There is much good in the Agriculture Bill, but its failure to protect farmers from low standard imports is very serious, says Daniel Zeichner, Labour’s Shadow Farming Minister.
The Government’s Agriculture Bill, launched over two and a half years ago, finally passed the Commons to go to its next legislative stage this week – but without the guarantees on high UK standards for imports that are so essential, and in the face of opposition not just from Labour, but also from leading Conservatives, including the previous Secretary of State.
There is much that is good in the Bill: with a pressing climate crisis, the need for real change in how we produce our food to better protect our climate, soils and ecosystems has never been clearer, and measures to improve fairness in the supply chain are long overdue, although do not go far enough.
The Bill has been improved since it was first introduced in 2017, with multi-annual financial programmes required to provide more detail about payments for farmers, and food production finally specified as a goal after its extraordinary initial omission.
We believe that opportunities have been missed to strengthen the Bill in a number of areas.
We wanted to put food as the core focus of the Bill; to strengthen reporting measures on food security; to ensure fair dealing; and to introduce much-needed reforms for tenant farmers.
Through the Covid-19 crisis the UK food production sector has performed heroically and kept food flowing to supermarket shelves despite many challenges, but recent events within food supply chains have also shown there is need for improved regulation.
Farmers having to discard milk shows we need to tackle continuing long-standing problems in the dairy sector, and there are other parts of the food production system where power imbalances must be tackled.
Labour has consistently sought an extended role for the Grocery Code Adjudicator, and believes the current Bill offers a key opportunity for this to be adopted.
Due to the current pandemic, the consultation on the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme set to replace Direct Payments has been delayed, but as it stands, reductions will start next year.
Detailed questioning at Committee stage of the Bill highlighted the many unknowns.
There is much yet to be resolved about how these schemes will work in practice, and we share the concerns of many in the farming community about financial uncertainties ahead.
Labour will continue to work constructively wherever it can with the Government to support a successful transition to an environmentally-friendly and sustainable food and farming system, but the Government must take heed: the path to this will lie in maintaining our high standards, not abandoning them, and strengthening this Bill where there are clear opportunities to do so.
Labour stands with our farmers and all those working in our food production system – they must not become pawns in squabbles over future trade deals.
Daniel can be found tweeting at @DanielZeichner