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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a Government who are backing Britain’s farmers. We will always recognise the importance of the work that they do to care for our countryside and our natural environment and, of course, to put food on our plates. We know that, if we are to level up the rural economy in the way we want to for our whole country, we must support the agriculture that is at the heart of our rural communities.
The Bill is a short technical piece of legislation with a simple purpose: to empower the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to pay basic payments to farmers for the 2020 scheme year. It therefore maintains the status quo for pillar 1 for this final period before we start to leave the common agricultural policy behind completely.
The core purpose of the Bill is enacted by clause 1, which puts direct payment legislation for 2020 on the domestic statute book. That provides a legal basis to make such payments for the 2020 scheme year. As hon. Members will be aware, almost all EU legislation was imported on to the domestic statute book by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, but funding for the 2020 basic payment scheme will come out of the 2021 EU budget. That would therefore have involved the UK in the next EU multi-annual budget cycle. In the negotiations, the EU and the UK agreed that they did not want that to happen, so the CAP provisions providing the basis to issue basic payments in the UK for 2020 were disapplied by the terms of the withdrawal agreement reached last year.
That policy decision has left a legal gap, which we are now proposing to fill. This legislation will provide clarity to farmers on funding support this year. If Parliament were to reject the Bill, no direct payments could be made by the UK Government or by the Administrations in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That would have serious consequences for farmers across the nation who have planned their businesses on the basis of continuity of direct payments for this scheme year.
The next European multi-annual financial framework will run from 2021 to 2027, but this Bill will allocate funds for one year only. What is the British Government’s intention: will there be a multi-annual framework for farming support, or will the decision be made annually?
In our manifesto, the Government set out our commitment to retain 2019 levels of support for farmers throughout the current Parliament. The exact basis of the allocation and division of those funds remains to be determined, but we will work closely with the devolved Administrations in taking decisions.
It will be important for the estate agent in question to follow developments relating to the transition to a new system of farm support in England. I will outline that later in my remarks, but we view leaving the common agricultural policy as a vital opportunity to create a better system that more effectively supports our farmers and enables them to deliver crucial public goods, including for the environment and animal welfare.
Further to the points raised by other Members, long-term planning is very important for farmers. They might, for example, plan to build a hay shed two years hence. Moreover, any lowering of the value of the pound would have an impact on farmers, because the price of fertiliser would go up and any machinery not made in the UK has to be imported. May I appeal to the Government, therefore, that the value of the pound be calculated into any sums as they are worked out for our farmers?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about farmers’ need for certainty and continuity, which is one of the reasons why we have brought forward this Bill today. That is also why we propose a seven-year transition period to move away from the basic payments of the common agricultural policy and towards the new approach of environmental land management for England, which this House will have the chance to debate within the next few weeks.
I echo the concerns raised about farmers’ need for continuity, but may I ask a slightly different question? What protections for vulnerable habitats does the Secretary of State envisage this Bill supporting?
The Bill is a vital stepping stone to getting us to the transition period in 2021, when we will start to introduce our national pilot for the environmental land management schemes, which will replace the common agricultural policy in the United Kingdom. We have every expectation that those schemes will enable farmers to do even more than they presently do to protect habitat and valuable biodiversity.
I am the former Chairman at the moment. I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. It is great to have continuity. I want to return to the point made by Jamie Stone about the value of the payment. At present, the payment is made in euros; the rate used is the average rate in September. Does my right hon. Friend expect this year’s payment to be virtually the same as that for last year? In the past it was based on the value of the euro at the time of the payment, but I imagine that that will not be the case this time.
My hon. Friend is correct to say that taking over domestic responsibility for the payments means that the currency fluctuation, which has had such a significant impact in past years, is not likely to affect payment levels in the same way. None the less, we have yet to decide the exact levels of basic payments, although the Chancellor has set out the overall spending envelope with which to fund such payments.
As we move towards the transition period—more will be appearing in the Agriculture Bill—we obviously welcome the environmental sustainability measures. One thing that is not mentioned here is the fact that many farmers look after places of archaeological interests—scheduled monuments that have access for the public and need to be maintained. Does the Secretary of State envisage that the payment system will recognise that farmers are not just there to enhance agriculture and produce food; they are also stewards of historical and archaeological monuments, for which they need to be compensated?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that clause 1 of the Agriculture Bill, which Parliament will have the chance to consider very soon, does recognise the importance of access to the countryside, and to our culture and heritage, by listing that as one of the public goods that we can potentially support through our new farm support scheme. He makes an important point.
I am pleased to say that the Chancellor confirmed on
I welcome the £3 billion announcement from the Treasury supporting our farmers, showing again that the Conservative Government support our rural communities. In the transition period from the current system to the new one, could this be done on a multi-annualised basis, so that some of our farmers can invest in some of their infrastructure to prepare themselves for the challenges that lie ahead?
In setting out the seven-year transition period, we have recognised the concerns that my hon. Friend raises about the need for a multi-annual period. We will be providing further information on how the transition to environmental land management will work in due course. No doubt the debates on the Bill will give us a further opportunity to discuss and develop how the transition period will operate in practice.
I thank the Secretary of State; she is being very generous. One of the concerns that my constituents will have is around the payments from the Rural Payments Agency, which has received huge cuts since 2010. The civil servants who are working to deliver payments to farmers obviously work very hard, and I have some very positive stories in casework that I could show her. However, a huge proportion of farmers in Lancaster and Fleetwood are concerned about the delays in payments. She talks about maintaining the status quo. Will she change the status quo in terms of reforming and re-staffing the Rural Payments Agency to ensure that farmers can actually receive the money in a timely manner?
I hear what the hon. Lady says. Clearly, there have been difficulties in the past, but I would say that the RPA’s performance in recent months has been better than for many years, with, last year, 93% of farmers receiving payments by the end of December. But there is always scope to improve, and I will certainly follow this matter very closely, not just in terms of the 2020 scheme year but in relation to the role of the RPA as we move forward with the reformed system.
The additional funding that the Government have allocated consists of £160 million for Scottish farmers to correct a perceived historical injustice in relation to past years’ allocations. The remainder was awarded following the recommendations of the Bew report. Neither commitment would have been secured without the strong campaign led by Scottish Conservative MPs to get a fairer share of agricultural support for their farmers. I pay tribute to all of them, including those who sadly did not retain their seats at the election: Colin Clark, Stephen Kerr, Kirstene Hair and Paul Masterton.
Provision for the uplift in funding resulting from the Bew report and the campaign by Scottish Conservatives is made in clause 5. What is more, as I have said, the Government have a manifesto commitment to match the current overall budget for farmers in every year of this Parliament, so the Bill is an essential mechanism to provide continuity and stability for our agriculture sector as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
The Bill is narrow in scope in terms of subject matter and duration. Its provisions are consistent with the approach agreed by Parliament in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Clause 2 sets out the approach to be taken by the courts regarding the interpretation of EU law. Clause 3 will enable secondary legislation to make operability amendments and to allow us to keep pace with post-exit regulatory change concerning 2020 direct payments, should the UK choose to do so. For England, the Bill bridges the gap between the common agricultural policy and the start of the agricultural transition in 2021. It does not change our policy, nor does it alter our ambitious vision for the future of food and farming in England.
The next steps in our radical reform of farm support in England will be debated in this House on Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill. That legislation will finally enable us to break free from the common agricultural policy. It will ensure that we take back control of our farming policy and our farm support payments. That will enable us to replace the perversities and constraints of the deeply flawed CAP with a new system that pays public money for public goods. We will reward farmers for environmental stewardship and high standards of animal welfare. Our farmers have always played a crucial role in safeguarding our countryside and our environment. As we deliver this far-reaching transformation, that role for farmers will become even more pivotal in delivering goals such as cleaner air and water, healthier soil and better access to the countryside.
This will be one of the most important environmental reforms in this country for decades, and it is a major benefit delivered by Brexit. It needs to play a central role in tackling the two great environmental challenges of our time: reversing the disastrous decline of nature and biodiversity and protecting our climate.
I come from the rural constituency of North Norfolk, where farmers form one of the most important sectors. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Agriculture Bill brings an excellent opportunity to tackle climate change head-on and that, as an industry, the farming community has an important part to play in helping with our environment?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We believe that our new system of farm support can work for farmers and our environment. We believe that we can do a thousand times better than has been the case under the CAP.
My right hon. Friend must surely agree that the purpose of subsidy is to ensure that British agriculture can compete with agriculture in the European Union and, indeed, the rest of the world. Will she therefore ensure that her Department does the necessary research, so that when we move from direct payments for acreage to public money for public goods, the money does arrive on the farm? We cannot afford for our farmers to be poorer because of these excellent intentions.
We will be looking carefully at all aspects of the scheme. This is a hugely challenging thing to deliver, which is why we will phase it in over seven years. Of course, it is essential to get the funds to the farmers who are delivering the public goods that we want to secure. Because change always brings its challenges, to ease the introduction of the new system, we will adopt a seven-year transition period, and the Bill is a vital step in smoothing the path towards the start of that period.
This legislation may be less radical than the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, but it is still vital for the livelihood of farmers across our United Kingdom. I hope that Members will give their backing to this short but crucial legislation, so that we can give our farmers continuity, certainty and support as we move towards exit day and our departure from the European Union. The Bill provides a stepping stone to a more profitable, more productive, more resilient and more sustainable future for farming in this country, so that our hard-working farmers can continue to produce high-quality, high-welfare, iconic British food that is prized around the world and appreciated so much by all of us here at home. I commend the Bill to the House.
I feel immensely honoured and privileged to speak at the Dispatch Box in my first outing as the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I would like to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Sue Hayman, and my former shadow DEFRA team colleagues Dr David Drew, Jenny Chapman, Dani Rowley and Sandy Martin. Each was formidable in their own right and worked tirelessly to scrutinise the Government and get the very best for our farmers, our wildlife and our environment. I was proud to work with Sue when we first proposed that Parliament should declare a climate emergency, and myself, my party and the planet will be grateful for her work.
Mr Speaker, you would expect me to have a link to our incredible countryside, as a proud west country lad, and I do. I declare an interest, because I am very proud to be the brother of a sheep farmer and of someone who works in wool marketing, one of whom receives CAP payments.
There is an irony that the first piece of legislation we are considering now that the Government’s Brexit Bill has nearly passed is one that extends the EU’s farm payments system for a further 12 months. Labour will not oppose this Bill, because we think it is important that our farmers are paid, but there are still issues that I would like to raise with the Secretary of State. These are just the first rumblings of a stampede of Bills to come out of DEFRA. We still have the Agriculture Bill, the fisheries Bill and the environment Bill to follow.
I am pleased that the Government have accepted that Labour was right to argue repeatedly during our previous debate on the Agriculture Bill that we need long-term funding for direct payments, which has now materialised in the Bills that have been published. These Bills form the legislative framework for fishing, farming and the environment for the next 30 years. They come as our planet is on fire and our nation is plunging deeper into climate crisis. Every one of these Bills is an opportunity to protect our planet for the future, to cut carbon in bolder and faster ways, and to ensure that climate justice walks hand in hand with social justice, so that no one is left behind, whether in towns and cities or coastal and rural communities—and every one of these Bills falls short.
My hon. Friend is making a good speech, and I join him in paying tribute to colleagues who are no longer in this place but have done so much work in this area, including Sue Hayman and others. Does he agree that it is incredibly important, as we debate these Bills, to ensure that there is an assessment of when the UK agricultural sector will achieve net zero?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I was proud that our party went into the general election with a commitment to have a path to net zero by 2030, and thanks to some of the amazing work being done by farmers up and down the country, the National Farmers Union has a plan to get to net zero by 2040. But 2040 is too late. I want to send a message loudly and clearly to the Secretary of State that we need bolder and swifter action. The Bills that she is proposing fall short in ambition, planning and detail, and I hope that she will take our criticism as a friendly gesture to try to improve these Bills, because they need to be improved if we are to tackle the climate emergency fully.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We need to talk about food miles much more. We need to be buying local. That does not only mean buying from the region we live in, buying British and looking out for the Red Tractor symbol on the food we buy. It also means calculating the food miles of the trade deals that will be done in the future. It is a nonsense to have trade deals that will encourage consumers to buy food from the other side of the planet, at huge carbon cost, when there is perfectly good, nutritious, healthy food grown and reared to a high standard in our own country. I will return to that point time and again in this Parliament.
There are some excellent agricultural community groups in my constituency. I have visited one called Cae Tan, and I am so impressed. We talk about farm to fork, which is key. What can we do to encourage these brilliant organisations that are working so hard to make sure that we can eat local?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will make some remarks on what the Government could do. We need to lead by example. It is fine sampling delicacies from around the world, but we need to understand that the seasonality of our food is important. Britain produces some of the finest seasonal food all year round, but sometimes it is produced at carbon costs that should not be absorbed into our carbon budgets in the future. Let us celebrate the food we grow in the seasons when we grow it, and let us encourage all our constituents to eat local and lead by example.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. At the weekend, I was talking about the fish that goes into pet food. As the Secretary of State will have seen from her press cuttings, I am concerned that there is not enough labelling on tins at the moment for people to understand what is in them, including the risk that there could be vulnerable and endangered species of fish in pet food. I hope she will take that seriously. Whether it is being fed to our children or our pets, we need to ensure that what is in the tin is what is on the tin, and that is not always the case at the moment.
I will make some progress before taking further interventions. The Bills presented by DEFRA reflect a new form of managerialism that has permeated the Department ever since the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, left. I disagreed with him on a great many things, but there is no doubt that under him, DEFRA was at the heart of government and at the forefront of media attention, with consultations aplenty and a whirlwind of ambition, cunning, drive and the cold wind of change. That contrasts unfavourably with where we are now.
