All 1 Baroness Noakes contributions to the Agriculture Act 2020

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Tue 22nd Sep 2020
Agriculture Bill
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Report stage:Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Agriculture Bill

Baroness Noakes Excerpts
Report stage & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 22nd September 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 130-IV Provisional Fourth marshalled list for Report - (21 Sep 2020)
Viscount Trenchard Portrait Viscount Trenchard (Con)
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My Lords, I declare again my interests as stated in the register. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for adding her name to mine on these amendments. I look forward to hearing her contribution and those of other noble Lords.

Like many noble Lords, I attended most of the seven days of Committee on the Bill. Although there were amendments that I thought would improve it, I felt that a large majority were either redundant or harmful. Many were proposed by noble Lords who have consistently opposed Brexit and, even if they now accept the decision of the people and the result of the general election of December 2019, still seek to align our rules and regulations as closely as they can with those of the EU, even in cases where the EU is a global outlier.

There is much that I like about Amendment 93 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, as I said in debate in Committee. It is right that any new trade agreements that we enter into should confirm the UK’s acceptance of its rights and obligations under the World Trade Organization’s sanitary and phytosanitary agreement. As we start to participate in the WTO as a new independent member, it is important that we do all that we can to strengthen its relevance and remit, which have been weakened by the ambiguous attitude towards it held by the present American Administration. The US has refused to nominate new members to the appellate body, which is hampering the hearing of appeals. The UK should become a leading advocate internationally for rules-based free and fair trade because that is the way to build a more prosperous world. Indeed, given the US disregard for the WTO, the UK as the fifth-largest economy will be able to take the lead in reviving support for international trade liberalisation, which has lacked a champion.

The problem with the noble Lord’s amendment is that there is a conflict between proposed new subsection (2)(a), which would require trade agreements to conform to the SPS agreement, and proposed new subsection (2)(b), which would require all food imports to conform to domestic standards, which means EU standards. EU standards conflict in some instances with the SPS agreement, which encourages Governments to adopt national SPS measures consistent with international standards, guidelines and recommendations. Most of the WTO’s member Governments participate in the development of these standards in three other international bodies: the Codex Alimentarius Commission, established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and the World Health Organization; the World Organisation for Animal Health, or OIE; and the International Plant Protection Convention.

The SPS agreement aims to ensure that measures are applied for no other purpose than that of ensuring food safety and animal and plant health. Such measures should be based as far as possible on the analysis and assessment of objective and accurate scientific data. As the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said, the SPS agreement permits countries to adopt standards higher than international standards if they think it appropriate but only if there is scientific justification, not if such standards are misused for protectionist purposes and not if they result in unnecessary barriers to international trade.

The EU is a global outlier in international food standards because it gives too much importance to the precautionary principle, which obstructs innovation and interferes with free and fair trade, thus driving prices higher than they need be. A case in point is the EU ban on hormone-treated beef, which the WTO ruled is not based on sound science and denies EU consumers access to US beef at affordable prices. I know there are noble Lords who might welcome the price of beef rising to such levels where economics will force people to change from a mixed diet, including a significant amount of meat, to a largely or all-vegetarian diet, but, besides interfering with the freedom of the consumer to choose what diet he or she wishes to eat at affordable prices, such restrictions will interfere with and limit the ability of British beef farmers to sell to new markets overseas at competitive prices.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, said he thought I was seeking to prevent the Secretary of State setting UK standards and requiring him to conform exactly to international standards. I do not think I am trying to do that in any way. I believe that we import many products manufactured in countries with different labour laws, environmental standards and animal welfare rules. Of course we must set domestic standards at the high levels that we rightly wish to uphold.

The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said that chlorinated chicken was “bad food”. For a start, most chicken grown and reared in the United States is treated not with chlorine but with peracetic acid. Secondly, I do not believe that it is bad food; certainly, I have never found it bad when I have eaten rather good roast chicken on visits to the US. If people do not want to buy American food because they think American farmers’ standards are too low, they do not need to. However, we are not quite as good as we always think we are; there have been many articles in the newspapers recently about poor poultry food standards, pollution of rivers and so forth. Neither are the Americans anything like as bad as many noble Lords make them out to be; indeed, there is not much difference between American rules on poultry stocking densities and UK rules on the same thing.

If the UK adopts food standards compliant with the SPS agreement, no one will be forced to eat food produced in countries of whose animal welfare standards they disapprove. However, I have not heard any noble Lords on the other side of this argument call for clear food labelling to identify products such as chicken reared in Poland, Brazil or Thailand, where average stocking densities are higher than those permitted in the US or the EU. I understand that Poland does not yet comply with EU rules. It is also interesting that there is no criticism of animals killed in conformity with halal rules to conform with sharia law.

In common with most noble Lords, I applaud the fact that the UK has made a big contribution to the raising of animal welfare standards in the world and I sincerely hope that we will continue to do so. Our efforts in this regard should be made within the OIE, and not by trying to interfere with free markets in food by applying restrictions on imports which will drive up the cost of food, especially at a time when so many people’s livelihoods have been affected by Covid-19.

