures that the Minister is describing be delivered through the tier 1 system?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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16 Mar 2020, 6:57 p.m.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system is currently being devised. I am very keen to include him as much as I can in the way we do that. Some of it might well be tier 1 funding, some might be tier 2, and some—though I doubt it—might even be tier 3, but I do not want to rule anything out at this point. It is really important that we keep an open mind, look at how the tests and trials are going, and then look at how the scheme is developed through the pilots. The point I am trying to make today is that it is certainly intended that public goods include animal welfare.

All hon. Members present can think of many improvements that we would like to see. For example, we might want to look at animal health improvements, such as reduced lameness in cattle and sheep, and at lower levels of antimicrobial resistance. We will focus on welfare enhancements that deliver the greatest impact and benefit, based on scientific evidence. I do not want to stray too far from the parameters of the debate, but it is helpful to continue to have such conversations as the system is devolved.

I want to emphasise that cages are not used in England to keep some of the farmed animals referred to in the petition—namely farmed rabbits, broiler chicken breeders, layer breeders and guinea fowl. It has been mentioned already that the UK unilaterally banned veal crates in 1990, 16 years before the rest of the EU, which eventually caught up. Conventional battery cages for laying hens were banned here in 2012. I am pleased to say that we already have a much larger free-range sector than any other EU country, and free-range sales represent about 67% of retail egg sales—not necessarily eggs incorporated into food—in the UK.

The Government are currently examining the future use of cages for all laying hens, and I welcome the commitment from our major retailers, with positive support from our egg producers, to stop retailing eggs from enriched colony cage production systems by 2025. I was interested in what the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said about Morrisons, and we obviously welcome its going further. The Government are also considering the use of cages for game birds, including the systems used for breeding pheasants and partridges. The hon. Member for Cambridge outlined how they are governed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its associated code of practice, which provides keepers with guidance. The Act and DEFRA’s code are enforced by the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West described farmers as big softies, and I should probably confess at this point that I have kept pigs in the past. They are one of my favourite animals—if a Minister is allowed to have favourite animals. My pigs were extremely free range, to the extent that they sometimes caused a nuisance in the village—the Agriculture Bill Committee heard a lot about that. As we heard earlier, the UK has led the way on improving pigs’ welfare by banning the keeping of sows in close confinement stalls in 1999. I am not in any way criticising that decision, but it is worth noting, as my hon. Friend did, that we were about 80% sufficient in pigmeat in 1998. The figure had fallen to about 50% by 2003, and it is currently about 56%. I am extremely keen not to outsource animal welfare issues to other countries.

The Government have made it clear that we remain completely committed to the ambition that farrowing crates should no longer be used for sows. Indeed, the new pig welfare code, which I mentioned earlier, clearly states:

“The aim is for farrowing crates to no longer be necessary and for any new system to protect the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.”

It is important that we make progress towards a system that both works commercially and safeguards the welfare of the sow and her piglets, and that we do so as quickly as possible. The UK is already ahead of most pig-producing countries on this issue, with about 40% of our pigs living and farrowing outside. Good progress has been made, but there is more to do.

As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, DEFRA has funded research into alternative farrowing systems. The commercial development of farrowing systems and practices is not sufficiently advanced to recommend the compulsory replacement of all farrowing crates, but I am keen to work with the industry on this—using both carrots and sticks—because it is important to not simply move production abroad.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. The Government place great importance on the welfare of all our animals. The measures that I have set out demonstrate clearly the steps that the Government have already taken and will continue to take to strengthen our high animal welfare standards. We are actively exploring options to do with the use of cages and will work with industry to improve animal welfare in a sustainable way. The provisions in the Agriculture Bill will help us to do that.

Agriculture Bill (Twelfth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 12th sitting: House of Commons)
Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 5th March 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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5 Mar 2020, 2:14 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East for tabling the new clause and look forward to working with her on how we can support smallholding authorities to invest in, and commit to, their county farms. We want to help them to provide more opportunities for new entrant farmers and to continue to offer the wider environmental and public benefits.

I am concerned that the new clauses would constrain smallholding authorities’ ability to manage their estates effectively and would create an additional administrative burden. Rather than legislating, I would prefer to work collaboratively with smallholding authorities. We want to support them to manage their estates so that they can provide more opportunities for new farmers and existing tenants, as well as for the benefit of the wider public.

I hope that the hon. Lady is assured by the document published last week and that she will continue to talk to me. We will continue to talk to smallholding authorities about how we can take things forward. I therefore ask her to withdraw the motion.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 2:14 p.m.

New clause 26 is broadly similar to new clause 5, which my hon. Friend has just moved. She spoke powerfully about the plight of our county farms. She did mention, of course, successes in Cambridgeshire. I rarely find reason to praise Cambridgeshire County Council, but on this occasion, I think that it is doing good work.

As farms owned by local authorities that can be let out at below-market rents—I suspect that there is agreement on this—they are a vital means to encourage young and first-time farmers into the sector. They provide a key way in for those who have not had the good fortune to inherit or are lacking the capital required to buy or rent. As well as offering a sustainable income stream for local authorities, these farms have been recognised as particularly well placed to deliver locally driven social and environmental goods, ranging from tree planting and local education initiatives on farming to public procurement of locally produced food.

As we have heard, however, county farms have been left in serious long-term decline. An investigation last year by Who Owns England? showed that the acreage has halved in the past 40 years—first driven by the privatisation drive and cuts to county budgets and powers under the Thatcher and Major Governments, and by the austerity agenda in recent times. Cash-strapped local authorities making difficult decisions have been forced to take cost-saving measures, and 7% of England’s county farms estate was sold off between 2010 and 2018, with three quarters of all smallholding authorities having sold parts of their estate.

As we have heard, some authorities, such as my own in Cambridgeshire, have recognised the importance of county farms and have increased the number of acres in the past decade. Interestingly, they are now bringing in a sustainable income for the authorities. I am told that, in Cambridgeshire’s case, that is in excess of £4 million each year. However, the situation is not so good elsewhere. I am told that Herefordshire, for instance, has sold many of its county farms; there has been a decline of 89%.

The Government’s recent policy document on farming for the future mentions that funding will be offered to councils with county farm estates, but we still have no clear detail on how much that would be and whether it would be sufficient. It is rather surprising that in a flagship Bill on reforming our agricultural system—

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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5 Mar 2020, 2:17 p.m.

I appreciate what the right hon. Member says. We are not seeking to stop that kind of process. We are trying to make it more difficult for councils to respond to funding cuts by selling county farms, which in some ways I do not criticise because they face difficult choices. If that practice is not stopped, then, frankly, it will go on happening, unless there are significant changes in funding for local authorities.

In recognition of the key role that local authorities can play in incentivising these farms to be environmental public goods, we would also require local authorities to submit proposals on how they intended to manage their smallholdings in a way that contributed to those various public goods, including the mitigation of climate change and reducing gas emissions. As discussed, our new clause would also limit the continued disposal of farms by stipulating that no local authority smallholding would need to have its ownership transferred unless that was clearly in accordance with those purposes.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 2:17 p.m.

I have already responded fairly fully to the hon. Member for Bristol East and I feel that the Labour Front-Bench amendment is strikingly similar. I have said all I need to say on this subject.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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5 Mar 2020, 2:45 p.m.

These two new clauses would require the Secretary of State to conduct or commission research into the impact on animal welfare of highly intensive livestock farming practices in England. We know that effective research into the impact of highly intensive farming practices is going to be vital to contributing to a better understanding of what we can do to improve animal welfare and what better welfare practices can be promoted within the public goods element of the Bill, which we will of course support.

As I outlined during the debate on some previous amendments regarding the need for baseline animal welfare standards, we think much more could be done to improve the lives of animals on our farms, looking particularly at species-specific needs. We think research has a big role to play in that, but unless that research is properly co-ordinated and incentivised by the Government, we will be leaving it largely up to market forces to keep the science up to date. We believe the welfare of our farm animals is too important to be neglected, and we want to see action now. I appreciate that there is a question whether such a provision would be covered by the Bill’s money resolution, so we have helpfully provided two versions. I very much hope that the Government might find it in their heart to support one of them.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 2:45 p.m.

The Government are committed to animal welfare. I reassure Members that high-quality research and evidence from a range of sources will always inform our animal welfare policy. Using the powers set out in the Bill, we are developing a scheme, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that aims to improve farm animal welfare in England. As part of that, we are exploring one-off grants that will help farmers to improve welfare on farms, as well as a payment by results scheme through which farmers could receive ongoing payments for delivering specific animal welfare enhancements.

New clause 13 would make it a legal requirement for the Secretary of State to conduct, commission or assist the conduct of research that specifically considers the impact on animal welfare of highly intensive livestock farming practices in England. Although the new clause is well intentioned, it fails to recognise the unintentional consequences that could occur as a result. Farm animal welfare relies primarily on good stockmanship. The Animal Welfare Committee frequently concludes that good stockmanship is more important than the system in which animals are kept when it comes to meeting their welfare needs. In addition, it is difficult to be clear about what constitutes a highly intensive farming system, because the term is not defined.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs already conducts internal and external research into farm animal welfare, and is supported by a range of evidence committees, such as the Animal Welfare Committee. Although new clause 14 does not state what is meant by “promote” and is ambiguous on what would fulfil that requirement, I reassure Members that DEFRA already promotes animal welfare research in a number of ways. However, we do not wish to be restricted to focusing only on intensive farming systems, however defined. DEFRA publishes details of current research and development online, as well as the final reports from internal and external research projects.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government share the public’s high regard for animal welfare, and recognise the need for animal welfare policy development and implementation to be very well founded in evidence. That will ensure that we remain at the global forefront of animal welfare policy. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Cambridge to withdraw the motion.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 2:47 p.m.

I anticipated the question on the definition of highly intensive farming when I reread the new clause over lunchtime. I rather thought that it would be the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby who raised that query, but the Minister got in there first. I am pleased by her response. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 15

Grouse shooting and management: review and consultation

“(1) The Secretary of State must—

(a) commission an independent review of the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of driven grouse shooting, and

(b) consult on regulation of grouse moor management.

(2) The Secretary of State must make available the services of any person or other resources to assist in the conduct of a review under subsection (1)(a).

(3) The Secretary of State must publish a summary of responses to the consultation under sub-section (1)(b).

(4) The Secretary of State must, no later than three months from the day on which—

(a) the review commissioned under subsection (1)(a) is received, or

(b) the consultation under subsection (2) closes,

whichever is the sooner, publish a statement of future policy on grouse shooting and grouse moor management.”—(Ruth Jones.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to commission a review of the economic, environmental and wildlife impacts of driven grouse shooting and publish proposals for regulation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 3:16 p.m.

It is a key priority of the Government to ensure not only a successful and effective agricultural sector, but one in which workers are treated fairly. In recent years there has been enormous change to wider employment legislation, which protects and benefits workers in all sectors of the economy. Given that the national minimum wage has started and the new national living wage has been introduced, we continue to believe that there is no justification to have a separate employment regime for agricultural workers.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, working with partner organisations, already investigates serious cases of labour market exploitation across the whole of England and Wales. We remain absolutely committed to monitoring the impacts of the Agriculture Bill across relevant sectors, including on workers. That will be achieved through a mixture of Government and third-party evaluation. We therefore believe that new clause 19 is unnecessary.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have to say, I am very disappointed by that reply. It is complacent about what is going on in the countryside, and it does not address the very real issues that employers will face if we are unable to attract more people to the industry. It is to everybody’s benefit that agriculture becomes a higher-paid, higher-skilled industry. One of the ways we do that is by ensuring that people have proper rights and the confidence to look after not only themselves, but their colleagues.

I am also disappointed that we have not found any provision in the Bill to tackle the mental health crisis in the agricultural sector. People are working on their own or under pressure, and it is a real issue. We could have addressed it through new clause 19, and I can assure the Minister that we will come back to this in the future. I wish to push new clause 19 to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Aha! As ever, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has touched on a subject that is of some interest to me, as I chair the all-party parliamentary group for life sciences. I look forward to having a detailed conversation with him about CRISPR-Cas9 and other exciting techniques.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, we are absolutely interested in looking at ways in which we can reduce pesticide use. As I indicated earlier, I am well aware that farmers do not use pesticides without due caution, or without bearing in mind the current safety regulations and the costs involved. Having said that, we believe there should be additional measures in this Bill. We fully accept that pesticides are needed in some situations, but other new technologies might be available, including drones and satellite images that have the potential to make the application of these chemicals much more targeted and less damaging. I am told that those techniques are already being used in other countries, but if we are not monitoring pesticides and their impact, there is no way that we will be able to encourage or assist farmers to adopt more selective and less damaging techniques.