Brexit should mean that DEFRA is at the beating heart of a new vision for governance after we leave the EU. With so much change expected for farming, fishing, food and environmental standards, every journalist in town and every Government Back Bencher should be beating a path to the Secretary of State’s door. But they are not, and this is a challenge for the Secretary of State to show the bold leadership and the courage of her predecessor. These Bills do not do enough to cut carbon, and they do not do enough to protect vulnerable habitats. There is an opportunity in the process of revision to look on a cross-party basis at how we can do more, because our planet needs us to, and I hope that that opportunity will not be missed.
The Bill that we are considering today should be unnecessary. If the Government had made progress with the Agriculture Bill in the last Parliament, we would not need it now. The last Committee sitting of the Agriculture Bill was in November 2018. Instead of bringing the Bill back to the House of Commons to be reviewed and passed, the Government sat on their hands. That Bill would already be on the statute book, and we would already be moving on with “public money for public goods”, if the Government had not been so cautious and timid about bringing it forward. We need bold vision in agriculture, similar to the vision in the Agriculture Act 1947 introduced by the groundbreaking Labour Government. Ministers need to show a greater degree of courage.
Labour supports the public money for public goods approach, with the addition of food as a public good. It was omitted from the last Agriculture Bill, and I am glad that Ministers have rectified that between the two drafts being published. If that Bill had been passed instead of the Government long-grassing it, there would be no need to extend the CAP for 12 months, because we could have moved on to a new system by this point.
The Bill also implements the recommendations of the Bew review, which set out the right steps to correct the historical wrongs for farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is long overdue. I would like the Minister of State, in his concluding remarks, to place on record a statement to confirm that this will not be paid for by English farmers. I believe that is what the Secretary of State hinted at in her opening remarks, but there is concern among farmers that extra money for farming is something that rarely appears from Governments, and I would like the Minister to make it clear that this is extra money and that English farmers will not have their funding cut to correct that historical injustice. I think that is what the Secretary of State was saying, but I would be grateful if that could be set out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Cat Smith for mentioning the Rural Payments Agency, because in a Bill about direct payments to farmers, the omission of the Government agency that is responsible for them seems to be an oversight. Improvements in the past year have helped to speed up payments, but there is nothing in the Bill that guarantees a better service for farmers from the Rural Payments Agency. There are no service commitments or guarantees of swift payments during a period of payment turbulence, and there is no certainty of support in the future. There is nothing in the Bill that provides adequate resources for the civil servants in the Rural Payments Agency, which has seen its budget cut from £237 million in 2010 to just £95 million in 2018. That is showing in the service that many farmers have received, including delayed payments. When we are subject to so much potential change in the payment system, it is important that the civil servants in that agency have the resources they need. In DEFRA questions over many years, I have heard hon. Members across the House raise legitimate concerns about the speed of payments and about ensuring that delays in payment do not adversely affect the sometimes fragile financial situations of our farmers. I think that is worth picking up on.
With this Bill, it looks as though Ministers are legislating for a new cliff edge. It provides for only another 12 months of certainty for farmers before the Agriculture Bill comes in. Introducing such a complex scheme as public money for public goods—for which we have seen no consultations or further details—means that it could be necessary for the Government to extend these provisions for another 12 months afterwards, but there is nothing in the Bill that allows them to do that. I know that the Prime Minister is no fan of extensions, but when it comes the details of this proposal, I do not want to see the Secretary of State back here in six months’ time needing to pass another piece of legislation because the systems are not in place as she intends today. Labour will table amendments to enable the Government to extend systems such as this with an affirmative vote of the House, to ensure that our farmers have the certainty they need. After the long-grassing of the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, I am sure that the Minister will forgive us for not having confidence that Ministers will precisely deliver what they have set out in grand speeches. Labour does not stand in the way of a new system for payments, it is just that the Government’s record in sitting on those Bills does not inspire confidence.
At the heart of what we are talking about today in fishing and farming is the climate emergency and the necessity to decarbonise everything that we do. The Conservative ambition to see net zero by 2050 is a long way away. I will be 70 in 2050, and as far as I am concerned, that is my entire lifetime away. That target is simply not ambitious enough. We need to be hitting net zero by 2030 to make any meaningful contribution to tackling the climate crisis. Minette Batters and the leadership of the NFU have provided a direction that shows that reducing carbon—to net zero by 2040 in their case, but earlier for some sectors in our agricultural sector—is not only possible but preferable. That can be done through supporting the livelihoods of small farmers in particular.
One area that was missing from the Agriculture Bill and is missing from this Bill is the protection of hill farmers and those who rear rare breeds. Those are two areas that we know will be under direct assault from the Government’s proposed changes to the farm funding system. Hill farming and rare breed farming do not get a huge amount of airtime in this place, but they need to. Hill farming in particular has created the landscape of many of our rural areas over many generations, and it needs to be protected.
The shadow Minister was talking about the public good. Given the beautiful countryside that we have, thanks to the many farmers in this country, and the millions of people who come here to enjoy it, I can think of no better cause than that the money should go to the hill farmers who make this country look so stunning.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that that was a remark directed more at his Front Benchers than mine, because there is an absence of such a provision in the Bill.
Lurking in the shadows of the Bill is the prospect of lower standards, lower environmental protections and lower animal welfare standards with a post-Brexit trade deal. There are many grand sentences and lofty ambitions, but the reality of a trade deal with Donald Trump’s America is that farm standards would be lower, and there is a risk that our farmers would be undercut by farming methods that do not have the same animal welfare or the same focus on quality as UK farmers have at the moment. Conservative Members may shake their heads, but this issue is being raised by the NFU and farmers’ groups right across the country. It is a valid and real concern in our rural communities, and this Bill and others still do nothing about it. Trade deals must not be allowed to lower standards. We do not want to be left with Donald Trump’s rat hair paprika, hormone-treated beef or chlorinated chicken. The show of hands at the Oxford farming conference about the confidence farmers have in the Secretary of State and the ability to protect farmers in trade deals showed that there is still work to be done by Ministers to win the confidence of farmers in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman is making a vital point. During the Secretary of State’s initial remarks, she had high praise for the Chancellor, but over the weekend the Chancellor said that the strategy of the British Government would be to disalign from Europe in all standard areas. We know that 90% of Welsh exports go into the single market. The British Government are about to cut the throats of Welsh farmers.
I am not really interested in Brexit soundbites, but I am interested in Brexit detail. It might be easy for the Chancellor to give a quote about divergence in the media, but divergence on farm standards means the potential for disruption at the border, difficulty in exporting our products and lower standards. It is important that Ministers come out and explain what divergence means in the context of agriculture, because divergence from high standards often means lower standards, and no matter what assurances are given, until it is written into a Bill that our standards will be protected and that there will be no divergence and no lowering of standards, there is every chance that people will doubt the motives of those who offer lofty soundbites but take different actions.
We talk about welfare standards and the standards of the food we are producing, but who decides those standards? Ultimately it is our farmers. It strikes me as slightly concerning when the Opposition continue to say that we are going to have lower standards after Brexit, because it is ultimately our farmers who decide what standards we have. I have full confidence that they want to continue to have the high welfare standards that we have at the moment. Our farmers have no interest in lowering standards. Does the hon. Member agree that this ultimately comes down to the farmers, and that they are not going to lower standards in any way?
I think the hon. Lady is agreeing with me, but from a different angle. I agree that our farmers want high standards. They pride themselves on the high standards of the food they produce and the animals they rear. The risk with a trade deal is that there will be access to the UK market for farmers producing food at lower standards and thus undercutting our markets. That is the concern of the NFU, and I would encourage her to speak to her local farmers about this, because I think there is a genuine risk of that happening.
The hon. Gentleman invites me down a cul-de-sac about water policy that I am not quite sure is worth going down, but I would advise him not to drink too much swimming pool water when he is next having a little dip.
The important thing here is that we want to maintain the high standards of British farming, as do British farmers, and we need to ensure that we have a farm support system that gives them certainty, so that they can invest and employ people to pick the crops and rear the animals. We know that up and down the country crops are rotting in the fields because there are not enough people working in the area. We also know that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is not delivering the number of places that we need to support our industry and that the Agriculture Bill, although lofty in its ambitions, is light on any detail that would enable farmers to invest. There is an opportunity here for Ministers to clarify and build on this.
Ministers have set out that public goods money will come in over a seven-year period, but they have also said that there will be no changes to the funding period over the next four years. That means that they will be loading in massive change over the final three years of the period, which come, interestingly, just after the next general election. We agree that public money for public goods is the right approach, but farmers will quite legitimately be asking, “How is that going to affect us? What is the financial formula that will affect our region? What will it incentivise us to invest in, and what will it disincentivise us to invest in, and how can we plan?” How do we ensure that types of farming that are sometimes less profitable, such as the rare breeds and hill farming that was mentioned earlier, are protected and encouraged, and how are we recognising the potential disruption that Brexit could bring to the communities affected?
There are some real opportunities to get this system right in the next three months with these Bills, but there is also a real risk that we will be creating framework legislation that does not deliver for our rural and coastal communities. On behalf of the Opposition, I make the Secretary of State an offer that we will work with the Minister and her Department to make sure that we are reflecting the concerns of farmers and fishers—those people who want high standards—and to make sure that we can support the legislation. We will not be opposing this Bill today, but I invite the Secretary of State to look again at the ambition and the drive of her Department, because if we are truly to tackle the climate emergency, we will need better than what she has achieved so far.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. May I welcome Luke Pollard to his new post as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? I want to pay tribute to Sue Hayman, David Drew and Sandy Martin, because I worked very well cross-party with them when dealing with the previous Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I would like to put that on record.
Naturally, I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement about the continuity of payments to farmers because I think this is very important. We stand at a great moment when we can create a much better policy than the common agricultural policy. This is a moment of truth, shall we say? We now have not only this Bill, which will allow for payments to be made for the next year in a very similar way to how they were made in the past, but then the transitional period of seven years from one type of payment to the other, which gives us a real opportunity to look at the way we deliver payments.
The Rural Payments Agency has finally got delivering the basic farm payment right. What does slightly worry me, however, is that the one payment it finds great difficulty with delivering is that for the stewardship schemes. Whether that is a combination of Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency, there does seem to be a problem there. We have time to iron it out, but we have to be absolutely certain, as we move to new policies that are going to be much more in line with the stewardship schemes, that we get the system right and get this paid on time.
The interesting point about the transitional period and new payments for farmers is that some farmers are perhaps under the slight illusion that they are going to be able to get exactly the same level of payment from the new system as they do from the basic farm payment. Of course, like it or not, probably over half the farmers in this country rely on the basic farm payment for part of their income. Historically, it has always been said that farmers should set aside those payments and should not put them into their budget, but, as a practical farmer for many years, I can assure Members that those payments have always gone into the farming budget. About the only time that the bank manager ever smiled at me was when that payment came in, because it was a good lump sum.
Not only am I grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but I smile at him too. Does he not agree with me that the purpose of subsidy is to keep those farm businesses competitive with our international competitors? Therefore, if he is right—I hope his Committee, when it is reconstituted, will investigate this—and this money does not go to those businesses, that competitive edge will be lost. From a food security point of view, if nothing else, it is vital that that money does arrive in the pockets of our farmers and then of their bank managers.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point, which I am leading on to. As we deal with farm payments in the future, we have to make sure that we build on our environment and that we do not forget food production, healthy food and delivering British food at high standards. I think it is the NFU that says:
“You can’t go green if you’re in the red!”
That is the issue. We have to make sure that there is enough money flowing into farming businesses to ensure that we have good healthy food.
The one little criticism I have of the new Agriculture Bill is that there is possibly not quite enough in it on farming and food production. It is better than it was, and I give great credit to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who have worked very hard to get that into the Bill, but I still want to ensure that an Agriculture Bill is actually about food production and about agriculture. It is also about the environment, but I would like those to be equal parts of it, and I think that is the great challenge.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point. Does he not agree that we have to make sure we secure fair trading arrangements for food producers in future trade deals? If we do not do this, we can talk about the vast environmental policies we want, but ultimately if we do not get those correct future trading relationships, that could destroy British agriculture.
My hon. Friend, who was on the previous Select Committee, raises an extremely good point. Again, not only does the income of farmers come naturally from the support payment, but much of it comes from what they sell. Of course, farmers would like to be able to make sure that they can sell their product at a good price so that they do not have to rely so much on public support, so these trade deals are going to be very important.
I do worry about the future trade deals, but provided we are sensible and put forward a trade agreement that maintains our high standards of environmental, crop and animal welfare protection, and that we make sure those products coming in from trade deal are meeting the same standards, then I have not got a problem. What I do not want to see is this being massively undermined by lower standards, because with lower standards come lower costs and, basically, that is what will put farmers out of business in the end.
I think there is a bright future for farming provided we get this right. I think we can, and I know that the agriculture Minister, my hon. Friend George Eustice, is very keen on reducing bureaucracy and on delivering a more simple payment. I am looking forward to all this coming before us so that the Select Committee can look at it in great detail, because this is a great opportunity.
I made this point in a debate last week or the week before, but we now have the interesting idea that we must have a three crop rule. The three crop rule was introduced because eastern Germany has produced maize after maize for a generation, and to break that continuous maize production, the three crop rule has been brought in. However, in a country like our own—especially on the western side of this country in particular, from Scotland right down to Cornwall—we find that there is so much grass production, including a lot of permanent grass, that we really do not need a three crop rule. It is completely unnecessary.
