House of Lords
Tuesday 28 July 2020
The House met in a Hybrid Sitting.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Darling of Roulanish
My Lords, I should next like to notify the House of the retirement, with effect from today, of the noble Lord, Lord Darling of Roulanish, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his much-valued service to the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Covid-19: Economic Costs
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the paper by Professor David Miles, Mike Stead and Dr Adrian Heald Living with COVID-19: balancing costs against benefits in the face of the virus, published on 26 June, what plans they have to ensure that in the future fuller account is taken of the economic costs of any measures adopted to address the COVID-19 pandemic such as lockdowns.
My Lords, in March the Government ordered the closure of certain sectors to control the virus, save lives and protect the NHS. Alongside this, the Government delivered an unprecedented package of economic support. The Government have set out a phased approach to reopening our economy to minimise the risk of a second peak of the virus. Public Health England, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and NHS Test and Trace constantly monitor levels of infection across the country and will work with local authorities to implement additional measures if needed.
My Lords, it is a great sadness to hear of the retirement of the noble Lord, Lord Darling. While I welcomed the Chancellor’s unprecedented package, the paper cited in my Question and UK experience in recent months show that the cost of the severe restrictions that we have imposed for medical reasons are large—indeed, much larger than the benefits. Does the Minister agree that the paper makes a strong case that the recent lifting of lockdown restrictions has been amply justified and that future measures adopted to counter any flare-up of infections should be carefully targeted rather than general, both geographically and of course as regards the protection of vulnerable populations?
My noble friend is absolutely right that, going forward, we want to use all the tools available to us to implement a targeted response to any local outbreaks. That would be first at an individual level to break the chain of transmission. Where that is not possible and there are local outbreaks, we will use the test and trace system to work with local authorities and local public health directors to contain the virus in that way. The national measures remain available to us, but we would not want to use them again.
My Lords, this is a complex matter, because economic, social and other community matters often go hand in hand. It is clear that many who have in these circumstances been bearing economic burdens are among those who are also the most socially disadvantaged. Bearing in mind the context of the forthcoming spending review, can the Minister give an assurance that the Government will take care to address the needs of such groups, including, for example, those affected by the benefit cap and those housed in the private rented sector, where repossession cases come before the courts again from later in August?
My Lords, I will not anticipate the spending review at this stage, but I can reassure noble Lords that analysis done of action taken by the Government until the end of May has shown that those interventions, alongside the existing tax and welfare system, have helped to reduce the loss of income of working households by up to two-thirds. The poorest households have received the most support as a proportion of their income. These measures have included, as noble Lords will know, the increase in the standard allowance of universal credit by £1,400 a year on top of existing uprating measures.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for having the paper circulated to us. I briefly refer to the last paragraph, which talks about measures targeted specifically at groups most at risk but goes on to say:
“Such a policy should probably have been started before the end of June”.
I fear that the authors are not being realistic about the date for the targets and have not taken account of the difficulties for Ministers who wish to make a change but find that making changes is extremely difficult under our processes. I recall that, when Matt Hancock talked about increasing the targets for testing, he was met with derision. I hope that that will not happen here.
My Lords, I agree that the Government are in a different position in their response to the target now than they were at the start of the outbreak. We now know a lot more about the virus and we have developed in our research institutions the first effective therapeutic response to it. The test and trace system has been going for around seven weeks and has shown an increase in its efficacy week on week. We want to build on that so that we can have a more targeted and localised response to any future outbreaks.
My Lords, bringing in quarantine measures for different countries, such as Spain on Sunday, without any warning has severe repercussions for those businesses and families affected. Can the Minister say what rate of infection triggers such a rule change, or do the Government use some other measure before making their decision? If so, what can be done to give people more warning in order to lessen the adverse impact?
My noble friend the Minister in the Department for Transport will be able to give more detail about this subject in response to the Private Notice Question, but I can say that new data from the Spanish health ministry was published on Friday showing that new cases reported across the country on Thursday and Friday were up by 75% on those reported for the previous two days. This has been a fast-moving and changing situation in Spain to which the Government have reacted.
My Lords, my question is about specific localised job protection measures. Having read the report mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and taken note of its recommendations, and given the experience of managing the recent local lockdown in Leicester, what plans, if any, have Her Majesty’s Government for such specific localised job protection measures? If, as the report suggests, we move towards a more targeted approach, rather than the initial general approach, this will be critical.
I remind the noble Lord that many of the job protection schemes that we have set up remain in place, the biggest one being the job retention scheme, which will run until the end of October. We have also provided additional resources to, for example, Leicester, which has had to deal with a localised lockdown. As our test and trace data becomes even more detailed and accurate, we would like to target these measures even more in order to reduce any local economic impact.
Bearing in mind that this excellent paper is entitled Living with COVID-19 and that at the present time we have no idea how long we will have to live with it, and given that the paper concentrates on balancing, when do the Government intend to widen the debate to bring in advice from other academically qualified people such as economists and behavioural scientists, alongside the medical advice that they now receive?
I can reassure my noble friend that behavioural scientists make up part of the group of experts who are contributing to SAGE. In addition to that, the views of economists in the Treasury and elsewhere are inputted into Cabinet decision-making. My noble friend is right that we are going to have to learn to live with this disease for some time, so the safe reopening of our economy is focused on getting the public to make measures such as handwashing and social distancing part of their everyday lives until we find a longer-term solution, such as a vaccine.
My Lords, the original Question assumes a trade-off, yet the UK has the highest excess death rate in the world and is forecast to suffer the worst recession in the G7. Clearly, the last thing that the economy now needs is a second spike, so will the Minister consider extending statutory sick pay to the 2 million low-paid workers who still do not qualify for it but who may need to self-isolate even though they cannot afford to do so?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the UK has been hard hit by this virus, but I point out to him that that is also why we have one of the most generous fiscal responses in the world, at over £160 billion. The IMF estimates that UK tax and spending support in response to Covid has been greater than that in France, Spain or Italy.
We intend to publish the local recovery devolution White Paper in the autumn. This will set out our plans for expanding devolution across England, building on the success of our directly elected combined authority mayors. Our plans will involve introducing more elected mayors and giving them and existing mayors the powers that they need to lead economic recovery and long-term growth.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that one major lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic is that centralised control of England has not worked well? Will he now confirm that the Government are not planning to impose a top-down reorganisation of local government across England but will consult on a system of devolution based on evidence, consent and democratic accountability for local communities and that this will not be a compulsory, standardised and centralised model?
My Lords, there is no doubt that we share the same ambition to see further decentralisation and devolution over time. This is very much a process. I would not want to pre-empt the White Paper, but we have made a commitment to directly elected mayors as the point of accountability to lead economic recovery.
My Lords, however power is devolved, it is crucial that it remains democratically accountable, but such accountability is damaged when 8 million people who are eligible to vote are not on the electoral register and so cannot vote. In this country, the register is only 84% complete, compared with, for example, Canada, where it is 96% complete. Why do the Government not make more strenuous and effective efforts to complete the register?
I note the points about the electoral register. That is very much an endeavour for all tiers of government, including local government and the electoral registration officers who help to ensure that we have a fuller register of electors. It is important that we continue to make every effort to do that.
Evidence in a report by Ernst & Young in 2016 showed that around £30 million of savings could be realised annually by unitarisation. However, I am sure that other evidence will be brought forward during the individual discussions that are taking place where authorities want to unitarise.
My Lords, in 1996, the CPC national policy group on the constitution, of which I was a member, argued that local government should live up to its name, with power driven as far down to localities as possible—the more local, the better—and responsive to local demand. Does my noble friend agree with the argument we advanced that doing so would engage the commitment of citizens by giving them a greater say as well as being an equitable, UK-wide policy and not simply an English solution?
My noble friend is right that decisions that affect local people should be made at a local level. As the Prime Minister recently said, now is the moment to strengthen the incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The White Paper will detail how the UK Government will partner with places across the UK to build a sustainable economic recovery.
My Lords, the current crisis offers the opportunity to reduce social inequality and develop a more participatory democracy. Larger influences often arise from community involvement. If we are serious about dealing with major social and economic issues, we have also to be serious about encouraging local leadership and local ownership. Are the Government fully committed to empowering and funding the new local groups and social networks that are emerging to meet community needs?
Michael Gove said yesterday that devolution gives us the best of both worlds: local decision-making and strength and security with our fellow citizens. Over the past 20 years, Scotland and Wales have had accountability with their First Ministers via elected Members. Does the Minister agree that the regions of England are entitled to the same rights?
The devolution in England that we are seeking is through the local leadership afforded by local mayors rather than the regional devolution models of Scotland and Wales. That is the basis on which we will outline further measures in the White Paper this autumn.
My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, suggested that the Government should not impose a compulsory standardised model—indeed, reference has just been made to the way in which the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales have worked so well. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider consulting local people, looking to far more democratic, proportional and fair voting systems—the systems that local people want to deliver—and not enforcing the kind of single, strong leader model that the noble Lord the Minister just referred to?
We continue to recognise the importance of local leadership. Mayors provide that local accountability and an opportunity for people to select the local leaders they want to drive the economic recovery in their areas. That is the model that we propose to outline in our forthcoming White Paper.
There has been a huge amount of progress. My honourable friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government has announced conversations with York and North Yorkshire. The West Yorkshire deal has already been agreed and is about to be enacted, so a lot of progress has been made on a number of fronts.
My Lords, the Government recently introduced the non-domestic rating Bill in the House of Commons, which would exempt public conveniences from paying non-domestic rates. Will they consider similar rate exemptions for other public services and facilities that are devolved to local authorities or could be in the future, and how will they ensure national consistency in the delivery of such services?
My Lords, I strongly endorse the view that the Government should not impose a centralised approach or their favoured type of devolution on the regions but should work with them on what will work best in particular parts of the country. Can I urge the Government to look also at administrative devolution, including the re-establishment of government offices, which worked well with businesses and various groups within the regions on presenting their case to government?
My Lords, I do not recognise the concept of central imposition, because the Sheffield City Region agreement that was signed yesterday and discussed in the House last week took more than five years to reach. While there has been a framework, an ambition and a direction, there has always been consultation with existing local authorities.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. An important aspect of any plans for devolving powers and decision-making is fiscal decentralisation. A recent report from the Local Government Association and Localis highlighted that the UK is one of the most fiscally centralised nations in the developed world. Will the Government consider the recommendation in the report that the Treasury and MHCLG consult councils on identifying the most popular options for local levies to create new fiscal freedoms?
My noble friend is right to highlight the fiscally centralised nature of the country. We are currently reviewing how to sustainably fund mayoral combined authorities. We want to implement an effective funding model for them and will set out further details in the local recovery and devolution White Paper. Mayoral combined authorities have a number of revenue-raising powers, including the ability to raise a mayoral precept on council tax, levy a supplement on business rates subject to a ballot of affected businesses and introduce a road user charge, so those levers are in place today.
My Lords, total trade between the UK and Russia stood at £15.8 billion in the year to March 2020, an increase of £290 million over the same period last year. UK exports to Russia in this period amounted to £5.9 billion, with Russian imports in the same period totalling £9.9 billion.
My Lords, let me make it quite clear that money obtained through criminality or corruption is not welcome in the UK. We have long recognised the corrosive risk of dirty money, including from Russia, being laundered in the UK. We continue to bring the full capabilities of law enforcement to bear against serious criminals, corrupt elites and their assets.
My Lords, it is encouraging that HMG hold that
“trade and investment can be a lever for stabilising relations”
“increasing UK prosperity”.
What trade arrangements and investments are being planned and developed with Russia for after 2020? The Prime Minister said that he did not want to become a Sinophobe; does that mean nor a Russophobe either?
My Lords, the Department for International Trade team at our embassy in Moscow is working with a pipeline of over 90 Russian companies that have expressed an interest in the UK. This work is taking place this year and will continue in the following year, notwithstanding external factors.
My Lords, having spent a month travelling between Moscow and St Petersburg, I recognise how important Russia is to the future of Europe, especially with the advance of China. Trade is one way of improving relations between Russia and the United Kingdom. Can the Minister say that real trade, excluding energy products, is increasing between the United Kingdom and Russia? Will he confirm that, as a result of Brexit, Russia will be a priority in our new trade agreements?
My Lords, trade between Russia and the UK is broadly stable. Our objectives for Russia are driven by our Russia strategy, which holds that trade and investment can be a lever for stabilising relations, increasing prosperity, supporting deeper ties and binding Russia to the rules-based international order. There are no plans at present to attempt to negotiate a free trade agreement with Russia.
My Lords, with respect, the Minister has not answered my noble friend Lord Rooker’s Question. Does he accept that our trade negotiations with Russia are being compromised because of a total of £3.5 million in donations to the Tory party and payments to 14 Government Ministers from Russian sources?
There have been strict sanctions on trade with Russia because of the Putin Government’s authoritarian actions and human rights abuses since 2014. Now, as mentioned, China could be added to that category. In April 2018, the Minister told Bloomberg News, regarding China:
“The fact that Xi is prepared to give such strong authoritarian guidance within the context of a market economy is great for companies like mine”.
What assurances can the Minister give that he does not similarly admire the Putin regime and its approach to repression and human rights abuses and that UK trade should not be blind to this?
My Lords, the quotation to which the noble Lord refers was a selective quotation picked up by Chinese newspapers from a much longer speech. I hold no candle for any authoritarian regime and I am pleased to confirm that in front of the House.
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government recently confirmed that the attendance and participation of UK companies at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum was entirely a matter for their decision. Can the Minister explain how such unmoderated attendance at SPIEF is compatible with ensuring that we continue sanctions, and compliant trade and investment, with Russia?
My Lords, UK companies are well aware of what aspects of trade are covered by sanctions. I would be most surprised if any of them do not abide by those rules strictly. We believe that trade that is not covered by sanctions can, as I have said before, be a lever for stabilising relationships.
I point out to the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Rooker, that the last Labour Government were also very keen to get Russian government money into Britain, but the Russians have clearly got their measure now, because they do not give them any money. Trade involves interaction. If we are going to keep Russia onside, we need to remember not only the human rights side of things but the need to promote trade and encourage western values, and we need to encourage people to go to the St Petersburg fair. Can I have the Minister’s assurance that we will pursue an even-handed strategy, as opposed to a prejudiced one, when dealing with Russia?
My Lords, we are quite clear that trade does not have to come at the expense of labour, the environment, human rights or sustainable development. We use trade because we want to ensure that economic growth and development and environmental protection can go hand in hand.
My Lords, the Minister will know that financial services are in surplus in our trade with Russia. Does he agree that however desirable that might be, it does not benefit the City of London to be referred to as a laundromat for Russians to wash their dirty money? Will he call together the City institutions to discuss how the measures in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 can be tightened, as clearly the current institutions do not seem to have either sufficient funding or the powers to regulate them?
My Lords, as a previous banker, I abhor illicit finance working its way through the City. It benefits nobody, and no respectable City firm would want to touch it. At every opportunity, I will certainly raise the points that have just been made.
My Lords, the Library’s note to us suggests that of UK services’ trade with Russia in 2019, the fifth largest item in imports and exports was government services. Will the Minister tell us what government services were provided to Russia?
My Lords, can my noble friend explain to the House whether he thinks that the trade deficit with Russia will widen or narrow in the next year? Will he also celebrate with me the fact that the Russian audience for the Russian digital service offered by the BBC World Service is up by 32%, which can only help to boost our trade with Russia?
My Lords, the UK reported a total trade deficit of £4 billion with Russia in the year to March, compared to a figure of £4.6 billion in the previous year. External factors such as Covid-19 may have an impact on the UK’s international trade in 2021, so at this moment it is impossible to forecast. I very much applaud the fact that the voice of the BBC can be heard clearly and loudly by the Russian people.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their announcement on 21 July about changes to planning rules, how they intend to measure the impact on communities of (1) any further relaxation of planning rules, and (2) any increase in permitted development rights.
The new permitted development rights and changes to the use classes order that we announced on 21 July will reduce planning bureaucracy, speed up housing delivery, support home owners and families, and help to renew our town centres. We keep all new policies under review, including in respect of their impact on housing delivery and the wider community.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he share any of the concerns expressed by a wide range of professional bodies, including the LGA and others, that the cumulative impact of these PDRs is to create the slums of the future? That is evidenced most recently by research from the noble Lord’s own Government which shows that four out of five units already created in this way do not meet the very low national minimum space standards? Can the Minister say what action the Government are taking to ensure that this does not continue in the absence of local planning permissions? Can he see how the continuous erosion of local councils’ plans and policies is undermining public confidence in the planning system, as any councillor will confirm?
My Lords, I point out that permitted development has yielded 60,000 homes that would not otherwise have been available. On the point on quality, the report raises some concerns about the quality of some of the schemes developed under permitted development rights. We have made changes in respect of requirements for adequate natural light, and that should deal with some of the issues raised in the report.
Would the Minister agree that not just windows but room size, insulation, fire safety and the quality of the heating provision are essential to ensuring that affordable social housing does not end up being, as the noble Baroness rightly described it, the slums of the future? Some of that is already revealing itself.
I welcome this improvement on permitted development. However, in small towns it is likely that fewer than 10 units per development will be built, and so there will be no CIL money for infrastructure. Will money be allocated to the Housing Infrastructure Fund so that small towns can get the infrastructure needed around these new housing developments?
The noble Lord makes an important point about the importance of ensuring that we have adequate infrastructure to fuel the continued delivery of homes, and that the Housing Infrastructure Fund will be the means by which a number of these opportunities will be unlocked. However, this of course has to go through the spending review process.
My Lords, in view of the vital importance of improving the nation’s fitness, will my noble friend the Minister undertake to ensure that planning policy serves local needs by protecting and promoting existing sports and physical activity provision? Can he also confirm that any changes to planning rules will deliver viable management and maintenance of new and existing sports and physical activity provision for local communities?
My Lords, I am a councillor. Under these changes, a local business could be demolished and replaced with flats. The existing residents would be badly affected. Such residents would contact councillors like me as they want to have their say on this development. I would have to tell them that they will have no say—their rights have been removed by this Conservative Government. Does the Minister accept that this is a fair response, and if not, what would he say?