All Members present have been repeatedly promised by Ministers that when we left Europe, we would bring in stronger human and environmental protections, or at least equivalence. The Labour party believes that that is an absolute minimum, we should monitor what impact pesticides are having; where that impact is concentrated; and whether children, mothers and babies have been affected, especially in rural communities where exposure is likely to be higher. This amendment does not ban anything. It does not stop any farmer who needs to use safe pesticides on their crops, or to use them to increase their yields, from doing so. It simply states that we are not averting our gaze, but keeping our eyes open to the known risks; that we look to reduce those risks; and that we will particularly protect women and children in rural communities. On that basis, I ask that the clause be read a Second time.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 3:26 p.m.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that our eyes are very open when it comes to ensuring that the use of pesticides is minimised, and that pesticide usage and its effects are carefully monitored. Current policies address these points already. Strict regulation only allows pesticide use when scientific risk assessments predict that there will be no harm to people and no unacceptable effects on the environment. Existing monitoring schemes cover each of the points proposed in the amendment. They report on the level of usage of each pesticide and on residue levels in food. They also collect and consider reports about possible harm to people or the environment.

The Government support good work to research, develop and promote means to move away from pesticides, which I am sure is our collective aim. These include: plant breeding for pest-resistant varieties; the use of natural predators; the development of biopesticides; and the use of a variety of cultural methods to reduce pest pressures.

The Government intend to continue to develop and refine our approach to pesticides. The 25-year environment plan is where the hon. Gentleman will find most of these details. The plan emphasises the importance of integrated pest management. That means not only that pesticides are used well, but that the approach to farming minimises the need for pesticides and that alternative methods are used wherever possible. Where these practices are shown to help to deliver public goods, they may well be funded under the new environmental land management schemes. We will determine in more detail which ELMS will pay for what as we develop the schemes in the future.

The approach set out in the 25-year environment plan is the right one and we hope that it will minimise pesticide use, help to reduce risks and strongly encourage the uptake of alternatives to pesticides. Alongside the maintenance and development of effective monitoring, this approach will deliver the main outcomes sought by the hon. Gentleman’s amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I listened closely to the Minister and there was much that I probably agree with. However, I would have predicted that we would return to the vexed question of which piece of legislation this proposal would sit in, and we believe that it would be inappropriate to have a piece of major agricultural legislation without reference to it. On that basis, I will push the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Thank you, Sir David—[Interruption.] There is some confusion on this side; I apologise. I blame the late publication of the 109-page document.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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In fact, why don’t the Government just stop? [Laughter.]

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 3:29 p.m.

Why does it take the Government so long—since 2018—to respond, and why do they finally respond on the day that we discuss this issue in Committee? We probably all know the politics behind these things, but it is disappointing when it involves such an important subject, discussion of which has been so eagerly awaited by so many people, because it is a highly controversial subject. The science involved is complicated.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibilities across the shadow team, I will pass over to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East in a moment—I hope that she will be called to speak. However, the Labour Front Bench welcomes the Government’s belated response. We also find some things in the response helpful, and we think the Government are changing direction, but not quickly enough. We will make a more considered and detailed response when we have had time to consider it in detail, but our belief is that far too many badgers have been unnecessarily killed. The science is not clear and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is as much transmission from cattle to cattle. It is not a simple issue. We fully recognise the huge damage, economic cost and distress that bovine TB causes in many areas. As I say, we welcome the direction of travel, but we believe that it should be much swifter.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 3:34 p.m.

Bovine TB is one of our most difficult animal health challenges. It costs the Government about £100 million a year and industry around £50 million a year. Tackling it is important. It imposes a tremendous pressure on the wellbeing of our cattle farmers and their families. Many Committee members, including me, represent constituencies that are exposed to the misery of bovine TB on a daily basis. Left unchecked, bovine TB also poses a threat to public health although that is, to a large extent, mitigated today by milk pasteurisation. My grandfather died of tuberculosis, so I have always taken a close personal interest in the subject. It is a peculiar and complicated disease that it is important for us to take seriously.

No single measure will achieve eradication by our target date of 2038, which is why we are committed to pursuing a wide range of interventions, including culling and vaccination, to deal with the risk from wildlife. Of course culling is a controversial policy, but we have scientific evidence to show that, to a certain extent, it is working. The new review is clear that the evidence indicates that the presence of infected badgers poses a threat to local cattle herds. The review considers that moving from lethal to non-lethal control of disease in badgers is desirable. Of course, we would all go along with that. We have reached a point where intensive culling will soon have been enabled in most of the areas where it has served the greatest impact. As announced in the Government response today, we will be able to develop measures to make badger vaccination, combined with biosecurity, the focus of addressing risks from wildlife as an exit strategy from intensive culling. Our aim is to allow future badger culls only where the epidemiological evidence points to a reservoir of disease in badgers.

Nobody wants to cull badgers inappropriately, but nor can we allow our farmers, their families and our wider dairy and beef industries to continue to suffer the misery and costs caused by the disease. That is why it is right that we take strong and decisive action to tackle the problem effectively, while always looking to evolve towards non-lethal options in future. I therefore do not think the new clause is appropriate.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 3:36 p.m.

I listened closely to the Minister’s comments. I suspect we will come back to this issue. We have been discussing it for the past 10 or 20 years. I fully appreciate what a serious issue it is and how it directly affects both her family and many others. However, at the general election we stood on a clear pledge to end the badger cull. We stand by that and the new clause would put it into law. The direction of travel of the Godfray report today reflects that the Government, on the basis of scientific evidence, are beginning to move in that direction. I suspect it is still partly about costs, because culling is more expensive. The vaccination question that the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned is important, but it is important that we follow the science as it develops. We want to eradicate and defend and protect. The issue is of considerable public interest, so I will press the new clause to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 3:49 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We believe it important that the Bill properly supports co-operative models of farming, as they contribute greatly to a fairer and more resilient agricultural sector. By working together, farmers can benefit from mutual protection, access to new markets, cost savings and efficiency, and a louder collective voice for the industry, all of which will be particularly important in the light of the uncertainty caused by our withdrawal from the European Union.

As our countryside is likely to become increasingly commercialised with, I fear, bigger farms and possibly bigger profits, co-operative approaches also provide a counterbalance to the growing consolidation of ownership of farms and food manufacturing in the hands of a few big agribusinesses or international conglomerates. Many players in our agricultural sector already belong to co-operatives. They may not be as strong as in other countries, but more than 140,000 British farmers are members and co-owners of more than 400 agriculture and farmer co-operatives that work across many levels in the supply chain, from milk marketing and processing to arable crop storage, produce marketing and retail supplies.

The Bill is missing clear provisions to make it easier for current and new co-operatives to succeed in farming by providing practical support, funding and protection from the inadvertent impact of future legislation or regulation. The new clause would therefore lock into the Bill a requirement for the Secretary of State to promote agriculture co-operatives by offering financial assistance for their creation and development and to establish bodies to provide practical support and guidance for their development. That support could come in the form of grant or loan funding and through the creation of organisations similar to the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, which I understand provides practical support such as advice, networking, shared services and linking agriculture co-operatives to potential opportunities.

The clause would also guarantee that the impact of proposed legislation on agriculture co-operatives is considered. That would ensure that future legislation does not inadvertently make it harder to be a co-operative than any other form of business. That is particularly important in the short to medium term, as much of the detail of the post-Brexit settlement for farmers will come in secondary legislation, to which I am sure we are all hugely looking forward.

The Bill is short on detail, and it is important that any undue impact on co-operatives is mitigated against as the detail is fleshed out. That would also help to future-proof the sector against inadvertent undue harm as policy develops over the long term. We hope that the Government will recognise the contribution of co-operatives and the merits of our proposals. It is important that we properly safeguard that sector within farming and that co-operatives are properly supported and encouraged.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 3:50 p.m.

I absolutely agree that farmers can benefit in many ways by co-operating and working together. Co-operation provides opportunities to cut costs and achieve economies of scale, whether through purchasing resources or processing and marketing produce. Co-operatives can gain control and hold a stronger position in the supply chain than people who work alone. By working together, farmers can share knowledge and best practice and support each other to improve productivity and spread innovation.

Clause 1(2) already allows us to provide financial assistance to help farmers to improve productivity. We would like to be able to help farmers to invest in equipment and infrastructure that will help them to benefit from working together. Furthermore, there are provisions elsewhere in the Bill that allow us to create a bespoke UK producer organisations regime, which we will tailor to the needs of UK producers who are interested in collaborating further together.

I hope that that provides some reassurance that we are already supporting, and will continue to support, farmers who want to come together to share knowledge, reduce costs, and strengthen their position in the supply chain.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 3:50 p.m.

I am grateful to the Minister, and I think I have had sufficient reassurance on that. On that basis, I am happy not to proceed and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 29

Carbon emissions: net-zero

29‘(1) When considering the provision of financial assistance under sections 1(1) and 1(2) of this Act, the Secretary of State shall ensure that the likely impact of that funding is compatible with the achievement of any emissions reduction target set out in subsection (2).

(2) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to—

(a) within six months of this Bill receiving Royal Assent, publish greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for agricultural soil, livestock, peatland and machinery, for the year 2030, which are consistent with an emissions reduction trajectory that would eliminate the substantial majority of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and

(b) ensure that the targets are met.

(3) The Secretary of State must, within twelve months of this Bill receiving Royal Assent, publish a statement of the policies to be delivered in order to meet the emissions reduction targets published under subsection (2).

(4) In this section “soil”, “livestock”, “peatland” and “machinery” shall all relate to that used, owned, or operated in the process of farming or any other agricultural activity.”’—(Daniel Zeichner.)

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for the agricultural sector.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 3:51 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I think everyone will be pleased that we are getting towards the finishing straight, but, in the meantime, we believe that the Bill needs to have far stronger net zero commitments. As I have said, it is essential that the climate crisis should be front and centre of the Bill, which will be one of the most important pieces of legislation we have had in the past decade to help to meet the climate emergency. Yes, the Government have said that they are committed to reaching net zero by 2050, but the National Farmers Union has demonstrated much more ambitious leadership by setting a closer target—for the agriculture sector to reach net zero by 2040.

Sadly, we know that the Government are currently not on track to meet their carbon emission goals in the 2030s, let alone to reach net zero by 2050, and the 2040 target remains a voluntary one for the agriculture sector. The fact is that the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 progress report has shown that UK agriculture is not on track with any of its indicators, and there has been little progress in reducing emissions from agriculture since 2008. As only 30% of direct payments are currently secured through meeting greening requirements—an improvement on the previous system, but still not good enough and way short of what is needed—we can see that a lack of financial incentives or legal requirements for farmers to adapt their practices to reduce emissions is part of the problem. That is why it is so important that the Bill should set out clear targets and a proper plan for how agriculture will be expected to reduce its emissions and by what date.

As things stand, all that the Bill does, effectively, is stipulate that the Secretary of State may—not even “must”, to go back to where we started—provide financial assistance under clause 1 for the purposes of climate change and adaptation, as well as other public goods that will have positive impacts on carbon storage, such as good soil management. We have no assurances about how much priority those clause 1 elements that could deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will be given by the Government when funding the measures in the Bill. There are no guarantees that farmers will even take up the new environmental land management schemes in the first place to deliver those vital agricultural adaptations to reduce carbon emissions, and there is no plan for how agriculture is expected to meet any net zero target, be that by 2050, 2040 or earlier.

For the Government to say that they are truly committed to transforming our agricultural and land management systems in order to reduce emissions and avert climate catastrophe, the Bill needs to be much strengthened with a coherent, joined-up approach. That has been the purpose of many of our amendments, which we have discussed over the past few weeks. I think I am correct in saying that, sadly, they have been rejected in their entirety by the Government—so far: there is always hope, right to the end. [Laughter.] I do not think there is—but anyway.

The Bill needs binding emission targets for all the key areas of agricultural emissions—soil, livestock, peatland and machinery—for a given date, with clear direction from the Secretary of State on how it is intended to reach them. The NFU suggests 2040. We believe that the target should be in line with that, but that it has got to be even more ambitious if we are to properly address the climate emergency. We propose setting targets that are in line with eliminating the substantial majority of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

We heard of the need for proper targets in the Bill from numerous witnesses in the evidence sessions. That would be the best way to give the legislation some teeth and proper direction and ensure that the Government’s proposed aims for the Bill of reducing agricultural carbon emissions are actually delivered to a timescale that will make those emission reductions effective for averting the climate catastrophe. The urgency of the climate crisis is too real and too important for any less than that.

New clause 29 would align agriculture with the emissions reduction trajectory that would eliminate the substantial majority of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It would require the Secretary of State, within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, to publish emission reductions targets for agricultural soil, livestock, peatland and machinery for the year 2030 that are consistent with this aim, to publish a statement within 12 months of the Bill becoming an Act of the policies to be delivered in order to meet the emissions reduction targets, and to ensure those targets are met. The new clause would also ensure that, in providing financial assistance for the clause 1 purposes, the impact of that funding is compatible with the achievement of the target of reducing the substantial majority of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

There can be no more important point on which to conclude our deliberations today. It is a simple test for the Government: are they up to tackling the climate crisis or not? I fear we are about to hear a lot of noes.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

5 Mar 2020, 3:59 p.m.

Yes, the Government are up to dealing with the climate crisis and are determined to do so, and yes, we agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no more important thing that we should be doing as a Government.

