The Agriculture Bill took a step closer to becoming law this week as it passed its second reading in the House of Commons.
The legislation which will transform British farming was led through its second visit to Parliament by Environment Minister, Theresa Villiers, on the first working day since our official departure from the EU.
The Bill, which had originally stalled late last year when a general election was called had been introduced to the House on January 16 and laid out the replacement scheme for the EU CAP system.
This week, three weeks since its first reading, the Bill, which will radically restructure Government support for the agricultural industry, returned to be debated by MPs.
Mrs Villiers opened the session with a speech setting out how the Bill will help safeguard nature in England and protect our countryside through the new Environment Land Management scheme (ELMS) which will see farmers being rewarded for ‘public goods’ such as cleaner air, water and improved animal welfare standards.
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She also said it would help boost productivity and maximise land potential for sustainable food production.
She said the Agriculture Bill would enable the industry to “seize one of the most important opportunities from being an independent nation – the freedom to write our own rules about how we farm and manage our land”.
But there was concern voiced by opposition MPs with Caroline Lucas (Green) asking for a legal commitment to ensuring food coming into the country would be produced to the same standards as British farmers.
In response, Mrs Villiers stated it had been in the party’s manifesto that it would maintain the high standards of animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection.
She said the Government would “defend that line” in its trade negotiations.
It was also a point raised by Shadow Environment Secretary, Luke Pollard, who said the Bill failed to provide controls on imported goods such as chlorinated chicken or hormone treated beef.
As he closed the debate, Agriculture Minister, George Eustice, said the prohibition on the sale of chlorine washed chicken and hormone fed beef was already on the statute book as retained EU law.
The Bill will now go to Committee Stage followed by Report Stage and Third Reading before transferring to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.
Mrs Villiers said she looked forward to working with parliamentary colleagues to progress the Bill and write our new agricultural legislation into law.
The shape of any new trade deal has been high on the list of concerns for farming organisations and as the Department for International Trade also set out its core principles for embarking on securing free trade deals with the rest of the world, this week, the NFU said future free trade agreements must not undermine British farming’s high standards.
NFU director of EU exit and international trade, Nick von Westenholz, said: “The government must ensure any trade deals we negotiate promote, rather than undermine, the farming the UK excels in, with its high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection.
“This means ensuring that the food we import meets the same high standards required of UK farmers – not only ensuring UK farming can thrive, but that it can act as a gold standard for farming across the world to emulate.”
In its statement, the Government reinforced its manifesto message highlighted by Mrs Villiers in the reading of the Agriculture Bill, that it would not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
Mr von Westenholz said this reassurance was welcomed along with the pledge that nothing in any agreement will undermine the Government’s commitment to tackling climate change, which, Mr von Westenholz said, would be crucial if UK farming is to meet its ambition of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2040.
“It is also important that the UK Government has acknowledged that it should walk away from any trade deals if the terms aren’t right. Seeking a trade deal at any cost runs the risk of the UK making unacceptable concessions just to get a final agreement over the line,” he said.
“We urge the government to make an explicit commitment that it will ensure all food imports meet those standards too and that these commitments are in law, ensuring legislative protection for our high standards of production and food safety.”