House of Lords
Wednesday 10 June 2020
The House met in a Hybrid Sitting.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. A limited number of Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and, if the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Other Members will participate remotely, but all Members will be treated equally wherever they are. For Members participating remotely, microphones will unmute shortly before they are to speak—please accept any on-screen prompt to unmute. Microphones will be muted after each speech. I ask noble Lords to be patient if there are any short delays as we switch between physically present and remote participants.
I should remind the House that our normal courtesies in debate still very much apply in this new hybrid way of working. Oral Questions will now begin. Please ensure that questions and answers are short. I call the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Worcester to ask the first Oral Question.
G20: Debt Cancellation
My Lords, the Government are concerned by debt vulnerabilities in developing countries, which Covid-19 has amplified. The Chancellor and his G20 counterparts agreed a historic suspension of debt repayments from the world’s poorest countries. This will see official creditors provide up to $12 billion of cash-flow relief to help countries respond to the health and economic impacts of Covid-19. It also provides time to assess what further assistance these countries may need as the full economic impact becomes clearer.
I thank the noble Baroness the Minister for her Answer. I also take this opportunity to express appreciation to the Government for their continued commitment to paying 0.7% of GNI to official development assistance. It is a very positive step that debt has been suspended but, in view of the increasing economic and social burden of this terrible virus on the poorest countries in the world, will the Government begin to press not only for the suspension but the cancellation of debts as we go further and, indeed, encourage private debtors to do the same?
My Lords, we are in uncharted territory at the moment and the full impact of Covid on the developing world is unknown. The DSSI provides breathing space, so future restructuring of debts may be needed. The G20 has publicly called for the private sector to voluntarily participate in this initiative and, if it did so to the full extent, that would provide another $10 billion of breathing space for these countries.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend and the Government for all the work they have already done to help less developed and low-income emerging markets grappling with the health and economic fallout of Covid, especially from the fall in commodity prices. But I hope that the Government will consider debt forgiveness rather than just a debt freeze as we go through this unprecedented crisis, so that these countries can recover rather than having to continue to pay debts that have posed such problems in these times.
The Government will continue to keep all options under review. In terms of debt forgiveness, the Government have committed a further £150 million to the IMF Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, which provides debt relief to low-income countries for their IMF payments. Twenty-five eligible countries will receive that debt relief for at least the next six months.
My Lords, I am grateful for what the Minister has already said, but I want to back up the right reverend Prelate because, given the public interest in debt relief, surely the Government could take the lead in debt cancellation as well as suspension during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that DfID and the Treasury also have some responsibility for ensuring that the private sector cannot pursue LDCs for any default?
Debt relief can be an important route for some countries; however, in terms of UK support, under the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, the UK has written off most of its exposure to low-income developing countries and has since adopted a grant-based financing model. We need to look at all routes of support to these countries during the Covid epidemic.
My Lords, for the world as a whole and especially for the G20 countries, the priority at the present time must be for poorer countries to have the resources to combat the pandemic and to do so effectively. To that end, it is essential for these countries to be relieved of debt; a mere postponement of repayment is not enough. Lives must be saved and the spread of the disease must be prevented. Poorer countries must be able to withstand the economic consequences of the pandemic. The United Kingdom must lead the way.
My Lords, I feel I have said quite a bit on debt relief and that we may be supportive in future for certain countries, if that is the right route. In terms of the UK’s contribution to support, very little of our support to countries is in the form of debt and we therefore need to look at other routes as well. That is why the UK is spending over £700 million of its ODA funding towards the Covid response, in addition to normal programming, and is the largest contributor in the G20 to global efforts on a vaccine for Covid.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, at a time when low-income countries need to intervene to support their economies but lack the reserves, in addition to broader debt cancellation her Government should urge the IMF to initiate a large special drawing rights allocation to speed the recovery of low-income economies?
The noble Baroness is right that the scale of the economic crisis facing these countries is significant. The IMF predicts that global GDP will fall by 3% in 2020 and says it is the worst global recession since the great depression and much worse than the 2008 financial crisis. We are providing a huge amount of additional support, including through the IMF, which has doubled to $100 billion the emergency financing support available to its members.
My Lords, I am second to none in wanting to assist poorer countries, but will the noble Baroness accept, in the context of debt forgiveness, that the World Bank has done recent research to show that aid flows through the poorest countries straight back into the wealthier countries—something called aid leakage? So unless we want to give money to Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and those sorts of places, the best way to help the poorest countries is through a vaccine, through medical and pharmaceutical products and, most importantly, through the special drawing rights of the IMF mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer.
The noble Baroness is correct that we need to ensure that the support we give to these countries actually flows into supporting social and health programmes that help to tackle this virus. That is why one of the conditions of the debt service suspension initiative is that the financial headroom it creates for those countries is actually directed towards those services.
I call the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings. No? In that case, I call the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon.
My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord that black lives matter. The UK has been a leading voice on debt forgiveness. As I said previously, however, the UK has forgiven most of its debt from low-income countries, so we also focus our support to those countries through other routes.
My Lords, the G20 public debt initiative lasts only until the end of 2020, yet it is clear that the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic will be felt far beyond the end of this year. Will the Government support an extension of the scheme?
My Lords, I know that Britain plays a major role in fighting poverty around the world and I appreciate the UK’s generous donation of £150 million to an IMF debt relief scheme used for Covid-19. What further plans do the Government have to take part in international initiatives to repay the debt of the poorest countries?
As I said in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, we will continue to work with the G20 and look at the extension of the debt service suspension initiative. One of the things that makes that initiative so ground-breaking is that it is the first time that China has signed up to a multilateral agreement of this nature, and as it is the largest lender to some of these countries, that will have a big impact for them.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Water and Sanitation
My Lords, water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for preventing the spread of Covid-19. We continue to support WASH projects throughout Africa. Our country teams are responding through health and humanitarian programmes, with water and sanitation being a key area. We have provided more funding to UNICEF, the lead UN agency for water supply and sanitation, to help with the response. We have launched a new partnership with Unilever, which is working in Africa to scale up Covid-specific messaging on hygiene.
With the impact of Covid-19 and the stress on water supplies from the climate emergency, I know the Minister recognises, as she acknowledged, that clean water and sanitation are more vital than ever, especially when aid budgets are squeezed. Water Unite, which I chair, collects a 1% levy on the sale of bottled water to invest in water and sanitation projects. Will the Government encourage this and other innovative ways of unlocking millions of pounds for development funds to add to taxpayer-funded donor contributions? Will she consider meeting me to explore this further?
I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. We have discussed that excellent initiative in the past and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further. As he says, water, sanitation and hygiene are incredibly important and the first line of defence for preventing the spread of Covid. DfID will continue to support WASH, as we know it is critical for managing the Covid recovery.
My Lords, handwashing is one of the most effective disease prevention methods available, including specifically for Covid-19, yet 3 billion people globally do not have handwashing facilities at home. As part of DfID’s monitoring of Covid-19 cases in developing countries, do the Government intend to increase support for sanitation programmes in areas that are experiencing a high number of cases?
My Lords, as the noble Lord says, hygiene relies on access to adequate quantities of clean water, and that applies to both handwashing and surface hygiene. We will absolutely continue to support WASH projects. We need to make progress on sanitation, and progress to ensure that sufficient clean water is available for people to be able to keep safe.
My Lords, I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, is not asking his question, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan.
My Lords, in Africa, the WASH sector is critical for both containing the virus and lowering its devastating impact on human and economic costs. Can the Minister say what conversations DfID has had with the CDC about using its heft to leverage investment into both WASH, infrastructure and products such as soap and sanitiser?
My Lords, obviously we work closely with CDC to ensure that it is responding sufficiently to Covid. CDC is urgently undertaking a Covid-19 impact and vulnerability assessment across its portfolio of investments in Africa and South Asia. As other investors withdraw, CDC is looking at extending the risk-sharing agreements it has with partner banks to ensure that it will continue to be able to support projects. I will certainly have a further discussion with it about how it can specifically support WASH projects.
My Lords, the recent outbreak of Covid has led to the biggest and most welcome extension of the WASH programme across Africa. How can we ensure that the investments made in water sanitation and hygiene by DfID look beyond Covid-19 and help to fight other diseases in the long term, such as neglected tropical diseases, and provide sustainable water and sanitation solutions for vulnerable populations going forward?
My Lords, my noble friend is of course quite right to point out that WASH is critical not only now as we deal with the immediate impacts of Covid-19 but for the future. That is why we are working closely with our partner Governments to ensure that the water systems in their countries continue to receive investment as countries around the world are challenged with the economic impact of Covid-19.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness assure the House that everything possible is being done to assist villagers in poorer countries such as Malawi, in sub-Saharan Africa? Access to clean water for washing hands is often very limited, as has been pointed out, and traditional medicine inhibits knowledge of symptoms and how to deal with them. The provision of well-judged education and sufficient hand sanitation could save many lives.
I certainly agree with the noble and learned Lord that we must make sure that the information provided to people is correct in order to help them save lives. I mentioned our project with Unilever, which aims to reach 1 billion people with the correct information about how best to protect themselves from Covid.
I congratulate the Government on the Gavi replenishment—a great example of international co-operation delivering on a vital health initiative. WASH is an important ingredient in delivering SDG 6, as well as our objective of universal health coverage. What are the noble Baroness, the Government and DfID doing to ensure that we lead and get other countries to invest in WASH projects?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for bringing up Gavi, which was a great success last week, and which brought the world together to raise over £8.8 billion for essential vaccinations. As he says, improving access to water and sanitation is its own development goal; safe water and sanitation are critical to public health and are necessary elements of universal health coverage. It is also good value for money, and we encourage other donors and indeed the World Bank to continue investment. It estimates that for every £1 spent there are economic benefits worth over £4. Therefore, we target our aid well to vulnerable countries. Between 2011 and 2015, we helped 64.5 million people get access to water and sanitation. We will continue this work and continue to encourage other partners to invest.
I declare an interest, as my husband receives a grant for research on sustainable farming in Uganda. Almost 22 million people in Uganda do not have access to clean water. That is important for health but also for equality and education opportunities for girls in particular. How much funding have the Government allocated in the last year to address health and sanitation problems in that country?
I am afraid that I do not have the specific amount of funding for that country but I will write to the noble Baroness with that information. I completely agree that we must ensure that, as schools reopen, all pupils are able to return to school, and providing proper health, hygiene and clean running water will of course be important for that aim.
My Lords, negotiating a broad network of water PPP awards similar to that which has worked well in Gaza could be a strategy. However, I draw attention to the use of the term “sub-Sahara”, which many consider to have overtones from a bygone colonialist and racist era and so to have had its day. Would it therefore not be better to exercise our minds on Africa geostrategically, to include north Africa and the Maghreb?
I thank the noble Viscount for that question. While examples of donating water supply or treatment equipment have been successful in some cases, our programmes overall focus increasingly on more systems-strengthening and climate resilience, as they are part of our work on ending preventable deaths. I recognise that both “Africa” and “sub-Saharan Africa” are used as shorthand for a continent that is incredibly diverse in people, cultures and contexts, and our work is designed in collaboration with countries and partners to respond to that diversity.
My Lords, there is a practical and reliable solution. For the last 12 years, the charity Innovation: Africa has enabled remote villages to harness the power of the sun using Israeli solar and water technology. The solar panels power the pump, which is placed in the aquifer below ground. The clean water is then pumped into a tank and taps are installed throughout the village, providing up to 10,000 people with clean water from one system at a cost of about £40,000 per system. Thanks to Innovation: Africa, 1.7 million people in remote villages in sub-Saharan Africa have clean running water. Would the Minister agree to meet with Innovation: Africa to explore ways in which her department can help ensure that clean, fresh water can be delivered to the millions in desperate need?
My noble friend highlights one of the ways in which we are helping people in rural villages, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked about earlier. I understand that Innovation: Africa works closely with UNICEF, one of our key partners in WASH. Its use of innovative technology is particularly encouraging, especially as it uses green energy to power it. To achieve our ambitious SDG 6 WASH targets will require a major increase of resources and capacity. To use those effectively we must make the most of domestic funding, contributions from households and attract new finance. The WASH team at DfID will be happy to meet with Innovation: Africa, and I will follow that up with my noble friend.
Covid-19: Cancelled Medical Operations
My Lords, NHS trusts were rightly asked to postpone elective activity to free up capacity to support the response to Covid-19. The latest data shows that there was a 30% reduction in the number of completed admitted patient pathways in March 2020 compared to the same month last year. Data for April is due to be published by NHS England tomorrow. The NHS is safely restoring urgent non-Covid services, catching up on the backlog, and ensuring that surge capacity can be stood up again should it be needed.
My Lords, thousands of patients with non-Covid conditions are not getting the treatment they need, and thousands more with life-threatening diseases such as cancer are going undiagnosed every day. Yet we see reports that private facilities, which the Government are paying for, are either empty or hosting only a trickle of NHS patients. Can the noble Lord say how many private beds paid for by the Government are being used by the NHS, and what is the Government’s plan to stop waiting lists hitting 10 million by Christmas?
My Lords, I do not have the precise figures which the noble Baroness asked for. However, I reassure the Chamber that the NHS is working hard to ensure that those who need urgent surgery, such as cancer patients, have it, and we have committed a substantial amount to the Help Us, Help You media campaign, which is having an impact in restoring confidence in returning to hospitals.
My Lords, given the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on those aged over 75 and the likely knock-on effects of cancelled operations, will the Minister take steps to encourage the reintroduction of routine GP health checks among people in this age group which, understandably, have been largely suspended during the pandemic?
My Lords, the impact on the over-75s is, as has been described, profound. We have worked hard to try to protect those who are shielding. The reopening of GPs’ surgeries is a priority but, at the moment, we are not encouraging those who are over 75 to make the journey to surgeries that are a potential source of infection. Therefore, we will not be taking the steps the right reverend Prelate described.
My Lords, as the waiting lists caused by Covid create huge pressures, harder-to-treat patients must not be left behind. Last month, Eurordis released a survey which included UK rare disease patients and found that nine out of 10 had experienced disruptions in care, while more than half who needed surgery had had it cancelled or postponed. Many rare disease patients are in the shielding group and many have degenerative conditions. Can the Minister set out the plans to improve access to care and communications about care for rare disease patients, and can he please undertake to meet with patient groups about this?
The work of my noble friend Lady Blackwood on rare diseases is well known and acknowledged in the House. Those with rare diseases are in exactly in the kind of vulnerable groups that are being hard hit by Covid. They are given particular access to local support systems and they should have access to home testing services if they feel vulnerable to the effects of Covid. Further, I am happy to undertake a commitment to meet with the relevant stakeholder groups to discuss how we could be working harder to support them.
We do not seem to be able to hear the noble Lord, Lord Patel.
My Lords, I have unmuted my microphone and I hope that my voice is coming through. I am sorry for the delay.
As the Minister will know, several million patients are on waiting lists for surgery. Given the increased levels of hygiene safety that will be required, it is inevitable that productivity will be down. This means that there will be a need for the prioritisation of cases. Does he agree that the professional organisations should draw up advisory guidelines for clinicians, rather than leaving it to the individuals?
The noble Lord may be interested to know that, frustratingly, waiting lists have gone down rather than up, from 4.42 million in February to 4.32 million in March. This is an indication of people not coming forward for operations that they may need, and it is something that we are keen to address. However, we are putting the decision-making on how to handle the lists into the hands of local clinicians, who will use a combination of clinical need and waiting list times to make their decisions.
My Lords, which NHS trusts, following Sir Simon Stevens’ letter to them of 29 April, have made full use of all contracted independent sector hospital capacity, and will the contract between NHS England and the private healthcare sector be renewed at the end of June?
The noble Baroness has asked for a very specific figure, which I am afraid I do not have to hand. However, I can assure her that the private healthcare contract has provided us with incredibly valuable surge capacity and we will be looking at how to use that kind of capacity to protect the NHS from a potential surge in the wintertime.
My Lords, can the Government guarantee that there are safe spaces for all cancer services and ensure that these spaces are Covid-protected? Further, will the Minister update the House on testing numbers and the number and frequency of tests in hospitals and in cancer hubs in England? I understand that he may not have all the figures to hand, but I would be grateful if he could write to me and put a copy of the letter in the Library.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, is right to emphasise the importance of safe spaces. Cancer surgery requires a completely hygienic environment for those who have immune challenges. Safe spaces are found for all those who need to have cancer practices. They may not be in absolutely every hospital, but if one hospital cannot make that kind of offer, an adjacent or nearby hospital will be found to provide the kind of safe spaces that are needed to carry out the procedures she described.
When will treatment begin for post-operative patients who are waiting for chemotherapy, do we have instances where chemotherapies have been halted during their term of treatment, and will these therapies recommence? Do we know whether trusts are beginning to do this?
The noble Baroness is entirely right to focus on those who are the most vulnerable. Data for March 2020 shows that cancer referrals began to drop although treatment levels did remain high, with 15,363 patients starting treatment following an urgent referral. That is the highest figure on record in a single month. So, although some treatments may have been cancelled, as she rightly describes, what I would like to convey is that a large number of treatments did continue, and we will be working hard to address any backlog.
My Lords, following on from a previous question about bed capacity, I declare an interest in that my son was involved in setting up the Nightingale Hospital Excel. What assessment has been made of bed requirements to keep non-surgical care completely separate from surgical care that needs to happen in Covid-light or Covid-free areas, and to ensure the frequent testing of staff, in particular highly skilled trauma surgical staff who may be moving between these two zones, so that they do not themselves become a cause of transmitting infection?
I should first like to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in setting up the Nightingale hospitals. People have worked extremely hard to deliver a valuable service to the country. Bed allocation arrangements are made by local trusts and testing within the NHS is now intense. Decisions on the traffic of staff between safe zones and non-safe zones are taken by the local director of infection control.
My Lords, it is important that the Minister informs the House about how beds there are in the private sector, how many were occupied, at what cost and whether there will be a renewal. Does the noble Lord share my concern that if there is a second spike of Covid-19, it will lead to further delays in life-saving operations? What contingency arrangements do the Government have in place for this?
The noble Baroness is right to raise this concern. The bigger focus is less on the operational restraints, because the NHS has in fact done extremely well to keep the flow of operations going during this period. It is actually on demand. What we are most deeply concerned about is that patients return to hospitals and that their confidence in undertaking procedures is restored. That is why we have put a huge amount of emphasis on the marketing side of things. That is not to understate the importance of the operational side, but it is patient confidence that is our focus at the moment.
Free School Meal Vouchers Scheme
My Lords, the Government remain committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children continue to be supported while schools remain closed. The free school meal vouchers system has seen more than £139 million-worth of voucher codes redeemed into supermarket vouchers by families and schools as of Monday. This provision is ordinarily about providing healthy meals for children in school. As such, as schools close for the summer holidays, this scheme will come to an end.
