I have received a lot of correspondence about the Agriculture Bill, covering a wide range of issues.
I want to reassure my constituents that I know and appreciate that food and farming is a bedrock of our economy and environment – and in particular of my Mid Worcestershire constituency. In the UK food and farming generate £112 billion a year and help shape some of our finest habitats and landscapes. I am pleased that the Government has guaranteed the current annual budget in every year of the new Parliament, giving significant certainty on funding for the coming years. Nearly £3 billion of funding will top up the remaining EU funding to match the total funding for direct payments that was available for 2019.
As many of you are aware, farmers are already currently doing amazing things to benefit wildlife and counter the effects of climate change. I’m pleased that now we have left the European Union, this country has the chance to tailor its agriculture policy to encourage this further. We will move away from the EU’s bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy and towards a fairer system where hard-working farmers are paid public money for the public goods they deliver. I understand that payments will be made for activities such as conserving plants grown or used in agricultural, horticultural or forestry activity. Land management actions which improve the quality of soil are also being considered.
I am aware that land managers in receipt of Direct Payments are also required to protect hedgerows on their land. Through agri-environment schemes, such as Countryside Stewardship, their valuable role is recognised, funding the management of hedgerows to deliver recognised benefits for wildlife, landscape and the historic environment.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s very clear commitment that any future trade agreements must uphold the UK’s high levels of food safety, animal welfare standards, and environmental protection. The Government has set out that it will always ensure that UK Future Trade Agreements are fair and reciprocal and that British farmers will not face unbalanced competition. National Farmer’s Unions across the UK will be involved through the Government’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group and our sector specific expert trade advisory groups to ensure the views of the industry are represented. This means that they have a voice at the highest level of our trade negotiations.
With food standards, I fully recognise and appreciate the importance the public attach to the UK’s high standards of food production, and the unique selling point it provides for our farmers, whose high-quality produce is in demand around the world. Without exception, all animal products imported into the UK under existing or future free trade agreements from all trading partners, including the EU and others, will have to meet our stringent food safety standards, as they do now.
I am also aware that the EU Withdrawal Act transferred all existing EU food safety provisions onto the UK statute book, and Ministers have made clear these standards will not be watered down in pursuit of any trade deal now that the UK has left the EU. For this reason, my colleagues in DEFRA did not believe it was appropriate for the Agriculture Bill to go so far as to ban imports. If you want to see my further comments on maintaining our high standards of food, please have a look at my statement on UK Food Standards.
Some of the correspondence I received from constituents asked about Lords amendments, particularly that of Lord Curry of Kirkharle, which would legislate for the Secretary of State to produce a report relating to each and any international trade agreement agreed, negotiated or concluded by the Government prior to such an agreement being ratified, considering its impact on the trade of agri-food product.
I do understand the sentiment of this amendment. In line with this, the Government tabled its own which aims to bolster parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements and will place a duty on the Government to report to Parliament on whether, or to what extent, commitments in new Free Trade Agreements relating to agricultural goods are consistent with maintaining UK levels of statutory protection in relation to human, animal and plant life and health; animal welfare; and environmental protection. The Government believes that Parliament plays an important role in scrutinising trade policy. At the end of negotiations, Ministers will lay the final agreement text in Parliament alongside an explanatory memorandum and a final impact assessment.
Aside from this the Government has extended the Trade and Agriculture Commission and will place it on a full statutory footing in the Trade Bill, giving farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy. The Commission will produce a report to be laid in Parliament on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture of each new free trade deal signed after the end of the transition period. This will allow Parliamentarians access to independent and expert advice when reviewing the impact of each trade deal.
I do hope this information reassures you that the Agriculture Bill sets out to get the best for our farmers, and from our food.
Thank you again for those who took the time to contact me about this.