Agriculture Bill

Thank you for your recent email regarding the Agriculture Bill. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to you – my small team and I are flat to the boards as we deal with unprecedented levels of correspondence due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

First and foremost, I want to put on record my thanks to the many who have worked tirelessly to keep the nation fed – lots of them from Northumberland.

Our food supply chain has remained resilient, but the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the essential role of domestic food production in our nation’s food security. I want to set out how the Agriculture Bill will ensure we have a flourishing agricultural sector while continuing to provide food on our plates.

The Agriculture Bill passed the Report Stage of the House of Commons last Wednesday by 360 votes, to 211. The Bill has evolved and been developed greatly in the cross-party committee sessions over these last few months. It was debated in detail by the House of Commons last week and has very broad support.

The Bill will now have further debate and consideration in the House of Lords, where it can be amended or reconsidered in the usual way. I remain of the view that the Agriculture Bill provides a once in a generation opportunity to shape the farming sector for the better and to place the UK in a leadership role on the global stage by promoting high animal welfare, environmental, and food safety standards abroad.  

This Bill will mean that by the end of 2024 we will have replaced the Common Agriculture Policy with a new scheme of Environmental Land Management. We envisage there will be three components to this. Firstly, there will be a sustainable farming tier which will be open to farmers across the UK and incentivise participation in farm-level measures such as integrated pest management, hedgerow management, and soil health.  

Secondly, there will be a local environmental tier that could incentivise interventions including the creation of habitats, improving biodiversity, tree planting, and natural flood management. Finally - a landscape-scale tier that could support woodland creation, peatland restoration, and other potential land-use changes.

The government stood on a manifesto commitment to guarantee the current annual budget to farmers in every year of this Parliament, has planned a seven-year agricultural transition – giving farmers time to adapt, and enabling them to take advantage of the new opportunities that this Bill provides.

The government is determined that there will be a prosperous future for British agriculture, and as such will introduce new powers to improve fairness and transparency in the supply chain. This will ensure farmers get a fair share, and grants will be introduced to help farmers add value to their produce and reduce costs so they can become more prosperous and improve productivity. There will also be a legal obligation on the Government to produce an assessment of our food security every five years which is now more important than ever.

In the UK, we have built a very special market based on provenance, with particular attention to food safety and high animal welfare standards. The government has been clear in its manifesto that these will not be jeopardised through trade deals in the future. The Government is committed to striking ambitious new trade deals but is adamant on one issue: in all of our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare, and food standards.

I regularly meet with farmers across the constituency, most recently at my specific Hexham Mart farming surgery earlier this year. This bill addresses many of the concerns raised by farmers, and protects and values our high animal welfare standards, and champions British food.

Whilst I agree with the aspirations behind the amendments proposed to the Bill last week – a thriving domestic agriculture industry, and promoting our high animal welfare and environmental standards abroad – the amendments did not adhere to the WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, and as such, were totally unworkable and unenforceable. It would have also led to a number of unintended consequences. Other mechanisms for achieving these aims must and will be sought.  The ambition remains for the UK to be the global leader in farm animal welfare.

The UK has built a unique market based on some of the highest food safety and animal welfare standards in the world - we will not jeopardise those crucially important levels of quality.

As we leave the European Union, we are on the cusp of opening up new and exciting export markets for UK farmers. The Government is committed to striking ambitious new trade deals across the world. However, as the Environment Minister stated last week “Like the rest of my colleagues on this side of the House, I was elected on a very clear manifesto commitment—one that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reiterated since—that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”

I have tried to address concerns as to the Bill in this letter, but to assist I have also set out below the key extracts of the Farming Minister’s speech to the House of Commons below. I would urge you to read it as it addressed in detail the concerns some people had raised.

Thank you again for taking the time to write to me, and please do not hesitate to get in touch if I can be of any further assistance going forward.

 

Victoria Prentis, Farming Minister

“This is a domestic Bill. It is not about trade. However, I have heard colleagues across the House—I am sure I will hear them again this afternoon—voice concerns ​about the effect of future trade agreements on UK agriculture. Some are concerned about a reduction in standards, particularly those for animal welfare. Others are concerned that there will not be a level playing field between our products and those coming from abroad.

Like the rest of my colleagues on this side of the House, I was elected on a very clear manifesto commitment—one that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reiterated since—that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. This Government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers. We are keen to ensure that parliamentarians, consumers and businesses have access to the information they need on our trade negotiations. Trade talks with the US opened formally last Tuesday. Ahead of that, the Government set out the negotiating objectives and associated documents, and a similar process will be replicated in the coming months as we do the same for deals with Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

I am grateful for the continued contributions of the National Farmers Union and others who sit on our expert trade advisory group, which helped shape this trade policy and feeds straight into the negotiating team. I assure the House that we are actively exploring how to build on that industry participation.

I reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements. At the end of the transition period, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will convert all EU standards into domestic law. That will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcases, and any changes to those standards would have to come before this Parliament. We will be doing our own inspections to ensure that those import conditions are met.