My Lords, as someone who was a local councillor for 16 years and the leader of a council for six years, I point out that simply because you have prior approval does not mean that local communities are unable to comment. They can comment on individual applications for prior approval under the consultation requirements set out in the general permitted development order of 2015. There are ways to make your voice heard, even if there is a presumption that things will go ahead in the ways outlined in the PD rights.
These new measures are about unlocking housing potential and housing growth for the much-needed homes that we need. I point to the fact that we are investing £12 billion to build affordable homes between 2021-22 and 2025-26, which is the biggest single cash investment in affordable housing for a decade. I hope that that reassures my noble friend.
My Lords, how will the Government ensure that the health of residents will be safeguarded in permitted development rights applications? In particular, will the Government adopt the minimum standards for healthy housing advocated by the Town and Country Planning Association, which include important matters such as daylight, which has been mentioned, space, access to the natural environment, insulation for heat and for noise, and others, which are so important for people’s health and well-being?
My Lords, can the Minister guarantee that changes to the planning rules will not mean fewer accessible homes for disabled people, such as 50 year-old Daniel, who has to live in a care home for elderly people due to the lack of accessible homes?
My Lords, what guarantees can the Minister give that we will not lose to commercial development buildings used, or empty buildings that might be used, for arts and cultural purposes at a time when those activities are extremely vulnerable? That is so important for communities and the country.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the recent report of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership on the deregulation of upward extension developments? This report has calculated how great would be the profits to developers but how little would be the benefit to public housing, as well as documenting the crucial loss of rights and assets to leaseholders. Will the Minister please meet me and other noble Lords to discuss our concerns over this issue as soon as possible?
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the letter from Baroness Vere of Norbiton to all Members on travel corridors and Spain, sent on 26 July, what support they will provide to those who have (1) visited, or (2) travelled through, Spain and are subsequently required to self-isolate on their return to the United Kingdom and are unable to fulfil work-related obligations as a result.
My Lords, we encourage employers to show flexibility by allowing employees who return from Spain to work from home where possible—[Inaudible.]
My Lords, we encourage employers to show flexibility by allowing employees who return from Spain to work from home where possible while self-isolating or offering paid leave. We expect that many employers will have their own policies for self-isolation. Some may continue to offer full pay for all or some of the isolation period. Those who need urgent support may be entitled to new-style employment and support allowance or universal credit.
My Lords, it was not any better the second time. The Government have failed to understand the practicalities and financial impact of self-isolation. The letter sent out by the noble Baroness only contained guidance for office workers if they were being forced to go back to work, saying that the Government were encouraging employers to be understanding and adding that staff could go to ACAS. That is not acceptable; it is totally irresponsible. She and I are working from home today, as is everybody else who is asking her a question on this issue, but for millions of people, usually in the lowest-paid jobs, that just is not possible. Even if their employers are understanding, their landlords and others may not be. Pricing people out of self-isolation is dangerous for all of us. Will she report back to the House tomorrow on what action Ministers are taking to provide financial support, including statutory sick pay, for those who the Government say must self-isolate?
My Lords, the Government have been absolutely clear: urgent support is available for those who need it. That may be the new-style employment and support allowance or it may be universal credit, depending on the individual circumstances. I will happily write to the noble Baroness with more detail of both those schemes. My letter to her was not intended to be comprehensive, but it set out many of the things that we are doing.
My Lords, this is a disaster for the self-employed and owners of small businesses. On Sunday, Dominic Raab told anyone who risked losing money to look at their insurance, among other things. Since March, there has been a general market failure in the provision of cover for all pandemic risk, including business interruption. There is no insurance policy available that covers loss of income in these circumstances. The Government are aware of this and, in response to Written Questions, have undertaken to engage with the insurance sector on this issue “in due course”. “In due course” is already too late. Will the Government undertake to engage with the sector, which wants to talk to them about this, now?
The noble Lord is quite right that the impact of the pandemic has been very significant both on those who are employed by companies and on those who are self-employed. We are doing what we can to offer support where needed. As for engaging with the insurance industry, that work is ongoing.
My Lords, I accept that the Minister’s answer today might be different from the one she might give if I asked the same question tomorrow, because yesterday the Government’s advice changed within the day. For the moment, will she tell us whether this sudden imposition of quarantine—it has provided a sharp shock to the tourism and transport industries, which were painfully trying to restart their businesses—will be accompanied by additional support from the Government to those industries to help them to withstand the impact of this sudden government stop advice? Will she agree that it is time that the Government encouraged people back on to our own trains and buses so that they can have some holiday in the UK?
My Lords, the Government will be criticised whichever way they turn on this one. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is now accusing us of acting too quickly, while under other circumstances it might be too slowly. It was absolutely essential, when we got the risk assessment from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, that we put in place these measures to protect public health. We put them in place for the Spanish mainland first and, once further consideration had been given, we added the Canaries and the Balearics. The noble Baroness will also know that we are encouraging people to travel on public transport if they can do so safely.
As we are living through these uncertain times with the coronavirus pandemic, it is unfortunately inevitable that all plans for foreign travel have some risk involved. Quite understandably, the Government need to be nimble in updating advice and prescribing precautionary measures. As we have seen over the weekend, advice can change at very short notice. Does the Minister agree that all people looking to escape in the coming weeks to sunny holiday destinations need to bear this in mind and be prepared for a change in arrangements?
My noble friend is absolutely right: travelling nowadays is not the same as it was before. I implore all people looking to go abroad to check their travel insurance. Many travel operators are now offering flexible packages, including packages that can be cancelled with a refund if they need to be. I encourage people to look around the market. The travel industry is responding and, although travel is not the same, it should be possible for at least some people to get away this summer.
My Lords, other European nations with large tourism in Spain did not adopt this Government’s abruptly introduced self-isolation rule. How many, if any, have done so since the weekend? What differing scientific, economic or other factors have the Government identified which led to this major difference of judgment and action and which those who might lose pay or even their job through self-isolation can explain to their employer?
The Government obviously looked at their own advice and that from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, but it is the case that Norway has pretty much the same requirements as the UK. Belgium, France and, I understand, Germany have also put in place some restrictions on all or parts of Spain.
My Lords, it is not only holidaymakers and travel firms that are suffering. Luton Borough Council, in my diocese, owns Luton Airport. As a result of the lockdown, it has a significant hole in its finances, affecting every person living in the borough. It is surely in the interest of every country to find a better way to provide travel corridors based on regions rather than simply designating entire countries. What consideration are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the idea of having regional travel corridors?
The right reverend Prelate raises a very important point. For the time being, we are taking the approach by country for border measures, but we could put them in place for regions in the future. We are not there yet, but we are certainly looking at it, because it is an appropriate consideration.
My Lords, it is absolutely right that our Government should take action for the safety of our people, despite what any other nation might say. My concern, however, is that many of the Government’s decisions relating to the Wuhan virus seem to be knee-jerk and have a scattergun effect. It is not at all clear that policy is joined up across Whitehall. In early July, I was in France; on return, government policy, after some indecision, was for self-isolation for two weeks. This advice changed the day after my return and nobody officially took any notice of my whereabouts. While I believe that people should use their common sense, will the Minister tell us what mechanism has been put in place to ensure that the two-week self-isolation for those returning from Spain is being complied with?
The noble Lord is right that there are enforcement measures in place for people returning from Spain or elsewhere, where a self-isolation period of 14 days is required. PHE is undertaking spot checks as part of the enforcement approach and there is a possibility of a £1,000 fixed penalty notice for those people who are not self-isolating.
My Lords, have the Government thought through what happens when someone returns from Spain to go back to work the next day? The Minister talks glibly of financial support, but if travellers are required to self-isolate, will they actually have a job to go back to? The Minister’s letter says that travellers who are there can continue their trip, so that does not seem to be too urgent. Would not the correct procedure be to give two weeks’ notice of the restriction to allow travellers, including the suntanned Transport Secretary, time to return without quarantine?
My Lords, the reason why we had to remove the travel corridor from Spain is that the infection rate for Covid cases increased at an alarming rate. There was a massive acceleration at the end of last week. We therefore did not have the luxury of a two-week period of grace in which we could warn people in advance. It was absolutely essential that we put in place the measures that we did in order to keep our public safe.
My Lords, it is extraordinary and wrong that this Question has warranted the status of a PNQ. The trouble with Labour and the Liberal Democrats is that they love spending other people’s money. They complain about austerity and then want to spend yet more of taxpayers’ money on people who have chosen to take risks by travelling mostly for pleasure in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Perhaps we should change the word “pandemic” to “plague”, like Tim Smit. Is it not time for everyone to stop treating people as if they were incapable of taking proportionate risks and accepting the consequences? Will the Minister reassure her colleagues that they are doing absolutely the right thing in very difficult and ever-changing circumstances?
I thank my noble friend for her comments. Of course, to a certain extent, she is right. Whenever one travels during a pandemic or otherwise, there are always risks that are simply not present when one is at home. At the moment, with the pandemic, the risks are certainly much higher, but they can be mitigated, as I set out earlier, by travel insurance and by looking at those travel providers that offer travellers flexibility.
My Lords, with a second spike being a racing certainty and with an evolving and differing set of guidelines on the continent, what assurances are being sought by Border Force to ensure that passengers are correctly stating their original departure point and not abusing open Schengen borders by travelling via a transit airport? By the by, with pets now seemingly threatened with Covid, is an embargo anticipated on pets entering the UK?
My Lords, I understand that there is now a European-approved 40-minute test, which can allow the Government to negotiate secure testing sites at airports, whether in Spain or other countries. That would help to avoid unnecessary self-isolation on return and the associated loss of earnings. Would the Minister be willing to look at these schemes?
I reassure my noble friend that we are already looking at a range of different options. For the time being, the position remains unchanged: there is a 14-day self-isolation period. However, we are considering options on how to manage the risk of imported cases. We are looking at ways of testing people on certain days, but we must understand that testing people on arrival is sometimes inappropriate because of the longer incubation period of the virus, which means that it does not show up in the tests. Again, I reassure my noble friend that we are looking at all eventualities, because obviously we would like to decrease the number of days in self-isolation if we possibly can.
The impact of this will be further job losses and hardship not only for an already shrinking travel industry but for those individuals who find that on their return they have to self-isolate. Not everyone has the luxury of working from home and they will face financial stress. As has been pointed out, they may not be entitled to statutory sick pay. This will not be the last time that our country has to face this kind of enforcement. We need an urgent response in this instance and I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon that the Government must act to ensure that the harms to families and businesses are minimised. What will the Government do to mitigate the financial stresses on those who are confined? Will they be tested and tracked and how will they be monitored for compliance?
As I mentioned to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, we have in place urgent support for those people who are desperately in need. I have committed to write to her with more details and I will certainly make sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, also receives a copy of that letter.
Business of the House
Motion to Agree
That with effect from 2 September until further Order members may participate remotely as well as physically in sittings of the Grand Committee (“hybrid Grand Committee”), and that for the purposes of sittings of the hybrid Grand Committee:
1. The procedure shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in Grand Committee save that—
a) no member may participate unless they have signed up to the Speakers’ List,
b) speakers shall be called by the Chair, and
c) sittings may be adjourned between items or classes of business at the discretion of the Chair.
2. Debates on motions relating to statutory instruments and measures in the hybrid Grand Committee (including related instruments debated together) shall be time-limited to 1 or 1½ hours, and this time limit may be varied in accordance with this paragraph with the unanimous agreement of members taking part in the hybrid Grand Committee at the commencement of that sitting.
3. Motions for general debate shall be time limited to 3 hours and this time limit may be varied with the unanimous agreement of the members taking part at the commencement of proceedings;
4. No amendments to bills may be tabled after the deadline prescribed by the Procedure and Privileges Committee.
5. The provisions of this Order shall be applied in accordance with guidance issued under the authority of the Procedure and Privileges Committee from time to time, which may vary the provisions of the Companion to the Standing Orders insofar as they apply to sittings of the hybrid Grand Committee.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to express my thanks to the staff and to the Government and Opposition Whips for their remarkable patience and advice throughout this challenging period. I salute all those in the incredible digital support team for their guidance in helping us to steer through the new adventures of Zoom and Teams.
There has been a Parliament-wide acknowledgement of the impact of Covid on people’s emotional, physical, psychological and financial well-being. Some noble Lords have lost loved ones, while a number have found the new ways of working to be frustrating and challenging in equal measure, as I have—I put my hand up to that—as has been described so eloquently in this Chamber by the noble Lords, Lord Shinkwin and Lord McConnell.
Our work is underpinned by our giving service to our country and promoting people’s well-being to the best of our abilities. I believe fervently that each of us has done just that by contributing to the work of Parliament based on our knowledge, experience and expertise. My question is simple: where do Members go should they need advice, guidance and counsel? I assume that the House provides comprehensive access to advice and counselling services for staff, should they require them, so will the noble Lord ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether she will consider working across all political parties to facilitate, even on a temporary basis, a form of one-stop hub for Members as the House is opened up again for increased physical participation?
My Lords, I will not delay your Lordships. I regret very much the need for hybrid arrangements both in your Lordships’ House and now, as we are to decide shortly, in Grand Committee. I think that we have all been given to understand that the hybrid arrangements will end when the two-metre requirement goes and I look forward to that very much indeed. In the meantime, would it not be possible to provide more accommodation for your Lordships in, for example, the Royal Gallery, in the Robing Room or perhaps in the galleries around the Chamber?
I want particularly to ask about the voting arrangements during the hybrid proceedings. Is it not possible for noble Lords to cast their vote here in the Chamber, or perhaps in Grand Committee, by, for example, handing their vote to the clerk? I have been told that doing so is possible in special circumstances but not routinely, but I hope that that can be changed. So far as the hybrid voting arrangements are concerned, I am not keen on the idea of allowing anyone situated remotely anywhere in the world to do so. That is surely not a satisfactory position. I express the hope again that your Lordships’ House will return to normal as soon as possible.
My Lords, I will resist the temptation to go into the wider issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. There are points that need to be debated about the hybrid system and the voting system and it is unfortunate that we have not had the chance to do so over these weeks, when we could easily have spared an hour or so for that discussion.
I want to raise two specific issues in relation to the Motion before us. The first concerns the timings. I wonder if the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip could outline whether those involved in the discussions on the arrangements for September have given any consideration at all to the fact that, when we meet at one o’clock on a Monday afternoon, it is physically impossible for Members who have to travel from north of Glasgow and Edinburgh to attend the Chamber. That is fundamentally and perhaps even constitutionally wrong. Given that nine years ago your Lordships’ House withdrew the potential for reimbursement on an overnight basis, a Member would have to incur the costs and make the arrangements to travel down on a Sunday to take part in proceedings at one o’clock on a Monday. At the moment, the first train that I can take out of Stirling is at 6.40 am. I can make the connection to the 8 am train from Edinburgh, which gets into London at 12 40 pm, but there would be a significant risk in trying to get to this place from the train station for one o’clock. A similar problem exists at the end of the week, but I understand that that may be impossible to avoid because of the fact that, because so many train services are not running at the moment, it is not possible to return home after the last debate on a Thursday. I understand that that is the situation at the moment and it is something that we need to live with.
If the Grand Committee is to meet on a Monday, has any consideration been given to the Grand Committee or your Lordships’ Chamber, or both, meeting later than one o’clock on a Monday, so that everyone can take part? On that issue of taking part, we are all willing to be flexible and we understand that there had to be some arrangement between the four groups or blocs in your Lordships’ House when it came to speaking lists and the selection of Members to ask questions, which I appreciate had to be done for a short time through the party Whips. However, if there is any justification for an unelected House in this Parliament, it is because people bring their individual experience, judgment and knowledge to their contributions to Questions and debates, so it cannot be right over the long term for the final selection of those who can speak to be made on a party basis by the Whips. What consideration have the Government given to reviewing that system if, for example, we are in a situation where the number of Peers who will be able to take part in the new Grand Committee proceedings will be so small that they will need to be selected by the party Whips under the system as it currently stands?
My Lords, following on from my noble friend, can the Chief Whip tell us precisely how many noble Lords will be able to take part physically in the Grand Committee proceedings?
I want also to raise an issue on procedure. We all understand the need for accommodation to be made in respect of hybrid proceedings and, for as long as there are safety considerations, that will need to continue. However, there is a fundamental contradiction between the first and the second line in the Motion before the House. The first line states:
“The procedure shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in Grand Committee”.
However, the second line states that
“no member may participate unless they have signed up to the Speakers’ List”.
It is stark staring obvious that Members do not need to have signed up to the speakers’ list in order to participate in person. That is not true in the Chamber, nor is it true in Grand Committee. This is a particular issue in respect of Committee stages, which of course is what the Grand Committee largely exists for, although some other debates can take place, because of the give and take in Committee. At the moment, we now have the utter absurdity that in order to intervene after the Minister, if you are in the Chamber, you need to email the clerk who will email the Lord Chairman sitting on the Woolsack, who will then call you. If, as I found once, you do not get your email in fast enough, you cannot be called after the Minister even though you are actually in the Chamber and you can catch the eye of the Lord Chairman. This is palpably absurd. The reason for it is the levelling-down mentality that nothing that cannot be done in the virtual House should be done in the physical House.
We are all trying to make the best of these procedures and I even had some sympathy for that concept when only a handful of Members were participating in the Chamber and it might have been thought unfair that noble Lords who were taking part virtually would not have the same opportunities as those who were present in the House. However, now that we are encouraging Members to come back to the House where they can and we will have Members physically present in the Grand Committee, it seems utterly absurd and contrary to good practice to deprive noble Lords of their rights in the Chamber and in Grand Committee because of the understandable need to bring other noble Lords in remotely.
The Chief Whip cannot change procedures in response to this debate, but I do not think that the arrangements that have been proposed are either correct or sustainable. It is regrettable that they have been replicated in the arrangements being made for the Grand Committee proceedings from September, so I hope that the noble Lord may be able to give us an undertaking that this issue will be considered further—perhaps even before the beginning of September.
On that note, I wish him a happy holiday. I say to him and to the staff of the Clerk of the Parliaments that we are all enormously appreciative of the work that they have done to make the House operate as well as it has over recent months. It is the aim of us all to make it work better and not to take away in any way from the phenomenal contribution that those who have enabled us to continue working during this time of crisis as we have.
