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Agriculture Bill (Fourteenth sitting)
Exerpts for Deidre Brock
Tuesday 20 November 2018

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Read Full debate
Public Bill Committees
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dr Drew Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 3:53 p.m.

It was always a good teaching ploy, when someone was really stuck, to give the kids lots of reading on the basis that that person could try to escape from the fact that they did not really know what they were talking about, hoping that the kids might be able to tell them in due course. That is just me as an old-fashioned teacher. I look forward to receiving the documents the Minister will give me to read, but I will press this to a vote, because the Government need to understand that the direction of travel is about environmental moneys being paid for environmental goods, whatever an environmental good is—it will be interesting to define that in due course.

Like previous versions of the Department, DEFRA has undertaken huge amounts of consultation, but when it comes down to it, it is about the action on the ground. It is important that we know that pesticide use will be one of the features that will be measured. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower says, one would assume that over a period of time, when pesticides get into watercourses, that will be picked up and dealt with under land management contracts, so that someone will lose their money if they are seen to be polluting the local brooks. Otherwise, what is the point of this particular bit of legislation? We have both to lay down the law and to see how it will be enforced in practice.

Pesticides are a pretty important aspect of what happens to our landscape. I have always bought the argument that farmers, for all sorts of reasons, would want to spend less money on them, because it is an imputed cost and they feel very strongly that they want to minimise their costs, but sadly we have seen that many aspects of the environmental degradation of our countryside were down to misuse of pesticides, which have been seen as a shortcut to getting more output from farms. That is why we will put this motion to a vote. We let the Government get away on live exports, although that will no doubt come back.

On this motion, what is the point of environmental moneys if they are not properly scrutinised on the ground? Whoever may be advising is one thing, but this is something that presumably the payments agency will have to measure. Unless we have something that sets that out in the Bill, it will come down to vague promises. That is not acceptable in legislation. We either do it properly or we do not do it at all. Let us do it properly.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP) - Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 3:56 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause will simply allow Ministers to measure their progress in implementing a promise made during the Brexit campaign that moneys available to support Scottish farmers will not decline in real terms as a result of our no longer being in the EU. The leave campaign made some real promises, which should be honoured. There will be plenty of hot air and confusion over the coming days, weeks, months and eternities, but can we at least get some clarity on how progress on this pledge will be measured?

Jenny Chapman Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 3:59 p.m.

I have a few questions on this. It makes an awful lot of sense to me, and it matches what the First Minister of Wales has said repeatedly, which is that he wants all support to be matched penny for penny in the future, as was committed to by various voices during the referendum campaign. I do not think that there is anything unreasonable about that. If we agree to the new clause, it would open the door to similar amendments being made for the other devolved Administrations.

All the new clause seeks is transparent reporting that we would all benefit from being able to monitor, including in England. Agricultural payments will be something that we make decisions about, and doing so in the most up-front and clear way possible will help all of us. It is clear that the agriculture sector requires certainty going forward, and this is one way that we can assist in that. One key concern raised by stakeholders, particularly the farmers unions, is the continuation of funding that will be made available, particularly to the devolved Administrations.

Another key concern raised by the farmers unions is the ability of the devolved Administrations to make payments to farmers in 2020, due to the way that the Bill is structured. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what will happen, particularly for Scotland. As Members will know, the Scottish Government’s continuity Bill is currently being considered by the Supreme Court. If it is deemed unlawful, what will happen to the payments to Scottish farmers? The Scottish Government intend that Bill to provide the vehicle by which payments could continue. What does the Minister consider the implications will be if that is not the case? It would be helpful to us all if we could use the consideration of this new clause to try to understand that issue.

I would like to ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith about the progress the Scottish Government are making with their own agriculture Bill, which the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing, has said that they will implement. Scottish farmers need to know what the future holds for them.

Break in Debate

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 4:06 p.m.

Yes, I am aware that NFU Scotland has now said that it believes that, as a minimum, there should be something like new clause 3. I discussed the issue with Scottish Ministers yesterday at the meeting that we had in Wales, where it came up. We established that it is relatively easy to rectify. This is a single clause. We could put it in a schedule to this Bill if it were the wish of the Scottish Government for us to do so. We could add a schedule to the Bill that replicated new clause 3 for Scotland but did nothing else, and we could do that at later stages of the Bill, or of course it is open to the Scottish Government to add new clause 3 to an alternative piece of primary legislation, going through the Scottish Parliament. The issue is not complicated to fix; it does not necessarily need a fully worked-up, fully detailed Bill, but they do, as a minimum, need something equivalent to new clause 3. I think that they understand that now, and they are considering whether it is best to do it as a schedule to our Bill or as an addition to one of their own Bills.

