Agriculture Bill

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 23rd July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-VII Seventh marshalled list for Committee - (23 Jul 2020)
Debate on Amendment 209 resumed.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness (LD) [V]
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My Lords, as I was about to say before our proceedings were cut short just before midnight on Tuesday evening, I speak in support of Amendment 267, to which I have added my name. I also say at the outset that shortly before the House adjourned on Tuesday, the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, made a compelling contribution in support of his Amendment 291, which makes a strong case for a United Kingdom framework for agriculture. I would readily support that.

In speaking to his Amendment 267, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, put the issue in context. He reminded us that Part 6, of which Clause 40 forms part, relates to the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. As he pointed out, as a matter of international law the United Kingdom Government are responsible for ensuring that UK policies are compliant with the agreement. Clause 40 makes provision for regulations to be made to secure compliance with the UK’s obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture but, as the noble and learned Lord said, as the devolved Administrations see it,

“the starting point for any system of regulation to ensure WTO compliance by the UK as a whole must be that it is the responsibility of each of the devolved Administrations to devise its own system for the support of agriculture with whatever resources may be available”.—[Official Report, 21/7/20; col. 2195.]

What is of concern is that, specifically, regulations can by virtue of Clause 41 impose limits on the amount of domestic assistance available to each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those could be at a lower ceiling than exists under the current arrangements. Thus it is self-evident that this is crucial to the operation of the devolved competence of agriculture, yet there is nothing that requires consultation with the devolved Administrations, let alone consent.

Agriculture is prima facie a devolved matter. Although negotiations on the CAP were the responsibility of the UK Government, the devolved Administrations had direct input into the preparations of the UK negotiating position. It is the case that while implementation of the CAP was devolved, as is the management of direct payments to farmers, the allocation of agricultural budgets between the devolved Administrations has been reserved to the United Kingdom Government. However, that allocation invariably involved detailed consultation, even if not always agreement, as the disputes over the allocation of the EU convergence uplift illustrated.

This amendment proposes that there ought to be consultation before any such regulations are brought forward. I would recognise government Amendment 268, which removes the regulation power in respect of requisitioning information from devolved Governments. That is a welcome move and the Government should be given some credit for responding to representations on that matter. But it is because of this apparent overlap between devolved and reserved responsibilities that great sensitivity will be required.

In its recent report on the constitutional issues arising out of the Brexit legislation, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, of which I am privileged to be a member, said:

“We recommend that powers for UK Ministers to make delegated legislation in devolved areas, including the power to supersede law made by devolved legislatures, should include a requirement either to consult devolved ministers or to seek their consent, depending on the significance of the power in question.”

In its report on the present Bill, the Constitution Committee said in paragraph 22:
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Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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My Lords, the noble Lord makes a fair point. I am not the Minister having these discussions, but I will make sure that the noble Lord’s point is put to my ministerial colleagues. Again, consideration and discussion of all these matters is the healthy way forward. I will certainly ensure that a record of Hansard is passed on to my ministerial colleagues. It is a good point.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness [V]
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My Lords, in his response to the debate, the Minister indicated that, in another place, Victoria Prentis had committed to consulting on regulations arising from Clauses 40 and 41. If that is the Government’s position, what cogent reason is there for not including this amendment in the Bill?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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The noble and learned Lord makes an interesting point. I am just repeating the commitment that my honourable friend made. Perhaps I might take that one back.

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Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, given her historic links to Yorkshire. It is not surprising that she has advocated a kind of danegeld in terms of this levy.

I am intervening in this debate because my name was not on the speakers’ list for the debate that took place earlier in Committee in which my noble friend Lady Mallalieu drew attention to the plight of small and niche abattoirs, many of which have gone out of business. This issue was flagged in the long-standing Radio 4 series “The Archers” when people engaged in a dialogue on it. I had been thinking mischievously of moving an amendment to try to get dialogue back into “The Archers” via this Bill. However, I take note of the stricture of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that many people have spoken at great length in these debates and so we are moving slowly through the Committee stage. For example, I spoke in the Chamber on 7 July and again at 11.05 pm on Tuesday night.