I am really proud that the UK became the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from across the UK economy by 2050. We already have a strong foundation of action and leadership to build from, having cut our emissions by 42% since 1990 while growing the economy by 72%. That does not mean that we are complacent or that we do not recognise that there is a great deal more to do, urgently.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, midnight

I am going to make some progress.

Climate change is a global challenge, requiring action across the whole economy. We do not have sector-specific targets. That is to ensure that we meet our climate change commitments at the lowest possible net cost to UK taxpayers, consumers and businesses, while maximising the social and economic benefits to the UK of the transition.

We have set out a range of specific commitments, in the 25-year environment plan and under the clean growth strategy, to reduce emissions from agriculture. That includes strengthening biosecurity and control of endemic diseases in livestock, and encouraging use of low-emission fertilisers. However, we know that, to achieve net zero, more is needed from the sector. We are looking to reduce agricultural emissions controlled directly within the farm boundary with a broad range of cost-effective measures, primarily through improvements to on-farm efficiency and land use change.

The new ELM scheme will help us to contribute to our net zero commitment by providing farmers with an opportunity to receive financial reward for delivering a range of public goods. We already report on climate change performance under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the convention on biological diversity. Additional reporting as required by the new clause would place an unnecessary burden on the Government without delivering significant new information to Parliament.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 3:59 p.m.

So, we come full circle, back to where we started. I listened closely to the Minister and I end up being disappointed, sadly. I point out that the Government were dragged unwillingly to the 2050 target. It was the Leader of the Opposition who led on that, and it will be Labour in the future that will deliver us from the climate emergency. I did hear a “yes” at one point in the Minister’s speech, and I hope she might just be able to say yes in a moment, when we come to the vote.

This all comes back to the balance between cost and possibility. I kept hearing the words “lowest possible cost”. This is not something that can be done at low cost. The climate emergency is absolutely real, immediate and urgent. There is a fundamental difference between the two sides here on how we approach it. The Minister mentioned environmental land management schemes. We talked much about that last week. There are no guarantees in the Bill that they will achieve the uptake or the outcomes that we are looking for.

There has been a clear division of opinion throughout the discussions on the Bill. It does too little. It is not strong enough. It does not guarantee the way forward that we need. Agriculture is still a major contributor to the climate crisis. We need to find a way of taking the sector to a much better place. This new clause would help us to do that.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 4:02 p.m.

On a point of order, Sir David. I understand that now is the right point to thank you very much for your chairmanship. I also thank the other Chair who has helped us with the proceedings, all the Clerks and the civil servants, who have helped us enormously with the production and the taking through of the Bill. I very much thank the Committee members and the Government and Opposition Whips, who have steered the Bill so seamlessly and with a certain amount of agreement and jollity around the edges.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

5 Mar 2020, 4:05 p.m.

On a point of order, Sir David. I expect that I will say something remarkably similar. I particularly thank you and Mr Stringer for your excellent chairmanship. I thank the Whips for making the Committee run so smoothly and efficiently. As we approach International Women’s Day, I look around the room and notice that all my team appear to be women, and there appears to a majority of women on the Government side, too. I think that reflects an important step forward in this place. I suspect that this has been a more gentle and consensual discussion than one might have had otherwise, although I have been chided from my own side for being insufficiently dressed on occasion.

I thank the Clerks, who have been extraordinarily helpful in translating not always clear instructions into workable amendments. I thank all the staff working across the shadow teams; it has been a particularly difficult time. I particularly thank the adviser Rob Wakely and my assistant Rafaelle Robin. We probably expected far too much from them in a short period of time, and I am eternally grateful. All the mistakes are my responsibility.

Agriculture Bill (Eleventh sitting)

(Committee Debate: 11th sitting: House of Commons)
Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 5th March 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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5 Mar 2020, 12:50 p.m.

I feel that the hon. Lady was partly making my point: we have to stick to WTO rules. I think she and I agree that we want to comply with WTO rules. As a lawyer with many years’ experience, I am explaining my concern that the new clause would possibly not comply with WTO rules—I put it no more strongly than that.

Prior to the start of negotiations for each new free trade agreement, the Government will publish—indeed, we have done so this week—our approach to negotiations, including our negotiating objectives and other explanatory material. We did so on 27 February ahead of the start of negotiations with the EU, and on Monday this week for the US negotiations. Right hon. and hon. Members, and the general public, have a chance to scrutinise those documents and the Government will rightly be held to account. Once negotiations are under way, we will continue to keep the public and Parliament informed. We believe that that approach strikes the right balance of allowing Parliament and the public to scrutinise the trade policy, while maintaining the ability of Government to negotiate flexibly in the best interests of the UK.

I turn to new clause 30 and new schedule 1. As several hon. Members have said, the provisions were tabled when the previous Agriculture Bill was before the House during the last Session. The hon. Member for Cambridge will recognise that domestic legislation already provides for a prohibition on the use of substances listed in new clause 30, and for maximum residue limits for substances to be specified. My response to the comments about the new clauses that were tabled by the current Secretary of State is this: are we not fortunate to have a Secretary of State who is a champion of standards in our food and agricultural sector? Quite frankly, to turn around the words of the hon. Member for Bristol East, the Secretary of State wholly supports the Agriculture Bill as drafted. He has been reassured that this is not needed in primary legislation, and if it is good enough for the Secretary of State, it is good enough for me.

To go into detail, as the hon. Member for Cambridge did, new clause 30 does not refer to the operability amendments and other provisions in the exit legislation made last year—obviously, because it was drafted before that. That legislation deliberately took a flexible approach to the specification of maximum residue limits, rather than the more onerous scrutiny that the new clause would lead to. The legislation will come into force at the end of the transition period. Setting a maximum residue limit for a particular substance does not overturn the legislative prohibition on the use of substances as growth promoters.

Parliamentary scrutiny is, of course, important. But, as was explained in debates on the exit statutory instruments last year, a non-legislative approach when setting maximum residue limits is more efficient and likely to avoid unnecessary delays, which might have financial implications for industry and make the UK less attractive to pharmaceutical companies looking to market veterinary medicines. If that were to lead to a reduction in available medication, it could have a significant impact on animal welfare. As such, although we recognise that there are arguments for increasing the level of parliamentary scrutiny, the Government prefer to maintain the approach set out in our exit legislation—of course, it was not around when the amendment was drafted—that was considered and approved by Parliament at the end of last year.

Turning to new clause 31, I hope the hon. Member for Cambridge can agree that there are instances in which substances other than drinking water are already deemed appropriate for the specified purposes, having been subject to rigorous risk analysis processes. In fact, the EU has approved lactic acid for treating beef carcases, recycled hot water for carcases of certain species and clean water—not drinking water—for fishery products. I hope we can agree that it would be regressive to undo what are already considered safe practices. The unfortunate effect of the new clause would be to stymie any process for considering new substances for use in the UK in future. It could restrict the potential for innovation to realise new hygiene benefits.

The wording of new clause 31, whether intended or not, goes much further than existing restrictions—I do not want to talk about sloppy drafting, but I am concerned that such a provision could result in serious animal health and welfare implications. Live animals could no longer be effectively washed or treated with antiparasitic treatment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, such as sheep dips. Udder washing is a perfectly normal practice to stop mastitis, and we would not want to interfere with that. Maintaining safety and public confidence in the food we eat remains a high priority for the Government, and the current regulatory framework ensures that.

New clause 32 would prevent meat and other products from conventionally reared meat chickens from being sold or supplied in the UK unless they are produced to a stocking density no greater than 39 kg per square metre, which is our current maximum in Great Britain. Northern Ireland has set a maximum stocking density of 42 kg per square metre. As such, the new clause would mean that meat chicken legally produced in Northern Ireland over 39 kg per square metre could not be sold in the UK. I am sure that was not the intention when the new clause was drafted.

Further, although we have a strong domestic sector producing around £2.4 billion of poultry meat per year, in 2018 we imported £2.1 billion of chicken meat and chicken products. Some of those, including imports from some EU member states, do not meet our stocking density requirements. Imposing a restriction of this kind on imports might result in food security issues, and it would certainly impact cost. We all want to move in the same direction on animal welfare, but we may not be able to do so by means of new clause 32.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to restate the Government’s commitment to standards and to highlight Parliament’s role in scrutinising our negotiation approach to free trade agreements. However, as I mentioned, we have retained EU legislation for existing protections on food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, and I therefore the Opposition to withdraw the new clause.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have listened very closely to the Minister addressing a range of complicated issues. In responding, I will work backwards.

We fully accept that drafting the detail in these proposals was a complicated process, and we pay tribute to the current Secretary of State for the work he did in attempting to deal with this conundrum. I have to say that I think the Bill—this is the part the Minister was not really able to address—in effect takes apart what the Secretary of State was trying to do, which we think was really important. I invite the Minister to reflect on whether it would be possible to work cross-party before we get to the next stage of the process to amend some of the detail. That would seem to me to be a good way forward, and it would reflect what I suspect we can probably all agree on. Knocking this down on the basis that there are problematic points of detail—I do not dispute that it is complicated and difficult—is not the right way to go.

That leads us to the Minister’s point about our relationships in the WTO. We know that the WTO is a troubled organisation at the moment, but we also know that there is plenty of opportunity all the time for people to challenge. The question is why they do it at some times and not others. That goes back to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West.

There is a political set of questions about how trading blocs deal with disputes. The sad truth is that we are now outside one of the big trading blocs and we do not have the power of an umbrella that would probably prevent others from making challenges that we might not think reasonable. We have seen that in the new world order, with Trump and so on, quite spurious challenges may be made that generate a whole raft of legal procedures, which take time and are difficult to deal with. A small player is much more vulnerable than a big player to being picked off, because big players have more resources in their armoury to fight back with.

I am afraid that is the difficult situation that the Government have got us into. On the WTO rules, I recognise that there is some potential for challenge, but that is where we are at. We must ensure that we do everything we can to protect our people in this new world. The clearest and most helpful way of doing that in negotiations would be to put what we have proposed in the Bill; if we did so, the others in the negotiations would know it was non-negotiable.

That goes back to the basic point that the Minister made at the beginning of her speech. I am afraid the harsh truth is that when the Prime Minister makes a series of promises, they are not believed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made some excellent points: for all the reasons we have heard about today, including the piece that the current Secretary of State wrote all those months ago, how can we believe the Prime Minister when—

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(James Morris.)

Agriculture Bill (Tenth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 10th sitting: House of Commons)
Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Tuesday 3rd March 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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

3 Mar 2020, 2:05 p.m.

What a pleasure it is to have you back with us, Sir David! I thank the hon. Lady for the amendments, which reflect an obvious desire to ensure that all farmers and producers are spared from unfair trading practices. We absolutely share that goal; our only disagreement is the means proposed to achieve it.

Essentially, we believe in the principle of a targeted solution for a specific problem, and we are keen to take the time to get the solution right. No two agricultural sectors are the same, and neither are the contractual issues that they face. Certain sectors, such as the poultry and grain sectors, may, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby reminded us, be so well integrated that contractual problems do not often arise.

We should have targeted solutions where they are needed, but we need to avoid burdensome new requirements where they are not. To ensure that, the specific detail of each code will be developed in consultation with industry and set out in secondary legislation. Enforcing a time limit on the creation of fair-dealing obligations would prevent regulations accounting for the complex nature of our agricultural market.

Turning to amendment 78, I assure the hon. Member for Newport West that all types of agreement to purchase agricultural products can already be protected by the clause, and the position of farmers in the supply chain will be protected under the current drafting. The clause allows us to regulate for the purposes of fair contractual dealing. That goes beyond a formal, written contract. As the hon. Lady no doubt knows, a contract constitutes any agreement of sale, whether it is formally written down or not. In the dairy sector, it is commonplace to write things down; in other sectors, there are more informal, word-of-mouth arrangements, particularly in the red meat world and parts of the arable world. However, the clause covers all agreements, written or otherwise.

On amendment 79, we deliberately designed the clause to be as flexible as possible. That is a change since the previous iteration of the Bill. Having listened to comments made at the time, we severed the link to the list of sectors in schedule 1 so that future regulations are no longer bound by it. It remains very much our belief that each sector is different and requires a tailored approach. We intend to be forensic in establishing what the needs of each sector are. That will include detailed engagement with industry.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 2:08 p.m.

I am thinking back to our earlier discussion on data throughout the entire system. Why do some sectors need to be treated differently here, but did not when it came to the collection of data?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

3 Mar 2020, 2:09 p.m.

During our earlier conversation, it was clear that we will have to be forensic and tailored in our approach to data collection. This is very much part of the same theme. We do not want to treat all sectors the same when they raise different issues and come to us with very different current practices.

