Our Scottish Conservative colleagues provide strong representation for farmers. Farming is very important to Scotland, which is a rural area. The SNP and the Scottish Parliament have really missed an opportunity to get their details down on paper so that they can play a full role in the really exciting future that this Government are creating. If it were not for the Conservative Government and our coming out of Europe—I say this even though I was a remainer—we would not have this great opportunity.
Crucially, the essence of the Bill is to move away from making payments simply for the privilege of owning land, as has been mentioned, and towards the concept of paying for public goods. That is the cornerstone of the Bill, and it is absolutely the right thing to do. The basic idea of receiving money for doing something for the public good has met with universal approval, not just from farmers but from environmentalists and right across the board with everybody I have met in Taunton Deane so far. That is true of improving the quality of our water—currently, only 14% of our rivers are classed as clean, which is absolutely shocking; planting more trees to help to reduce the speed of run-off from the hills to the Somerset levels, which will help to reduce the terrible flooding that we have had over many years; and creating new habitats to improve biodiversity and reverse the catastrophic declines in plant and animal populations that we have witnessed in our own lifetimes, as the 2016 “State of Nature” report clearly sets out.
In many cases, EU agricultural policy has been the driver for those wildlife declines, with the loss of mixed farming—grass is so important to that, as it was on the farm where I grew up—less rotation, fewer hedgerows and increased pesticide use. The increased use of pesticides has reduced the quantity of plants on which foraging insects rely; indeed, we rely on those insects to pollinate our crops. The Bill offers an opportunity for new schemes that emphasise the protection of biodiversity and help to redress those losses. Habitat creation schemes such as the one run on West Sedgemoor by the RSPB, which is producing tasty beef, creating summer water meadows and bringing back the snipe—I am proud to be the RSPB snipe champion—are really working. The Bill offers the opportunity to build on such schemes, which I welcome.
There is, however, one thing that I must ask the Minister. If farmers and environmental groups are already involved in environmental stewardship schemes, will those schemes still operate following the implementation of the Bill? Will they be allowed to run their course, or will they end with those groups then having to apply for new schemes?
The Minister will not be at all surprised to learn that I am now going to mention soil, because I have bent his ear on the subject many times. Half the soils in the east of the country are likely to become unproductive within a decade. That was highlighted in our Environmental Audit Committee report—and I see that the Committee’s Chairperson, Mary Creagh, is in the Chamber. Soil erosion is a very serious issue, as is the fact that soil has been treated as a growing medium rather than a living habitat for far too long. I therefore welcome the priority that the Bill gives to soil health, and I was pleased that the Minister came to the launch of the Sustainable Soil Alliance in the House. I hope that the work that it is doing to advise on how we could monitor soil erosion or set targets to address it might influence the way in which payments are made.