The point is that we need to coalesce the debates that have taken place. On Tuesday, I said that I have learned a great deal by following the debates and listening to those who have a great deal more knowledge than I do. My early time in politics was mainly informed by listening to my predecessor in the Sheffield Brightside constituency. His home and roots were in north Yorkshire, and his campaign to protect the rights of tenure of farm workers was successful. I come at this as a novice, but I believe that unless we get some clarity, both today and on Tuesday, on how we are going to take the Bill forward on Report, it is unlikely to see the light of day for a very long time.

I say to the mover of the amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that I hope that in debating this levy, we take into account an earlier debate in Committee that revealed, to my surprise, the very small amount of land in the UK that can be described as being of grade one quality. Be careful what you do when allocating a levy, given the impact it could have on the different nations and geographic regions of the UK, as well as avoiding proselytising for vegetarianism.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness [V]
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My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and I can assure him that my wife would be delighted if there were some means of restoring dialogue to “The Archers”. I want to speak briefly in support of Amendment 212, tabled in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley. Clause 33 is a welcome step forward in making provision for a scheme which will address the long-running issue of a levy on livestock produced in one part of the UK but slaughtered in another being retained in that other part of the UK. This has long appeared to me to be unfair and has been the source of some contention, so the Government are to be commended for their initiative in this clause.

I support the amendment because it puts further flesh on the scheme to be devised by providing for the levy to be repatriated to the devolved Administration of origin, thus making it clearer what a key objective of that scheme should be. Quality Meat Scotland estimates that over £1.5 million of levy on Scottish animals is lost each year due to the fact that some cattle, sheep and pigs produced in Scotland are slaughtered elsewhere in the UK. I rather suspect that little goes in the opposite direction. If such a sum were repatriated, it could be applied to the promotion of quality Scottish beef, lamb and pig products. I therefore support the amendment and I hope that it commends itself to the Minister.

Lord Adonis Portrait Lord Adonis (Lab) [V]
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I am not wanting to speak on this amendment.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con) [V]
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My Lords, Clause 35 on marketing standards is an extremely important part of the Bill. It is odd at this late stage to add a lead amendment slotted in ahead of it containing a new clause on a carbon levy and a carbon sequestration reward scheme. I am against both new suggestions, particularly as part of this Bill. Adding some new idea without costing or analysis, albeit with the excuse that it is just a consultation, sets an unfortunate precedent and reflects badly on this House’s role as scrutineers of legislation. I am disappointed to see the suggestion coming from the Cross Benches, especially in the wake of Covid-19, as it would impose huge burdens on mainly small and struggling rural businesses. It also suggests a carbon levy on imports, which would put up consumer prices at a time when households will be under growing pressure and at risk of unemployment.

The lead amendment should be that in the name of my noble friend Lord Carrington. Amendment 247 tries to focus the extremely wide powers in Part 5 so that they are used to improve the economic conditions of production, marketing and quality of agricultural products, taking account of the expectations of consumers. This seems very sensible and I support him.

I will not delay the House at this late hour with my doubts about various amendments on labelling, except to say that in my long experience in the industry, here and overseas, politicians and other interests are much more interested in labelling than is the consumer whom we are meant to serve, and that there is not nearly enough evidence-gathering and research into the effectiveness of food labelling.

Finally, I agree that standards are important and help to support UK production, as we will discuss in the next group. However, the horsemeat scandal dates back to 2013. Lessons have been learned, and it should not be a driver for the wrong kind of new regulation.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness [V]
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My Lords, I support the new clause in Amendment 263, which has already been spoken to by my noble friend Lord Tyler and to which I have added my name.

