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Agriculture Bill: Food Production

Volume 801: debated on Monday 27 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether food production is included in the definition of “public good” contained in the Agriculture Bill.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests, as set out in the register. The Agriculture Bill includes powers to give financial assistance to farmers based on public money for public goods. These are goods and services not provided by the market. Clause 1(4) states:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. A prime duty of government is to ensure that there is enough food to feed the population. Yet one has only to think about the impact of things such as coronavirus, and the immediate ban on the movement of live animals, to show how vulnerable we are, not least when this country is only 60% self-sufficient in food. Will the Minister assure the House that the Agriculture Bill will maximise the level of food production and food security for the country’s future?

My Lords, Clause 17 provides a duty to report to Parliament on food security. This country clearly has a high degree of food security and we rely on a supply of healthy and homegrown produce. The whole point of the Agriculture Bill is to ensure that we have efficient farming, good-quality produce and an improved environment—those things go hand in hand.

My Lords, this matters because “public goods” in the Agriculture Bill refers to the activities that will receive government funding or financial assistance. Despite the noble Lord’s warm words, where does the production of healthy, local food fit into the Government’s financial assistance priorities? The detail of that is in a completely different part of the Bill from the one that lists what will get financial assistance. This is obviously an important distinction.

My Lords, without being pedantic, Clause 1 is about the Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance. It sets out 10 items of public good for which there is public money because there is not a market. However, as I said, Clause 1(4) refers to food production. Other elements of the Bill involve innovation, agritech and R&D, all of which will increase productivity and help farmers to produce food. The first section is about rewarding farmers for things they are already doing, and which we want them to do even more, but for which there is no market as such.

My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that livestock production is given priority within the definition of food production? Will he assure the House, today, that the Government are not minded to introduce a ban on the trade in live animals? It is a small trade, but it is highly regulated and extremely important to maintaining the price, particularly of spring lambs and suckler cows.

My Lords, we are extremely concerned about the long journeys that live animals are undertaking, which is why we are considering these matters very carefully. We understand that farmers in the uplands and elsewhere are important to the livestock sector, but we need to do better on animal welfare and these very long journeys concern us.

My Lords, will the Minister undertake to listen to this House? The Agriculture Bill is a good start to a greener system of farming, but noble Lords will offer a lot of advice and improvement on it. Will the noble Lord undertake to listen to the House and ensure that the Government do not just whip out all our amendments and send the Bill back unamended?

I hope I can answer that by saying that there are already differences between the earlier Agriculture Bill and the one that has been introduced. That is because of scrutiny in the other place and stakeholder concerns. There have already been considerable improvements on food security, soil quality, animal traceability and regulation of fertiliser and organics. I will of course listen to noble Lords and look forward to working with them on the Bill—if it is deemed that I should—at a later date.

My Lords, the Agriculture Bill is important in the process of Brexit and it is encouraging that it now mentions food security. While the Bill provides for a seven-year transition for agriculture towards this new payment system, does the Minister agree that ending uncertainty for farmers long before 2027 is essential, for their businesses and their mental health?

We take this very seriously. I know from my own experience the stresses and strains of the agricultural sector and, indeed, the dangers. I absolutely understand that and that is why we are having a transition, over seven years, from direct payments to a new system. We will bring in tests and trials of the environmental land management scheme and by the end of 2024 we will be ready to launch a national environmental land management scheme in 2025. This is precisely to ensure that there is a sensible transition so that all farmers are clear about what they can do to use the new system to the advantage of the environment and of food production.

My Lords, has the Civil Contingencies Secretariat put work in hand to ensure provision of food should there be a catastrophic cyber or cost-type attack on this nation? It started some work on the distribution of food to centres of population should such a thing happen, but I am not sure whether it was continued.

My Lords, systems are already in place to ensure that in all potential crises and disasters. It is clearly a key factor, whether it involves medicine, food or veterinary medicine. All are important parts of contingencies that it is our responsibility to take.

Will the Government take into account, in international trade agreements that will be coming up, the fact that British farmers probably maintain much higher standards on the environment, livestock and farming as a whole than do our competitors abroad?

My Lords, we are committed to UK standards not being watered down in trade negotiations with other countries. I should say that treaties cannot change domestic law. Any changes to UK law required to implement a treaty will have to pass through Parliament. That is an important factor for us to remember.