The Agriculture Bill – Experts Ignored Again?

Tim Sedgewick

The Agriculture Bill proceeded to the House of Lords stage yesterday, in its path to become Law after its Third Reading in a very different House of Commons.

The Bill has been lauded by many as a chance to “take back control” of our Domestic Agricultural Policy for the first time in years.  Since the 1940’s actually and due in no small part to our membership of the European Union since 1973.

Against the backdrop of the Coronavirus crisis, recent empty food shelves, on the day of traditional farm rent reviews and the impending EU exit transition end; MPs joined in via video link to debate.

It is a piece of framework legislation, designed to set the rural economy and farming community on course away from the Common Agricultural Policy.  Public money for public goods is what Government are championing; farmers and land managers being paid to improve and enhance the environment by tree planting, habitat creation and flooding management, as opposed to being paid for the amount of land they own or control.  Further public goods, as defined by the Agriculture Bill extend to receiving funding for better animal welfare and plant health, public access to countryside, carbon management and uplands resilience.  They do not think food production is a public good

This model will be delivered over a 7-year transition period, seeing area payments under the Basic Payment Schemes fully removed by 2028

However, the state of play yesterday concerned vast debate from all sides over food standards amendments tabled to the Agriculture Bill.  One such amendment was tabled by Conservative, Neil Parish MP, who has chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee since 2015.  His amendment – in short - aimed to ensure that the high food producing standards of British Farmers were upheld in any future trade deals that the UK makes after the BREXIT transition.  Effectively an ask that any food imported to this country meets the same standards as is expected – and somewhat demanded – of UK food producers.

After all, the British Countryside’s raison d'être is the production of food for the nation, and on which many farmers pride themselves on.  Our farmers are required to follow very strict standards of production, paperwork, and deadlines to survive in business.  Farm assurance schemes, robust input records, sprayer qualifications, levy charges, cross compliance…. I could list more, but I have a clients’ NVZ map to complete by 10am.

The amendment requested by Neil Parish received widespread support from practically all countryside organisations of note. The NFU, CLA, TFA and others teaming up with the likes of Greenpeace, RSPCA, National Trust and WWF to collectively state in a letter to all 650 MPs:

“We are urging you to take this last opportunity to ensure that the Bill secures vital safeguards for the high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection that the British public value so highly."

This was the request of the experts, those who best understand our countryside.  Yesterday they were ignored, and Neil Parish’s amendment was defeated by many Conservative MPs supporting the Government.

Interestingly this was the first piece of legislation voted on by the House of Commons through electronic means.  Is it a coincidence that it has been somewhat rushed through, with one eye on a free trade deal with the US?  The same US that said having access to the UK for its agricultural products is priority.  Liam Fox, the proponent of free trade was at least good enough to admit his opposition to putting our high standards in law was because it would make a trade deal with Donald Trump harder!

An exclusive in the Financial Times this morning states the UK is preparing to offer ‘a big concession package’ in the coming months the reduce the costs of US agricultural imports and unlock a trade deal with Washington ahead of the November presidential election.

Are this Government really going to subscribe to the principle of openly welcoming produce from other countries without tariffs, and still make their own farmers follow harder rules and regulations to produce the same thing?  If so, a competitive disadvantage awaits.  Tell me again how the industry is expected to attract new entrants?

The Tories’ 2019 election manifesto pledged not to reduce standards in the pursuit of trade deals. “In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards,” it said.  Are they seeking to break this already?  Surely not!

The Agriculture Bill did not receive any new amendments since it was last before the House of Commons, truly extraordinary when we have seen recently, first-hand how delicate our food supply really is.  There is more than a financial value on domestic food production and supply.

UK farmers have been promised by Government that a better future awaits.  We can only hope they are right but ignoring the countryside experts makes me worried.

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