We also do not need re-mapping every three years when we make payments, and there is an issue there. I think farmers should be considered innocent until they are proven guilty. At the moment, they are guilty until they can prove they are innocent. They are always being checked on, and then fined if there is a slight discrepancy between the maps and the areas of claim. If there are some rogues out there—dare I say it, and I speak as a farmer, but every community has one or two rogues—and they are really defrauding the system, we should come down on them like a ton of bricks. However, for a lot of farmers, what they do is very genuine and the way they make their claims is very genuine, and even if there is a small discrepancy, we should not have to be checking on them all the time, giving fines and all of these things. There really is a great deal we can do there to simplify this, and I look forward to my hon. Friend coming forward with those ideas. We can make farming the solution for the countryside, and ensure that we deal with the environment. The Opposition talk about having zero carbon emissions by 2030. We cannot get there by then, but much of farming could get there by 2040. When we take payment from direct support systems, perhaps we could put those payments into getting agricultural and other buildings to store slurry and the like.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there must be a balance between the environmental and productivity aspects of how our farmers produce in this country? We now have a new opportunity to produce in this land like never before, and that is what leaving the European Union on
My hon. Friend, the new MP for Totnes, makes a good point. When considering an agricultural policy that is, rightly, much more linked to the environment, we must ensure that we do not stop the means of production. We must look at new technologies. Some in this House will throw up their hands in horror when I talk about gene technology and other things, but there are ways to reduce the amount of crop protection we use, while still keeping a dynamic and productive agricultural industry.
Take oilseed rape, for instance. In this country we cannot use neonicotinoids, yet all the oilseed rape we import has largely been treated with a product that we cannot use here. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater—we want a productive agricultural industry and to produce food in this country, and that will be the great challenge for us. As we look for a new policy, plant trees and help our environment, let us ensure not only that we plant those trees, but that we are smart about where we plant them. At the same time we can help to stop soil erosion and flooding, and we can make a real difference. During the election there was a sort of bidding war over how many trees each party could plant, and it got to some ludicrous figure in the end. I am not sure where we will plant all those trees, but I think we can plant them and do so smartly.
I have made this point in the Chamber before, but as we plant trees we must ensure that there is an income from doing so. Let us return to my dear bank manager. If I bought some land, had a big mortgage and said, “I will plant some trees and come back to you in 50 years when there might be an income”, I think he would say, “It’s probably best not to buy it in the first place, and do not borrow the money from my bank if you do so.” To be serious, however, if we are to look at land and those who own it, we must ensure that there is a support system, so that the right trees are planted in the right places. We also need a support system that takes people through a period of time, and ensures a crop of trees. People should be able to replant trees where they need to, or take wood from those areas, because they are sustainable. I am putting on my hat as a farmer and landowner, but at the moment people might be cautious about planting too many trees on their best land, because they cannot be certain that they will get an income from it in future, or that they will ever be able to cut those trees down. This is about ensuring that we improve the environment, but also that we have enough land for really good food production.
We have spoken a lot about the Agriculture Bill, and that is for the future. I expect you want me to shut up in a minute, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] I am still waxing lyrical, because I am keen to ensure that we have good food and enough land to produce it. We also need affordable food. If I have any criticism of the Agriculture Bill, it is that it rightly focuses on high welfare and high standards, but also probably on quite highly priced food. This country has a highly competitive, productive poultry industry that delivers good poultry to good standards and at an affordable price. Dare I say that most of us in the House—I can talk about myself in particular—are fairly well fed, and we probably do not worry about buying food? To make a serious point, however, a lot of the population have to look at their budget and be careful about how much they spend. We can produce food in this country, even under intensive conditions, to a much better standard than the food we import. We must be careful that we do not exclude intensive production, but then import it from elsewhere in the world where there are much lower standards, including on welfare. That is key.
My hon. Friend must have read my mind because—you will be glad to hear this, Mr Speaker—my final point is that as we consider ways to improve the environment in this country, we must remember that part of that involves food production. If we reduce our food production but import food from Brazil, where they are ploughing up the savannah and cutting down the rain forest, that will not improve the world environment—it will make it much worse. When we import food from drier countries, we also import their water to grow that food. There is a great drive to have a good agriculture Bill that is linked to the environment, but we can also produce a great deal of good food in this country, and I think we have a moral duty to do so.
Happily, Mr Speaker, my contribution is confined to the content of the Bill, so it will be quite a lot shorter. [Interruption.] Revolutionary, indeed.
I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to his place, and congratulate him on taking on that important position. I look forward to working with him in future, and will he please pass on my best wishes to his colleagues, with whom I very much enjoyed working in the previous Parliament?
Here we are here again, just as I predicted back in the good old days when we discussed the old Agriculture Bill, which, as some Members will recall, we were told was “absolutely essential” before Brexit. It turns out, however, that it was essential only until the Prime Minister fancied an election, so here we are with emergency legislation that is being done in a rush to cover the Government’s failure to plan ahead.
Some former Scottish Tory MPs are no longer with us, and none of those left is in the Chamber to hear this debate, which rather surprises me. They said at the time that all Scotland needed was a schedule on the back of that essentially English Bill, because that would ensure continuity for Scotland without us Scots having to bother our pretty little heads about it. But here we are. The UK Agriculture Bill has been shelved and needs to restart, this panicked Bill is needed to allow payments to keep farms and crofts running, and UK agriculture policy is down the pan. Three and a half years of planning for Brexit, and the Government are still in chaos without a single clue about what is going on. In the Scottish Parliament, the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill is proceeding in a steady, measured and orderly fashion—the kind of thing that can only be dreamed of here. In the interests of keeping farmers and crofters in business, and seeking to ensure that some food continues to be produced—that being the point, I would argue, of most agriculture—Scotland’s Parliament has agreed to allow legislative consent for this Bill: sensible politics. The Bill needs to get through to safeguard livelihoods and food supplies, and that necessity should give the Government pause for thought as we trundle on towards the next attempt to get an agriculture Bill through. What is the purpose of agriculture support? Is it food production or is it something else?
We will not oppose the Bill, so I will keep my remarks short and confined to its substance, but I will lay down a marker or two. The convergence money that was swiped from Scottish farmers—I point out to the Secretary of State that that was not simply a matter of perception, but theft plain and simple—was to be returned under the Bew recommendations. It should still be paid to Scottish farmers and I will continue to pursue that. They should also be paid interest and compensation for the initial theft, but, frankly, I hold out no prospect of that happening.
Clause 5 will allow an uplift in the moneys paid to farmers. Given the chaos that Brexit is bringing and the shutting off of the mainland EU markets by this Government’s actions, we will be looking for that money to get a substantial boost just to keep the farming lights on. Scottish farmers and crofters have seen a succession of Tory promises made and discarded in recent years. That will not be allowed to continue. For the short period before the forthcoming independence referendum, SNP MPs will stay on the Government’s case and we will continue to press for the needs of Scotland’s farmers and crofters to be addressed. My hon. Friend Dave Doogan addressed one of those points—the need for seasonal workers—at Prime Minister’s questions last week, showing the benefits to Angus of electing an SNP MP who is willing to put in a full shift once again. We will be back over and over again.
There will be questions to be raised on farm payments as in the Bill, but also on the other issues on agriculture that Brexit threatens.
We need to bear in mind that for crofters and farmers the big uncertainty will be the autumn markets if there are tariff barriers and trade hurdles with the EU. That should really leave an open-ended cheque for the gamblers in the UK Government, who have given blithe assertions that all will be fine—if it is not fine, it should not be the crofters and farmers who pay.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The tariffs could have a shattering impact on many of our most important agriculture industries in Scotland and the Government should be fully aware of the recompense they should be making to farmers and crofters as a result of that possibility.
There are questions to be raised on farm payments in the Bill, but also on other agriculture issues that Brexit threatens: the import of fertilisers and other crop treatment products; the import of animal feed; the export of the high-quality produce we create in Scotland; the protection of the domestic market, which has been raised, from poor quality US produce; maintaining sanitary and phytosanitary standards; and protection from GM incursions.
Brexit’s Pandora’s box is open and the furies are taking flight. What hope remains for England is unclear, but Scotland has an option that we are likely to exercise soon. In the meantime, let us pass the Bill. Let us legislate in haste and amend at leisure. Let us get on with the business of keeping farmers and crofters in business, at least for the next wee while. Let us see if we can get to the other business in good time to avoid another round of disaster legislation.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make what is, in essence, my second maiden speech—or maiden speech 2.0, to coin a modern phrase—and for the indulgence of the Chair in according a freer than usual range. Having been asked by the great British public to find my happiness elsewhere for the past two and a half years, I am delighted and grateful to be given the opportunity by the good people of Eddisbury to have another go.
I would also like to acknowledge the contribution made by my predecessor Antoinette Sandbach during her own tenure in Eddisbury. As I discovered during the recent election, Antoinette is a passionate and committed campaigner, no more so than when speaking up on issues close to her heart. In particular, Members will recall her moving and powerful pleas to improve services for those who suffer baby loss. Our respective political paths may have diverged, but I want to take this opportunity to thank Antoinette for her service, and to wish her and her family well for the future.
My return to Parliament at this election has been rather less dramatic than my initial entry and exit. During the 2008 by-election, Fleet Street decamped to Crewe and Nantwich to dissect what became a national test for both Gordon Brown and David Cameron. In the end, Labour’s class war campaign was roundly rejected. Within days, I found myself at Westminster in the Opposition Chief Whip’s office being inducted by Patrick, now Lord, McLoughlin. The only other person present in the room was the then Member for Henley, now Prime Minister, who was there to head off to the Chiltern Hundreds, he having been recently elected as Mayor of London. Little did we both know that just over a decade later we would be back on the same Benches, both representing new constituencies with majorities the polar opposite of the ones we had when we first met.
Losing my seat in 2017 by all of 48 votes, after three recounts, was also a far from benign experience, and not one I am looking to repeat. While formatively humbling and professionally devastating, it did enable me to enjoy those precious early years with our fourth child, Nell, as well as opening up new roles for me to continue my mission to support struggling children and families, namely as chair of Cafcass—the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—and chair of the newly formed National Child Safeguarding Board.
Eddisbury is one of those mystery seats that many people, including Members of this House, would struggle to place on a map. But as someone who has lived in Eddisbury, home to me and my family for 35 years, I am confident that it is Britain’s best kept secret. Named after a pre-Norman conquest shire hundred and the hill up on the sandstone ridge that runs down its spine, Eddisbury occupies the bulk of the Cheshire plain, nestled between the Peak district to the east and the Welsh hills to the west. It has a proud history of dairy farming that to this day is the bedrock of the local economy; the source of about 3% of the UK’s dairy products, including the famous Cheshire cheese.
Eddisbury farmers have found it tough going in a climate of market volatility and uncertainty about their future. That is why this Bill, and the Agriculture Bill set out in the Queen’s Speech, are such crucial measures. They need to recognise and maintain the high food safety, farming and animal welfare standards we have worked hard to achieve, while ensuring we have greater control over farm practices in Eddisbury and right across the UK. We must use the year ahead to provide the dairy and wider agriculture industry with the longer term clarity, support and freedom they need to invest, grow and prosper. If we genuinely back British farming, whether it be reducing food miles or tackling climate change, our farmers can deliver.
In contrast to the patchwork of fields, interrupted by the criss-crossing of canal boats, is the town of Winsford. With a population of over 30,000, well-situated close to the M6 and connected to the west coast main line, Winsford has come a long way since a salt industry was established there along the River Weaver in the 1830s. Now a logistics and manufacturing base, Winsford has over 4,000 people employed on the Winsford industrial estate, including Tiger Trailers, Rolls-Royce and Compass Minerals to name but a few. Its town centre, like many, is in dire need of renewal, and I look forward to working with the Government, and Cheshire West and Chester Council, to help revitalise a much needed commercial and community space that local residents can be proud of.
Winsford is also home to some amazing charities run with the help of armies of volunteers, such as the NeuroMuscular Centre of Excellence—where I held my surgery last week—St Luke’s Cheshire Hospice and Home-Start Cheshire, of which I am a patron.
Eddisbury boasts a scattering of resplendent villages, from Farndon, Bunbury and Tattenhall to Audlem, Tarporley and Malpas, not forgetting Tarvin, Waverton, Wrenbury, Acton, Barrow, Tilston, Kelsall and Church Minshull— among many others. They thrive through the vibrancy and activity of local people, who care deeply about their community, yet they can become isolated without good connectivity with the world around them, whether that is through reliable and regular rural bus services, road networks in a decent, pothole-free condition, easy and timely access to GP services, or better—much better—broadband.
Eddisbury also has an enticing array of entertainment on offer, being home to Oulton Park racetrack, which hosts the British Superbike championship, Delamere forest, Cheshire’s largest area of woodland—where I confess I once watched Rick Astley in concert—the majestic English Heritage site of Beeston Castle, CarFest North at Bolesworth, and the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power. Eddisbury is no sleepy backwater and we have plans to play our part in the north-west in levelling up our nation, whether that is economically, socially or potentially even politically, with the now inevitable relocation of the House of Lords to Cheshire.
You will know too, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my time in Parliament has been very much shaped by my lifelong passion and determination to improve the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. I am reminded of the words I used during my first maiden speech to describe my motivation for speaking up for kids who need the most help:
“Having spent the past 25 years living with, and helping care for, many foster children, and the past decade working in the care system, I know only too well the fundamental importance of putting children first and giving them the childhood that they deserve.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 477, c. 747.]
