Putting food back on the table

Fraser McAuley, CLA Cymru senior policy advisor, meets a member of the Senedd whose Food (Wales) Bill is focusing minds on the food on our plates in Wales, and writes:
Peter Fox MS, newly elected to the Senedd in May this year, won the Members' Bill ballot and his Food (Wales) Bill passed the initial stage in the siambr

“A Senedd Member’s Bill (in Westminster, referred to as a Private Member’s Bill) is focusing minds on the Welsh food and drink supply chain – increasing Welsh produce into schools, hospitals and other public procurement, developing more robust supply chains within the country, all under the eye of a food commission. It’s passed its first draft stage.

Peter Fox arrived following the Senedd elections in May. A practical tenant farmer who mainly produces beef stores. He understands the Sustainable Farming Scheme’s direction of travel into farmers’ payment for delivery for public goods. But, he wants to do more for food: both for food security and to get more and better food on our plates. He’s pragmatic. It’s not about stymieing Welsh Government agricultural policy – after all, Peter’s a farmer and he’s eager to get down to the nitty-gritty of how the nascent Welsh Government new farm support scheme will affect his own business. And, east of Peter’s own constituency, a Conservative government in England is developing a similar farming support there: two governments driven by different political principles, solving the same problems with similar solutions. To “win” his Bill into the next round, he gained the support of at least one Welsh Labour and one Plaid’ Senedd Member.

“I didn’t expect it to get this far,” Peter told me modestly. “And my Bill raises lots of questions,” he adds. Not least: Is the Welsh food supply chain robust enough to realise his ambitions? Won’t it need to dovetail into England’s - and the other devolved nations’? And, how can Peter’s proposed Food Commission really work? Is it a regulator, a market developer, a source of investment? Maybe all of these things? – How might it work with – or alongside - the existing bodies such as the red meat promotion body, HCC, or bodies like the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board?

“I don’t know!” Peter again says, modestly. “I want Welsh food back on the table – not only literally, but in policy terms.” Inspired by the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation (Scotland) Bill – which requires the government there to produce Good Food Nation Plans, and the UK Government’s independent National Food Strategy (the Dimbleby Report), Peter Fox’s Food (Wales) Bill came about when Peter won the members’ ballot, and (more importantly) it passed the first hurdle in draft form.

I didn’t expect it to get this far... and my Bill raises lots of questions, but it's put this vital subject where it belongs: front-of-mind

Peter Fox MS

Its purpose is to “establish a more sustainable food system…to strengthen food security, to improve wales’ socio-economic wellbeing and enhance consumer choice.” The nuts and bolts of it require a “holistic, coherent framework” for food policy, a “platform for collaboration between public bodies, policy makers, food-producers and consumers.” A proposed Wales Food Commission will “re-set the governance of the food system in Wales, and co-create and oversee the delivery of a Welsh Food Strategy alongside Welsh Ministers and other stakeholders.” It will “oversee the delivery of the Welsh Food Strategy, and hold delivery partners to account to ensure that policy aims and targets are met.”

Conservative politicians don’t tend to be into the creation of more public bodies. Quangos don’t always sit well with democratic processes – especially when governments – or their policies – change. And non-elected bodies can wrestle with authority and threshold of responsibility, or, to put it bluntly: where the buck stops. Peter Fox is open to suggestions. The strength of the Bill is in its vision and ambition. The detail is yet to come.

For me the merit of it is that it does two things. First of all, in the context of the Scottish approach and the Dimbleby Report, it reminds us that we’re part of a UK single market. I’d like to see a more substantial food chain in Wales, more public procurement of local Welsh food, and even a food by-product supply chain. But surely, there’s scope for the UK nations to work closely together on this to achieve an even better result?

Secondly, I think Peter Fox’s Bill reveals a gap in government. The issues raised by the Bill might resolve a long-existing question about who owns food in the Welsh Government. Traditionally it’s straddled the Rural Affairs and Economy departments. The Rural Affairs Minister led the Food and Drink Action Plan and we have seen a Food and Drink Covid 19 Action Plan too. But, focused on brand-building, product identity and export – even food tourism, these aspects are firmly based in Vaughan Gethin’s Economy Department. Now the Climate Change department has intense and broad influence over a huge of swathe of government, food - and how we produce it, food-miles and even diet – come into their remit. The question this Bill might begin to answer is: who’s really focused on responsible productivity, supply chain management – even the fundamentals of feeding the nation? It’s about farming and food production as a keystone of the economy.

The Welsh Government could react in several ways. It could allow the Bill to develop further – this might allow it to build momentum and grow into a robust piece of legislation. In this form, it might be a talisman for MSs, demonstrating that you can be elected to the Senedd, and yes! You really can make things happen! Wales is not Westminster, and our young devolved system of government might even proudly lay aside partisan affinities.

On the other hand, Welsh Labour party strategists might hope that the Food Bill becomes “top-heavy” in vision, and the ambitious project flounders in debate about delivery. While the subject remains in academic and political debate, the Welsh Government may modify and tweak its existing plans to approach the issues the Bill seeks to address. Might they be adding clauses to the Agriculture (Wales) Bill even now?

Whatever the outcome, this unexpected turn has made us all stop and think. We in the CLA will continue to examine the important issues newly raised by Peter Fox’s Bill. We will discuss these interesting proposals at branch meetings and Polisi Cymru. Our mission is to get the best for farmers, land owners and the rural community. Peter’s Bill is already reminding us that food shouldn’t fall off the top of the priority list.”