My Lords, I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just said about my noble friend the Chief Whip and others in the usual channels and elsewhere who have enabled us to function through some extraordinarily difficult times.
However, having said that, I believe that we have to move on. We have to try to get back to as near to normality as possible, as soon as possible. That means encouraging noble Lords in all parts of the House to regard it as the normal thing to be here and the exceptional thing to participate virtually. I must confess that I had never used a computer before. I was determined that I was not going to be excluded from your Lordships’ House, so I made what my noble friend the Chief Whip would probably say were far too many interventions via virtual participation. But I hate it. It is a horrible thing talking into a screen, not being able to see your colleagues and not being able to sense the reaction of the House. We must get back to that and to a self-regulating House as soon as possible.
With these lists, all spontaneity has gone. The Government cannot be held adequately to account because the Minister, whoever he or she may be, can get away with whatever he or she wants. There is not the opportunity to question them save in the very artificial form to which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred in respect of Committee, when you have to send an email and get another email back and then you can ask a question. Some noble Lords, particularly those participating virtually, have abused that system by making a speech that they should have made on the amendment concerned or even at Second Reading. I am glad to see noble Lords on the other side of the House assenting to some of these points, because they are important.
I know that there is a fundamental problem about numbers, which will perhaps remain for a very long time. I therefore put to the House what I have put privately to the Clerk of Parliaments and others: we should give serious consideration to moving the Chamber to the Royal Gallery. In 1983, that happened. The late Manny Shinwell, who had just celebrated his 100th birthday, was nearly killed by a bit of timber falling from the ceiling. Thank God it was not the end of an illustrious career, but, because of that, this Chamber had to be vacated for restoration and, for a time, noble Lords met in the Royal Gallery. As a Member of the other place for nearly 20 years by then, I found this very interesting and in sharp contrast to the war years, when of course—I remembered it because my noble friend Lord Trefgarne was here in 1947 for the first time —the Lords met in the Robing Room. That would be completely impossible, but it would be possible to have more people, physically distanced, in the Royal Gallery. I know that there are problems, but they have been overcome in the past and they should be overcome now. We could have noble Lords sitting on individual seats, or the Benches could be put in and augmented. It could be tiered, as it is for the State Opening of Parliament every year. It is a serious suggestion that I commend to your Lordships for serious consideration.
One or two other things would help edge us back towards normality. We are brilliantly served by our staff in this House, but I find it very sad to go into the Library and find not a single clerk on duty. Surely there could be a rota system—again, I am glad to see noble Lords assenting—because that Library is of fundamental importance to every Member of your Lordships’ House, and there should be clerks on duty so that Members can consult them. I hope that that can be the case, whether we are serving in Grand Committee or on the Floor of the House, when we come back in September.
I have another suggestion which may not command such universal assent. We are brilliantly served by the Clerk of the Parliaments and all the clerks, but, in edging towards normality, although none of them could ever be accused of being anything other than impeccably dressed, it would be nice to see them properly dressed when we come back in September. Again, it would make the place a little more normal and a little more like the House of Lords that we know and most of us love.
I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this Motion. I wish him success. I wish him a restful and happy summer—no one deserves it more—but when we come back, let there be more of us and let us be functioning in a more normal way.
My Lords, I want to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench to pay particular note to what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, said about travel. He lives in the tropics compared to where some people in Scotland live. I remember that when I was appointed to a committee that sat on a Monday afternoon, I had to give up serving on it because I could not get down from Caithness in time. Indeed, I sat on a Back-Bench committee with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, which looked at the whole problem of better servicing people who live far away from the Chamber and giving them a fairer opportunity to speak and participate in this House.
I thoroughly agree with what my noble friend Lord Cormack said about the Library. One cannot even use a computer in the Library at the moment; this morning, I came in to do some work and found that I was totally unable to do so.
On voting, I agree with my noble friend Lord Trefgarne. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will give consideration to the idea that, in future, the only people who can vote will be those who are physically here in the Chamber.
My Lords, my first point is this: I wish we could make a clearer rule as to what the arrangements are here. I have got in thanks to the kindness of the Deputy Speaker, but I was told that we had to put our names down to ask questions. I was not clear about it; if that is the system, I think we need a note of guidance.
I agree totally with what was said by my good and noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I agree with a lot of what other people said, but in particular with those two noble Lords.
I have two questions. First, the order will have effect from 2 September until a further order is made. Can the Chief Whip give us some indication as to when this procedure will be reviewed—in other words, when a further order might come up? Secondly, I want to put on record that one of the great difficulties I find when dealing with SIs, and with amendments to Bills, is the inability to get up when the Minister is answering and say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t think you’ve understood my point”, or to intervene at the point where it is absolutely relevant. You cannot then send an email to the clerk to ask to get up afterwards. I therefore ask that this be looked at.
I will not speak again, but on the next Motion the Chief Whip is going to tell us why Topical Questions are no longer to be tabled, and I can well understand why that is. However, I ask that attention be given to the quality of Answers and to the length of time that we are kept waiting, not only for Answers to Written Questions but for answers to letters. Perhaps I can remind Ministers that a letter from a Member of this House to a Minister should not normally, as has happened to me, be replied to by a civil servant who tells me that the Minister is busy. It does not take very long to scribble a signature, and one of the few advantages we have in this House is to be able to call Ministers to account. I was even more annoyed that the answer was totally irrelevant to the letter that I had written in the first place. That did not help; had it been a relevant letter, I might have excused it, but it almost totally missed the point of the questions I had asked. I thank the House for indulging me.
My Lords, I was not quite expecting so many questions on this Motion, but I am delighted to reply. I thank noble Lords for their thanks to the staff of the House; I reiterate and endorse every word of that. A fantastic job has been done, not only by the Clerk of the Parliaments and his staff but by the Government Whips’ Office staff, whose workload has increased dramatically thanks to some of the issues we have talked about, first in the virtual proceedings and then in the hybrid House. I am not sure that all noble Lords realise quite what goes into putting the day together and getting ready the Speaker’s brief and the speaking lists and so on. I will come on to some of that later, but I appreciate and echo the words of noble Lords.
Having thanked the staff and the Whips, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, asked about the facilities that will be available in September to Members of the House, both physically and in the area of counselling and things such as that. On the physical facilities, the Clerk of the Parliaments will write today to all Members before they go away for the summer to explain the arrangements that will be made when we come back. I echo many of the comments about how we want to come back as soon as we can and in as great numbers as we can. However, we have to respect the medical advice from Public Health England and the Government’s own advice in respect of social distancing, and we will continue to do that.
I think that noble Lords will be reassured by the thought that has gone into coming back. Obviously, we will have to keep a watching brief on that and review it before we come back and when we are back. If there is to be a spike in the infection rate, it is likely to be towards the autumn and winter, so we will have to do that.
Even if we come back completely in a physical sense, which we would all like to do, we will have to keep the facility to have a hybrid House as a contingency measure if necessary. We are able to do that, and in a much smoother way than has been done. Despite some of the criticisms that noble Lords have made, which I will come to, it has been remarkable, and we must not take for granted the work that has been done. If we think back to where we were before the crisis happened and the way we have managed to vote and participate, albeit in a different way, it is remarkable that 780-odd Members of this House have been able to do that from all over the country, and indeed sometimes from abroad. Therefore, as I said, the Clerk of the Parliaments will write about offices, working spaces and things such as catering, which will be available.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and my noble friend Lord Caithness brought up some things which they have mentioned before, in particular the starting time. Obviously, the starting time is a balance of interests —sometimes competing interests. We have to take into account the interests of Members, the administrative staff, the Government Whips’ Office, the broadcasters, and committees. I take the point the noble Lord makes, and we will keep that under review. However, the good news is that, due to the hybrid nature of the House and the remote voting, Members are able to take part from wherever they live. The point the noble Lord makes relates in particular to when he wishes to come physically to the House in time for, say, votes, but at the moment, they can be done remotely. However, I take his point.
Therefore, there is partly some good news about the virtual proceedings, and allowances will go back in September broadly to what they were before, albeit some of the problems the noble Lord mentioned were the result of changes made nine years ago but not of those made because of the Covid crisis.
My noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Cormack explained how they do not like the hybrid system. I can assure them that we are extremely keen to go back to normal as far as possible, subject to the constraints I mentioned. I think there is some unanimity on this on all sides of the House. It may be for different reasons. The Opposition may be more interested in spontaneity and being able to hold the Government to account. From my and the Government’s point of view, the flexibility has gone in dealing with government business, and for all of us it is very difficult to have a self-governing House when there is no House to self-govern. Some of the problems that have been talked about regarding Committee stages are partly as a result of the fact that the majority of noble Lords are dispersed and so the mood of the House is much more difficult to understand, and the House itself is not able to regulate some Members who speak too long or irrelevantly. That will get better as more of us come back.
My noble friend Lord Trefgarne also talked about voting. The Procedure Committee is clear on this. It was decided when remote voting was brought in that there should be parity between all Members, whether participating virtually or physically, and that voting would be done remotely. The only exception to that was Members who had technological problems, who could talk to the Clerk at the Table. However, the Procedure Committee has been clear that all voting should be done remotely. I am glad to see that despite what he said, my noble friend has managed to vote remotely 18 out of 22 times, so obviously he has mastered the technology.
My noble friend Lord Cormack said that we should encourage noble Lords to come into the House, and I agree with that. The difference between then and now is that before, we encouraged Members to stay away and to attend only if they wanted to. In September, subject to the virus situation not changing, we want to encourage Members to come but to stay away if they have underlying health conditions or indeed if they do not want to attend.
The Royal Gallery was considered. There is no current digital audio or video connectivity in there, it does not have heating and cooling systems, which are required for sustained use, and in September we will use the Royal Gallery for the Printed Paper Office and seating. Therefore, together with the new Grand Committee room, there will be many more opportunities for Members to attend, and the galleries will be used for Members to be observers as well, which will count as being in the Chamber.
The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, talked about the allocation of speakers’ lists. I do not know how the Opposition do this, but the Whips’ Office has been keen to be fair, and we have had discussions in the usual channels to make it as fair as possible across the parties. We have done it largely in proportion to the size of the different groups in the House; within that, it is up to each party and group how they wish to allocate within the slots that are available. It is not true to say that the Whips have decided who has spoken; if your Lordships listen to some of the speeches, they will see that that is borne out. The Convenor and Government Whips have some discretion but, certainly in our case, it has been limited in its use.
My noble friend Lord Cormack also mentioned how the clerks dress. On the issue of wigs in particular, he used the word “normal”; I do not know whether that was normal clothing. However, I take his point. The reason was that many more clerks were needed to sit at the Table who did not have the clerical garb and wigs, which have to be individually fitted. However, when we come back to the normal House, that will be reviewed as well.
In addition to thanking staff, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked about the capacity of the Grand Committee. That will be 50 Members virtually plus 28 physically. Interestingly, looking at the statistics on the use of the Grand Committee in its normal form, that is as many Members as went into it before. Therefore, using the mitigations we have of 28, the physical numbers in Grand Committee will be at least as good as what we had. It will be different: there will be screens around Members and they will be sitting down, and we have to wear masks as we go in and out because we will be in close proximity. However, there will be more capacity.
Turning to the speakers’ list, the way the Committees work and how we intervene, the problem is largely because of something that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is very keen on: the broadcasting element of Parliament. If we have an outside broadcasting unit sitting in Millbank, the broadcasters have to know which Peer is speaking next so they can feed them into the broadcast feed. They therefore have to know in what order they are going to come. That makes interventions very difficult. The method of putting in an email and being able to speak after the Minister in Committee was a crude attempt—and I admit that it was crude—of the Procedure Committee to try to bring in some intervention-type process so that if the Minister did not answer satisfactorily or a Member needed some elucidation, then they could do that. Nobody is suggesting that it has the spontaneity of the physical Chamber, but that was the reason why it was done. A lot of the difficulties of the hybrid Chamber have been connected with how the broadcasters—the outside broadcasting unit—were able to manage the combination of the virtual House and the physical House.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about the arrangements. The arrangements are clear: Members do not have to put their name down for a Business of the House Motion, which is an entirely physical Motion. They do have to put their name down for hybrid business for the reasons I have mentioned. He also asked about the phrase “until further Order” from 2 September. The reason for that is that we constantly keep these issues under review, so this Business of the House Motion is in force until changed by another order. There is no suggestion at the moment that there will be another order, but there might be, so that is why that is there.
On my noble friend’s point about Topical Questions and the quality of the Answers, I hope that the quality of my answer been satisfactory. I agree with him about Ministers answering Members’ letters. If a Member of Parliament in either House writes to a Minister, the Minister should reply and take responsibility for that answer. I hope that is satisfactory and I beg to move.
Business of the House
Motion to Agree
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, while others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will adjourn the House immediately.
A participants’ list for today’s proceedings has been published and is in my brief, which Members should have received. I also have lists of Members who have put their names to amendments in, or expressed an interest in speaking on, each group. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. Members’ microphones will be muted by the broadcasters, except when I call a Member to speak. Interventions during speeches or “before the noble Lord sits down” are not permitted and uncalled speakers will not be heard. During the debate on each group, I will invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and call the Minister to reply each time.
The groupings are binding, and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group.
Committee (7th Day)
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 40: Power to make regulations for securing compliance with WTO Agreement on Agriculture: general
Debate on Amendment 264 resumed.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, albeit after several days’ rest from this marathon Committee stage. He has taught me a great deal in this House.
I am a supporter of the World Trade Organization and its predecessor, GATT. Trained as an economist, I know that trade brings great benefits in terms of world prosperity, as is convincingly explained by the theory of comparative advantage. This is particularly important when we face recession and the shock of the Covid pandemic affecting every corner of the globe. As noble Lords know, I am an advocate of well-informed consultation. However, we must have regard to WTO rules, and I doubt that these suggestions are compatible with them. The UK benefits greatly from the international order and enduring economic ties, especially in free trade. In closing, the Minister may want to comment on whether the amendments in this group could fall foul of WTO rules.
My Lords, Amendments 264 and 265 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, relate to the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. The noble Lord made the case for the Secretary of State to be required to consult with relevant stakeholders before making regulations for the purpose of securing compliance with the UK under the Agreement on Agriculture. As always, he set out his case with great clarity.
The second amendment removes the power from the Secretary of State to allow others to make the decision for him or her, or to delegate to others and any other person who might exercise discretion in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, does not believe that the reason for these powers is clear. There is no explanation of what they may be used for.
Amendment 269 in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley, would insert a new subsection at the end of Clause 42. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, set out so clearly, this supports delivery of Welsh animal and plant health, food safety and environmental standards, which should not have the effect of lowering these below EU standards. The noble Lord is concerned about the large areas of Wales that are heavily dependent on agriculture. Food standards are extremely important for sustainable food production. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, said that there are opportunities for agriculture in Wales and that building on food standards will be important. The products in Wales stand up against produce from the rest of the world.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, supported these amendments—particularly Amendments 264 and 265 —and believes that this is a genuine oversight. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, also supported the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes.
My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed feels that the regulations are concerned with WTO compliance. Is this compliance of Scottish and Welsh farmers for their benefit or for the benefit of English farmers? My noble friend had discussions with the Trade Minister about continuity agreements but did not get reassurance. Can the Minister confirm that these regulations will not be used in negotiations with the US? We seek that reassurance.
I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for leading the debate on this group of amendments—relating to Part 6 and the WTO Agreement on Agriculture—by moving Amendment 264, to which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, added her name. As is customary on each day of the Committee’s deliberations, I declare my agricultural interests as recorded in the register.
The United Kingdom has been an independent member of the World Trade Organization, and was also a member as a member state of the EU, when it was one. On leaving the EU, the UK will continue to ensure that domestic support schemes are consistent with WTO rules. The Minister will correct me on this interpretation if needed.
The Bill’s Explanatory Notes remind me of the non-distortion trading requirements of green box designations and so on, which characterised the discussions on CAP reform of decoupled income support payments and environmental programmes many years ago. This will not be the issue at the WTO once the UK begins to “record”, if that is the correct terminology, the various trade deals that it seeks with other countries around the world. There will be many challenges over, for example, state aid provisions. As we know, the countries implicated in the various EU rollover deals that the UK seeks ratification of have already lodged objections with the WTO.
There are various angles to this, as other speakers referred to in our proceedings last week. First, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes explained, his amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult relevant stakeholders. That is necessary as agriculture and food are matters devolved to the other nations of the union. In Amendment 269, my noble friend Lord Hain and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, are concerned about compliance and consistency with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, specifically with regard to the sustainable brand values of Wales.
In other parts of the Bill, we have expressed our concern at the quality of the Government’s discussions with the devolved Administrations and how that will translate into representations at the WTO. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, expressed this point in his remarks. Last Thursday—I remind noble Lords that this was at 10 minutes to midnight—he asked the Minister to clarify the status of the legislative consent Motion from the Scottish Parliament with regard to this part of the Bill. Regulations could have a significant impact on the design and implementation of support schemes in Scotland and Wales—by the way, no one has yet seen the full details of those schemes because the Government are yet to finalise them. By what mechanisms will the Secretary of State resolve any disputes that may arise with the devolved Administrations, such that he or she can fulfil the functions of Clause 40? Can the Minister confirm that any regulations made under the powers at Clause 40 will be only with the express agreement of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly by the affirmative resolution procedure, as in subsection (4)?
My noble friend Lord Foulkes also asked about subsection (3), which may have relevance in this respect. However, the power under Clause 40(3)(c) seems inexplicably wide and vague. I also have concerns about paragraph (c), which refers to provision for “a person”—unspecified—
“to exercise a discretion in dealing with any matter.”
No provision seems to have been given for any oversight or reporting publicly. Can the Minister explain what the Government have in mind in needing these powers?
The clause refers to the Secretary of State. It may be assumed that, as this is the Agriculture Bill and the responsibility of the Minister’s department, this will not be the Secretary of State for the trade department. Which Secretary of State will be responsible to Parliament on this matter? Where will the cross-over apply in relation to WTO engagement?
