Proposed legislation dealing with agricultural matters arising from Brexit will create new criminal offences – a process that would be ‘constitutionally unacceptable’, peers have warned.

The government unveiled the Agriculture Bill in January, saying the landmark legislation would ‘provide a boost to the industry after years of inefficient and overly bureaucratic policy dictated to farmers by the EU’.

It sets out how farmers and land managers in England will in the future be rewarded with public money for 'public goods' – such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding. It is hoped this will contribute to the government’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and, at the same time, boost farmers’ productivity.

Highlighting the constitutional implications of the bill in a report today, the Lords select committee on constitution welcomed changes that removes clauses creating criminal offences punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. However, provisions allowing the creation of criminal offences punishable by fines remain.

The committee said: ‘While we welcome the improvements made to the Bill, we remain concerned about the creation of criminal offences using delegated powers. We reiterate our view that the creation of criminal offences by delegated powers is in general constitutionally unacceptable.’

The committee has previously said that delegating power to make provision for minor and technical matters is a necessary part of the legislative process. However, delegated powers should not be used to significantly change the category of a criminal offence or to increase the level of punishment applicable to any criminal offence beyond a maximum penalty. If, in exceptional cases, minor criminal offences are to be created or changed by statutory instruments, these should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.