(1 day, 15 hours ago)General Committees
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”
“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.
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.
(2 weeks, 6 days ago)General Committees
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.
(2 weeks, 6 days ago)Westminster Hall
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.
(3 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
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.
(3 weeks, 5 days ago)Commons Chamber
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?
(4 weeks, 1 day ago)General Committees
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.
(2 months ago)General Committees
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.
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.
(3 months ago)General Committees
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.
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?
(3 months, 2 weeks ago)Public Bill Committees
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.
(3 months, 3 weeks ago)General Committees
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.
(3 months, 4 weeks ago)General Committees
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.
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.
(5 months, 1 week ago)General Committees
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.
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.
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.
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.
(5 months, 2 weeks ago)General Committees
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.
(6 months, 2 weeks ago)Westminster Hall
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.
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)?
(10 months, 3 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
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?
(1 year, 2 months ago)Westminster Hall
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
General provision connected with payments to farmers and other beneficiaries
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(1 year, 2 months ago)Public Bill Committees
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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