Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:48 pm, 10th October 2018

It is a real pleasure to close this debate, in part because, as the Secretary of State set out at the start, I worked in the farming industry for 10 years and my family have farmed in Cornwall for six generations, and in part because that time spent farming and my five years as Farming Minister have shown me that the common agricultural policy is dysfunctional, frankly, and that we can do far better. The Bill creates the framework to do things better and to set a more coherent course for our policy.

As power returns to Parliament as we leave the European Union, it has been genuinely encouraging this afternoon to hear so many hon. Members take part in the debate. It shows that Parliament is ready for the task. We have heard many powerful speeches from Members with farming experience, including my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon and my hon. Friend Colin Clark—apologies to any Members I have missed out. We have also heard many other passionate speeches from hon. Members in rural constituencies who work in close partnership with farmers in their constituencies and who have championed their interests today.

The shadow Secretary of State and many others said that they did not believe that there was enough about agriculture and food in the Bill. I want to address that point. Let us start from the top. The Bill is called the Agriculture Bill. The long title says that it is a Bill to

“Authorise new expenditure for certain agricultural and other purposes…to make provision about the acquisition and use of information connected with food supply chains;
to confer power to respond to exceptional market conditions affecting agricultural markets,” and

“to make provision for the recognition of associations of agricultural producers”.

I therefore do not agree that there is nothing about food or agriculture in the Bill. What is true is that part 1 is predominantly about delivering environmental goods, but parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 are predominantly about other issues that will assist farmers in their key task of producing food for the nation.

What the Bill does not envisage, however—this is true—is a long-term place for old-style subsidies of the sort that we have seen in recent decades. There are a number of key points to recognise here. First, our current area-based system is not about food production either, but is an arbitrary area payment paid to farmers regardless of what they produce. Decoupling took place some 50 years ago. The current system is not about food production. We should also recognise that some of our most successful and vibrant food-producing sectors of agriculture have never been subsidised. Look at the poultry industry, the pig industry, the horticulture industry or fruit and veg producers. They have never had subsidies.

Our approach has therefore been to say that we should look at the underlying causes of why some farmers are dependent on the single farm payment and a subsidy. If there is a lack of fairness and transparency in the supply chain, let us bring forward provisions to address that, so that farmers can get a fair share in the value chain. If we need farmers to invest to become more competitive and reduce some of their costs, let us make available the powers to give them grants and financial support to invest in the future and in technology. If we should help new entrants into the industry and, as my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon pointed out, assist others who should retire to do so with dignity, let us make provision for that in the Bill, and we do.

There has been a lively discussion about the uplands. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and Tim Farron both spoke about the precariousness of the uplands and raised questions about their financial viability. However, organisations such as the Uplands Alliance are telling us that they believe that they can create a viable and successful model based on the delivery of public goods and that if we are serious about what we say—that we want to reward farmers based on what they do for the environment—the uplands can help with flood mitigation, water quality, carbon sequestration, public access and tourism. They believe that they can do a great deal by way of public goods.

We have had a number of lively exchanges about provisions for Scotland and some powerful contributions from Scottish Conservative Members. Deidre Brock is in a slightly difficult position, because her colleagues in the Scottish Government currently have no plan. We are setting out a plan for England in this Bill. Wales has a plan, set out in schedule 3, and Northern Ireland has a plan, set out in schedule 4, and it does not even have an Administration. Scotland is alone in not having a plan. We have been clear with the Scottish Government that we will reserve a place in the Bill to add a schedule, should they want us to on their behalf, but if they do not want to do that, they must make time in their own Parliament to introduce their own legislation.

The shadow Secretary of State raised the issue of climate change. This is explicitly provided for in clause 1(1)(d), which recognises climate change as a purpose. She also complained that this was too much of a framework Bill and that there was not enough detail, but she went on to praise the Agriculture Act 1947. The 1947 Act was also a framework Bill, which made lots of provision for new orders. If she reads it, she will see that its sections are peppered with the words “the relevant Minister may”. I believe there is no difference. This is a framework Bill in much the same way as the 1947 Act was.

My right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, who was the very first Secretary of State I had the pleasure of working with in the Department, raised two important issues. First, we agree on the need to invest in technology and agri-tech. Clause 1(2) provides for that to happen. Secondly, he raised the importance of soil. The very first purpose of managing land and water in a way that protects and improves the environment is intended to cover soil. I can also tell him that the policy statement we published alongside the Bill explicitly states that soil health is one of our key objectives. I would like to commend the great work my hon. Friend Rebecca Pow has done in this area. We are working with a number of academic institutions, including Cranfield University, Rothamsted and others, to develop a soil health index. I believe that paying greater attention to soil health, as we design future policy, will be very important.

A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Chris Davies, my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin and my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan, highlighted the difficulties of regulation. Some pointed out the current frustrations we have with the administration of existing EU schemes. Some perhaps pointed the finger at the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England. I would say to hon. Members that our agencies can only deal with the legislation they are given currently by the European Union. It is very dysfunctional. It is very onerous. We have an opportunity to sort it out, as this House takes back control. Clause 6 will provide a very clear power to give us the ability to modify retained EU law, knock off some of the rough edges and remove some of the unnecessary provisions and unnecessary audit requirements.