My Lords, exceptional times require exceptional measures. Food insecurity among children has doubled under lockdown, yet DWP has provided no extra money for children. For all their inadequacies, free school meal vouchers have been a lifeline for low-income parents struggling to feed hungry children. The holiday activities fund mentioned yesterday by the Secretary of State will reach only a tiny fraction of them. In view of the Children’s Commissioner’s criticism that the decision lacks compassion and is “exceptionally short-sighted”, can the Minister explain why if Wales can provide this most basic support for children in poverty during the school holidays and more generously England cannot?
My Lords, the provision through the free school meal vouchers system is at a higher rate than what is normally provided to schools to provide free school meals, due to the recognition that families do not have the economies of scale of schools. On additional support to families, the noble Baroness will probably be aware that during this period there has also been an uplift to universal credit and to working tax credits, such that there is an advantage of just over £1,000 a year, which affects 4 million households. This is considerable support to families who, as we recognise, are struggling to feed their children.
My Lords, we know that poverty leads to food insecurity for children. Last week the Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in the need for emergency food parcels in April. Who will make up for this loss of vouchers for free school meals? The UK has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do the Government now recognise their responsibility to the welfare of children, especially vulnerable ones?
My Lords, the Government clearly recognise our responsibility to vulnerable children and have enabled them to attend school during this outbreak. The vouchers system we outlined is in addition to the funding going to schools to provide free school meals on the premises. In addition, there has been £16 million through DCMS and Defra for food support through charities such as FareShare and WRAP. There has been considerable support to enable food provision for those in need.
To meet the cost of the Government’s Eatwell Guide to a healthy diet, the poorest decile of UK households would need to spend 74% of their after-housing disposable income on food. How will the Government ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable children have access to a healthy diet?
My Lords, funding of £9 million has been announced for the provision of holiday activity clubs, which include food, during the school holidays. We are currently in discussions with contractors regarding the continuation of Family Action and Magic Breakfast provision during the summer holidays.
The Minister has outlined the extra money put into family budgets, and there are still people in poverty. Is not part of the problem a need for proper budgetary advice and help for families to manage better? In other words, it is a case not just of money but of the way in which it is spent and giving families assistance with their budgeting. Could we not look at an educational part of this programme?
My Lords, budgeting is indeed a skill needed by many households, particularly those on limited income. Before the Covid crisis hit, there was an almost 16% increase in the Budget to the Money and Pensions Service, which gives essential advice and support, particularly to those dealing with debt.
My Lords, 15.4% of children were eligible for free school meals in 2019, with 42% in pupil referral units and 37% in special schools. Many of these children’s health and well-being would at least in part be protected if their entitlement to the equivalent of free school meals were to continue through the summer holidays to the autumn term. A high proportion of recipients are from BME backgrounds and many are child carers. Does the Minister consider it appropriate to go back to Her Majesty’s Government and re-emphasise noble Lords’ support for the continuing provision of the equivalent of £15 per child per week to promote a level of equality of access to food for children in the poorest households this summer?
My Lords, I always take back representations made by noble Lords and will take that one back. As I have outlined, there has been an increase in support through the universal credit system and working tax credits. For those who are furloughed, the national living wage is more than £3,000 higher than in 2016, which affects the wages of those put on that scheme. We are concerned to ensure that households are able to make provision at the moment.
My Lords, the Children’s Society has highlighted how the cost of living has increased for families due to the pandemic, as more children are at home while parents’ earnings have often decreased, leaving many families struggling with the cost of food and other essentials. Demand for food banks has risen substantially, yet the Government think this is the time for yet more pressure for the millions of families across the country suffering financial hardship because of Covid-19 by withdrawing the free school meal vouchers scheme over the summer. With MPs from across the parties joining the call for the scheme to be extended to cover the summer holidays, this must surely be the Government’s next U-turn. If not, how does the Minister suggest parents should feed their children without the vouchers scheme during these immensely difficult times?
My Lords, as I have outlined, the vouchers scheme was in addition to the funding given to schools to provide free school meals on the premises. It has always been the position that free school meals provision was when schools were open, and it is not expected that schools will be open throughout the summer holiday. There has been a £6.5 billion injection into the DWP budget and more than 1 million food parcels have been distributed through Defra and other government departments. There is support out there for those who need provision.
My Lords, should not the Government negotiate a deal for some form of reimbursement to themselves from the large supermarkets involved in this scheme, many of which are making good profits from the crisis? This could perhaps enable the scheme to be extended. In any event, the poorest children should be our priority.
My Lords, I will take back to my colleagues in BEIS the novel and motivational idea that the noble Lord outlines. As we have seen, those in the supermarkets have been essential workers during this time of crisis. As I have outlined, we are in discussion with Magic Breakfast and Family Action about breakfast club provision during the summer holidays.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of ukactive. Far fewer children than expected have been accessing school and school meals during the pandemic. This has left them in a perilous position. They now face up to 23 weeks without engaging in structured and enriching activities outside their home. Will Her Majesty’s Government confirm that they will explore all options for keeping some schools’ facilities open safely across the summer holidays, providing activity and food, to support the most vulnerable children?
My Lords, the latest statistics show that around 15% of vulnerable children are in school. The noble Baroness is correct that we are concerned about the sedentary nature of many children at the moment. On the phased reopening of schools, there has been specific guidance to encourage the use of outdoor space, and even team sports, where the appropriate hygiene measures are carried out among the different groups of children involved. DCMS now also has guidance on the phased reintroduction of outdoor activity and recreation.
My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that we were not able to get in their questions. I thank all noble Lords; that concludes the hybrid proceedings on Oral Questions.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, a limited number of Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and if the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded I will immediately adjourn the House. Other Members will participate remotely, but all Members will be treated equally wherever they are. For Members participating remotely, microphones will unmute shortly before they are to speak; please accept any onscreen prompt to unmute. Microphones will be muted after each speech. I ask noble Lords to be patient if there are any short delays as we switch between physical and remote participants. I remind the House that our normal courtesies in debate still very much apply in this new hybrid way of working. Please ensure that questions and answers are short so that we can try to get in all the people who wish to ask questions.
Quarantine: Scientific Advice
Private Notice Question
My Lords, SAGE, the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser and the Chief Medical Officer are clear that when the rate of domestic transmission is high, imported cases represent a small proportion of the total number and make no significant difference to the epidemic. The Home Secretary has agreed to publish a summary of this advice in due course.
In her exchange on 4 June, the Minister said:
“The science advice has been consistent … It is for SAGE to determine when to publish its advice.”—[Official Report, 4/6/20; col. 1531.]
With respect, no: Ministers decide when to publish the advice. The Government’s measures are increasingly met with widespread derision and non-compliance. I therefore urge the Minister to say to SAGE that the advice must be published very soon if it is to have any credibility, otherwise the Government’s strategy in this field will, frankly, collapse.
The noble Baroness makes it sounds as though SAGE was rather lukewarm about this change. Could she tell us whether the national police chiefs’ guidance was shared with it, namely that it would not be the role of the police to conduct spot checks on those who should be isolating, and that they will act only if the public health authority suspects that someone is not following the guidelines? They ask how the public health authorities will know this, since, as the Immigration Service Union says, Border Force officers will not be able to check basic information such as the address at which a new arrival plans to self-isolate. They say that it is a shambles, so was SAGE told how much of a sham these quarantine rules are and is that why we are not being given more detail?
My Lords, I think that Parliament has been given a lot of detail on this. On spot checks, PHE will do dip sampling of 20% of arriving passengers. If information on where to contact people is not forthcoming at the border, a fine can be issued.
My Lords, these regulations have been received with concern, incredulity and, I am afraid, contempt. Does the Minister accept that it is essential that the public have confidence in these measures, because the absence of confidence threatens the public’s adherence to all the Government’s measures?
I agree with the noble Baroness. Indeed, I took the opportunity to speak to Border Force yesterday about how things were going at the border. It had no problems yesterday. Looking at the general public’s compliance with the regulations thus far, there has been a high degree of not only compliance but support.
My Lords, could my noble friend tell me what assessment the Government carried out on the impact of imposing a travel quarantine now on unemployment, tax revenues and the country’s overall health, and whether they will publish the results of that assessment? If no such assessment was made, how could this be considered a responsible decision?
It is definitely for the benefit of the economy for these measures to be reviewed and lifted as soon as possible. Of course, we have to balance the public health risks with the need to get the economy moving. Of course, we will get the economy moving just as soon as we possibly can.
Can the Minister explain the divergences from other European countries that have not adopted such draconian measures and give us some indication of the road map for when these restrictions will be eased? Have the Government costed the economic impact from these measures at a time when we are seeing a general easing of other restrictions?
Each country has its own methods of trying to control the virus, with some implementation of restrictions at the border. We know that Covid-19 will have a huge economic impact and we do not wish to keep some of the restrictive measures in place for any longer than we need to. It is absolutely the Government’s strong desire to get the economy up and running as soon as we can.
In the Commons on Monday, when challenged about the practicality of the quarantine plan, the Home Secretary said
“first of all, this is not my plan; this is a Government plan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/6/20; col. 15.]
That sounds like a nifty piece of political distancing. We are calling for a rapid 48-hour testing-led programme to allow people to safely exit quarantine more quickly and keep the country open for business; full publication of the SAGE advice on quarantining; a sector-specific support package to save jobs in industries at risk of collapse from the current measures; and clarity on plans and timelines for so-called air bridges. Will the Minister recommend our proposals to the Home Secretary?
My right honourable friend the Home Secretary talked about a government plan because the sort of measures we are putting in place need not only support across government but collective agreement across government. The noble Lord is right that the quicker the testing can be done—testing is speeding up all the time—the better. He will also have seen over the past few months that certain sectors have been more able to go about their business than others, the difficult areas being industries such as hospitality. On air bridges, we are talking to countries across the world about just this—where we can perhaps pair with countries that have similar rates of infection.
My Lords, inbound tourism brings in £9 billion from July to September, but industry experts expect this to drop to £500 million because of the quarantine restrictions. This will cost the tourism industry £650 million a week. The Centre for Economics and Business Research says that more than 90% of Britain’s summer tourism trade will be obliterated. In that light, what specific support are the Government prepared to give to the sector?
The noble Baroness will know, if she listened to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary the other day, that she is in constant dialogue with the Transport Secretary and countries around the world, looking at innovative techniques for lifting restrictions and, as the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, mentioned, at air bridges and similar measures that could allow travel between countries.
My Lords, there has been much talk recently about bridges and travel corridors. Will the Government consider travel gates to block incoming travellers from certain countries, based on the science—a more targeted, risk-based approach to the screening of passengers?
My Lords, as other noble Lords have made clear, the logic of bringing in quarantine at this stage is hard to understand. Was this proposal put before focus groups before it was adopted? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are following the science, not the focus groups?
My Lords, mandatory self-isolation is certainly based on the science. The time to introduce restrictions is when infection rates in this country are low. We had some restrictions initially, when we hit the peak. Those restrictions were increasingly ineffective at controlling the virus. Now that we have got the infection rates low, it is time to introduce restrictions to keep the rate of the virus low.
My Lords, objection to and ridicule of this devolved policy is widespread. The SI for England is 22 pages, for Wales 26 pages. They are massively complicated—a valiant attempt to cover every other department’s wish list of exemptions. Scotland and Wales have differing fixed penalties to the England-only SI. As there is no unified UK policy, would it not be better to scrap it now, and not even wait for the three-week review?
My Lords, on 4 April the EU and the UK experienced over 40,000 new Covid-19 cases, and the UK had no quarantine provision. Yesterday, the EU and the UK experienced just 16,000 new Covid-19 cases, a 60% reduction, and we now have a 14-day quarantine provision. How can there be any logic in insisting on quarantine for travellers from EU countries that have negligible numbers of new cases compared to ours, when transmission within the UK is overwhelmingly likely to come from UK residents and not foreign travellers?
The noble Lord makes a point about different rates of infection and the strategies that we have employed. When the initial rate was low, we were trying to contain the virus. Then the peak happened, and measures at the border were seen to be very ineffective. Now that they are now low again, mandatory self-isolation comes in to keep them low.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government’s policy is to relax quarantine rules for elite sports so that soccer clubs can compete in European competitions, Formula 1’s plans for Silverstone can go ahead, and French horses entered for the Derby in three weeks’ time can do so, with appropriate safeguards but without a strict fortnight’s quarantine?
My Lords, it is absolutely the Government’s intention that if we can lift restrictive measures, we will. Many of us are keen to watch the football. I was supposed to be going to the Derby; I do not think I will see it in real time, but I might see it virtually. Based on the science, we are reviewing these things every three weeks.
My Lords, there are certain exemptions for people such as hauliers. We need people to deliver food to this country. In all decisions that the Government make, there is a balance to be struck between public health and not only the economy, but getting essential goods and services to the people of this country.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, a limited number of Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Other Members will participate remotely but all Members will be treated equally, wherever they are. For Members participating remotely, microphones will unmute shortly before they are to speak. Please accept any on-screen prompt to unmute. Microphones will be muted after each speech. I ask noble Lords to be patient if there are any short delays as we switch between physical and remote participants. I remind the House that our normal courtesies in debate still very much apply in this new hybrid way of working.
To manage proceedings, there will be an adjournment at a convenient point after 3.45 pm. After the adjournment, the debate will resume at a convenient point after 4.15 pm with the next speaker on the list.
My Lords, in declaring my farming interests as set out in the register, it is clearly a privilege to open this debate. The policies that flow from the Bill seek to strengthen our agricultural and horticultural industries and protect the long-term future of food production in this country. They will help deliver a fairer return from a fairer marketplace for food producers.
Financial assistance will be provided for protecting or improving the environment and will allow the environmental land management—ELM—scheme to provide financial assistance for the delivery of outcomes such as cleaner air and water and thriving plants and wildlife. The Government will also provide financial support in connection with managing land or water to help mitigate flooding. There will also be support for action to improve animal health and welfare, reduce endemic disease, keep livestock and soils healthy, and support public access to and enjoyment of the countryside. Farmers and land managers will be rewarded for their vital work in enhancing our environment and looking after our landscapes.
The Government and food producers have important contributions to make when it comes to tackling climate change. These provisions will put our farmers at the heart of an ambitious enterprise: to meet the goals of the 25-year environment plan and achieve the Government’s world-leading commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The National Farmers Union has already shown admirable leadership in its work on seeking net-zero emissions.
The Bill recognises at its heart that food production and a flourishing natural environment can—and must—go hand in hand. This is explicitly demonstrated in Clause 1(4), which places a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England, and in an environmentally sustainable way, when framing financial assistance schemes. It includes provisions for financial assistance to encourage farmers, foresters and growers to improve their productivity in a sustainable way. The Government will provide grants so that they can invest in equipment, technology and infrastructure.
I know that Ministers sometimes receive reports from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee with some trepidation, but I am most grateful to—indeed, I thank—the committee for its consideration of the Bill, its overwhelmingly positive report and its commentary on an improvement to an earlier Bill. Of course, we will consider closely any residual issues and concerns raised by the committee.
In setting a seven-year agricultural transition period from direct payments to a new system, the Government wish to ensure a gradual move so that farmers can adapt. Over the past few months, the role of farmers and food producers in feeding the nation has quite rightly been on everyone’s minds. Working as I do at Defra, I particularly want to record my gratitude to all who have worked so hard, from farm to fork, to ensure we have access to the food we need. The importance that the Government place on food security is recognised in the Bill, with a duty placed on the Secretary of State to lay a report on food security before Parliament at least—I emphasise at least—every five years. We would certainly not intend to wait five years before publishing the first report, which will of course take into account what has been learned from the current pandemic.
The Secretary of State will have the powers to act in truly exceptional market conditions, such as those we are enduring at present, or in extreme weather conditions if these result in a severe disturbance in agricultural markets. As we move from area-based payments towards payments for the delivery of public benefit, we must also make sure that our farmers are fairly rewarded by a fair marketplace for the food that they produce.
Part 3 of the Bill contains provisions to strengthen the position of farmers in the food supply chain. Fair dealing provisions will introduce statutory codes of practice to regulate those buying from farmers; we will look at the dairy and red meat sectors first. Farmers’ position in the supply chain can also be strengthened by allowing groups of farmers to form producer organisations, which can access derogations from competition law, giving them the power to co-ordinate activities and become more competitive. The Bill contains powers to collect and share data, allowing the Government to strengthen existing market reporting services, and to provide information which will help farmers to make clearly evidenced business decisions and manage risk.
The Bill will enable the streamlining and modernising of the regulation of fertilisers. It also sets up the new multispecies livestock information service in England, which will provide the best livestock traceability. As a Minister with biosecurity in my brief, I think it essential that we enhance traceability.
The Bill also attends to a fairer distribution of the red meat levy, which I know has been an issue in Wales and Scotland. It will make pragmatic modifications to tenancy legislation, introducing more contemporary arrangements that will work for both tenants and landlords. It also contains powers to amend existing marketing standards, and to make new organics regulations and amend the existing regime so that these can be modernised to work better for domestic producers.
Part 6 provides powers to ensure the UK’s compliance with its obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. Regulations made under this part will allow the apportionment, between the nations of the United Kingdom, of agreed limits on certain types of financial support. I should note that this clause refers only to the Agreement on Agriculture and not to other WTO treaties, such as GATT, which the United Kingdom is bound to as a WTO member.
Clauses 43 to 45 and Schedules 5 and 6 have been included in the Bill at the request of the Welsh Government and DAERA Ministers. I am pleased to present them on their behalf. The Scottish Government have chosen to introduce their own agriculture Bill.
The Government have made it clear in the joint letter from the Environment Secretary and the International Trade Secretary published on 5 June, which I asked to be circulated to noble Lords yesterday, that they are alive to the issue of trade standards. My honourable Friend the Minister for Farming in the other place has stated:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
I can confirm that all food—I emphasise all food—coming into the country will continue to have to meet existing import requirements as the withdrawal Act transfers EU standards on to the UK statute book. This specifically means that the import of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, for example, is prohibited.
I realise that this is a brisk run-through of some elements of the Bill but I want to keep my remarks fairly short, so that we have plenty of time for other contributions. The Agriculture Bill is the beginning of a journey that we acknowledge will take time. We will put farmers and land managers at the heart of that journey. It needs to be their project too; it will not work if it is not. We will support them through the agricultural transition by adequately rewarding them for protecting and enhancing the environment, while enabling their businesses to prosper in the production of outstanding British food and drink for domestic and international consumption.
