With the UK under lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Parliament is moving to carry out its work remotely. But what does this mean for farming legislation? Abi Kay explores.
The Agriculture Bill is facing the prospect of fresh delay as Parliament moves to virtual proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other key pieces of Brexit legislation affecting the sector such as the Immigration Bill and Environment Bill could also be looking at a similar hold-up.
In order for the Government’s agricultural transition to begin in 2021 as planned, the Agriculture Bill needs to be passed by summer this year, with Ministers originally hoping it could receive Royal Assent as soon as May.
Though parliamentary experts say it is still practically possible for the Bill to be passed over the coming months, they have questioned whether it is politically feasible, and some industry insiders are now suggesting the legislation will not return for its next stage of scrutiny until September.
Dr Hannah White, deputy director at the Institute for Government, told Farmers Guardian it was much easier for parliamentary business such as select committees, questions, statements and debates to be moved into the digital space because they do not require any votes – unlike new pieces of law.
“With legislation, the whole process is to do with voting,” she said.
“Even if you do not consider any amendments, you still have to vote to keep the bits of the Bill the Government wants to keep.
“Because coronavirus means physical proximity is a problem, voting in person, which happens to be the way Westminster does it, is the most difficult thing to do remotely.”
MPs have previously looked at the possibility of introducing digital voting, but rejected it on security grounds.
They are also keen to maintain the ritual of walking through the lobbies because it gives them a chance to grill Ministers they may not ordinarily see who have to turn up for votes.
So far, the Government has avoided the need for votes by temporarily suspending legislation, and it could continue to limit the number of divisions over the coming weeks by progressing fewer Bills.
As far as the Agriculture Bill is concerned, a date has not been set for its return to Parliament, perhaps because amendments tabled by Conservative MPs including Efra Select Committee chairman Neil Parish on the protection of standards in future trade deals are likely to be very contentious and could cause problems for the Government, even with its large majority.
A consultation on the future of the English Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme has also already been put on pause and Defra policy staff have been reassigned to work on coronavirus, notably director general for food, farming and biosecurity David Kennedy, who has moved from the future farming portfolio to focus on food supplies for the vulnerable.
Brigid Fowler, senior researcher at the Hansard Society, said: “There is a scenario in which the Government puts off difficult legislative business, extends the transition period and waits until the crisis is over and politics settles back into some new normal.
“It is definitely too early to say the Bill will not be through by the summer, but I also find it perfectly imaginable that it will slip.”
As things stand, Commons authorities have set out plans for a ‘hybrid Parliament’ where up to 120 MPs can take part in proceedings virtually on Zoom, while around 50 could remain in the chamber under strict social distancing rules.
If the proposals are agreed, they will allow MPs to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, any urgent questions or statements via video link from Wednesday April 22, with screens in the chamber to allow the Speaker to be able to see ‘virtual colleagues’.
MPs wanting to participate will have to let the Speaker know in advance they want to speak, with contributors’ names drawn at random.
Sitting days are being scaled back, so business will only be carried out on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Select committees in the House of Commons have already been carrying out virtual sessions, while the House of Lords has moved to carry out its business on Microsoft Teams.
There is still no clarity on how secondary legislation, known as statutory instruments, will be passed, but there is the possibility that parliamentary procedures could be tweaked to make it easier for primary legislation to be passed.
Normally, after a Bill is introduced to the House of Commons, it is sent off to a small committee of MPs who carry out line-by-line scrutiny over a number of weeks, voting on each clause and debating amendments.
Higher profile legislation, however, such as the EU Withdrawal Act, is scrutinised instead by the House of Commons as a whole to give all MPs a say on its passage.
Scrutinising all Bills this way would have the key benefits of needing fewer staff to manage proceedings and increasing the speed at which laws can be passed, because the process tends to take one or two days as opposed to weeks.
But the number of Bills being progressed through Parliament would have to be limited for this to work as only one could be considered at a time.
Dr White said: “It is much quicker to pass a Bill through Committee of the Whole House, because they cannot have so many votes.
“Every vote takes 20 minutes and you have to get 650 MPs through, so I would say the level of scrutiny is less good in Committee of the Whole House – even though it is ironically the thing you use for big, constitutionally important things.”
The Agriculture Bill has already passed committee stage in the House of Commons, though other key pieces of legislation such as the Environment Bill could proceed in this way.
But concerns about the level of scrutiny Ministers will face in a virtual Parliament are not limited to passing legislation.
There is also unease about parliamentary questions being carried out via video link, as MPs are unable to probe with follow-ups.
Vicki Hird, farm campaign co-ordinator at Sustain, said: “There are concerns about going virtual, because MPs may not be able to provide the level of scrutiny they have been able to in the past, both in terms of direct oral evidence sessions and the minutiae of the scrutiny they would be doing normally.
“There is general unhappiness about the way MPs are able to grill Ministers. From what we have seen so far, they are able to get away with Ministerial waffle.”
Because carrying out parliamentary work remotely is so challenging, and so many questions remain unanswered, the likelihood that the agricultural Brexit transition will be put on hold for at least a year is growing.
At the end of March, a Defra spokesman admitted to FG that the department was in discussions about putting the plans on pause.
But of course, the start date of England’s agricultural transition period was designed to tie in with the end of the Brexit implementation period on December 31, 2020.
Though talks with the EU have now resumed, with videoconference negotiating rounds scheduled for April, May and June, there is still the possibility that the implementation period could be extended as countries on both sides of the Channel focus their attention on battling coronavirus.
Julie Robinson, partner at Roythornes Solicitors, said: “If we do extend the Brexit implementation period, then, in my view, it is likely that the coming into force of most of the Agriculture Bill will be delayed until the end of the extension.
“EU law will stay in force in the UK generally and, unless there are changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will not be able to start paying for public goods in the way the Agriculture Bill envisages.
“There may have to be another Direct Payments (Legislative Continuity) Act to fill the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) gap, by agreement with the EU.”
Industry leaders have welcomed the idea of waiting a year for the agricultural transition to begin, but they are keen for the Agriculture Bill to return to Parliament as quickly as possible so it can be amended in light of the pandemic and passed.
TFA chief executive George Dunn said: “Even before the current crisis, the TFA had been pursuing amendments to the Bill which would have raised the profile of food security, and if those amendments were needed before, they are even more needed now.
“We would hope the Government might accept them given the need to significantly ramp up resilience in terms of food security and the food supply system domestically.”
CLA president Mark Bridgeman also called for changes to the food security section of the Bill, which introduces a requirement for the Defra Secretary to carry out five-yearly reviews of the UK’s food security, saying these should take place more frequently.
But he added: “After the coronavirus crisis subsides, the climate emergency and nature crisis will still be there.
“We should look at the food supply chain and address its weaknesses, and the Agriculture Bill is one part of that solution.
“That is why it should return to Parliament as soon as possible, to kick-start this process ahead of the National Food Strategy.”