Finally, the WTO Agreement on Agriculture has long been seen as disadvantageous for developing countries, even though there are slightly different rules for such countries. There are strong arguments for being more sensitive to this and for other features of trade to be more beneficial towards development. Does the Minister see the inclusion of these powers in this Bill as being able to contribute to that goal in some way? How would the future role of the Government be made effective in reconciling their interests, as well as reconciling different ambitions of agriculture among the big trading blocs and developing countries?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for contributing to this interesting debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for his amendment. I declare my farming interests, as set out in the register.
Part 6 of the Bill allows regulations to be made to ensure compliance with the United Kingdom’s obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. I should say immediately to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, that Defra and the Defra Secretary of State will be responsible for the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. To be clear, the Agreement on Agriculture is an international treaty that sets out a number of general rules and commitments on agriculture trade practices, as agreed by WTO members. These measures fall under three pillars, the domestic support pillar being the focus of Part 6. The regulations will set out procedures and arrangements to ensure that the UK as a whole complies with existing obligations under this international treaty.
We have a bilateral agreement in place with the Welsh Government on the making and operation of regulations under Part 6, and we have offered to extend this agreement to the Scottish Government and DAERA Ministers in Northern Ireland. In practice, we are already working very closely with officials from all Administrations on drafting regulations under these powers. As the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, raised it, I can report that good progress has been made and that officials from all four Administrations are working together to finalise a draft of the regulations. A concordat will shortly set out the detail of administrative arrangements and other routine matters, in order for these regulations to be in place for the end of the year.
Furthermore, my honourable friend the Farming Minister, Victoria Prentis, placed on record in the other place a commitment to consult with the devolved Administrations on the making of the regulations under Part 6. We have therefore already given strong assurances of our commitment to consult with the devolved Administrations on the making of regulations under these powers.
In reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I reiterate that the Government fully recognise the devolved status of agriculture. That is why Clause 40(1) makes it clear that regulations can be made only for the narrow purpose of ensuring WTO compliance, a function that is reserved to the UK Parliament. Consultation with the devolved Administrations in cases such as this is a matter of good practice, and is done regularly on many matters. While it is usual practice to place commitments to consult on the record, as we have done in this case, we certainly do not wish to signal that consultation with the devolved Administrations will be carried out only where there is a legislative requirement. Indeed—and I hope noble Lords will understand this and will have seen this—Defra has a strong record of consulting the devolved Administrations where appropriate.
Amendment 265 seeks to remove the part of the clause which will allow functions to be conferred or delegated by the Secretary of State, or provide for a person to exercise discretion in dealing with matters relating to Part 6. Again, this was a point that the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, raised. This amendment would prevent the Secretary of State delegating routine matters, such as the collection and collation of information related to support schemes for agriculture. It is quite proper that routine matters such as data gathering can be delegated to independent bodies. For example, certain data on farm subsidy payments is currently collected for all four Administrations by the UK Co-ordinating Body—an arrangement that works well for all parties. The intention of Clause 40(3) is to mirror existing arrangements as far as possible, to ensure a smooth and efficient process for all Administrations.
In our debate on these amendments on Thursday, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, asked about the policy framework for limits on the regulations. I can confirm that discussions have been held with the devolved Administrations outlining our intention to put in place limits which will enable them to maintain existing levels of agricultural support spending, if they wish to do so. Any impact on the design and implementation of schemes will therefore be limited to measures to ensure that schemes do not breach WTO obligations. The opening subsection makes it clear that the power can be used only for ensuring compliance with WTO rules.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also asked about the future classification of agricultural support. As an independent WTO member, the UK will continue to have the same rights and obligations as the EU under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, and will retain the same avenues for challenging disputes raised by other WTO members. It is of course important that we get classifications right to avoid any risk of challenge. That is why Clause 42(3) allows for provision to be made for a process for the appropriate authorities to decide how different types of domestic support should be classified.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also asked about the status of the LCM in the Scottish Parliament. In May, the Scottish Government recommended legislative consent for all provisions that apply to Scotland and that those we maintain are in scope of the Sewel convention, except subsections (4) and (5) of Clause 42, which have now been removed by Amendment 268, in my name. Defra Ministers have written to their counterparts to inform them of the changes. We await the view of the Scottish Parliament, which is currently in recess.
On Amendments 266 and 269, and in response to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, during Thursday’s consideration, Part 6 deals exclusively with ensuring UK compliance with the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, as laid out in Clause 40(1). None of the areas cited in Amendments 266 and 269, or raised by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed—including animal welfare, food labelling, animal health, hygiene standards, plant health standards, food safety and traceability for agricultural products, and environmental standards—are within scope of the Agreement on Agriculture. As such, it would not be possible for regulations on these amendments to be made under Part 6. In reply to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, my understanding is that the amendments are compatible with WTO matters. However, I hope that the pragmatic points I have raised on the amendments in this group assure her that the Government seek to ensure the very important compliance with the WTO rules.
I hope that, with the reassurances I have given, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I have received one request to speak after the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed.
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s fulsome response, which is characteristic of him, as well as for the good news that the talks are progressing well. No doubt we will have an opportunity during the remaining stages of the Bill after the Recess to see how well they have gone.
I wanted to come back after the Minister. I hear what he said and we have heard, not only on this piece of legislation but previously on the Trade Bill—which we will come back to—Ministers saying from the Dispatch Box that they have good intentions of consultation with devolved Ministers. However, we have seen that they have had to apologise for not carrying out consultation, including on the continuity agreement on the Faroe Islands, which was so obviously an issue which linked with Scottish Ministers, and which was not carried out. That is why this House is right to continue to press this case.
I have two questions, which arise from the Minister’s full response. The first relates to the fact that the determination for these regulations will still be made by a UK department, which means, in effect, an English department. Are the Government closed to there being a distinct process, separate from a UK government department, which would look at WTO and state aid compliance? The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, was correct to say that these issues are linked with state aid issues. I know there is an ongoing question as to whether this should be dealt with by a UK government department or a separate body that looks at compliance. Is the Government’s mind closed on that?
The second question relates to the WTO. As Clause 40(5) states, this is about compliance with
“’the Agreement on Agriculture’ … (as modified from time to time).”
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, indicated that there are live discussions at the moment, especially with those developing countries that seek both changes to the Agreement on Agriculture and potentially a new agriculture agreement. With regard to the Trade and Agriculture Commission which is launching today, can the Minister indicate whether, as part of its remit to report to the Government, it will consider the ongoing discussions at the WTO about either a successor to the Agreement on Agriculture part of the WTO agreement or significant modifications to it? If there are modifications to it, there will have to be a new set of regulations to ensure that the UK is also compliant.
My Lords, I hope I have been very clear that we are dealing with a situation where ensuring WTO compliance is a function reserved not to the English Parliament but to the UK Parliament. I have also said, and demonstrated by the active discussions already ongoing within the four nations, that this is a matter on which we place great importance and on which we are working together. However, I emphasise that this is a function reserved to the UK Parliament. That will continue to be the case as we collaborate with the devolved Administrations. We have come to a bilateral agreement with the Welsh Government, and we await the Scottish Government and DAERA Ministers—our work has been successful and collaborative.
On any future development of the Agreement on Agriculture and the WTO agreement, we would all of course have to be mindful of what any such changes would be. At the moment, there are three distinct pillars of the Agreement on Agriculture, and I cannot crystal-ball-gaze as to what may happen in the future. The bottom line always is that the UK Government would have to be compliant and have to work to ensure compliance, as is their responsibility. The point that I have always made is that this is done, and should be done, working with all parts of the United Kingdom, so that this is of benefit to all parts of the United Kingdom. That is of course one of the strengths of having a United Kingdom.
My Lords, a great deal has happened since I moved this amendment at twenty minutes to midnight, last Thursday. I must say I am particularly glad that I did not try to spend the weekend in Spain, so here I am in Edinburgh, able to respond to the points that have been made during the debate.
There has been one very encouraging development over the weekend. I have been approached by the special adviser to the rural affairs Cabinet Secretary in the Scottish Government, seeking to work closely with us in considering amendments in Committee and on Report. This is a very good development. I pointed out that the Minister earlier on Thursday did say that he would talk with his colleagues about further meetings with the various Governments between Committee and Report. I also pointed out that a number of Scottish Peers are interested in this Bill—my noble friend Lord McConnell, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and many others. If we as Back-Benchers co-operate and discuss things with the Scottish Government, that can only be of assistance in opening up agreements between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Governments. I am certainly willing to be very helpful and as co-operative as I can.
Since this is the last time I am speaking, I thank the Minister for his usual courtesy—he is unfailingly courteous to us all in these debates—and the Minister and shadow Ministers for their diligence. They have been really diligent during the course of this Committee. I also add my thanks to the Public Bill Office and the Government Whips’ Office, which have been really helpful to those of us who have moved amendments. In what is a new and difficult procedure for us all, they have really helped. I am sure other Members who have moved amendments will agree with me on that.
Having said all that, I look forward to returning on Report to the points I have raised during the discussion on this amendment. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 264 withdrawn.
Amendments 265 to 267 not moved.
Clause 40 agreed.
Clause 41 agreed.
Clause 42: Regulations under section 40: classification of domestic support and provision of information
268: Clause 42, page 38, line 28, leave out subsections (4) and (5)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the specific power in clause 42(4) for the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the Scottish Ministers, the Welsh Ministers or a Northern Ireland Department to provide information to the Secretary of State in connection with the Agreement on Agriculture. Clause 42(5), which relates to that power, is also omitted.
Amendment 268 agreed.
Amendment 269 not moved.
Clause 42, as amended, agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 270. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
270: After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—
“International Trade Standards Commission
(1) The Government must establish an International Trade Standards Commission within 12 months of the passing of this Act. (2) The International Trade Standards Commission must establish criteria for maintaining standards as high as or higher than standards applied within the United Kingdom at the time of import for agricultural goods imported under a trade agreement between the United Kingdom and any other state.(3) “Agricultural goods” under subsection (2) includes, but is not limited to, standards relating to—(a) animal welfare,(b) protection of the environment,(c) food safety, hygiene and traceability, and(d) plant health.(4) A Minister of the Crown may not lay a copy of an international trade agreement before Parliament under section 20(1) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 that contains provisions relating to the importation of agricultural and food products into the United Kingdom unless satisfied that the criteria established by the International Trade Standards Commission under subsection (2) have been met.”
My Lords, I am delighted to open the group of amendments leading off with that in my name and to thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Henig and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for lending their support to this amendment.
It is very timely, as today we learned that the official launch of the new Trade and Agriculture Commission has taken place. We learned that the commission will report directly to the International Trade Secretary and will produce an advisory report at the end of its six months’ work. I congratulate my noble friend, his department and the Department for International Trade on recognising the wish for such a commission. I hope he will look kindly on the need for Amendment 270 and possibly some of the other amendments in this group.
A million people have signed up to say we would like to support our farmers. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, people care much more about where their food comes from and the standards to which it has been produced. In Amendment 270 I ask that the Government establish an international trade standards commission within 12 months of passing the Act. At the time I drafted and submitted this amendment, we did not think even in our wildest dreams that there would be such a commission, so obviously the name change is not reflected in this amendment.
My disappointment is that the trade commission is not permanent; its work will wind up after only six months. We were told at its official launch that it will function as an advisory board to the Department for International Trade and the Secretary. I make a plea that the advice and recommendations given by the international trade commission be as binding on the Government as those of the Migration Advisory Committee. We heard from our noble friend Lady Williams at the Second Reading of the immigration Bill that the Home Office follows the MAC’s recommendations very closely indeed. That is the sort of recommendation-following I would like to see from the new Trade and Agriculture Commission.
I believe that it should be permanent and that the model we should look to is that in other countries with which we seek trade agreements. For example, why not model it on the US International Trade Commission, which is independent, non-partisan and quasi-judicial? It is a federal agency fulfilling a range of trade-related mandates, providing analysis of international trade issues to the President and Congress and adjudicating on intellectual property and trade disputes. We could look to similar trade commissions that are also permanent and independent in New Zealand, Australia and other such authorities.
In proposed subsection (2) of Amendment 270, we say:
“The International Trade Standards Commission must establish criteria for maintaining standards as high as or higher than standards applied within the United Kingdom at the time of import for agricultural goods imported under a trade agreement between the United Kingdom and any other state.”
I congratulate and thank my noble friend the Minister, who confirmed on Thursday that Britain will not lower its high standards of animal health, welfare and environmental protection, but today I make a plea to my noble friend: we need fair competition and a level playing field. We need to give our farmers an assurance that they will not be undercut by imports of substandard farm produce and that their good husbandry will be recognised. It is good husbandry in particular that we should take cognisance of, rather than necessarily the processes.
A number of figures on stock density were bandied about on Thursday. I put it to the Committee that in the US—it is a matter of note—there are no federal laws on the control of stock density for pigs. In nine states, sow stalls are banned. In the remaining states, it is legally permissible to keep sows in stalls for the entire 16-week gestation period. Similarly, sow stalls are legally permitted in Brazil. I applaud the fact that in the UK we have a gold standard for stock density for pigs and that we currently have a relatively level playing field with our competitors in the European Union.
Proposed subsection (3) refers to:
“‘Agricultural goods’ under subsection (2)”,
“includes, but is not limited to, standards relating to … animal welfare … protection of the environment … food safety, hygiene and traceability, and … plant health.”
On a personal note, I will probably be accused of being protectionist. I am protectionist. I am protective of the chicken, the cattle and the lamb produced under potentially inhumane and intensive conditions that we would simply not tolerate in this country. Their production frequently bears no resemblance to ours, and those imports should not have any place against the produce we currently produce to our high standards in this country.
In proposed subsection (4), we go on to say:
“A Minister of the Crown may not lay a copy of an international trade agreement before Parliament under section 20(1) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 that contains provisions relating to the importation of agricultural and food products into the United Kingdom unless satisfied that the criteria established by the International Trade Standards Commission”—
now the Trade and Agriculture Commission, obviously—
“under subsection (2) have been met.”
That encapsulates my wish that the commission will give binding advice and operate independently and that the advice will be followed by both the international trade and agriculture departments. At the moment, it appears that every time a press release is issued by the new commission it is issued from the department, and that does not demonstrate any act of independence whatever. I hope my noble friend’s department, Defra, and the Department for International Trade will look at this.
You cannot have a perverse situation whereby farmers continue to meet our high standards of trade, welfare and environmental protection, only to be undercut by potentially substandard imports from third countries. I have a question for my noble friend. I understand that we have probably left the expert trade in agriculture group, which meets fortnightly under the auspices of the EU Commission. What will replace it? I hope the replacement will be the new Trade and Agriculture Commission but if not, which body will hold the Government’s feet to the fire as they set out the detail and criteria that will be followed in negotiating international trade agreements? In my view, the Trade and Agriculture Commission will be the best place to do so but should have sight of trade texts and provide detailed feedback, which is why Amendment 270 is so badly needed. If the commission is to wind up after six months, that is not satisfactory.
I will comment briefly on two of the other amendments in this group. Amendment 271, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and other noble Lords, is well thought out, but my concern is that it does not set out the role of the international trade commission or who would draft criteria against which the international trade agreements being concluded would be measured. Subsection (5)(b) of Amendment 271 just refers to a take-note report submitted, presumably, to both Houses. I believe that there should be full scrutiny through the normal means of Select Committees, assuming that the trade commission will be a permanent body.
Amendment 279 again has been well thought out and is commendable, but I believe it is fatally flawed. Having read it, I wait with great anticipation to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Curry, says. It is not satisfactory that the report will have been submitted but we cannot revert to the Trade and Agriculture Commission because it will already have been wound up by then.
In summary, we must not have a credibility gap. I am enthusiastic about the launch of the Trade and Agriculture Commission today, but it must be allowed to do its duty. It must be a permanent body and accountable to the relevant bodies, particularly Select Committees of both Houses. It should have comprehensive terms of reference, which include current and future trade talks. Its recommendations should be mandatory, in the same way as those of the Migration Advisory Committee. I beg to move.
If there is one strong theme running through many of the amendments, it is that of standards. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have raised concerns, whether on animal health and welfare, on husbandry methods in agriculture and horticulture, on environmental and climate aspects, on food, nutrition and labelling the final product, or on intra-UK relationships and international aspects at the WTO. They are all important, because they all matter.
This country has decided. The answer is that the UK wants to bring back control, so that decisions are made at UK level. This group of amendments determines how our standards will be set, at the outset of our EU exit, and how they will be maintained.
I shall speak to Amendment 271, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hodgson and Lady Bakewell, for adding their names in support. This amendment is needed, as the Agriculture Bill is a domestic measure setting a new approach to food production support by setting new domestic standards in law. That includes all present laws and regulations that pertain in the UK. All food, wherever it comes from, must adhere to this basic threshold. It is important that domestic agricultural production is on a level playing field with all production of food available and sold to UK consumers. Let us be clear: these are food production standards, not just food safety standards. British consumers have constantly demanded high production standards even, at times, in excess of standards within the EU.
It is not just my postbag that shows concern about the lack of application shown by the Government. Which? has conducted extensive research on the matter and produced a report that finds that 95% of respondents agree with the statement that it is important for the UK to maintain existing food standards. Interestingly, Which? finds that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than those from higher socioeconomic households to believe that imported food produced to lower standards is available in the UK—11% compared to 16% in more affluent households.
Amendment 271 puts domestic standards into the Agriculture Bill and ensures full accountability for the process with which imported food must comply in the UK’s parliamentary system. It takes the Parish amendment, which was deliberated by the Commons earlier, and makes various key improvements. For any chapters of a trade agreement relating to agri-food, the original Paris Agreement prohibited ratification of the entire trade deal unless certain steps were taken, including regulations being laid to specify the standards that would apply to food imports. A trade deal does not only have to be, on balance, beneficial to the UK in its provisions.
Given that this is the Agriculture Bill, this amendment narrows the scope of the Parish amendment to food, but still requires the same regulations to confirm which standards would apply. It would also require the Commons to approve formally the relevant chapters of trade deals and for your Lordships’ House to debate them. This follows the same model that was used for the Brexit ratification process, so that any constitutional conflict would be avoided and the decision to rest made in the House of Commons. This would ensure better accountability of the process for maintaining food standards, with the formal setting of standards across the United Kingdom and the full participation of the devolved Administrations. This would avoid conflict arising between the reserved matters that the Government may claim and devolved outcomes that the devolved Administrations may reject.
