Agriculture Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Programme motion: House of Commons)
(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Programme motion: House of Commons)
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Excerpts
Monday 3rd February 2020

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Ben Lake Portrait Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC) - Hansard
3 Feb 2020, 8:23 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder). I congratulate him on a very impressive maiden speech, and have no doubt that he will make a great impression on this place and serve his constituents well.

As other hon. Members have said, this Bill will determine the future of agriculture for decades to come, so it is crucial that the course it charts is the right one. Several aspects will need to be addressed in Committee, but in the time allocated to me this evening I shall concentrate on two areas that have not been addressed in the second draft of the Bill: the need for a pan-UK intergovernmental structure to agree, establish and monitor common frameworks on agricultural policy and funding; and, as other Members have mentioned, the need to uphold UK farming production standards in the context of international trade negotiations.

On Second Reading of the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill a fortnight ago, I made the point that replacing some of the CAP’s associated frameworks would be to the benefit of all four nations of the UK. As the nations develop future policy, the question of how they will co-operate to ensure the effective functioning of the internal market of these islands looms ever larger. It is disappointing that the Bill before us today does not answer that question, but luckily for the Government, the Farmers’ Union of Wales has produced a policy paper outlining how common frameworks could work in practice, and how the four Governments—in the form of an intergovernmental body—could come together to agree the principles underpinning them, oversee their operation and resolve any disputes that may arise.

Agreeing common objectives need not limit the ability of any Government to tailor policies to best support their respective industries, but by establishing common parameters and thresholds, damaging market distortion and disruption to supply chains can be avoided. This is not an academic or hypothetical concern. For example, reflect for a moment on the consequences of the Bew review into allocations for UK agricultural funding, which over the next two years will see the difference between average annual Scottish and Welsh farm payments diverge to about £16,200 a year, or 175%; or consider this Bill, which offers Welsh Ministers scope to maintain financial assistance to farmers in the form of the basic payment scheme in a way that is not replicated for farmers in England and is not even needed for Scotland. There are already signs of divergence. The only question is how harmful a distortion it will cause.

There is danger from divergence in other areas, such as equivalence in standards, labelling, eligibility rules for different schemes, rules defining what constitutes a farmer who is genuinely eligible for support and interventions, or the rates at which direct support, environmental payments, payments for providing public goods and other interventions should be capped. Agreeing common parameters in those areas will ensure a level playing field for farmers across the UK and should be prioritised in the Bill.

I turn to an issue that has already been discussed this afternoon: the lack of commitment in the Bill to upholding farming production standards in the context of international trade negotiations. In this regard, I support the efforts and comments of the NFU, particularly its call for a standards commission to ensure that any imports meet the standards of UK products. I suppose it is quite disappointing that the Bill and this evening’s debate do not give us an opportunity for a detailed and meaningful discussion on what sort of standards or outcomes we wish to see in international trade negotiations, or how best to determine equivalence and what we actually mean by the word. Instead, it seems as though we must persuade the Government of the importance of making such a commitment in the Bill, and of the futility of developing a comprehensive and ambitious domestic policy whereby our farmers produce quality food in a sustainable manner, only for their efforts to be undermined by the importation of products not produced to equivalent environmental and animal welfare standards. As far as I can glean, the Government’s argument is that such a commitment on the face of the Bill is not required, and that instead we should take Ministers at their word—after all, as has been said this afternoon, it was a manifesto commitment. But as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) will know, if manifesto commitments were always adhered to, particularly by this Government, I would have travelled here by an electrified south Wales main line from Swansea; of course, I did not.

When one considers the words of the Prime Minister at the UK-Africa summit only a few weeks ago, when he proudly proclaimed his wish to see more Ugandan beef shipped to the UK, it is no surprise that hon. Members from across the House are anxious to see a commitment in law that food imports will be of an equivalent standard to UK produce. It was good to see the Prime Minister recognise in his written ministerial statement today the importance of maintaining existing sanitary and phytosanitary measures, but as he stated that the Government’s goal is a Canada-style free trade agreement, the question arises as to whether that will apply to sectors such as beef and lamb. Although the Canada-EU trade deal eradicates tariffs on the majority of goods, sensitive products such as some food products—including beef—are not included. There is a danger of the Prime Minister, on the one hand, appearing to project himself as the champion of free and frictionless trade while, on the other, partly conceding that there will be some technical barriers to trade where once there were none. This inconsistency is a cause for concern, as is the Government’s apparent unwillingness to introduce some friction to UK-EU trade.

It must be stressed that this approach would be damaging to Welsh agriculture. I know that the Minister fully recognises the importance of the EU market for Welsh agricultural exports, particularly sheepmeat. It need not be highlighted again that approximately 35% to 40% of all lamb produced in Wales is exported, of which over 90% is destined for the EU market. Following today’s statement and the possibility that Welsh farmers will have reduced access to the EU market, it is even more important that we see a commitment in this Bill that future trade policy will not also expose them to competition from imports of a lower standard.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con) - Hansard
3 Feb 2020, 8:30 p.m.

