A national voice on food policy

This FILE INFO must not be removed from the JPEG Margaret Ritchie talks to Peter Cheney about her work on the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

With food and agriculture becoming major issues on the national news agenda, the profile of Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has risen over recent years. South Down MP Margaret Ritchie is the only local representative on the committee. Labour effectively donated the seat to the SDLP in January 2012.

Its Chair, Anne McIntosh, is the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, in Yorkshire.

Ritchie notes that some major decisions in agricultural, fisheries and environment policy are “directly taken” in the European Commission and the EU Council of Ministers. UK Government ministers are at the negotiating table while the Northern Ireland Minister “will take a secondary place.” The committee allows MPs to put their views “directly to the person who will be taking the decision.”

During the horsemeat scandal, Ritchie was able to “testify to the high standards” of food production in Northern Ireland. She has also been able to highlight the plastic bag levy, dog chipping policy and the province’s approach to TB management as examples for Westminster to follow.

The farming community has been keen to maintain Northern Ireland’s share of the CAP budget: 8.8 per cent of the UK total. As the province has just 2.9 per cent of the UK population, this indicates agriculture’s high importance for the local economy.

Ritchie put the case for maintaining CAP funding in the committee and members then secured a debate on the floor of the House. In fisheries, members successfully argued for the introduction of regional advisory councils, which will give local producers a greater say in policy. The committee has called for the lifting of a UK ban on disinewed meat (which can be produced in the Republic) and has also shaped the legislation for the Grocery Code Adjudicator.

Ritchie finds that there is “quite a strong cross-party consensus” among members on doing the best for the people affected by its work.

She’s looking forward to the committee’s report on food security, due in the spring, which will consider how to feed a growing world population from the same amount of land.

Gaining seats for all its MPs on Commons committees has been a significant achievement for the SDLP. In addition to Ritchie, Alasdair McDonnell sits on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and Mark Durkan is on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Ritchie comments that this is “quite a record and shows the SDLP’s influence at Westminster.”

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s website is www.parliament.uk/efracom and it can be contacted by email at efracom@parliament.uk

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