Agriculture Bill (Fifth sitting)

(Committee Debate: 5th sitting: House of Commons)
Ruth Jones Excerpts
Tuesday 25th February 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
25 Feb 2020, 10:54 a.m.

I have listened closely to the Minister. In some ways, this goes to the heart of the problem in our discussion: the Opposition are raising a series of things that we think should have funding and support through the new system, and although £3 billion is small compared with the DWP budget, it is a considerable amount of public money, which in the past went directly to farmers. For many of them, the question is: how will the new system work? As I suggested—this point has been made not just by the Opposition but by senior Government Members—the idea is that the money will transfer over almost seamlessly, provided that farmers do a bit of this or that, but that is not necessarily how it cranks out.

While I absolutely trust what the Minister says about the Government’s abilities through the environmental land management schemes, I am sure she understands why there is concern. That is why we want this detail in the Bill. Again, the point has been made before by Government Members that, in future, there may be less rural-friendly Ministers, who may be tempted to look at the budget line and think, “Well, given that the local school is struggling and the local health service is struggling”—the Minister knows entirely what I am talking about. This needs to be nailed down in the Bill.

I appreciate the difficulty the Minister has, because I suspect she probably agrees, but that is why we think it is necessary to set out these various public goods to protect them. It has been said to me by farmers that, actually, farmers do quite well under Labour Governments, so I do not suggest that there will be any problem down the line. However, not everyone necessarily will always be as sympathetic, so it would be very much in the interests of communities—particularly those that many Government Members represent—to take a safety-first approach and tie down these public goods.

This is our opportunity to make it easier for farmers, as they go through this difficult transition, to access the money that the Government have promised will be available during this Parliament. My concern is that some of them will find that money not very easy to access, so why not widen the scope so that, where they can see things they could do with some help and support for—transferring production to pulses, fruit and vegetables, for example, or tackling some of the difficult issues around pesticide use—they are enabled to do them? This goes back to economics. Essentially, we want farmers to be able to survive, but if they are disadvantaged in any way, they will struggle. Why not use the resource that is available in a way that farmers can understand and that will help them?

We urge the Committee to support amendment 34 for that reason, but also because it would send the right message about these public health issues. I represent an area with a strong life sciences sector, and antimicrobial resistance has been brought to my attention constantly since the moment I was elected four and a half years ago. It is difficult. I lose track of Prime Ministers, but the Prime Minister before the one before the current one—David Cameron—had Jim O’Neill do a lot of work on this issue. I think there is cross-party agreement about it; it is not a party political issue. It is a real concern and a real worry, and I am in no doubt that farmers also worry about it. However, market pressures—I keep returning to the same point—dictate that people do certain things. We must therefore act to mitigate those pressures and to provide help and support. We are in the slightly unusual position of having a £3 billion budget. Normally, one has to make the argument, but the money is there; the question is how it will be accessed and used. What better use could there be than tackling some of these big public health issues?

I probably should have intervened on the Minister to ask about schools support, but I was still ruminating over what she was saying—I think I was stuck on Victoria plums. It is not entirely clear to me that the Bill will allow some of that money to be utilised in that way. I guess we will not know until we get down to the detail of the environmental land management schemes, but we would like to make it clearer, as we seek to do throughout this process, not least because that would give farmers the certainty that the Government rightly say they want to give them.

On that basis, I am afraid that I would like, yet again, to press the amendment to a Division. We think it is of considerable importance.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Feb 2020, 11:01 a.m.

I beg to move amendment 6, in clause 1, page 2, line 13, after “(d)” insert

“limiting greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture or horticulture or encouraging activities that reduce such emissions or remove greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, or otherwise”.

This amendment explicitly provides for limiting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be one of the purposes for which financial assistance is given.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to move this amendment, which would make it explicit that the public goods for which farmers can receive financial assistance should be activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The Opposition believe that the current wording in clause 1(1)(d), which refers to

“managing land, water or livestock in a way that mitigates or adapts to climate change”,

is not strong enough. We must do more and go further. Mitigating is lessening the impact of something that is happening, not preventing it; adaptation is managing the impacts that we are already seeing. We think it is extremely important that the money that will go from direct payments into environmental support should explicitly target emissions reduction. The wording is important throughout the Bill, and not least in clause 1.

It is essential that climate change as a cause is front and centre of the Bill. It will be one of the most important measures introduced by the House in the coming decade to tackle the climate emergency genuinely and effectively. Through the support of the public goods, it will be a central mechanism by which we can reduce emissions from our land management and deliver the nature-based solutions to climate change that we know we need, such as peatland restoration and woodland creation.