If issues that are consistent across multiple sectors are revealed, and if they could be addressed under new, comprehensive regulation, we absolutely have the power to deliver that. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Newport West to withdraw the amendment.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 2:32 p.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her thoughtful desire to progress with these amendments, to ensure that Scottish farmers are effectively and appropriately supported. We are committed to ensuring that the provisions are applied effectively in all the nations of the United Kingdom.

Recognition as a producer organisation, association of producer organisations or inter-branch organisation automatically activates exemptions from competition law. That has been the case under the EU regime since the omnibus regulation, which amended several CAP instruments at the beginning of 2018.

That approach will continue under the new domestic PO regime. The act of granting recognition therefore relates directly to competition law, which, as I said earlier, is reserved to the UK Parliament. However, I will take this opportunity to assure both the hon. Lady and Scottish Ministers that this merely reflects the status of competition law as an area reserved to the UK Parliament. The PO regime will continue to operate as it always has. We have no intention of introducing jarring changes that will undermine its functioning. It will continue to be administered by the RPA, as is currently the case. We will consult thoroughly, both with the devolved Administrations and with farmers, in every part of the UK, during the development of our bespoke UK regime. I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A number of these amendments relate to wider devolution issues; my comments are applicable to a number of them, in particular those that we are discussing at the moment.

We are going to need clarity on how we will work together in the future, because the structures being set up are quite complicated. For some, it would be entirely reasonable for the powers to be passed to the devolved organisations, but there needs to be a detailed discussion about the merits in each case. At the moment, I am not convinced in this instance. I was actually persuaded by the Minister’s arguments about whether, as we stand, passing these matters down to the devolved nations would be the right way to go. Although I certainly would not rule out considering doing that further in future, because we want to ensure that we devolve as much power as possible, there are issues around competition law—we will come to further amendments where is some interaction with World Trade Organisation rules, general agreement on tariffs and trade rules and so on, which make it difficult to do that. While supporting the Government on this occasion, I want to put down a marker to say that in future we would want to devolve where possible.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 2:48 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the issue of the red meat levy with her amendment. I recognise that there is an inequality arising from the current system of producing the red meat levy. Indeed, our Parliamentary Private Secretary has been assiduous in bringing that to our attention.

The clause is designed to provide a permanent solution to this long-standing issue. In the meantime, the three levy bodies—the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Quality Meat Scotland and the HCC, which I will not even begin to pronounce—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newport West must bear it in mind that I have a vast number of Welsh relations who would not appreciate it if I did not get my pronunciation perfect. The three levy bodies are working collaboratively, using the interim fund, to benefit the red meat industry across the whole of Great Britain. Adequate time must be allowed for the full and careful development of a redistribution scheme, allowing for due consideration and consultation in order to provide a workable solution.

The amendment moved by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith would provide a short timeframe in which to create a new scheme. Imposing such a deadline is not appropriate, because it is important that we consult properly on how the redistribution of the red meat levy is delivered, and the Administrations must have time to agree the scheme. The interim fund continues to be available in the meantime. I therefore apologise that I cannot give her every assurance she seeks at this point, but she knows that we have worked hard to put right this wrong, and will continue to do so. In that spirit, I ask that she withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be brief, but the clause is something that we can all welcome. There has been a long-running difficulty and it reflects changes in the availability of local abattoirs in particular. Many of us would like to see measures elsewhere to try to redress that. In the absence of that, the world has changed and it is welcome that the Government are responding positively. If it is pressed to a vote, we will be happy to support the SNP’s position.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 3:03 p.m.

I receive all the hon. Lady’s amendments warmly. She has again raised an important issue. Farm business tenancies are a vital part of our farming industry. They provide a flexible way for established farmers to expand their business, by renting additional parcels of land. Crucially, they also open the way for new entrants, with no family connection to the land, to get a foothold in the sector.

As I have already stated, I want a thriving tenant farming sector. That is why we have included provisions in the Bill to modernise agricultural tenancy legislation. Although I recognise concerns that the new dispute conditions do not include farm business tenancy agreements, there are very important reasons for that.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 3:03 p.m.

Shall I set out some of my reasons first? Then, if necessary, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. First, evidence from the public consultation on this issue in England does not support extending the provision to include farm business tenancies. That is because, as the hon. Member for Newport West said, they are more modern, commercial agreements, negotiated more recently than agreements under the 1986 Act. They are shorter term and reviewed more regularly, so that tenants have the opportunity to renegotiate and vary the terms to fit changing commercial conditions, and ensure that they can access future financial assistance schemes.

Secondly, the legal framework governing farm business tenancies already provides for enabling the parties to agree terms, so that the tenant can continue to deliver diversified activities, such as environmental schemes, alongside farming. Thirdly, extending the provisions to include farm business tenancies risks undermining landlord confidence in tenancy agreements that had been freely and relatively recently entered into by both parties. That could lead to landlords withdrawing from the let sector in favour of contracting or farming in hand, which would reduce opportunity for tenant farmers.

The aim of the provisions is to provide a dispute mechanism specifically for tenants of 1986 Act agreements, because those are lifetime agreements that were negotiated 30 to 40 years ago in a very different world. They often contain outdated restrictions that could act as a barrier to tenants meeting modern statutory requirements and, in England, accessing future farming schemes that we are setting out.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 3:04 p.m.

This is a complicated set of issues, and I seek clarification. Some lack of clarity about post-1995 holdings has been raised with me. The question is, going back to the financial assistance schemes, who would make the decision to de-link? Who would get the lump sum? Is it the tenant in post-1995 cases?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 3:05 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman and I have undertaken to have a specific conversation later about de-linking and lump sum payments. I tried to set out the position this morning. Once a decision has been made to de-link payments, they may continue to be paid to the tenant. Indeed, the person farming the land—so the tenant—would apply for any lump sum. However, the two are separate, as I set out this morning. I hope that answers his question.

The provisions in schedule 3 had broad support in the public consultations in England and Wales. They have been shaped to ensure that the interests of tenants and landlords are considered. We will continue to consult industry widely, including members of the Tenancy Reform Industry Group, as we develop future regulations. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Newport West to withdraw her amendment.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 3:07 p.m.

I beg to move amendment 84, in clause 35, page 31, line 38, leave out “may” and insert “must”.

This amendment would make it a duty for the Secretary of State to make regulations as to labelling as to method of production.

We welcome the fact that subsection (2)(g) enables the Secretary of State to make regulations on marketing standards regarding farming methods. We believe that it opens the door to looking properly at the labelling of farmed products. Under the clause, however, the Secretary of State once again has a power rather than a duty and so has no actual obligation to take the matter forward. That bothers us.

We therefore believe that the Bill should be strengthened to require the Secretary of State to make labelling regulations requiring meat, milk and dairy products, including those produced intensively, to be labelled as to farming method. That would be an important development and helpful to consumers. A great step forward for consumers would be to know what they are purchasing across the board in terms of animal products. Consumers could then make decisions based on those higher animal welfare and environmental considerations.

I am reaching back to find my favourite document, or this week’s favourite document—never to hand when I want it, of course—[Interruption.] I am delighted—the Minister obviously loves the document too.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 3:08 p.m.

I love it too.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 3:09 p.m.

Of course. Last week, we had an interesting discussion about labelling. I take Members back to that because on page 16 of the document is a theoretical discussion of the effect of labelling. The Government tell us:

“Tapping into the consumer willingness to pay begins with understanding the value-action gap”—

which I am sure is being discussed on every omnibus around the country—and that

“it is possible for someone to derive positive value from the fact that animals are being well cared for as a result of another’s purchasing decision. Those not buying animal products should be included in any assessment of public value, one person’s holding of this value does not detract from another’s.”

I find that a puzzling suggestion. I tried it out on my partner—I will not say what she said, but she was not convinced that, basically, other people buying poorly produced food somehow does not detract from the wider public good. That is a theoretical discussion the Government may want to go back to. The following page states:

“Addressing consumer understanding, and understanding how purchasing decisions are made in practice in the retail environment and online, are also key elements…It is important to note that improved transparency alone can only address information asymmetry, and does not capture the public value held by non-consumers.”

I am not sure what any of that means, and I am sure that the public have little idea of what it means. I think it shows that labelling is not simple; there is a big discussion to be had. Is it enough to use labelling? The right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby and I had an exchange on that last week; there are sincerely held differences of opinion about it.

Back in the simpler, empirical world, we have seen the positive impact that labelling can have on eggs. Since 2004, when EU law began to require eggs and egg packs to be labelled to highlight production method, there has been a considerable move in the market towards free-range eggs and away from caged egg sales. I am told that around 52% of all UK eggs come from cage-free systems, which is welcome.

It is not the same in other sectors. Consumers are still very much in the dark about the production of meat and milk. It is hard to find meat or dairy products that have a labelled method of production. For meat, there is some labelling of free range and organic, but not much else. There is even less information about the farming methods of milk. Most milk is pooled together, making it difficult to distinguish between pasture-based and intensively produced milk. From personal experience perusing the supermarket shelves, it seems the world is becoming more complicated these days; there is a greater range, but we need to go further. I find it confusing. It is confusing for consumers and it does a disservice to farmers who are already producing to higher standards but do not have any means of distinguishing their products because of labelling ambiguities.

A lot of marketing and packaging borders on the misleading. Intensively produced meat and dairy products, where animals may have seen very little of the outside world, are packaged in pretty green packets featuring rolling hills and what looks like a welfare-friendly world. That does not help consumers make informed choices, and it does not help producers extract the higher value that they deserve from their products. Proper labelling would work in everyone’s interests.

The production methods highlighted would differ for different products, but mandatory labelling could be used to indicate on the packet whether the product has been produced intensively indoors or extensively outdoors, with the full range of production methods in between, so that consumers can make a decision in the shop about what they want. That is something that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended twice to the Government in 2018, and it makes a lot of sense.

At the moment, any consumer demand for less intensively produced meat and dairy is impeded by the lack of clear information at the point of sale about how the products have been produced. Informing consumers about methods of production allows them to make that choice. We could see important shifts in the market towards the production of food that is less intensive, more environmentally sustainable and based on higher animal welfare.

A good labelling system could also play an important role in further incentivising farmers to take up environmental land management schemes and deliver the public goods that we discussed last week under clause 1, particularly those who seek to promote higher animal welfare measures, by giving them the recognition they deserve for using less intensive production methods. If the consumer has no idea what farmers are doing, it stands to reason that farmers will see the benefits of making positive changes only in the direct payments they receive, rather than in any changes in consumer demand. There needs to be a way for farmers to demonstrate that they are delivering food in a way that consumers may choose to pay for.

International debate is moving quickly in this area. We heard evidence of the number of schemes that are being looked into across Europe. The Government have talked big talk about using the new opportunity post Brexit to improve our animal welfare standards and modernise our farming processes. It is important that we do not miss key opportunities to adopt mechanisms that can help support that. A relatively simple change of wording would give this clause the strength it needs to deliver the Government’s aim of achieving an impact we all support.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who unfortunately was out of the room this morning during one of my earlier attempts to bait him. He never fails to please. His deft and diligent examination of the wording may well have identified a minor drafting error from our point of view, but I am sure he gets the thrust of the argument. On that basis, I very much hope he supports us on this occasion.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

Again, we broadly share the same values and principles, but—I am sorry to be tedious about the law and the drafting, not that I would ever accuse my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby of being tedious—it is important that we look at what the amendment would actually do.

I welcome this opportunity to further clarify the purpose of the clause. The proposed amendment seeks to change the wording of the clause to include “must” instead of “may”. We have been through this many times in the past week and I do not propose to do so again. There is no need to add a duty here, as regulations concerning the marketing standards already exist in EU law. Using powers in the withdrawal Act, we will retain the current EU marketing standards and roll them over into UK law, ensuring continuity for farmers and the farming industry.

The power in subsection (1) will provide an opportunity for the current standards to be amended when it is appropriate to do so, to ensure that they deliver domestic standards. It will also allow us to introduce new standards should that be deemed necessary. We anticipate that the power will be used to respond to developments in production. The amendment could create a situation in which new marketing standards regulations must be made, regardless of whether they were needed.

I should add that marketing standards do not apply to all food products and so would not be the appropriate vehicle for any general changes to food labelling rules, such as those about stating allergens on labels. That is already covered by existing food information and food safety laws.

I hope I have given some explanation of why the clause is drafted in the way it is. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is so disappointing. The Government should have more ambition to do these things. That is why we are pressing and encouraging them. This is such an opportunity; to us, it seems like a win-win.

I fully accept that there may be some points of drafting or direction—I do not blame the people who drafted the amendment—on which we could improve, but it would be wonderful if the Government accepted the thrust of the argument. This is a bit like hustings events during a general election campaign: by the time we come to the end, we all know one another’s lines. What the Minister said was not a surprise to me, and it will be no surprise to her to hear me say the same thing again.

