By Ella Remande-Guyard – Contributor
Despite media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic continuing to dominate UK political discussion, it remains important to open further discussion about seemingly unrelated, yet perhaps relevant, parliamentary processes that will potentially have large nation-wide impacts.
As a consequence of the 2019 general election, and therefore leaving the EU, the UK is leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a policy providing financial support to farmers in all EU member states. On 16 January, the government reintroduced the Agriculture Bill to provide a legislative post-Brexit replacement. This Bill is arguably the biggest reform of British farming since 1945. It represents the most considerable change in farming policy for generations, being described by editor of Farmers Weekly Philip Case as: “the most important piece of farming legislation to come before parliament in decades”. According to ‘The Independent’, the new bill could directly affect the livelihoods of 460,000 people and determine the future of 70 per cent of UK land area (17.4 million hectares) currently under agricultural management.
On Wednesday 13 May, the Agriculture Bill had its third reading in parliament, which saw MPs vote – remotely, for the first time – on several key amendments. The most anticipated of these was tabled by Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA), which aimed to protect UK farmers from cheap, low-standard regulations on food imports. This amendment was rejected by 328 to 277 votes – a majority of 51 – after failing to receive the support of the government, despite several previous commitments to safeguard the farming industry from cheap food imports.
Since the reintroduction of the Bill after the 2019 general election, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has worked closely with parliamentarians to improve the Bill. Ahead of the debate, hundreds of its members had already contacted politicians, urging them to ensure that the UK’s high environmental, animal welfare and safety standards were upheld. The result of the vote has therefore been criticised as a deeply regrettable decision, with NFU Cymru president, John Davies, commenting that “colleagues across the border will be highly disappointed at the lack of focus and recognition within this important document”. NFU Scotland director of policy, Jonnie Hall, warned that the legislation which is currently proposed would offer little protection to domestic producers in the negotiation of new free trade agreements with the EU and other partners.
The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) described the blocking of the amendment as a “grave error”. Ministers, however, continue to insist that the issue of protecting food standards in post-Brexit trade deals will be dealt with in the forthcoming Trade Bill. Farming minister Victoria Prentis claimed the amendment would “significantly disrupt” food supplies and that it would have “unintended consequences”. She reiterated the government manifesto commitment that it will “not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards” in trade negotiations. “This government will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any deals live up to the values of our farmers and consumers”, she said.
Parish, however, claimed industry and politicians were being “led up the garden path” by the government on this issue. “There is no point having world-leading standards in the UK if we do not expect trade partners to reciprocate. Allowing preferential access to food imports produced to lower standards will put many of our farmers at a competitive disadvantage and out of business”.
Alongside the Agriculture Bill is the broader Environment Bill, which sets out the government’s agenda for environmental reform and governance post-Brexit. The government describes it as the most “radical” environmental legislation to date. This bill has also faced criticism both from parliament and from environmental groups for leaving open the possibility of regression in environmental standards. The bill would give the secretary of state across-the-board powers to change regulation following Brexit but would make no legally binding commitments against loosening environmental standards in the four main regulatory areas (water, air, biodiversity, and waste). Whilst the government has made spoken – although not legally-binding – commitments to non-regression, this would likely be tested in any free trade negotiations with the USA and other economic blocs.
Farmers often feel isolated from the powers of government and daunted by the task of delivering both agricultural productivity and environmental enhancements. With farming being a vitally important UK industry making a major economic contribution, both in its own right and as a key supplier to the UK’s agri-food industry, this blocking will potentially have major repercussions on not only the livelihood of farmers, but on the future of the UK economy.