Her Majesty’s Opposition believe that the Bill needs far more than one line on climate change, especially as we have established that the provision effectively states that the Secretary of State “may”—not even “must”—give financial assistance for the relevant climate mitigation or adaptation. There is no bite to that, and no certainty or urgency.

The Bill should set a target for agriculture to reach net zero carbon, and I have no doubt we will return to that later. The National Farmers Union is already committed to that. There is no reason not to have a sector-specific target for agriculture when we know how significant its contribution is to emissions and how much support the sector will need to reduce it.

The 2019 progress report by the Committee on Climate Change showed that agriculture in all parts of the United Kingdom is not on track to meet any of its indicators. There has been no progress in reducing emissions from agriculture since 2008. As only 30% of direct payments are currently secured through meeting greening requirements, we know that the lack of financial support for farmers to adapt their practices to focus on climate change has been a key part of that, which is why it is so important to get the financial provisions to support farmers right in the Bill.

A great deal of the Bill, as I am sure we will discuss in the coming weeks, places great trust in the hands of future Secretaries of State. That is particularly evident in relation to prioritising climate change. As the division of funding between the various clause 1 public goods is unknown, as has been alluded to already, we very much hope that clause 1(1)(d), in whatever form it goes forward, will have a greater focus on that funding.

The Committee on Climate Change’s progress report contained clear recommendations on agriculture and land use, and on the development of an effective post-CAP framework, and firm policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is ample room for consolidation in the Bill. I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. I say to the Minister that there is no harm in accepting an amendment that allows the Government to make their intentions for emissions reductions in agriculture more explicit with a slight but important wording change.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis - Hansard
25 Feb 2020, 11:06 a.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for drawing attention to this important and pressing topic. We on the Government side are committed to leaving our environment in a better condition than we found it. That includes facing the challenges associated with climate change and with greenhouse gas emissions. That is why we legislated in June 2019 to introduce a net zero target to end the UK’s contribution to the most serious environmental challenge we face: climate change. We are the first major economy in the world to legislate for a carbon net zero target.

We have not made sector-specific targets, so I will not be accepting the hon. Lady’s amendment, although we are pleased with the ambitious target set by the National Farmers Union for its members. We are committed to continuing to work with the agricultural industry to tackle climate change together. One example is the £10 million of Government money given in May 2018 to help restore more than 10,000 football pitches’ worth of England’s iconic peatlands, which she referred to. This year we will establish a lowland agricultural peat task force that will build on the work already begun in this important area.

Break in Debate

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis - Hansard
25 Feb 2020, 11:12 a.m.

The hon. Lady and I will discuss these issues over many years. I point out one important change made in the new version of the Bill relating to soil quality. It is really important that we recognise that soil is itself an essential natural asset and very important to the way we work to reduce carbon emissions.

I do not want to trespass on your time any further, Mr Stringer. I hope that I have shown that we already have the powers in the Bill—that was just one example—to cover the proposed content of the amendment, and I hope I have demonstrated the Government’s commitment to making good use of those powers. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Newport West to withdraw the amendment.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones - Hansard
25 Feb 2020, 11:13 a.m.

I thank the Minister for her considered thoughts on the matter. Labour Members are united on this. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, this is crucial to how we move forward. We need to make sure that we give a clear message, and the Bill gives the perfect opportunity to send a clear message to the agricultural sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East talked about the road map for other areas and how we do not have one for agriculture. We have all heard about the good farmers and how they will be necessarily working with agronomists, but in terms of assistance and guidance, the Bill could be key to ensuring that everybody works together and does what is necessary for the greater good, of not only of the UK but of the planet as a whole.

We heard about the peatlands. Although there is some debate about this, we know that it is crucial that we maintain our existing peatlands. We need to make sure that tree planting continues apace. We know that the Government are missing their target on that by at least 70%. We need to plant millions and millions of trees, not the odd thousand here or there. That is not good enough. This is what we need to work towards.

Land managers need guidance and support, and the Bill should show the way, blazing a trail. The Minister quite rightly alludes to the climate change emergency declared last year by her Government, but it is important to make sure that we carry on. We cannot just declare and stop; we need to say, “Declare and so what?”. We need to move forward.

If we were in any doubt about the climate change emergency, we need to look no further than Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis last weekend and the weekend before, and the devastation that has been caused by soil erosion and poor management of the rivers. The flooding has been horrific and people’s lives have been devastated—some people have actually lost their lives. Businesses and family homes, as well as livestock, have been lost. It is terrible. This is a wake-up call for us to ensure that we stand up and be counted, and the Bill is a brilliant way to do that.