Agriculture Bill

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2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 10th June 2020

(4 years ago)

Lords Chamber
Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 13 May 2020 - large font accessible version - (13 May 2020)
Moved by
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con)
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My Lords, in declaring my farming interests as set out in the register, it is clearly a privilege to open this debate. The policies that flow from the Bill seek to strengthen our agricultural and horticultural industries and protect the long-term future of food production in this country. They will help deliver a fairer return from a fairer marketplace for food producers.

Financial assistance will be provided for protecting or improving the environment and will allow the environmental land management—ELM—scheme to provide financial assistance for the delivery of outcomes such as cleaner air and water and thriving plants and wildlife. The Government will also provide financial support in connection with managing land or water to help mitigate flooding. There will also be support for action to improve animal health and welfare, reduce endemic disease, keep livestock and soils healthy, and support public access to and enjoyment of the countryside. Farmers and land managers will be rewarded for their vital work in enhancing our environment and looking after our landscapes.

The Government and food producers have important contributions to make when it comes to tackling climate change. These provisions will put our farmers at the heart of an ambitious enterprise: to meet the goals of the 25-year environment plan and achieve the Government’s world-leading commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The National Farmers Union has already shown admirable leadership in its work on seeking net-zero emissions.

The Bill recognises at its heart that food production and a flourishing natural environment can—and must—go hand in hand. This is explicitly demonstrated in Clause 1(4), which places a duty on the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England, and in an environmentally sustainable way, when framing financial assistance schemes. It includes provisions for financial assistance to encourage farmers, foresters and growers to improve their productivity in a sustainable way. The Government will provide grants so that they can invest in equipment, technology and infrastructure.

I know that Ministers sometimes receive reports from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee with some trepidation, but I am most grateful to—indeed, I thank—the committee for its consideration of the Bill, its overwhelmingly positive report and its commentary on an improvement to an earlier Bill. Of course, we will consider closely any residual issues and concerns raised by the committee.

In setting a seven-year agricultural transition period from direct payments to a new system, the Government wish to ensure a gradual move so that farmers can adapt. Over the past few months, the role of farmers and food producers in feeding the nation has quite rightly been on everyone’s minds. Working as I do at Defra, I particularly want to record my gratitude to all who have worked so hard, from farm to fork, to ensure we have access to the food we need. The importance that the Government place on food security is recognised in the Bill, with a duty placed on the Secretary of State to lay a report on food security before Parliament at least—I emphasise at least—every five years. We would certainly not intend to wait five years before publishing the first report, which will of course take into account what has been learned from the current pandemic.

The Secretary of State will have the powers to act in truly exceptional market conditions, such as those we are enduring at present, or in extreme weather conditions if these result in a severe disturbance in agricultural markets. As we move from area-based payments towards payments for the delivery of public benefit, we must also make sure that our farmers are fairly rewarded by a fair marketplace for the food that they produce.

Part 3 of the Bill contains provisions to strengthen the position of farmers in the food supply chain. Fair dealing provisions will introduce statutory codes of practice to regulate those buying from farmers; we will look at the dairy and red meat sectors first. Farmers’ position in the supply chain can also be strengthened by allowing groups of farmers to form producer organisations, which can access derogations from competition law, giving them the power to co-ordinate activities and become more competitive. The Bill contains powers to collect and share data, allowing the Government to strengthen existing market reporting services, and to provide information which will help farmers to make clearly evidenced business decisions and manage risk.

The Bill will enable the streamlining and modernising of the regulation of fertilisers. It also sets up the new multispecies livestock information service in England, which will provide the best livestock traceability. As a Minister with biosecurity in my brief, I think it essential that we enhance traceability.

The Bill also attends to a fairer distribution of the red meat levy, which I know has been an issue in Wales and Scotland. It will make pragmatic modifications to tenancy legislation, introducing more contemporary arrangements that will work for both tenants and landlords. It also contains powers to amend existing marketing standards, and to make new organics regulations and amend the existing regime so that these can be modernised to work better for domestic producers.

Part 6 provides powers to ensure the UK’s compliance with its obligations under the WTO Agreement on Agriculture. Regulations made under this part will allow the apportionment, between the nations of the United Kingdom, of agreed limits on certain types of financial support. I should note that this clause refers only to the Agreement on Agriculture and not to other WTO treaties, such as GATT, which the United Kingdom is bound to as a WTO member.

Clauses 43 to 45 and Schedules 5 and 6 have been included in the Bill at the request of the Welsh Government and DAERA Ministers. I am pleased to present them on their behalf. The Scottish Government have chosen to introduce their own agriculture Bill.

