Amendment 140

Agriculture Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 21st July 2020.

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Lord Greaves:

Moved by Lord Greaves

140: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—“Financial assistance to be provided on the basis of public funds for public goods(1) Financial assistance under this Chapter may only be provided if it is in accordance with the rule “public funds for public goods”.(2) The rule referred to in subsection (1) is to be provided for in regulations made by the Secretary of State.(3) Regulations made under this section are subject to affirmative resolution procedure.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would require that the meaning of public goods for the purpose of this legislation is set out and agreed by Parliament and provides a clear basis for the provision of financial assistance.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in moving Amendment 140 I will also speak to Amendment 141, which is grouped with it although it is a different issue. I will speak to Amendment 141 first.

Earlier on in this Committee, a long time ago, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said—I am almost quoting him—that the Government never use compulsion and would never instruct farmers what they should do. That is a fine sentiment. The purpose of this slightly convoluted amendment is very simple: to ask how the Government intend to proceed on large tier 3 schemes in circumstances in which one or more landowners is being obstructive and refusing to take part.

For example, there may be a large area of moorland, such as an upland moor in the north of England, for which a tier 3 scheme is proposed for a combination of reasons, such as wildlife, carbon sequestration, restoring the peat, water catchment, and improving the management of the farms as a whole in that area. One large landowner, who occupies a strategic position on that moorland massif, may refuse to take part. It is a simple question: what procedures or ways will there be to overcome that and force them to do what is in the interests of the public and everybody in the area?

Amendment 140 is a slightly convoluted amendment that puts to the Government that the words “public goods” are not terribly specific or clear. A lot of people have taken to repeating, because it is a good thing to say, “Public money for public goods”. In the instance of the Bill and Clause 1 specifically, what does this mean? We need to know. The phrase originally came from Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State, who put it forward as a major principle. The cynic in me suggests that, rather than being a principle, in many cases it is a slogan; it sounds good.

Most members of the public, if asked, would say that a public good was something that was good for the public. Some of this confusion is behind some of the amendments we have already discussed and dealt with—for example, the question of food security. Is food security, however defined, a public good or something that is good for the public but, in strict economic terms, not a public good? Earlier in Committee, the Minister was specific that the production of food was not a public good; it is a private good, because it is produced and distributed via the market. That is a summary of what he said, and he is agreeing with me.

I am not an economist, but I have read far too much of what economists have written during my life. I notice that they are rather like lawyers: you can pay them to say what you want, in some circumstances. At its most basic, a public good is defined as a commodity or service that is made available to all members of society. It may be free, like the air that we breathe—to almost quote The Hollies, Pendle’s most famous pop group in history. It may be charged for but available to everybody, like a bus journey; on the other hand, if you have an old person’s pass, as I do, you get a free journey, so it is not clear. It is often administered by government and public authorities, paid for by the public purse, often by taxation but perhaps in other ways. For example, clean drinking water, law enforcement, defence security, rule of law and more specific things—street lighting and primary education—are often cited as public goods. They are the opposite of private goods, which are inherently scarce, if you read what the economists say, and paid for by individuals or private corporate bodies.

A further criterion of public goods is that they are not scarce. Their supply does not reduce if they are used or, if it does, the authorities can come along and replenish them. They can be used by any number of people at the same time. The issue is obviously complex. You might think that roads, for example, have been a good public good for cyclists in the last four months. Whether that continues is a different matter. Public parks are thought to be public goods, and so on.

As it applies to the Bill, the question is which items in Clause 1(1) and (2) can be regarded as public goods. You can make a pretty good argument for most items in Clause 1(1), but the health of the livestock or the soil is specific to a particular farm operation. Putting public money into them might be highly desirable, but are they public goods? Clause 1(2) is about creating new farming institutions or increasing the productivity of an existing farm in various ways. That comes close to direct subsidy of what the Minister said is not a public good, but is simply producing food in a better way. How come increasing productivity and making people more efficient, rather than doing things in a more environmentally desirable way, is a public good? It is not clear who benefits from that kind of thing. It is clearly not about what is good or bad.

What is it about? The truth is that, the more you look into it, the more different people think it is different things. I want to know what the Government think it is. If they are saying to the public that they are not going to reduce farm subsidies generally, but spend them on different things—and perhaps turn them around, as the noble Lord said earlier—I suggest they stop using “public goods” in a vague way or as a slogan in general, and define what they mean. It is only by clearly defining what they mean that they will give clarity, not just to farmers and land managers but to people generally. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 4:00 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in the sentiments behind these two amendments. To consider Amendment 140 first, we are in the dark a little. My understanding—and I hope my noble friend the Minister will explain this in winding up—is that public good and natural capital will be explained further in the Environment Bill, which we have not yet had sight of here. I share the noble Lord’s concern as to what we understand by “public good”.