This is the first chance I have had, Mr Deputy Speaker, to pay tribute to you for being back in your rightful place in this House.

I also pay tribute to the six excellent maiden speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards), for Buckingham (Greg Smith), for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), and for West Dorset (Chris Loder). They are a highly talented group of men and women in whom I think our party will have an asset for many years to come. They are fantastic advocates for their constituencies, and they will all no doubt have long and industrious—illustrious, rather—political careers.

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con) - Hansard
3 Feb 2020, 8:30 p.m.

And industrious.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard
3 Feb 2020, 8:30 p.m.

And industrious too, no doubt—industrious in particular.

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in that I am a farmer and receive income from farming.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham reminded us, this is the first debate that we have had since we left the European Union—and we have well and truly left the common agricultural policy, so we now have the opportunity to design a new domestic agricultural policy that will recognise the unique characteristics and needs of the UK farming industry as opposed to 27 European countries.

The Government, in the shape of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), originally said that they would negotiate

“a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.—[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 169.]

However, more recently, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in the Financial Times of 17 January that farms have had three years to prepare for a new trading relationship. But to prepare for what—a free trade agreement with full benefits or a no-deal situation where beef and sheep exports face 50% to 60% adverse tariffs? The future of agriculture is very uncertain at the moment. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in her excellent speech, this landmark legislation could not only boost productivity but give some of the highest environmental protection in the world, setting an example to others.

This is an industry that employs 474,000 people, with a net annual contribution to the UK economy of some £8 billion. Last summer, the National Audit Office produced a report with some frontline statistics, which it is very good at doing, saying that there were 85,000 recipients of CAP payments in England in 2017. It went on to say that of those, 82,500 would participate in the new environmental land management scheme by 2028. That seems a very high and optimistic target, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, and it will be achieved only if the scheme has properly defined objectives, is relatively simple to apply for and operate, and, above all, has an absolute commitment from the Government to pay on time for the work done, in line with their commitment to other small businesses. As I said, this is a highly ambitious target. I remind the Government that only 20,000 farms, as opposed to 82,500, had enrolled in the countryside stewardship scheme after 42 years of operation.

The NAO report goes on to tell us that without direct payment, 42% of farms would have made a loss, assuming that everything else had remained the same. The Government are committed to making payments at the same level this year, thereafter moving to a system of public goods for public money. However, having tabled amendments to the previous Bill, which fell due to the general election, to ensure that food production is at the heart of this legislation, I find it somewhat disappointing to see that public goods do not secure more of our food supply. For farmers, it will be difficult to compete in the same market as those who either have a one-sided subsidy such as the CAP or regulations that discriminate against our farmers. I understand that this year, 95,000 tonnes of rapeseed was imported into this country from Ukraine—a country that is allowed to use neonicotinoids, which are banned in this country. So we are simply exporting environmental risk to other countries by doing this.

Mr Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con) - Hansard
3 Feb 2020, 6:09 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is perfectly legitimate to defend our producers against anti-competitive distortions being introduced into our market?

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown - Hansard

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That is precisely what I am trying to get at—our farmers can compete with any farmers in the world, provided they have a level playing field.

It is not only regulation that could be an obstacle to them. There could be a tariff schedule that broadly supports European farmers and disadvantages British farmers. For example, lamb producers in the Cotswolds, who work in a very important farming sector, could be undercut by New Zealand lamb being brought into this country with zero tariffs, while they face an adverse European tariff that prevents them from continuing their lucrative export to Europe.

The new ELMS and productivity scheme needs to be implemented on time, to see how it works in practice and to play an important role in achieving net zero goals. If it is not introduced on time in 2024, there will be a gap in funding. Many experts believe that introducing it on time will be extremely difficult, and that it is more likely to slip from 2024 to 2028, which will produce a gap in funding. We have an opportunity, post Brexit, to create a progressive, carbon-neutral model of farming in the UK, with the NFU committed to an ambitious target of the sector being carbon-neutral by 2040.

The Bill prepares our farming industry for the future, so that it can meet the needs of this country, and with that comes consideration of the younger generation of farmers. The lump sum payment provisions should be more geared towards encouraging young people into farming. As they stand, the provisions could well lead to some areas of the country simply not being farmed, because there will be land without the ability to get any subsidy whatsoever.

Farming has experienced a huge technological transformation in the past 10 years, with better IT, better animal husbandry, better use of GPS, improved agricultural chemicals and soil sampling, and a host of other technological improvements. Those advances in the agricultural industry will no doubt continue at pace. Younger generations can quickly adapt to new technology, as I am finding with my son, who has just moved to my farm. We must support them, so that they can play a bigger part in British agricultural production, considerably increasing productivity and environmental and animal welfare standards.

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans) - Hansard

The time limit is five minutes with immediate effect. I call Tim Farron.