I see no reason to alter a single word. Indeed, my late mother, Alex, who opened up our home to over 90 foster children, instilled these virtues in me from an early age and helped to guide me through my nearly five years as Minister for Children and Families. It was therefore encouraging to see the commitments made in the Conservative manifesto, not just to our farmers but to children’s social care: the creation of family hubs; the prioritisation of loving, stable homes for children who find themselves in care; and a review of our care system more generally. I advise the Front Bench team that a blueprint already exists for delivering an excellent children’s social care system, entitled—you’ve guessed it, Madam Deputy Speaker—“Putting children first”, which the Government published during my time as children’s Minister in July 2016.
Since then, we have seen the number of good and outstanding children’s services rise markedly, albeit from a low base, and the number of inadequate judgments fall by nearly half. However, we all know that the pressure on the system remains, and with around 400,000 of the 12 million children in England in the children’s social care system at any one time, this is an area of public policy that we simply cannot ignore.
The good news is that the dedication, compassion and professionalism of those on the frontline of social work is there for all to see, but what they need, too, is the freedom and support that enables them to innovate in their practice, to use their professional judgment to make good decisions on behalf of children placed under their wing, and to grow trusted relationships with families in need of their help. Policy should promote such a culture, not stifle it. Only then can we have the confidence that every one of those 400,000 children will get the right level and quality of intervention, protection, placement and planning of their future when they need it, for as long as they need it. In doing so, we can continue to build the foundations that break down what all too often is a destructive cycle. Let us unleash every child’s potential.
In acknowledging that I have strayed a little from the subject matter of this debate, I end by saying to all the people of Eddisbury, however you voted, and to all those children who do not have a voice but need to be heard: I am here for you—after all, that is my duty.
It is a privilege to follow Edward Timpson. I recall the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008—the weather was quite nice, and I congratulate him on his first victory. I spent some time in Eddisbury in, I think, ’99 for the by-election, when Stephen O’Brien, his predecessor but one, was first elected, so I know where it is—there is a good chippy in Winsford, if I remember correctly. I genuinely mean it when I say that the hon. Gentleman was an excellent children’s Minister. This will massively hamper any rise he may subsequently make, but if the Prime Minister should be thinking of a reshuffle, he could look no further than him. I also thank him for paying tribute to his excellent and very principled predecessor, Antoinette Sandbach, my former hon. Friend.
Let me make a little confession. Some years ago, before Brexit was even a thing—back in the day when the Prime Minister thought it was madness to even countenance leaving the European Union—I said that I could see one advantage in the United Kingdom departing the EU: I could see how we could spend the common agricultural policy money better than it is often spent through the current system. That does not mean that I predicted that a future Government would spend it better, but I could see how they could—that is an important caveat.
The Bill is necessary and provides a modicum of certainty for farmers as we leave the European Union in just a few days’ time. It permits a small island of temporary predictability in a sea of uncertainty. It kicks the can a few yards down the lane, but it will do nothing to disguise the chasm that is opening up for farmers as we leave the EU. The Government believe that they have a mandate to “get Brexit done”, but nowhere is the nonsense behind that statement laid bare more than in the case of our farming industry.
I will tell the House what Brexit has done: according to the Secretary of State last week at the Oxford farming conference, it has done for the basic payments scheme—which constitutes 85% of the income of the average livestock farmer—starting in less than 12 months. It has done for free access for British farmers to their most important export market—90% of Cumbria’s farm exports are to the European single market. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to be believed, it has also done for our alignment with the single market and will therefore usher in a new era of red tape, costs on farm businesses and non-tariff barriers to trade.
The idea that a 12-month stay of execution for farmers equates to certainty is, frankly, laughable. Even if the Government were to make a commitment for the whole Parliament, anyone who thinks that even five years constitutes the long term in farming cannot be taken seriously.
The Government’s stated position—reiterated again at the Oxford farming conference—is that the BPS will be phased out over a seven-year period from next January. I am privileged to chair the all-party group on hill farming and I was very pleased to hear the shadow Secretary of State, Luke Pollard, refer to the importance of hill farming to our country as a whole. In our view, it is a dangerous thing to start phasing out the basic payment when we have yet to clarify what will replace it: the ELMS—the environmental land management scheme—which will be available for some farmers in 2024, we are told, but not all farmers until 2028.
With all due respect, farmers lack confidence in Governments of all colours and their ability to deliver an as yet undefined new payment on time because they have consistently failed to deliver existing payments over the last two decades. Being told for certain that you will lose 85% of your income while being offered the dubious possibility that you might have something else in future is unlikely to get Britain’s farmers dancing in the street.
The Bill is a necessary one-year fulfilment of the obligations of the withdrawal agreement. It is not a real commitment to farmers. Even if the Government were to bodge together extensions of one year at a time for the inevitable slippage on the roll-out of ELMS, what does that do for the ability of farmers to plan for the medium term, let alone the long term?
Why does this matter? It matters because over the transition period of seven years, the Government’s plan will reduce Britain’s capacity to feed itself in the future. We think far too little about food security. Some 50% of the food that we consume is imported. Twenty years ago, the figure was more like 35%. It is an extremely worrying trend. If the ability of farmers in the UK to make a living and compete is further undermined, this situation will only get worse. That will be bad for the environment, for British farmers and for the security of our country, as we cut ourselves off from our most important trading partner.
We need to think of the bigger picture and the long-term impact. You can tick the boxes with legislation such as this and “get Brexit done”, but that is a slogan with a heavy price tag—a price tag that in the case of our farmers could be fatal. The production of food must be considered a public good, but it is certain that the loss of BPS with an as yet undefined replacement will see people leave the industry. Some will flee before it gets too bad, others will be forced out when they cannot make ends meet. To put it bluntly, if we are to deliver public goods through farming, we need to make sure there are some farmers left to deliver those public goods by 2028. Without those farmers, who will deliver biodiversity programmes? Who will deliver natural flood management schemes? Who will deliver growth and maintain the woodlands and peatland necessary to absorb CO2? In Cumbria, including the lakes and the Yorkshire dales, who will maintain our footpaths and our rare historic breeds? Who will beautifully keep and present the landscapes that inspired Wordsworth and inspire 16 million people to visit us every single year?
This morning, the National Trust held an event downstairs. It was keen to show what it was doing on the environment. It has plans across its 500 properties to plant more trees and thereby be the lungs of the United Kingdom. There are many groups and landowners doing lots of things to help to tackle climate change.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Farmers are at the forefront of tackling climate change—they see the climate changing before their eyes, they are the eyewitnesses to our changing planet and the damage being done. In the uplands, in Cumbria and elsewhere, it is they who have the ability to help to protect the towns and villages from flooding by planting more trees, managing the land and more generally ensuring the carbon sink that will help to protect our planet. Without them, who will maintain the backdrop to the tourism economy in Cumbria, which is worth £3 billion a year and employs 60,000 people? Indeed, 80% of the working-age population of the Lake district currently earn their living there.
How can farmers be expected to invest in the long term if they can only look ahead one year at a time? Like most farmers, I accept that in the long term BPS needs to be replaced by public payment for public goods— no argument there—but “public good” needs to be defined widely enough for farmers to make a living, especially farmers in the uplands of Cumbria. I am not saying, therefore, that we should scrap ELMS and keep BPS forever, but I am saying that the Government should not delude themselves into thinking they can make radical change as seamlessly as they appear to think.
The Bill is necessary and we will support it—not just not oppose it—but it does not answer the need to pave the way for a new system. The Government cannot be permitted to do the bare minimum to fulfil the obligations of the withdrawal agreement, with no thought to the impact in real terms. The Government must protect British farming and therefore the environment—and therefore food security, rare breeds, heritage, landscape, our tourism economy—so will the Government now commit to transition arrangements that allow farmers to survive that transition? In short, I say to the Government: do not remove a penny of BPS from anyone until ELMS is available for everyone.
I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to his place. It is nice to have a fellow west country MP there and I look forward to working with him on the Agriculture Bill and the fisheries Bill and, importantly, on putting provisions on angling into the latter.
I am pleased to have been called to speak on Second Reading of this very necessary Bill. The Government’s manifesto commitment to invest £3 billion in our farmers and farming communities over the lifetime of this Parliament is to be welcomed. Continuity is so important to our farmers now, with all the uncertainty in the marketplace, and the Government have proved again that they are committed to our farmers and our farming communities. We are moving from a rather ridiculous system where people are paid for land rather than public goods. Farmers in the UK receive £3.5 billion annually in farming support under the common agricultural policy. More than 80% of the support is paid directly to farmers, based broadly on land and land management. A lot of that is taken up by hedge funds and other financial organisations, which receive an annualised income. We have to move away from that system to something that supports our farmers and farming industry.
The previous CAP had nothing in place for soil erosion. We lose 2 billion tonnes of top soil into our rivers every year. We need a replacement to ensure that that does not happen. There is very little in there about habitats, save for the rather dysfunctional element of pillar 2 of the CAP funding; very little about production, other than silly things about people having to grow three crops; and nothing about catchment farming. I hope we are moving away from a system where our farmers have to map their land. I have dealt with countless constituents who have brought cases to me where their topographical land management has been done from an aerial viewpoint and where the numbers the RPA says they have they do not actually have. Moreover, many of my moorland farmers have been waiting three years for payments under pillar 2—the higher stewardship element. That is unacceptable. We need to move away from the historic system to a better system.
What do we want from a new agricultural scheme? I am no expert, but I tend to listen to people who are. I have regular meetings with farmers in my constituency of North Cornwall. They are the custodians of the countryside and understand what they want from a future agricultural system.
The National Farmers Union has a clear idea of what it wants from the changes, and its sister organisation back home, the Ulster Farmers Union, of which I am a member, has the same ideas on going forward. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the importance of touching base with our farmers and whose who own the land. How important is it that the Government listen to the NFU and the UFU?
It is vital. My hon. Friend speaks from a position of strength. He is always in the Chamber speaking up for his farmers and fishermen and he makes a relevant point about the Government listening to the NFU.
My farmers want a less bureaucratic system and one that is locally administered, has local support, supports younger people to get involved in farming, supports more tenant farms and recognises that local factors and local contributions can be submitted. They want a scheme that supports diversification in farming through the planning system to allow them to diversify into other projects. As the shadow Secretary of State said, they want to move away from having to supply around the country to more localised supply chains and localised control.
I want to explore what “public good” might mean. I am proud to have the Camel cycle trail running through my constituency, from Padstow to Bodmin. It gets 500,000 visitors a year. We could do much more in the “public good” element in the Agriculture Bill to expand cycleways across the country—I am hoping there might be Members on both sides of the House who want to create a cycleway all the way from John o’Groats to Land’s End in Cornwall.
There is much to consider. We have a footpath network, which is administered by the local authority currently, that is not fit for purpose. The Government have an opportunity to take some control over that and for farmers to be paid for upkeep and better access to the countryside, be that cycleways or footpaths.
When I first became a Member of Parliament, I had the pleasure of taking part in a soil inquiry in the House of Lords, and heard about all the good-quality topsoil that was being flushed into the rivers every year. It struck me that farmers were investing in their soil but receiving no benefit from that investment. It would be nice to see some benefit resulting from improved soil quality.
Perhaps it would be an idea for farmers to consider new, innovative ways of looking after their soil, such as min-till farming. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would offer an opportunity for the future of farming and soil fertility?
Absolutely. One of the issues that we discussed during the inquiry was how we could maintain better soil access. He is no longer in the Chamber, but the former Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—or hopefully the new Chairman; I know that he is standing for re-election—mentioned the importance of planting more trees around rivers and ensuring that some of that soil erosion does not happen.
When I had the pleasure of visiting a higher-level stewardship scheme in Tregirls, near Padstow, I learnt about the reintroduction of the grey partridge—its numbers had diminished over the years, but the populations were growing—and the work that was being done to provide nesting grounds for corn buntings. I also had the pleasure recently of meeting representatives of the Westcountry Rivers Trust, who showed me some of the work that they were doing with upper catchment farming. I believe that if we can take the slurry pits out of some of our rivers, we will be able to improve water quality as well as the environmental management of farms. Those were joint projects involving both the trust and South West Water, and I think that they will provide a good basis for a catchment-sensitive farming package.
I want to say something about the upper catchment in particular, and about the spawning grounds for salmon and sea trout. We have a big problem when our rivers are in spate and all the water goes into the river very quickly. The water then tends to flush out to sea very quickly as well, wiping out all the biodiversity in the river. I think that we should invest much more in our salmon and sea trout grounds so that their spawning beds are there for the future and the species are returned to the river as far as is as possible.
The Angling Trust said this about the Agriculture Bill:
“We believe this Bill presents a once in a generation opportunity to address the impact agriculture has on our freshwater environment and, therefore, on healthy fish populations. We welcome the emphasis on good soil management and restoration. We will be looking for a clear framework to effectively manage pollution from agriculture and from residential pollution and to ensure that any future…payments scheme incentivises good land management in relation to water and penalises poor practices. This must be supported by effective regulation and advice to farmers”.
I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether the amounts for future years can be paid in one go. I intervened on the Secretary of State about this. One of my local farmers said to me recently, “If we know that the payments will be made over a longer period, would it not be wise to give farmers the option to have them rolled up into one payment so that they can invest in their farms at an early stage?” I thought that that was quite a sensible idea, because it would allow farmers to invest in their businesses when they needed to do so.
May we also have a scheme that allows payments on day one? I have engaged in numerous discussions with the Rural Payments Agency about that. It would be nice if we wrapped up this discussion very early so that farmers can receive direct payments on day one of the new legislation.
What am I looking for as the Bill progresses? I am looking for a locally administered scheme, with payments agreed from the previous year and made on day one, to be run in conjunction with organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Environment Agency, the Soil Association, the Westcountry Rivers Trust and the Woodland Trust. We could bring in Sustrans to look into whether a cycleway is a possibility. I am passionate about cycling, and I think that we have a real opportunity to open up our countryside so that more people have access to it.
