Amendment 130

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:00 pm on 21st July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 2:00 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who is the illustrious chairman of our EU sub-committee. For the record, however, I would like the transition period to remain as it is.

I want to speak to Amendment 143, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, for lending their support. It is a simple amendment, which would delay the start of the seven-year transition period away from direct payments coming into effect from 2021 to 2022. I should like to pause here to explain why this is necessary.

In seeking to delay the start of the transition period to the new policy framework to 2022, I accept that there is wide support across the House for the government objectives in the Bill to move towards a new framework of support for agriculture that focuses on public payments for public goods and increasing productivity. Much of the detail will be set out in supporting regulations and in the Environment Bill, of which we in this House have not yet had sight. However, the changes being envisaged will be the biggest in a generation and look set to be in place for many years to come.

I accept that we are leaving the European Union but note with regret that, in the four years since the vote in June 2016 signalled the beginning of a process of change, particularly in leaving the CAP, we have made very little progress in developing the necessary mechanisms, policies and schemes that would be worthy of the major changes that we are expecting in this Bill. I accept that much of this is down to the political impasse leading up to the last general election and, more recently, to the pressing issues around controlling Covid-19, which I am sure have affected Defra as they have many other departments.

It is essential that we take the time to introduce new schemes and measures that will stand the test of time, rather than simply bringing them in quickly for the sake of it. I fear that there is an overarching desire through the Bill to show that things have changed as a result of our departure from the European Union, rather than to ensure that we put in place good, made-for-purpose, fit-for-purpose, resilient schemes. Let us face it: our track record in delivering new schemes and new IT to support them is not that great.

Following the environmental land management scheme tests and trials, which themselves have been impacted by the issues surrounding Covid-19 and are ultimately delayed, the Government intend to conduct a pilot in England of a new ELM scheme in 2021, with a view to it being fully operational by 2024. However, if it is true that the Rural Payments Agency will be in charge of running these pilots—I hope that my noble friend can put my mind at rest on that—we have to question its capacity to run such a pilot when it is already struggling to deliver business as usual. Once again this year, the RPA has had to ask the Treasury for funding to bridge payments to environmental stewardship and countryside stewardship applicants before being penalised for failing to meet the required payment targets by 30 June this year. What reassurance can the Government provide that there is adequate capacity within the RPA to deliver the pilot, or does my noble friend think that another body would be more appropriate?

I also place a question mark on the extent to which the Government would be able to spend any money saved through the reductions in direct payments starting in 2021. I understand that Defra has identified this as a potential problem and is therefore looking to make an announcement in September about enhanced options for countryside stewardship and productivity schemes. However, we have none of the detail available to us today. In my view, the sensible thing is to delay the start of the transition period until 2022. That is not kicking the can down the road but giving the Government and Defra the time and space to deliver the good schemes that we know they are capable of, rather than producing half-baked schemes.

The reasons for this delay are these: we are being asked to take a lot on trust; we have not had sight of the Dimbleby food strategy, which I understand will not reach us before Report; we have not had the results of the trials of the ELM schemes; the OEP has yet to be set up; and we do not know what its relationship to the Environment Agency, Natural England and the RPA will be. We owe it to Defra to give it time, because of the Covid pandemic, to reach a proper conclusion to these schemes. I therefore ask the House to commit to supporting Amendment 143.