On Monday the Agriculture Bill passed through the final stage of Parliamentary approval. I know there is a great deal of concern from constituents and I have posted a detailed
piece on Facebook, which you can see on the below link.
For those who want to read more, I have explained below in more detail what the Bill does and why I believe the amendments were counterproductive. I am happy to discuss this further.
WHAT THE BILL DOES
The Bill is an important piece of legislation for the whole of the UK. Many will not be aware that the Bill contained essential provisions to:
- Ensure Welsh government can continue to make direct payments to the agricultural sector when we complete the Transition Period to leave the EU at the end of this year;
- Create a new, fairer levy system ensuring that money levied on Welsh livestock in English slaughterhouses is redirected into Wales;
- Strengthen the bargaining power of Welsh agriculture producers when negotiating with buyers;
- Facilitate the creation of a ‘local produce’ labelling system;
- Introduce a UK-wide livestock tracking system to reduce the risks of infectious disease.
Most importantly, the Bill ensures that Welsh farmers can expect a smooth transition ahead of Welsh government’s own Agricultural Bill in the Senedd next year, which will lay out the specifics of Wales’ future financial assistance system.
To be clear, despite the publicity campaigns, supporting this Bill is NOT a vote to lower our own food safety standards. Our product safety and import standards are dealt with in separate legislation and there are no plans to reduce them.
WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?
Over the last few months, I have had many conversations with farmers here in Aberconwy and with NFU and FUW representatives. They know I make no claim to be a farmer, but they know my strong personal interest in the welfare of farming.
Many – if not all – wanted the Bill amended to ensure that future international trade deals would be conditional on trading partners matching British production, processing and monitoring standards in agriculture.
The idea behind this “production equivalence” is to help protect our farmers’ high production standards, which are based on animal welfare and food safety – but cost us more than inferior production methods used elsewhere.
I listened to these concerns carefully and after much thought and consideration, came to the conclusion that although attractive on the surface, they would have caused extensive harm to farmers, consumers and the poorest in society.
Equivalence would hurt farmers
Wales exports 35 – 40% of our lamb produce worth £107 million to foreign markets. Cutting our farmers off from this vital source of income risks doing significant damage to the sector.
Part of this success is because the UK has some of the highest environmental, animal welfare, production and monitoring standards in the world. According to the Animal Welfare Index, British animal welfare standards are higher than all but three EU countries. I am proud of that.
But if we had voted to require equivalent standards we would have limited our trade to only those nations with the same standards. That would have removed the possibility of trade with almost every major export market in the world, including the EU (our biggest export market) and the US (the world’s second biggest importer of lamb).
Sovereign nations would not – or possibly could not in the case of poorer nations – accept being bound by our domestic legislation on agricultural production as a condition of trade with us. Not the EU, not the US, not any of our major partners.
Furthermore, such a move would also put at risk our existing trading arrangements with nations such as Canada and Japan. A requirement of equivalence would arguably violate WTO rules – which is why the EU itself has not signed such a deal.
Equivalence would cost us all – especially the poorest in society
It is no secret that EU policies limiting international imports of food has inflated our food prices here in the UK. House of Commons research found universal agreement on this point amongst experts. Analysis of WTO data by the Institute of Economic Affairs (2013) found that EU wholesale food prices are 17% above international wholesale food prices.
A production equivalence amendment would not just replicate EU import restrictions – it would dramatically enhance them. The result? Food prices would rise here.
It is really important to realise that these sorts of costs always hit our society’s most vulnerable hardest. Studies show that those in the bottom 20% of earners spend twice as much on food as those in the top 10% due to a range of factors (including access, choice, time and storage).
With the prospect of more months of financial hardship for hard pressed families ahead food is going to be a growing share of household spending. I could not in good conscience vote for a Bill that would harm the welfare of constituents here in Aberconwy, in that way.
Finally, trade deals can promote animal welfare
I have loved nature and animals my whole life. I am concerned with their ethical treatment and proper welfare. I believe an important mark of a civilised society is to look after the people and things that are dependent upon us for care.
So I have raised this matter directly with the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss MP, who is leading our negotiation with the USA, and one of the leaders of her negotiating team. I have been given repeated reassurances that our high animal welfare/food production standards are not on the table in any future trade negotiations. It is a red line for us.
It is also worth noting that there are good reasons to believe that trade deals can also improve standards. The trend for animal welfare standards outside of the EU, has been upwards in recent decades, not down.
By way of example, New Zealand removed almost all its agricultural subsidies in 1985 – exposing its farmers to rigorous international competition. However, New Zealand now has one of the most competitive lamb export industries in the world, as well as higher animal welfare standards than most EU countries.