This is partly a question of trust, I am afraid. It is also a question of wanting to move quickly to take up these opportunities. I think there is real desire out there among consumers to make informed choices, despite the slight difference of opinion expressed by the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby last week about the role of labelling in making the changes we want. If we are going to go down the labelling route as the driver for change, for goodness’ sake push on with it. Do it soon. The Government should tie themselves to it. If they accepted our amendment, they would be bound to do it and there would be no backsliding. My guess is that we will be discussing this in many months’ time and we will find it has not moved as quickly as many of us would have hoped. On that basis, I am not prepared to withdraw the amendment; we will press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Agriculture Bill (Ninth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 9th sitting: House of Commons)
Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Tuesday 3rd March 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Victoria Prentis)
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3 Mar 2020, 9:26 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Stringer. Clause 9 provides the Secretary of State with the power to modify, for England, the legislation governing the basic payments scheme, which includes the greening and young farmer payments. We will remove the unnecessary bureaucracy. From the responses to the extensive consultation that the Department undertook in 2018, and further consultation with stakeholders, we think that that will be welcomed by farmers up and down the country.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 9:26 a.m.

It is a pleasure to continue our discussion with you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I want some clarification from the Minister. The clause is obviously quite apposite, as it will give the Government powers to simplify the system, and it is topical, given that the three-crop rule is controversial and unpopular, and something on which many farmers would like urgent action.

Farmers Weekly reported that Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers Union, said at its conference last week that farmers were hugely frustrated:

“We have left the EU, half the country is under water and…we are still going to abide by the three-crop rule and process thousands of force majeure applications. It just seems absolutely extraordinary.”

The Secretary of State explained the complex situation we find ourselves in, but I ask the Minister to explain why we cannot move more quickly, given that we have now left the European Union.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:29 a.m.

The situation is under consideration, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait for the Department to consider the matter further. Farmers are undoubtedly suffering because of flooding in their fields and concerned about whether they will be able to plant their crops. There are, for them, many other mechanisms for asking—whether by force majeure or otherwise—for the three-crop rule not to apply.

The position is under active consideration and I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman outside the confines of the Agriculture Bill, which refers to future payments—so probably this is not the place to be having the conversation. I want him to be clear that the Department is looking carefully at the next steps for this year.

As to future years, it might help if I say that we intend to make some minor simplifications in 2020 on greening payments, if I can use that terminology, using our existing powers. We intend to simplify the penalties for small overclaims of land, for example. We are also removing some of the paperwork connected to the young farmers scheme, which I think will be widely welcomed. We plan to introduce further simplifications for the 2021 scheme, such as removing some of, or possibly all, the greening rules, so watch this space.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Power to provide for phasing out direct payments

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:31 a.m.

The clause allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to apply reductions to farmers’ payments under the basic payment scheme in England so that we can phase them out. We plan to start reducing payments in 2021. Clause 11 concerns reductions to be applied to direct payments under the basic payment scheme; de-linked payments are dealt with in clause 12.

We will apply the reductions fairly, with higher reductions initially applied to amounts in higher payment bands. All farmers will face some reductions from the start of the transition. That reflects strong calls from industry stakeholders and many farmers for the reduction to be shared across the sector.

We have set out the maximum reductions that we intend to apply in 2021. We will set the reduction percentages for subsequent years taking account of our detailed plans for future schemes—which, as we have rehearsed many times, we do not yet have—and the wider perspective of Government spending. I reassure the Committee that regulations setting out the reductions will be made using the affirmative procedure, so there will be an opportunity for Parliament to scrutinise and debate them carefully.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 9:34 a.m.

I am grateful for that explanation. We had quite a discussion of some of these issues last week. Unfortunately, it appears that there is a second policy paper, which I am not sure every Committee member was entirely aware of last week. The Minister will be delighted to know that it is my new favourite document.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:34 a.m.

Oh good!

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 9:33 a.m.

But before people start applying cold compresses to their heads, I assure the Committee that I will not subject that document to detailed scrutiny. Some of it would have been helpful in our discussions last week, but it is as it is.

The document, which is entitled “Farming for the future: Policy and progress update”, sets out at page 36 the approach that is going to be taken to phasing out direct payments. As the Minister said, the reduction will be 5% for payments up to £30,000, and so on up to 25% for payments of £150,000 or more, so there will be significant reductions.

I have a genuine question, which I would like to explore. It is not clear to me what constitutes a payment in this sense. Can one simply look at recipients? The database shows that some recipients get a £1 million payment. Do these figures apply to that amount or to all the smaller payments that go to make it up? There would be a significant difference between the two.

I sought advice from one or two people, who were also puzzled, so I do not necessarily expect the Minister to know the answer this minute. However, it seems to me that it makes a huge difference, both to the people who receive payments and to the amount of money available in the system. If we cannot get an immediate answer, perhaps we can come back to that point later in the day, because it is key to the discussion.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:34 a.m.

I hesitate to behave like a lawyer, but it seems to me that what is specified under subsection (2) is the power to reduce basic payment scheme payments and, of course, any regulations made in the past under the basic payment scheme. I hope that is a sufficient answer for the hon. Gentleman. If not, perhaps we can take the conversation offline and I can talk him through what is planned. I accept that this is difficult. One of the problems with the common agricultural policy is that it has been accused of being not very transparent and difficult to manage, and it has different pillars, but I assure him that we are talking about BPS payments.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 9:30 a.m.

I understand the difficulty, but I think this is a pretty important point. This is a framework Bill, but people are looking for certainty over the next couple of years and will want to know how much they stand to lose. There could be a huge difference, depending on how the figure is calculated. Someone in the Department must know the answer to that question. I am not necessarily expecting it this minute, but it is important that we find it out.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:39 a.m.

I am reassured by the departmental staff present that the reductions will be applied to the total basic payment, including the greening and young farmer allowance. That is my understanding of the scheme and I hope that is sufficient for the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure that I fully understand his question, so this is possibly not the most productive place to have this conversation. We could discuss the matter on our own or exchange letters, if he is still confused.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Power to make delinked payments

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:37 a.m.

The clause provides the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations to enable de-linked payments to be introduced in England for the remainder of the transition period. De-linked payments will remove the requirement to farm land. Once introduced, de-linked payments will replace the basic payment scheme for all farmers in England.

De-linked payments benefit from further simplification during the agricultural transition period. Farmers can access payments for the remainder of the transition without the bureaucracy of the basic payment scheme. Instead, farmers will have maximum flexibility to plan for the future, choosing to spend the money as best suits their circumstances. That should help those who wish to retire to do so, freeing up land for new entrants.

The clause allows us to introduce de-linked payments from 2022 at the earliest. Alternative enforcement mechanisms will be introduced before direct payments are de-linked, so that we can maintain agricultural and environmental best practice.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Power to provide for lump sum payments in lieu of relevant payments

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 9:37 a.m.

I beg to move amendment 74, in clause 13, page 11, line 8, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

“(4) Regulations under this section shall make provision for circumstances in which an eligible person may receive a lump sum under this section.

(4A) The circumstances under subsection (4) shall include a commitment by the eligible person to use the lump sum to—

(a) make a change or changes to practice in managing land in such a way as to deliver one or more of the purposes under section 1(1) or 1(2); or

(b) make land available to other persons or bodies who undertake to manage the land in such a way as to deliver one or more of the purposes under section 1(1) or 1(2).”

Before making my comments on the amendment, I would like to point out that I am not confused about the previous issue; the Government are the ones who have the confusion. We will seek that out, I am sure.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:37 a.m.

Okay, we will discuss that.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 9:38 a.m.

We will do that.

Turning to clause 13, de-linking is significant for our farmers and there is a worry around it. The House of Commons Library briefing talks about the effect and the responses to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs summary last year. A lot of respondents felt this was a less popular option than retaining and simplifying the existing scheme. More significantly, the DEFRA evidence and analysis paper, “Agriculture Bill: Analysis and Economic Rationales for Government Intervention”, says:

“Most farm businesses will be able to make modest cost reductions in order to improve efficiency, which will be required when Direct Payments come to an end.”

That is strong statement. A lot of people will feel that it is not going to be easy to make those changes.

The analysis that DEFRA published alongside the paper notes that the impact of the removal of direct payments on overall profit margins is likely to be “non-negligible”. That is a wonderful civil service word that can be synonymous with “considerable”. I urge the Government to be cautious. De-linking has some positives, but the reductions are challenging for many.

The Bill outlines the seven-year agricultural transition period during which direct payments will be phased out, which is a significant change. It means there will no longer be a requirement to farm the land in order to receive the payments. In some ways, that is the gist of the Bill. Some will remember that, on Second Reading, a Government Member said, “Surely not!” because the common agricultural policy used to reward people for not farming. This is CAP on steroids in that case, because it completely breaks that link and is a significant change, and it is something that needs to be thought about.

In clause 14, we also look at how someone who potentially wants to come out of farming can request to have their remaining de-linked direct payments put into a lump sum. We understand the attraction of that for some, giving some flexibility and, as the Government have said, a route out of farming and the possibility of setting up a new business or diversifying, if they do not want to transition into the new world of environmental land management schemes. As the Minister said, the Government’s policy statements have made it clear that the intention of that is to increase opportunities for new entrants. In a wonderful, idealised world, this is all one would hope to happen—but the world does not always work in the way one expects.

Without a condition requiring farmers to make their land accessible to new entrants or to encourage transition on their land to a more sustainable way of farming, we believe the Bill poses a risk whereby retiring farmers could simply take lump sum payments and possibly sell the land to a larger holding or move out of farming altogether. That may be part of the Government’s underlying intention, but there are significant consequences to it. It is not entirely obvious that that will lead directly to new entrants.

I have mentioned the additional policy paper we have discovered. I point to page 39, which Members will probably not have to hand but which I will quote:

“Receiving a delinked payment will not disqualify the recipient from applying for payment under our new schemes, including our Environmental Land Management system.”

I ask the Minister whether the intention of that is as it seems to me to be read. Many of my constituents on benefits would love to continue getting their benefits when they got a new job, but no one would think that remotely reasonable. There is potential for double payment here and I ask for some explanation on that.

Going back to where the de-linked system has been initiated, we could conceivably be left in a situation whereby the provision of de-linked lump sum payments had incentivised a reduction in the amount of land being farmed in accordance with the aim of securing environmental public goods. It takes the land, which we are hoping will be managed in a more environmentally friendly way, out of the framework. I am sure the Minister gets the drift of where I am going with this.

That concern was raised by a number of witnesses in Committee, particularly the Landworkers Alliance in their written evidence. We think that that would be not only a detrimental and unintended consequence, environmentally speaking, but an unjust and politically unacceptable use of public funds, as it would hand public money to farmers who might already have a large capital asset in the farm and the house.

I have already said that the double payment point is an issue. How are we making sure that land will be put to continued use and deliver the environmental public goods at the heart of the Bill? There is a danger that the land will be left to the market with no guarantees that new entrants will take over and farm in an environmentally conscious way.

That is why amendment 74 would help the Government to tackle this conundrum by making the receipt of a lump sum de-linked payment conditional on either transitioning the farm to being run according to purposes outlined in clause 1(1), delivering public goods, or in clause 1(2), improving productivity, or on making land available to new entrants or for community ownership to ensure it continues as farmland. We think that would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations that stipulated that retiring farmers wishing to sell their land must offer it for sale to new entrants or the local community for a fixed period before offering it on the open market.

--- Later in debate ---
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 9:53 a.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and the spirit in which he made them. We will certainly all have to work together on perfecting the new schemes for the benefit of us all. The amendment seeks to apply conditions on those opting for a lump sum. Given the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, it would be helpful, with your leave, Mr Stringer, if I made a few comments about de-linked payments and the definition of de-linked payments and lump sum payments. It is important to be clear about that.

De-linked payments, once introduced, will replace the basic payment scheme for all farmers. They will not be paid as a lump sum. A lump sum payment will be completely optional for farmers; it is something they can apply for. Such payments will replace any future basic payment scheme or other delivered payments that they would have been entitled to receive under a previous payment regime. De-linking payments from the land will allow farmers to access their payments easily and, we hope, bring much simplification.

Along with the phasing out of direct payments, de-linking sends a clear signal that we are leaving behind the common agricultural policy. It will give farmers greater flexibility to plan for the future, because they will be able to choose how to use the money they receive to best suit their circumstances. Some farmers may choose to use it to contribute to their retirement from farming, which would help new entrants get into the industry, while others may use it to adapt or expand their business.

When clause 12 becomes effective and we introduce de-linked payments, those payments will replace the current basic payment scheme for all farmers in England and be paid each year during the remainder of the agricultural transition, rather than as a one-off lump sum. Separately, clause 13 provides the power to make regulations to offer farmers the option of taking a one-off lump sum payment in place of future payments, whether BPS or de-linked payments, during the agricultural transition.

On the hon. Gentleman’s points about regulation and the current cross-compliance regime, we have a strong domestic legal framework for enforcing environmental and animal health and welfare protections, but we will, of course, keep those powers under review to check that they are adequate. We will maintain strong regulatory standards and introduce a new approach to monitoring compliance and enforcement.

