Agriculture Bill (Fifth sitting) DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Ruth JonesMain Page: Ruth Jones (Labour) - Newport West)
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(5 months, 2 weeks ago)Public Bill Committees
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.
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
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.
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.