We could also work alongside local anglers. Yesterday, the Norwegian fisheries Minister and I discussed what was happening to fisheries and agriculture in Norway. The Norwegians impose an obligation in regard to boats and quotas—financial organisations cannot invest in them. We might well want to consider that in the context of agriculture.
I am getting the nod from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall wind up my speech. Our farmers are going through monumental change, and I am pleased that the Government are investing in and supporting them. We have the ability to improve drastically on the existing model of the common agricultural policy and I look forward to being involved in that. We should show the public exactly how good our farmers are. We know about higher animal welfare standards, but it would be good if farmers were given an incentive to invite schoolkids on to farms to show them some of the great practices in which they are engaged.
I am happy to support the Bill.
It is the greatest honour for me to stand here representing the people of Angus and the Scottish National party. My greatest ambition is to do the very best that I can for the people who have placed their faith in me, and also to play my part in delivering our country from the United Kingdom and back into the international community of nations. I thank all those in Angus who voted to send me to this place, and assure all those who did not of my unconditional service to all. I am so grateful to my amazing SNP Angus team, who worked tirelessly and in all weathers to ensure that we got the job done.
I must also pay tribute to my predecessor, Kirstene Hair, who represented Angus for two and a half years. In that time she sought to advance a range of important issues, the principal one being the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. That is a cause of vital importance to the people in Angus and one that I have already taken up with the Prime Minister. Kirstene fought a hard campaign to be returned to this place, and I wish her—and, more important, her staff—every success in the future.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will of course recall with fondness my predecessor, and your former colleague, Mike Weir, who represented Angus with distinction from 2001 until 2017. I got to know Mike much better over the last three months as we canvassed the streets of Angus together. It is a measure of his sense of duty that after 16 years in this place, he still campaigns tirelessly for the people of Angus and the cause of Scottish independence.
I am delighted to follow Scott Mann and to be making my maiden speech as we consider the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill, which relates directly to the challenges and opportunities facing many in my constituency. However, if the Secretary of State were still in the Chamber, I would suggest to her that the notion that the Bill affords any reassurance and continuity to farmers is for the birds.
My constituency of Angus showcases the best of Scotland’s landscapes, with some of the richest farmland anywhere on these islands to the east, and the wild uplands, glens and mountains to the west—a haven for wildlife and outdoor pursuits. Our prime farmland extends right up to our dramatic coastline. If, Madam Deputy Speaker, you should ever be lucky enough to find yourself in the picture-postcard hamlet of Auchmithie, you may well see farmers ploughing along the clifftops amid the breathtaking spectacle of our unique landscape.
It is, however, the people of Angus who give life to those landscapes. Angus has a thriving voluntary sector, and there are many outstanding examples of community capacity taking control of key local issues, often in support of our most vulnerable. A healthy rivalry also exists between the burghs but, heeding my strong sense of self-preservation, I will resist airing any views on which might be the best! So, in no particular order, I will highlight just some of Angus’s contribution to innovation, the arts, culinary excellence and Scottish history.
Brechin was the birthplace of Sir Robert Watson-Watt, whose discoveries led to the invention of radar, and the Davidson family, of Harley Davidson motorcycles, hailed from nearby hamlet of Aberlemno. Arbroath, the largest settlement and a much-visited coastal town, is the birthplace of Alexander Shanks, inventor of the lawnmower, and James Chalmers, who created the concept of the adhesive postage stamp. Arbroath, also a retail centre, is home to the famous Arbroath smokie—the delicious smoked haddock delicacy which enjoys the EU’s protected geographical status.
Forfar is the vibrant county town in the heart of the constituency. It is home to significant manufacturing and retail, and Angus Council’s headquarters. But the jewel in Forfar’s crown is the delicious, iconic meat-filled pastry crescent, the bridie. With all due respect to the six Cornish Tories—one is in the Chamber—your pasties are pleasant, but our bridies are brilliant!
Kirriemuir knocks it out of the park with its famous sons including Sir Hugh Munro, who recorded every one of the 283 Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet, 10 of which are in Angus; Bon Scott, the lead singer of AC/DC; and J.M. Barrie, whose works, including “Peter Pan”, the House needs no further introduction to. Montrose is the birthplace of the acclaimed Scots writer Violet Jacob and home to the amazing natural tidal basin—a haven for birds and marine life where, at the appropriate sunset, someone may just be lucky enough to witness the most beautiful array of colours. In addition to its retail centre, Montrose has long been home to state-of-the-art pharmaceutical manufacturing.
And of course it was in Angus—at Arbroath abbey—that, 700 years ago, the nobles of Scotland became signatories to the declaration of Arbroath that was sent to Pope John XXII, which asserted Scotland’s position in the world as an independent kingdom. While this work remains in progress, I believe a satisfactory conclusion to Scotland’s position in the world is close at hand.
I am touched to have been so enthusiastically welcomed by Angus SNP colleagues as their candidate in the first instance, and by the wider electorate thereafter.
Scotland is a country that has always looked outward and welcomed others. My late father was Irish—born in partition, into the grinding poverty of British maladministration. He came to Scotland, working as an agricultural contractor, with his business reaching across the rich farmlands of Fife, Clackmannanshire, Perthshire and Angus. My enduring memory of him was his equal comfort in speaking with the laird or with the labourer, showing each the same respect. I have always sought to emulate his humanity and humility.
Separately, my mother also fled Ireland’s poverty as a young adult. The refuge that she and her family found some 70 years ago was in Forfar, the county town of my constituency. Madam Deputy Speaker, my mother today is what you might call a big age, but the pride that she has in the fact that her youngest child is now the Member of Parliament for Forfar is not insubstantial. My family are indebted to, and a product of, Scotland’s hospitality.
Like many children of immigrant parents, I was brought up to appreciate that while no task is beneath me, no target is beyond me, and that though no one is more worthy than I am, I am no better than anyone else. As we say in Scotland, “We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.” And so it is with my country. Scotland is no better than any other nation but, let us be clear, we are not any worse either.
The people of Scotland are watching the events that happen in this place, and it is they who will be the final arbiters of Scotland’s constitutional future. I look forward to celebrating with them in their wisdom and their ambition.
I conclude on a personal note. My children and my family have been tremendously supportive to me in my long journey to this Parliament. I must, however, express my limitless thanks to my wife. It is by the gift of her strength and kindness that I was able to give up my job in the Ministry of Defence 13 years ago and then go to university, become a councillor, start my business and disappear for months on end campaigning. Over these long years, she has kept our family’s show on the road.
While I am here in this place, I must work within the system. I will do so in the service of my constituents and my country. I hope at all times to be collegiate and pragmatic, but do not confuse that with any acceptance of London rule. I will always seek to be constructive and courteous in transacting our business down here, but do not mistake that for submission or fondness for the status quo. I and my SNP colleagues are here to settle up, not settle down. We are here only to help to open the door to a progressive independent future for our country. And when Scotland walks through, into the progressive future of independence and the normality that that brings, the honour will fall to me and my SNP colleagues here gathered to firmly close the door of this place behind us and leave for the last time, taking Scotland’s brighter, independent future with us. [Applause.]
It is a pleasure to follow Dave Doogan. Making a maiden speech is terrifying; following one, particularly one as good as that, equally daunting. I commend the hon. Gentleman for saying that he will do his very best; that should apply to us all. He of course thanked voters and his predecessor, Kirstene Hair, who was a lovely and wonderful Member of this House. It is deeply important for all of us to heap praise on our predecessors, no matter how difficult it may be—it certainly was when I made my maiden speech—because we are all united here in doing the best we can for our constituents.
I liked listening to the hon. Member’s description of the landscape, and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle reference was particularly dear to my heart. When I look at Angus I think of the second-best breed of British cattle, the Aberdeen Angus, which from Herefordshire is not a difficult one for me to tease him about. I look forward to his maintaining the status quo for at least the next five years here, and I wish him every success with his career, which I suspect will go from strength to strength.
Colleagues should bear in mind that declaring one’s interests is very important in these debates—in fact, the most important thing. I am the lucky recipient of a very small cheque from the RPA once a year for my smallholding in Herefordshire.
I absolutely reject the purpose of subsidy in all fields except agriculture, because although our farmers produce the finest food in the world, they do so from a playing field that is anything but level, so we need to help them maintain the skills necessary to provide the food security that we may need at any time. It is easy to forget that epidemics such as foot and mouth, which hit our country in 2001, can happen anywhere in the world. We have also seen bluetongue and avian influenza, for example. Our food supply is always vulnerable. One cannot learn how to farm quickly; it takes years—generations—and great skill and appropriate qualifications. That is why, for the security of our country, we need to support our agricultural industry.
It is worth it. We put £3.5 billion into agriculture every year, but our food exports alone are worth £22 billion. We are 60% self-sufficient; 60% of the food we eat is produced here. I believe that the future for agriculture is that it will provide a healthier diet for our country. So as we will not only be providing the security that we need and a wonderful export market, but saving ourselves a fortune through the NHS, by ensuring that our population are healthier, better-fed and thriving. Of course, we can do that only if we control what comes into our country according to its quality and the production methods used.
That, if nothing else, is a good reason to support the Bill, but I am pleased to say that there is more. I, too, have had problems with the RPA—oh my goodness! I have also given it a fair few problems of my own, but it has always handled them extremely well and politely. However, the burden that the RPA lands on farmers, such as the one in my constituency who had to undertake the re-mapping of every hedge on his farm because the data had been lost, is horrendous. Having the power not to have to follow the EU’s rules will be tremendously positive for all those working for the RPA, and we should not be looking at spending more money on it, but making its job easier by demanding less from it. I look forward to that as one of the future steps to easing the burden on our constituents and on farmers, by ensuring that the RPA regulations are more straightforward.
In any change to agriculture, the biggest thing is that we take the public with us. Food labelling is therefore the most fundamental thing to get right. The problem with food labelling is that our eyesight is not necessarily good enough to read the small writing necessary to include all the information we need on small amounts of food. That is particularly true of restaurant menus, on which we cannot see where, say, the chicken has come from. That is just taken as the restaurant’s corporate responsibility.
The problem is that, until we conquer the challenge of industrial food production, we will not be able to protect standards, even if we want to, so I urge the Government to look carefully at how to ensure the public are properly informed. I suggest they pay particular attention to private Member’s Bill No. 17, which seeks to address this issue in great detail not only in the labelling of food but in how meat is graded.
One problem we have with meat is that we care about how fat the animal is and how much meat and muscle it has, but we do not care about what it tastes like. That is a fundamental mistake when we expect people to eat it. We should be doing a great deal more on eating quality, as the Canadians and the Australians do. There is a huge benefit to eating quality, because the calmer and more placid the animal, the better it tastes. A calm and placid animal is considerably safer to have on a farm, which means the risk to farmers of being killed by their cattle—that risk is particularly serious for older farmers—is considerably reduced.
Nearly all the people who die on farms in animal accidents are farmers aged over 60. They die, whereas younger farmers are able to recover. We lose about seven farmers a year to such deaths, and we could do a great deal more just by having better-tasting meat. What a great success that would be.
On the subject of saving lives, I come to chlorinated chicken. I have a huge number of poultry producers in my constituency, and the nightmare for them is campylobacter, which causes food poisoning that kills about six people a year. If we chlorinate our chicken, we should save those lives. Do not be fooled by the anti-chlorination argument. There are terrible problems with hormones in beef, which I will not touch on—I will leave it to those who wish to criticise American food production—but chlorinated chicken is not the monster it is made out to be.
Richard Drax spoke about chlorinated chicken and how we put chlorine in our swimming pools, and so on. The main point to which people object is that chlorinating chicken disguises the poor welfare standards that lead to the amount of germs and bacteria in the meat that is presented to us.
Order. I remind Members that the Bill is about payments to farmers and not much wider farming issues. I am sure the hon. Lady has made her point.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you have completely torpedoed my response because, of course, the only sector that is not subsidised is the pig and poultry sector. It is worth bearing in mind how long chickens live in those broiler houses: normally 29 days.
Having studied agricultural economics many years ago, the last time I saw a very healthy-looking animal was on my hon. Friend’s farm. It strikes me that farmers are not just raising cattle or growing crops but are doing an awful lot of other activities that maintain our environment and maintain the health and beauty of the countryside. Does he agree that if we had control over the direct payments we make to our farmers, we would have better control over their activities and the levels of profit they can make?
I absolutely agree. Another element to direct payments is that, by paying our farmers, to some extent we control what they are doing. I hope we will get away from that when we cease to be controlled by the common agricultural policy, but it does mean that, as taxpayers, we have a say in the beauty of our countryside. Of course, when one looks at the size of the tourist industry or, indeed, any of the other industries that live off our views or our environment, we see that this is a tremendous advantage. That is why it is critical that the Bill is passed.
I thank my fellow farmer for giving way. He mentioned that it is significant that farmers develop their skills over many years and often many generations. When considering direct payments, does he agree it is important that farmers are able to plan for their future by knowing what subsidies they are likely to receive so that they can tailor their farming practices accordingly?
My hon. Friend makes a vital point, and it is why the Government have a seven-year tail to this policy. The Bill does not do as much as she and I would both like it to do in delivering certainty. That is a huge problem in my constituency. I have 10,500 people working on farms in my constituency, 88% of which is farmland. Some £23.2 million a year comes into my constituency in subsidy, and it is critical to those farm businesses that they know exactly what is happening.