This side of the House believes that Amendment 271 to enshrine domestic standards into law is a demonstrable first step that must be taken, so that future production and trade policy decisions do not result in a flood of substandard food on to the UK market. We do not believe that provisions contained within the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 are sufficient to safeguard against future regulations, under the Specific Food Hygiene (Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and others, which could dilute UK standards.
This amendment has nothing to do with any trade commission and is set up independently of the other amendments being tabled on a trade commission. The simplest way to decide this matter is by enshrining the UK’s position here in law. The Conservative voters who read the Conservative Party manifesto can be forgiven for thinking this is what they were going to get, when they voted to get Brexit done. The Conservative Government are happy to enshrine Brexit twice in legislation; they are happy to enshrine the position on Huawei into law and to do it again on wearing face masks. I would welcome the Minister’s U-turn on food standards as well, as soon as he can make it.
My Lords, here we are on day seven of four—Douglas Adams would be proud of us. But seven days in Committee, for a Bill of this importance and relevance, with the huge impact it will have, is not particularly long.
My Amendment 273, which is supported by the noble Lords, Lord Randall, Lord Greaves and Lord Addington, for which I thank them, is relatively simple. It would simply ensure that UK standards regarding food safety, the environment and animal welfare cannot be undermined by imports produced to lower standards. That seems self-evident to me. In fact, this group of amendments is one of the most significant in the whole Bill, because it is the one area that is strongly supported by the public. It is a fact that the Government have managed to ensure that there is an opposition of green groups, farmers, NGOs, producers, supermarkets—a whole mix of people who would not usually share a particular view. If the Government tried to ignore this issue, I hope there would be a Back-Bench revolt, because it is incredibly important.
There is huge recognition out there that trade deals are a threat to standards. We need protections in law to ensure that these standards are not undermined. The US Secretary of Agriculture has described our environmental and animal welfare standards as protectionism which should be removed in a trade deal. Well, I am with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on this: I want to protect. That is a very good word and we should all be proud of and want to use it on issues that the majority of Britons really care about. I am terrified that our Government, desperate for the political victory of securing a US trade deal, will give in to the Americans on this issue. It is not just the United States, of course. What about future dealings with, for example, Brazil, which burns huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest to make way for cattle pastures? Trade policy is a huge tool for international diplomacy. Your Lordships must be able to trust the Government to make the right decisions when they make these deals.
The merits of these amendments aside, we will have to have this same fight again on the Trade Bill. The Minister might even say that the Trade Bill is the proper place to discuss these issues. But one has only to read Hansard on the Trade Bill in the other place from last week to see that Ministers told MPs that the Agriculture Bill had dealt with all these issues and that MPs had nothing more to worry about. It is normally considered out of order to refer to proceedings in the other place, but it is very important when the Government simultaneously tell each House the opposite thing. That is exceptional and needs drawing to your Lordships’ attention.
I hope the Minister will commit to working constructively to bring forward an amendment on these issues on Report. I am certain that we will pass one of these amendments, and it might as well be one that the Government can accept. We will pull together on this, along with the British public, to make sure we protect our farmers, our farming regimes, our standards on animal welfare and the way our food is produced.
My Lords, I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said about public interest in this particular issue. I also follow my noble friend Lord Foulkes in thanking the Minister, the public Bill staff, the Government Whips and the broadcast facility staff for their marathon effort and courtesy.
My Amendment 276 would require 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. It was first proposed by the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, the Conservative MP Neil Parish, and is 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 Wide Fund for Nature. It reflects a lack of trust that we can rely on the Conservative Party manifesto, which promised:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
Sadly, the amendment was voted down by government loyalists in the other place. We note that whenever Ministers have been challenged in debates on the Bill to back up this pledge with legal protections, all that has been offered have been vague aspirational murmurings. I hope I do not give any offence to the Minister, who is diligent on these matters, but that is the truth.
The legal protections that European Union membership provided in these and many other areas, including agricultural workers’ rights and targets for reaching net-zero emissions for the agriculture industry, are nowhere to be found in the Bill. It has become clear that the Government regard such protections for our farmers and the environment as a barrier to a trade deal with the United States. So desperate are the Brexiteers to declare UDI from the EU that they are prepared to prostrate themselves at the door of Donald Trump’s “America first” trade and sell out our farmers, while turning a blind eye to environmental degradation and poor animal welfare standards abroad.
Now we are no longer part of a major trading bloc —the biggest trading bloc in the world—the Brexiteers’ sacred cow of sovereignty will not prevent Washington using its superior economic weight to set the terms of any deal with an isolated United Kingdom. British farmers and our food processors would be undercut by imports of food whose production is banned here. Of course, cheap, poorer-quality US food imports will remain cheap only as long as our domestic production proves viable enough to provide a meaningful competitive market. Farmers would face a choice between lowering standards and seeing their livelihoods destroyed. Minette Batters of the National Farmers’ Union has said:
“Farmers are going to feel betrayed … I don’t recall anyone selling a vision of post-Brexit Britain as one involving lower-standard food filling shop shelves while British farmers … go out of business.”
If UK agriculture cannot survive, prices of imports will rise, leaving the country dependent on imported food of dubious quality.
Lowering UK standards will, in turn, create barriers to agreeing a trade deal with the European Union, which is needed to preserve farmers’ important EU export markets, since US food standards are incompatible with those of the EU. Europe is not only the most significant destination by far for our agricultural exports; in addition, the EU has negotiated international trade agreements on our behalf with our most important non-EU trading partners, so replacement deals will also have to be negotiated to ensure continued agricultural access to those markets. The EU is also our largest source of food imports, providing fully 30% of our food supplies, so more empty shelves could be in store.
Even before the Brexit decision was made, UK farming already faced major challenges, including increasing globalisation, international competition, changing consumer expectations and preferences, accelerating technological innovation, and longer-term pressures brought about by climate change. As everyone knows, farmers are subject to price volatility and market pressures that continue to put their livelihoods at risk. The added uncertainty of future trade deals with the EU puts their future export markets at risk. The EU provides a vital destination for UK food exports, with the Irish Republic, France, Germany and the Netherlands being the principal markets.
A trade deal with the US would also threaten the National Health Service and would be imposed without consent. The Trade Bill, which had its First Reading in your Lordships’ House last week, makes no provision for parliamentary scrutiny of future trade deals and will grant the Government Henry VIII powers to change the law on trade agreements without parliamentary approval. The devolved Administrations do not have any role in negotiating or approving international trade treaties.
Rather than taking back control, the UK could even become a satellite state of Donald Trump’s US in a race to the bottom. That is the reality of these harmful plans for a hard Brexit, which threatens not just our food producers but animal welfare and the environment. The pandemic has shown the importance of food security, a healthy diet and a harmonious relationship with nature. These plans need to be opposed before it is too late.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, and other noble Lords for their perseverance. The Minister has been granted the patience of Job. I fear that his patience may be frayed when we reach Report, but we thank him, the Public Bill Office and others for their enormous work in this marathon.
I will speak to Amendment 278 in my name, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for lending his name to it. It is clear from this group of amendments that an underlying fear exists. I want to see trade deals with third-party countries, but on the basis of helping the United Kingdom grow its economy and be more efficient, not of undermining significant parts of our industry. Over the last 40-odd years, the Government, consumer bodies, processors, retailers and farmers have expended an enormous amount of time, energy and money ensuring that UK food is produced to the highest standards possible. Why we would suddenly allow very inferior food products produced to a much lesser quality and standard into the United Kingdom to compete against our own superior goods I do not know, but it is possible.
I thank the Minister for arranging a meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, and others, so that we can at least hear his point of view, and that of the Department for International Trade, but there are too many straws in the wind that concern me. We hear talk of tariffs being applied to imported products, whether from the US or elsewhere, to level the pitch, but what is introduced one day can be taken away the next. The Minister must understand that not all parts of the United Kingdom are playing on the same level pitch. My part of the country is still in the EU and, pertaining to the previous group of amendments, we are still subject to state aid rules. Who will negotiate and implement those, and who will deal with any infringement of those? It is unclear. From our point of view—this has resonance for other parts of the UK—the standards we will be required to adhere to will be the standards of the European Union. There is nothing wrong with having different standards, provided there is an equivalence, and that can apply also to finance and other things, but who is to determine the equivalence?
This goes back to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, when she introduced this debate. A flash-in-the-pan commission will certainly not be able to do it. With no disrespect to the Minister and his colleagues, last October, when the withdrawal agreement was being made, promises were made about the arrangements not only to people in Northern Ireland but to the whole country. Those promises were not kept. Many of our representatives ended up endorsing a proposal that produced a border in the Irish Sea, and yet there continues to be a denial of this. Lest someone from the Box sends the Minister a note telling him that Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the UK market, I point out that this is not guaranteed, because it is subject to negotiation with the European Union, which at present could require us to make export declarations if we are sending products to Great Britain. The Minister needs to bear that in mind.
We do not want to make life difficult for our international trade negotiators, but if a situation arose whereby our farmers were confronted with different and lower standards in Great Britain, then because Great Britain is our biggest single market, automatically our farmers would be uncompetitive, and that would apply also to those operating in less favoured areas, such as the Scottish and the Welsh. This is a very serious business that we are discussing. I know that the Minister will be anxious to reassure us, and I have absolutely no doubt that he is sincere in that undertaking, but between 2 October and 17 October last year, I saw black become white. Therefore, he cannot allow an undertaking to be sufficient. It must have a basis in law, and this Bill, since we are discussing agriculture, seems a logical place to put it.
Someone who has been in the system for a long time knows that when an amendment comes, it can be argued that “Now is not the right time, we are in the middle of negotiations” or “This is not the right vehicle because we have another vehicle coming down the track which would be a more suitable location for it.” We can deal only with the vehicle that is in front of us at any point in time. What might come around the corner is fine, but if there is a sincere commitment to maintaining current or equivalent standards, it should have no difficulty being written on to the face of the Bill. Consumers and producers throughout the United Kingdom are basically supportive of that. Were it our tradition in this House to vote on amendments in Committee, I would pursue that today, but another opportunity will arise on Report in the autumn. I urge the Minister to ensure that there is a positive response then.
Some of us find ourselves left in the EU and required by an international treaty, supported by the UK Government, to adhere to EU regulations, even though we will have no input on them, which is another matter. There is so much at stake here, and we believe that maintaining our standards is good for the health of our nation, our producers and our food security and supply, and for allowing the sector to reinvest and be efficient. However, if we decide, for whatever political reason, to cut and run, which could happen, and since decisions can be made overnight, as we have seen in recent months, we need some legal assurances that we are not going to be left in such a position in the future.
I appeal to my noble friend the Minister to ensure that when we come to Report, he and his colleagues consider the widespread views in this House and ensure that our agriculture sector, food processing and all the welfare issues that have been addressed are not forgotten about, and accept that a nod and a wink will simply not be sufficient.
My Lords, I declare my interests as listed in the register. It is a huge privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Empey. I appreciate the comments of all the previous speakers on this group of amendments.
I will speak to Amendment 279 in my name, and thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, for his support. I apologise in advance for taking slightly longer in introducing this amendment. It is impossible and would be quite wrong to run groupings of amendments in order of importance, but this group is among the most important we have debated over the seven days that we have spent on the Bill this month.
While having my long-awaited haircut last week, the hairdresser asked, “Are you involved in this chlorinated chicken issue?”, as it has become known, such is the level of public awareness. I am slightly concerned about being accused of jingoism in this wide-ranging debate about our production standards. Having farmed all my life, I know that our production standards are not always perfect. However, over the past 35 years that I have been involved at national level, we have striven to respond to consumer concerns, and even anticipate changes, and react accordingly. This is a dynamic space, and the standards of crop and livestock husbandry, including animal welfare, food safety and care for the environment, that we have in place today have been hard-won and are being delivered every day on our farms.
Standards are reviewed every year to make sure that they are relevant and appropriate. We absolutely must not undermine consumer confidence in our food. I experienced the consequences of that in the 1990s with BSE in beef when I chaired the MLC: beef sales dropped by 30% overnight. Scaremongering over hormones in imported beef could have a similar impact.
It is important to state that I had been working on this amendment and had it ready to table before the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, announced the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which has been launched today. Subsequently, the membership was also disclosed. I then found myself in a slight quandary. Do I table the amendment or not in view of the announcement? After careful consideration, I decided to proceed with the amendment for reasons that I will outline in a moment.
I was delighted by the announcement that the Government plan to establish the commission and I commend the Government for taking action. It was a pragmatic and sensible response to the rising tide of public concern about this issue. The appointment of Tim Smith as chair of the commission is an inspired choice. I know him well, as I do many other members of the commission. I am absolutely confident that, under Tim’s leadership, the commission will be thorough, will carry out its task with diligence and integrity and will seek additional expertise and advice if needed, which it will be, to ensure a good understanding not only of the issues at stake but the global marketplace that we are trading in and stakeholder views, in particular those of the environmental NGOs and consumer organisations. So I welcome this commission.
I have three fundamental concerns, hence my reason for deciding to proceed with this amendment. The first is the authority and influence of the commission. The second, linked to the first, is the role of Parliament and the obligation on the Government to respond to the commission’s initial report. My final concern is the longevity of the commission. There is no question that when the Secretary of State announced the establishment of this commission, it was an attempt to head off pressure to include a standards clause in the Bill. Much public comment since the announcement has described this as a sop and described the commission as toothless. This must not be a sop. The role of the commission is hugely important. It has a critical role, not only in defending our existing domestic standards but, importantly, in influencing future global standards of international trade. The current terms of reference understate the importance of the role and the influence of the commission.
Under the current terms, the commission will set up for six months and will submit an advisory report to the Secretary of State, which will be presented to Parliament. It will then be disbanded and disappear into the mist. There is no obligation on the Secretary of State to take its recommendations seriously or respond positively, and no clear indication that Parliament will be given dedicated time to scrutinise and debate the recommendations of the commission. The amendment addresses that weakness.
Finally, on longevity, I fully understand the Government’s reluctance to create another quango, but I disagree with the short-term remit of the commission. In response to comments earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I refer to proposed new subsection (14) of my amendment. It states that the Secretary of State
“may … confer further functions on the TSC”—
the trading standards commission—after its initial report has been published. Under proposed new subsection (15), the Secretary of State can amend the initial period of six months,
“provided that such an extension is agreed by the TSC.”
I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness about the need for it to have a continuing role. As the noble Baroness said, similar bodies exist in New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States and they have an ongoing role. That is critical and we should follow the proven example of other trading nations. The task of the TSC for the first six months is to set out the road map—to define the terms under which trade deals should be negotiated. It would be irresponsible then to leave matters hanging in a vacuum and have no independent scrutiny of the deals negotiated to ensure that they conform to the recommended framework.
I have one other important point. Agreeing a trade deal and having our global trading partners sign up to an agreed standard is the first easy step. It is not the end of the journey. There is a need for an ongoing monitoring role to ensure compliance with the agreed standards. I am deeply concerned about that. Every farm in Britain that is a member of an assurance scheme —the vast majority—whether organic schemes, LEAF or Red Tractor, is inspected every year to ensure compliance. One of the commission’s tasks would be to ensure, as far as possible, that that element is included in an ongoing monitoring role. Agreeing standards is, as I said, easy. Verifying that those standards are in place will be a huge challenge.
In conclusion, I reiterate what I said at the beginning: I welcome the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and its membership. The amendment is not proposed to replace the commission with an alternative body, but preferably to strengthen, enhance and extend its role as already announced. It is very much in the Government’s interests to accept the amendment, and I hope that the Minister will be able to do so. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, my Amendment 280 is in this group, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, for his support. It is slightly different from the groups of amendments that we have already heard about, although I support most of the comments made in support of those amendments.
The specifics of this amendment relate to the lamb and beef sectors, which potentially face an existential threat in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The amendment therefore calls on the Government in that event to produce a report for Parliament to deliver their analysis of the impact on the lamb and beef sectors within three months of no deal having happened.
The situation for cattle and sheep farmers in the event of no deal, or indeed a hard Brexit, is unclear and complicated. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has produced a series of reports outlining the challenges facing these key livestock sectors, which are crucial to the uplands of England and pretty well the whole of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
According to ADHB, around 82% of beef exports and possibly more, amounting to £400 million to £500 million a year, goes to the EU, while 89% of lamb exports, worth more than £400 million a year, also goes to the EU. That is not only crucial to the profitability of UK livestock farms, but disruption could dramatically upset the supply and demand balance in the domestic market. There is also a significant export market in live calves and lambs for finishing, which contributes to the viability of many farms.
In the weeks after the referendum result, I was informed that in some livestock markets, lamb sales for export fell by 80%. Although demand recovered, because by definition there was no alternative source to be found at short notice, it gives an indication of how things will change. Of course, in the meantime, EU importers have had a chance to plan.
In the event of no deal, tariffs will be imposed at levels which could make the trade uneconomic. The tariff on a beef carcass is 92% and on a lamb carcass it is 45%. Not only that, there are additional tariffs on cuts which can add up to over 100%—more than the cost of the cut itself. In addition, even if we secure a tariff-free agreement, all meat products entering the EU from third countries, which will be us, have to be veterinary approved to EU standards and inspected at the point of entry. Without such approval, we will be banned from exporting lamb and beef to the EU altogether. Will the UK be able to secure EU-approved health certificates by 31 December? How will the need for border inspection affect costs? Despite assurances to the contrary, we know there will be a massive increase in bureaucracy even with a deal. The government website is advising people to prepare for this by hiring a customs agent or taking on extra staff.
The European Affairs Committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a member, looked at the Brexit arrangements being put in place by the Port of Dublin at a cost of more than €30 million. They involved substantial changes to the port layout to provide time and space for inspection plus back-up lorry parks off-site to manage the flow through the port. At the moment, a beef sandwich for sale in Marks & Spencer Dublin is shipped in from Liverpool. How will that have to change in the event of a hard Brexit? How will cross-border movements be managed? It will surely depend on trust, and the refusal of the UK Government to allow the European Commission to have an office in Belfast does not bode well. The unique arrangement of the Irish protocol, and the need for cross-border movement of beef and lamb, can work only if the origins of the products are clear and transparent.