While we all want to support British farmers, if passed, the well-meaning amendments would have unintended consequences. The supply of food would be significantly disrupted if goods that meet our current import standards were blocked. New clauses 1 and 2 would affect UK exports to countries with whom, as part of the EU, we currently have trade agreements. I am concerned that the extra conditions in the two new clauses could result in countries refusing to enter into continuity agreements. For example, accepting new clause 2 would risk whisky exports worth £578 million. Another example is the impact on potato exporters. Some 22% of potato exports went to countries with whom a continuity agreement has not yet been signed.

If the amendments were passed, an assessment of our current UK production standards, followed by an assessment of all relevant standards in a third country, followed by an assessment of how those compared with UK legislation and UK production standards would be required to make sure that any FTA complied with them. That would all have to be done by the end of December.

I understand that Members want to ensure safeguards for our farmers. However, I have serious concerns about the unintended consequences of the amendments for our producers and exporters. Our manifesto commitment ​is clear that the Government will support farmers and protect our standards. All the rules, regulations and robust processes are already in place for that.

On labelling, I am looking forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on her labelling amendment. I understand that she will be championing consumer choice in the domestic market, which is very important. Other colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), and my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for West Dorset (Chris Loder), have asked us to explore whether labelling approaches could be used to differentiate products that meet domestic production standards from those that do not. This would include exploring mandatory labelling. Any scheme could not be devised until we have completed the transition period and would of course need to recognise World Trade Organisation obligations, but I assure Members from across the House that this is something we will consider closely and on which we are prepared to consult.

We all hope that UK food producers will benefit from increased export opportunities as we open up foreign markets. For example, in the last year, we have seen the lifting of a 20-year ban on the export of UK beef and lamb to Japan. Our “Food is GREAT” campaign targets consumer audiences abroad and is boosting global demand for our food and drink.

I turn now to amendments relating to financial assistance. I defy anyone to maintain that the common agricultural policy was good for either environmental protection or the productivity of British farming. It has held us back. It has paid those with more land more subsidy, regardless of what they did with it. It has favoured some parts of the industry over others. We are really keen that that changes now. We have an exciting opportunity to reset and plan for the future.

Passing the Bill will give farmers and land managers a clear direction. In England, it will enable us to deliver direct payments, simplified countryside stewardship schemes and productivity grants next year. I assure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that that is why this Bill is top of the queue. The gradual seven-year transition will allow farmers and land managers time to prepare for the new environmental land management scheme, which is currently being tested. Upland farmers, for example, will be well placed to benefit from it. We will also create a UK shared prosperity fund to address the needs of rural businesses and communities. Delaying the start of the agricultural transition to 2022 would just delay the many benefits of moving away from direct payments. To provide reassurance again, for 80% of farmers, our maximum reductions for 2021 will be modest at under 5%.

Improving the health of our environment as set out in the “25 Year Environment Plan” is a priority. The measures in the Bill will help us to combat climate change, but the Bill is not the place for targets. Environmental land management will be critical in helping us to deliver against our legally binding target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. We recognise that for these policies to be effective, they need to be properly funded. In our manifesto, we committed to maintain current agricultural spending for each year of this Parliament. Of course, this is a framework Bill, and this is only the ​beginning. I look forward to working with colleagues across the House and with groups such as the NFU to develop the policy that will flow from this legislation.

I turn now to amendments tabled on agroecological farming practices, and on reducing the use of pesticides. We are already testing how ELM can support farmers to take a whole-farm holistic approach. We have 50 tests and trials in progress, with many more planned before the national pilot starts in 2021. We are considering innovative solutions such as integrated pest management, which aims to reduce pesticide use on farms.”

In closing, she added:

“I need to reiterate at this point that there can be no question of sacrificing the UK livestock or other farming industries for the US trade deal. To the contrary, it is our view that a US trade deal is perfectly compatible with a thriving UK farming industry and very high standards. We have heard mention of the dreaded chlorine-washed chicken several times, and I would like to reassure the House that under existing regulations, which we will put into English law at the end of this year, chlorine-washed chicken is not allowed, and only a vote of this House can change that.

I think I also need to restate that the Government are willing to commit to a serious and rapid examination of what can be done through labelling, to reassure colleagues. It may well be that that would help colleagues to understand that we do intend to promote high standards and high welfare across the UK market. I agree that we must consider the case for consumer choice more fully when we look at this in some detail. I agreed earlier in the debate, and reiterate now, that we will consult on this at the end of the transition period. It is important that we look at how it would affect both the industry and consumers, and indeed retailers. I am keen to take that forward.

This is, as we have said many times, a framework Bill. We have a long, long way to go, and many tests and trials, before the agricultural transition period comes to an end in 2028. I would like to reassure farmers that the Government will support them and ensure that consumers will continue to have access to great-quality British food to eat. We very much hope that that will mean consumers from all over the world.

Farming is more than a job. We must cherish the deep personal connection felt by those who farm the land to the soil and landscape they care for, and build upon it in the reforms that we make. This Bill gives us that framework for the future for farming and for our countryside outside the EU. It will allow us to reward public goods such as environmental improvements, it will support investment in technology and research to improve productivity, and it will help our farmers to produce the high-quality food that they are renowned for and that we all so enjoy eating. I commend this Bill to the House.”