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How did the House of Lords push to protect food standards in the Agriculture Bill?

9 December 2020

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You may have heard about the recent Agriculture Bill – now the Agriculture Act – passing through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. As it progressed, the Lords carried out its important constitutional role as the checking and revising chamber for bills (draft laws).

In this short article, we will explore how the House of Lords contributed to protecting food standards in the UK by pressing the government to report on standards in new trade agreements.

Professional expertise

Members of the House of Lords come from different backgrounds and professions. Many remain active in their careers and are experts in their fields – the House draws on this professional experience in its examination of legislation. Members who worked to improve the Agriculture Bill include the former leader of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, the heads of the Woodland Trust and Royal Veterinary College, and the President of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers. Members with experience of the agri-tech sector, and current and former farmers also took part.

The House also draws on its investigative work in committees and from outside experts. For example, the Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee’s report on food security in the UK. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and Constitution Committee also reported on the bill, including on changes made as a result of prior scrutiny.

How the Lords changed the Agriculture Bill

The Lords plays an essential role in improving bills: highlighting potential problems and ensuring they will be workable laws. A bill goes through the same stages in the House of Commons and the House of Lords but there are important differences between how each carry out the stages and much of the work revising bills is done in the House of Lords.

In the Lords, changes are made by negotiating and discussing with the government how to improve a bill to ensure it meets the needs of the people it impacts, whether this is a specific group, such as farmers, or the country as a whole.

Each of the stages a bill goes through enable the government to set out what it is trying to achieve with a new law. They also allow members to explore and discuss concerns and ideas, and to persuade the government to make changes. During these stages, the House of Lords often asks the Commons to ‘think again’, both sides listen to each other and try to find ways of reaching agreement.

When the Agriculture Bill arrived from the Commons, the House of Lords carried out extensive scrutiny of its content and put forward changes. In the Lords, any member can put forward changes, including the government, but changes need wide support from across the membership of the House of Lords to make it into the bill. Members put forward more than 300 changes to the bill, including 17 amendments from the government. These were debated during five days of line by line examination at committee stage of the Agriculture Bill.  

At report stage, further debates took place and changes including on pesticides, food standards, an environmental improvement plan, a national food strategy, climate change targets and the Trade and Agriculture Commission were agreed. Members voted on whether to include these changes, with votes held online.

New laws must be agreed by both Houses of Parliament. Once the House of Lords completed its scrutiny of the Agriculture Bill, it was sent back to the House of Commons for it to consider changes made in the Lords.

In the case of the Agriculture Bill, the government listened to concerns in the House of Lords on the standards of food imports. As a result, when the bill returned to the Lords, the government agreed to report to Parliament on all new free trade agreements and their levels of consistency with UK protections on human, animal or plant health, plus animal welfare and the environment. This was in response to requests from members of the House of Lords that the government should always ensure the standards were met in new agreements. The government also committed to legislating for a permanent Trade and Agriculture Commission as part of the Trade Bill.

Why this is important

Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) explains why she sees this compromise as important:

‘This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards, both in the Agriculture Bill and Trade Bill, is exactly what we have been calling for. It is a landmark moment for the people of the UK, for our countryside and the future of the food on our plates.

‘This decision means everyone who cares about our trading relationships with the rest of the world – Peers, MPs, stakeholders and the public – will see independent expert advice from the Trade Agriculture Commission on future trade deals before they are ratified.’

The Minister, Lord Gardiner of Kimble said in the House:

‘Parliament will have an ongoing central role in ensuring that deals work for British farmers and consumers… The Government will keep working hard to support our farmers as we pursue new trade opportunities. Indeed, this is the core task of the Trade and Agriculture Commission that will be put on a statutory footing… ’

Further reading