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Brexit: Agriculture

Volume 795: debated on Monday 14 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the farming unions about the impact of Brexit on agriculture.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register and my membership of the National Farmers’ Union. Defra Ministers and officials are engaging fully with representatives from the UK’s farming unions. Farming organisations stress the importance of: vibrant domestic food production; safeguarding our world-leading animal welfare standards; opportunities for exports; and ensuring that the UK takes the necessary steps to secure a deal with the EU. The Government share those priorities.

My Lords, I also declare my interest as a fully paid-up member of the Farmers Union of Wales. Do the Government accept that a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for Welsh hill farmers, 90% of whose lamb exports go to European Union markets, which would be killed by tariff barriers? Does the Government’s no-deal Brexit emergency package include provision for intervention buying of lamb at a fair price in the event of a post-Brexit market failure or will the hill farmers, along with their lambs, be slaughtered on the altar of a no-deal Brexit?

My Lords, I repeat that the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement will ensure there are no hard barriers on the day we leave the European Union. I agree with all the farming unions. That is what the Government are working on: to get a deal that ensures frictionless and tariff-less trade. If it were to come to no deal, clearly there would have to be discussions about how these matters could be managed. But there is no doubt about it: a no-deal scenario will cause turbulence in the short term for food producers and for farmers.

In his list of concerns, the noble Lord failed to mention one key concern of farmers: the ability to continue to recruit people from the European Union to work on our farms after Brexit. How does the Minister allay those fears?

My Lords, there are of course other priorities and issues for both the Government and the farming unions. I agree that it is important that there is access to labour. Such matters are being considered across government; we recognise their importance not only for the farm labour force but for vets and others. The advance of agritech will in the longer term make a significant difference to the way in which we all farm.

My Lords, does my noble friend acknowledge that the Secretary of State’s speech at the Oxford conference, where he recognised the real problems that would be caused by no deal, caused considerable comfort in farming circles? Is not the logical consequence of this that the Secretary of State makes it abundantly plain that he will be no part of any Government that would accept no deal?

My Lords, my right honourable friend made a number of very important observations about the future of farming at the Oxford Farming Conference, not only in the long term but in the short term because of Brexit. In his words, he agrees that the deal before the other place is not perfect, but let us not put perfection in the way of the good. That is why he actively supports the deal.

My Lords, despite the government statement on the level of farm support to 2020—and 2022—this has been a period of unparalleled anxiety for the members of the farmers, union that I served as a young man, as its legal adviser in Wales. This House’s Delegated Powers Committee delivered a hammer blow in October 2017, criticising the Agriculture Bill for transferring European powers to Ministers, bypassing the devolved Administrations. Specifically, when do the Government intend to carry out their undertaking to respond within the agreed period to the committee’s report?

My Lords, that is an interesting observation from the noble and learned Lord, because I saw Lesley Griffiths from the Welsh Government in passing only this morning. There is a very important continuing dialogue with all the devolved Administrations—agriculture is devolved, of course—and that is why, when the Agriculture Bill comes to your Lordships’ House, it will have elements which relate to Wales, and indeed Northern Ireland, alone. I will take away what he said, because my understanding is that there is very close collaboration, which is essential, between the UK Government and all devolved Administrations.

My Lords, what steps are proposed to secure the disposal of the large quantities of plastic waste generated by agriculture, given that both European and Far Eastern destinations for this problem have now closed?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important element: we want to enhance the environment. Clearly we must deal with the use of plastic better, whether in industry, agriculture or our own use, and have recyclable, reusable objects. I should also say that, as announced in the Clean Air Strategy this morning, we need to collaborate with farmers to improve the ammonia situation as well.

My Lords, despite the words of the Secretary of State at the Oxford conference, no deal is now a very real prospect. How do the Government propose to ensure that the Secretary of State, despite his words, will be able to make all the necessary arrangements to protect both farmers and food supplies?

Of course, that is precisely why there has been a border delivery group working across Whitehall since March 2017. It is working with the port and other transport operators to ensure, as a priority, that we have the materials we need, including medicines and so forth, but also a free flow of traffic. It was interesting that the manager of the Port of Calais referred to the fact that it is putting much more effort and many more people into ensuring this free flow of goods, which is of course at the back of why we want a deal.

My Lords, does the Minister understand why it is a priority for the farmers’ unions that there should be a guarantee that future food imports in the UK will have the same animal welfare and environmental standards as those which currently apply? If he agrees with that priority, will he undertake to put forward an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to make that commitment a legal requirement?

My Lords, having declared my farming interests, of course I believe that it is important that farmers produce food of the highest standard for home and abroad, and that this should never be compromised. We will not water down our standards on animal welfare in pursuit of trade agreements, and that is precisely why we have transposed the EU Council directives on, for instance, hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken into the statute book. When we leave the EU, that will be the law.