In this context, given the immense challenges that this planet faces—an increasing world population; climate change and its impact; the imperatives of enhancing the environment; and sufficient food production—how should we best use scientific advances to aid us? We have to wrestle with all these challenges. Innovation has been part of agricultural history, as have the traditions of good husbandry and custodianship. We clearly seek a blend of succeeding generations of farmers and new entrants. Coming from farming stock, I say that we ask much of the British farmer—as usual, at the very beginning, in contending with the weather. As some of your Lordships will know from an earlier consideration on derogation, this year had an exceptionally wet winter and spring followed by an exceptionally dry May.
I look forward to this debate because, by coming from all parts of the country, noble Lords will be well aware of the dynamics of their local farming sectors. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for his introduction to the Bill. I declare my interests in having a career from dairy farming, through processing and manufacturing to retailing, as well as serving on a public-private partnership.
Agriculture has been subject to many crises and constant change, albeit incremental, shaping and responding to each reform package as a member state in the EU. With all areas being repatriated, the House rightly recognises that the Bill creates a rare opportunity to make a clear strategic leap into new but familiar territory by designing new support systems to underpin sustainable agriculture.
I congratulate the Government on this second, revised version of the Bill after the one originally proposed. The first Bill was roundly criticised for being a misnomer of a Bill. Although it was called an Agriculture Bill, it did not include much agriculture and provided only a delivery mechanism for environmental payments. That would have been a tremendous lost opportunity. This improved Bill provides better balance. It recognises the importance of food production in ongoing reforms, balanced with the need to refocus on environmental sustainability. With all trading blocs around the world supporting their agriculture, Labour recognises that the UK’s departure from the common agricultural policy creates a unique opportunity to change the way that the UK supports its domestic farms and food producers, and welcomes the environmental focus underlying aspects of the new policy. We will work across parties to ensure that the final version of the Bill strikes the right balance between production and environmental protection. Labour endorses the concept of public money for public goods.
The Government set out their changed priorities in two important policy documents in February this year: Farming for the Future, and Environmental Land Management. My first question to the Minister is: having written these before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, do they wish to amend their approach in the light of its experience? My second question seems to follow: is food a public good? These two documents do not explicitly recognise that it is, yet with the experience of severe disruption in supply chains, access challenges to food banks and challenges to safeguarding vulnerable and shielded persons, debate may well move in the future towards recognising food as a fundamental right, with its provision in some aspects becoming a public service.
The additions in the Bill now include provisions on safeguards on the support of domestic food production by focusing on soil protection, investments in technology and equipment, improving environmental sustainability, and innovation through future research and development; while reducing carbon emissions. Additionally, the Government have recognised the importance of food security by commissioning Henry Dimbleby to lead an independent review into the UK’s food system. It could be argued this review should have appeared before the Bill to provide a back-cloth to the Bill’s provisions. This review, with recommendations for a national food strategy, must not be delayed.
Does the Minister also recognise the importance of the UK’s self-sufficiency? His department has been reluctant to do so in the past, such that the UK’s self-sufficiency in food has declined to 53%. We welcome the Bill’s provision that the Government must report on food security, but call on the Government to recognise that, in relying on imported food, it is exporting decision-making on food policy to overseas countries with differing priorities. This may not be consistent with the Bill’s focus on the environment.
We also welcome the importance of providing a better balance of economic returns to agriculture through transparent and fair markets. The coronavirus disruption to supply chains once again has exposed poor behaviour, especially in the food service sector, where enterprise risk was pushed down on to the primary producer. While recognising the benefits that have come through the retail market with the work of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, how and through what mechanisms will the statutory code of practice for contracts, outlined in the Bill, be enforced in this food service sector?
Competition law needs to be re-examined in light of the pandemic experience. How will the obligation to establish fair dealing be brought forward? Bearing in mind the Groceries Code was the responsibility of the Department for Business, can the Minister say which department will take overall responsibility for business practice enforcement to make it effective?
The key feature of the Bill is to replace direct payments with environmental land management, characterised as providing public support for public goods. While we welcome these provisions, the policy document and the Bill are both scanty on the final details of what ELM will look like. I know these provisions will form the basis of many questions for other speakers. Everyone will praise the intentions of the Government. Environmental degradation is abhorrent. But there are many concerns regarding baseline standards without meaningful enforcement through cross-compliance for basic environmental conditions to receive payment and how this can be replaced with meaningful incentives to enhance the countryside if the food producer does not want to enter into any scheme.
Direct payments have provided a large element of financial support to a lot of farmers, especially in the uplands. The first change to agricultural experience in the transition is a cut next year to its funding, with few alternative schemes being ready. If agriculture is to be encouraged to take up environmental improvements, these schemes must be seen to pay, with schemes recognising opportunity costs of value rather than being based on income forgone. The Government must learn from having already experienced a huge shortfall in the expected take-up of environmental stewardship schemes recently.
Aspects regarding climate change mitigation must also be a fundamental priority. I welcome such projects as the carbon credit schemes on woodlands and warn against fixed, bureaucratic approaches that fail to recognise local farming conditions.
The improved balance of the Bill will nevertheless be a severe challenge to achieve. The Bill omits, and needs, a vital third element and focus to provide better stability. This key element would be provided by the introduction of food standards into the Bill. For agriculture to thrive, for the countryside to be enhanced, food standards must underpin the provisions in the Bill and be maintained. I want to make it clear that dealing with the issue of standards is one of our top priorities. Domestic standards of production are a clear commitment and all imported produce must comply with food, environmental and animal welfare standards that domestic production has to adhere to. This has been the key concern of every submission, letter and email I have received on the Bill. I thank everyone and all the organisations who have sent me their thoughts.
The joint letter issued recently from the Secretaries of State of Defra and DIT still does not recognise the strength of feeling that a clear majority of the public want the certainty of the law to put this commitment beyond dispute, prevarication and back-tracking. Labour will look to support this commitment by writing amendments also into the Trade Bill. We will be tabling an amendment on the matter, and I expect to see several others tabled at Committee. We wish to work with all voices around the House who share this concern, to find the correct formulation to write this into law, be that through a food and trade standards commission to adjudicate on equivalence of standards or through other statutory provisions.
The Bill has been recognised as a framework Bill that is scantily dressed in detail. Your Lordships’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, in its 13th report of the Session, outlines the major transfer of powers from the EU to Ministers, bypassing Parliament and devolved legislatures. The skeletal framework of the Bill gives extensive powers for future regulatory changes without clear detail and with correspondingly few duties. Yet the Government acknowledge that the new agricultural support system will take time to develop. We will wish to draw out in Committee as much detail as possible on relevant principles, policies and criteria underpinning ministerial decision-making that will eventually arrive through statutory instruments. As your Lordships know, statutory instruments are not generally subject to amendment.
There are so many aspects of the Bill that time precludes me from discussing. This is a significant piece of legislation, and it is disappointing that speakers are under such time constraints. The three key tests of the Bill are that: first, it must secure a safe and traceable supply of nutritious food; secondly, it must ensure ELM schemes are effective, supporting jobs, investment and research for a sustainable environment and planet; and, thirdly, it must insist on high standards, clear equivalence and a level playing field to enhance the health of the nation.
“God made the land for the people”.
I was reminded of that rallying cry from the Liberal anthem “The Land” as I considered this Bill. There have been many political struggles down the years over the ownership and management of land, of which nearly three quarters in the UK is farmed. This Bill righty seeks a new consensus on how we manage the sometimes competing demands of farmed land and how we reward those who steward it on the people’s behalf.
So, whilst we are saddened this has been necessitated by our leaving the European Union, Liberal Democrats welcome the new approach proposed by the Government of paying farmers and land managers public money for delivering public goods: namely, protecting the environment, on which we depend, to produce healthy food; enhancing biodiversity; and tackling the impacts of climate change—all this at the same time as maintaining the patchwork quilt of fields and rolling hills which create a sense of local place, so valued for our physical and mental well-being. But this is only an enabling Bill, and much remains unclear about how those welcome ambitions will become more than aspirations.
In the past, the more land you had, the more money you received. Thankfully, in the future, payments will depend on delivering agreed legal targets. But, despite the welcome multiannual financial plans, there is no requirement for a budget to be set for the individual component schemes or clarity on the long-term funding framework for farmers.
While the Bill allows for drawing up targets and metrics to deliver the public goods, there is no clarity as to how the new measures will be regulated and enforced. It has been estimated that, at present, farms have just a one in 200 chance of being inspected each year by the Environment Agency. The system already needed radical overhauling, as the government-commissioned review by Dame Glenys Stacey outlined. In future, with a far more complex new system to monitor, it doubly needs it.
Yet the Government have sat on the Stacey review since 2018 and the Bill is silent on any objectives or indications of how a new regulatory framework and anybody administering it might exercise its functions. The Government managed to set these out for the Office for Environmental Protection in the Environment Bill. It is deeply disappointing that the Agriculture Bill gives no sense of how we can guarantee the delivery of the environmental and animal welfare ambitions in it.
It is essential that those ambitions are delivered. Tackling Covid-19 has reminded us how vital it is that our farmers contribute to public health goals by supplying healthy food, while helping us tackle the nature emergency and the worrying decline in biodiversity and wildlife—there has been a 54% drop in farmland birds during my lifetime—and mitigating the effects of climate change by planting trees and restoring peat bogs. The agriculture sector accounts for about 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we must bring those down, including by cutting on-farm food waste. If food waste was a country, it would be the third-biggest emitter of CO2 on the planet. Among other amendments that my Liberal Democrat colleagues will speak to at later stages of the Bill, we will introduce one requiring that the Secretary of State’s five-yearly UK food security report includes data on how much food is wasted, since we will not be food secure if we produce plenty but much of it is wasted.
Those ambitions will not be delivered either if all government policy does not support them, including future trade policy. Existing UK agriculture policy, agreed as a member of the European Union, has been pivotal in guaranteeing consumers the safety of their food and respecting the welfare of livestock. It has kept out pork from pigs confined in sow stalls, beef from cattle injected with hormones to enhance their growth and chlorinated chicken to wash away the shame of poor husbandry. The Government say that they are sincere in their commitments to maintaining those standards, so why not put it in the Bill? Liberal Democrats will work with others, including the Labour Front Bench and anyone else in the House, to support amendments to the Bill to ensure our high environmental protections and animal welfare standards are not compromised in trade negotiations, which would also fatally undermine farmers who seek to do the right thing for our health, our animals and our countryside.
No financial support or policy changes on productivity measures should undermine the delivery of other public goods. I will oppose any attempt to use the Bill to overturn existing legislation on gene editing, which would be a serious step backwards for animal welfare and public trust in our food. We need to retain the European model of regulation that we are currently signed up to, where no gene editing is allowed outside the lab and mandatory labelling is required, and we should not enable trade deals with countries such as America, where products from genetically modified animals can be marketed. Rather than amending this Bill to obtain even more productivity and profit from individual animals, who are sentient and have intrinsic worth, I hope that this House will endorse the aim of the Bill to support sustainable agriculture that respects the welfare of farmed animals and enhances biodiversity. The direction of travel in this Bill is welcome, but there is more to be done to ensure that we end up rightly rewarding the careful stewardship of the people’s precious countryside.
My Lords, living in rural Northern Ireland in the county of Armagh, better known as the garden of Ulster, I have a natural interest in the Bill. I also have an interest in it having served on the agriculture committee of the European Parliament, although that service was in the middle of the last century.
I have watched developments in the common agricultural policy; I have watched the development of the European Union. More recently, the United Kingdom has contributed £20 billion to the EU budget, of which about £8 billion comes back, £4 billion of that to the farming industry in the United Kingdom.
As a result of Brexit, this is the first real United Kingdom agricultural policy for about 50 years. This is due to the end of the application of the common agricultural policy. There are three fundamental questions which still need to be answered—in fairness, the Minister answered one of them, but I want further clarity on the issue. First, will Her Majesty’s Government’s support for the agricultural industry in the United Kingdom continue at the same level as exists from the common agricultural policy at present? Secondly, will the quality and standards of agriculture and food in the United Kingdom decline after we leave the common agricultural policy? Thirdly, will there be provision for the import of cheaper foods, creating unfair competition for our own home producers here in the United Kingdom?
This is a comprehensive Bill that will require much detailed examination in Committee, but there are a number of issues in relation to Northern Ireland that I wish to mention. Agriculture is the main employer in Northern Ireland, employing one in eight people. Rural towns and communities depend on the success of our 25,000 farm enterprises, but beef production income has fallen by £36 million in the past year alone. Income from milk has also fallen. Many farmers are now finding it difficult to stay in business.
Farm structure in Northern Ireland is very different from that in England, hence it is important that agriculture is a devolved matter. For example, farms in Northern Ireland are much smaller than in England. Intensively farmed poultry and pigs are a major product. Near where I live, we have Moy Park, employing 4,000 people dealing with poultry alone.
There are three issues that I wish to mention to the Minister today. One relates to the Northern Ireland protocol, in which I am sure he is well conversant; namely, can the Government give an assurance that there will no checks or tariffs on Northern Ireland agricultural exports into Great Britain, as 50% of our exports are into the British market? It is very important that that is maintained, so I hope that there will be no checks or tariffs. Secondly, can the Government confirm that they do not want lower standards of food safety than in the European Union, as Northern Ireland has to retain the EU’s standards under the protocol? Such lower standards would result in reduced costs of production and make it more difficult for Northern Ireland agricultural producers to compete in the GB market. Finally, on Article 10.2 of the EU Northern Ireland protocol, will UK support for Northern Ireland agriculture be unquestioned, or will the exemption from the EU state aid rules become null and void if the joint committee fails to reach an agreement? Does this in practice mean a continuing EU veto over UK support for Northern Ireland agriculture?
My Lords, I am pleased that the long-anticipated Agriculture Bill has finally arrived in your Lordships’ House. There are many good and laudable parts of the Bill, not least the fair trading provisions for farmers and concerns for the environment and wildlife.
This House knows that rural England requires flexibility, and the complications and unintended consequences caused by the European Union’s cap have been well rehearsed. I have repeatedly raised the issue of food security in your Lordships’ House, which must be a top priority for any Government.
We have been reminded of this again recently after the recent lockdown following the Covid pandemic. Shop shelves were stripped bare within hours and you could not buy some products such as flour for weeks. We know we cannot be fully self-sufficient in food as a nation, as nowadays we demand many products that are best produced in warmer climates. However, we can learn from our recent experience and think about how as many people as possible can have access to ethically farmed, good quality, locally sourced food. This is an agricultural issue, an environmental issue and a social justice issue.
The possibility of cheap imports providing even cheaper food is being trumpeted by some and a trade deal with the States has long been thought of as an opportunity to deregulate our farming. As the Bill progresses through its various stages, we will want to test the legislative guarantees to reassure us that these worries will not be proved correct. I will want to explore why the reviews into food security will be so infrequent rather than undertaken on an annual basis.
Elsewhere in the Bill, we will also seek clarity. Environmental land management schemes, with public money for public good, remain a cornerstone of the Bill, yet a cornerstone with so little clarity will fail to support legislation. The definition of biodiversity in the Environment Bill—a piece of legislation this Bill fails to acknowledge—remains unclear, as does this Bill’s lack of definition of the phrase “public good”. Moreover, the tapering of the schemes remains opaque, despite many requests for clarity. Upland farming, for example, is dependent on similar schemes, yet, as far as I can see, remains undervalued by the Bill. Furthermore, issues such as peat restoration and water obstruction which fail to consider legal implications remain unfinished. While welcome, the Bill will need a much great level of clarity as it passes through its various stages if it is to receive support from this House.
My Lords, I declare my interests in the Bill as published in the register. The Bill is one of the most important for the countryside and for farming for many years. It does not just tinker with the system. It is not just an Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, with which many noble Lords will be familiar. It is a direct consequence of our 31 January departure from the EU. As such, it is a great opportunity to reinvigorate our farming industry as we in the UK would want it, free from the suffocation of the common agricultural policy.
There is a real need to give farming a boost—a breath of fresh air. Recent events have lessons for us. It is a paradox of the global world: just as the supplies of PPE dried up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, so can our dependence on cheap food imports from around the world expose us to a similar risk.
The structure of the Bill is essentially that of an enabling Bill, but it is important to note that it does not weaken current commitments to the public good. Farms such as ours support far more trees, hedgerows, spinneys, field margins and nature areas than in my day. It is also important to note that the joint letter that noble Lords received from Liz Truss and George Eustice, Secretaries of State respectively for International Trade and Defra, clearly commits that there will be no lowering of standards, either in animal welfare or food safety. Chlorinated chicken is not on the table.
There is one area to which I would like to see a similar commitment—one in which there is extensive support from both scientists and farmers and, for that matter, here and in Europe. It is breeding for enhanced yields and reducing our use of fertilisers and pesticides—a double whammy, but a positive one. I refer, of course, to gene editing, which is an acceleration of plant breeding that is supported not only by our world-leading scientists here, but also in Europe. The Prime Minister spoke of the technique on the day he was appointed. He used it to demonstrate the perversities of the European justice system.
The agency delivering this game changer would not be multinational agro-giants but institute spin-offs and small SMEs, such as the ones that I am familiar with in my area. The Minister will know that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture strongly endorsed these techniques, which have a great potential in the developing world. As an industry we would be delivering a greener environment and food security for the nation, and playing our part in feeding the world. I welcome the Bill.
My Lords, I declare my interests as chairman of the Woodland Trust, chairman of the Royal Veterinary College, a member of the Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside and vice-president of the RSPB.
I want to say three things on the Bill. As noble Lords have said, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I know that the Government regard it as an enabling Bill, but such landmark legislation should have a bit more real meat on the face of the Bill to tackle the important future for farming, food, the environment and climate change. I welcome the Bill’s commitment to public money for public goods, but Ministers must ensure that the environmental land management schemes do not result in a basic level of payment that does not really deliver for the environment but looks like the same old farmers’ support system. There is a real risk of that.
Payments for agricultural productivity which are allowed under the Bill should explicitly be for sustainable productivity. The Bill has too many clauses where the Secretary of State “may” do worthwhile things, such as have an environmental land management scheme or provide financial assistance for public goods. The Bill should say that he “must” in these circumstances—we need duties, not simply powers.
My second point is that the Bill must have as its key principle support for a thriving and sustainable food and farming sector, while delivering public goods. But we know that the negotiation of a free trade deal with the USA could jeopardise the Conservative manifesto commitment that imports will not be permitted to the UK of food produced to lower environmental, animal welfare, food safety and employment standards. To do this would risk undermining UK standards and create unfair competition. Simply to slap a higher tariff on such imports, as is rumoured in the press, would not remove that risk. Trade Ministers continue to reassure us—we have now had a joint letter from the Trade and Environment Ministers. I quote the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, a Minister in the Department for International Trade, who said last week:
“There will be no compromise on high environmental, animal welfare and food standards.”