Currently, as the Committee has rehearsed, checking takes place in only a small number of cases. We hope to move to our new system as we go through the transition period. We hope for improved co-ordination between authorities, better data sharing and greater use of earned recognition. Enforcement will be proportionate and fair, and those who do not comply with regulations can expect to be sanctioned in future.

The Government want to see more public goods and farming to become more productive. The amendment is counter to the purpose that underpins lump sums: it would tie lump sums to financial assistance under clause 1, but the whole point of lump sums is that they are separate from that.

As the Secretary of State outlined in his speech to the National Farmers Union last week, we are looking to provide a means for older farmers to leave the profession with dignity. We are committed to phasing out direct payments and doing so in a way that helps those in the profession to adjust. Lump sums could bring many benefits. They could increase the ease for new entrants and those existing farmers who wish to expand and acquire land. They could also help those remaining in the industry to invest in their businesses.

The Bill gives the opportunity to move away from the highly bureaucratic and complex rules in the CAP. The amendment would go against the thrust of the desire to move to lump sum payments, by adding conditions to the receipt of funding without any consultation.

The clause would allow the Secretary of State to attach conditions on those opting for a lump sum, but we want to get it right. Therefore, it is important for the Government to consult the industry, so that a lump sum scheme is effective in achieving our aims, without introducing needless bureaucracy. I heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say about specific ideas. I would like him to rest assured that we will take those into account and that we are also very keen to discuss with him any further ideas he may have about the lump sum scheme.

Our commitment to the farming industry and to the provision of greater public goods is clear, but lump sum payments are different, as is this chapter. It is about phasing out direct payments. Lump sum payments are one way that we are going to help farmers during the transition, alongside our other plans to deliver real simplification of the scheme. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have listened closely to the Minister’s response. Although I recognise some of the points she makes, she has not addressed our fundamental concerns. All Governments talk of spending public money wisely. There is a real risk that it will be hard to keep track of how the system is working, and that public money might not be used for the hoped for outcomes. That is why we are cautious and will press the amendment to a vote. It is important to get more clarity.

We keep coming back to the same point. The Minister wants to set out options for the future, go to an iterative process and learn from it. The truth is that, once it starts, unless there are protections in place, there are the risks we have outlined. There are also risks around taking away some of the cross-compliance rules. The irony is that it could inadvertently allow for lower environmental standards rather than the higher ones that we are all keen to achieve.

I do not underestimate the complexity and difficulty, and I understand why the Government would not want to be constrained by extra suggestions put at this point. However, it is not clear that we will be able to exercise much leverage further down the line. The Government are asking for a huge amount of trust to go and design these systems and schemes, taking away many of the protections, both regarding money and the environment.

I do not think I heard the Minister address the double payment issue, which I would like to know about. Many people outside will not necessarily be following this closely. I say to the Minister that Governments are rarely rewarded for the successful bits of policy but are tripped up on the bits that the media can alight on and ask why they are happening.

The Government might want to look at the issue and be ready to explain to the public why that might happen. We are facing huge pressures on public expenditure in general and this could look very generous to those outside. I have nothing against being generous; I would like the Government to be more generous in general. I just think there are potential problems in this area. On that basis, I would like to press the amendment to a vote.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 10:02 a.m.

I will say a few words, not least because I hope they will answer the hon. Gentleman’s point. Clause 13 provides the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations to give farmers greater choice, by offering them the opportunity to apply for a one-off lump sum payment. That lump sum payment would be instead of receiving basic payment scheme or de-linked payments during the remainder of the agricultural transition. I hope that answers his question. We feel that lump sums would provide extra flexibility and choice for farmers.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 10:03 a.m.

I am afraid that does not answer the question. I will repeat what the policy document says on page 39:

“receiving a delinked payment will not disqualify the recipient from applying for payment under our new schemes, including our Environmental Land Management system”.

It seems to me that there is a risk there. That is not to do with the lump sum, but with de-linking in general. I suspect we will go around in circles on this, and I do not intend to go any further now, but that is why I have raised a concern.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

General provision connected with payments to farmers and other beneficiaries

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 10:05 a.m.

I beg to move amendment 43, in clause 14, page 11, line 45, leave out “any”.

This drafting amendment removes an unnecessary word from clause 14(3) for consistency with other similar provisions of the Bill.

As the explanatory statement says, this drafting amendment removes an unnecessary word from clause 14(3) for consistency with other similar provisions in the Bill.

Amendment 43 agreed to.

Clause 14, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 15 and 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Duty to report to Parliament on UK food security

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 10:03 a.m.

I beg to move amendment 7, in clause 17, page 14, line 20, leave out “five years” and insert “year”.

I am very happy to move this amendment; as keen-eyed Members might notice, it was originally tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), so this is probably a circumstance that neither of us would ever have predicted. We entirely agree with the proposal to make this extremely important change to the clause 17 food security provisions and amend the timing of the reports from once every five years to every year.

We are all glad that the Government paid heed to the warnings of stakeholders and our predecessors on the previous Bill Committee and included a duty in the revised Bill to report to Parliament on UK food security. It was widely commented at the time that it seemed curious that an Agriculture Bill’s purposes would not include producing food. I think that the clause is the Government’s response to that. It is unthinkable that food security provisions—particularly the Government’s intentions with respect to the proportion of food to be produced domestically or imported—should not be included in discussions of the post-Brexit future of our agriculture sector. Clause 17 is welcome, but the stipulation that the Secretary of State must prepare a report on an issue as important as the state of the nation’s food security only once every five years seems weak.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 10:07 a.m.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We need much more clarity. The clause is clearly not strong enough, at a time when food security has the potential to become a major cause of uncertainty and concern as we leave the EU and negotiate our own trade deals. It is of course an extremely topical matter, given many of the discussions going on at the moment.

Our food security in terms of self-sufficiency is already in long-term decline. We now produce only 61% of our own food, which is down from 74% around 30 years ago. It is a matter of strategic national interest to ensure that our country can, as far as possible, feed itself. A reasonable level of domestic production in a volatile world is a critical aspect of food security. It is a hugely complicated and contested issue. The modern world that we live in is highly interconnected—something that, as we speak, is looking increasingly difficult, for reasons we are all aware of. Those things raise questions, and different approaches are taken in different countries, but this is a good time to be discussing them.

There is still a huge amount that we do not know about the impact that the Government’s new trade and immigration policies will have on domestic food production year to year. Last week I quoted the concerns from some sectors—particularly the poultry sector—about our ability to continue without the people to do the work. We do not know whether the Government will make good on their as yet empty promises and protect our domestically produced food from being swamped by imports of a lower standard. That is the—I was going to say “the elephant in the room”, although I am not sure that we are farming elephants. This is a huge issue, which we shall obviously be coming to in the next few days, and, I suspect, returning to on Report and Third reading. It is one of the top issues at the moment. We do not know what the impact will be of any outcomes with respect to trade deals, but I suggest that they should be informed by a view on what we are trying to achieve overall. This Committee is a place where we can have at least part of that discussion.

I guess that some of those advising the Government have rather let the cat out of the bag over the weekend. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby is not here, as he has had problems with cats in the past, although I was not going to tease him about it too much. The Sunday newspapers, of course, were full of the press scoop that one of the new Chancellor’s top economic advisers thinks that our entire food sector is not critically important to the UK.

I recognise that the comments of one adviser do not Government policy make, but for many of us it feeds into a concern about where these policies are going. It is also part of the argument I made last week—that there is a real risk that we are looking at a much smaller, albeit high-quality and environmentally friendly, food sector in this country than we have now. That is something on which we really need clarity from the Government.

It was not just agriculture; the adviser also talked about fisheries, and suggested that maybe we should follow the example of agriculture in Singapore. We are a very different nation from Singapore. We are hugely different geographically, because they do not have much arable land in the way that we do, so they rely almost entirely on imports of food. I would go further than that and say that this is part of the debate about what it means to be English or British. Our rural heritage is a key part of our country, and the suggestion that we do not need some of it is, frankly, deeply shocking.

I am sure the Minister will disassociate herself from that kind of comment, but, given the extraordinary turmoil going on within No. 10 at the moment, this seems a classic example of taking advice from weirdos and misfits. I am afraid that the frivolous musings of people in such positions have very real consequences on the good work that the Minister is trying to do on a Bill such as this, and I am sure she did not welcome some of the publicity over the weekend. I would gently impress on her the importance of paying heed to something that we on the Opposition side have been trying to warn her about throughout this Bill Committee: that this Bill needs to be strengthened to guard against exactly this kind of approach, which undermines many of the worthy intentions behind it.

Going back to the food security report itself, the danger in that, under this clause, we will not even see the first one until after the next election, when we will have been out of the EU for half a decade. To us, it seems extraordinary that we would wait so long. We believe it needs to be done much more frequently. Given the kind of dramatic changes we are seeing around the world with the climate crisis, flooding and so on, we think that having reports on our food security annually would be a vital tool in the Government’s toolkit, enabling them to react to trends as they develop year on year and to address them. A further weakness of the food security report approach is that we can have a report, but we then need some tools to respond to what the report is telling us.

There is considerable consensus, not just among the hon. Members who have signed the amendment previously and on this occasion, but across the sector. We have heard from the NFU and the Tenant Farmers Association, and from the environmental organisations Greener UK and the Nature Friendly Farming Network. It is unusual; we have seen remarkable consensus on a number of these points, but on this point there is real consensus. I hope that the Minister has been paying attention to the fact that the original proposal came from her Government’s own Back Benchers. There is now a cross-party effort to shift the Government on this.

This is the first time in more than 40 years that a Secretary of State has been directly responsible for the nation’s food security. It is vital that we get this right, so we welcome the cross-party support for the amendment—not necessarily from the Government, but from their Back Benchers. Five years is simply too long to wait for these important reports. I hope the Minister has noted the strength of feeling. It is not going to go away, and that is why we will push this amendment to a vote.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

3 Mar 2020, 10:18 a.m.

Although the issue of standards is not entirely on-topic, I will deal with it briefly. I refer the hon. Gentleman not to leaks from Downing Street advisers but to a speech in the Chamber last night by the Secretary of State for International Trade, who said very clearly that

“we will not lower our standards. We will maintain our food safety and animal welfare standards and will not lower them as part of this free trade agreement. We decide which standards we abide by here in the UK. We have exceptionally high standards of animal welfare”.—[Official Report, 2 March 2020; Vol. 672, c. 649.]

I am sure we will come back to that later in our consideration of the Bill.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the amendment and its cross-party origins, and I understand why it may appear to be an attractive proposition. However, I will explain the clause’s proposed frequency of reporting “at least” every five years and why we think that will provide for both a more meaningful report on food security in the medium and longer term and a sounder basis for any relevant and appropriate policy response.

Food security is a complex issue that cannot be measured or defined by a single metric. The Government work closely with the food industry to ensure that we have a secure food supply. As the hon. Gentleman says, this is very important at this important point of change in our farming practices, and it may well be that it is appropriate to have a report before the five years is up. However, I would like to maintain the provisions in that allow the Government to decide that this is appropriate “at least” every five years.

I also ask the hon. Gentleman to view this in context. There has not been a food security report since 2010. I think we all agree that a report is a positive step. We are making an important new commitment to analyse and publish a regular report on this important subject. The report will use a set of core measurements for each key topic area, so that we can consider the trends over time. These will be drawn from a blend of national and international data sources. Sources that we expect to draw on include trade and domestic production data and statistics on energy, household expenditure, food and food safety. Many of those sources are in the public domain already and can be considered by anybody who wishes to consider them in between reports, but we propose that we do a really substantial report not on an annual basis but within a longer period, and at least once every five years.

The frequency of reporting every five years was included to balance the commitment to regularly report with the need to allow sufficient time to observe key trends from this vast variety of sources. I hope that explains why the clause is in the Bill. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister makes a fine attempt, but I am afraid that this is a basic issue of trust. Governments are rarely trusted, however hard they try. She asks us to take this on trust, and frankly we do not. As we will come back to time and again, we hear Ministers repeatedly say this, in which case they should put it in the Bill. That would solve the problems. Of course, we know that they will not, because this is all part of the new macho-posturing negotiating world that we now live in post Brexit. We used to have a civilised approach to the world, but no longer. This is the new world, but these questions are not answered.

Food security reporting is particularly interesting, and our further amendments will tease more of this out. The Government could reassure people by saying roughly what they expect the future to look like for food security. By not so doing, they absolutely stoke the scepticism of people who look at that adviser’s comments and think that that is actually where some of these people want to go. I invite Government Members to think hard about whether they are actually in the loop on this. I think some people out there have a very clear idea about where we should want to go. That is why the Government are reluctant to issue a food security statement. That would give some idea of what they hope for in future. If they do not have an idea, that is also pretty scary. There are plenty of reasons why Oppositions and the country do not always trust Governments. Sadly, experience often suggests they were right to be sceptical.

It is absolutely right to ask these hard questions, particularly because the Minister said that it would be at least once every five years. We are being asked to trust the Government. If the Government have stuff to hide, which I suspect they have, they are not going to do that very often. Five years is far too long. I agree with the Back-Bench Government Members on the side who tabled the amendment and clearly share my concerns. I want to see a much clearer outcome, which is why I will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 10:35 a.m.

