My Lords, as before, I declare my agricultural interests as detailed in the register. During the many days of this Committee a considerable number of thoughtful and constructive amendments have been tabled, but in most cases the Government have suggested that they are unnecessary since the matter is already covered in Clause 1 or can be provided for in the new environmental land management scheme. However, the ELMS will not begin until 2024. During the years between now and then, many farms that are currently barely profitable will suffer or disappear.
I will speak to my Amendment 149. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for signing it as well. As I said at Second Reading, my real concern is for the very survival of smaller hill farms during the intervening years from now until the new ELM payments begin in 2024. The Government announced in February that farmers in the lowest band of basic direct payments—up to £30,000 per annum—would have their payment cut by 5% in 2021, with further cuts in the following years. However, the Government’s own figures for 2018-19—the latest available—show that the average cattle and sheep farmer in a less-favoured area received a direct basic payment of £24,000 and still made a profit of only £15,500. Figures for 2019-20, when available, will probably show a slightly better position. Nevertheless, these smaller hill farms are only marginally profitable even with the basic payment and would be commercially totally unviable without taxpayer support.
We all accept that we are moving away from the basic payment system to the new environmental land management scheme payments. The purpose of my amendment is to ask the Government to think again about whether it is sensible or fair to reduce those in the lowest band even by 5% before ELMS payments kick in in 2024.
On Tuesday two weeks ago we debated Amendment 78 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Greaves. Their amendment urged the Government to maintain support for hill farms and other marginal land. I support this general principle. My amendment is more specific and asks the Government simply to protect just the lowest band of recipients from the cuts until the new payment systems come into play.
Last Thursday, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, stated that since small abattoirs operate on a commercial basis they would not fit into the principle of the public good. My contention is that, unfortunately, small hill farms are not in any way commercial on their own, so I believe the public will consider it more than just for taxpayers’ money to be given for the public good of maintaining our small hill farms, which play such an important part in so many rural communities in this country. When the Minister responds to this group of amendments, I hope he will give the Committee an assurance that the Government will look again at the timing and percentage of the reductions in the basic payments for small farmers in the uplands.