One problem I face is the current trend away from eating meat, which is a disaster for British agriculture. I was stopped during the general election campaign by someone who said, “Mr Wiggin, you don’t like vegetarians.” I said, “That’s not strictly true, but I do have an issue with this desire to go to a plant-based diet, because it means importing soya from Brazil. It means living with the big pharmaceutical companies determining our diet.”
I am keen that we get back to direct payments for livestock farmers, particularly in Herefordshire, and that we return to British food for British voters, constituents and consumers, so I thoroughly look forward to seeing this Bill become law, and to the Agriculture Bill that follows, so that we can get a lot of these details on to the statute book for the benefit of all concerned.
It is a pleasure to follow Bill Wiggin. I agree with a lot of the points he raises, particularly on the importance of maintaining a level playing field for our farmers, both in trade and, as I will discuss, within the UK internal market in so far as it exists.
Seeing the crowded Government Benches reminds me that
The Minister can sit easy, because I confirm that Plaid Cymru will not be opposing the Bill today. In so far as the Bill is being introduced to ensure that farmers in Wales who are participating in the basic payment scheme in 2020 can be paid from December, we fully support it. I am glad the Bill has been introduced to offer some certainty to farmers in Wales.
I am also glad that we have this opportunity to discuss the broader elements of the Bill. This Bill and the Agriculture Bill, which we will discuss soon enough, will largely determine the future of agricultural policy across the four nations of the UK for years to come. The Minister will have previously heard me preach about the need to replace some aspects of the common agricultural policy, particularly some of the associated frameworks that, taken together, have provided the financial and legislative basis upon which the four national Governments of the UK have formulated their agricultural policies for some years.
I raise this today because, particularly when it comes to funding, divergences and distortions can arise if we are not careful. As the four UK countries develop their agricultural policies, the question of how they will co-operate to ensure the effective functioning of the internal market in these islands looms ever larger. I am sure that greater flexibility and a more bespoke agricultural policy for each of the four nations will be championed in parliamentary debates, and rightly so, but we should also ensure that some of the CAP’s objectives in preventing excessive market distortion and maintaining a level playing field for our farmers within the countries of the UK do not fall by the wayside as we transition to this new settlement. Before I am challenged on this by Scottish National party Members, let me make it clear that that is not to say that we should prohibit policy divergence of any kind. Rather, I am trying to say that the four Governments should come together to agree financial and regulatory parameters to facilitate the functioning of the internal market, while allowing each—
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Do we not need structures that enhance joint decision making, rather than just Westminster making decisions on behalf of the four countries?
My hon. Friend has put it far more impeccably than I could. The important thing is having co-decision making on these issues and the agreements being jointly made between the four Governments of the UK, so as to ensure that the internal market is not undermined. Such an endeavour would require us to tackle issues such as the principles underpinning agricultural policies, the quanta of funding that can be allocated to different objectives and the specific challenges relating to cross-border holdings, of which the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) and for Brecon and Radnorshire will be aware. We can come to some sort of agreement on all these measures, which is what I am trying to emphasise this afternoon. I am not pretending that this will be easy, far from it, but I am saying that it is deeply important that we do reach some sort of arrangement. Frameworks currently exist and they address the issues and questions I have just raised. They ensure that the national Governments can base their policies on a set of common objectives. In other words, they are boundaries within which the four nations and the Governments of the British Isles can tailor their policies to address the specific challenges that face their respective industries, while preventing harmful market distortion and disruption to supply chains. These questions need to be addressed anew to ensure that unfair advantages do not arise and that the internal market is not compromised. Many of the issues will have to be addressed as part of the discussions on the UK Agriculture Bill and in collaboration with the devolved Governments, but this Bill does offer us a brief opportunity to raise some questions about the funding framework, to which I hope the Minister can respond as he concludes the debate.
As I have mentioned, the Bill allows BPS payments to come from domestic UK funds, and in that sense it is mainly a housekeeping exercise. One question that has been raised by stakeholders in Wales is whether the Bill requires devolved Governments to spend these moneys in this way or whether they have discretion as to how to spend them. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point. The Bill also raises some questions about long-term arrangements for UK agricultural funding. My hon. Friend Jonathan Edwards, and the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), have touched on the need for multiannual financial frameworks. As the Secretary of State mentioned in her opening remarks, the Bill also implements a lot of the findings of the Bew review. It has been received warmly across the House, but in Wales there are severe concerns about the allocations and the decision that the review came to on the UK funding allocations. For example, the Farmers Union of Wales has pointed out that the total difference between average annual Scottish and Welsh farm payments has now diverged to about £16,200, which leaves the average farm payment for Scotland at about 175% of the average Welsh payment. This is not me begrudging farmers in Scotland something they deserve; the question I am raising is: is there not a case to be made for Welsh farmers receiving an equivalent amount of funding, so as to ensure that we maintain that level playing field that the hon. Member for North Herefordshire mentioned?
The distortions that the allocations outlined by the Bew review have made clear surely highlight the need for a proper financial framework, agreed by all four Governments, that secures long-term funding for agriculture across the four devolved nations and is based on a fair and objective formula that minimises market distortion. I have grave reservations that the Bill, on its own, will not do that, so I would welcome any insight that the Minister can offer on how the UK Government intend to tackle this. Furthermore, by what intergovernmental mechanism will these questions be resolved? If any disputes arise, how will they be settled? Do the Government acknowledge something that I raised in the Committee considering the previous Agriculture Bill, which is that some sort of more formalised intergovernmental agreement system, based on co-decision making and co-operation, could make multiannual financial settlements easier to implement and would ensure that we avoid the sort of market distortion that unions in Wales are so fearful of, which will ultimately make Welsh farmers worse off?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, may I congratulate Dave Doogan on giving an excellent maiden speech, which set the bar high for me? I feel humbled and privileged to be here this afternoon, serving as the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. I am only the 17th person to have that honour, and it is an honour and a responsibility I will never forget. It is also very special for me to be one of the first three female Conservative Members of Parliament from Wales, and it is a pleasure to have both the others with me on the Benches this afternoon. Together we have made a mark in history that is long overdue, but very welcome none the less. I also thank my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton for bringing in the throat sweets that are keeping me going this afternoon. I am delighted to have my first opportunity to speak in this House on this particular legislation, and to follow my hon. Friend Bill Wiggin and Ben Lake.
I represent one of the largest beef and sheep farming constituencies in the United Kingdom, and this Bill will directly affect many thousands of my constituents, but I will return to that point in a few moments. Before I go on, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor Jane Dodds. Jane’s brief tenure in this House was marked by her principled and courageous stance. She continued in the long tradition of distinguished Liberal Democrats to represent Brecon and Radnorshire; many Members will remember Roger Williams fondly, and indeed the late Lord Livsey. I was struck during the election campaign by just how many constituents still refer to both Roger’s and Lord Livsey’s passion for Brecon and Radnorshire, something that I fully understand and share. Liberals and Conservatives in Wales have a tendency to fight hard, but there is a trend for co-operation. Indeed, Roger Williams was at one point the landlord of Jonathan Evans, who would serve as the Conservative Member for the constituency between 1992 and 1997. Jonathan left this place for the European Parliament, where, in 2003, he gave me my first job, as a stagiaire in his office in Brussels. That began a long period of job swapping between the Evans and the Jones families. Jonathan would later return to this place as the Member for Cardiff North, a seat once occupied by my father Gwilym, whom I am delighted to see in the Gallery this afternoon with my mother and brother. For me now to occupy Jonathan’s former seat is a somewhat amusing development and puts a new spin on the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”. Chris Davies, my immediate Conservative predecessor, is a man I look up to enormously. Like Lord Livsey, he was an outstanding steward for his constituency. You cannot go into a pub, a livestock market or a coffee shop without someone confirming that they know Chris well and saying what a good person he is. I will strive to be as devoted a champion for my community as Chris was.
I feel enormously fortunate to be in this House today for many reasons but largely because of the area I represent. Brecon and Radnorshire encapsulates everything I am passionate about, particularly farming, books and the military. As the largest constituency in England and Wales, there is an awful lot of Brecon and Radnor to admire. A view that will live in my mind from the election campaign comes from the top of Llanbister, right up in roof of Radnorshire. It is of the rolling green fields below, dissected by the River Ithon and neatly partitioned by hedgerows, but the beauty of that view is in its productivity and what it represents. Those lands are cultivated by farmers who keep us going, and who feed not just our stomachs, but our hearts and souls. I am enormously proud that Brecon and Radnorshire is home to thousands of farmers and farming families, all of whom ensure that our villages and towns have a positive future. In this Chamber, and in this job, I will be devoted to their service, championing what they do to produce world-class food and steward our precious natural environment.
Before I came into this House, I spent my career working for both the National Farmers Union and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but in Brecon and Radnor, we see that farming is the beating heart of Wales. It is not an antiquated sector that belongs to another time; it is a dynamic, interconnected industry that contributes more than £9.5 billion to the UK economy. Providing 58,000 jobs in Wales alone, it catalyses rural Britain. Tourists who flock to constituencies such as mine come because they want to see rolling green hills grazed by sheep and cattle, in a grass-fed, cattle-based system that is good for our health, our economy and, above all, our environment.
Brecon and Radnorshire is not purely farming. We are home to world-class cultural festivals such as Brecon Jazz, the Green Man festival and, indeed, the Hay literary festival. The Hay festival is known to many as the Woodstock of the mind. It is a bastion of literature and independent thinking, and the town itself is, too. With 22 independent bookshops, Hay-on-Wye is paradise for a reader like me. Over the coming years, I hope to welcome many Members to Hay for the festival, but I hope that as they arrive, they will think of the man who put Hay on the map: Richard Booth, the self-appointed king of Hay, who declared Hay an independent kingdom in 1977. One of the most beautiful bookshops in Hay still bears his name. Despite our having lost Richard in August last year, the independent spirit with which he imbued Hay-on-Wye is thriving even now. However, I would like to reassure my colleagues, the Whips on the Front Bench, that I will curb any independent spirit that I might once have had.
It was once said that the first world war might have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but the Falklands war was won on the hills of Brecon. We are a proud garrison town and our military links are obvious from the moment someone drives off the A470, when the Infantry Battle School and Brecon garrison are some of the first things they will see. Although the Brecon Beacons are breathtakingly beautiful, I am proud that our military strength comes directly from the training that they get in our outstanding national park. I wholeheartedly applaud the Government’s efforts to acknowledge the service given by our military personnel. Our bravest deserve nothing but our respect and gratitude, and they can certainly be assured of mine.
There is one military link that I am especially keen to promote. During the election, I was pleased to meet a Major Khusiman Gurung, who served as Gurkha Major of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Regiment. The Gurkhas are well known for their strength in battle, but also for their devoted service to the Crown. With the strong Gurkha community living and working in Brecon, the relationship between Brecon and the Gurkhas is special and ongoing. It was cemented last year, when the town was twinned with Dhampus in Nepal. In many ways, I think it may be slightly easier to get to Nepal than around Brecon and Radnor. I am very grateful to the Gurkha community for their service and look forward to supporting them as their Member of Parliament.
The Bill is small but mighty—much like myself, in many ways. It offers farmers the one thing they need: certainty. Farmers are able to withstand drought, disease and even Government interference, if they are able to plan. As we leave the European Union, this Bill gives the farming sector the confidence it needs to go forward. In the coming weeks and months, we will work closely with the farming sector, not against it. It is only with that sort of approach that we will make any difference to the enormous challenges that this country faces, particularly the impending threat of climate change. It is my firm view that farmers are a tiny part of the problem but an enormous part of the solution.
When I was elected as Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire, I won first prize in the lottery of life. I thank every single one of my constituents—those who put their faith in me and those who did not. It is the honour of my life to serve them all and to serve in this one nation Conservative Government.
I congratulate my hon. Friend
Before I talk about the Bill, I should mention that I am married to a farmer who receives some money from the payments to farmers.
He does deserve them; my hon. Friend is right.
The Bill is narrow in scope but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, it is small but mighty. The Bill in essence fills a legislative gap caused by our leaving the European Union. When we leave, the rural payments from the EU, unlike some other payments that will continue to the end of the year, will need to stop at the end of January, because the payments that farmers apply for this year in March and that are paid at the end of the year will come out of the 2021 EU budget, of which I am pleased to say we will not be part. The Bill will fill a small legislative gap and continue the scheme for the whole UK.
Leaving the EU is a great opportunity for the United Kingdom. The voters in Sleaford and North Hykeham voted overwhelmingly for it and, at the general election in December, the Conservative party received a huge mandate to deliver it. This morning, I went to Conservative campaign headquarters, where I saw the clock counting down the 10 days until we deliver Brexit and take back control of agriculture policy, among other things. That will give us the opportunity to develop better agriculture support for farmers, help them with economic opportunities, improve the labelling and quality of our food and improve our exports and trade with countries outside the European Union.
The budget for farm payments currently stands at £3.5 billion a year, of which 80% is largely based on the acreage that the farmer farms. Last year, £21 million was given to farmers in Sleaford and North Hykeham alone. It is really important money because 42% of farms would not be profitable were they not to receive the money from the Government. This is not supporting unproductive business, but instead is supporting our farmers and helping them to deliver high-welfare, environmentally sound, healthy food production.
The hon. Member referred to her constituency; she will well know that in Northern Ireland the agri-food sector and agriculture make up to £5 billion of turnover in the economy. Does she agree that it is vital to take into account the size and type of farm and land in the policy going forward? The Government should engage directly with farmers in Northern Ireland. In that vein, I invite the Minister to my constituency in Upper Bann to visit farmers and see the difference between farming in Northern Ireland and farming on the mainland. Does the hon. Lady agree on that point?
