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Mon, 13 July 2020

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In the House of Lords, the Agriculture Bill is creating rebellion and dissent on a large scale

In the House of Lords,  the Agriculture Bill is creating rebellion and dissent on a large scale

Shockingly, on animal welfare, a leaked government memo says we should have ‘no specific policy’. The WTO only allows for safeguards that impact on human health, so growth hormones and chemical washes can be banned on those grounds, rather than cruelty to animals, says Baroness Jones | Credit: PA Images

5 min read

The Conservative manifesto was clear on maintaining existing standards and that greenlights a rebellion by peers.

The Agriculture Bill should be home turf for a Conservative Party that has dominated rural Britain for generations, yet it is creating rebellion and dissent on a large scale within the ranks of Tory peers.

The National Farmers Union are talking like the Archers are on the brink of extinction, with a US trade deal removing all the protections from the import of cheap and nasty food that will undercut Britain's small and medium sized family farms.

Despite a long list of Ministerial promises about preserving existing standards, the government are making clear that if a trade deal with Trump requires us to eat chlorinated chicken, then we had better sit down and do our best to enjoy the side veg.

As a Green Party peer I find myself in an unlikely alliance of farmers, ethical consumers, animal welfare advocates and bird watchers who all have a big stake in the outcome of the Agriculture Bill.

As Liam Fox declared in the debate that saw the government see off the 20 or so Conservative rebels in the Commons, if the UK maintains its existing standards on food, animal welfare and good farming practice, then the US will walk away from negotiations.

How is any of this an acceptable outcome for a government that is still considering crashing out of the EU without a final deal? 

The House of Lords is where the government constantly stumbled over Brexit, but Ministers probably believe that this shouldn't be a major consideration now they have a huge Commons majority.

After all, the Lords strictly adheres to the convention that it won't oppose policies that the electorate have voted for.

Except if something is in the government's manifesto.

Luckily, the Conservative manifesto was clear on maintaining existing standards and that greenlights a rebellion by peers.

As a Green Party peer I find myself in an unlikely alliance of farmers, ethical consumers, animal welfare advocates and bird watchers who all have a big stake in the outcome of the Agriculture Bill.

While the government reforms may not ignite a peasant revolt, they seem likely to spark a peers' revolt that will be enough to embolden many more rural Conservative MPs to become more vocal in defence of their constituents.

The Agriculture Bill will shape the future of farming in the UK for generations.

It replaces the huge subsidies of the EU Common Agricultural Policy with a new system of subsidies  that promotes food production at the same time as requiring farmers to manage their land for the public good, with increased public access to land and measures to prevent flooding.

If done well, this shift in priorities could see land management become an equal priority as food production.

That translates into less use of pesticides, more insects and wildlife, more wildflowers and natural woodlands and a lower impact on climate change.

Debate about what we encourage and discourage through the use of subsidies is exactly what Parliament should be deciding in any post Brexit arrangements.

The same goes for regulations that protect the welfare of animals and set a high bar on food standards. The Agriculture Bill should be a genuine example of “taking back control”, but only if Ministers can’t undermine its provisions via a trade agreement.

Either the minimum standards regarding trade have to be put into the Agriculture Bill, or the UK Parliament goes all in and must decide that sovereignty involves our having the ability to debate, amend and vote upon key parts of any major trade deal that undermine existing UK rules.

Shockingly, on animal welfare, a leaked government memo says we should have ‘no specific policy’.

The WTO only allows for safeguards that impact on human health, so growth hormones and chemical washes can be banned on those grounds, rather than cruelty to animals. So the focus is on the end product, rather than the horrendous process of production. In trade law an egg is just an egg whether the chicken is free range, or caged. Consumers might see it differently.

No sense of empathy, or sentience is allowed in the WTO.

The restrictive focus of the WTO also rules out concern over the carbon intensity of ‘products’ and the farming process. So when the government says that it will preserve environmental standards, animal welfare and food standards, it is actually only offering to guarantee the latter.

The government have written to peers and MPs saying that legislation will be brought before Parliament before any changes are made.

What isn’t made clear is whether this would be secondary legislation, or primary. Unless the forthcoming Trade Bill is radically altered to allow Parliament to amend and debate at length any trade agreement, then the most likely outcome is a Minister appearing briefly to explain what has been agreed, before a short debate and legislation passed on the nod. No one amends secondary legislation and it rarely, if ever, gets rejected.

Unsurprisingly, this government loves this kind of legislation and has included swathes of Henry 8th powers in recent bills – so called, because they are dictatorial rights from the age of sovereign monarchs.

The next few weeks are critical for rural communities where farming still plays a key economic and social role.

A petition sponsored by the NFU calling for minimum standards to be kept in any trade agreement has already attracted nearly a million signatures.

Passions are likely to rise further as more people realise what is at stake in this post Brexit world. The government pushed aside the initial rebellion of MPs, but we can hope that a lack of compromise and a big defeat in the Lords will ensure that MPs are far less of a pushover next time.

 

Baroness Jones is a Green Party member of the House of Lords. 

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