Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 10th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 5:12 pm, 10th October 2018

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speeches of Richard Benyon and my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). We have heard quite a lot in general about the sunlit uplands of Brexit, and about a rosy bucolic Brexit Britain, but much of the debate has missed out the red meat—questions such as what the quantum of funding will be, what powers the Secretary of State will have, and what outcomes we are seeking to achieve.

Two years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee warned that UK farmers faced a triple whammy from Brexit: first, the loss of subsidies; secondly, the potential for tariffs on exports; and, thirdly, the threat of being undercut by cheap imports from countries with lower standards in food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards. Today, I want to talk about my two concerns with this Bill. First, it gives Ministers the power to spend taxpayers’ money with no accountability. I can think of no other area of public policy where we would be discussing the expenditure of £20 billion to £25 billion of public money without demanding some very detailed answers. The second area of concern is the lack of ambitious targets for the restoration and recovery of nature, which need to be linked to those payments.

We know that the CAP has shaped and underpinned British farming for the past 40 years. Each of us is only one or two generations from people who grew up and managed land. Basic payments from the CAP make up between a third and a half of the average farmer’s income, and 60% of profits for average farms and 90% of profits for grazing livestock farms. They are a very, very important part of the farm business.

The CAP currently has a seven-year budget cycle, which provider farmers with the long-term certainty that they need about what they will receive, and allows them to plan and invest. We have heard from Ministers that they will match current levels of EU funding until 2022, but farmers are asking, “What next?” and the Bill provides very few answers. It fails to say how much funding there will be, whether funding security will be guaranteed and who will administer the money. Its vague list of purposes risks policy inconsistency.

My Committee has called for an agricultural policy with clear goals, but the Bill says that payments can be made for anything from

“mitigating or adapting to climate change”,

which is obviously very welcome, to restoring or enhancing

“cultural heritage or natural heritage”—

I am not entirely sure what that means or how we measure it—through to

“improving the productivity of…an agricultural…activity”.

That leaves open the possibility of taxpayers incentivising intensive farming, and incentivising and paying for activities that harm the environment. We must not get into a policy pickle with the Bill.

Budgets could also be subject to the dead hand of the Treasury coming in halfway through, as we have seen with the abolition of various other environmental initiatives in other parts of the economy, so where is the Government’s accountability to farmers, the public and this place?

I am concerned that there is no obligation for people in receipt of so-called delinked payments to continue farming. Clause 7 gives the Secretary of State powers to make a lump-sum payment. As I said in an intervention, it would be possible for a farmer to quit farming and pass their farm on to their children, and for their children then to receive financial assistance under the new scheme. This sort of double accounting must not be allowed.

Clause 2 states:

“Financial assistance may be given by way of grant, loan, guarantee or in any other form.”

What “any other form” are we talking about? If we cannot define it on the face of the Bill, what are we signing up to? This is the beginning of an administrative nightmare. We know that problems at the Rural Payments Agency have brought down fines under both the Labour Government and this Government. Subject to conditions, as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, we need to ensure that this money is spent responsibly and well.

I will conclude by mentioning the lack of environmental targets. We need to stop and reverse the decline in species and soil health, which we will hear a lot about in the new environment Bill. That Bill will contain the targets; this Bill contains the money. Having two Bills risks policy incoherence, so we should start with the targets and design an agricultural policy around them, if we are to meet our international obligations on soil carbon content and reversing species loss in this country.