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 Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 2:30 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, my interests are as recorded in the register. I fully support Amendment 144, in the name of my noble friend Lord Carrington, to which I was happy to attach my name. I am very concerned about the gap in support as the current basic payment scheme is unwound and access to the new ELM scheme becomes available, as planned, in 2024. As I said at Second Reading, this is fraught with risk. The delays caused by indecision on Brexit and then the impact of coronavirus mean that the ELMS pilots are just under way. Meaningful conclusions will take a couple of years or more to interpret. The design of the schemes, and the value of public goods that we hope will be delivered by this brave new model for supporting the management of the countryside, must be promoted to farmers and land managers with confidence. We need the evidence from the pilots and there is no slack in the timetable to experiment or for systems to fail and be rerun, which is why many of us are deeply concerned about the Government’s reluctance to change the current seven-year transition plan. At Second Reading, I suggested that the Government should be willing to extend the period to eight years.

Under the current plans, there will only be three years by the time the Bill becomes law to draw conclusions from the pilots and then launch the ELM scheme to the entire farming sector. Tens of thousands of family farmers are not prepared for the scale of the change that the Bill will introduce. It is the most fundamental change in support, and the greatest cultural change, that any farmer in Britain today has ever faced. At present, there is no way farmers can prepare for this change because, for obvious reasons, there is no information available on the basis of which they can begin to consider their future plans and make decisions.

This change in policy is a unique opportunity to facilitate restructuring of the sector, but this cannot be rushed. Every farmer needs to consider the impact of the change on their individual business. As a result of the scale of this challenge, it is inevitable that there will be a capacity problem. The quantum of qualified consultants who are trusted and able to provide 30,000 or 40,000 farmers with informed advice in good time to make considered decisions will be an enormous challenge. To ensure that the potential benefits which the ELM scheme can deliver, and which will hopefully be realised, will require careful consideration by each farmer and land manager.

If ELMS is launched in 2024 as planned, there will be a deluge of applications and the capacity of the RPA and Natural England to cope with the volume will be stretched to the limit. The possibility of every farmer who wishes to participate in the ELM scheme being able to do so in 2024 is unrealistic. For all these reasons, the Government need to think very carefully about the timetable. This amendment is designed to help smooth the impact. Limiting the dismantling of support from the BPS to a total reduction of 25% until the ELM scheme is available is a sensible approach.

I restate what I said at Second Reading: I reassure the Minister that I am enthusiastic about this bold change in policy and genuinely believe that we can lead the world in delivering a wide range of crucial outcomes from the management of the countryside, provided that the policy is well designed and land managers are appropriately incentivised. It would be a disaster if such an important change in policy was rushed through and we failed to engage appropriately. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the department will adopt the timetable proposed in this amendment. It would be very much appreciated by farmers and land managers and would ensure a greater chance of achieving the desired outcomes.

Very briefly, I have considerable sympathy with the purpose of Amendment 149 tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. Smaller livestock family farms, both in LFAs and in the lowlands, are the most vulnerable to these changes. They manage some of the most precious landscapes in Britain and are a crucial part of rural communities. The choice of taking a hard-nosed commercial approach, resulting in many being forced out of business, or a more sympathetic view that would require some special care and support to help those farming businesses adjust to change is a no-brainer, otherwise the impact could be disastrous. The Minister is aware that I chair the Prince’s Countryside Fund. We have supported over 1,000 such farmers through the Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, with considerable success. It is essential that these crucial farming families are given appropriate support to ensure that they can adapt their businesses, not just to survive but to prosper in this brave new world.