We are also told that that might be contrary to World Trade Organization rules. Should that not have been thought of by the manifesto writers before they wrote their assurances? Will the Minister tell us what is going on? If there are such strong commitments, surely the Bill should be amended to require agri-food imports to have been produced to equivalent standards to those in the UK.
My third point is one that many noble Lords will have heard before, because it is my current hobby-horse. The list of public goods in Clause 1 that the agricultural sector is to be asked to deliver is very extensive, but these are not the only pressures on land, and they are growing. Land is needed for increased food security, carbon storage, biodiversity, flood management, trees and increased timber self-sufficiency, recreation and health, and built development such as housing, infrastructure and other needs. The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership found that, to meet a growing UK population’s food, space and energy needs, while protecting the nation’s natural capital, the UK would need a third more land—7 million hectares. I therefore call on the Government to commit in this Bill to develop a land use framework for England, within which these competing needs can be reconciled. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have land use frameworks already, and it is long overdue for England.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a co-chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. In some ways, I have a slightly different view, and have always been pretty critical of the state aid that the agriculture and farming industry has received, largely unconditionally—some £3 billion to £4 billion a year. Many of us think that that money could have been spent in much more effective ways, whether in the National Health Service or social security, or in all the other areas that are so demanding on the Treasury. We have a real chance now, outside the European Union, to change that.
At the same time, I am very aware that as well as the climate change crisis facing us globally, there is also a biodiversity challenge for ecosystems and ecosystems services, not just globally but here in the UK. I remind Members of the State of Nature report by the Wildlife Trust, which, to give just a few examples, pointed out that 40% of species in the UK are currently in decline, some 13% are at threat of extinction, and one-quarter of our mammal species are at risk. The reasons for this are due in part to climate change, but the main reason identified is land use for agriculture. Of course, 70% of England, and slightly more of the UK as a whole, is under agriculture and farming management. It was in looking at those trade-offs that I made a personal decision: it is important to direct that subsidy, or state aid, at this crisis, as we have started to direct many other resources at climate change.
I very much welcome the environmental land management scheme set out in the Bill, although I would like to see a lot more detail on it. I believe that this is one way to make sure that we start to meet the biodiversity and ecosystem challenges across our nation—it is not the only way, but as it is the only way the Government are proposing, I support it. This is an emergency and we need to get on with it. For that reason, I speak probably in the opposite direction to some of those involved in the industry itself, and ask why the transition is seven years. It seems to me that, for an emergency, that is an extremely long time. Why can we not take five years to move across to the different system, to make sure that we keep our ecosystems safe and maintain everything that our economy depends on?
I welcome that the Bill mentions agroecology, which is a new way of looking at agriculture and whole-farming systems. I hope that ELMS will take seriously that whole-farming systems approach. My question for the Minister is this. There have been a number of trials of ELMS. How do we see those now? I am concerned about whether farmers will take up these schemes, so that we can have a real effect on our environment.
All environmental measures need to be a long-term commitment; it is no good growing trees if we cut them down in five or seven years. How do we ensure that these improvements, be it peatlands or whatever, are maintained over a long period? Reflecting in particular on my noble friend Lady Parminter’s excellent speech, I wonder also how we will enforce this. We are not good at enforcing environmental regulations in the United Kingdom at the moment, something the Government really need to confront.
My Lords, I very much welcome the commitment given by my noble friend in his opening remarks to the pledges made in the letter of 5 June from the two Secretaries of State about food standards, particularly in relation to food imports. It is worth remembering that, across a range of areas, the benchmark of EU standards, which we will incorporate into UK law and adhere to, is one that we have signed up to in the EU. But in addition to EU rules, several measures have been taken unilaterally by the UK Government in the past—such as the banning of sow stalls and tethers, and veal crates—which were not universally welcomed within the EU. I say to my noble friend: do not just rest on the laurels of the EU. Let us look across the piece at how we can improve and enhance our standards as we go forward, both for the domestic market and for imports. Pesticides, veterinary medicines and issues relating to zoonotic diseases all have to be monitored and need ongoing improvement
Turning to food supply, the Bill makes welcome reference to the small producer. In his opening remarks, my noble friend referred to producer organisations. These have been tried over many years: some have been very successful, and others have failed. The farming community in particular has everything to gain from adding value to food products at the farm gate, rather than leaving a long chain of people to take a slice of the profit. But my noble friend should note the very small producers—farms that produce regional, local food products with which those areas are familiar. Over the years, we have very much admired this in continental countries such as France. There is benefit in adding value at the farm gate, before the product leaves.
This is true not just for supermarket sales but for those very important farmers’ markets, farm shops and food boxes, all of which have grown in popularity in recent years. I hope we will build on that. The advantages are enormous: the food is fresh; it saves on transport costs, which helps the environment; and the people who buy the food get to talk to the very people who produce it. There is an educational element to this. I am a former cookery teacher who is appalled that cookery classes, such as we used to know them, were banned—I am afraid that that was done by a Conservative Government. Domestic science is often derided, but, my gosh, it is a very important life skill. I hope my noble friend will give attention to those who are producing all the raw ingredients that not only help economically but help the health of the nation.
I want to add a word of support for the point made by my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach. As an Agriculture Minister, I introduced the first GM product in this country, way back in the 1990s. It all fell apart, as we know, for all sorts of reasons. But with the right controls I believe that there is much to be gained from looking at this science, particularly in respect of plants. We must make sure that we are not left behind because of people’s fear of the word “gene”.
My Lords, I declare my farming interest, as in the register.
There are many substantive issues in this Bill and around ELMS, and I start with standards. The empty shelves which were so apparent at the start of the lockdown should focus our minds, so I welcome the belated acknowledgment of food production as an aim in the Bill, but I ask: what sort of food production? The Minister says that the Government can square the stated promise of not reducing our standards of welfare, stocking densities and environmental concerns with doing trade deals with countries with lower standards. Therefore, if there is to be one standard for imports and another for home-produced food, it is vital that labelling regulations are updated to give transparent and full information to the shopper, who tends to buy primarily on price considerations. Care also needs to be given to how consumers in cafés and restaurants are properly informed of the origins of their foodstuffs.
The Government have been clear that they intend to take advantage of Brexit freedom from EU red tape and will phase out cross-compliance. So again there is a dichotomy between moving away from the stifling rules and regulations that benighted the CAP and the demand for a high-cost regulatory regime to ensure continuation of our high standards. We must avoid even worse red tape than currently strangles our enterprises. The NFU’s suggestion of a farm standards commission to address that seems laudable.
I hope that ELMS will be far-reaching, including embracing, for example, emerging technologies, such as leaf recognition to target individual plants when spraying. The further development of robotic fruit and vegetable picking is vital if the shortage of foreign labour, so exacerbated by our foolish Brexit policy, is to be avoided.
We are seeing a gradual shift in diet in the UK, not just with less meat being consumed but with demand for locally produced food sold in local shops. The coronavirus has encouraged this trend and people are becoming more conscious of their health. In the post-virus world, we must embrace and encourage this localism, breaking the unfair near-monopolies of the big supermarkets, with their aggressive purchasing tactics.
Cleaner water is clearly targeted in the Bill. However, floods continue to ravage settlements every year. We need to slow up floodwater flows and catch the excess higher up in the hills. Rewilding is a topical discussion and one of the best ways of controlling water is by reintroducing bends into our streams, as well as reintroducing beavers. The successful introduction of beavers to the River Otter in Devon points the way back to better river management regimes. Can the Minister confirm that Defra’s intention is to expedite and encourage the licensing of these native animals, which naturally slow water and create rich environments for wildlife, thus regenerating biodiversity?
The Bill mentions productivity in forestry. I believe that we need to encourage more planting of both conifers for commercial wood use and broadleaf trees for landscape and environmental reasons. However, indigenous broadleaves cannot thrive alongside the grey squirrel. Can the Minister kindly indicate the department’s support for the current immuno- contraception research and rollout?
The UK agriculture industry needs consumer buy-in to support the higher cost of our standards. That means getting the general public to understand farming constraints. I would like to see encouragement in ELMS for farm tours and school groups, and the expansion of permitted footpaths to augment our already world-leading rights-of-way network. There is much to welcome in the Bill. Let us expand and use it to the fullest extent.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the National Farmers Union, and my two sons are involved in both agriculture and land management.
The Bill is a major step forward in laying the foundations for a bright future for agriculture, food production and security, animal welfare and environmental land management. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right and we must grasp the issues. I know that Her Majesty’s Government wish for a speedy passage of the Bill in order to facilitate payments to farmers, but that must not stop us scrutinising the Bill most carefully.
I welcome this opportunity to break free from the burden of the common agricultural policy, under which farmers and owners are rewarded based on land and not on outcomes or public good. I believe firmly that the thrust of monetary reward should be targeted towards small and medium-sized farms, those who farm in less-favoured areas, and hill farms. That comprises much of what I voted to leave the EU for, along with at last being able to be in charge of our own affairs.
In the very short time available, I will touch on three subjects: animal health and welfare; food standards; and tariffs. British agriculture and its products, and the manner in which they are produced, have an envious reputation worldwide for excellence. The prevention of disease among farm animals is absolutely critical in ensuring a bright and profitable future for British farming. I know that my noble friend the Minister has a special interest in biosecurity matters, and that is of course a key area. The cost of animal diseases to the British economy and the farmer can be crippling.
When I farmed sheep, the major problem was foot rot, which is still endemic in the national flock today. Sick animals are less productive, have reduced welfare and place a major burden on farmers, and the quality of the end product is compromised. In this Bill we have a real opportunity to reduce and prevent the burden of disease. I shall be tabling an amendment in Committee addressing the health and welfare of livestock, which I hope the Government will look kindly upon.
With regard to food standards and tariffs, I am grateful to my right honourable friends the two Secretaries of State for their joint letter to colleagues yesterday. It was helpful. However, I have received a large number of representations from farmers and others who come from rural communities or who hold an interest in food production and consumption, and many bodies with a related interest, even including the Shrewsbury and Atcham Labour Party. All are furious, as I am, that the parish amendment in the other place was voted down recently.
The joint letter from the Secretaries of State says:
“This UK Government will not compromise on our standards … our manifesto is clear”.
However, none of us would ever be naive enough to view politics as a squeaky-clean business. Indeed, its waters are always somewhat murky. A manifesto can be interpreted in many different ways to suit those implementing it. Words and language can have more than one meaning. Legislation can be altered by numerous mechanisms, some not requiring a vote. For instance, in trade law a free-range egg and a caged egg are considered the same when it comes to the risk imposed specifically by the egg. However, they are both simply eggs. The Government have said that they will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards. That is absolutely excellent and very much to be applauded, but much more detail and action are needed.
My Lords, I welcome the somewhat belated arrival of the Bill in this House, and I welcome its general sense of direction. However, we have only half the picture in the Bill. We do not yet know the trading environment in which we will be operating and in which these measures will be delivered; nor is the mechanism for delivery and enforcement clear.
During the Brexit campaign, one lot of Brexiteers foresaw a future of cheap food for consumers coming from trade agreements with low-cost countries, while another group envisaged a renaissance of British agriculture where we made our own rules to attain a high degree of self-sufficiency, protected from the burden of Brussels bureaucracy on the one hand and European competition on the other. Of course, those positions were contradictory but they had in common an assumption of a seriously reduced burden of regulation. Cheap food and self-sufficiency both meant lower standards.
Those pressures are still there, but thankfully Ministers have taken a third position: maintain our standards and subsidise public goods. However, we do not know the trading context and the Bill does not really make clear how we deliver a radically different, sustainable and healthier food production system in this country.
As a point of history, the CAP was never popular. We have been in the system for nearly 50 years. Just half way through that I became a Minister for Agriculture when we switched from the much-derided and distorted production subsidy system to the almost equally derided land-based system. There were some supposed advantages of the switch in the Fischler reforms of 2005 but they were not fully realised. At the time, we thought that we would be moving to a new system of multilateral trade agreements in the Doha round. In practice, that never materialised but would have required a substantial dismantling of the production subsidy. As I said, that never happened and we are now in a much more anarchic world trade position.
Applying the direct payment to all agricultural land meant that food, welfare and environmental standards could be made to apply to all agriculture: you lost the subsidy, or part of it, if you did not comply. In practice, regrettably that system of cross-compliance was never properly implemented here or across Europe. However, the fact is that the Bill takes away some of that universality, and that is dangerous, unless we have a wider plan to which we are working, as my noble friend Lady Young said, for an overall framework for land use.
There are three or four omissions from the Bill to which I want to return. First, the defects of the last CAP reforms were seriously compounded in this country by the failure to administer the system effectively. The RPA seriously failed, yet the Bill gives no clarity over how the new system, much more complex and granular, will be administered or what the relation of that is to the machinery to come in the environment Bill.
Secondly, we need tougher measures against the overchemicalisation of farming. I have heard that the reason why pesticide regulation is not explicitly referred to in the Bill is that we have a perfectly adequate domestic system for pesticide regulation. We do not. There are dangers to human health as well as damage to air, soil and water, livestock and biodiversity if we do not reduce the dependence on chemical solutions.
Thirdly, for a new era in agriculture we need to ensure a new generation of those who work the land. We need to make it easier for new, younger farmers to come into the business without necessarily having inherited the land. I want to see a revival of county farms. We also need a wider home-based, skilled and better-paid workforce on the land. Our immigration policy will make dependency on overseas labour impossible for a range of jobs, from seasonal fruit pickers to livestock vets. We need to upgrade the whole domestic labour force. I hope to return to these issues at later stages of the Bill.
My Lords, we begin this debate at a time when the subject of the Bill is of acute urgency. That is not just for the obvious reason—the looming threat of a crash-out Brexit and the need for farmers to have certainty about what is happening in a few months’ time—but because it is being debated with our countryside and food system in a state of emergency, The nature crisis, the collapse of biodiversity and bioabundance, that has left the UK one of the most nature-deprived nations on earth; the obesity and health crisis associated with nutrient-poor diets; and the dominance of the supermarkets in what we eat: these are the issues that the Bill could and should be tackling.
Instead what we have is a shell, a statement of a few principles that are not generally bad in themselves and are sometimes even admirable, and certainly somewhat improved since earlier iterations of this legislation, but there are few commitments to action. This is a grade D effort, not even a pass mark, when what we need is a sterling, standout, brilliant Bill, something—I am sure the Government will agree with me on this—that is world-leading.
The limitations of our arrangements in your Lordships’ House, imposed not only by Covid but by the usual channels, have ensured that many Peers with valuable contributions to make—my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb among them—have been excluded from this debate. I know they are pushing for a second day of this debate and I hope that is secured. Given the extreme time restrictions on today’s speech, I am going for a checklist of issues that my noble friend will be covering: safeguards on import standards, ensuring that agriculture reaches net-zero carbon as soon as possible, and animal welfare standards.
My focus will be on the farming system and the food system. When farmers hear criticism of the system they often take it as criticism of themselves, but we know that they have been betrayed by decades of failed government policies. They need a Bill that gives them a real choice to build back better. The Government say they support agroecology. Words are good but a direction to the Secretary of State to support whole-farm agroecological systems is far more important.
The Bill also lacks a commitment to organic agriculture. The EU’s 2030 biodiversity strategy plans for 25% of agricultural land there to be organic. The EU is also looking at a 50% reduction in the use of pesticides and cuts to mineral fertiliser use. If the Government want to be world-leading, they have to do better than that. Crucially, we need to ensure that the payments for productivity in Clause 2 do not undermine progress on biodiversity, climate and animal welfare.
Some are arguing that we should downplay nature and sustainability and dial up food production, but that is a false dichotomy that risks doubling down on a food system that is contributing to a perfect storm of a spillover of diseases from wildlife to people, and, like the proponents of genetically modified organisms and crops, it chases after a failed industrialised monoculture. Just as there is a growing consensus on the need to measure economic progress with indicators far more useful than GDP, we must adopt new indicators for agriculture. We need to think about people nourished per hectare, not tonnes of biomass.
Protection for the basic infrastructure of farming—farmers—is also missing. They need financial security for long-term planning. The idea of multiannual financial assistance in the Bill is good but guarantees are needed.
Let us see a commitment to many thousands of new entrants. We need to see the county farms supported. We need to see the green belt used to the best advantage and, as other noble Lords have said, a comprehensive land-use strategy. Then there is democracy. Let us give Northern Ireland control, and let us bring in people’s assemblies to oversee agricultural policy.
We have learned that our holidays this year will be significantly curtailed. Good. Now we need the department and the Government to take the time to listen to the expertise of this House.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the owner of a working farm in Northumberland. I support the Bill. I see it as an opportunity to make farming more sustainable environmentally, ecologically and climatically as well as commercially and technologically. So I welcome the emphasis in the Bill on productivity. I seek assurance from the Minister that as far as possible the environmental land management scheme will work by results, not by intentions. One of the great mistakes of subsidies in the past is that they have rewarded pious intentions rather than successful results.
To be sustainable, agriculture needs innovation in precision farming, robotics, drones and other technologies so as to use fewer chemicals more precisely targeted. It needs innovation in genome editing particularly—a precise new breeding technology that enables plant breeders to achieve exactly what they have achieved in the past but much more quickly and precisely, thereby reducing the dependence of crops on chemicals.
There has been a huge debate in recent years between the advocates of land sparing and land sharing. The land sharers are those who suggest that we should farm badly and have wildlife alongside us. The land sparers say no, farm as well as you can but set land aside. The argument has been won by the land sparers. Evidence from Cambridge University and elsewhere has shown clearly that you get not only more wildlife but fewer emissions if you farm as well as you can and then set land aside. That is what I try to practise on my own farm, where we farm as well as we can in the field but leave generous field margins for wildlife and we leave particular meadows—flower meadows, water meadows and so on—also for wildlife. As a result we have increasing numbers of skylarks, yellowhammers, tree sparrows, brown hares, butterflies and bumblebees. If we were to try to feed the world using organic and agroecological methods, we would need to cultivate 82% of the world’s land area instead of 38% as we do today.
The Government have rightly committed to maintaining standards, and a lot of amendments to the Bill are driven by protectionism disguised as animal welfare. Free trade is a huge export opportunity for agriculture. We already export £24 billion worth a year and British lamb, which is world-beating, is competitive in the American market and has a huge opportunity there. Stocking density for poultry in the US is roughly the same as here and there is less campylobacter per head in the US. We should work to improve these standards internationally through the OIE, the world organisation for animal health. The UK has lower standards in some areas—for example, it has lower standards than New Zealand on stunning in abattoirs. We have nothing to fear and lots to gain from world trade. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and my noble friend Lady Browning both mentioned, the issue here is that the European Union has forced us to adopt lower standards. It has forced us to spray more on crops such as sugar beet and potatoes by denying us opportunities in biotechnology.