The Government have made it clear in the joint letter from the Environment Secretary and the International Trade Secretary published on 5 June, which I asked to be circulated to noble Lords yesterday, that they are alive to the issue of trade standards. My honourable Friend the Minister for Farming in the other place has stated:

“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”


I can confirm that all food—I emphasise all food—coming into the country will continue to have to meet existing import requirements as the withdrawal Act transfers EU standards on to the UK statute book. This specifically means that the import of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, for example, is prohibited.

I realise that this is a brisk run-through of some elements of the Bill but I want to keep my remarks fairly short, so that we have plenty of time for other contributions. The Agriculture Bill is the beginning of a journey that we acknowledge will take time. We will put farmers and land managers at the heart of that journey. It needs to be their project too; it will not work if it is not. We will support them through the agricultural transition by adequately rewarding them for protecting and enhancing the environment, while enabling their businesses to prosper in the production of outstanding British food and drink for domestic and international consumption.

In this context, given the immense challenges that this planet faces—an increasing world population; climate change and its impact; the imperatives of enhancing the environment; and sufficient food production—how should we best use scientific advances to aid us? We have to wrestle with all these challenges. Innovation has been part of agricultural history, as have the traditions of good husbandry and custodianship. We clearly seek a blend of succeeding generations of farmers and new entrants. Coming from farming stock, I say that we ask much of the British farmer—as usual, at the very beginning, in contending with the weather. As some of your Lordships will know from an earlier consideration on derogation, this year had an exceptionally wet winter and spring followed by an exceptionally dry May.

I look forward to this debate because, by coming from all parts of the country, noble Lords will be well aware of the dynamics of their local farming sectors. I beg to move.

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Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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My Lords, what an exceptional debate. It will be impossible for me to answer all the questions that have been posed but I will say what I always say: I will seek to follow up in writing those questions either that I have not covered or which require further embellishment.

I was struck by some noble Lords’ words because there are some elements of this debate that I think have been unduly negative, but I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord McConnell, that there are great opportunities for what we are going to be considering in the coming weeks. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, referred to a welcome approach and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to a balance between the environment and food production. The noble Baronesses, Lady Mallalieu and Lady Quin, emphasised that we have to work with farmers. None of this is going to work unless it becomes the farmers’ enterprise as well. That is what I will explain in further detail.

There were three Vs: “vision”, from the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Curry; “viticulture”, from my noble friend Lord Naseby; and “the veterinary profession”, from my noble friend Lady McIntosh. All this shows the interconnection, the jigsaw puzzle that is the countryside, which so many of your Lordships know about.

My noble friend Lord Dobbs referred to innovation. I think we are on the cusp of a further agricultural revolution. Of course we need to use that knowledge wisely. I am conscious of the institutions that we have in this country that we need to prosper.

I want to clarify a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and perhaps my noble friend Lady Rock, in referring to food. Of course food is essential. It is essential for everyone in the world. However, in our view food is a private good; it is bought and sold. This is the key distinction of the philosophy of the legislation, because its value is rewarded in the market. These new financial assistance powers are intended to reward farmers and land managers for those outcomes that the market does not currently recognise. Coming from traditional farming stock, I can say that the reason why we see beautiful countryside is that many landowners and farmers actually want to embellish their landscapes.

I turn to trade standards. So many noble Lords have referred to this that I am not going to mention everyone by name. However, I want to refer to what my noble friends Lady Browning and Lady Chisholm had to say: in the negativity that I came across, let us not forget the British leadership that there has been on many of the activities raising trading standards across the world. That has been our influence. I know that our ambassadors raise standards across the piece and across the world. We should be proud of that.

My noble friend Lord Ridley referred to exports. I think it is the UK’s reputation for high-quality products that drives the demand for UK goods. Our success in the global marketplace depends on us continuing to maintain this reputation. I have said this many times, and I am starting to believe that certain noble Lords are determined not to believe me when I say it, but all EU food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards will be retained and form part of our domestic law. I emphasise that that includes all existing import requirements. Any changes to existing legislative standards would require new legislation to be brought before Parliament.

I should also say that in the UK food safety is regulated by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. Decisions to allow new regulated food products or processes—for example, food of animal origin treated with certain substances—into the UK market will be taken by Ministers in the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, informed by the independent advice of the FSA and FSS. This is a point that I would make particularly to the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and I emphasise it because I fear that we are getting into a determined position that everything is negative. That is why I refer again to my honourable friend the Minister for Farming, who stated in the other place that

“there can be no question of sacrificing the UK livestock or other farming industries for the US trade deal.”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/20; col. 335.]

