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Agricultural Sector

Volume 669: debated on Thursday 9 January 2020

12. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on potential opportunities for (a) farmers and (b) the agricultural sector after the UK leaves the EU. (900012)

23. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on potential opportunities for (a) farmers and (b) the agricultural sector after the UK leaves the EU. (900023)

I continue to have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues on all aspects of exiting the European Union, including agricultural policy.

Our farmers and food producers are required by domestic legislation to observe high standards for the environment, the workplace and animal welfare. Will the Secretary of State confirm that under future free trade agreements, tariff-free imports will be allowed only from producers that also observe those standards?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, about which there has been a live discussion at the Oxford farming conference, as he will know. The UK has always been a leading advocate of open and fair competition. I assure him that we are absolutely committed to maintaining high standards through a robust domestic enforcement regime.

As this is my right hon. Friend’s last question session as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, may I congratulate him on having served with such distinction?

I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to maintaining common agricultural policy levels of funding for our farmers, but during his remaining days in office, may I urge my right hon. Friend to liaise closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that we come up with an excellent deal for our hill farmers, many of whom operate at a level of subsistence yet look after some of the most beautiful uplands in our land?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s kind remarks. He is absolutely right to focus on hill farmers. As he will know, one of the aspects of the Agriculture Bill is the ability to target measures—for example, on the environment—at specific areas of agriculture. Key among those are hill farmers, whom I know he has always championed.

Farmers made it clear in Oxford this week that they simply do not trust the Government’s assurances. Will the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs give assurances that they will accept the equivalent of my former new clause 1 to the Agriculture Bill, when it comes back? That would ensure no lowering of standards. Will they also agree to the National Farmers Union’s request for a trading standards commission to scrutinise any future trade deals and make sure that farmers are protected?

If farmers did not trust the assurances, I am not sure whether another assurance would suddenly become trustworthy.

On the substance of the hon. Lady’s question, I refer her, for example, to the commitment to set up the office for environmental protection, which will be the single enforcement body. Above all, however, I refer her to this House: part of taking back control will be the House’s ability to scrutinise issues, such as the legitimate one that she raises, and to ensure that the Government meet the assurances that they have given.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the importance of the agrifood sector in Northern Ireland. Will he assure the House, and the agrifood sector and associated businesses in Northern Ireland, that his departmental and Cabinet colleagues are very well aware of that importance and can minimise any threats and maximise opportunities as we leave the EU?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of that issue. The former Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee referred to the Department’s disbanding, but what is not disbanding is the expertise within it, which will be shared across Whitehall, including with the Northern Ireland Office. As the hon. Gentleman will know, when it comes to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, that sector and how it plays into discussions within the Joint Committee will be extremely important. I am sure that he will contribute fully to that debate.

As in Northern Ireland, the agricultural sector is vital to the economy of Scotland, where food and drink account for 18% of international exports. What work is my right hon. Friend’s Department and the Department for International Trade doing to ensure that, in our future relationship with the European Union, the trade in agri-goods is as free and frictionless as possible?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the food and drink sector—not least, for example, when we consider the Scottish whisky industry, which is key. From memory, the UK has 88 geographical indications, whereas Europe has over 3,000: from a negotiating point of view, the European Union obviously has more interest in that issue. From a Scottish point of view, however, the importance of the intellectual protection of Scottish whisky and salmon is huge. We are very alive to those issues.

22. Scottish farmers and Scotland’s food and drink industry are completely reliant on existing EU arrangements. A no-deal crash-out would be disastrous for both sectors, so our relationship with the EU is critical. Also, trade deals with the US could undermine environmental standards: if there is a no-deal crash-out under World Trade Organisation rules, we will not be able to avoid cheap food involving poorer environmental standards coming from the States. That future relationship is important, as are the trade deals that the UK negotiates. Surely the Scottish Government need a statutory role in both those areas. (900022)

One of the most welcome things about the debate since the general election has been its more positive tone, and one aspect of that has been moving on from the language of no-deal crash-outs. The withdrawal agreement safeguards things such as citizens’ rights. It includes the Northern Ireland protocol and settles settlement. We therefore move into a different phase, in which the risks of no deal that the hon. Gentleman and many others spoke about no longer apply. That is the benefit of the Prime Minister’s deal and it is why the hon. Gentleman should support the withdrawal agreement Bill on Third Reading.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether the Government will introduce any changes to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme after the UK leaves the EU? Farmers in my constituency need certainty that they can hire the workers they require.

I know from representing a farming area myself the importance of seasonal workers. Obviously, that debate interplays with the expansion of investment in agritech, which brings benefits not only for productivity but in reducing demand. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Office has increased the numbers under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to 10,000, but as part of designing our own approach to immigration and having control of our borders, we will be able both to address the concerns of the public at large and to mitigate any specific sectoral issues that apply, for example, to agriculture.

Fifty per cent of Welsh lamb is consumed elsewhere in the UK and 45% of it goes to the European Union, so Welsh hill farmers will probably be the most exposed of all if there is a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. Will the Secretary of State do everything in his power to ensure that the Government do not sign off on a deal unless it ensures tariff-free access for lamb into the European Union?

The whole point of the deal—I hope the hon. Gentleman supports it on Third Reading—is that it ensures that we will leave in a smooth and orderly way. The specific issues of hill farmers are matters for both the negotiation and the Agriculture Bill. I am sure he, among others, will contribute to that debate.