Self-sufficiency has only ever been one part of food security in this country. We supplement our produce with a range of other products from around the world that are difficult to grow and rear here. Our high degree of food security is built on access to a range of sources, including robust supply chains across a wide range of countries in addition to domestic production. It is important to view the debate on food security in that light.

I begin with amendment 75. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are planning to include in the food security report a theme relating to global food security and how it affects food security in the UK. I have a summary of some of the reports that we might consider in the section on global food availability, which may reassure him. However, I do not want him to think that what I will say is conclusive or relates to other issues that will be considered in the report; this is just about global food availability, which relates to amendment 75. We would expect to look at global output per capita, cereal yield per region, commodity price analysis, country consumption data and country commodity trade proportions. In addition, I suspect many other reports and factors will be considered, many of which will be publicly available between reports.

We will include consideration of the sustainability of global resources, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that we do not intend to list in the Bill all the indicators and data sources that we intend to use in the preparation of the report, because doing so would make the Bill unwieldy—one can imagine a situation in which one of those data sources becomes unavailable between reports. That is why the clause is structured as it is. It is not that we will not look at those sources; it is just that we do not want to list them. In producing the report, we will set out our analysis of the wide range of statistics relating to food security in the UK, from global UN data to UK national statistics. I therefore ask him to withdraw amendment 75.

On amendment 76, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we already intend to address food insecurity in the report. The Government are committed to achieving the principles set out in the UN sustainable development goals. We plan, under subsection (2)(d) of clause 17, to report on how the UK is performing against those goals. As part of that theme, we intend to consider all the key indicators that will help us to understand the impact of household food insecurity, including data from the Office for National Statistics.

As I said last week, food insecurity is an issue that we should all take very seriously, and the Government are committed to having a strong safety net for those who suffer from food insecurity. I will politely say again that the £95 billion welfare budget is the first port of call for people who suffer from food insecurity. It is proper that we consider food insecurity as part of this report—we have said that we will do so—but the welfare system is the place for people with food insecurity, and that is where they should go. I do not denigrate in any way the efforts and the great achievements of food banks and food fridges around the country.

I hope that I have suitably clarified our intentions and explained why it is not necessary to include specific text in the Bill. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 10:38 a.m.

We will not withdraw these amendments. I hear what the Minister says about the welfare system, but the welfare system is failing. That is why people are hungry. It did not use to be the case and it does not have to be the case, but that is the case. That is why it is right that the Government set out their position and the Opposition say, “Frankly, you are wrong, and we will not accept this.”

This is a Bill about agriculture, which many of us still think is as much about food as environmental protections, although we want to ensure we do that they are of the highest standard. Those things should not be contradictory. If we are talking about food, we must talk about access to it. It was striking to see people on “Countryfile” who are on such low wages that they can barely afford to buy the food that they are producing. There is something seriously wrong here. We do not think this is a big ask, given that the Government have signed up to the sustainable and millennium development goals.

I am afraid it is, again, a question of trust. The Government want a vague framework. I am grateful to the Minister for making some points about global food production, because they are now on the record, so when we come to rehash this argument, when we do get some of these food reports, we will hold her to that. In the meantime, it is essential to press this amendment to a vote, because too many people across this country—thousands every week—use food banks. It would be a dereliction of duty on our side not to press this to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 10:56 a.m.

In the health and harmony consultation, the majority of respondents suggested that Government intervention is essential in extreme circumstances, identifying market interventions in times of extreme price volatility as an area of particular concern. However, a high proportion of responses argued that farmers should self-manage risk. While the Government understand that there are events that even the most resilient of farmers cannot provide for, the agricultural industry must be sufficiently dynamic and self-reliant to survive in a free market. The clause tries to balance those two factors by creating new powers for the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance to farmers in England and to run public intervention and private storage schemes during exceptional market conditions.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 11 a.m.

Before speaking on the clause, I give the Minister advance notice that I will also say a word on clause 22, on data. I draw attention to paragraph 170 of the explanatory notes to the Bill. This is potentially a big issue and goes back to our philosophical discussions last week on what the common agricultural policy had been for, to some extent. Of course, it was there to deal with extreme volatility and difficulty and so on. The Government make the fair point of questioning whether that is appropriate in a modern, more complicated world. However, I urge a slight note of caution to those who imagine that this is pretty much a carry-over of the current system.

There is a pretty clear cautionary note in paragraph 172 of the explanatory notes, where the Government say:

“Analysis suggests that public intervention and private storage aid are not required to enable farmers to manage their risks.”

That is quite a strong sentence. The notes continue:

“They can have negative effects, encouraging more risky farming practices and crowding out the development of futures markets, innovative contracts and private sector insurance products. Such market intervention schemes, if available routinely rather than in genuinely exceptional circumstances, run counter to the image of a dynamic and self-reliant agriculture industry.”

That could lead to many an academic paper, because it is a huge subject for discussion and debate. Many of us will think that it is probably fair enough that risk should be transferred on to the agriculture sector itself. During the foot and mouth crisis almost 20 years ago, many commentators made exactly that point. In particular, those from the manufacturing sector, who had seen their sector decimated by market forces, wondered why it was different for others. The reason is that food is a basic human need. This goes almost back to the discussion we were just having about food security. We may be able to live without some widgets, but we cannot live without food.

This is a really big, substantial issue, but is tucked away in a subsection. I suspect that some farmers will look at it and think not only that the future will hold no support and a much more complicated—in the view of some us—move to environmental land management systems, but that they will also have to deal with

“futures markets, innovative contracts—

I think a lot of us know what “innovative” often means—

“and private sector insurance products.”

I raise that just to sound a warning note. I am not sure that the matter has been discussed sufficiently.

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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 11:01 a.m.

That is an important intervention, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the evidence of the Tenant Farmers Association. There is a bigger debate to be had—the Minister is nodding—although I am sure that we can leave that for another day. The issue is important and I hope that it will be looked at more closely.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 11:02 a.m.

By creating a new power we are moving away from the crisis measures that were designed with the EU market in mind and allowing schemes to be created that are tailored to our domestic conditions. It is important that farmers feel the Government are able to help where necessary. However, it is equally important that those financial assistance and intervention powers will not be seen as a panacea for any issue in agricultural markets. They are intended for use in exceptional situations.

The discretionary nature of the power will, I hope, reassure the sector that the Government will be able to help should extreme circumstances come to pass, by taking action and tailoring it to those exceptional circumstances. It will also ensure that intervention in the market and financial assistance will be limited to occasions when they are really necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 19 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 20 and 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Meaning of “agri-food supply chain”

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 11:04 a.m.

I apologise, Mr Stringer, for not listing the clause earlier as one on which I wanted to make an observation. I should declare—I am a bit of a data person—that I run the all-party parliamentary group on data analytics. The Minister sighs, but the data is important and has huge potential. We are in an era of precision agriculture where we seek to be able to provide, now and in the future, the correct nutrients for the individual Brussels sprout plant. That is an exciting possibility and many people in Cambridge are working on it. Agri-tech East is a powerful force for innovation and, I hope, good—but alongside all the politics with data there are one or two caveats.

The House of Commons Library briefing says—I imagine this has been deduced from the Bill:

“Data would normally be published in anonymised form”.

Evidence from elsewhere suggests that data anonymity is really hard to achieve. What we have seen with artificial intelligence and all the rest of it suggests that the power is there to trace anything back, so I urge a word of caution on that.

The reason I am cautious is that my reading of clause 22(4), dealing with people who are “closely connected”, raises a few anxieties in my mind about whether data is going to be collected on people working in agriculture. That is not always a force for good, I am afraid, and I want to make sure there are proper protections for people.

The Bill mentions vets, and there may well be good reasons for that related to animal health. However, we already have a workforce who are, in my view, often poorly paid and who face some serious and relentless challenges. I worry that further scrutinising them through a monitoring and data system would create a series of further problems, so I would welcome the Minister’s observations on that, and ask whether she shares my concerns. I am not sure there is much we can do about this issue in the Bill at the moment, but monitoring is clearly being set out as a way forward, and I hope we can make sure that we protect the people involved.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 11:09 a.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said, and I do not wish in any way to make light of his concerns about data. How we obtain and hold data is extremely important, and I am very happy to answer any concerns that he has on this subject.

The clause seeks to provide clarity about who might be required to provide information. A fairly broad scope has been outlined within the clause, and I think the drafters were trying to take a common-sense and down-to-earth approach to what sort of people we might need to get data from. For example, farmers, abattoirs, vets, wholesalers and retailers might well be in scope, but would not by any means always need to be in the frontline of data collection; it depends on the circumstances. It is important to note that those connected to the agri-food supply chain include people undertaking activities capable of affecting the health of creatures and plants in that food chain, or the safety of products.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

3 Mar 2020, 11:09 a.m.

I appreciate how difficult it is to frame these things, but that would include pretty much everybody who is involved, as far as I can tell. I cannot think of anybody who is not going to be caught by that definition, which is really my concern. Obviously, we all hope these powers will be used for the right purposes, but it is easy to see how they could become a new tyranny if every tractor had a camera in its cab and people were being monitored.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 11:09 a.m.

That is not at all the intention. The intention is that where it is necessary to collect data from those in the food chain, the clause gives us the ability to do so. That is not at all to say that we will routinely connect data from all these actors, only that the power is there to enable us to do so when required. For example, with the coronavirus outbreak, it is possible—although I very much hope this is not the case—that further down the food chain, we will need to know who is touching the food that we eat or is responsible for various areas of it. I can foresee a situation in which it might be possible to ask people who seem far away from the farm gate to provide their data, although I very much hope that does not happen.

Before any data requirements are imposed, a draft proposal must first be sent to all relevant parties. If a supply chain member believes that such a request is not appropriate, they will be provided with at least four weeks to notify the Secretary of State of their reasoning.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister confirm whether those interested parties include the relevant trade union?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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3 Mar 2020, 11:09 a.m.

I am not sure that under the drafting of the clause trade unions would be included; in fact, I think they would not. However, it is open to members of a trade union to consult that union as necessary, and I would not seek to stop them doing so.

The idea is that an actor will receive the draft proposal. One example is that if a small-scale blackberry grower does not think it appropriate for them to provide data on productivity, which it may well not be, they will be able to submit that in response to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will then review whether it is necessary to carry out the initial requirement for data collection.

It has been difficult to draft this clause. The hon. Member for Cambridge understands that the need for public safety and food security along the supply chain has to be balanced with the need to protect people’s privacy and not to overburden them with regulation. I hope he feels we have broadly got the balance right.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 23 to 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(James Morris.)

Agriculture Bill (Eighth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 8th sitting: House of Commons)
Debate between Victoria Prentis and Daniel Zeichner
Thursday 27th February 2020

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
- Hansard - -

27 Feb 2020, 2:25 p.m.

I envisage the specific grants that I was just talking about as payments to enhance buildings, for example, or for other welfare issues. However, the hon. Member is right to mention other means of paying for welfare, and it is true that the Bill is currently flexible. I expect that we will get into the detail of that sort of issue as we progress with devising the schemes to improve animal welfare. She is right to highlight that issue, and should make whatever points she wants to as we devise the schemes. We are exploring a payment-by-results scheme, under which farmers could receive ongoing payments for delivering specific animal welfare enhancements that are valued by the public but, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said, not yet sufficiently valued by the market. The hon. Member for Bristol East is therefore right to continue to make whatever points she wants to in that space.

The amendment would restrict in primary legislation what will be included in the new scheme before those involved in the industry, as well as the Animal Welfare Committee, have had the opportunity to have their say. What defines enhanced animal welfare must be designed in consultation with those involved, so that the schemes deliver the best possible outcomes for consumers, the industry and, most importantly, the animals themselves. Our understanding of animal welfare today is far ahead of where it was when I was growing up on a farm, or 20 or 30 years ago. It would be short-sighted of us to set out requirements in legislation for payments, as it would restrict our ability to develop or amend schemes, such as the enhanced animal welfare scheme, when more evidence becomes available.

Turning specifically to amendment 42, improving the health of the national livestock, herd or flock, requires widespread co-ordinated action. We intend to launch the first schemes to improve the health of farmed animals from 2022 to 2023, concentrating on endemic diseases. We are co-designing schemes with farmers and vets, prioritising cattle—both dairy and beef—sheep, pigs and poultry, with the intention to widen participation to other species. Previous experience has shown that, without action being taken by the majority of farmers, efforts to control disease and improve health do not achieve very much.

That action does not have to be significantly above the legal standards to be very effective, but it does need to be part of a concerted effort on the part of farmers and others, which can, of course, include central Government. We are worried that the amendment would restrict us to providing financial assistance only, in effect, to better-performing farmers. Actions such as tackling endemic disease are best done when a large proportion of farmers and livestock owners are involved. If we limit the number of those who can benefit from a scheme, we will not be as successful in achieving our goals.