For decades, the time-honoured way of dealing with SPS and technical barriers to trade rules has been to rely on equivalence of standards and technical regulation. This is because an equivalence or recognition approach ensures that everyone’s overall approach to risk is the same—not that every country’s rules are identical. We are more likely to get better rules, and more pro-competitive ones, if we adopt an equivalence or recognition approach with regulatory competition. Pure harmonisation is unlikely to lead to the best result and tends to increase the regulatory burden on our farmers, making them globally uncompetitive. Moreover, this is the approach of most WTO members. The EU is seen as the outlier. Our trading partners are asking the question: will we truly be “global Britain” or will we be more protectionist than the French? In the former case, we will be welcomed into the community of trading nations; in the latter, we will not.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Trenchard; indeed, it was a pleasure to add my name to his Amendments 94, 95 and 96. This is the first time that I have spoken during the passage of this Bill. Until my husband retired, I sometimes described myself as a farmer’s wife—but I claim no special expertise in agriculture and, for the avoidance of doubt, I have no interests to declare. I do, however, have an interest in trade matters; that is what has enticed me into the Report stage of the Bill and these amendments.

I start from the position that the main amendments in this group are not necessary. The Government’s policy is clear: they are committed to high food and welfare standards. They have demonstrated that commitment in all the trade treaties negotiated to date—both the continuity ones and the latest jewel in our trade crown, the free trade agreement with Japan. I am sure that we will go over that ground all over again when we commence our scrutiny of the Trade Bill.

We do not need to write into law what the Government are committed to. I fully accept that Governments do that from time to time, but it is generally done when they have weak parliamentary majorities and need to appease their opponents. Writing into law what the Government will do anyway can be a cheap way out of a confrontation. Noble Lords will know that that is the background to the wording of the Trade Bill that was brought forward by the previous Administration. We are not in that position today. The Government have a solid majority in the other place, which has already rejected similar amendments—and if your Lordships’ House passes these amendments, I would expect a similar response.

There is another reason why these amendments are unnecessary. International treaties have to be ratified using the CRaG procedure, which gives the other place the power to refuse ratification. Amendment 93 contains the equivalent of the CRaG procedure, but I fail to see why we need, effectively, to duplicate CRaG solely for the purpose of agricultural and food imports. If the other place does not like what the Government have negotiated in a trade treaty in relation to food and agriculture, it is open to the other place to refuse to ratify the agreement. Parliament already has the power that it needs by virtue of CRaG. Nevertheless, I have added my name to my noble friend Lord Trenchard’s amendments because, as he has explained, without his amendments, Amendment 93 would not make sense.

Now that we have left the EU, the starting point for our international trade will be the World Trade Organization. I welcome Clauses 40 to 42, which give the Government the necessary powers in the area of agriculture. This means that we should be ensuring that our standards comply with WTO standards; at the moment they do not, because our standards are derived from the EU and are in some respects non-compliant.

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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 98 and 99, in the name of my noble friend Lord Trenchard. I will not spend any time going into the substance of whether the Trade and Agriculture Commission should be extended in time or scope beyond the arrangements that the Government have already made. I support the Government in this and will not support those amendments. The Government have been clear on their policy, as my noble friend Lord Trenchard explained, and I believe that that should be enough for Parliament.

As with the earlier group—when we debated Amendment 93 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester—if we have to have something in this Bill, which I hope that we do not, it should be drafted to reflect our post-EU place in the WTO as a full member again. It is those standards that should be driving international trade of all kinds, including agriculture and food products. The WTO is the place to argue for standards rather than using a parochial approach that might well put us at odds with the WTO, as has happened with the EU. For this reason, I will support my noble friend’s Amendments 98 and 99 if he chooses to press them.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle Portrait Lord Curry of Kirkharle (CB) [V]
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My Lords, Amendment 101 is in my name; it is not dissimilar to Amendment 97, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. My interests are as recorded in the register. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for supporting this amendment. I also thank the Minister for his open door, his willingness to make time available and his helpfulness throughout the passage of this Bill. His graciousness, tolerance and patience are very much appreciated.

I have been reflecting on what UK agricultural history will record in the chapter titled, “Membership of the European Union”. This has effectively now ended after more than 40 years. It just happens to span most of my farming career. One constant concern was what we termed “the level playing field”, which always proved to be rather elusive. We believed, perhaps mistakenly, that other member states knew how to game the system and we were committed to the rules of cricket. We are now entering the next important chapter of agricultural history and we will be trading on the global playing field. The purpose of this amendment is to try to avoid being bowled a googly from an experienced spin bowler to an unsuspecting batsman on a poor wicket.

I compliment the Government for establishing the Trade and Agriculture Commission. It was a very welcome decision and I look forward to the report it has been commissioned to deliver by the end of the year. While we are debating this Bill, the commission are researching the fine print of WTO rules. I absolutely agree that those rules should be what determine our trade policy. They are researching what is possible and what is not and what good trade deals might look like. By the time they complete their investigations and research, we will have established a wealth of knowledge on the subject. My challenge is, why, having established that resource, would one send them all home for Christmas, never to be seen again? The logic of retaining that valuable knowledge—that talent—to scrutinise future trade deals to make sure that they comply with the standards and terms in their initial report is obvious. I am disappointed that the Government have resisted the pressure to give the commission an ongoing role.

This amendment has the wholehearted support not only of the farming unions of the United Kingdom and of the CLA, but of animal welfare groups, the environmental bodies and, very importantly, the British public. Rarely in my limited experience has a single amendment had such widespread support. Many of the comments made in the debate on the group of amendments beginning with Amendment 89ZA, led by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, apply to this amendment.

Let me counter the accusation that this is a protection measure, that this is an amendment that will create a barrier to trade. This is absolutely not the case. We have no choice but to negotiate trade deals. I too am delighted that the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, has a deal with Japan over the line. She, together with the Defra Secretary, has already established the Trade and Agriculture Commission to provide guidance on the standards and principles that should apply to imported food. This amendment is to ensure that these are applied and adhered to when the deals are agreed.