On labelling, raised by the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, and my noble friend Lord Dobbs, I highlight the Government’s commitment to a serious and rapid examination of what can be done through labelling to provide reassurance that we intend to promote high standards and high welfare across the UK market. The Minister for Farming said that

“we will consult on this at the end of the transition period.”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/20; col. 335.]

Obviously, the Government have ongoing trade negotiations with the EU, an issue which was raised, and we have committed to a free trade agreement, to ensure that there are no tariffs, fees or quotas across all sectors.

My noble friend Lord Naseby referred to horticulture. Clause 1(2) allows us to introduce support for anyone starting or improving the productivity of a horticultural activity. I should also say to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that, when discussing productivity—I was struck by this—it is in the context of sustainability. It is not about allowing something that potentially improves productivity but then does environmental damage. That is not what is intended at all; this is about sustainable productivity.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to the delivery of public goods and the measurement of such. The Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was right in what she said. The interconnected Environment Bill provides the office for environmental protection with the functions to scrutinise the Government’s environmental commitments, including those under Clause 1 of this Bill.

On the reference to our manifesto commitment, the UK Government’s election manifesto guaranteed the current annual budget in every year of the new Parliament, giving significant certainty on funding for the coming years.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that the first period of the multiannual financial assistance plan—in Clause 4—will cover a period of seven years, starting from 2021. It will set out the Government’s strategic priorities for agriculture policy during that period and describe which financial assistance schemes are expected to come into operation during that period.

My noble friends Lord Lindsay and Lord Duncan, and others, referred to future funding allocations for the devolved Administrations. In response to the Bew review, the Government committed to engage with the devolved Administrations to develop a fair approach to future funding allocations, and to consider the needs of farmers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, recognising that agriculture policy is, and will remain, devolved. This work in ongoing.

On arrangements for Northern Ireland, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that the deal with the EU makes it clear that Northern Ireland is, and will remain, part of the UK customs territory. This allows the UK to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB. The arrangements we introduce will reflect this. The Prime Minister has been clear that, beyond the limited changes introduced by the protocol, there will be no changes to GB-NI trade. Northern Ireland remains part of the UK’s customs territory.

Under the protocol—I say this wearing my biosecurity hat—agri-food checks and assurances will be required for the movement of goods from GB to Northern Ireland. This is to protect supply chains and the biosecurity of the island of Ireland, as a single epidemiological unit. The protocol establishes that Northern Ireland will align with EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules, including in relation to the movement of animals and products of animal origin.

I should say also to the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, that we will want to bring down the level of checks to a pragmatic, proportionate level that recognises the high standards across the United Kingdom, in line with the protocol provision that both parties must use

“their best endeavours to facilitate … trade”,

and avoid controls at Northern Ireland ports as far as is possible. We will actively seek to simplify and minimise electronic documentary requirements for this trade.

As for the wider state aid framework after the transition period, this is a matter on which the Government will set out their position in due course. The Government will continue to ensure that agriculture support schemes, now and in the future, are compliant with the UK’s domestic legal framework. If necessary, the Government will work on any domestic legislation required, once they have set out their position on subsidy controls.

I turn now to Wales and the devolved Administrations. I emphasise that the reason I am so pleased to bring forward provisions for Wales and Northern Ireland is that they are at those Administrations’ request. The devolved Administrations have asked us to do this, so I can confirm to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Humphreys, and the noble Lord, Lord German, that Defra and the Welsh Government reached agreement on the WTO agreement on agriculture. The bilateral agreement was published on GOV.UK and the Welsh Government website in March 2019. My officials continue to work closely with the Welsh Government, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and officials from the Scottish Government to agree and implement an administrative UK agriculture support framework. The aim of the framework is to ensure effective co-ordination and dialogue between the Administrations on agriculture subsidy, marketing standards, crisis measures, cross-border holdings and data collection and sharing. My experience is that, beyond the hyperbole, the arrangements and conduct of business with officials and Ministers between the devolved Administrations and the UK Government are very positive, and on these matters we are working very much to a common objective.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, that it has been agreed that a joint approach on organics is beneficial to the sector and we consider a UK-wide power the best way to achieve this. I also say to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that we want to see consistent protection against unfair trading practices for farmers, wherever they are in the United Kingdom. We continue to consult widely and meaningfully with everyone who will be affected by our new codes of conduct, including the devolved Administrations and producers in those territories. Their views will be listened to and respected.

The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, asked about the Livestock Information Service. This is a very important part of the programme. We shall work with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we share data to allow seamless traceability across the UK. Each territory’s tracing system will be able to communicate with each other to support day-to-day business operations such as cross-border movements.

