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Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:50 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:50 pm, 21st January 2020

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.