Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by the RSPCA (AB17)

Summary

The RSPCA is broadly supportive of the Agriculture Bill as a whole. Although there are some areas where we believe the Bill could be strengthened, we support the overall approach it takes in its move towards a new focus on using public money to encourage farmers and land managers to take action to improve farm animal welfare. We strongly support the Bill’s central principle, that of the payment of public money for public goods, and the inclusion of animal welfare as one of these public goods. Incentivising farmers to prioritise animal welfare in this way is a huge step forward.

The main area where we feel the Bill needs improvement is concerning the protection of UK animal welfare standards in trade deals. We are concerned that the Bill contains no detail about trade policies and import standards. It is vital for both animal welfare and UK farmers that all produce entering the UK market at least meets minimum UK legal requirements for animal welfare. We want to see this provision explicitly included in the Bill and support amendments that achieve this.

About the RSPCA

1. The RSPCA is the world’s oldest animal welfare charity, founded in 1824, and the leading organisation on animal welfare in England and Wales. We have sister organisations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and around the world.

2. Our work encompasses companion animals, farm animals, wildlife and animals used in research, and includes education and campaigning, as well as information, advice, support, enforcement, rescue and rehabilitation.

3. In addition, the RSPCA has developed species-specific higher welfare standards for farm animals, which are used by RSPCA Assured - the UK’s only farm assurance scheme that specifically and solely focuses on animal welfare - as well as others. Members of this scheme currently produce 52% of eggs, 21% of pigs, 11% of turkeys and 70% of salmon farmed in the UK. Our work with RSPCA Assured gives us a unique insight into how higher welfare farming can operate successfully in a market environment.

4. The RSPCA is a member of Wildlife and Countryside Link and a supporter of Greener UK. We support and are in broad agreement with the work and priorities of both coalitions concerning the Agriculture Bill.

Introduction

5. The RSPCA is pleased to respond to the Bill Committee on the Agriculture Bill. The Bill is the most defining event for farming and how we support farmers in England since the 1947 Agriculture Act.

6. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has set the farm support payment framework for the UK for decades, but it is a policy that was never developed for, and certainly did not deliver on, the needs of UK farmers and farm animals. For example, although EU funding was available for farm animal welfare from 2007, the amounts were small and, in England, no funding was ever given for animal welfare payment schemes (though one scheme existed in Scotland between 2007 and 2013, which we understand proved popular with farmers). As the CAP was historically geared towards Pillar 1 funding (ie. payments were made based on the size of the farm) this failed to support higher welfare systems of production.

7. We support the move away from this approach and towards using public money for public goods which, if delivered well, could lead to a real improvement in farm animal welfare.

What is good in the Agriculture Bill

8. Public money for public goods: the Bill sets a new direction for farm support payments away from subsidies based purely on land ownership and, instead, towards a system where taxpayers’ money is used to support farmers to improve standards in farm animal welfare and other schemes to improve the environment and tackle the climate emergency (Clause 1).

9. Animal welfare as a public good: animal welfare is defined as a public good in the Bill (Clause 1(f)). This is a huge step forward for farm animal welfare in England and reflective of Defra’s original Health and Harmony consultation where over 4,300 responses expressed a desire to see improvements in animal welfare. Indeed, 52% of respondents to Defra’s consultation selected world-class animal welfare as the most important public good that government should support [1] .

10. Labelling: the Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to use regulations to define the marketing standards that agricultural produce in England must adhere to, including how it should be labelled (Clause 35). This includes an explicit mention of method of production labelling, which the RSPCA particularly welcomes. The example of shell eggs shows how this type of labelling is required by the public to make informed purchasing decisions, is successful in driving animal welfare standards, and is required to support those producers working to such standards. It is also an initiative that is popular with the public, with 72% of respondents to the Health and Harmony consultation agreeing that government should "set further standards to ensure greater consistency and understanding of welfare information at the point of purchase" [2] .