Prices of beef and lamb may fall, which may seem to be to the benefit of the British consumer in the short run. However, if there is a large-scale welfare cull by farmers unable to feed the animals with no market in prospect, much of the stock may never reach the shelves. In any case, in that situation the UK lacks the cold storage to absorb a mass cull on this unprecedented scale. At the same time, if it sees the rearing of sheep and cattle undermined and bankrupt farmers—some of them will be bankrupt in these circumstances—leaving the sector, it could lead to future shortages and a radical change in the landscape, especially of our uplands. To prevent that happening will require rapid and substantial government intervention.
It is argued that we can find new markets, but in a fiercely competitive international marketplace we will not be able to replace the volume and value of the EU market any time soon. On day one, we lose the trade deals in place for the EU, with in most cases no successor deal in play or in short or even medium-term prospect. In any case, what is the cost and environmental logic of shipping meat across the world instead of to our neighbours? I know New Zealand does it, but on a radically different agricultural regime which we cannot match. For UK farmers, it may not even be profitable. If we leave the transition without a deal, the disruption will be immediate and catastrophic. We will not have significant alternative trade deal markets. The likelihood of any deal with the USA by then is nil. If a deal is ever negotiated, it will be on “America first” terms, and if we end up importing products that do not meet our own or EU standards the EU will insist on rigorous measures to prevent them reaching its markets.
Obviously, this is a probing amendment, but it has serious intent. No deal would plunge the sector into immediate, and for many farmers existential, crisis. A report within three months will not be enough without immediate action, but at least farmers will know that there will be a quick assessment. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment or to propose a similar government alternative. We are facing not just the prospect of millions of lambs for premature slaughter but the decimation of a sector which dwarfs the fishing industry in its importance in terms of jobs, value, heritage and landscape, yet is largely ignored by Government and the media. I hope the Government and the House will recognise that no deal will be so disruptive in this sector that it will transform British farming for a generation and change the landscape of much of the United Kingdom.
It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie. At the outset, I join others in thanking the Minister for his patience, tolerance and good humour throughout the seven days of this Committee. It is much appreciated across the House.
I shall speak to Amendment 270, to which I was happy to put my name, and I am very pleased to support the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, who moved it so ably. We have already heard this afternoon that the Government have set up their own Trade and Agriculture Commission. Unlike the ones envisaged in these amendments, it is a bit of a makeshift. It will sit for only six months in the first instance, draw up an advisory report for the Government and then disperse. However, many of the issues it has been charged with advising on are extremely relevant to the Bill. For example, one of the tasks is to look at what sort of
“Trade policies the Government should adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers, while ensuring the sector remains competitive and that animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined.”
Another of its tasks is:
“How the UK engages the WTO to build a coalition that helps advance higher animal welfare standards across the world.”
These are important issues and show that the Government agree with many of the sentiments expressed in this amendment, but, unfortunately, at the moment the Government’s commission is to help them to navigate the next six months only. The Government’s commission has no parliamentary oversight, as we have heard, and the RSPCA commented that it will not protect in any effective way United Kingdom animal welfare standards, so I think we must try to push the Government further along this road.
At the moment, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, there will be little chance to scrutinise the trade agreements which will have such a major impact on United Kingdom farming and agriculture and there is no parliamentary oversight of such agreements. Taking control of agricultural policy from the EU should not mean the Government taking more control with no oversight and no role for Parliament or any of the other agencies. There has to be the opportunity for more scrutiny and debate than is at present being proposed.
On Thursday, I spoke about strong public support for existing standards of food production and animal hygiene and welfare, and that has been supported this afternoon by other speakers. We heard, very importantly, from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that Northern Ireland will retain its existing high standards in these areas, and I have no doubt that Scotland and Wales will wish to do so as well. That seems to be a very strong argument for a body such as is being proposed in Amendment 270 to uphold and oversee the standards regime. We have heard that other countries have such bodies. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, told us about Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States of America. It is found to be extremely useful in those countries. We in the UK at the moment have no such machinery. I think we need to find a way of establishing a standards regime with regard to food, animal welfare and hygiene—a regime that then becomes part of our governmental and parliamentary machinery.
I recognise that these are relevant to the Trade Bill as well as to this Bill, but because they will have such a profound effect on all the issues discussed in this Bill, I think we have to discuss them in the context of the Agriculture Bell as well as the Trade Bill. We may well hear the argument that the Government have a set of powers in negotiating trade treaties and that they must not be undermined. We have heard that argument before and I am readying myself to hear it again at the end of this group of amendments, but we have to find a way of promoting consensus on standards across not just England but Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have to do it in a non-partisan way. That is why a commission along the lines set out in Amendments 270 and 279 could play such an important role and why I put my name to Amendment 270 and hope that the Minister and the Government give it their most urgent support.
My Lords, I put my name to Amendment 271 with a degree of sadness, just as, I am sure, the current Defra Secretary of State did when he was temporarily out of office last year. He put down his own, similar amendment to the Bill as it was last year and wrote an article in the Guardian supporting his views.
As others have said, the problem lies with the Government’s manifesto commitment, saying:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”,
and then trying to reconcile that with achieving a trade deal with America and, inevitably, other countries. To make the situation more complicated, at the same time we are trying to prove to the EU negotiators that, if anything, the standard of products available in the UK, and thus possibly available for re-export to the EU, will go up and not down—that there will be no regression on what has become known as the level playing field. A further factor of course is that the British public are adamant that we should support our farmers against cheap imports. There is absolutely no wish, out there, for a race to the bottom. Having had numerous assurances from numerous Ministers that there is nothing to worry about, it seems odd to me that we cannot have something on the face of the Bill.
As far as I am concerned, this is not a food safety issue. The Food Standards Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs have all the powers they need to audit and control the quality and safety of the food being sold in this country, so there is no need to worry, for instance, about chlorinated chicken as such. It is the production methods, not the product, that matters. If the President of the United States and his regulators think that disinfectant is the cure for all ills—including, apparently, Covid 19—then that is up to them.
However, if certain states—and it is only certain states—allow their farmers to breed their chickens with a higher density than is legally allowed in the UK and they do not have to clear out the litter between batches, and we are then forced to accept their product as imports, that is something that we should get hot under the collar about. Under their sub-standard regulations, production costs are much cheaper. Capital costs per head, for instance, are some 13% cheaper. Therefore, if our farmers are to compete on an equal footing, they have to risk going to prison for breaking our laws or we have to change our laws in a race to the bottom—or, best of all, we should just insist on some form of certification indicating that the US farms supplying us with chickens are breeding to our standards. It is not a very difficult thing to do. Every farmer in this country supplying a supermarket has to have every aspect of their farming processes supervised and certified by that supermarket.
Similarly, hormones in beef are not really a problem in the human diet—although they might undermine consumer confidence, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has just said—but many would argue that their use is an unnatural way of rearing meat. Again, the main point is: do we lower our standards, which have been in place in this country for some 35 years, or do we just say no? Ractopamine in pigs is another matter altogether, of course. It is an additive used to manipulate growth and is known to cause lameness, trembling and shortness of breath. It should not be used to produce pork eaten in this country. If we were to import such pork—not that I think we will—it would be tantamount to exporting animal cruelty.
This is not a party-political issue. The Government are aware that farmers have the people on their side. More than a million people signed the NFU petition, and voters will not forgive the Government if they sell our farmers down the river. I think their gut feeling is that, if it were the other way round and the US was insisting that we raised our standards before we could export to it, there would be absolutely no doubt that we would jump to it without a murmur. That is what happened in the 1980s when New Zealand wanted to sell its lamb to China. New Zealand had to produce an entirely different product. That is the way these things work. Who on earth wants to market their goods on the basis that they are cheap and dodgy?
Turning to the letter from the DIT on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, I have to say that I am not overly impressed. Both the commission’s terms of reference and its output would be at the beck and call of the DIT, its short life would hardly allow its members to get their feet under the table, and its recommendations would be only advisory. In other words, it would have no teeth and a very short-term say. I fear that it is more of a PR sop than a genuine effort to provide a solution to this problem.
Personally, I am not fussed which solution we as a House support: this detailed amendment—Amendment 271, to which I have put my name—the rerun of the Neil Parish amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, or Amendment 279 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Curry. However, on the latter, like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I would have to insist that his commission was given, on the face of the Bill and not just at the whim of a Secretary of State, an extended life to continue its work on trade deals into the longer-term future. Anyone who thinks that all trade deals will be wrapped up in a year or two is fooling themselves. I suspect that the key period will be from three to 10 years from now, so it is vital that this commission can still do its work during that time.
Let us think what a difference we could make. As the current Secretary of State at Defra said in his Guardian article last year:
“In the US, legislation on animal welfare is woefully deficient”.
Maybe we can help with that. We should note, for instance, that in the EU free trade agreement with Chile, the EU insisted on animal welfare provisions in the agreement, and Chile’s animal husbandry and slaughter standards have indeed gone up since. We should remember that we in the UK are the third biggest market for food imports in the world, and countries will remain very keen to sell their products to us, even if we stick to our guns—maybe especially if we stick to our guns. Being able to sell into a quality market is no bad advertisement for your goods, so perhaps we can make a difference to the way livestock is reared in all parts of the world. Let us be ambitious about this.
My Lords, if the Government are not too keen to listen to the voices from Opposition Benches or even from expert Back-Benchers on their own side, they really ought to listen to someone like the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, who speaks in this House as the voice of the countryside and of farming communities.
This group of amendments is very important. Even though we are now on the seventh day in Committee on the Bill, it is one of the most important groups of amendments that we will discuss. That is why I was very happy to put my name to the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, which between them cover food standards on the one hand and animal welfare, plant health and the environment on the other.
I repeat those four things because they sum up just why politically this is such an important issue for the Government. This is an extremely unusual issue, in that it unites a whole series of people in the country who would not normally march down the street together. I know that this Government are rumoured to take daily opinion polls and have a focus group every 10 minutes to work out what people think about things, so they must know that what I am saying is true and that somehow they have to draw the line and put it into legislation, otherwise people will never be satisfied.
This is also an issue that unites the media, and not just the farming media or the liberal-left minority media who normally get involved in this matter. It also includes the right-wing tabloids—the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the rest of them—and the Daily Telegraph. We have seen what happens when they get behind a campaign such as this: the Government cannot win unless they are able to satisfy them that everything is okay.
I ought not to be giving political advice to the Government; I ought to be telling them to do hopeless things that allow me to go out on to the streets to campaign and say what rotten folk they are. However, this is too important for that. I know that Ministers in this House are not the final decision-makers on what they can and cannot do; they are working for their bosses in other places. Nevertheless, we have here a Minister who has influence and authority in the department, and we are relying on him to come back with something that will satisfy us and the country. I say that in all honesty, although perhaps he does not want to hear it.
On issue after issue, we now have a country where a large number of people are very frightened about their health, because of Covid and everything that has happened. A lot of people are scared to go out of their house, and if they are willing to do so they will want to wear a mask for the next 10 years. A lot of other people are on the side there, but a lot of the people who matter are very frightened. We also have a Prime Minister who has just launched a campaign to make sure that we are all a bit less fat. I can appreciate that and I will join his campaign, but these issues are all linked: good health, good food, relying on good farming and good production processes, and all within a good environment that allows people to go out and enjoy themselves and get exercise.
It seems a long time since we started this Committee. When we were discussing access, perhaps on the first day, and people were worried about the speed at which we were going, I said, “Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet”. For good or for bad, I have been in your Lordships’ House now for over 20 years, and I have to say that seven days in Committee for a Bill of this complexity, importance and size is not unusual; it is normal. I do not think it is because we have had to operate within this hybrid system. I join everyone who compliments the staff, the leadership and everybody else who found a way for us to have something that approximates to a Committee. Even though I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said earlier in the House about the need to get back to a new normality—if that is not a contradiction—because we have to make more progress, nevertheless we have had something approximating a Committee and everybody needs to be congratulated on that. However, I do not believe that this Committee a year ago it would have taken less than seven days; in fact, it might even have taken a bit longer.
To go back to the amendment, I am not an expert on a lot of the things in this group, although I know about the environment, but they are so important to people. Everybody cares about food. Increasingly they care about good food, increasingly they care about the environment and increasingly they are realising that the future of farming is in jeopardy unless we get it right.
I beg the Government to listen to what is being said here today by voices across the House, by voices from the rural parts of Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, from the countryside—people who know what they are talking about. Unless something comes back, I think the Government will suffer serious defeats on Report. Another old tradition of the House is that ping-pong goes on for longer than two days, and this may be a sufficiently important issue that we might even get back to proper ping-pong.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that the tradition in this House is that we do not vote in Committee. That is absolute rubbish. It is a modern invention by Governments trying to have an easy time. There are traditions and traditions in this House. I do not know whether Lord Palmerston would recognise our House today as the one that he presided over, but I do know that for the first 10 or more years that I was a Member here we always voted in Committee. I am not suggesting that we should in hybrid, because that is a bit different, but voting in Committee is a very good way of getting shot of some issues early, one way or the other, and allowing the major issues to go to Report. So when people tell you that what happened last year or the year before are the traditions of this House, it is bunkum. The traditions of this House go back longer than any of us—even those of us who have been here rather longer than we ever thought we would be.
My Lords, I start with an apology to your Lordships, and particularly to the Minister. On Thursday evening I implied that my contributions to this Committee would be at an end. My excitement at seeing the light at the end of the tunnel made me forget that there was this group of amendments—so I apologise for that.
I do not think I need to add to what has already been said. I have been listening to lots of speeches, some of which are rather like those pieces of classical music that you think are going to end; they carry on a bit and carry on, and only eventually do they come to an end. I do not want to do one of those. I just want to say to my noble friend and to Ministers generally that I understand where the problem is: there is perhaps a conflict between two departments, the department that the Minister represents and that of trade.
I would also say, with the experience of having been a Whip in the other place for a long time, that sometimes you have to read the Room, and I would say that there are things the Government could be looking at. If they thought the establishment of the commission was a good compromise, it was a good start, but I am afraid its composition leaves many people a little wary and, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh said, the short period for which it is going to be in existence is also a concern.
I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that I was always taught in business that if you are having a problem with cash flow, it is rather like a car that is heading towards a brick wall: it is better to either slow down and then go round that brick wall or to stop. It is not a good idea to go rushing at full speed, hoping that you can brake at the last minute and avoid a crash. I would say that a little more has to be offered.
This is important. I understand the arguments and I support Amendment 273. Things have moved on a bit, but we need to see a little more, otherwise I am afraid that things will not be all that easy for the Government in this regard.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall. I note his constructive comments on brick walls and the dangers of driving at them at speed, and I am sure the Government too will have noted them. I again draw attention to my entry on farming matters in the register of interests.
My name stands on Amendment 276 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, Amendment 278 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and Amendment 280 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. I am delighted to support all three noble Lords who have spoken and I will not repeat the comments that they have made, save to pick up the very important thread that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, has introduced previously and repeated today: namely, the real dangers in the present climate for hill farmers. I am concerned about them in Wales, but of course that is an equal concern in other parts of the United Kingdom. I certainly am not prepared to see them sold down the river in order to secure a trade deal with Trump’s America. That is where I come from on this bank of amendments.
I very much endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in introducing Amendment 270 and her comments on the need to avoid unfair competition from subsidised imports and the need for there to be a level playing field. I agree with the comments made earlier regarding the vital importance of this amendment made by the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and repeated by Lord Greaves; this may be the most important bank of amendments in Committee.
I pick up the point concerning the commission that has been announced today. It may last for only six months and it may not have real teeth, but it gives an indication of the direction in which we should be moving. Perhaps it may be a main thread for us, when we return to these matters on Report, to take up the weaknesses in the commission suggested by the Government, put it on a permanent basis and give it real teeth. If we are able to do that, we might be able to introduce some safeguards, which undoubtedly people the length and breadth of these islands want with regard to the security of the food that comes on to the market and that they will be consuming.
I also endorse the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, about the range and width of the bodies which support the aims of these amendments. With such a cross-section of bodies, the Government would clearly be very ill advised to ignore their comments.
All these varied amendments underline the real concern in all parts of these islands, but also all parts of the Committee, with regard to the significant dangers of food being imported whose standard is below that required of UK-produced food. I accept that Ministers in both Houses have given assurances on these matters but, to my mind, there have to be safeguards in the Bill—in legislation—to underpin any assurances of this sort. They have to be on a statutory basis if they are to have some meaning. That is why I hope very much that we may have some indication from the Minister today that the Government will still consider further steps, over and above the commission announced today, in trying to meet the real fears described by so many noble colleagues in this debate. Finally, I join others in thanking both the Ministers for their diligence during Committee. I look forward to returning to many of these issues on Report.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and to support Amendment 270 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, to which I have added my name. I also support the other amendments in this group.
This debate on food and trade standards is one of the major issues in the Bill. It directly correlates with the debates we had last week on food security and insecurity. If we have strong food standards, as we do, and which we do not want undermined or undercut in any way, it therefore relates back to the issue of food security. The major issue then was that, as a result of Covid, many people were experiencing insecurity and an inability to access that sound food supply.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, I welcome the establishment today of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. I welcome its official launch as it contains representatives from the farming unions and the hospitality sector throughout the UK, including the devolved regions. Where I am disappointed is that it does not have a statutory base, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, is time-limited and will simply report after six months. Like him, I see it as a staging post for the Government. It should be a means for the Minister, who has been very gracious in all his responses to us during the seven days of debate in Committee, to have talks within the usual channels and with ministerial colleagues in Defra on how they can put this commission into the Bill and give it the required statutory basis.