I cannot promise that the Minister will visit, but I certainly agree that there is great importance in looking at the different size of farms and the different types of schemes that will be right for each different type of farming as we leave the EU. I will discuss that later.
It is noticeable that we are the party of farmers—of supporting farmers and rural communities. That is obvious today as we look around the Chamber and see how well supported this debate is on the Government Benches compared with on the Opposition Benches.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one task of everyone in this place who supports British farming and agriculture is to make the clear argument, as she is, about the importance of the sector to an increasingly urbanised media, commentariat and, indeed, House of Commons? There are more urban MPs than there are rural. We need to make sure that the needs of agriculture in this country are well understood.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. I have a new map for my office wall that shows the constituencies by colour, as per the recent election result. It is noticeable that rural Britain is overwhelmingly blue in representation, because we are the party of the farmers. I am sure we will continue to make the arguments positively and that Ministers will continue to do the same.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I would like to build on the comments of my hon. Friend Simon Hoare in his recent intervention. My farmers in Staffordshire Moorlands contribute so much to the local economy. They often say that what they really want is a fair price for what they produce, but they need support to be able to achieve that. Does she agree that the challenges that the farmers in Staffordshire Moorlands face are different from those of the farmers in her constituency and that therefore we need a scheme for rural payments that recognises the differences across the country?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The challenges in farming are certainly very different from the uplands to the lowlands and to the flat areas of some of the eastern counties, and we need schemes that reflect that without their being so overly complex that nobody knows which ones are right for them.
We have £3.5 billion, which comes in part from the UK Government budget and in part from the EU— although one should perhaps reflect on the fact that the EU money coming back to us was probably ours to start with. I have a few questions for the Minister. We have committed to keeping the budget the same in this Parliament. Is that the total budget that would have come from the UK Government and the EU, or is it just from the UK budget? It is likely that costs will increase over time—tractors and fertiliser become more expensive. Will the money come in the form of a cash budget, or will it increase in line with inflation over the next four years?
I also have a question about the currency. Today, €1 is worth 85 pence, but it might not be in September. Normally, the budget is set in euros and, in September, the currency is reviewed and the money for British farmers converted into pounds. This will affect our farmers’ costs and competitiveness, so if, in September, it looks like they will receive less as a result of the currency changes between now and then, will that be adjusted accordingly?
I understand that when the CAP is abolished under the withdrawal agreement payments to farmers will be exempt from state aid rules, provided they are equivalent to the CAP. How would the currency fluctuations affect that rule?
I wish now to look at the different types of payments that are made. As I have said, 80% goes broadly to acreage, but 10% of people get 50% of that money, and the smallest 20% of farms get only 2% of the money. This fact is often published in the media. Indeed, £2.8 million is given to farmers in Westminster when there are no farms in Westminster. This does make it a less popular scheme, and it makes it very difficult for new entrants to farming—people who want to be farmers but who were not born into a farming family—and creates an increase in the drive for size of farms. That is why I welcome the changes that the Government are making. Their new schemes will be much more sensitive, because they will look at what the farmer delivers rather than how much land the farmer owns. That is a much more positive scheme.
Many of my constituents write to me almost every day with their concerns about the environment. This is something that the country can really get behind. They want farmers to produce good food and they want the environment to be supported, so giving farmers money on the basis of what they do, rather than on how much land they have, is a very positive change. Indeed, 96% of farms are run by families—combinations of parent, child and grandparent—who see themselves as generational custodians of the land, rather than the owners of property. They also care about ensuring that the land is well looked after and that the environment is cared for so that it can be a profitable and productive farm, producing great food in the next generation.
I know that my farmers locally in Sleaford and North Hykeham welcome the Government’s scheme to produce clean air, clean water, quality soil, biodiverse habitat and a beautiful rural environment and to continue all those things. None the less, I do have a couple of points on this matter, too. The first is about size and complexity. At the moment, one criticism of the scheme is that the money goes to the very richest farmers. If there is a plethora of different schemes—we recognise from the contributions made so far that there needs to be different schemes for different types of farming—or if they are too difficult to understand, only the largest farms with an office full of staff, who are able to weigh up the pros and cons of different schemes, will be in a position to take advantage of them. Farms run by small family combinations, or even a solitary farmer, will find it much more difficult to work out which scheme will work for them.
That is also true of the design of the schemes. For example, one of the laudable aims of the Government is to increase the accessibility of the countryside to the public. However, that is much easier for a huge landowner who does not live on their farm to achieve than it is for a farmer who lives in a very small farm and who may be suffering from the effects of rural crime and not really want people coming through their farmyard.
I appreciate that the hon. Member has given way. She is making an absolutely excellent point about how these schemes work. I am sure that, like my farmers, farmers in her constituency will work out quite quickly which schemes benefit them the most. Does she agree that the key issue in this direct payments matter is to ensure a rebalancing of the relationship between the primary producer—the farmer—the supermarkets and the processors in between? If that relationship is right, farming really can flourish for all of our nation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right that, for too long, farmers have not necessarily been treated fairly by all the supermarkets. The Groceries Code Adjudicator and some voluntary schemes by some of the supermarkets are improving the situation, but I do agree that there is still a long way to go to ensure that farmers receive a fair proportion of the reward for food production.
Will the Minister elaborate on what guidance and help will be available to smaller farmers to ensure that they can easily understand the scheme options, rather than having to go through lots of government papers?
Finally, I want to echo a couple of points that have been made on the multi-year settlements. Minette Batters, head of the National Farmers Union, and some Members in the Chamber today have talked about the importance of a multi-year settlement. This Bill does great things in ensuring that farmers know what they will get this year, but, as yet, although we know the size of the envelope, we do not know how the money will be targeted for the year after. When designing environmental schemes, I would encourage the Minister to design longer-term ones as far as possible, because if a farmer is to plant trees or plough up fields to create a meadow, they need to know that that will be there for a long time, and that they will not have to change it again, or be incentivised to plough that meadow up again in two years’ time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the farmers of Ynys Môn are vital to our economy and to our communities and that they and their families—she mentioned much about families and the family farm—need certainty to plan for their children’s future and for their own future?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is indeed right that we need certainty and a multi-year settlement. Farmers also need paying on time. There was a reference earlier to the RPA. As part of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament, I can say that we did an inquiry into how quickly those payments were made to farmers after they were applied for. I am pleased to say that, under the tenure of this Government, that has improved and the target of 90% was met. In fact, it was exceeded this year, but there have been huge difficulties with mapping. I look to Ministers to ensure that, as these new schemes are introduced, the Department is well resourced and has the right type of staff to be able to ensure that farmers receive payments promptly when they deliver these great public goods for our community.
Finally, I want to talk about one public good in particular. As a children’s doctor myself, I am very concerned about the health of our children. Some 22% of five-year-olds in the United Kingdom now are obese. Only 8% of children get their five a day, and that has not massively changed over the past 30 years. However, what has changed is that, 30 years ago, 83% of that fruit and veg was produced in the UK, and now only 54% is grown here. That means that we have a huge capacity to improve the amount of home-grown fruit and veg. In fact, we could grow the sector by 66% overnight if people were to consume their five a day immediately. I encourage the Minister to think of the public good of producing extra food as well as producing environmental access improvements. We should think of food production, particularly fruit and veg production, as a great public good for our society, as it would really help to improve the health of our nation.
As I stood up, I received a text message saying, “Wind up”. I do not think it referred to me personally, but I will not keep the House for too long. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; it is very important that I do so in this particular debate.
I welcome Luke Pollard to his place. It is nice to have a shadow spokesman who comes from the land and who understands how the farming community works. I also congratulate Dave Doogan on his excellent maiden speech, and my hon. Friend
May I rename this the “Common Sense Bill”? As the MP for South Dorset I have hosted farm meetings in my constituency over the past nine years, and the consistent message to Government—the Minister has visited on two occasions, which has been extremely appreciated—is that common sense is needed in agriculture. There is not a farmer in the land who wants to destroy the soil, pollute the water or damage the air and ground—they just do not exist. Farmers live on the land because they love the land. They want to produce good food, and, on the whole, food standards in this country are among the highest in the world. Please can Ministers not forget that? While there are calls on climate change and one thing after another—and of course we accept that as farmers—can common sense dominate the legislation?
We are leaving the EU on
I will be brief. I want to pick up on the phrase, “public money for public goods”. The Policy Research Unit note lists measures such as enhancing air and water quality, improved access to the countryside, reducing flooding, tackling climate change and improving animal welfare. As I said at the start of my speech, every single farmer in this country is already doing that. They do not need any more heavy-handed legislation. When we leave the EU, will the Government please remove, as they said they would, the big boot of the state and give farmers the responsibility to produce food, as most of them already do? The words “food production” were missing from the previous Agriculture Bill, but I am glad that that is now being promoted.
The key thing is that food be bought at a fair price. The National Farmers Union has provided a sobering figure. I hope I am quoting it correctly, but it told me that were we to get a fair price for wheat now, it would be about £450 per tonne. At present, it is about £120, £130 or £140 per tonne, and that figure has not changed for decades. The point I am making is that we still get cheap food, which is one of the reasons why subsidies are given to farmers. As has been pointed out by my hon. Friend Dr Johnson, if that did not happen, many farmers would go bust.
I never hear any Government Minister—in fact, I do not hear anyone—talk about profit when it comes to farming. Everyone seems to think that food should just arrive on their plate, it should be cheap and there should be masses of it. Farmers have to be taken into account, and the Government have to think far more carefully about the future, to protect our farmers.
I am grateful to my county neighbour for giving way. He is talking with his customary sense on these issues. Does he agree that we all need to remember that at no time in our history have we spent a lower percentage of family income on our food? We need to make a better argument on the point that he is making, which is that provenance and quality have a price?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour. The point of the CAP, with all its faults, was to provide cheap food and to provide it consistently. One could argue that the system was flawed—in many ways it was—but that was the honourable aim of it.
I want to touch on one or two points connected to the Bill. We hear time and again about the need to reduce flooding. I hear the word “rewilding” being used more and more. Before long, I am sure there will be wolves back in Scotland. There is now talk of putting beavers back in Dorset. A beaver creates a dam. A beaver has younger beavers and they go off and create more dams. The rivers in Dorset are tiny, and if they are dammed and protected—as surely they would be by the environmental lobby—there will be flooding on an epic scale. Can we please look at evidence-based beaver rewilding, rather than just banging beavers back into Dorset or anywhere else without any thought for the consequences? While welcoming wildlife, which we all do, can we please have some common sense in its reintroduction?
Points have been made about the multi-annual budget. Farmers desperately need consistency and certainty of income because, as we have heard, they are reliant on the weather. The weather is not always particularly kind to farmers, but it is vital that they have incomes to survive.
We have all had experiences of the RPA. I sat on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee with my hon. Friend Neil Parish. The RPA attended on many occasions, and each time it had fallen short. It has to make sure that the money gets to the farmers.
Certainty is absolutely paramount. When the single farm payment was introduced, I asked my dad, who was the manager of a farm, “Have you got your single farm payment?” He replied, “Some of it.” We really need to sort out the RPA payment issues.
On a wider point, as my hon. Friend Neil Parish has said, if we value something, we should pay for it. My hon. Friend Richard Drax has mentioned wheat prices and the true price of wheat. There is a cost to husbanding the countryside and we should recognise farmers’ traditional role as custodians of our countryside, nature and biodiversity. If we value that, we should find a way of paying for it and of communicating that to society, so that the role played by farmers in their communities and society can be recognised.
I absolutely agree with every word my hon. Friend has just said. I have huge respect for the Minister, who is himself a farmer. On valuing farmers, they have to have access to grants to meet all the environmental rules. It takes more than a few hundred pounds to dig a slurry pit, for example; we are talking about tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds to make sure it meets all the various criteria. Small farmers just do not have access to such vast sums of money. They either go bust or ask a bank if they can borrow money, and in most cases the answer will be no. Farmers, particularly small farmers, need access to grants to help them to farm efficiently and to address all the environmental concerns.
I have two final points to make. I absolutely concur with the shadow Minister on food security. Food in this country will be affected by scares all around the world and, in the worst-case scenario, war. We have been there before with world war two. I am not saying that we are going to go to war again, but all sorts of dramas and strategies around the world could lead to some sort of food shortage. Therefore, food security—looking after food production in our country—is absolutely crucial.
Finally, I agree with the NFU that there is no point in meeting all the extraordinary standards set in this country, with which I entirely concur, only to be undermined by imports from other countries, particularly third-world countries, where the standards are nowhere near as high as ours and they can reduce the price of their food. Of course, people purchasing food, particularly the large supermarkets, will be tempted to go down the cheaper route, so may I urge the Government to keep an eye on that?
I congratulate my hon. Friend
This debate on the direct payments Bill is of such importance to my constituents. Rutland and Melton is an agricultural hub for our country, with arable, dairy, sheep, pig, poultry, bison and many more types of farmers, as well as—as it turns out—not just two geographically protected foods, but three, as I have learned since my maiden speech: Rutland bitter, Stilton cheese, and, of course, the pork pies, on which I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The agricultural sector not only powers Melton as the rural capital of food but powers our amazing cattle market in Melton Mowbray, which is visited every week by farmers from across the country.
Given the importance of agriculture in my constituency, as well as the referendum result where we voted to leave, I am pleased to support this Bill. It ensures that we honour the result of the referendum but also provides the continuity and support that our farmers need. The certainty that this decision on direct payments will provide for farmers will have real benefits, and not just to farmers. In Leicestershire, for example, there are over 1,000 people employed in cheese and meat factories, often working with locally sourced products in a way that respects the local environment. According to 2018 estimates, there are nearly 40,000 agricultural workers in the east midlands, and the vast majority are in my constituency.
