Delivering the goods

Maggie Jones on Labour’s ongoing attempts to ensure the Agriculture Bill will truly benefit the UK’s food and farming sector

The Agriculture Bill, which creates a framework for the financial assistance that will replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, has been billed as a once in a generation opportunity to rethink how to best utilise the UK’s green and pleasant land. Over the past few years, the government has made a series of grand pledges to farmers and environmentalists alike. While the headlines often appear promising, the devil lies is in the detail and in far too many cases we still await answers on how the new system will function.

Lords Committee stage is usually an opportunity to cast light on how legislation will work in practice. Originally scheduled for four days, the timetable has since been extended to six. We passed the halfway point late last night but are still less than a third of the way through an almost one-hundred-page bill. Hundreds of amendments have been tabled, for the most part legitimate attempts to probe ministers or improve the legislation. The volume coming from Conservative backbenchers, however, highlights their level of disquiet. 

A constant undertone to the first three days of debate is the fact we are up against a hard deadline to have the proposed ministerial powers in place. Labour is playing a constructive role in the consideration of this legislation, tabling a modest number of amendments on issues that we believe are significant.  

Ultimately, this is a problem of the government’s own making. Last month marked four years since the UK voted to leave the EU. While David Cameron recklessly prevented departments from preparing for such an outcome, there has nevertheless been ample time for plans to be formulated and the detail worked through. We first saw an Agriculture Bill back in September 2018, although by November of that year Theresa May’s job security became more important than putting in place a means for paying British farmers for years to come. 

Despite slow progress, fundamental differences remain between the government’s view and our own. Some measures are in place on food security but nothing on how we as a country increase our self-sufficiency. Ministers, meanwhile, are silent on how they plan to nurture the agricultural workforce through training, financial advice, and so on. And the provisions around the environment do not go as far as we would like or link to the Environment Bill – now facing its own timetabling problems in the House of Commons.

We also have wider concerns about the government’s lack of engagement on Brexit-related legislation with the devolved administrations, which will have responsibility in many of these areas going forward. The Bill does contain powers for devolved ministers, but not enough has been done to include them in wider discussions on the direction of policy.

Perhaps the biggest flashpoint will be the issue of trade standards. Farmers are understandably worried that our high domestic standards could be undercut if we import inferior agri-food products because of future trade agreements with countries like the United States. The Government has established a temporary commission to investigate such concerns, but this does not go nearly far enough. One of our amendments would require imports to meet certain domestic food safety and animal welfare standards, and for MPs to have a say on the agri-food chapters of new trade deals. 

Labour hopes the government will take our concerns seriously and come back with suitable concessions during September’s Report stage. If this Bill truly is a historic opportunity for UK food and farming, we really must ensure it is fit for that purpose.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 15th July 2020

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