Agriculture Bill leaves more questions than answers

“The government’s rhetoric was definitely hiding a cat, indeed a whole pack of them. And the peers were determined to let it out of the bag.” Green peer Natalie Bennett reflects on the initial House of Lords debate on the government’s Agriculture Bill on 10 June, which brought the future of British farming under scrutiny. 

Farm equipment in use
Farm equipment in use
Natalie Bennett

  

A “pig in a poke” is a wonderfully rustic metaphor, highly appropriate when Lib Dem Lord Tyler used it to describe the Agriculture Bill in Wednesday’s (10 June) House of Lords initial debate on the government’s plan for our farming future.

I imagine a sturdy 19th-century yeoman with the poke, a rough-woven hessian bag slung over his shoulder, with the animal within wrestling and squealing. But is it a pig or a cat? (For this scenario is also the origins of “letting the cat out of the bag”.)

You have to buy the goods sight unseen, and hope.

Listening to the 44,000 words spoken over six hours on Wednesday (10 June) in the House of Lords on the subject of this Bill, it was obvious the judgement of the peers – including many Tories – was that the government’s rhetoric was definitely hiding a cat, indeed a whole pack of them. And the peers were determined to let it out of the bag.

It was notable how many Tories – many of them directly reflecting the representations they have had from farmers – were deeply critical of the government Bill.

The Conservative Earl of Shrewsbury said he had received a large number of representations from “furious” farmers and food producers, and even, he noted with some astonishment, the Shrewsbury and Atcham Labour Party.

They were greatly disappointed, as was he by the failure of the “Parish amendment”, named for the Tory MP who led on it, backed in the Commons by members from all parties. Simply, it required new international treaties on the import of agricultural and food products to comply with World Trade Organisation safety rules and the UK’s own standards.

This is, in other words, the bulwark against chlorinated chicken and hormone-laced beef, as well as scores of pesticides used on fruit or vegetables in the US that are banned in the EU.

Conservative Baroness McIntosh of Pickering pointed out how the Bill took away democratic control: “All that would be required to change the existing regulations or authorisations would be for statutory instruments to be laid in Parliament – a mere swipe of the pen and an SI [Statutory Instrument], and our standards could be changed overnight”.

This amendment is likely to be the main battleground on the Bill in the Lords.

But there will be others, particularly over the way that in post areas it provides powers for the Secretary of State, but not duties to do so.

As the highly respected crossbencher Lord Krebs put it: “The Bill leaves as many questions as it provides answers.”

The Conservative Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbott, addressing the same point, said that what was needed was not hopes, but duties.

He focused on the promise, added by the government from previous versions of the Bill, to report every five years on food security, but where was the target, the statement of intention, he asked. “There needs to be a stated government policy on what level of food security is sought.”

Lib Dem Lord Addington put it more bluntly: “We basically have a series of good intentions here – and good intentions are the road to hell.”

The Conservative Duke of Montrose was among the peers pointing out the “missing” separate food strategy, a draft of which the government was expected to put out in the spring.

Lib Dem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem pronounced on the same theme: “Is this not a matter of such significance and importance that the obligation should be met annually? Food security is a strategic requirement of every government; this government should recognise that.”

In the details of contributions, there was more criticism of the government from its own benches. Conservative Lord Naseby said: “There must be a way to restore horticulture, which is so important to us for food production. This means that obviously we will have to work with renewable energy.” This was a timely intervention when the government’s consultation on future support for heat pumps excludes an important way of doing this.

It was notable that considerably less opposition was coming from the Labour front bench, its contribution to the debate being notably downbeat.

Nonetheless, the government is going to have a very rough ride in the committee stage of the Bill, when the House goes through line by line, proposing what are sure to be many amendments, especially once we get to the report stage – probably in September – when there’s a real hope of multiple government defeats.