Before addressing the issue of geographical indication schemes, I will say a word about the related issue of countries-of-origin labelling and express support for the relevant provisions in Amendment 254 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. My right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, recently raised this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions and received what might be interpreted as an encouraging response. Having drawn the Prime Minister’s attention to the fact that Orkney beef producers have their efforts to market a quality product undermined by the labelling legislation in this country, which allows beef from anywhere in the world to be labelled as “British beef” as long as it is packaged in this country, he asked whether in light of any future trade arrangements the Prime Minister would do something to close that loophole. In reply, the Prime Minister said that

“we intend to take advantage of the freedoms that we have—the freedoms that the British people have decided to take back—to make sure that Scottish beef farmers have the protections that they need.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/20; col. 805.]

So this evening the Minister has the opportunity to indicate that the Government will indeed give Scottish beef farmers the protections that they need and to signal a willingness to use this legislation to close a loophole in country-of-origin labelling, thus giving confidence and reassurance to producers and consumers alike.

I would have thought there was common ground that geographical indication schemes bring market benefits to a considerable number of products. Scotland has 14 protected geographical indications. The NFUS describes some—the Scotch beef PGI and the Scotch lamb PGI—as being of strategic importance to Scottish agriculture’s output.

I assume that in future the starting point will be Article 54.2 of the European Union/UK withdrawal agreement of 19 October 2019. It provides that persons who under EU law are entitled to use the geographical indication or the designation of origin

“shall be entitled, as from the end of the transition period … to use the geographical indication, the designation of origin”

concerned in the UK, and that they

“shall be granted at least the same level of protection under the law of the United Kingdom as under the … provisions of Union law”.

Can the Minister confirm how, with less than six months to go, that binding treaty obligation is to be implemented? Is there yet a United Kingdom register?

Of course, this ensures protection in the United Kingdom for a number of geographical indication products that are of importance to European Union countries and for UK produce currently given protection by these EU schemes. The object of this proposed new clause is to probe what continuing protection will be given to the United Kingdom’s geographical indications in the European Union and further afield after the end of the transition period. That is important, not least given the somewhat alarming reports referred to by my noble friend Lord Tyler.

In the Government’s response to a consultation paper on GIs published last year, Defra claimed that

“we anticipate that existing UK GIs will continue to be protected by the EU’s GI schemes after we leave the EU. This is because UK GIs are already protected by virtue of being on the EU’s various GI registers. That protection will continue automatically in the EU unless relevant entries are removed, which would require additional EU legislation.”

Can the Minister confirm that that remains the Government’s expectation, or are the kind of newspaper reports referred to by my noble friend founded and do they give rise to a matter for concern?

Moreover, GI protection has hitherto been afforded to UK products by way of free trade agreements with a large number of non-EU countries. In replying to the debate, can the Minister tell us how many rollover agreements have now been reached, what proportion of UK trade agreements with these countries represent and whether GI provisions have been agreed in each case?

That leaves the question of countries with which we have not yet managed to reach a rollover agreement or where there has yet been no EU free trade agreement to roll over. The USA springs to mind, where there is believed to be some scepticism of GIs in trade agreements. Will the Minister indicate whether the incorporation of GI protection for UK products will be a negotiating objective in any trade agreement with the United States?

Then, of course, there is the proviso of Article 54.2, which states:

“This paragraph shall apply unless and until an agreement as referred to in Article 184 that supersedes this paragraph enters into force or becomes applicable.”

On 2 April, the Financial Times reported:

“The UK is pushing to water down its obligation to recognise valuable EU regional food trademarks for products like Parma ham and Champagne”.

Is that the case? Can the Minister confirm that, in the absence of any agreement by the end of the transition period or if the agreement does not amend the provisions of Article 54.2, the United Kingdom continues to be bound by those provisions as a matter of international law?

