Agriculture Bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Ruth Jones Excerpts
Tuesday 11th February 2020

(6 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp (East Devon) (Con) - Hansard
11 Feb 2020, 10:47 a.m.

Q Should some financial assistance be provided for animal welfare activities that go beyond, for example, the legal minimal requirements and normal good practice? If so, what types of activities could that include?

David Bowles: Yes; the RSPCA, as I said earlier, is delighted that for the first time we have the opportunity to provide financial assistance to farmers. One of the things that is missing from the Bill—it says it in the explanatory notes, but it is not explicit—is that financial assistance should be given only to those above baseline standards. We had a system where farmers could have been paid even if they were doing things that were illegal. I do not want to replicate that in the new farm support system.

There are a lot of things that we would like the Government to introduce to give farmers a leg up—for instance, providing brushes for cattle, hoof-trimming for cattle to reduce lameness, rubber matting for cattle to give farmers a leg up to farm at higher welfare standards, and then giving them the opportunity to get money that is not provided by the marketplace, which is the difference between farming at higher welfare and what the marketplace delivers.

There is a whole range and suite of issues that could be gathered. The RSPCA is delighted that the Government are looking at them seriously, and we hope that some can be trialled in the next year.

Christopher Price: There are two aspects to your question. The first is whether we have got the regulations right in the first place. Although we might have the right standards, I think that most people on our side of the table would hope that Dame Glenys Stacey’s report is implemented, if not in full, then to a large extent. It might be useful to expand a bit on that in a moment.

In terms of paying for meeting regulatory standards per se, I think this is something that applies throughout. Farming will go through the most immense structural change over the next four or five years, as we move to an unsubsidised, more market-facing world. There will be an incredible variety of costs for people as a result. I do not think that there is anything untoward about the Government helping people to make that transition over the short term. I am talking about significant short-term capital expenditure on the Government’s part, to get the industry match-fit—not only in terms of welfare, but in terms of having the right business processes and practices in place. After that, you can say, “Now you’re on your own. We’ve helped you to get up to the standard that we expected of you. Now it’s for the market to support you going forward.”

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab) - Hansard
11 Feb 2020, 10:49 a.m.

Q The Bill contains a lot of powers rather than duties. To my mind, a duty means that the Secretary of State is more accountable. Do you think that the Bill should contain a duty for the Secretary of State to support all the public goods identified?

Christopher Price: Most legislation nowadays gives powers not duties. There is nothing unusual about the Agriculture Bill in that regard. The Bill is about the tool used to implement the policy; it is not the policy in itself. It would be useful to have the Government’s policy, to know what they are going to try to implement.

Having said all that, we are talking about some really quite complicated stuff. Food production, which is fundamental to our existence, is all based on natural processes that are really complicated. We are going through huge structural changes and as a country we have not been great at managing structural change. Bearing all that in mind, it is important that Government have a full range of tools to do as they see fit, in consultation with stakeholders. I would hate the idea that, for reasons of legislative propriety or whatever, we ended up constraining Government so much that they could not do things that, in a few months’ time, we might decide are absolutely essential.

Thomas Lancaster: We are very sympathetic to having more duties to balance the range of powers. A report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee the last time the Bill was in Parliament was quite scathing on that point. Clauses 4 to 6 are a positive step in setting out strategic objectives and they come with a range of duties on Ministers to have multi-annual financial plans, set objectives for those and have regard to those objectives when setting the budget for those plans. That is a big step forward in this Bill on the duties-not-powers point.

We would like to see a duty in the Bill to have an environment and land management scheme. At the moment, it is a legal requirement under CAP-funded rural development programmes to have an agri-environment scheme—you cannot not have one anywhere across the UK. We want to see that duty replicated in the Bill.

It would be interesting to look at other areas in the Bill as well. There are lots of powers in the Bill around fair dealing provisions and supply chain transparency, but there are no duties on Ministers to use those to improve supply chain transparency. That is another area where you could include a duty to clarify how those powers were going to be used and that they were going to be used.

David Bowles: Clause 1(1) says:

“The Secretary of State may give”—

and then it lists the public goods. We would like to see a “must”, and the RSPCA would like to see that too. The Secretary of State would still be applying the letter of the law if £1 went to animal welfare in the next five-year period. We would like to see some minimum payments under those particular public goods.

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones - Hansard
11 Feb 2020, 10:51 a.m.

Q The Bill amends the red meat levy system, in that it irons out an imbalance that has often penalised Welsh and Scottish farmers. Do you think that is sufficient, or should the Bill contain further reforms around the red meat levy?

John Cross: I had quite a lengthy history in the levy sector. The complexity around this issue is really quite deep, because it depends on where the benefit of the levy investment is secured, where the products derived from the industry are consumed and where the supported supply chains sit. As for the desire to capture and formalise a more even-handed distribution back to the devolved regions: from what I have seen of it, it does do enough. We live in a very complex domestic market; 50% of Scottish beef production is consumed within the M25. That illustrates how complex the mix is. The red meat levy is designed—yes, funded by farmers and processors—to make the best of a supply chain and to deliver business enhancement throughout for the good of consumers and producers. It is quite a complex issue and it is not just as simple as three separate lots of industry all wanting to do their own thing in isolation, because they are all interdependent.