The Agriculture Bill returned to Parliament on Wednesday at a time when the UK’s food security and our own agricultural sector have become prominent issues.
Firstly, the withdrawal from the EU and its agricultural policies that necessitated this bill represents the biggest shake up of British agricultural policy in a generation. Secondly, the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the fragility of many parts of our agriculture and food sectors. This problems range from the distribution of food to supermarkets through ‘just-in-time’ supply chains to hiring sufficient labour to harvest UK-grown produce in the first place.
In principle, the direction of the Government’s Agriculture Bill includes some welcome steps to address these issues. Its centrepiece is the adoption of the principle of ‘public money for public benefit’, which is an important change from the overwhelming focus of the EU’s CAP subsidy scheme on maximising agricultural production. ‘Public money for public benefit’ should help farmers to carry out activities including adapting for climate change, restoring soil health, improving animal welfare standards, and ensuring public access to the countryside. It therefore represents an important recognition of our obligations to protect and restore our natural environment.
When it comes to concrete proposals, however, I have concerns that the draft bill falls severely short and could allow the Government to ignore these commitments in practice. The bill lacks the binding legal guarantees that would protect animal welfare and environmental standards from post-Brexit trade deals, or ensure that British agriculture makes rapid progress towards carbon neutrality. Rather than allowing ministers wriggle room, Parliament should today be establishing environmental standards as duties on the Government.
Therefore, I supported amendments which would strengthen the bill by introducing these duties. The two amendments put forward by the Labour frontbench would have established these guarantees to prevent UK environmental and welfare standards being undercut by trade deals, and would also have mandated the Government to draw up an emergency food resilience plan in response to the coronavirus emergency.
Despite a small rebellion among Conservative MPs, the Government succeeded in defeating the amendments. We felt that without these safeguards the bill was flawed and voted against. Unfortunately, however, it passed with the support of the Government and the DUP, and is likely to pass in the House of Lords.
This means that it is now crucial to hold ministers to account in their implementation of the bill’s new powers, so that it they are used in ways most beneficial to the environment. We will also have an opportunity when debating the Trade Bill to try and secure amendments to install protections and safeguards into trade negotiations.
Although I am disappointed that we were unsuccessful on this occasion, we will look to future opportunities to press the case.