None of us, particularly our farmers and those involved in food production and the food supply chain, wants to be undermined by cheap imports of lower standards from other countries. Coming from Northern Ireland, I definitely do not want to see that. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has referred to the peculiar and different situation of Northern Ireland, which for agricultural purposes will still be subject to the state aid rules of the EU. In that respect, because there has been little movement on the development of the protocol, will the Minister have conversations with ministerial colleagues to find out what discussions have taken place between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly the executive office, about not only the implementation of the protocol but what efforts are being made on a no-deal Brexit? What discussions have been taking place generally about Brexit? It is my understanding that, because of divisions within the executive office on policy and stances, such discussions have not yet taken place.
However, there is the facility of the Joint Ministerial Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and I, along with former Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive would be fully aware of. That would be a very good mechanism for ironing out difficulties because, at the end of the day, we want to see proper trade and agricultural standards right throughout the UK, and with our neighbours as well. But we do not want to see unfair competition or any undercutting of our farmers; we want to see good husbandry and the very best agricultural standards.
I want to see the commission become permanent, like it is in the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Any advice that comes from the commission should not be advisory; it should be binding on the Government, as is the case with the Migration Advisory Committee; and the commission should be independent of government. There is such a wide range of people already on it that it has the ability and capacity to do that.
In supporting Amendment 270 I thank the Ministers, the Front-Bench teams for the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, and the Cross-Benchers, for all their work during these seven days. I thank them for their advice and support. I support the general thrust of the amendments on underpinning good agricultural standards. That is what we all want to see. I urge the Minister either to accept the amendment today, subject to the name change, or to come back with a revised amendment on Report, indicating that the Government are prepared to put this commission into the Bill and give it the statutory basis that is required.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, who has eloquently articulated the concerns that are the theme of this group of amendments and referred to the ways in which they might be effectively addressed.
I speak in support of Amendment 279, which contains a proposed new clause on a trade, food and farming standards commission. The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, tabled this amendment and has comprehensively described it. He also indicated the flexibility in it, to address the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. But I take on board the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, about why it might be better to have any extension of that commission in the Bill, rather than it being in the hands of the Secretary of State. That can be considered before we reach the next stage.
As explained in the Marshalled List, the purpose of this new clause is to give real substance to underpinning the Government’s manifesto commitment
“not to compromise on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards through its international trade policy”.
I note that my noble friend Lord Greaves speculated that this might be the kind of issue which would go to more than one or two rounds of ping-pong in subsequent stages, later in the year. It might be pertinent that what we seek to do in some of these amendments is actually to give substance to the Government’s manifesto commitment.
In a letter last month to MPs the president of NFU Scotland, Andrew McCornick, urged support for the kind of trade, food and farming standards commission set out in this new clause. He argued that as the UK embarks on negotiating future trade deals,
“it is vital that future trade deals do not curtail our ability to grow our reputation as a nation of provenance and quality by undercutting domestic production with imported produce with which we cannot compete on price and production method.”
Subsequent to that letter, the Secretary of State for International Trade announced a Trade and Agriculture Commission and, on 10 July, she announced its membership together with those issues on which the commission must directly report to her. As we have heard, it has been formally launched today; indeed, I believe that it met last Friday.
The intention behind that may sound good; the proposals are promising and undoubtedly a step in the right direction but, of course, the proposed commission lacks a statutory basis. While it must report to the Secretary of State, who says she will send the advisory report to Parliament, that falls short of the comprehensive proposals set out in this proposed new clause. Not only does the commission proposed in it have a wider remit, it also gives Parliament a more direct role in dealing with its recommendations and the Government’s response to them.
I have no doubt that, when the Minister replies to this debate, he will seek to assure us that the Government do not intend to permit lower standards and we should trust them on that. But there’s the rub: many people, farmers and consumers simply do not trust them. I emphasise that this is not personal to the Minister—who I regard as one of the most respected members of the Government Front Bench—but rather to the Government as a whole. Why should people trust them?
As recently as Monday of last week, the Government voted down an amendment in the House of Commons that would have set a requirement for imported agricultural goods to meet animal health and welfare, environmental, plant health, food safety and other standards at least as high as those that apply to UK-produced agricultural goods. This followed the rejection of a similar amendment tabled by the Conservative MP Neil Parish—as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hain—during proceedings on the Bill in the House of Commons. This rejection prompted a Perthshire farmer, quoted in the Scottish Farmer, to say
“it’s very easy to see the direction of travel that this Tory Government is taking.”
One Orkney beef and sheep producer who contacted me said:
“Whilst ideally we would like all food products coming in being produced to equal standards it is clear to see that this Government don’t think like this.”
My noble friend Lord Greaves has mentioned that this is an issue that has united so many people, and it is this vein that Scottish Land & Estates, in its briefing to noble Lords recommending support for this new clause, said:
“This issue has united farming, consumer, environmental and animal welfare organisations and codifying the commitment in law would strengthen the Government’s hand in trade talks and create a line that could not be deviated from. If this is not addressed, we face a very real prospect of British farming being undermined by imported food which can be produced to a standard which would be unacceptable, disproportionately cheaper and illegal in the UK. All we ask for is a level playing field.”
Therefore, the Minister must spell out why the Government seem so reluctant to accept amendments such as these when failing to do so merely fuels suspicion and fears about the Government’s true intentions.
Responding to the announcement of the Government’s commission and its membership and terms of reference, the RSPCA chief executive, Chris Sherwood, described the commission as a potential “Trojan horse” for reducing our outstanding farm standards and asked whether:
“When the commission publishes its report, Parliament needs to have the opportunity for transparent debate on its recommendations and the ability to pass a binding resolution”.
That is what this proposed new clause seeks to do: to give Parliament the opportunity for transparent debate and the ability to pass binding resolutions
This proposed commission is not a regulator; it will not spawn a bureaucracy or have a veto over trade deals. However, it would ensure that, against a backdrop of anxiety about producers being undercut by diminished standards, Parliament would have a voice. Surely, that would give real substance to “taking back control”?
I am pleased to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and will speak to Amendment 271 in my name, ably spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and also in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. We represent many sides of the House.
However, before doing so, I add my voice to those thanking my noble friend the Minister for his courtesy and patience through this long marathon of a Committee stage. I also thank the Public Bill Office and Government Whips’ Office for all their hard work. I know they have spent many hours making sure that we could debate this.
As others have stated, the Bill gives us the chance to ensure that we support our farmers by not allowing products into this country that have not been raised to the same standards that we insist on here. It is blatantly wrong to insist on standards for our farmers and then to let in food not raised in that way that undercuts our domestic production.
At Second Reading, I was struck by my noble friend the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, talking as though all is in order now. The fact is that, at the moment, we are letting in food not raised to the same standards. As others have observed, the Conservative Party 2019 manifesto contains an important commitment:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
This is particularly important in the case of meat, where we not only undercut our own farmers but at times encourage poor welfare standards in other countries by buying their products. If we believe in good welfare standards—and there is a real moral case for this—we should not be turning a blind eye to what is going on in other parts of the world.
There has been a lot of publicity about chlorinated chicken, but the more concerning issues are the stocking densities and the amount of antibiotics pumped into them to keep them healthy. Of course, it is not just chickens from the US but those from other parts of the world, where we know even less about the quality of the production systems.
I gather that some of the Government’s opposition to this proposed new clause hinges on the UK’s lack of ability to produce enough to answer demand. In the case of chicken, this mainly revolves around the fact that British people like to eat breast meat rather than the dark meat. If more dark meat was eaten, we could probably more or less answer our domestic needs.
However, surely we need to tell those countries that want to export to us that we require a certain standard of welfare in their food production. During this time of Covid, we have realised how important it is to produce our own food, and our farmers have continued to work throughout. Surely, we should be looking after our farmers and encouraging more production in this country?
Others have commented on the new Trade and Agriculture Commission and I do not propose to do so too. All I will say is that sometimes commissions can be a way of kicking issues into the long grass. This issue really needs addressing because, as others have stated, it has such enormous public support. In a recent poll, over four-fifths of people—81%—said that they think the Government should block food imports that do not meet the UK’s environmental and animal welfare standards, even if this could mean that consumers miss out on lower food prices. Please let us take this opportunity, not only to support our farmers but to ensure that, if we believe in welfare standards, we stop importing food that does not meet them.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in support of Amendment 270 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, which I have also signed. I also support other amendments in this group with a similar intent.
In their joint letter to MPs and Peers dated 5 June 2020, the Secretary of State for International Trade, the right honourable Elizabeth Truss, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right honourable George Eustice, stated that, in all their trade negotiations, the Government
“will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”.
However, when asked in a House of Lords debate about trade deals that could allow imports farmed to less rigorous standards, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew of Oulton, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and Treasury, stated that
“there has to be a balance between keeping food affordable for people ... to ensure that they are able to eat healthily, while not undermining in any way the quality of the food we eat.”—[Official Report, 6/5/20; col. 520.]
This second statement seems to leave wiggle room, so what is the Government’s position?
As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and other noble Lords, said, the Government are unwilling to make a legally binding commitment to not dilute standards of imported food. As my noble friends Lord Curry of Kirkharle and Lord Cameron of Dillington, and many other noble Lords, said, the Trade and Agriculture Commission will not have enough teeth or last long enough to do the job that is needed. I also note that it has no consumer representative among its members.
My concern is this: assuming that the Government do allow food produced to lower standards to be imported—which I think is inevitable—who will end up eating it? The boss of Waitrose has already said that his stores will not sell food produced to lower standards, such as chlorinated chicken. It is very likely that other supermarkets will follow Waitrose’s lead. The same will be true of the major restaurant chains, which will wish to protect their brands. So where is the lower-standard food most likely to end up? It will probably be in the small, low-end independent restaurants and in fast-food takeaways such as fried chicken shops. It will primarily be eaten by less well-off consumers. I therefore ask the Minister to unequivocally state that the Government will not allow a two-tier food system to develop in this country in which poor people eat poorer quality food produced to lower standards.
My Lords, as I have listened to this debate my speech has got shorter and shorter. If ever there was a person ringing a bell and saying: “Press officer beware”, it is my noble friend Lord Greaves. I find myself strongly agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Randall, who said that the Government are getting into trouble here. Will they please do as the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, said and honour their own manifesto? That is all we are really asking for, and any of these amendments would take steps towards making sure that we know the standards are there.
It is an old cliché that we trust this Minister implicitly but the one who follows him could be the devil incarnate. However, the closest we get to binding anybody to anything is to put it in to law, even though, ultimately, it can be changed. If we do not get something on the face of the Bill—and I cannot see any other bit of legislation it could go into—there is no other way of at least making the Government stand up and say: “Yes, we are changing it because…” That is what this is about.
I hope that the Minister is taking this on board. As my noble friend Lord Greaves also said, there will be ping-pong; a backhand, a forehand and the odd smash might be involved in this one. The House could get involved in a long discussion, asking the Government to honour their own manifesto commitment. I would not have thought any Government would want that.
My Lords, I share the concerns about how standards will be maintained when negotiating new trade agreements and therefore, in principle, support what many of the amendments in this group are trying to achieve. In that context, I welcome the establishment by the DIT and Defra of the new Trade and Agriculture Commission. However, at the same time, I strongly support the important point made by my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and the noble Lords, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Krebs, and others. A trade standards commission needs to be more than a temporary body with a six-month lifespan. It should be a permanent body with a continuing and influential role in any and all future trade negotiations, as is the United States International Trade Commission, among other examples.
The UK’s enviable reputation for high standards in food and farming has been achieved through the support of successive Governments for a national framework of standards, conformity assessment and accreditation, collectively referred to as the UK Quality Infrastructure. Here, I declare an interest as the chair of the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, 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 in the UK food and farming industries, through underpinning their implementation with a robust verification and certification system. As the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, said, verification of compliance with standards in respect of imported products is going to be a huge challenge. I therefore support Amendment 279 in his name, proposing that the remit of the proposed trade, food and farming standards commission include any relevant recommendations on the testing regimes, assurance schemes and certification bodies that might be needed to ensure that imported agri-food products sold in the United Kingdom are produced to appropriately high standards. A standing trade standards commission with this remit would be able to determine how accreditation and linked, mutual cross-border recognition arrangements that underpin standards could be used as a central part of future trade negotiations and agreements.
Before closing, I record my support for Amendment 271, which would require agricultural and food imports to meet domestic standards, and Amendment 273, which would ensure that UK standards on food safety, the environment and animal welfare cannot be undermined by imports produced to lower standards. In doing so, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, which also supports these amendments.
My Lords, I support the spirit of these amendments, all of which seek to enshrine the Government’s manifesto commitment in the Bill. Recent polling shows that over 75% of the public think that it would be unacceptable to import food from the USA produced to lower standards. There would be pressure on our farmers to compete by lowering standards in this country. I am sure that the Minister will offer a number of assurances. He will say that the Government have repeatedly guaranteed, in statements, that the manifesto commitment will be observed. I would prefer something on the face of the Bill. As other noble Lords have said, Ministers and Governments come and go. The Minister may also say that the Trade Bill is the place for any statutory requirement on standards. However, that Bill is silent on this issue so far and I am sure that, when it comes to this House, noble Lords will be told that it is out of scope. Here and now are the place and time for statutory assurances on standards.
I will focus on environmental standards. Compared to the UK, substantially more highly hazardous pesticides are allowed in several of the major countries that we are seeking to do trade deals with—India, the USA and Australia. These pesticides are highly poisonous to pollinators, aquatic ecosystems and apex predators. Stocking densities can have a huge impact on air quality and habitats. It is worth while safeguarding our environmental standards as well as food safety and animal welfare.
The third thing the Minister may say is that import standards are against WTO rules, although I think I heard him reassure us earlier that he would not say that. I am sure that sensibly designed and properly justified import restrictions can be made compatible with WTO rules, and the UK should be taking the lead on this. However, we get a clue from the US and Indian negotiating mandates, both of which reveal that they see harmonising UK import standards as a threat. For “harmonising”, we should read “lowering”.
The Minister may also say that the same effect in protecting standards can be achieved by differential tariffs for products produced to a lower standard than our domestic one. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, has talked about this as well. Differential tariffs would need to be prohibitively high—that would be the whole point of them—to influence behaviour, so they would almost certainly be rejected by negotiating partners. We also hear that Secretary of State Truss is inclined to phase out such differential tariffs in general.
The Minister might also say that we could take a labelling solution: food labelling could safeguard standards and the public could then choose whether they wanted higher standards at higher costs. This would not work, because much of this food will go into ingredients for the out-of-home catering sector, where ingredients standards are rarely visible.
As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, outlined, it would be pretty invidious if the better-off could choose to buy food produced to higher standards while those on a lower income would have to buy what they could afford, regardless of standards. This is not even Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake”; it is worse—it is “Let them eat crap”. Apart from that, the US trade vote is against unjustifiable labelling. So we need provisions on standards on the face of the Bill, not just a labelling solution.
I turn briefly to the Trade and Agriculture Commission; I agree with much of what has already been said. The Government have already shown how little their commission would consider environmental standards by announcing a membership primarily about food and farming, with a tiny, last-minute concession of one person with an environmental background. Those representing human health and animal welfare standards do not get much of a look-in either. As has been noted, the Government’s commission is also flawed in having a limited term of six months, being purely advisory and reporting solely to the Secretary of State for International Trade. It is a fig leaf and we should not trust it.
I support the alternative commission promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, in his Amendment 279. It would persist beyond six months to scrutinise future trade deals and would be additional, not an alternative, to having the maintenance of import standards in the Bill. Most importantly, the commission proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Curry, would report not to the Secretary of State for International Trade but to Parliament, and there would be a requirement that its recommendations on the vital issue of trade standards would be fully debated in Parliament.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Mouslecoomb, that the Government have driven pretty much all interest groups on to the same side of this issue. No one thinks that the Government’s commission is anything other than a fig leaf. I hope the Minister will concede that he has a losing hand and can bring a decent amendment forward on Report.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister and all his colleagues for their stamina and good temper all the way through this mammoth Committee. I must declare an interest as a member of the NFU. My younger son is a free-range farmer in Lincolnshire, and he is extremely concerned—along with many of his colleagues in the free-range egg-producing world—about foreign imports produced to lesser standards.
The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I was going to speak to Amendments 270 and 271. But, having listened to the debate, I support virtually all the other amendments and I agree entirely with all that was said by the noble Lords, Lord Cameron and Lord Curry, and by my noble friend Lady Hodgson. The Minister will be very aware of the groundswell of opinion throughout the country: well over 1 million people signed the food standards petition, run very well by the NFU, with huge media coverage.
I welcome the establishment of the international Trade and Agriculture Commission, but it must have real teeth and I too would prefer it to be permanent—we must keep it in the future. I do not want it to be giving advice to the Secretary of State of which they can take not a blind bit of notice. It must be there to guide the Secretary of State and Parliament on the standards that we need to keep and enhance in the future. We are a world -class act in the standards we produce in our agricultural industry; we must keep that up and go even further.
In my view, nearly all the arguments have already been stated on numerous occasions, so I will not repeat them. Suffice it to say that my brief words are simply to keep up the pressure and to hold Her Majesty’s Government to their pledges on food standards and to ensure that they do not compromise them in any ongoing or future trade deals.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the Minister for the superb way he has replied to so many of our debates in this marathon Committee.
I want to speak to Amendment 271, in the name of my noble friend Lord Grantchester, and Amendment 280, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. Amendment 271 goes to the heart of our anxieties about the future of agriculture and, indeed, the food we eat. Having heard a great deal of the arguments in the course of the Bill’s passage, there is little I can add, so I will be comparatively brief. As my noble friend Lord Grantchester put it so succinctly, this amendment is of vital importance and should be enshrined in law. I welcome an assurance given in the past, but this is so crucial that it should be put on the face of the Bill, as so many other noble Lords have indicated.
I am a member of the EU International Agreements Sub-Committee of this House, and we are examining future trading agreements in detail; it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage. I am particularly concerned with proposed new subsection (2)(b) in Amendment 271. It would be intolerable if we lowered our standards of agricultural food imports so that we imported at a lower standard than our existing domestic standards in animal health and welfare, food safety and hygiene and liability in general. I would be firmly opposed to any lowering of our standards.
I also support Amendment 280, in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Wigley. As I said at Second Reading, many of my family have been, and are, sheep breeders—my family has been doing this for centuries. Some of them may regard me, given my occupation as a lawyer and not a sheep breeder, as the black sheep of the family.