I quote from a farmer’s email sent to me today:
“Farmers not only can but will do the green if we’re in the black, give farmers back the responsibility and ownership and all may well be amazed at the results Reignite our once bright curiosity to innovate … Allow us to disrupt from within, rather than imposed disruption from outside.”
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for outlining the provisions as they apply to Wales in this Bill. I very much welcome the inclusion of Schedule 5 on Wales, which provides Welsh Ministers with the powers to provide for the continuation of direct payments to farmers after 2020, giving some security to our farmers in these difficult times. As the Welsh Government intend to introduce an Agriculture (Wales) Bill, expected after next year’s Senedd elections, these are transitional powers, with a sunset clause of 31 December 2024, allowing for consultations with interested parties and the production of a White Paper. Again, I welcome that decision
Agriculture is of course a devolved matter, and this Bill covers areas where the Senedd believes it has competence, particularly in relation to the WTO agreements on agriculture, but which the UK Government believe are reserved. I would be grateful if the noble Lord could update us on the present position of both parties on this issue. Will an LCM be required, or will the matter be resolved through a bilateral agreement? If the latter, can the noble Lord say how such an agreement would operate, and confirm whether either way forward has received Senedd approval?
Farmers in Wales have welcomed the inclusion of food security in the Bill and, in particular, the duty placed on the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament
“at least once every five years”.
They were, however, concerned about the frequency of the reporting requirement. In their evidence to the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, leaders expressed concerns that a five-year cycle would not
“sufficiently reflect the food security risk to the UK”,
and that the period would be too long,
“particularly through a transition period that could prove to be challenging.”
The lack of a requirement on the UK and Welsh Governments to publish a response and to take action as appropriate was also seen as a deficiency in the Bill. These are issues, along with the inclusion of the devolved Administrations in the methodology planning for the report, that I hope we can discuss in more detail in Committee.
The CCERA committee report also highlights the concerns of farmers’ leaders in the matter of fair dealing with agricultural producers and others in the supply chain. Clause 27 of the Bill is aimed at addressing unfair practices in agri-food supply chains, which disadvantage small, individual businesses operating without strong links between them. The discretionary powers that this clause gives the Secretary of State were queried and a strong, alternative case was made for extending the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator in relation to fair dealing with agricultural producers along the whole supply chain. Have the Government given any consideration to this or discussed this alternative with the Welsh Government?
In the matter of identification and traceability of animals, broadly welcomed by farmers, can the noble Lord say whether it is indeed the case that the new multispecies livestock information system will be run by what is essentially the present Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board? If so, how will this UK board, operating in a devolved policy area, be accountable to the Welsh Government? Finally, what steps will be taken to ensure compatibility between the new livestock information system and the Welsh electronic IDCymru system?
My Lords, I declare my interests as farmer and landowner, as set out in the register. I broadly welcome this Bill and will confine my remarks to those areas that have been less widely addressed. I start from the premise that this Bill should principally focus on agriculture.
Public money for public goods is an excellent mantra, and support is directed at the range of activities listed in Chapter 1 of Part 1, on which environmental land management schemes will be based, together with measures to improve productivity in the sector and supporting ancillary activities. However, the seven-year transition period becomes a problem if financial and other details are too sketchy for farmers and land managers to have enough information on which to base investment decisions. We know what basic payment will be paid in 2021, but not in the remaining years.
Similarly, we know that the ELM scheme currently being piloted will not be available to roll out until 2024. Absolutely no financial or other information is available to enable farmers to calculate the likely return of implementing a scheme. Remember, without profit there is a risk that they are not taken up and land is abandoned. Without the BPS, 24% of farms make a loss; return on capital in farming is around 1%, well below returns in other parts of the food industry. Farmers need profits to survive. No doubt farmers on good land will thrive without BPS, as will those in parts of the country where diversification can be driven by good location and so on. But those on the poorer land and in less desirable places will really struggle, and many will leave the industry. My first point is to reduce these uncertainties by providing clarification on the remaining BPS payments and early information on the likely financial returns from ELMs. Accordingly, a delay in implementation to 2021 would make sense.
My second point is the issue of skills, which should be covered by a clause of its own, rather than coming in the catch-all clause on productivity. Work is currently being done on this by a group ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Curry. The establishment of an industry professional body to lay down, monitor, measure and advise on common standards is crucial to the industry and requires government funding to underwrite its role. Such an amendment will be tabled.
The proposed five-yearly review of food security is excellent and, once the methodology is established, one hopes that it will become an annual or biannual event. Although not directly specified, the review should cover both skills in the industry and the profile of participants. Currently, farming is characterised by a high average age, with a third being over 65 and only 3% under 35. An unattractive career image, based on low median earnings, needs to be watched.
My final point relates to intervention in agricultural markets. It is very narrowly drawn and excludes exceptional weather events or animal disease. Intervention seems to depend on reduced market prices, although some events could lead to higher prices, which are not available to farmers if they have nothing to sell. I request that the Minister look at widening the definition of intervention.
In farming, there is an old adage: timeliness is godliness. This should be a guiding principle of this Bill, as the importance of food security is increasingly recognised.
My Lords, I refer to my farming interests as set out in the register. There are a number of aspects of this Bill that are causing concern to the farming community and on which I have had many representations. I am sure that many noble Lords will want to continue to discuss the principal ones among them, such as food security, high animal welfare standards, the timetable attached to the reduction of the basic payment scheme in advance of any financial details consequent on the introduction of the new ELMs, and the need to maintain domestic food production. There are other aspects of the Bill that lack clear explanation. Two principal areas of concern are the definitions of natural capital and greater public access. It is uncomfortable progressing with this Bill when such critical areas lack clarity. However, will the Minister give a response to three other aspects of the Bill in particular?
The first is the degree of financial support the Government will undertake to provide for our agricultural colleges and other places of education. Given that the university and college structure has already come under severe and sustained financial pressure, which I fear will only increase, can he assure the House that support will be maintained for the current apprenticeship schemes? These will be important at any time, but given the anticipated high rate of national unemployment envisaged across the country, particularly among the young, such schemes have a vital role to play for both rural industry and the individuals who enrol. We must provide a well-educated labour force to bring about the technical and scientific changes that we will seek to introduce to maintain our competitive global position in agricultural production.
The second question relates to forestry. All the mainstream political parties included ambitious tree planting targets in their manifestos before the last election. The reality is that unless more funding is provided, both for initial planting and subsequent maintenance, there is no realistic likelihood of even a small percentage of these targets being achieved. Can the Minister give some comfort on this point, too?
Lastly, as a result of the recommendations put forward last year by the ad hoc committee on the rural economy, of which I was a member, the Minister has undertaken to give an annual report on rural-proofing. I suggest that Defra undertakes a similar annual report on food security, rather than the five-yearly report proposed in the Bill.
My Lords, this is an important Bill that aims to shape the future of farming in our country and promote a food and farming industry in harmony with the environment and which is environmentally sustainable. In this respect I think it builds on the work that many farmers are already undertaking. I am certainly aware, in my own part of the world, that there are farmers who have enthusiastically, over and above any financial incentive, adopted measures to promote the environment in various ways—providing habitats for birds such as the curlew, the lapwing and the endangered grey partridge, or for endangered animal species, such as the brown hare and our beloved red squirrel.
I also support the aims of the Bill in increasing our own food production, particularly in horticulture. When I was an Agriculture Minister some years ago, I was enthusiastic about the role horticulture could play in our country and I hope that the Bill will promote that even further. The Bill, however, presents a lot of challenges for farmers, and I echo the concerns raised that we need to work with farmers—who have had a lot of bureaucratic hurdles over the years and a lot of difficulties with deferred payments to contend with—so that the new system is brought in fairly and with a proper, carefully thought-out transition.
Agriculture is a devolved matter, as we know, and I very much respect that, but as a supporter of decentralisation I hope that in England the Bill will be sensitive to the needs of different regions. Here in Northumberland, we feel very close in many ways to agriculture as it is practised in the Scottish borders, not far away. I believe that co-operation between the devolved authorities will be tremendously important, not least in safeguarding the future of the UK’s own internal market, but also in learning from each other and sharing good practice.
Very valid criticisms have been made on the question of standards and I look forward to supporting the amendments that will be tabled by my noble friends Lord Grantchester, Lady Jones and others in Committee and on Report. It is important to have standards enshrined in the Bill. The biggest challenge to the Bill, however, is the Government’s own trade policy. In this, I very much echo the words of my noble friend Lord Whitty.
We are currently negotiating with the European Union. It seems to make environmental sense to cut down on air miles and to trade with our nearest partners. Already, most our food exports go to the EU, including something like 94% of our sheepmeat. In recent years, the market for lamb has increased more in European countries than in countries outside the EU, so it is vital that we get our trade arrangements with the EU on to a very good footing for the long-term future. It would be crazy to try to leave the EU without a deal—to crash out—and to give our farmers export hurdles as a result. I urge the Government not to let British agriculture down by allowing substandard food imports. I also urge them to prevent our farmers having difficulties in the future in accessing our nearest and biggest export market, in Europe, on which we depend.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his introduction of the Bill. First, I pay tribute to three people from whom we shall not hear during our discussions on the Bill: the Countess of Mar, Baroness Byford and the Earl of Selbourne, who have retired. We will miss their expertise, wise counsel and first-hand experience in agriculture. However, I welcome the interest in agriculture from those who do not usually take part in debates on this subject. Sadly, one-third of those who put their names down to speak cannot do so because of the unusual and regrettable way in which this House is now being run. Can my noble friend confirm that there will be no curtailment of debate whatever in the following stages, so that the House can fulfil its function properly?
Like others who have spoken, I have concerns not only over environmental and welfare standards for trade agreements, but also that the Bill should provide for proper environmental standards in the UK with appropriate regulations, long-term funding and certainty, so that farmers are properly rewarded. In the last 50 years, the amount of land available to feed each person on this planet has dropped from two acres to less than half an acre, and it is still falling. The UK is only 75% self-sufficient in indigenous-type foods. Therefore, food security and food strategy must be included in the Bill. I agree with my noble friend Lord Ridley that high-yield farming and improved biodiversity are not mutually exclusive. The Allerton project has scientifically demonstrated that more than successfully for more than 25 years.
Farming is currently an administrative nightmare. I want to focus on one key practical point of the Bill, which is the scale of change and adjustment for farming as it moves from the arrangements inherited from the EU CAP to those founded on markets in food production. It will become more of a marketplace for farmers to sell public goods to the state acting as buyer on behalf of society, as well as probable private sector activity. The outcome will be a much less standardised industry than the one we have created since World War II, as we move away from full-time commodity production. Achieving that will be a major call on all those involved, not only government and farmers. Thus, I hope my noble friend, like me, will endorse the Welsh Government’s observation:
“Advice should be seen as an investment in the capacity of farmers and farms rather than a cost”.
Farming needs a climate positively supportive of sustained, useful advice, with the necessary conversations and time for reflection and delivery of everything from cost control, the adoption of new technology and generational change to repositioning the business, implementing a diversification project, accepting that land should be let out or understanding the value in public good contracts. This will involve both the private and public sectors and we must ensure that it happens.
This is a watershed moment for British agriculture, and this is a hugely important Bill. Although frustrating in many respects, because it is largely an enabling Bill, it puts in place the legislative framework for many years to come. I support it, but I also say to my noble friend Lord Gardiner, who, with his officials, has, as usual, been so helpful with briefing and information, that it would be disappointing and utterly inappropriate if all amendments, particularly the many cross-party ones that will be tabled, were to be rejected.
My Lords, this is an important Bill and certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the funding of agriculture in this country. It is confirmed by the number of noble Lords speaking in the debate, which is in contrast to the occasion when one of the Minister’s predecessors, Lord Walton, came to the House in December 1940 to make what he thought was an important speech only to find seven Members in attendance, their main interest being in the allocation of jam. I declare an interest as a farmer, with other rural interests. In the interests of time, I will touch briefly on three issues: security, standards and sustainability.
Agricultural subsidies are rife throughout the world and cost over $500 billion a year. Often, their purpose is to support rural economies and underwrite food security. Covid-19 has shown that in many areas, globalisation can lead to national shortages. While it has not dramatically affected the food supply here, it has been comforting to see how well the food supply chain has functioned in recent months—our thanks should certainly go to those who have kept the shelves full.
On food security, we are 60% self-sufficient but, despite the dramatic performance of our agricultural exports, we run an annual balance of payments deficit of about £24 billion. We welcome the review of sustainability and security but the question is, what level of self-sufficiency should the country aim for? I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. Also, in the course of policy formulation, what attention is being paid to our ability to pay for the high level of imports that we sustain?
Many noble Lords have spoken eloquently about food standards, and we are absolutely clear—everybody I speak to is clear—that there must be no reduction in those. The joint Secretary of States’ letter yesterday offered some comfort. However, the key is to see how this is dealt with in the Trade Bill, and of course the Government’s intentions, as noble Lords have indicated, remain a matter of concern. The key will be the regulatory framework we put in place to oversee those, and as we work our way through the Bill and the amendments, we will get a better picture.
The sanitary and phytosanitary standards are more visible. One of the things we need to be aware of as we drive for more productivity and efficiency is that we do not want to drive standards down. We want to ensure that those who work in the production and, more importantly, the processing of food have the right working conditions and standards to do their jobs. We must ensure that those standards are maintained.
Finally, I come to the sustainability issue: getting the balance right between environmentally ambitious policies and the need to have a highly productive, quality agricultural sector. It is commendable that the Government have recognised that this will take time, and the transition period is very welcome. However, until we see details of things like the ELMS project, as other noble Lords have indicated, it makes it extraordinarily difficult for farmers to plan. Farming is a long-term activity, as is environmental investment, and the quicker we can see details of the success of the pilot schemes and understand the finer detail, the better we will be able to go forward. Similarly, on issues such as productivity and investment, we need to understand how this will come about and which sectors will be supported, how that money will flow through and how it will go over the coming seven years.
When Lord Walton came to the House in 1940, his objectives were to ensure that the nation had enough food of sufficiently high standards, and of course we wanted to survive. The threats we face have changed, but we should ensure that this legislation is true to the same principles: food security, food standards and sustainability.
My Lords, I have no interests to declare but for years I shadowed Agriculture Ministers Gummer and Hogg—now the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham—and represented a predominantly farming constituency through the BSE and foot and mouth crises.
This is an enabling Bill but is really a legislative pig in a poke. Perhaps inevitably, but with dire consequences, it is entirely dependent on its context. From Clause 1, in which the Secretary of State is given a permissive funding role, the only certainty is uncertainty. That uncertainty combines the forthcoming recession following Covid-19 with the potential failure to achieve a satisfactory Brexit deal in just 28 weeks’ time, creating unprecedented chaos for the UK’s food supplies. That recession, as we already know, will be harder-hitting than anything the country has experienced in our lifetime. Anyone who believes the Government will be willing and able to invest on the scale necessary to make the Bill work is surely living in a fool’s paradise. In the worst possible economic environment, the Government are determined to ditch the tried-and-tested partnership with our neighbours in favour of surrender at the feet of Mr “American farmers first” Trump.
We have all seen the Secretary of States’ letter but frankly, they did not support the Parish amendment, and on the rebound from Brexit, how can they really stand up to Trump? In the words of the NFU president, this could result in us
“opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here”
“would be the work of the insane.”
Now, Trump’s negotiators want us to give up origin labelling—so much for consumer choice.
In the unanimous briefing I have received, I especially welcomed the personal evidence from Juliet Cleave, a livestock farmer in my old constituency. In my four minutes, I obviously cannot do justice to her passionate defence of British agriculture. However, one sentence stands out:
“Unfair competition in the marketplace not only undermines the rural economy but will lead to further consumer confusion.”
In that context, Ministers seem to have failed to secure reciprocal protection for traditional food products such as Cornish pasties, Melton Mowbray pies and Scotch whisky, which are all currently subject to the excellent EU GI scheme. I was assured last year that this would be guaranteed, but that looks like another broken Brexit promise.
With a few weeks to go, the Government are charging hell for leather towards failure to secure a satisfactory deal—or indeed any deal at all. Farmers, consumers and the environment could all be the first victims. The Bill is a totally inadequate corrective. In any circumstances, this would surely be folly. Whether Covid-19 will be still fully with us or will have begun to fade by December, to charge over the cliff without even extending the transition would be ludicrous lunacy.
My Lords, in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift wrote of the King of Brobdingnag:
“And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
That is precisely what Norman Borlaug and his fellow scientists did in the middle of the 20th century. The green revolution was a miracle. A combination of genetics, agrochemicals, irrigation and mechanisation meant that between 1960 and 2000, although the world population doubled, the amount of food produced per person increased by 25%. But we now know that this revolution came at a cost: damage to habitats, biodiversity, soils, the climate, freshwater, and farm animal welfare. That is why this Bill is so important and welcome. It gives us the framework for resetting agriculture in this country—for embarking on what has often been called the doubly green revolution. This means harnessing all the power of science and technology to produce more with less: more food with less impact on the environment, the climate and animal welfare. However, the Bill leaves as many questions as it provides answers. Here are just some of the points that should be explored in more detail in Committee. Other noble Lords have also mentioned them in their speeches.
First, how will the delivery of the public goods listed in Clause 1 be measured, who will do the monitoring and enforcement, and what sanctions will be applied to farmers who fail to comply? Will the office for environmental protection have a key role in this?
Secondly, there will inevitably be trade-offs. For instance, increasing productivity may imply extracting more from the land for our consumption and therefore leaving less for the rest of nature. By whom and by what process will these trade-offs be computed? For example, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, mentioned the debate about land sharing versus land sparing. Will there be a transparent analysis of this approach to managing the trade-off?
Thirdly, the delivery of a cleaner, greener, more productive agriculture will require investment in science and technology, as well as knowledge transfer. What is the Government’s plan for enhancing the necessary science base, including gene editing, and ensuring that this new knowledge will be taken up by farmers?
Fourthly, as many noble Lords have already said, the Government claim that food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards will be the same for domestic and imported food, but what independent scrutiny of this commitment will there be?
Finally, it is often said that the UK has high animal welfare standards. However, we should be aware of the reality that many other European countries are already ahead of us. For example, beak trimming of hens is banned in six other European countries but not here. France and Germany will ban the castration of piglets without anaesthetic by the end of next year, but we have not made this commitment. Does the UK intend to catch up with the best in the world, or will it join the race to the bottom in the pursuit of new trade deals?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing the Bill. In the time available I will raise four brief points and then turn to the important role that standards will play in negotiating trade agreements.