While certainty is delivered, I am also pleased the Government have promised, along with this Bill, to introduce a new payment scheme that will encourage farmers to tackle climate change, protect our water and improve animal welfare. Giving farmers certainty matters, because food is a national security issue. There are countries out there that seek to undermine our economy by flooding the market or withholding goods to achieve their strategic intent, so protecting our farmers matters, to protect our environment, to feed our people, and for our shared national security.
I take this Bill to be the first step in fostering an agricultural step change in the United Kingdom that will transform the agriculture industry by recapturing our sovereignty, by defending the farmers, who are the lifeblood of many of our communities, and by protecting our country—particularly those in Rutland and Melton, for whom farming is their lifeblood and their life, and who proudly feed this country.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition on the very wide-ranging debate that we have had. I echo the words of my hon. Friend Luke Pollard about some of our predecessors in the shadow Front-Bench team: the former shadow Secretary of State, Sue Hayman; my good friend and near neighbour, Sandy Martin; and the inestimable David Drew. As Members may note, we have suffered a few casualties along the way, which is why I find myself at the Dispatch Box today.
Some may have thought that this Bill seemed like a warm-up lap for the Agriculture Bill, which we will be coming back to. However, we have had some excellent contributions, including three hon. Members making their first speeches in this House.
We also heard from Edward Timpson, mark 2. I echo much of what Tim Farron said in his thoughtful speech, but particularly his words about the hon. Gentleman. He was a Minister early in my time here, but he was, I think, a highly regarded Minister. Although it is not customary for Labour Members to welcome some people back, I think he knows what I am getting at. It was an excellent speech very much painting the picture of a lovely constituency.
Alongside those speeches, we had a number of very powerful contributions, including perhaps some warnings from the Conservative Benches that there are certain views about these issues, particularly the importance of producing food in our agricultural system, the difficulties around currency fluctuations, and some of the difficulties around the Rural Payments Agency. I was particularly struck by the contribution from the former Chair, and aspiring Chair, of the Select Committee, Neil Parish, who spoke in his customary wide-ranging style across the whole range of issues. He made some telling points, particularly about the complexities of the stewardship schemes that the future models may well be based on, and—most importantly of all, as we heard from others as well—the issue of standards, which I suspect will dominate the debates ahead.
Looking back to the election campaign, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that, throughout, the Prime Minister described his plans as being “oven-ready”. I am not sure about his culinary prowess, but looking at this Bill, it seems that the plans have been far from oven-ready. In fact, I would say that the bird was in very, very deep freeze, if not a long way from its conception, because far from being ready to go, the very first thing this Government are doing is introducing legislation to make sure that nothing changes. All that excitement about
But on this point we actually do agree with the Government; I think we can all agree on it: financial certainty for our farmers as the Government take us out of the European Union is extremely important. That is why this Bill matters and why we will be supporting it today. There is a clear funding gap between the ending of direct payments to farmers under the CAP and the Government’s only-just-reintroduced Agriculture Bill, which will introduce a new system. That Bill, as we have heard, has been languishing on the sidelines for over 14 months. The question has to be asked: why the delay? Why the 14 months of inactivity, indecision and uncertainty, with payments not set to begin until 2021? So while it may not be desirable, it is right that farmers should not have to be made to pay for this Government’s shortcomings and that this Bill be brought forward to continue CAP direct payments for this year. Of course, not much has been said to farmers about what the future is going to look like. Last summer’s five-page glossy document, “Farming is changing” was a fairly brief account, frankly, and for people who are planning on a longer-term cycle, how difficult that must be.
Before raising a few points of detail about the Bill, let me say that people across the world know that we are facing a climate emergency and environmental crisis. It may be an unfortunate add-on for some Members, but we also know that modern destructive agricultural practices are, in some cases, contributing to this. In the past year, oceans have recorded the hottest temperatures on record, and insects and farmland birds have continued to decline. The result of the Government dropping the ball on this is that we are still years away from moving to a system in the UK where farmers are paid and supported to protect our environment, and we are now legislating for another stop-gap year of the CAP, which, as has been acknowledged, was simply not designed to address these important environmental issues.
The Government could have been bolder and used this Bill to fast-forward some of the environmental land management pilots that are set to replace the CAP. But as the National Audit Office’s report, “Early review of the new farming programme”, has shown, these are far from ready to go. The Government’s plan, as outlined in the Agriculture Bill, is for a three-year pilot of the ELMs to start in 2021, but it seems that DEFRA’s ambition for the level of take-up expected has already been scaled back. It was initially planned for 5,000 farmers to sign up by the end of the first year of the pilot in 2022, but that is now reduced to just 1,250. As we have heard, there are very many questions around the environmental land management schemes to which answers will need to be found to ensure that they succeed, not least whether the reduced pilot that is being talked about will provide sufficiently robust evidence across the full range of farm types and locations to properly inform the development of the new payment system. These are all points that we will develop at the Second Reading and Committee stages of the Agriculture Bill.
We welcome the key recommendations of the Bew review, which are being applied in the Bill to address some historical inequalities that we have seen in the distribution of EU funding. That clearly disadvantaged some areas, particularly Scotland and Wales. Again, however, it is disappointing that the extra funds that the Government have found for this are not being used more quickly for environmental purposes. I draw attention to a couple of points in the Bew review. Its second wider observation was:
“Ministers should try to avoid giving farmers in any one part of the UK an unfair competitive advantage when deciding future allocations.”
That point was raised by Ben Lake. In their response, the Government acknowledge that post-2022 funding should avoid unfair competitive advantage, but quite frankly, it is very unclear what measures they intend to take to address this conundrum. Perhaps the Minister could clarify.
It is also unclear what the Government’s answer is to the review’s third wider observation, which advocates financially recognising both
“the social value of upland farming in particular and the challenges facing those practising it”.
In their response, the Government skirt around this issue. They do recognise the
“vital role upland farmers play as stewards of the countryside and the range of social benefits that they contribute.”
Some clarity on that would also be welcome. Do the Government agree with Bew on the social value of upland farming? What do they see as those “social benefits”? Again, could the Minister clarify?
Unsurprisingly, many farmers continue to be concerned about their future funding. The CAP undeniably had many flaws, and there is no doubt that environmental degradation in the past few decades has been severe. Indeed, I dug out a dog-eared copy of Labour’s rural White Paper from November 2000—I suspect the Minister is far too young to remember it. Even then, Labour was warning that:
“Subsidies which simply reward production have damaged the countryside and stifled innovation.”
What the CAP did do over many years, however, was give some financial certainty. As the Government push forward with the Agriculture Bill and a post-Brexit trade stance still swathed in unanswered questions, that is in danger of being replaced with the certainty of constant uncertainty. For this year at least, farmers and the rural economy are being spared that because, effectively, the CAP continues.
How ironic that the very first act of the Big Ben bongers is to keep things the same. Our fear is that far from bells of liberation ringing through parishes across our countryside, the real danger is that not a lot will happen nearly quickly enough. If things prove as complicated as seems likely, and the Government do not move swiftly on the Agriculture Bill, we may well find ourselves revisiting a sunset clause in this Bill and looking at a continuation of the current CAP direct payments yet again.
In conclusion, we support these proposals, although there will be much more to say when it comes to the detail of the Agriculture Bill. However, we do see this Bill as an early warning that the Government have already wasted years, and have moved too slowly and with insufficient urgency to tackle the key climate and environmental issues that we all now face.
We have had a good and comprehensive debate, with a number of excellent maiden speeches along the way.
Many Members talked about the future of agriculture policy after the implementation period. That is a matter for the Agriculture Bill, which was presented to the House last week and will be debated in due course. A number of hon. Members made reference to trade deals and the vital importance of maintaining our standards as we enter them. I agree with that, and our manifesto set out clearly the Government’s approach to maintaining standards as we negotiate future trade deals. These issues will be reflected in future trade mandates.
The Bill before us is about a very simple issue and covers one year only—namely, the year 2020. It is required as a consequence of the withdrawal agreement, because article 137 disapplied the direct payments regulation and the horizontal regulation. The reason it disapplied that particular regulation is down to a quirk of EU CAP funding, in that the basic payment scheme payments for 2020 are funded out of the 2021 budget year. The UK will not be part of the multi-annual financial framework from 2021. It will therefore not contribute and must fund the scheme domestically for this year. The Bill simply makes the common agricultural policy, as we have it today, operable for the current year.
Secondly, the Bill addresses the issues highlighted in the Bew review. It creates the powers necessary to change the financial ceilings to implement in full the recommendations of the Bew review, so that there will be an uplift in funding for Scotland and Wales to reflect their severely disadvantaged area status. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether that fund would be new money or whether farmers in England and Northern Ireland would have their funds top-sliced to pay for it. I can confirm that the uplift for Scotland and Wales will be paid for with new funds. There will therefore be no loss to the BPS payments for English or Northern Ireland farmers.
The shadow Secretary of State, whom I welcome to his position as a fellow west country MP, claimed that the Bill before us would have been unnecessary had the Agriculture Bill passed in the last Parliament. However, he will be aware, having debated these issues with me in the Bill Committee, that in the last Parliament it was envisaged that the withdrawal agreement would be concluded, agreed and implemented before the Agriculture Bill concluded.
For reasons I am sure no one in this House need be reminded of, the withdrawal agreement became a quite protracted debate. In the event, because certain forces in the last Parliament came together to try to block Brexit altogether, that issue had to be resolved before Bills such as the Agriculture Bill could progress. I am pleased to say that it was eventually resolved through the general election. This Government now have a clear mandate to leave the European Union at the end of this month, and to do so with the withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated in October.
It is also wrong for the shadow Secretary of State to say that had we passed the Agriculture Bill earlier, we would have been in a position to begin the agricultural transition sooner. Both our White Paper and the Agriculture Bill always envisaged the transition period starting in the 2021 scheme year. We are back on course. There is therefore no need for the Bill to cover anything other than the current year. The Agriculture Bill, which we will debate shortly, will deliver everything we need for future years.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, the transitional period is a feature of the Agriculture Bill that we will debate in the coming months.
The performance of the Rural Payments Agency was highlighted by the shadow Secretary of State and a number of other hon. Members. I pay tribute to Paul Caldwell, the chief executive of the RPA, and his team for the huge progress that they have made to get the current CAP system stabilised and back on track. They have just lodged their best performance for many years, with more than 93% of farmers paid by the end of December and many more paid since then. The environmental and countryside stewardship schemes have been stabilised, with those payments back on track too. In recent years, making sense of a hopelessly bureaucratic common agricultural policy has certainly had its challenges, but I urge Members to refrain from criticising the RPA while it tries to deal with those bureaucratic challenges, and I thank it for the work that it has done.
That brings me to the point raised by my hon. Friend Neil Parish about the scope to simplify schemes. The truth is that, in this particular year, the horizontal regulation and all the CAP regulation will come across, and the scope to change or simplify is very limited. There will, however, be a margin of appreciation, with the absence of draconian EU audit requirements, for us to consider how we implement those things. There will be some modest changes, but the big changes he seeks, such as addressing the problems of the three-crop rule and wider regulatory problems in the scheme, will be provided for in the Agriculture Bill and are a matter for the future.
The shadow Secretary of State and a number of other Members alluded to rare breeds. I am sure that the shadow Secretary of State has read the new Agriculture Bill, and I am sure he will read it again closer to its Second Reading. He will presumably have noted that we have made an addition to the list of objectives for public goods, to include native breeds and genetic resources, so that we will be able to directly support and recognise the public good value of rare and native breeds.
Deidre Brock made the point that this legislation is important for all parts of the UK. I am pleased to say that both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have granted a legislative consent motion. This Bill is uncontentious. We will have many disagreements on elements of the Agriculture Bill, but this piece of legislation is necessary for all parts of the UK.
The hon. Lady also mentioned wider issues, including seasonal agricultural workers. I would like to pay tribute to Kirstene Hair, the former Member for Angus, for the considerable work that she did on that issue. The Conservative party and the Government are now committed to quadrupling the size of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme from 2,500 to 10,000. That was largely due to the work done by Kirstene Hair. I am pleased to welcome Dave Doogan to his seat, and I am reassured to hear that he has already picked up on this issue, since the soft fruit industry in his part of the Scotland is vital. I commend him on an admirable speech.
I also commend the excellent maiden speech by my hon. Friend
It is a great pleasure to welcome back my hon. Friend Edward Timpson. I have fond memories of the month that I spent assisting him in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008, the first time he was elected, and it is great to have his expertise back in the House. My hon. Friend Scott Mann raised issues about the rolling up of payments in future agriculture schemes. That is provided for in the new Agriculture Bill. I know that he is passionate about public access for schoolchildren and perhaps even cycling, and I will discuss those issues further with him.
My hon. Friend Bill Wiggin is a committed enthusiast for our native breeds, the pasture-based livestock system and food labelling. We will debate those issues further on Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill. Ben Lake asked an important question about whether this money will be required to be spent on the BPS. It has to be paid and spent within the parameters of the direct payment regulations. In theory, there is some discretion in how the Welsh Government spend it. In practice, the rules of the direct payment scheme are so prescriptive that the scope to do anything different is very limited. I point out that, under the Bew review, there has been an uplift for Wales, albeit less generous than the one for Scotland.
My hon. Friend Dr Johnson asked about the budget and currency fluctuations. Article 13 of the state aid rules was retained through the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, and we do not believe that there will be any implications of having fixed the exchange rate in the year just gone for the forthcoming year. My hon. Friend Simon Hoare talked about the importance of profit in farming, which I concur with. In conclusion, I hope that I have covered as many of the different points raised as possible, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.