Last week started with some meetings around the APPG for left behind communities, which I chair, in which we specifically looked at our forward work plan. This includes sessions on Local Infrastructure, both community and physical; Communities in control (capacity, confidence, cash) and our next session which is focused on Education, Training & Skills. The output from these sessions should be to provide a report from the APPG to government with recommendations of the policy to be implemented.

The biggest issues for consideration in Parliament relevant to Sedgefield over the last week have been the Agriculture Bill and the Public Health motions. Both of these generated significant communications into my inbox and I would like to share with you my votes and reasons.

The Agriculture Bill vote were more about a vote on a potential amendment from the Lord’s, referred to as Lord Curry’s Amendment. This demanded the implementation of a certain standard of food production processes for food to be both produced and imported into our country and superficially seemed a no brainer. After all, the government has promised high standards for all future food stuffs and animal welfare, so why would this not be appropriate?

But, as with most amendments, the devil is in the detail. This amendment would have created conditions that do not currently exist under any agreement with either the UK or the EU today and it would be unlikely that the trading partners would agree to them and, for some, it would not even be possible for them to agree. Although demanding that foodstuffs comply with certain rules and conditions would be a fantastic way to ensure a certain standard of food. The bottom line is that making such demands would disrupt and inhibit future, and even some existing, trade agreements with Europe and further afield. The actual adherence to the amendments will be put on our trading partners, the validation process would rely on them cooperating and being responsible for the assessment.

Many countries cannot deliver these procedures and the amendments would stop us trading with them particularly if those trading partners are developing countries who do not have the resources to implement these measures. An easy example is that the UK imports an average of £200 million of black tea per year, of which £140 million was from Kenya, this goes to well-known British tea brands including Taylors of Harrogate etc. We cannot end our tea trading with Kenya just because they do not have the same resources or funds to demonstrate validation of foodstuffs to all our standards. Similar consequences would arise for other sectors including, for example coffee, where non-adherence to our carbon emission targets could be an example of a reason for them being precluded from supply. Clearly these unintended consequences are inappropriate and for this reason I voted against the amendment but for the many positive changes that the Agriculture Bill delivered for our farmers. One of the vocal representations I received on this, is that we can not trust the government to do the right thing in our trade agreements, clearly I disagree with this and do trust that the government will do the right thing in terms of our imports of food and we have legislation in place to deliver such. It is a constant irritation that there are continuing references about chlorinated chicken etc., when all of these are already legislated against in UK law and there is no intention whatsoever to even consider changing these positions, it is purely political posturing.

The Public Health motions debated on Tuesday enabled the implementation of the three tiered approach to determining local interventions. I believe that this approach provides a clarity of engagement with people and I endorse it. The follow up question of course is which tier should each region be given and what is an appropriate definition of a region. As you will be aware Durham is now in tier two, as is Darlington. From a constituency perspective this at least means that everyone is in the same place. Prior to this week that was not the case with the part of the Sedgefield constituency, under Durham County Council, being in intervention measures but the part covered by Darlington Borough Council was not. One of the concerns I share with most of you is that both the rural wards of Darlington and significant parts of County Durham show lower infection rates than the council areas. Whilst I have concerns about how we differentiate borders I do believe that it is important to look for more localised interventions and reflect the significant differences seen in results in areas as large as County Durham. Whilst I support the measures as a package, I do have significant reservations about the implementation of a harsh 10 pm curfew and continue to make representations for a different approach to facilitate a less intense exit from premises but also to enable, particularly our pubs and restaurants with food, to include a second sitting opportunity.

As I have said previously however, whether we agree with all of the rules or not it is important we all follow them as they are implemented with best intent and with the clear objective to minimise the health impact of the virus whilst simultaneously trying to keep the economy going. So please follow the rules as they affect you and in particular the simple overriding actions that we should all take.

HANDS-FACE-SPACE, Wash your Hands regularly, wear a mask on your Face where required and give people Space. Stay safe and have a good week.

Paul Howell, Member of Parliament for Sedgefield