First, do the Government intend to publish an impact assessment before the Bill has finished its parliamentary stages? It is irregular for a Bill, even a framework enabling Bill—and especially a Bill of this consequence —to be sent to Parliament without a primary-stage impact assessment at the very least.
My second question arises from the welcome inclusion of food security. However, like others I believe the required reporting cycle should be more frequent than at least every five years. I also believe it should include reference to emissions, climate change impact and supply chain sustainability to ensure a more complete understanding of the realities. Will my noble friend consider this?
My third question is a United Kingdom question, and I declare my interest as a Scottish farmer. While fully accepting that trade is a reserved matter, I believe the Bill has missed an opportunity to clarify the involvement of devolved nations in setting WTO-compliant ceilings and the assessment of impacts from quotas and tariffs. Will my noble friend look again at these arrangements? In the same vein, I add in passing that this Bill is also an opportunity to embed the principles of fair funding for intra-UK allocation—as detailed in the review by the noble Lord, Lord Bew—to add some transparency to the methodology of how any future budget will be allocated.
My fourth point is that, like many others, I believe this Bill is an opportunity for the Government to adopt an amendment that would enable future access to precision-breeding tools such as new gene-editing technologies.
I now turn to the important role that standards will play in negotiating trade agreements. I have two points. First, I ask my noble friend whether the Government’s welcome commitment that trade negotiations will not compromise the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards can be understood as referring to UK production standards as a whole. This is critical as, where any production standards are lower than those required of UK producers, imports will impact on the ability of UK producers to compete on a level playing field.
My second point relates to how the importance of maintaining standards in negotiating trade agreements might best be addressed. The UK’s enviable reputation for high standards in food and farming has been achieved through successive Governments’ support for a national framework of standards, measurement and accreditation, collectively referred to as the United Kingdom Quality Infrastructure, UKQI. Here I declare an interest as the chair of the UK Accreditation Service, UKAS, which is the UK’s national accreditation body and a key component of the UKQI. UKAS accreditation is central to ensuring the effectiveness of standards through underpinning their implementation with a robust verification and certification system.
Furthermore, UKAS and BSI—the national standards body—operate within an international framework, as accreditation and standards are global activities. This mutual recognition of standards and accredited conformity assessment underpins many international trade agreements. Should a trade standards commission be established—and I believe there is a good case for doing so—one of its roles could be to look at how accreditation and linked mutual recognition arrangements underpinning standards should be utilised, protected and, where appropriate, enhanced, as a central part of trade negotiations and agreements.
My Lords, in a nation where 50% of food is currently imported—fully 30% from the European Union—the protection of high standards on imported food cannot be overestimated. Anyone who cares about the quality of the food we eat, animal welfare and the environment should be very worried about this Bill, which threatens the very survival of British agriculture, putting both its UK market and its important export markets in the European Union in jeopardy and sacrificing Britain’s high food and animal welfare standards and with them our farming industry.
Legal protections to guarantee animal welfare, food hygiene rules, agricultural workers’ rights, environmental protections on the food we import and targets for reaching net-zero emissions for the agriculture industry are all deliberately omitted from the Bill. Presumably, this is to preserve the prospect of future post-Brexit trade deals with the United States and Pacific Rim countries, which may initially lead to cheaper imports but at a devastating long-term cost to both UK producers and consumers.
The truth is that if existing food standards are not maintained for imports, the UK’s agricultural sector will be unable to compete and our farmers will be faced with a choice of either lowering standards or going out of business. Import prices would then rise, leaving the country dependent on food imports of compromised quality.
Sadly, a majority of MPs voted against proposed new Clause 2, an all-party amendment requiring new international treaties on the import of agricultural and food products to comply with World Trade Organization safety rules and the UK’s own standards. Significantly, it was proposed by the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Conservative MP Neil Parish, and backed by the British Veterinary Association, the National Farmers’ Union, the RSPCA, the Wildlife Trusts, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Soil Association and the World Wildlife Fund.
Speaking against the proposed new Clause 2 on 13 May, former International Trade Secretary Liam Fox gave the game away, saying that
“the US would walk were the proposals to become law in the United Kingdom, and it would be swiftly followed by others … They do not want the incorporation of UK rules to become a prerequisite to trading agreements with the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/20; col. 323.]
Our high standards are viewed by some outside the EU as a barrier to trade, but having a requirement to uphold environmental standards as part of the Agriculture Bill would surely help prevent a race to the bottom.
The Financial Times reported on 14 May that
“the Department for International Trade was preparing to offer a ‘big concession package’ to US negotiators in the coming months that would reduce the cost of some agricultural imports to unlock a trade deal with Washington.”
Such concessions to the US would effectively impede the prospects of a comprehensive trade deal with the European Union, which provides vital export markets to British farmers. For example, nearly three-quarters of all Welsh food and drink exports and over 90% of Welsh beef and lamb exports were destined for the EU in 2018. I therefore ask the Minister to give a categorical commitment to negotiate agreements with the Welsh and other devolved Governments at all stages of future negotiations.
I agree with my noble friends Lord Whitty and Lady Quin on the need to prioritise a trade deal with the European Union to protect our farmers’ important export markets and our food and environmental standards.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his undoubted commitment to this area. I speak as the daughter of a tenant farmer and having had the privilege to serve in Defra during the coalition. The Bill lists potential public goods and its environmental emphasis is welcome, but little is actually mandated, measured or enforced, as we have heard, and so much will come via secondary legislation. We know that SIs cannot be amended and are almost never rejected.
Above all, as again we have heard, there are a number of elephants in the room, and the prime one is our departure from the EU—our biggest market and the source of much agricultural labour. Minette Batters, the NFU president, rightly identifies the uncertainties here. We do not know what our relationship with the EU will be in only a few months’ time, quite what our immigration system will be, or the nature of any trade deals with other countries. There will be huge challenges for any Government with a huge public debt that will need to support health, social care and our failing industries. Agriculture and the management of land might slip as a priority, however important food security may seem at the moment. That is the backdrop to this Bill, affecting an industry that is, by its very nature, long term and less flexible than others.
There is the seven-year commitment on direct payments, but the notes explain that these could in fact be reduced. The transition becomes meaningless. Can the Minister clarify that? The Bill mentions that financial and other assistance might be made available in exceptional market conditions, but, by implication, it might not. The EU has been strong on rural support. All the powers here seem to be what the Secretary of State no longer needs to do. Can the Minister comment?
The Bill states that high standards will be set regarding food safety, animal welfare and environmental management, but without it being mandated, as we have heard. Where is the regulator here?
We are not in a strong position in trade deals, yet, for example, the standard use of antibiotics may mean that simple infections become untreatable—the next and even more lethal pandemic. That is something to tackle globally, which we were better able to do as part of a large bloc, the EU.
The tenanted sector farms one-third of the agricultural land of England and Wales. That is very vulnerable now. I recall the frequent and long walks my father took with the bank manager. Can the Minister tell us how tenants will be better protected under this Bill—not just tenancies, but their business models, especially in less productive areas such as upland farms?
As we leave the EU, but without new trading arrangements, agriculture is in a very challenging situation. So much of how this industry will fare may depend not on the apparent intentions of the Bill and the undoubted intentions of the Minister, but on these wider decisions.
My Lords, I declare my interests. I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak at the Second Reading of such an important piece of legislation and congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his eloquent introduction to it.
We currently have the highest standards of production for animal health, hygiene and welfare. These standards must not be compromised or negotiated away. I refer to those of us who remember the unilateral sow stall and tether ban introduced by a Conservative Government in the late 1990s, yet we continued to allow imports from other EU countries and elsewhere that used them. Consumers voted with their feet, choosing the lower-priced, imported products that did not meet our high standards. As a result, 50% of our pig producers left the market. Now we face similar challenges to our home- produced chicken, beef and flour at the risk of inferior imports that are not produced to our high standards.
I have had a letter, as I am sure many have, from the chair of the FSA, Heather Hancock, in which she clearly states:
“The FSA will publish its risk assessments and its risk management advice to Ministers, who would then decide whether to accept this advice.”
After that, all that would be required to change the existing regulations or authorisations would be for statutory instruments to be laid in Parliament—a mere swipe of the pen and an SI, and our standards could be changed overnight. No primary legislation would be required. For the avoidance of doubt, let us put the case in the Bill for our current standards to be maintained and matched against any imports under any future trade agreement.
I raise the issue of vets and their capacity to meet increased demand for veterinary certification and supervision on import and export checks. This is a very serious issue. I hope my noble friend will today give the House a commitment that we will have enough vets in the UK to provide this service.
Many noble Lords have referred to the sketchy information available on ELMS at this stage. I welcome my noble friend’s commitment to introduce mitigation against flooding as a public good, from which farmers and others will benefit. We have certainly benefited in North Yorkshire from the Pickering Slowing the Flow scheme, but will my noble friend address the issue of reservoirs in the Bill and the stringent requirements of operation, particularly in its review of the Reservoirs Act 1975? How will water storage on farmland be regulated under ELMS? If pilot schemes for ELMS are to start only in 2021, when will the results be known?
I will also raise the position of tenant farmers, who make up 47% of farmers in North Yorkshire and the north of England. Will they continue to benefit under the scheme? Is there a danger that they might be excluded since they do not own the land? What, also, is the future for hill farming?
I pay tribute to our farmers, who work all hours and produce food in all weathers, particularly in this crisis. Now that we have left the European Union, we are not bound by public procurement rules. Will my noble friend ensure that all our schools, hospitals, prisons, care homes, shops, restaurants and homes source our food from the UK to our high standards of animal welfare and hygiene? Will he agree to set up an international trade commission, independent of government, to set the criteria to be met in any negotiation on international trade? Will he agree to defer the phasing out of basic farm payments for one year, particularly in the light of Covid-19? Will he agree that agriculture, horticulture and forestry activities must lie at the heart of farm policy under the Bill?
My Lords, we all agree that taking back control of our agricultural policy is a defining moment for British farmers and all of us in the United Kingdom. There is agreement that we must lay the strongest foundations possible in the Bill, based on existing high standards of animal welfare, food production, agriculture and environmental standards, which we have established. We must build on them for the future.
We know that we face a climate change emergency, which is having a global impact on land use and food production, and that there are great concerns about the harmful overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. We must all work together to develop sustainable environmental and agricultural policies to deal with the problems facing us and to help farmers to maintain and improve standards. We must not let them be undermined in any way.
Like many others, I am concerned that, having taken back control of our agriculture from the European Union, the Government appear to be on the brink of giving much of it away to the United States in a trade deal that will have little benefit for the United Kingdom, but which will pose grave threats to British farmers, who already face the likelihood of tariffs on food and animal exports to the European Union. The British public have made it clear repeatedly that they do not want to buy chlorinated chicken or beef treated with growth hormones, however cheap they are, so why are we discussing these products with the United States? In the other place, Ministers and government supporters argued that this was an issue for future trade Bills, not for this Bill, but issues of food standards, food hygiene and animal welfare are central to the Bill.
In the other place, there was an attempt to put the Government’s verbal assurances that no changes in standards were being considered into legal form. This was going too far for the Government, but I have no doubt that such an amendment, and many others, will be put forward here in Committee. To help me understand the Government’s position more clearly and guide me on how potential amendments might be framed constructively so as to gain government support, I should like to ask the Minister some questions. He does not need to answer them at the end of the debate, but I would grateful if he could come back to me in writing.
First, what advice have the Government received on the options available to the United Kingdom to set animal welfare and environmental standards for imports in a way that is consistent with World Trade Organization rules? As previous speakers have said, this is an important area where we urgently need clarification.
Secondly, to what extent do the Government’s plans to develop a 21st-century agricultural policy also incorporate international trade? Thirdly, have the Government analysed the impact of changing food standards on the United Kingdom’s farming and broader food sectors? If so, can this analysis be published?
Fourthly—and importantly, as many speakers have pointed out—to what extent do the devolved Administrations have powers over their own food standards? What discussions have so far been held on this issue? Have the Government discussed with potential trade partners an alliance to improve animal welfare and environmental outcomes through trade agreements?
Lastly, what analysis have the Government made of a typical United States text on food within a trade agreement and whether accepting it would mean the United Kingdom having to change our own food rules?
We should all be in agreement on this Bill in terms of grasping the considerable opportunities that it offers, but warm words and vague promises from the Government are not enough. We need greater certainty on standards and on the Government’s strategy in this area, which is what my questions are aimed at finding out. Depending on the Minister’s response, I might seek to bring forward, or support others who bring forward, a number of possible amendments in Committee to strengthen this most important framework Bill.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be back in the Chamber for such a crucial debate. Thanks to many for their tireless work in getting us here in hybrid form; however, I am concerned that this key legislation is the guinea pig for our new system and that it will not get the scrutiny it deserves. I trust that the usual channels will be sympathetic and not rush it through this House. Many more expert voices than mine are silent today. They must be heard.
I refer to my interests as a farmer in Devon, a county renowned for its green and varied landscape, with an ancient tradition of livestock farming. Devon has many small family farms for which basic payments, through no fault of their own, have become key to survival. If we get this wrong, Devon will suffer, causing untold environmental, economic and cultural damage.
The transition to ELMs over the next seven years is particularly concerning. BPS payments decrease from 2021, but ELMs will not be in place until 2024 at the earliest, and 2028 for most. What do farmers do in the interim? Those on marginal farms may simply stop, abandoning farmland to scrub; perhaps this is government policy. Others will do what they can to remain solvent, which means intensifying production and increasing environmental degradation. Even those who farm profitably will hold off capital and environmental improvement—why risk investing now in things you may be paid for in five years’ time?
The result will be the exact opposite of what we need: a decrease in productivity and environmental outcomes, when both need dramatic improvement in the face of international competition and a net-zero target for farming by 2040. Will the Government recognise these dangers and adjust the transition period to avoid them?
Many people have noted that this is the first time since 1947 that we can legislate for agriculture as a sovereign nation—a Brexit dividend for our green and prosperous land. Given coronavirus, comparisons with 1947 are apt. Only months ago, Dieter Helm wrote:
“Food security is largely an empty slogan of lobbyists … It should not be taken seriously.”
He might not say that now, as the nation is acutely aware of food availability and food quality, given the ruthless effect of Covid on those with poor diet. Never has access to healthy, sustainable, affordable, local food been more important.
However, this is not 1947. We were not just an island on the edge of Europe then. We were the centre of the British Empire, with access to food from around the world on terms that we dictated. We lack that bargaining power now. As we negotiate trade deals, we must ensure that our domestic food supply is regularly—annually—monitored and strengthened and that our standards are protected.
The Government resist setting standards, citing existing legislation and a reluctance to tie negotiators’ hands, but both national opinion and history are against them. Ignoring the irony of this Government relying on retained EU law to defend their position, the suggestion that agricultural legislation is not the place to address international trade is just wrong. As Devon warmly remembers, we have been legislating the import and export of wool for more than 500 years, and it was through robust legislative intervention that British farming technology led the agricultural revolution. We did it then and we can do it now.
Finally, this is the Agriculture Bill, not the environmental land management Bill, and the focus must remain on farming. We need a long-term vision for our farms. With more time in Committee, I look forward to discussing soil, carbon, agricultural tenancies, young farmers, gene-editing, productivity and more. But I lack the time now.
My Lords, I declare my agricultural interests as detailed in the register.
It is because of my agricultural interests that I know how much anxiety there currently is in the farming industry, particularly among livestock farmers. Negotiations continue with the European Union to secure a free trade agreement, and we wish our negotiators every success. But, should there be no deal and we have to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms, the effect on livestock farmers will be most serious. There are tariffs on beef and lamb going into the EU. Currently, three-quarters of all beef exports from this country go to the EU; the proportion is even higher for sheep meat. Tariffs into the EU will inevitably reduce the prices that farmers receive. Most of the livestock farmers in the four nations of the United Kingdom are small to medium-sized, and they are the ones who will suffer most.
From the Government’s figures for 2018-19—the latest that are available—it is clear that nearly all livestock farms lose money. This is then compensated by basic payments and agri-environment payments, but even after these payments, in 2018-19, the average income of a livestock farmer in a less-favoured area was £15,500 per annum. This is substantially below the minimum wage, and farmers usually work very long hours. Despite these figures, the Government propose to reduce the payments by 5%, starting next year in 2020-21. I cannot see in the Bill any proposal that will support the small to medium-sized livestock farmer from now until the introduction of the environmental land management scheme, which will start in 2024. Therefore, will the Minister try to persuade the Treasury that the lowest band of basic payment—that is, up to £30,000 a year—should be frozen for the next three years?
Is it not in the public interest that the uplands of this country be farmed in a sustainable way, extensively grazed, mainly grass-fed and capturing carbon, as pastures do? This must surely be a public good deserving of public money. Then, while facing a reduction in public support, these same hill farmers are also threatened with tariffs on sales into Europe and a free trade agreement with the United States of America. The latter may well, as part of a larger deal, allow American beef into this country; it is produced to lower standards and will come in at a price that UK farmers will find it difficult to compete with. In the same way that UK fishermen were, we must admit, sacrificed to achieve our entry into the then European Economic Community, so our livestock farmers may still be sacrificed for a US trade deal and no deal with the EU.
When the Minister sums up, I hope that he will reassure me and other noble Lords that the prospects for our smaller hill farmers are not as bleak as they, and I, fear.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing this important debate and I declare my interests as listed in the register.
As the second-largest net contributor to the European Union, for many years we have complained vociferously about the common agricultural policy, which still accounts for around 40% of the EU’s budget. The Government have undertaken to maintain the level of financial support received by farmers during the current Parliament, although the basis for the payments will change. Farmers need to plan for the future and they need to know how the Government’s new land management scheme will work. Can the Minister tell the House how farming businesses will be able to replace their lost income for the three years from 2021? I also ask him to resist the misguided calls being made by some noble Lords to introduce into the Bill measures that would bind this country into retaining full dynamic alignment with EU rules, including its controversial SPS regime. I am not advocating in any way that the UK should lower its food standards, but standards are not two-dimensional: higher or lower. The EU applies some unreasonably strict rules that do not make standards higher, but they do make them more expensive and cumbersome to comply with.
In some areas, the rules are protectionist in their effect, which means that EU consumers have to pay higher prices than they should. For many years, the EU has put too much weight on the precautionary principle. I cannot understand why we have become obsessed with chlorinated chicken as being symbolic of poor standards in animal welfare. Aside from the fact that US poultry farmers tend to use peracetic acid nowadays, the evidence shows that the incidence of campylobacter infection in the UK is nearly five times the level in the US, as already mentioned by my noble friend Lord Ridley. Further, the level of salmonella infections is significantly higher in the EU than in the US. If there was any doubt about the safety of using chlorine to wash vegetables for sale in supermarkets or to keep drinking water and swimming pools safe, it would obviously be banned.
