Amendment 130

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 21st July 2020.

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Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench 2:30 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 143, to which I have put my name. I too have very real concerns that Defra will simply not be ready for the transition period to begin in 2021 and that farming will suffer as a result. To provide the Government and farmers with sufficient time to prepare for transition, we should start it in 2022, rather than 2021. This way, we can ameliorate the transition chasm that I have discussed before. The House has spent four long days in Committee, debating many variations of ELMS, and has made its way through Clauses 1 and 2 of the 54-clause Bill. We hope to rush through the bulk of this legislation in another two days, under huge time pressure. Scrutiny cannot be sufficient in these circumstances and major aspects of this crucial legislation will be barely considered.

The Government have suggested that time is of the essence and that this Bill simply has to be passed so that the transition period can begin on 1 January 2021. They say that farmers will not be able to be paid if it does not. This is simply not true. It was easy for Parliament to extend direct payments to farmers for 2020; we can simply repeat that process. Given that the Government have confirmed that they will maintain the level of agricultural funding until the end of this Parliament, this will have no negative impact on the Treasury or on budgets. What it will do is permit Defra to prepare for ELMS in an orderly manner.

Despite the best efforts of its overstretched and underfunded staff, Defra is transparently far behind where it needs to be. The EFRA Committee took evidence on 16 June 2020 from Defra’s two leads: Tamara Finkelstein, its Permanent Secretary, and David Kennedy, the director-general of food, farming and biosecurity. I recommend the transcript of their evidence to all noble Lords, as it provides a valuable insight into its much-delayed progress. They admit to considerable delays in the tests and trials programme caused first by Brexit, which took many staff for emergency no-deal planning, and then by coronavirus, which meant that many key tests and trial programmes have not begun.

Defra is triaging. For example, it has confirmed that it has abandoned plans to build a new computer system to administer ELMS. Instead, it will be delivered using the current SITI Agri system, which is used by the RPA to administer BPS. Reading between the lines, it appears that tier 1 of ELMS is effectively going to be little more than BPS plus greening obligations by a new name, administered by the same team, using the exact same technology. I would appreciate the Minister’s confirmation of this.

On Thursday, the Minister helpfully confirmed that Defra would publish a multiannual financial assistance plan this autumn. Given the incredible delays disclosed by Defra, what details is it really able to provide? Will the Minister confirm whether, but for Brexit meaning Brexit, Defra would prefer to agree to this amendment and give itself longer to prepare for the transition?

I warmly support the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, which also relate to the transition chasm. However, I cannot support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. ELMS is optional—the quicker the transition, the less uptake there will be and the worse the outcome for our environment.