Agriculture Bill (Seventh sitting)

(Committee Debate: 7th sitting: House of Commons)
Ruth Jones Excerpts
Thursday 27th February 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
27 Feb 2020, 11:31 a.m.

It is a pleasure to continue under you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. I thank you and Sir David for exercising your discretion. I will make some points about that matter in a moment, but I shall start with amendment 63; amendment 64 is consequent to it.

The reason why we want to make this amendment and think it important is that we believe that the design and implementation of the environmental land management scheme that the Government have suggested should be subjected to proper scrutiny. Amendment 63, with amendment 64, would ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny by requiring the Secretary of State to make provision by regulations for establishing any financial assistance scheme and setting out how it will be designed and will operate. Under our amendment, those regulations must be considered and reported on by an appropriate Select Committee, of the Secretary of State’s choosing—we are very generous—before being brought to the House. Amendment 64 would ensure that a proper debate on the regulations could be held by subjecting them to the affirmative resolution procedure.

I apologise to you, Mr Stringer, and to the Committee for warning that I will speak at some length on this amendment to demonstrate why it matters. This goes back to our debate on Tuesday about the Government’s behaviour in relation to publication of the “Environmental Land Management: Policy discussion document”. I am sure that everyone has carefully read it and I advise everyone to have it to hand for the next hour or so, because I shall be referring in detail to various elements of it.

Just in case anyone thinks that this is somehow a diversion or distraction, the document itself says on page 7:

“The new ELM scheme, founded on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’, will be the cornerstone of our agricultural policy now we have left the EU.”

It would be very strange if the Committee were discussing that complicated new future and we did not have a chance to discuss what will be, in the Government’s own words, its cornerstone.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab) - Hansard
27 Feb 2020, 11:34 a.m.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that it is a shame that we got the ELM document—as he says, the cornerstone—too late to make meaningful progress on it on Tuesday? It is also a shame that the Prime Minister decided to take it to the National Farmers Union, rather than bringing it here first.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
27 Feb 2020, 11:35 a.m.

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I will say more about that, as she can imagine.

This discussion is hugely important, and I hope that we will be able to give it the attention it deserves. As my hon. Friend said, the document was delayed until half an hour after the Committee had started our sitting, although I am grateful to Ministers for having the grace to look a little sheepish and to be apologetic—not their fault, I suspect. Frankly, however, it was a poor way to behave, although ironically the desired outcome was not achieved—for reasons that I am not entirely au fait with, the Secretary of State went to the NFU the day after anyway, and I understand that he had a fairly traditional welcome. It is not unusual for Ministers to go to industry events and get a bit of a roasting. I am opposed to all forms of cruelty—we will come to that later—but he clearly had a tough day.

More importantly, I fear that this has skewed the way in which we are discussing the Bill. Had we had the document in advance, we would have framed a different set of amendments to the key clause 1. I am grateful to you, Mr Stringer, and to Sir David for exercising discretion, which allowed us to table amendments to clause 2. That would not normally have been possible within the timescale. I put on record my thanks to the hard-working staff in our offices, who were up until late at night working on that, and to the Clerks, who were also up late working on potential amendments. People were under considerable pressure, and I hope to do justice to their work this morning.

I have to say that something made me cross and, when I came to read the environmental land management policy discussion document that we are talking about, at times it made me even crosser. It is a mixed bag. Some of it is excellent, and we will be supportive, but my overriding impression was that, despite detecting some extremely hard work and thought put in by officials, they had been hampered by some basic contradictions in the Government’s thinking. That is a political failing—not a policy failing—which I suspect partly reflects changes in personnel and thinking over time. The original architects—the unrepentant sinners to whom I referred on Tuesday—have moved on, and others have been left to figure out how to make a complicated set of ambitions work.

The thing that made me cross—we do not have to read far—is virtually in the opening line, although I understand that the prefaces to such documents are often bolted on at the end, possibly by eager-to-please special advisers. I will read the opening sentence:

“For more than forty years, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy…has dictated how we farm our land”.

“Dictated”—think about that sentence. We were members of the European Union of our own free will—[Interruption.] I do not want to go over old ground, but I invite people to think about how that reads to those who might not share in support for the current situation, which is possibly half the country. It is a poor way to start the document.