I do not have time to mention the large number of myths which have been put about with regard to US animal welfare standards, but actually, permitted poultry stocking densities in the US and the UK are roughly comparable. As for beef, the UK Veterinary Products Committee concluded that it was unable to support the opinion of the European Commission that the risks from the consumption of meat from hormone-treated cattle may be greater than previously thought.
The UK, as an advocate for free trade and for proportionate regulation at the WTO, should ensure that its own SPS rules, unlike those of the EU, are compliant with the WTO’s SPS regime. This allows countries to maintain standards that are stricter than international ones, but only if those standards are justified by science or by a non-discriminatory lower level of acceptable risk that does not selectively target imports. The UK buys chicken from Brazil, Thailand, and Poland, which is an EU member state. Noble Lords who disagree with me should perhaps investigate stocking densities in any of those countries.
Our new free trade policy, including agreements with the US and Japan, will provide new opportunities for farmers to export their high-quality food products, especially those including lamb, to new markets where they will rightly find strong demand.
Lord Judd. No? Lord Naseby.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box because I know that he is absolutely dedicated to the whole of the farming industry. I have lived in Bedfordshire for half a century or thereabouts and I represented a part of Northamptonshire for a quarter of a century or thereabouts. I talked recently to our local farmers and heard one simple message: they are worried. They are worried about the transition and climate change, but they wished me to communicate to the Minister that despite all that, they support the NFU’s proposal for a UK trade, food and farming commission.
I want to concentrate on three niche areas, the first of which is horticulture. It was once a thriving and booming industry until rising energy costs and competition with Holland almost killed it off. As you look around the landscape of Bedfordshire and the south of Northamptonshire, you see that it is one of decaying glasshouses. There must be a way to restore horticulture, which is so important to us for food production. This means that obviously we will have to work with renewable energy, and I hope very much that that will be done with further financial and other extra help from Her Majesty’s Government because it will help enormously on our food security. Alongside that, we must have an understanding of the need for temporary labour to be imported in and out of the country to help with harvesting.
The second area is forestry. I declare an interest as someone who has 40 acres of woodland where I have been working with the Forestry Commission through a 10-year management agreement with a small local company called Astwick Forestry, which is run by a wonderful man, Mr Hart. There are exciting opportunities in the world of forestry. The Urban Tree Challenge is strongly supported by my noble friend on the Front Bench, and we now have the exciting round two coming up for open and small woodlands. There is the woodland carbon scheme where others could buy the sequestration to offset their existing emissions. The market for this is one of huge potential and demand, and it is good to see that the Government have set up an additional scheme worth £50 million—the Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme—to accelerate the growing of trees for carbon capture. That is an embryonic area of forestry which has so much potential for the future. However, I worry a bit about the frequency with which diseased rootstock comes into this country from, dare I say, the continent and other parts of the world.
Thirdly, I turn to a real niche industry. Here I declare another interest in that I have 100 vines at home, which make about 24 bottles of English sparkling wine a year, so I am a niche grower. But there are far bigger growers in Sussex, Kent and other parts of the United Kingdom. We should remember that the Romans produced wine here with great success, so I think that this is an excellent and exciting area. It is interesting to note that in a blind tasting, some of our best production comes alongside, dare I say, French champagne, although I am a member of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne. This is a young industry which needs understanding and I hope that the ministry will listen carefully to the pleas of this really niche industry.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. I live in a rural area and for many years I used to farm on my own account. I had the honour to serve as Member in the other place for Torridge and West Devon, where I still live. It is one of the most rural constituencies in England and part of it comprises a large swathe of the Dartmoor National Park. I have observed over many years how the United Kingdom’s agricultural industry has made substantial investments of time and money into animal welfare and environmental protection. We rightly have high animal welfare and environmental standards. We concentrate whenever possible on the extensive rearing of livestock and we produce high-quality products.
Given the time constraints in the debate, I shall concentrate on the beef and sheep sector. If there is no agreement with the European Union by the end of this year—and media reports suggest this is likely; even the Governor of the Bank of England has warned banks to prepare for no deal—then the prospects for UK agriculture are extremely bleak.
The sheep sector faces a very damaging period, lasting for years. Approximately 40% of our total sheepmeat production is exported to the European Union. We import very little sheepmeat from the European Union. If we leave the EU without a deal and on WTO terms, our exports to the EU will carry an ad valorem tariff of between 40% and 60%. This product is very price sensitive. Exports will be severely cut and there will be chronic oversupply in the UK. The price of sheepmeat will plummet, leaving our sheep farmers’ stock values decimated. The continuation of the basic payment scheme and other support will not even start to make up the difference.
As to beef, we are net importers from the EU. I understand that we are proposing an ad valorem tariff of approximately 12% on imports of beef into this country from the EU, whereas our exports of beef to the EU will carry an ad valorem tariff of between approximately 40% and 60%. This means that we shall be in the ludicrous position of subsidising imports. Trade in beef products will be severely disrupted, and with dire consequences for our farmers. Stock values may drop substantially.
The pressure will be on the Government to make alternative tariff-free or low-tariff arrangements with non-EU countries. There will be overwhelming pressure on the Government from other sectors of the economy to complete a trade agreement with the United States. My understanding is that any trade agreement would have to be ratified by both Houses of Congress. Senators and members of the House of Representatives from rural areas could refuse to ratify the agreement if the necessary access for their constituents to agricultural products from the UK was not included. The pressure on the Government to conclude an agreement with the US will be overwhelming. Despite their fine words, Ministers come and go. Unless we impose the most compelling and robust statutory prohibitions on the Government, we shall be flooded with cheap, hormone-fed beef that is reared with scant regard for animal welfare and with other products that are equally substandard. For example, there are many crop sprays permitted in the United States which have been outlawed in the EU, and therefore in Britain, for years.
The Government should agree an extension on the transition period until satisfactory arrangements between us and the EU have been agreed, for all businesses in the country not just the agricultural sector. It is not in our interests to import substandard food that will be damaging to the British people. Agriculture in the UK employs, directly or indirectly, approximately 4.1 million individuals. If the Government do not heed those of us who counsel caution, there will also be substantial consequential losses for rural and urban Britain, of jobs, business and other opportunities.
Our farmers produce, and should be encouraged to produce, the basic necessity of life: namely, food.
My Lords, I declare my farming and landowning interests.
I have a lot of good things to say about this Bill but no time to say them. The change to ELMS and the wider approach to the food chain are great—it is about more than just production on the land—but, despite the paper Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit, there seems to be little in the Bill about nutrition and health.
I will focus my remarks on my worries. First, I worry about the imminent vacuum in our support systems. ELMS is still a long way off. Farmers do not know what it will mean for them. Changes in land management take a long time to implement. A farmer would be mad to start preparing or training now for something that may or may not come in by 2027. Meanwhile, the single farm payment will be mostly gone before farmers know what the Government want them to do to survive. In all fairness, the Government cannot abandon one support system before the way forward on the next is clear.
Secondly, it must now be obvious to everyone, including the Government, that reviewing our nation’s food security only once every five years, after what we have just been through, is madness. I will say no more at this stage.
Thirdly, I would like a clear message in this Bill that we will move forward to allow gene editing in our research programmes. This is a way of speeding up the natural methods of farm breeding to ensure that we can improve the environmental and nutritional outcomes of feeding our ever-expanding human population, both at home and—more particularly, as far as I am concerned —in the developing world.
Fourthly, everyone knows that we must have a clause in this Bill that looks carefully at the importation of goods that would be illegal to produce in this country. Every department, including the DIT, is signed up to this red line, as is the Prime Minister and the vast majority of the voting public, so what objection could there be to putting something on the face of the Bill to make it more difficult for future Administrations to renege on that? In my view, it would make trade negotiations easier. If it is not a matter of discretion during discussions but is the law of the land, then everyone knows precisely where they stand and it disappears as an issue.
My final area for amendment is to introduce a clause allowing Ministers to support businesses and communities in rural areas. Why do we want such a clause in an Agriculture Bill? Because currently it is hard for a family farm to survive on food production or land management alone. We must help the farming households to find cash for jobs off the farm, to ensure the survival of the farm itself. I am not saying that the Government must spend their agricultural budget on the wider rural economy; I am just saying that Farming Ministers should have that arrow in their quiver for use in certain areas or circumstances, should it prove beneficial. To have it there can do no harm.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very clear introduction. An advisory speaking time of four minutes is not long to tackle the far-reaching provisions of this Bill, but I want to use a few of my precious seconds to protest to the Whip on duty about how the Bill is being handled. It is not just the four-minute limit; more importantly, a good number of our fellow Peers from all parties have been scrubbed from speaking at all. Things have reached a pretty pass when Members of your Lordships’ House are prevented from speaking at Second Reading of a Bill of this magnitude. Please do not play the pandemic card in reply. It will be perfectly possible to extend this debate by another half day to enable all who wish to speak to do so. Our fellow Peers deserve no less.
In my remaining time, I will focus on Clause 17 and food security. I remind the House that I am a controlling shareholder in a company that owns a modest amount of farmland. On 14 May, there was a very interesting debate in your Lordships’ House on food security, ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and equally ably replied to by the Minister. However, given the scale of the challenges we face to our future food security, through a combination of 40% increase in the world population—some 4 billion people—the impact of climate change and risks to the ability to move food around the world, Clause 17 is far too bland and unsecure. We need not expressions of hope but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, duties on the Government.
I will give three quick examples. First, there needs to be a stated government policy on what level of food security is sought. Currently, it is about 50%. Is that the right level? Should it be higher or lower? The public are entitled to know.
Secondly, the clause says nothing about water. The Environment Agency tells us that we will run short of water within 20 years, and that we are entering, in the words of the chairman of the Environment Agency, “the jaws of death”. Significantly for our food security, the shortage of water will be most acute in the south-east of England, where some of our most productive farmland is located.
Finally, the clause makes no reference to the number of mouths that will have to be fed 20 years or so from now. What will the population of the United Kingdom be? Those numbers are stark. The ONS mid projection suggests that the population of the UK 25 years from now will be 72 million people, an increase of about 6 million, equivalent to two and a half cities the size of Manchester today. To provide the necessary homes, offices and other space for those people is likely to require us to tarmac over an area the size of Bedfordshire.
One of the challenges faced by all Governments is the inevitable public bias towards the present at the expense of the future. People find it hard to give proper weight to problems that lie 20 years away and are, unsurprisingly, inclined to focus on the short-term challenges they face, but if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that an absence of strategic thought and planning can carry a heavy cost, so I shall end with that great Jewish saying, “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as a small-scale upland sheep farmer and as president of the Countryside Alliance. This is potentially a good Bill that travels in the right direction, and I am grateful to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, for introducing it, but it is a very bare framework with far too many delegated powers and far too little real detail. It could and should be improved by some additions.
First, our current food, environmental and animal welfare standards were surely not put in place simply to protect the market for our farmers or because we were required to adopt them while we were in the EU. They are there for the benefit of our consumers and we are keeping them post-Brexit presumably because we think they are good and necessary. The Conservative Party’s manifesto at the last general election stated that there would be no compromise on them in our trade talks, and the letter we all got yesterday from the two Secretaries of State said the same, as did the Minister in opening. To allow products which do not meet our standards—even if, as has been suggested in the press, tariffs might be imposed on them to help our producers compete financially—would betray the promise made to the people of this country that they would have good, safe, ethically produced food to our own high standards. If, as we are being repeatedly told, there will be no compromise, will the Minister tell us why that is not simply being put in the Bill? As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said, the amendment in the other place proposed by Mr Neil Parish was supported on all sides of the House and it, or one like it, needs to be put in the Bill.
At long last we have an opportunity to shape our own agricultural destiny, and the choice is stark, facing, as we do, the end of direct payments under the CAP. It is no exaggeration to say that the single farm payment has been the difference between a loss and break-even for many small and medium-sized family farms, particularly in the uplands where there is very little but livestock farming to turn to. That point was made by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. If you cut direct support to those small farms, as New Zealand did, they go under, and farming becomes the province of large commercial enterprises. Under the Bill, that direct support is reducing and is guaranteed for only a very short time. As others have pointed out, there is then a lacuna in support, and we have no details or figures with which farmers can plan for the future, as plan they must.
The Bill must recognise that the production of food to a high standard, which British farmers primarily do, is the main benefit to us all from our agricultural industry, as well as landscape maintenance and enhancement, wildlife habitat preservation, access to the countryside and so on. We, the public, directly or indirectly, derive benefit from that we should all contribute to its cost. However, productivity and profitability have to go hand in hand with the new environmental land management schemes or they will fail. In my area, Exmoor National Park, I am very encouraged by the trial and test called Exmoor’s Ambition, which is partly funded by Defra. It has been running since 2019 and goes on until next year. It works closely with farmers and land managers to define and develop the public good outcomes which will be required under the ELM scheme, and how farmers will be paid for them. We all want to know the results, and I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how those trials are going and if anything is emerging from them as yet. Those schemes must be devised and designed—
My Lords, this Bill is silent on pesticides and herbicides, yet they are toxic to insects and wildlife. Some may prove carcinogenic, even at a very low dose, and the current regulations on these chemicals need to tighten, not lapse. Several noble Lords have addressed the urgency of this and said that we must value high-quality, ethically farmed UK food. Maintaining current standards and practices will not be enough.
Focusing on issues pertinent to Wales, I thank the Minister and his department for working with the Welsh Government to add to the Bill the powers requested to introduce an agriculture Wales Bill in the next Session. It will allow continuity of support for Welsh farmers and the effective functioning of the UK single market going forward. It will include powers to simplify or improve the basic payment scheme to farmers beyond 2020 and to modify retained direct EU legislation on the financing, management and monitoring of the common agricultural policy and support for rural development.
Schedule 5 to the Bill, the Welsh schedule, will enable Wales’ animal health and welfare framework to be supported by legislation. The framework is based on “prevention is better than cure”, with health improvements through the vet and farm plan that promotes joint working for animal welfare, linked to planned maintenance. The agriculture Wales Bill will echo the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, with awareness of Wales’ global responsibilities, such as through the network of antibiotic champions to decrease antibiotic use.
The intention behind Clause 27 is to counteract unfair trading practices and to prevent market abuse—that is, larger players in the market exploiting those in relatively weak market positions. However, if this is a reserved power, there must be consent from the Welsh Government because those powers intersect with devolved matters for Wales, including agriculture and agricultural productivity and sustainability. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will strengthen the requirement to engage with the Welsh Government by amendment, as required in the legislative consent Motion, which my noble and learned friend Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd and I support? My noble and learned friend, being unable to speak today, has written to the Minister asking when the draft common framework on agriculture will be available and whether it will contain a dispute resolution mechanism. The UK internal market must function appropriately, enabling the devolved Governments to determine matters such as standards and subsidies.
Although the Explanatory Memorandum recognises that organic production is a devolved competence, the Secretary of State seems to be able to legislate on organics. This confusion needs clarifying by amendment to ensure that the Secretary of State can make organic production regulations falling within devolved competence only with the prior consent of Welsh Ministers.
Regarding the World Trade Organization Agreement on Agriculture, there remains disagreement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government on whether the WTO clause is wholly reserved. Can the Minister confirm that a bilateral agreement has been reached to require the UK Government to consult the devolved Administrations before bringing forward regulations under this power?
Subject to amendments ensuring consultation and such a framework, I hope we can support the Bill.
My Lords, I broadly welcome the Bill, which is timely. I have several questions on which I would like some clarification, if I may. At present, my noble friend will recognise that the agriculture funding system within the EU works to a seven-year timetable, allied to the multiannual financial framework. How will the future funding cycle then be determined within the UK itself, and how shall the devolved nations be involved in the determination of that cycle?
I note the important contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Bew. In his review of farm payments north of the border, he was able to restore a degree of amity between Scottish farmers and those in the rest of the UK. It will be recalled that this was simply because the then Secretary of State for Defra mistook his UK role for his English farming role. There will need to be greater clarity to ensure that this does not happen again.
I have only a few specific points. Coming this late in the debate, I am afraid that several noble Lords have raised them; I will therefore echo those points. First, I echo the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. Will there be a primary stage impact assessment? It will be important, given the scale of the change that the Bill represents, to have a full appreciation of how it will interweave with the future development of policy.
Secondly, I welcome strongly the notion of delivering support for public good. But public good is a nebulous concept and the measurement of it will be a challenge. Noble Lords will be aware that one of the great criticisms farmers have had of the common agricultural policy is its bureaucratic base, along with the measurements and involvement of bureaucracy in establishing conformity to policy. It is often this part that has caused the greatest frustration for farmers, so it would be useful to get some sense of how this public good will be measured and what sanctions might be anticipated for the failure to deliver public good.
My final point rests on perhaps the greatest question yet to come, that of climate change. Farmers will be at the forefront of decarbonising, so I would welcome my noble friend’s comments on how he anticipates the evolving agriculture support policy interweaving with the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to net zero. These elements will become very important and critical in helping farmers themselves to move in this direction. Those are my points.
My Lords, this is major legislation and I am sure that the goal of having a better set of arrangements for agriculture than we had under the common agricultural policy, including better environmental land management, has wide support on all sides of this House. However, it is easier to state these goals than to work out how you will make them work. The question just asked by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan, about how public benefit will be measured, regulated and rewarded is very relevant.
Within this policy are two big unresolved tensions. On the one hand, the Government want something better than the common agricultural policy and when Michael Gove was Secretary of State, he set out ambitious objectives for something better. On the other hand is the Government’s ambition for global Britain and their determination to use the new freedoms of an independent trade policy as a result of Brexit to make up for the loss of access, or more constrained access, which there will undoubtedly be, to the EU single market.
The Government tell us that there will be no detriment to the EU standards that are now incorporated in UK law. We have the letter before us from the two Secretaries of State. I am not trying to argue that they are in some way misleading us; in fact, I have great personal respect for the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, who has become the Trade Minister in this place. But our Ministers are rather naive about trade negotiations and will find that in the force majeure of trade—particularly if we get a bad deal from the EU, which I think we will—they will be under enormous political pressure to demonstrate that they can do deals elsewhere. Those deals will generally be bad deals for British agriculture. They will involve either some sacrifice of standards or increased quotas—for example, for Brazilian beef, US beef and that sort of thing—which will cause a lot of competitive pressure in certain parts of the industry.