11. Multi-annual financial assistance plans: the Bill introduces a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and present to Parliament multi-annual financial assistance plans, setting out the Government’s priorities for financial support and what schemes are currently, or expected to be, funded during the plan period (Clause 4). This is a welcome step in improving transparency in funding and providing certainty to the producer..

12. Phase out of Direct Payments: the Bill sets a final date for the end of land-based payments under Pillar 1 and conversion of those to payments for public goods purposes (Clause 8), giving a seven year transition period for farmers to complete the change over from the present system. It is also welcome that the transition period begins in 2021 so that the positive changes the Bill introduces can begin to be implemented, and the benefits felt, promptly.

13. Food security: the Bill introduces a duty on the Secretary of State to present regular reports to Parliament analysing statistics on UK food security, which should show the level of imports in each sector and if they were imported to UK standards (Clause 17).

14. Transparency in the supply chain: the Bill grants powers to improve transparency in the supply chain. This could benefit animal welfare if they show the need for - and lead to - better mandatory consumer information. This could also highlight the need for producers to be fairly rewarded for producing to higher welfare standards (Clause 27).

15. World Trade Organisation rules: the Bill outlines a common UK approach to ensuring that the UK meets the WTO rules under the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) (Clause 40) whilst allowing devolved authorities to set out their own detailed programmes (Clauses 40 and 41). Payments for animal welfare are permitted under the AoA if they meet certain conditions. The UK Government can utilise their independent seat at the WTO to highlight the benefits of animal welfare payments in agricultural schemes and promote a wider discussion on permitting measures to improve animal welfare in trade policy at the WTO.

Where improvements are needed in the Agriculture Bill

16. Trade and import standards: the major weakness of the Agriculture Bill as it stands, and the key area where the RSPCA believes it should be amended, is that it does not include any detail concerning future trade policies and import standards. It is vital for both animal welfare and UK farmers that all produce entering the UK market at least meets minimum UK legal requirements for animal welfare. If future trade agreements permit the import of animal products reared to standards that fall below the UK legal minimum, lower welfare products will enter our market and compete with higher welfare UK produce. This would not only undermine, but also pose a serious economic risk to the UK farming industry, as such imported produce would likely be cheaper than nationally produced food. The Government has repeatedly stated they are committed to protecting animal welfare standards whilst negotiating future trade deals, so it is disappointing that they have not explicitly included this commitment within the Bill. The RSPCA therefore supports amendment NC1.

17. Baseline animal welfare standards: although it is made clear in the Bill’s Explanatory Notes that payments under Clause 1(f) of the Bill will only go to farmers meeting baseline animal welfare standards, there is currently nothing in the text of the Bill itself that sets this out. The RSPCA therefore supports Amendment 4 (and 5).

18. Funding: the Bill has no funding attached to it and the Government has only agreed funding to 2024, three years prior to when the new system is fully operational. The last Parliament’s EFRA Select Committee recommended, in scrutiny of a previous incarnation of the Bill, that: "Government should commit to fully fund the future agricultural policy and ring-fence the funds that are released from the withdrawal of Direct Payments to fund the rural economy and the environment" [3] . The RSPCA agrees. To ensure that there is adequate funding to run the animal welfare pilots from 2021 and there is funding available for these pilots to be part of the new farm system post 2027, the Bill should establish a minimum animal welfare financial envelope as part of Clause 1.

19. Duties on the Secretary of State: in Clause 1, the Bill should specify that the Secretary of State must provide financial assistance under Clause 1, rather than that they may do so. This would ensure that this Clause of the Bill, which does after all contain the heart of the Bill’s aims, has equal standing to other Clauses, such as those around multi-annual financial assistance plans and food security reports mentioned previously. The RSPCA therefore supports Amendment 1.

February 2020


[1] Health and Harmony: The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment in a Green Brexit: Summary of Responses (September 2018) https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/the-future-for-food-farming-and-the-environment (accessed 06/02/20)

[2] Ibid

[3] The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (2018) The Future for Food, Farming and the Environment (paragraph 36) https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvfru/870/87002.htm (accessed 06.02.20)

 

Prepared 13th February 2020