I am currently within six or seven miles of two distilleries—Highland Park and Scapa—and my son-in-law works for the Tullibardine distillery in Perthshire, so before concluding I wish to say a word about one of the most valuable protected geographic indications, namely Scotch whisky. It has been defined in United Kingdom law since 1933 and has been protected in a US federal code as whisky

“manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom”

since the 1960s. Nevertheless, GI schemes have been of enormous benefit to the Scotch whisky industry. It is believed that the protection enjoyed in the United Kingdom as an EU GI is stronger than that provided under our domestic law. The provisions of the EU withdrawal agreement are therefore particularly important in that respect. It is therefore vital that the Minister makes it clear that the protection currently offered to UK GIs will be maintained through the EU withdrawal agreement or any further treaty agreement with the European Union and that, in seeking rollover agreements and other free trade agreements, GI protection, not least for Scotch, will be a negotiating objective. Sláinte.

Lord Lilley Portrait Lord Lilley [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. I support what he said about ending the absurdity of allowing beef to be labelled as British or Scottish if it is merely packaged in this country. I cannot understand why that has ever been permitted. If it was something to do with EU law, we should change it as soon as we are free to do so. I also agree with him on the importance of Scotch labelling. He mentioned that it began in 1933. I am old enough to remember that in the post-war period Japan started producing its own, supposedly Scotch whisky. One brand sold under the label, “Genuine Scottish whisky made from genuine Scottish grapes”. I do not know how successful it was.

I will focus on the issue of labelling, which is behind a number of these amendments. In principle, giving information to consumers is a good thing, but the proposals in the amendments raise several issues. First, why does labelling need to be compulsory? If food producers have adopted high standards, it is in their interest to publicise this if they believe the public would be more attracted to their product if they knew it was produced to high standards. Of course, they often do so, as another noble Lord mentioned in the case of free-range eggs; some two-thirds of our eggs are now labelled “free range”. I suspect, however, that what is actually sought by some noble Lords is not positive labelling about the virtues of a product but negative or pejorative labelling, or simply labelling it as coming from a country of which they disapprove—usually America.

The second issue is: will voluntary labelling work? Will people choose products which are produced to a high standard rather than the less expensive variety? The sad truth is that less than 2% of the poultry that people buy is labelled as organic; for pigs, the figure is less than 1%, and for cattle, it is less than 3%. In general, people seem to prefer the least expensive product as long as it is safe for them to eat, and that is perfectly reasonable. It is all right for Members of your Lordships’ House to sneer at people buying on the basis of price, but a lot of people have to. Food is one of the biggest items of their budget and they want it to be available to them as cheaply as possible.

The third issue is: would compulsory labelling be compliant with WTO rules? Very probably not, although there are some doubts about that. Historically, under the GATT rules, there were cases which suggested that it would not. Some think that under the rules on non- tariff barriers there might be arguments for introducing some labelling. It seems to me rather unlikely that compulsory labelling would be permitted, particularly relating to imports.

Fourthly, if there is a health risk, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, suggested, we should not deal with it through labelling or banning imports. If a certain type of product is a risk to the health of the consumer, it should be banned. The health regulations rather than the measures in this Bill are the appropriate way of dealing with it

Fifthly, will labelling protect UK farmers, particularly from US products—which is clearly what a lot of noble Lords want to achieve? That clearly depends on what the label says. If the label simply gives the facts and says, for example, in respect of poultry that if it comes from the UK, the maximum density under which it may be produced is 39 kilograms per square metre, and if, for the US, the label says that its rules are that, for young poultry, it has to be less than 31 kilograms per square metre, which is significantly less dense than ours, and, for larger birds, a maximum of 43 kilograms per square meter, which is not very different from ours, I do not know that that will convince people that American standards are so different or so much worse than ours.

According to Compassion in World Farming, the UK has some 800 US-style mega farms, as it calls them —for example, warehousing 40,000 birds or 2,000 pigs. The largest UK farm houses 1.7 million birds and the biggest pig factory houses 23,000 pigs. We have large- scale farming in this country; we have smaller-scale farms too, and they compete successfully with the bigger farms.