As agriculture was among my responsibilities as Welsh Secretary—indeed, I got responsibility for this transferred to the office—I attended most, if not all, of the meetings of the EU Council of Ministers whenever sheep were discussed. I did so because sheep and livestock farming were so important to Wales.
The price of lamb is heavily influenced by how much we can get from exporting, and the price of exports reflects back on the domestic market. A tariff would put many sheep farmers out of business: the economy and their viability are fragile enough as it is. Many of them have no alternative, hence the need for a report in the terms of the amendment if no agreement is reached, so that this House can give proper consideration to it.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, has rightly put the case of a catastrophe if no deal is reached. Specifically, I would like to hear the Minister’s views, and if, and to what extent, he dissents to the case put so admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce.
My Lords, I agree with those noble Lords who have called this probably the most important group of amendments we have discussed on the Bill; I concur with that. I say to my noble friend Lord Trenchard that, just because we support these amendments, it does not mean that we are anti-American, any more than he is anti-British because he does not like our side of the argument. That does not add to the value of our discussions.
I would like to congratulate the Government on creating the commission today, but I ask the Minister to clarify what it is called. The government press release today refers to the “Trade and Agriculture Commission”, and also to the better-named “Agriculture and Trade Commission”. Which is it? If the Government cannot make up their mind, perhaps the Minister could clarify this for them.
I was pleased to see that the chairman, Tim Smith, said that its report will give evidence-based advice. That is hugely important, but it begs the question that so many noble Lords have raised: what is going to happen to that advice, and what will happen when it has given that advice? The launch of the commission today is just the first stage, which is why I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle—indeed, my noble friend Lady McIntosh has another amendment—which would prolong the life of the commission. It needs to be there, it needs to report to Parliament and it needs to have its advice acted upon by the Secretary of State.
I notified my noble friend that I was going to ask him some questions on this. Can he reassure me that the appropriate structures have been set up to determine the standards of any food that is imported into this country, how it is produced and that the labelling of the food is done to the highest standards? It concerns me that the US trade negotiating team has stated that it does not think that the labelling is a good idea in any sense. Can he reassure me that the US team is wrong about that? Will he also comment on the threat of the enforcement of trade deals by offshore tribunals, which would allow corporations to sue the Government if domestic law affected their anticipated profits? That is surely a very serious consideration that we need to be informed about.
My third question concerns the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, about tariffs. Will my noble friend confirm that if the deal that is proposed with the US goes ahead, tariffs will automatically end after 10 years, so they are just a temporary sop? Will the same apply to other trade deals?
I thought the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made a very good point, which I support from the evidence we got on the Committee on Food, Health, Poverty and the Environment. When we were questioning the industry, we finally got a commitment from Waitrose that it would not sell cheaper, imported food created to lesser standards—but I am hugely suspicious of the food industry as a whole, and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is absolutely right that unless we have the necessary protections, we will develop a two-tier food system in this country, which will not be good for those who are poorest and least able to afford the food that they should be having.
My Lords, I have heard my county of North Yorkshire mentioned a number of times in Committee and I want to speak particularly to Amendment 271, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, because of the fear I have of our having to accept WTO rules as a result of crashing out of the EU without a decent trade deal. Our farmers in North Yorkshire, as elsewhere, will bear a great deal of pain if that happens. The Government made clear manifesto commitments, as we have heard repeatedly throughout the passage of the Bill, not to compromise, inter alia, animal welfare or food standards in any future trade deals, yet they offered no amendments to the Trade Bill, which we will have to rigorously scrutinise when we return to Parliament in September. This Bill is a foretaste of what may well yet happen unless we make sure that this legislation is absolutely watertight.
Our food must maintain the very high standards we have come to expect, ensuring that animal welfare and environmental protection remain at the very heart of our food production. The director of policy for NFU Scotland, Jonnie Hall, said:
“The UK Agriculture Bill is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation and it must safeguard the sustainability of domestic food production and the integrity of domestic food consumption.”
As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and others, Waitrose, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, M&S and the Co-op have all now said that they will never sell chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef from the US—where, incidentally, 50 million Americans get sick each year from the food they eat. As Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which? said:
“We do not want to import these unacceptably high rates of foodborne illness into our health system”.
Chlorine-washed chicken is barred from the EU because it is used to disguise farming practices that increase the risk of such infections as salmonella and campylobacter. There is also ractopamine, a horrible drug fed to pigs to make them grow fatter, which is banned in the EU and in 160 other countries, including China and Russia; 17-beta estradiol, another growth-promoting hormone, which EU scientists believe is a complete carcinogen; and bovine somatatropine, given to cows in the US to increase milk yields—again, banned in the EU, Canada and Japan on animal welfare grounds as it is associated with increased lameness and mastitis in cattle, which leads, of course, to greater use of antibiotics, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, and others, but is used and approved in the US. All these drugs have been banned in the UK, thanks to EU regulations, but they are quite legal on the US factory farms.
More than 1 million people have already signed the NFU petition to promote sustainable models of production and consumption across the world and I end with its concluding sentence, which calls on the UK Government
“to put into law rules that prevent food being imported to the UK which is produced in ways that would be illegal here.”
We must not sell our farmers out to the United States or other countries whose animal welfare and food production standards are so far below our own.
My Lords, I repeat my declaration of interests as stated in the register. Since the Government announced the establishment of the Trade and Agriculture Commission on 10 July, under the chairmanship of Tim Smith, formerly chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, I believe that Amendment 270, in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh, and Amendment 279, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Curry, are redundant. Besides, there are other problems with both the proposed commissions. My noble friend’s commission would be required to maintain standards at levels
“as high as or higher than”
those which apply now. The rather more detailed Amendment 279 is surely similarly redundant and would undoubtedly shackle UK producers to the restrictive EU regime, although it does contain two important concessions: new subsection (4)(e) recognises that,
“different production systems and regulatory approaches”
may produce equivalence of outcomes; and new subsection (4)(g) acknowledges that import restrictions may be detrimental both to consumer interests and to developing countries.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh just said, in her eloquent speech, that she wishes to retain the level playing field between EU and UK farmers. If she believes that such a level playing field exists, I fear she is mistaken. As I pointed out on Thursday, French livestock farmers benefit from €1 billion in voluntary coupled support every year. This compares with the mere €39 million available to Scottish crofters. I agree with my noble friend that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was right to confirm that we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards in all our trade negotiations. However, rules that enforce precise standards may be unnecessary or disproportionate. Standards are not two-dimensional: low or high. Outcomes may be similar but reached by very different rule books.
Among the problems with our EU standards is that some introduce distortions to the market without bringing any benefit. In the words of the Prime Minister in his Greenwich speech in February:
“There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules”.
The Prime Minister also said:
“But I must say to the America bashers in this country, if there are any, that in doing free trade deals we will be governed by science and not by mumbo-jumbo because the potential is enormous.”
I have heard quite a number of America bashers, including several of my noble friends, express their views during our debates on the Bill. I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm categorically that we will diverge from EU rules and standards, at least in order to be able to adopt an SPS regime which does not violate the WTO’s rules. The EU is in violation of WTO rules on GMOs and hormone-treated beef. The UK will also be in violation of WTO rules in these and other areas, such as those where we do not have a sector which EU rules protect, such as olive oil.
Amendment 271 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, rightly requires the UK to ensure that any new trade agreements will conform to the WTO’s SPS agreement. This allows countries to maintain standards that are stricter than international standards if those standards are justified by science or by a non-discriminatory lower level of acceptable risk that does not selectively target imports. I worry that proposed new subsection 2(b) may conflict with proposed new subsection 2(a) because it would appear to target imports selectively in cases where the exporter’s rules or standards violate the WTO’s SPS rules.
Similarly, Amendment 273 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, Amendment 276 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and Amendment 278 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, all require, in effect, the Government to import food only from countries which apply hygiene, animal welfare or environmental standards which are equivalent to or exceed those currently allowed in the EU or UK. However, if we were to insist that our trading partners meet our welfare standards, many currently available imported goods would be prohibited from sale in the UK. If we try to restrict our trade negotiators in the ways these amendments would require, we will fail to make good trade agreements with other countries and we will not be able to secure the great benefits that our independent trade policy can deliver in many other areas, such as financial services, digital and data. We would lose the opportunity to improve our domestic regulatory environment and we would render Brexit largely meaningless.
As for Amendment 280 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Bennachie, I understand that the Government remain confident that they will successfully negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU prior to the end of the year. This amendment is not appropriate for inclusion in a Bill which sets out new, long-term future arrangements for agriculture.
My Lords, I will speak particularly to Amendment 271 but I broadly support most of the amendments in this group, which are all about maintaining standards. There has been quite a lot of repetition. I am afraid I will also be guilty of that to some extent, although I will try to be brief, and there will be repetition in the future as the debate continues. I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords to the Ministers —the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield—who have maintained great courtesy throughout and have given us detailed answers to our many questions in Committee.
In negotiating a free trade agreement, the Government have repeatedly stated, as has been said, that they will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. But Ministers and Governments come and go, and as long as there is no statutory commitment to this goal, there is bound to be uncertainty. The commitment to create a Trade and Agriculture Commission is a step in the right direction but as currently proposed it is advisory and ephemeral.
The arguments for high standards are widely agreed but we need to ensure that these can be maintained in a global trading environment; that our farming industry is not unfairly undermined by creating an unlevel competitive playing field; and that we can help improve international standards by levelling them up, as was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Curry and Lord Cameron. It would be folly to kill off our own industry, which safeguards our food security while maintaining high standards, and to essentially export poor welfare and poor environmental standards.
It has been said several times that this is protectionism about a US trade deal. I am concerned about much more than the US. This is about numerous trade deals in many countries in the years to come. It is about far more than chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, although I will return to those in a moment. We should be concerned about, among other things, animal housing and husbandry standards, welfare at slaughter, transport, and antibiotic use and misuse—which, apart from animal welfare implications, have huge public health consequences. We should also be asking questions about what amount of environmental degradation has been involved to produce certain foods.
The Government may argue that there are legal or WTO limits on what can be done but it seems to me that there are some inconsistencies in this argument, and I would be grateful for answers to the following questions. Let us take the issue of hormone-treated beef: personally, I am content to eat it; indeed, I and anyone who has been to the USA will almost certainly have eaten it. There is data suggesting that 90% of all the beef in the US has been so treated. But I accept that many people will not want to eat it and I do not disagree with that ban. I am also aware that WTO rules do not allow methods of production to be a means of limiting importation of food products that satisfy sanitary and phytosanitary regulations. So how is it possible, for example, to ban the import of hormone-treated beef and yet not define standards for the use and misuse of antibiotics, which have arguably much greater animal welfare and public health implications? Why can we not ban beef from cattle reared on cleared rainforest, which has far more serious environmental consequences than hormone-treated beef does?
Another argument that will be deployed against this amendment is that it ties the hands of our negotiators. I am not persuaded by that argument. Are not their hands strengthened by having a clear mandate, with red lines enshrined in our legislation, consistent with the Government’s own manifesto? After all, we have already partly tied the USA’s hands with chickens and beef, have we not?
In conclusion, I am content with the current stance on chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef, but our ability to maintain that ban raises questions as to why we cannot go even further. I would very much appreciate an answer to these apparent inconsistencies in order to understand and accept the rejection of this amendment.
My Lords, I declare an interest in a small agricultural holding in France and, more seriously, in the WTO, in whose creation I played a part when I was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
As many noble Lords have mentioned, the Government have pledged not to reduce health, animal welfare or environmental standards in this country. I am sure they will honour that pledge, not least because no other country is asking us to reduce our standards.
The issue confronting us with the amendments is on what terms we will trade with other countries which may have different standards from ours. Amendments 270 and 271, among others, would prevent any trade deal which does not exclude all imports of agricultural products which have not been produced and processed according to standards which are equivalent to or exceed EU standards.
It is quite reasonable for farmers to seek a degree of protection or financial support if it is necessary to enable them to compete with foreign producers who face lower welfare costs or who enjoy subsidies, but the amendments do not seek a proportionate level of protection or support—they propose a total ban on imports produced to different standards from our own. That is despite the fact that, in practice, our farmers, through greater efficiency and higher quality, compete successfully within the EU without tariffs or subsidies with French beef farmers who, as my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, receive £1 billion of subsidy, and with Polish farmers who produce poultry to higher densities than ours. Both the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron said that only a minority of American states have welfare standards lower than ours, but that does not seem to prevent farmers in other American states competing with them successfully.
However, the arguments used in favour of the amendments often claim to be based on concern for animal welfare and human health rather than protection of farmers, and do not address the practical consequences of banning all relevant imports from countries with lower animal welfare standards than our own.
I want to raise a few questions with both my noble friend the Minister and the proponents of the amendments. First, can my noble friend confirm that restrictions of the kind implied by Amendments 270 and 271 would be against WTO rules? The WTO has never allowed import bans based on so-called ROMP rules—rules on methods of production. That may be right, it may be wrong; but we have to accept the rules or face retaliatory tariffs.
Secondly, can my noble friend confirm that if we adopted the amendments, it would make it impossible to reach a free trade deal not just with America but with the EU, for the simple reason that some EU member states do not impose as stringent animal welfare rules as we do, and they certainly would not allow us to police their rules domestically? We have happily traded with some member states despite their lower standards for decades, so it is a bit odd that we should raise this obstacle now.
Thirdly, can my noble friend confirm that WTO rules allow countries to ban products that are a threat to human health, as long as the ban is based on objective scientific and medical evidence? Consequently, there is not the slightest likelihood that the UK Government or Parliament will alter our laws to allow sale of food which is contaminated with substances dangerous to human health.
Fourthly, I ask the authors of the amendments to clarify whether their desire to ban American chicken treated with pathogen-reduction agents or hormone-treated beef is based on concern for the welfare of the animals in America or concern for health of humans in Britain? If the latter, do they also want to outlaw the use of dilute chlorine washes of salads, which are permitted at present, and to ban the use of chlorine in swimming pools and to make water potable? If the former—that is, if they are really basing this on animal welfare—do they accept that they will simply be acting against WTO rules? The EU realised it could not base its ban on chlorine and other washed chickens on the ground of concern about the cost of production in America or the welfare of American chickens. It had to base it on fears of a supposed threat to health of humans, but that was found by a WTO panel to lack scientific evidence.
Fifthly, what is the logic, I ask the authors of the amendments, of continuing to import agricultural products which have not been produced or processed under standards as rigorous as the UK’s from countries such as Thailand, Argentina, Brazil et cetera, while seeking to ban them under deals which we may do in future with the EU, the USA and so on?
Finally, I ask the authors of the amendments why these bans would apply only to future trade deals, including those where we still have to ratify continuity deals? Are they aware that this might put at risk continued preferential access for UK exports to more than 22 other markets—for example, putting at risk over half a billion pounds of Scotch whisky exports? If they are really concerned about the health of British industry, and the agricultural industry in particular, they should think very carefully about the amendments.
My Lords, I declare my interest in a small farm holding, which is in the register of interests. I also pay tribute to the courteous and patient manner with which the Minister has dealt with a very wide range of amendments debated since the Bill has been in Committee.
I appreciate that the Bill deals primarily with the needs of England, but it contains powers which are relevant to Northern Ireland and provides certainty for the distribution of direct support to local farmers for the forthcoming year. The continuity provided by the Bill will afford the devolved Minister time and space to bring forward new proposals for longer-term farm support in Northern Ireland.
It is, however, of great regret that the other place rejected the inclusion of measures which would have upheld standards of imports in a number of areas, including food, welfare and environmental standards. The amendment tabled in the other place would have been a welcome addition, and this House must right that wrong and give protection to consumers and farmers. It is vital that we do not outsource our food production to countries which do not have the same high standards as our farmers have to comply with. The Bill should be sent back to the other House reflecting this. That is why I support Amendment 271, which places an obligation on the Secretary of State to ensure that the standards to which any agricultural or food product imported into the United Kingdom under a trade agreement are processed and produced are equivalent to or exceed the relevant domestic standards and regulations relating to animal health and welfare, protection of the environment, food safety, hygiene, traceability and plant health. The standards that British farmers adhere to, with significant cost implication for them, leaves them at a price disadvantage compared to cheaper imports.
It is also worth noting that producers and agri-food businesses stand to be doubly hit if the threat from barriers within the UK internal market stemming from the Prime Minister’s disastrous agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol are not mitigated. Therefore, I also strongly support Amendment 270 on the creation of an international food standards commission with legal standing to scrutinise import standards for food. This would help to ensure a level playing field for our farmers and no future dilution of standards.
While the establishment of the UK Trade and Agriculture Commission and the inclusion of the UFU representation is a welcome step in ensuring that the interests of local producers are represented, it must be more than a talking shop. There must be legislative protection. Advisory reports are not legally binding, and although Ministers Eustice and Truss in the other place have indicated they wish to act in good faith, agriculture needs firm guarantees.
The recent pandemic has demonstrated the importance of food security in the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is evident that there is growing support for British produce. The Government’s approach to trade talks and funding must reflect the desire of any local farmer to maintain exemplary standards, to produce safe food and to ensure that our environment is safeguarded for future generations.
In the current climate farmers need certainty and continuity. Agriculture is the cornerstone of job creation and growth in the Northern Ireland economy, sustaining approximately 100,000 jobs and adding value in the region of £1.5 billion to that economy. That contribution must be sustained for the future. We welcome the Government’s commitment to retain the same level of direct support to farmers until the end of this Parliament. However, we must have the same commitment around replacement funding for rural development funding. I trust the Government will listen to the views clearly expressed by numerous Members of your Lordships’ House and will make the necessary changes to this Bill.
These amendments collectively require us to impose our own standards on others. That is a perfectly legitimate objective, but none of this Bill is about lowering standards; that is a fiction. What we are confronted with here is a raft of amendments that will throw our food security into doubt by making trade negotiations far more difficult. We need new trade deals; we want new trade deals—not any deals but fair, equitable deals. But why would any trading partner agree to sign trade deals with us that imposed our standards on them without any chance of negotiation or discussion?
Of course, we care about animal welfare and plant welfare and the environment. These are hugely important causes. We also care very muc