On 10th June the House of Lords debated the Agriculture Bill. The Rt Revd Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, spoke in the Second Reading debate, and highlighting issues around food security and environmental land management.
The Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I am pleased that the long-anticipated Agriculture Bill has finally arrived in your Lordships’ House. There are many good and laudable parts of the Bill, not least the fair trading provisions for farmers and concerns for the environment and wildlife.
This House knows that rural England requires flexibility, and the complications and unintended consequences caused by the European Union’s cap have been well rehearsed. I have repeatedly raised the issue of food security in your Lordships’ House, which must be a top priority for any Government.
We have been reminded of this again recently after the recent lockdown following the Covid pandemic. Shop shelves were stripped bare within hours and you could not buy some products such as flour for weeks. We know we cannot be fully self-sufficient in food as a nation, as nowadays we demand many products that are best produced in warmer climates. However, we can learn from our recent experience and think about how as many people as possible can have access to ethically farmed, good quality, locally sourced food. This is an agricultural issue, an environmental issue and a social justice issue.
The possibility of cheap imports providing even cheaper food is being trumpeted by some and a trade deal with the States has long been thought of as an opportunity to deregulate our farming. As the Bill progresses through its various stages, we will want to test the legislative guarantees to reassure us that these worries will not be proved correct. I will want to explore why the reviews into food security will be so infrequent rather than undertaken on an annual basis.
Elsewhere in the Bill, we will also seek clarity. Environmental land management schemes, with public money for public good, remain a cornerstone of the Bill, yet a cornerstone with so little clarity will fail to support legislation. The definition of biodiversity in the Environment Bill—a piece of legislation this Bill fails to acknowledge—remains unclear, as does this Bill’s lack of definition of the phrase “public good”. Moreover, the tapering of the schemes remains opaque, despite many requests for clarity. Upland farming, for example, is dependent on similar schemes, yet, as far as I can see, remains undervalued by the Bill. Furthermore, issues such as peat restoration and water obstruction which fail to consider legal implications remain unfinished. While welcome, the Bill will need a much great level of clarity as it passes through its various stages if it is to receive support from this House.