I turn to the issue of new entrants. As I made clear in my opening remarks, it is very important that we ensure that there are new entrants and that they remain for the long term. The industry relies on attracting new talent and we will offer funding to councils with county farms estates, landowners and other organisations that want to invest in creating opportunities for new entrant farmers.

On financial assistance for active farmers, a point raised by my noble friend Lady Rock, we anticipate that farmers will receive a large proportion of the financial assistance provided for in the Clause 1 schemes.

I turn now to the focus of the Bill. I emphasise what many noble Lords have said: a strong environment is the way in which you can farm well. If your soils are not in good heart, you will not produce the food we need for both domestic and export production. That is why it is important that we work together on ensuring that farmers will, as we hope and believe, help the nation in achieving our environmental goals and in producing food for people both at home and abroad.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of agricultural transition. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said that the period was too long, while other noble Lords said that it was not long enough. We think that the seven-year period gives sufficient time for the sector to adapt to a new model. Delaying the start of the agricultural transition would just delay the many benefits of moving away from direct payments, which we believe are poorly targeted. The phasing out of direct payments will free up money so that we can start to introduce new schemes, which will be a more effective way of rewarding farmers for the work that they do and help to prepare them for the future. For most farmers—around 80% of them—our maximum reduction in direct payments for 2021 will be no more than 5%. I should also say that this is well within the usual payment fluctuations caused by exchange rate changes that farmers faced under the CAP. In this context, I have also referred to the manifesto pledge about funding.

However, I am very struck by what a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said about what has been described as the gap. I want to concentrate on this and will express my understanding of the points that have been made. We will offer a simplified countryside stewardship scheme for 2021-24 alongside productivity grants. Countryside stewardship will provide an additional long-term income stream whether it is for, for example, new hedges, wildlife offers, managing ponds or, particularly, livestock yards and manure storage to reduce pollution and improve water quality. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to that point and to how we work with farmers to achieve the climate change goals we set ourselves. Productivity grants will be available to invest in equipment, technology and infrastructure, such as efficient irrigation systems and precision slurry application equipment. The Government will ensure a smooth transition into the ELM scheme and no one with an environmental stewardship or countryside stewardship agreement will be unfairly disadvantaged when we transition to the new arrangements.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and particularly to the noble Baronesses on the Front Benches, that work on the collaborative design of the ELM scheme is well under way. There are 53 tests and trials up and running, and funding of more than £6.6 million has already been given. The ELM national pilot will commence in late 2021 and will run until 2024, when we intend to launch the full ELM scheme. A number of noble Lords raised upland and hill farmers and also lowland farmers. There are many environmental benefits, such as clean air and water, which will help, and benefits to landscape, to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred.

A number of points were made on results. We will be working on that because we want to ensure that the approach achieves the results we need. On access, of course, all farmers and land managers will continue to comply with the regulatory standards, including those on public rights of way. We think the ELM can fund the creation of new paths and the maintenance of footpaths and bridleways, which will be very beneficial.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, mentioned GIs. The Government are setting up new domestic schemes which will provide protection for GIs after the transition period.

On the impact assessments, we will be providing analysis and will publish further evidence in the form of impact assessments at the point of secondary legislation or when we consult on new schemes under Clause 1: that is how we are undertaking that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, asked about cross-compliance. Again, we wish to retain standards. On forestry, again there are many points to be made. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Lord, Lord Trees, asked about animal welfare schemes. We will be working on that and considering different forms of animal welfare schemes. On the issue of food security, I am very happy to discuss this, but I will highlight that the report will draw on a range of regularly reported and publicly available statistics and data. The majority of data covered will be available between the reports—but I understand the points that have been made.

Data on food waste is one of many aspects that will be considered when assessing the global availability of food. Skills are very important. In the wider educational area, there are currently 28 high-quality apprenticeship standards available in the agriculture, environment and animal care sector, and I will write further on that.

On gene editing, again the Government agree that the EU approach is unscientific. We are committed to adopting a more scientific approach to regulation in the future. I have to say that the Government will not adopt a new approach without proper consultation, which I hope will provide assurances. On tenants and their eligibility, of course tenants will be eligible and will be part of the ELM pilots.

Change can be testing, so the Government will work closely with farmers to ensure that schemes work for the farmer and the country. Farming is the backbone of the countryside; farming communities are at the heart of the wider community. The food and drinks industry is vital to this country; so is a resilient and healthy environment. They must go hand in hand. I look forward to further stages of the Bill; I have a fair idea of the collision points that may transpire; and I hope we will do it in a spirit of friendship and, indeed, as an endeavour to do the right thing. However, I commend the Bill and I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.