The hon. Member for Cambridge teased out the question of what constitutes a significantly higher standard of animal health. There is no single measure of animal health at the moment, and different actions to improve it will have different levels of public and private benefits. I am sure that we will continue to discuss such matters. At the very least, the amendment would make an important part of the financial clause difficult to work in practice, and could go so far as being counterproductive. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

27 Feb 2020, 2:30 p.m.

That was an interesting and illuminating discussion that, as ever, probably raised as many questions as it answered, sadly.

I will start with the points made by the sharp-eyed right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. I am sorry to hear about his unfortunate incident with the dog at the weekend.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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27 Feb 2020, 2:49 p.m.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we pledged to guarantee the current annual budget to farming in every year of this Parliament. I want to make it completely clear that that commitment is separate from the funding that the Government requires to administer future financial assistance schemes, which itself is determined through Government spending reviews—behind closed doors, as he puts it. To make it crystal clear, the running costs for DEFRA and the DEFRA group are considered separately from the payments made to beneficiaries. I hope that clears up one of his questions.

As we continue to develop the future schemes, we may find that we need to include some administration costs for third parties, such as those incurred to run farm clusters or other groups that bring together multiple farmers and land managers to provide some of the schemes envisaged in the hon. Gentleman’s favourite new document. At this stage, we are unwilling to lock ourselves into saying how much will be spent on administration and consultancy. It will vary enormously from scheme to scheme.

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make sure that we remain transparent about the costs of running our schemes, and I reassure him that we are dedicated to remaining open and honest about our proposals and their costs. The purpose of the ELM document that we have heard so much about today is to start the discussion and to seek input from farmers, foresters and other land managers in co-designing the policy, and to give a demonstration of the open and transparent way in which we are going to be designing the schemes.

Similarly, the new clause we introduced that commits us to publishing annual financial reports on scheme expenditure will enable the public to examine how much we are spending. Those reports could include a breakdown of administration and consultancy costs, if the Secretary of State so desires—I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestions on that. The public, and Parliament acting on their behalf, have a right to expect that public funds will be used wisely and so we will, of course, be following the rules under the Treasury’s “Managing public money” guidance.

I reassure members of the Committee that we recognise and are committed to delivering value for our taxpayers. Indeed, that is partly why we wish to keep such flexibility —to ensure that financial assistance is always delivered in the most streamlined and efficient way. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

27 Feb 2020, 2:52 p.m.

The Minister has given a welcome clarification. The obvious rejoinder is: where is the headroom in the DEFRA budget for these very ambitious plans? I suspect we will return to that question. I was just flicking through my favourite document, but unfortunately could not find the appropriate line. [Interruption.] I know; it is a shame. I am pretty sure that there is a suggestion somewhere in there that some of the money saved from basic payments could be used for some of this work. We can return to that point another day.

I am grateful for the Minister’s helpful response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 17, in clause 2, page 3, line 35, leave out

“or operated on behalf of”

and insert “by”.—(Victoria Prentis.)

This drafting amendment is intended to clarify the exclusion of financial assistance schemes made by the Secretary of State from the definition of a third party scheme and also to achieve consistency with other references in the Bill to things done by the Secretary of State. As a matter of legal interpretation a reference to something done by the Secretary of State will pick up things done by others acting in the name of or on behalf of the Secretary of State.

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Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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27 Feb 2020, 3:21 p.m.

Clause 2 establishes certain aspects of how financial assistance provided under chapter 1 may be administered. It provides for funding to be subject to conditions and makes it clear that funding may include conditions under which it can be recovered. We recognise that the expertise of individuals outside Government can play an important role in delivery. For that reason, the clause allows financial assistance to be given to those who operate their own schemes and enables the Secretary of State to delegate functions in relation to giving financial assistance. To ensure transparency, the clause also creates a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations to require the publication of information about payments.

Turning to new clause 18, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the types of support that we will look to offer those in receipt of financial assistance under clause 1. This is an important topic.

We recognise that there must be an effective advisory service to support ELM and other schemes established under clause 1. In the discussion document, about which we have heard so much, we have invited contributions on key topics, including on advice and guidance, and some of our tests and trials are focused on this area. For ELM, the tier that farmers, foresters or other land managers take part in could affect the type of advice that they need. For example, some may need advice at the scheme application stage; others may need help and support in planning their interventions. How much advice and guidance they require may change, depending on their level of experience. Therefore, the advice and guidance framework for ELM will be flexible and able to adapt to the specific requirements of the participants and the outcomes that they are seeking to deliver. The new clause would restrict that necessary flexibility.

We are considering a range of approaches for delivering the advice—for example, one-to-one advice and support direct to land managers. That could include, as we have discussed, agronomists visiting farms to give specialist advice. We are also considering group training, telephone and online support, and peer-to-peer learning.

We are still exploring different mechanisms for providing advice for all our schemes, but we would not want to lock ourselves into providing advice that may become out of date in the future and we are keen to retain sufficient flexibility to adapt how we provide advice as we continue to learn. We want to break away from the common agricultural policy’s rigid and inflexible approach. We are firmly committed to offering a range of supportive measures to ensure that our farmers and land managers will have access to good-quality advice, guidance and training.

I come now to new clause 23. We recognise the importance of engaging with farmers, foresters and other land managers as we start to implement our reforms. Consultation and co-design are at the heart of what we will do. We have extensive plans for, and a track record of, working with industry, experts and other interested parties.

The Department published our consultation on proposed reforms to farming in February 2018 and received more than 40,000 responses, each of which was read and considered. We can see the effects of that consultation throughout the policy document that we produced earlier this week. We will also consult on the detailed ELM scheme design after the pilot has started. That consultation will build on what we have learned from the tests and trials, as well as the national pilot, and will help us to refine and finalise our scheme design before the launch of the full scheme in 2024. These activities, I hope, will do exactly what new clause 23 seeks to achieve. We will also seek additional views and opinions from farmers, foresters, land managers and other interested parties through various special events and roundtables held throughout the country.

New clause 24 would require us to consult in an inflexible manner before giving financial assistance. Requiring the Government to consult neighbouring landowners and local authorities before any payment is made could prove problematic and introduce significant extra administration and delay into the system. For example, in the case of our animal health schemes, there are around 67,000 registered livestock holdings alone. While we would not make payments to all these, consulting on every payment to a small proportion could make the delivery of the scheme burdensome and possibly unworkable.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

27 Feb 2020, 3:21 p.m.

This goes to the heart of the problem. We do not know how many of these schemes will be administered. Until we know, it is very hard for us to comment.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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27 Feb 2020, 3:22 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman and I have had this discussion several times today already. Having new duties to consult, such as this, could result in unintended consequences, which I am keen to avoid. For example, if we need to respond to an emerging environmental issue, such as a novel disease or tree pest blight, having to consult widely on a new financial assistance scheme would make the grant less useful and effective.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

27 Feb 2020, 3:23 p.m.

This is both interesting and important. It again goes to the intended relationship between the tiers. Tier 3 schemes, at the catchment-area level, could have a big effect on the local landscape. Even if the Minister does not like our suggestion for tier 1—I see her point, if it would apply to large numbers—surely there is a case for tier 3.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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27 Feb 2020, 3:25 p.m.

There will certainly be a case, with the wider tier 3 schemes, to involve more people, because the aim is to cross farm boundaries in order to provide a public good over a wider area. However, we do not want to tie ourselves to an inflexible consultation. Believe you me, I have been involved in DEFRA for under two weeks and I am amazed by the level of consultation with which DEFRA is prepared to engage. I really think that we do not want to tie ourselves to inflexible amounts of consultation, or consultations of the type that do not enable us to react quickly when needed. Responding in a timely manner may be important, such as when dealing with a disease or blight to a particular plant. I am concerned that the new clause is too inflexible.

I agree that the new clauses raise important issues, but I think we should take a flexible but reasonable and proportionate approach to consultation, in line with the Cabinet Office consultation principles. Requiring engagement in legislation is not necessary or, indeed, appropriate, and could result in our going back to the difficult days of delays in payments, which we all worked so hard to get over.

The Government have proven our commitment to joint working and consultation repeatedly, and we intend to continue that. I hope I have reassured the hon. Member for Cambridge and the Committee that we will be taking appropriate action on engagement to ensure that financial assistance schemes are delivered in the best way possible. As such, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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27 Feb 2020, 3:26 p.m.

Today’s discussions have been most illuminating and interesting and have shown the benefit of giving the proposals detailed scrutiny. To refer to my earlier comments, it would be so much easier with the detail before us. I think we are genuinely having a dialogue that explores some of the tensions and issues.

I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that there is a case for wider involvement. Earlier, she acknowledged that maybe tier 2 and certainly tier 3 had some similarities with some of the previous pillar 2 schemes. Those of us who have been involved in rural development over many years will be familiar with the European Union LEADER schemes. My understanding and recollection from when I was involved is that there was local authority involvement, and that is the bit I am worried is missing.

It does not seem to have come up in discussion much, but we are talking about public money being spent in rural, semi-rural and sometimes urban areas—my city of Cambridge has a farm—yet the bit that seems to be missing is the public voice, or even the voice of individual members of the local community. I get what the Minister is saying. I was a parish councillor. I started my glorious ascent many years ago on Dickleburgh parish council. As a district councillor, like many others, I used to regularly attend parish councils. In fact, my partner seemed to think that, as far as she was concerned, there was a parish council meeting for every night of the week. There are pros and cons for our parish councils.

My strong sense is that local councils are not party political, by and large. People there are absolutely motivated to ensure the best for their local communities. They are not always as representative as they should be, in my view—I do not think the farming community have to worry about that; in many cases they are well represented on those bodies—but they know their patch inside-out. I remember many discussions about gullies and culverts going long into the night. Sometimes it was hard to keep up. They know their local patch. If we are using public money for transformative schemes for local areas, I think these people have something to add.

I understand the tension with wanting to respond swiftly, but it is important that local communities are taken along in that, and I think there are dangers if they are not, frankly. It is not something that is easily resolved, but I hope that people will go away and think about some of that. To some extent, local councillors are an unused asset and an unused store of local knowledge. There are difficulties, because some of them might have conflicts of interest. In the end, the Minister’s suggestion that consultation is a bit slow and tedious—perhaps I am being unfair—is something we all struggle with, but that is what democracy is like. We are the country we are because we are prepared to spend that time having that discussion with people. I hope I have not misrepresented her.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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Yes, you have.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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27 Feb 2020, 3:29 p.m.

Oh, I have. In which case, I withdraw that suggestion. I understand what the Minister is saying. She is trying to find a balance between an appropriate level of involvement without squandering the opportunity to act. I also have to say that a lot of the environmental goods we are talking about are not tackling an immediate crisis. In some cases, they are making long-term transformations, and it is important that local communities have their voice.

Going back to where I was going to start, I made it clear in my comments on a previous amendment that we are strongly committed to the advice-giving role. In fact, I just do not think that any of these things can be done without that offer of advice and help. On Tuesday, I did suggest that with slightly naive optimism. I am a naive optimist and perfectly up for that, some of this will be a bit more difficult than some of the policy papers suggest. We are asking people to change the way that many of them have operated for a very long time. The incentive we are giving them is basically a stick, by saying, “You are going to lose your money.” Some people respond positively to that, which is great—I am sure those are the farms that we are generally shown around.

3.30 pm

My recollection from my days as a district councillor in a very rural area is that there were also plenty of other farmers, and I am not sure that all of them will be quite so easy to work with. It will need advisers who have a whole range of skills, not just farming-related skills. In moving people from where they are now to where want them to be—this goes back to my earlier narrative, and we will probably pick this up when we debate the clause on delinking—there is a risk that a lot of people will just decide, “It’s not for me.” In fact, I have already heard people say that. That is another big decision we have to take and it could be the way we go, but is that we want to do? I am not convinced that it is.

We need to ensure that we have the resources now that the Minister has finally conceded that the budget will not come out of the moneys from direct payments. On one level, that is very welcome. Given that it is not particularly easy, however, it prompts questions about how much it will cost, where the money will come from, and whether we will have the skilled people to do it. I worry about smaller farms. Big farms, which have the resources and are used to dealing with the system, will probably be able to make the transformation. They might not all be enthusiastic, but they will be able to have a dialogue. I worry about smaller farmers, and I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that—going back to my earlier point—there might be a bigger plan. I wonder whether that plan includes smaller farmers in many parts of the country, because there is potentially a big social impact.

Looking back at the previous environmental schemes—which is one of the good bits of the document—the evidence clearly shows that having access to an adviser makes a big difference to their success. It is well worth providing advice to farmers on how they can meet environmental outcomes, navigate the often difficult paperwork—I suspect it is probably now done on a computer—and request money from these schemes, because such advice can help to address gaps in the skills, knowledge and motivation of farmers and land managers. It can help to build confidence, ultimately leading to better outcomes than for people who are not supported by advice. That is something we have heard from stakeholders and from witnesses