That brings me to the second tension—that between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. Environmental land management strikes me as a matter that should ideally be devolved, but the UK will control the trade negotiations, which will determine a lot of the standards to be applied. My forecast, which I am afraid is pessimistic, is that what happens in the trade negotiations on agriculture will be a cause of huge tension with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It will set off political consequences that could threaten the unity of the United Kingdom. I am sorry to be so pessimistic but, while this is a good Bill, it is fatally flawed.
My Lords, I regret Brexit, but I support the targeting of financial support to farmers to secure environmental enhancement, food security and safety, and the welfare of animals and plants. I hope that small family and hill farms will get a better deal, as opposed to the cereal barons and city-owned megafarms that the CAP seems to favour. However, I will put down a few markers.
First, I fully concur with my noble friend Lord Tyler’s concern over the protection of GIs. Can the Minister tell us the Government’s plans in this respect, whether for Cornish pasties or other products? Secondly, there should be no threat to the production and marketing of kosher and halal food in the wake of Brexit. Thirdly, I fear that the Government will torpedo British farmers’ and consumers’ interests by giving in to US pressure on food standards. As others have said, the US produces food to standards that many of us regard as very bad practice and which EU law prevents. Even if the response was, “We won’t ban them but will require them to be labelled”, that is not an adequate substitute in all cases—and anyway, we know from the experience over GMOs that the US will fight that tooth and nail.
The Government have made much of their manifesto promise, reflected in a letter from the two Secretaries of State, that they would
“not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
The problem is that this pledge was set in the context, and with the caveat, that the Government would not so compromise
“In all our trade negotiations.”
As we have heard, Neil Parish, the Conservative chair of the EFRA Select Committee, clearly did not trust the Government. Hence, he was among those—my colleague Tim Farron was another—who tabled amendments in the other place last month to try to avoid the commitments being, as he put it,
“traded away on the altar of cheap food.”
If the Government’s pledges meant anything, why did they rally their troops to defeat those amendments?
I fear that the Government are leaving themselves plenty of wiggle room. There are reports of a plan to apply tariffs on lower standard products, apparently with the idea that US producers would thus find it uneconomic to send them here. What is the state of play on this reported plan and how does it accord with the manifesto and ministerial pledges? In any case, as the Times columnist Clare Foges put it well on Monday, the pledge not to lower our standards through trade negotiations does not prevent them doing so through domestic legislation; hence the refusal to agree a level playing field in the EU negotiations.
Given the experience in the other place last month, it would seem that the Government could rely on their loyal lobby fodder to get a diminution of standards through. As it was put in the Financial Times yesterday:
“For Mr Johnson … a deal with the US is a strategic imperative … Washington’s price will be … a decisive British break with EU rules and regulations. It is looking more and more as if Mr Johnson is ready to pay this price.”
Mr Johnson might be ready to pay that price, but it is British farmers and consumers who would take the hit. As my noble friend Lady Parminter said at the beginning of this debate, Liberal Democrats are determined to stop that—as, apparently, are noble Lords across the House.
My Lords, I am very grateful to be able to participate in this important Second Reading debate on the Agriculture Bill and I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill. I would like to take a moment to echo comments from other noble Lords about the inability of our colleagues to participate in this Second Reading debate and to echo the hope there will be no further curtailment of debate around the Bill and the scrutinising of this important framework legislation. It represents a once in a generation opportunity to set a new framework for how we reward farmers and how we manage our land and food systems.
Time is short, as many people have commented. I want to address my comments to the issue of climate change and the ability of this Bill to help us to make some significant strides forward in how we domestically address this issue and by setting world-class policy standards for other countries to adopt and take on. This is the promise of the ELM that the Bill introduces—that we will be shifting from a system focused on public money to support production and move it towards supporting public good. I fully support the Government’s intentions here and, as others have mentioned, I would like to see more detail about the definitions of what ELM will cover and how it will operate.
The principle is a good one and, unlike many sectors of the economy where we are seeking to address climate change, there is often a large debate about how we can price in externalities of climate change—how we can add costs of greenhouse gas pollution to a sector which is currently not paying them. Here, with agriculture, we have the opportunity to redeploy public money that has already been allocated, so it is a fantastic opportunity to align our need to keep land productive, to support farmers, to increase our food security and to improve our balance of trade, and at the same time address climate change.
There is a need for us to explore where there is that great overlap between productive land and high-carbon land. I think it was the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, who pointed out there are different camps when it comes to how we should use our land. We should be trying to direct our public money towards those uses of land which achieve a triple bottom line: rural development and jobs, high-carbon stocks on our land, and increased food security. I think that points us towards investment in the whole system of agro-ecology, where we are producing food and maintaining high biodiversity standards on our lands. Those are the sorts of areas we can explore in Committee and hope to get more flesh on the bones of this important framework legislation.
In the time remaining I want to touch on the context of this Bill being passed with so much uncertainty, both in relation to the trade deal we are expecting with the EU and other potential trade agreements with countries such as the US. It does feel as if we need to be writing some clear legal standards into this legislation to enable to us to conduct those negotiations from a position of strength and not have the potential rolling-back of high environmental standards. In a sense, we need to ensure we can erect a green wall around our own high environmental standards and have those standards upheld for the benefit of the environment and for our rural communities.
The other issue I am concerned about is the shift away from the payment systems we have today; we will lose the stick, as it were, of cross-compliance, where if farmers receive a payment, they are required to adhere to certain environmental standards through cross-compliance. That will be removed, and I am concerned about potential backsliding and who will oversee any potential loss of environment benefit. We have to see a net gain in environmental terms from the Bill and we should be seeking to put in place clear measurements and enforcement mechanisms to make sure that we deliver the things we are expecting from the public money we will continue to spend in this area. I thank noble Lords and look forward to Committee.
My Lords, I would first like to apologise to my noble friend on the Front Bench; there was a little confusion earlier and I was unable to be here for his opening remarks. I know that it does not fuss him, but I would like to apologise anyway. I also declare my interest: my earliest memory as a child is of my father’s business. He raised chickens and grew tomatoes and cucumbers, and even had a few pigs—until the business went bust.
I will start with three points. First, the fundamental purpose of farming, which we must never forget, is to feed the people. Secondly, the common agricultural policy is one of the worst food deals since Eve plucked the apple and handed it to Adam. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, competition and free markets have lifted vast parts of the world out of starvation and food shortage. Even more than that, competition has provided and continues to provide a wider range of food, at a lower price and of higher quality. It comes about through endless innovation rather than through endless regulation. It is a point that my noble friend Lord Ridley made with such passion and excellence, and it is the inexorable lesson of the last 200 years.
We owe our farmers a great vote of thanks; they form an exceptional industry, but I believe that the best is yet to come. Of course, they face a process of change, and that brings with it uncertainties—and opportunity. So I welcome very much the seven years of transition that the Bill offers—I think it will be needed—and I also welcome the emphasis on the environment. Good farmers do not need lectures on environmental standards —of course they do not—but I do welcome the encouragement to them that the Bill offers.
There is a game being played by some with this Bill; it is called a distraction technique. You will recognise it. Great magicians have it, yobs hanging around cash machines waiting for an elderly lady have it. Everything is not what it seems, and every argument is not what it seems. We hear, “We must stop the race to the bottom.” What race to the bottom? Show me it. “What about chlorine?” I hear. Good question; we wash a lot of our foodstuffs in chlorine anyway, we wash our children in chlorine in swimming pools, and we actually drink chlorine. Today, at a British supermarket down the road, you can buy a whole chicken for £1.87—a chicken which satisfies all our safety standards. It also satisfies consumers—and that, I remind you, is the first and finest purpose of agriculture: satisfying consumers.
One of the many advantages that Brexit will bring to us is better labelling. Imagine that on the shelf in your local supermarket you have a chicken labelled, “Bred in Britain and Produced with Pride”, and that alongside it there is a chicken that says, “Chlorinated in Kansas”. No doubt which one, if noble Lords will excuse the pun, is going to fly off the shelves. Chlorine is not a problem.
We are looking for a brighter, greener, more innovative future, and this Bill helps farmers produce that. I wish it well—even if it comes 60 years too late for my father.
[Inaudible]—family farm in three counties of Wales, and in Suffolk.
My Lords, this Bill is a sea change from its ill-fated predecessor. That was heavily criticised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships’ House, which expressed its dismay at the major transfer of powers from the EU to Ministers of the Crown, bypassing Parliament and the devolved legislatures in Wales and Northern Ireland. Not for the first time, Whitehall sought to claw back powers that I had won for the Welsh Office as Secretary of State for Wales and that formed one of the building blocks for the Welsh Assembly.
The briefing from Defra, for which I am grateful, makes it clear that leaving the CAP will enable the devolved Administrations to design policies that will meet their own needs. Wales and Northern Ireland have asked the Government to extend certain powers in the Bill to them. I ask the Minister to summarise what they are. Provided they do not undermine the principle of devolution—that it is the Welsh Government who decide what is best for Welsh farmers, the Welsh countryside and Welsh consumers—I would welcome them.
I support the emphasis placed by my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, on the need to involve the Welsh Government in any international negotiations which concern Welsh produce. I hope to expand on that at a later stage.
There is value within the United Kingdom single market for standards and assistance to be on the same lines if so desired.
My next point is on the maintenance of the high standards that we now have for food production and the protection of consumers in this country. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, raised animal health. We have our occasional epidemics and my family have been too close to foot and mouth in the past. Another problem has been BSE. Tuberculosis in cattle has not been properly resolved. We have gone backwards in this area. I do not want a lowering of our standards to accommodate a general trade deal, which the Government seem determined to get. The issue is not solely chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef; British farmers, wherever they are, are proud of the standards that we have in this country. We do not want to see the door opened to lower-cost, poorly produced food imports.
It was said in the Commons that imports produced to lower standards than ours pose a real threat to UK agriculture. Without sufficient safeguards, we could see British farmers significantly undermined, while turning a blind eye to environmental degradation and poor environmental standards abroad. Agricultural goods should be imported into the UK only if the standards to which they were produced are as high as or higher than the UK standards. I welcome the assurances on this point.
The small farmers of Wales, Cumbria and elsewhere operate on fairly thin margins. I welcome the emphasis on the environment for all our people, but we must remember that the countryside can be enjoyed by everyone only if there are people living there. I trust that in the disbursement of funds to agriculture, this will be borne in mind.
My Lords, I declare an interest: my stepson is a farmer in Scotland. I also associate myself with a remark made originally by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, and followed by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank: that it is surprising that no impact assessment is before us.
Noble Lords may, like me, have received a briefing from the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland—16 of the Bill’s clauses apply to Scotland—and it has sought to have a particular point made in this debate: that where the Bill, or indeed Brexit, creates new financial and regulatory frameworks, Scottish interests must be represented.
It is plain from the debate so far that there is real anxiety that little protection is offered to domestic producers from cheaper imported food produced to lower standards. We heard what the Minister said, which I of course accepted; we have seen what Ministers have written about, but I have had a lot of ministerial letters in my time and, to be quite blunt about it, their effect normally lasts only until the subsequent letter, which begins “In view of changed circumstances…” I cannot understand why the all-party amendment proposed by Neil Parish MP in the Commons was not accepted by the Government. At one step, they could have removed the anxiety and suspicion that the Bill has created in this matter.
But of course, it is more than ministerial letters; the Government’s manifesto promises that
“we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
We know the extent to which the Government feel obliged to meet the terms of their manifesto, so how can they possibly meet them in the circumstances that we are discussing? There is only one way in which it can be done, and that is that in any trade treaty it should be an essential—and I use that word in the legal sense—condition that the promise is met in terms.
I have already said that 16 clauses in the Bill apply to Scotland, and I want to finish by referring to Clause 17, on the duty to report to Parliament. Food security has been a live issue in recent weeks, but it seems to give the Government far too wide a measure of discretion that the obligation arising under that clause should be only at five-yearly intervals. I heard what the Minister said, that there might well be occasions when an earlier report was made to Parliament, but is this not a matter of such significance and importance that the obligation should be met annually? Food security is a strategic requirement of every Government; this Government should recognise that.
Before the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Trees, I should advise the House that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, will now speak as the first speaker in the second section of the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill and before the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose.
My Lords, this Bill is of colossal importance. It will involve a revolution in our countryside and affect our food supply, the environment, the rural economy and the lives of many thousands of people. I have never before had so many emails from the public about amending a Bill. Thus, it is regrettable that we are given such little time to scrutinise it in the House.
That said, there is much to welcome in the Bill, but it also raises major questions. I will focus on those pertaining to animal health and welfare and the sustainability of livestock farming, notably of cattle and sheep.
The Bill proposes support for
“protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock”.
As a vet, I welcome this. While it is intrinsically the ethical thing to do, it also addresses other key goals in the Bill, notably increasing productivity, safeguarding food security and mitigating climate change. Proper control of enteric worms in sheep, for example, can reduce greenhouse gases by 10% per unit of production. It would however be helpful to know more about how this support will be delivered, what the baseline is, and how improvement will be measured. I ask the Minister to answer those questions, if need be in writing.
Cattle and sheep farming are a pillar of the rural economy, particularly in our upland areas, and help maintain the countryside we love. But there are more than just aesthetic or sentimental reasons to value this activity. Cattle and sheep turn grass into products that we can eat, and which provide wholesome, nutritious food, contributing to our food security. Cattle and sheep are maintained at high standards of welfare and husbandry, from birth to slaughter. The use of antibiotics is minimal, and only for disease control. In the UK, across all animals, antibiotic use has fallen by 53% in recent years, and is well below the O’Neill commission target. What about greenhouse gases? Data from the FAO shows that UK cattle emit 75% less CO2 and methane per kilogram of meat than the global average. Finally, grazing animals put back into the soil nutrients and essential fibre.
Our grazing livestock enterprises are not only important for our rural economy and the maintenance of our countryside but are incomparably good for animal welfare, compatible with afforestation and initiatives to improve biodiversity, which I welcome, and produce food in a much more environmentally friendly way than many other global systems—think of cattle reared on cleared rainforest. Yet this aspect of our farming is most vulnerable to the reduction in direct payments. If we allow the importation of livestock products without requiring the same high level of animal welfare, environmental standards and food safety that we demand of our own farmers, we risk destroying our indigenous system. This would be to export poor welfare and poor environmental standards, and would be deleterious to climate change mitigation globally. It would be a classic example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I would like to hear from the Minister how the Government will respond to calls either to enshrine legal minimum standards in the Bill, or to establish a trade, food and farming commission, to which a former Secretary of State was committed, and what powers it might have.
Welcome back, my Lords. We resume debate on the Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill. The first speaker I will call is the noble Lord, Lord Judd.
We do not seem to be connecting with the noble Lord, so I shall call the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose.
My Lords, I must thank my noble friend the Minister and his officials for the time they have spent briefing us on the interpretation of the Bill. I also declare my interest as a hill farmer and livestock breeder in Scotland.
The legislation before the House has not been shy in hiding that it is purely an enabling Bill for the Secretary of State. Fortunately, it allows us a fair bit of scrutiny but, at the same time, I am struck by the absence of any hint of common frameworks for the devolved Administrations. In April 2019, the Government reckoned that there were 21 policy areas where negotiation was needed on common frameworks. Can the Minister say in how many of those areas frameworks have been achieved and how many more are left in consideration?
One thing that has obviously been put to one side in the Bill is any sense of a common framework for carcass classification, which, given the quantities of the product that are traded between the devolved components of the UK, would seem like an obvious area for consideration. What effort will be made to achieve some common direction here? The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, pointed out the missing Dimbleby review of food policy. It is not easy to make sense of the finer points of an agricultural Bill without a clear assessment of the current role that both agriculture and food are expected to play.
The present message coming through to me is that farmers are being clearly told that we must guard the purity of any water and contribute to the national target for net zero carbon emissions, but much of the other side of the equation is missing. Unless there is a scientific breakthrough, there can be no doubt that this will mean a loss of land for productive capacity, and it is hard to see that happening without a loss of farm units and national self-sufficiency. The upside of Brexit is supposed to be trade. The farmers in this country would be very ready to compete but their basic request is for a level playing field.
I think that we all received the joint letter from the Secretaries of State saying how the Government promise to maintain our high standards, but they have already rejected the opportunity to put those on the face of the Bill. If the standards that we wish for come to be seen in any way as restrictive to trade, I am still puzzled to know how they will be enforceable in the face of any WTO charge. The boundaries that we are trying to maintain do not infringe any sanitary or phytosanitary issues. I hope that the Minister will make it plainer to us what the Government would like to see.
Another factor that we are dealing with centres around trading with the United States. We are in the middle of a drive for agriculture to contribute to net zero carbon equivalence. Money and research are going into this topic on both sides of the Atlantic and, in the US, much of it is to do with achieving faster growth rates and using additives that are not allowed under EU rules. The effect of this will be that United States beef could claim a lower carbon footprint than we can achieve in this country, especially if the US can find an ecological way of transporting it.
My apologies for the disruption to services, but I am afraid that my computer went down completely just before I was called. I record my warmest appreciation to everybody who has worked so hard to make sure that I am able to join the debate— thank you. My relevant interests are all unremunerated and are in the register. I should perhaps specifically mention that I am a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on National Parks and a vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks.
While there is a great deal to be welcomed in this Bill, and the Minister is personally to be congratulated on the part he has played in bringing it before us, there is still a great deal to be put right. Too much is aspirational or only indicative. With teeth and sufficient scope, ELMS could prove a significant step forward. Does the Minister therefore not agree that this must inescapably entail more effective alignment of the Bill with the Climate Change Act and Paris Agreement?
We need practical provision to meet the challenge of food security and muscular methods of enforcement to ensure that public payments for public goods are really delivered and not just a theory. We need specific identification of such public goods: for example, quality of air and soil, reduction of pollution, well-being of uplands, provision of our vital precious landscapes, enhancement and development of woodland and remaining wilderness, peat bogs, the countryside in general, public access to that countryside and rights of way, and urgent regeneration of biodiversity—plants, animals, insects and wildlife. As has been mentioned by several noble Lords, we need stringent regulation of imported foodstuffs, to make certain that our higher standards are not in any way undermined, not least in any trade deal with the United States. We should also spell out and reinforce the responsibilities and duties of the national parks, areas of outstanding national beauty and other special sites in developing a complementary policy in these spheres.
The National Trust has reminded us that soil degradation in England and Wales cost the economy £1.2 billion per year, that between 2009 and 2014 the distribution of British bee species declined by 49% and that farmland birds—
My Lords, it would be sad if this potentially very significant Bill were to become, in the end, just another recycling of good intentions. It needs muscle and teeth. This House must now get down to the task of providing that muscle and teeth. That is very much our responsibility in the weeks and months ahead.