I hope that I have been able to explain that we have a review under way that is looking at intra-UK allocations, that is designed to address the needs of every part of our United Kingdom as we consider funding the provisions in this Bill and provisions that other, devolved Administrations might bring forward in the future.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock - Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 4:06 p.m.

In response to questions regarding Scotland not taking powers through this Bill, I will repeat once again that that is because, in short, we do not need to do so. We do not need the Government here to legislate for us on devolved matters. We have been producing our own legislation in those areas since the Scottish Parliament began in 1999. There is no question of our not being able to make payments immediately after Brexit, because the existing common agricultural policy rules will become retained EU law; that has already been provided for.

If there is no deal, then in conjunction with the UK we are preparing the necessary adjustments, through statutory instruments and Scottish statutory instruments, to ensure that we will be able to continue to make payments under the existing CAP rules. If there is a deal, then along with what happens in the rest of the UK, provision will be made to ensure that we can continue to make payments during the agreed transition period. Whatever scenario we face, there will be provision to make payments and administer schemes from next March.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 4:08 p.m.

I agree that it is possible for the Scottish Government to include a clause similar to new clause 3 in primary legislation going through the Scottish Parliament, but the hon. Lady needs to understand that it requires the setting of a financial ceiling; that does not come across in retained EU law. That is why we have introduced those new clauses to the Bill for every other part of the UK. The hon. Lady is right: we are not saying that we have to legislate through this Bill. There is an offer if the Scottish Government would like us to include something equivalent to new clause 3, but if they would rather not have that, it is for them to add the provision to one of their pieces of primary legislation.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock - Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 4:09 p.m.

Indeed, and given that the withdrawal agreement, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the Scottish continuity Bill all give Scotland a legal basis on which to continue to make payments and administer schemes, we see no need to rush into the development of new legislation, but we are of course always open to that.

In our consultation document, “Stability and Simplicity: proposals for a rural funding transition period”, we have explained that the point at which we propose to start evolving our farm support arrangements is 2021. At that point, we will need new powers to amend the relevant retained EU law, and we are looking actively at all available options for taking those powers, including the possibility of legislating in the Scottish Parliament.

I hear what the Minister says about the review that is ongoing, but we want some certainty that an ability to check the promises that were made is hardwired into this Bill—as the hon. Member for Darlington said previously, that is in the interests of transparency—so I will press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Dr Drew Hansard
20 Nov 2018, 4:10 p.m.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We come to the end—almost. We shall say a few pleasantries in a minute or two, but this is an important new clause. That is because—I make no apology for putting some pressure on the Government here—the Tenancy Reform Industry Group, or TRIG, negotiations that took place almost two years ago now happened against a background of the Government making some rather nice noises about the importance of tenant farming and tenant farmers in particular. The Government have since gone quiet. There have been some noises off of late, with the Government saying that they intend to revisit the issue, but the Minister could make those noises more overt in his response, so that we know exactly where we are going.

The new clause provides a mechanism to ensure that tenant farmers are not disenfranchised from access to the new financial support mechanisms contained in the Bill. The tenancy sector of agriculture is responsible for farming about a third of agricultural land in England, and is a substantial part of farming business. There are about 13,000 wholly tenanted farm holdings, 41,000 predominantly tenanted farm holdings and 35,000 partly tenanted farm holdings. They are therefore an important part of the agricultural sector.

The tenancy sector has a greater preponderance of livestock—dairy in particular—upland and small-scale farming than in the wider agricultural sector. Furthermore, for those individuals who start in farming, most will start as tenant farmers, unless they are fortunate enough to inherit their father or mother’s holding. Often, however, it is not passed on to them so they become tenants of their family’s estate. Most farmers, when they start, are tenant farmers.

There are two principal types of tenancy agreement: those under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986, which confers security of tenure, a regulated rent and in some cases a right of succession; and those known as farm business tenancies under the more recent Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995, which provides for a significant degree of freedom of contract so that there is no fixed term and no significant regulatory provisions on rent. I alert the Committee principally to that second one at this stage.

Although farm business tenancies have largely been welcomed, and overall have worked reasonably well, of late there has been a tendency for shorter FBTs, which are completely outwith the ability of new businesses to cope or to function effectively. Some FBTs have been for as short two years, and anyone who knows anything about farming knows that people cannot do anything in two years.

That is why we make no apology for raising the subject at this late stage. It is important for us to look at agriculture where it is not functioning as well as it could and should be. Those of us who represent rural or semi-rural constituencies know that that has been highlighted by the Tenant Farmers Association and the NFU, which want to make us recognise that basis of the TRIG reforms—which is what some of us thought that the Government would bring forward but have not yet happened. The Minister can do his best to allay our fears that the opportunity to look at that important sector will be dismissed, or at least missed. It is not just what is in the Bill that matters, but what could be in the Bill.