I've had many people contact me about the Agriculture Bill which is being debated today.
Agriculture is vitally important to my constituency. As a result, I had thrown my name into the ring to speak in the debate. However, with Parliament operating digitally, it means there are time constraints on speaking sessions so it is up to the Speaker’s Office to allocate speaking slots.
Annoyingly, I wasn't selected to take part today, but here is what I was going to say.
Food and farming are bedrocks of our economy and our environment. Our farmers generate over £112 billion a year and help shape some of our finest habitats and landscapes. In my own constituency of Bishop Auckland, 48 per cent of our land is used for agriculture. Here in Parliament, we need to champion our rural communities, like beautiful Teesdale, with an emphasis on the farming heroes who help to feed our nation and preserve our environment. This bill does just that.
I am pleased that the Government has committed the same level of cash funds for farmers until the end of this Parliament, giving our farmers both the stability and certainty they need.
Now we have left the EU, this country has a once in a generation opportunity to design a domestic agricultural policy that will stand the test of time. The opportunity to leave the Common Agricultural Policy behind and move towards a bright future for farming is one of the chief benefits of Brexit. This Bill will make that future a reality.
While the Common Agriculture Policy has impeded productivity and stifled innovation in the farming sector and failed to protect the environment, this Bill will reward farmers with public money for the ‘public goods’ they produce – such as enhancing air and water quality, improved access to the countryside, measures to reduce flooding, tackling climate change and improving animal welfare.
The over-complicated EU rules are inflexible, they are burdensome, and they are outdated. The current subsidy system of direct payments is skewed towards the largest landowners and is not linked to any specific benefits or outputs. It is a fallacy to think that rules designed for 28 different countries, with vast variations in climate, landscape and production, could ever be right for the UK.
And now I turn to food. Great British food is the best in the world, and I share the ambition of many farmers in my constituency of Bishop Auckland, and across the UK, of growing more, of selling more and of exporting more. And with its focus on supporting productivity, this Bill will help the farming sector realise that ambition.
I believe that this new system of “public money for public goods” will make it easier for smaller farmers to compete and showcase their products on a global setting.
This brings me on to the proposed New Clauses 1 and 2.
It is absolutely vital that people across the UK have confidence in the food they eat and feed to their families. I therefore welcome the Government’s clear commitment that any future trade agreements must uphold the UK’s high levels of food safety, animal welfare standards, and environmental protection. The Trade Secretary herself has said explicitly “we're not going to sell out our food safety and animal welfare standards", and my Right Honourable Friend has made clear we will walk away from any trade deal that does not suit the UK.
I welcome that the Government will not compromise on our domestic welfare production standards. And I also welcome that food safety standards will be applied in the same way with all trading partners, including both the EU and the US.
But what we cannot do at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history is stifle our opportunity to trade. We simply cannot begin to impose our domestic production standards on food being imported – this is something we don’t do at present, and subsequently it could lead to increased consumer prices at a time when people are concerned about the impact of COVID on the cost of living.
Unlike food safety regulations, it is not feasible to think that production standards can be monitored in the third country market, and I can imagine the uproar if we were asked to comply with such a notion from another nation. Similarly, we would be expecting other nations to abide by our rules whilst having no say in making them – something we fought against in our efforts to leave the EU.
And even the EU, one of the most protectionist entities, does not demand all imports meet its own production standards. There is also the very relevant point that requiring all imported goods to meet UK production standards would likely be challenged at the World Trade Organisation.
This amendment, whilst well intentioned, amounts to a protectionist move that would ultimately increase consumer prices. Time and again, from the Corn Laws to Smoot-Hawley, history proves that protectionism only results in harm, in poverty, and affects the most vulnerable in society. I didn’t join this place to deliver that sort of future for my constituents.
I’ve heard from some Teesdale farmers worried that opening the market to imports from the US in particular may disadvantage them. But I firmly believe that the UK agriculture sector will benefit from a US-UK Free Trade Agreement. Through a free trade deal with the USA we can reap the benefits of reduced tariffs for both US and UK businesses and consumers, whilst wholeheartedly supporting our farming and fishing industries.
And there are clear opportunities for agriculture. This is because food exporters to the US often face high tariffs: the average tariff on British cheese is 17% meaning American consumers have to pay more, so our quality produce is priced out of the market. Lower tariffs would benefit beef, lamb and dairy farmers and producers across the UK. This will help level-up the UK, with our local dairy and lamb producers in Teesdale having increased access to new markets and opportunities for trade in growing markets. For our many local sheep farmers, seeing that US demand for lamb is growing presents an exciting opportunity, as highlighted by the National Sheep Association.
Like I said, British food is the best in the world, and that is why I am confident that UK agriculture can compete and succeed. Rather than focusing on closing the UK market to imports, we should be using Brexit as an opportunity to open up new export markets to high quality British produce from our top quality farms both across Bishop Auckland and across our country.
This is why I will not be supporting the amendments, but let me make this point clearly – I support high food production standards, animal welfare standards, or environmental standards. However, I can’t support this amendment because of the practicalities of its implementation, and of concern for the knock-on effects on consumer prices and the cost of living for my constituents.
Supporting the farming community in Teesdale and Weardale remains one of my top priorities, and that is why I am happy to support this bill and bring its many benefits to Bishop Auckland.