I was heartened yesterday by an Answer from my noble friend Lord Goldsmith that nature lies at the heart of the Government’s biodiversity strategy. I argue that looking after nature, which farmers do so well, is a form of public good. I am wedded to the idea of natural flood defences as well. I like to think that active farming underlies this. Will my noble friend confirm that we will have a better understanding of what public funds for public goods are—this is the whole difficulty with the Bill—because it is set out in the Environment Bill, which is not before us now? That would be very helpful.

I also support the idea of providing the means to resolve a dispute in the cases set out in Amendment 141. I took a great interest in one of the vexed schemes, because there were 16 to 20 graziers in a project, who had the right in perpetuity to graze on common land that had a different landowner from where they were tenants. It was a very complex situation. I hope that my noble friend and Defra come up with a scheme where the natural capital or public good is provided by the landowner and a tenant benefits from the scheme. I would like to know what the Government have in mind to resolve disputes such as this. There are similar instances that I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will discuss as part of his Amendment 159A, but he has raised issues that are worthy of debate today.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform)

My Lords, we are all anxious to make progress, so I shall be brief.

These two amendments from my noble friend Lord Greaves, which I strongly support, are deceptively modest but very significant in the context of this Bill. As has been said, the concept of public goods has been a persistent and welcome thread through the early sections of the Bill. Some Members may think that it should have been more rigorously defined on the face of the Bill. I do not accept the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that we can wait for the Environment Bill. Frankly, by the time we get there, too much of the present Bill will have been decided.

With Amendment 140, my noble friend rightly seeks to achieve a full parliamentary examination of this essential element of the post-CAP package. I lost count of the number of Members in the previous debate who were referring to public goods, and of course Ministers have, throughout all stages of this Bill in both Houses, referred to public goods. Therefore, I hope that the affirmative resolution procedure, which would ensure that we have a proper parliamentary discussion of this important definition, can happen. My previous service on the DPRRC persuades me that this is the proper procedure here.

Turning to Amendment 141, which deals with large-scale tier-3 schemes, my experience of Dartmoor, where I used to chair meetings of the national park committee, and my experience of Bodmin Moor, which adjoined my home in my then constituency, made me especially aware of the sensitivity of moorland restoration schemes. These can have a challenging effect on all those who are interested in them, and on farms in LFAs, which have also been a common theme this afternoon.

Whatever their respective merits, nobody can deny that they inevitably impact on several landowners and land managers, and a variety of other users. Since the UK has responsibility for the stewardship of no less than three quarters of the world’s heather moorlands, this should be very high in our awareness of potentially clashing interests. I was interested in what the noble Baroness said. Like me, she will be well aware of how difficult decisions can be in deciding between different interests in that context.

It may well be true of other projects with overall beneficial environmental objectives, but the likely economic or other impacts on individuals or groups in those circumstances can be very important. I have had experience of uncomfortable impacts—admittedly relatively short-term ones—from major schemes such as coastal marsh creation schemes. My noble friend suggests that we should have the affirmative procedure to look at the details when then Minister comes forward with these. I hope he accepts that this too offers a practical solution.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my noble friend’s two amendments are very interesting. Starting with Amendment 140, I thought that I knew what the public good was, having produced amendments which I thought were centred around it, such as public access and how you support that access and make it more readily available to those with disabilities and so on. However, when I read this amendment, I thought, “Ah, someone else put that at a priority level; that makes it a public good.” It is in the Bill, but is it as high a public good as something else? What happens if it starts to compete, which it will, with other activities? For instance, if you want to encourage a certain animal or plant somewhere and a path goes through it, which changes? On that fundamental level, getting some idea about how the assessments are made is important.

This is probably the start of a discussion that will run over several Bills, but if the Minister replies now, at least we will then know what we are disagreeing with and be taking a step forward. It is very important to find that out here. What is the Government’s starting point on this? How does it relate to various things? The process by which we establish that, if there is any doubt, will become very important as we go forward.

On the next amendment, the noble Lord mentioned one large landowner stopping a scheme. I have met many a small landowner who would stop anything that interferes with his life as it currently exists, so the net might need to be spread a little wider. We are going down because everybody assumes that the way they live is of value. The vast majority have strived to get to where they are, so they will at best be wary of change. Getting some definition of when you are making a change like that, how it will affect you and where the Government must push and say “No, it is going to happen” is something that we need. These are very important amendments in the subject that they deal with, because if we do not have the definition and terms—I thought that I did and, clearly, I do not—then we must find them. Otherwise, this will run into trouble and only serve to annoy us.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:15 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I well understand why Members who are in the Government are anxious to move this Bill forward as quickly as possible, but if anything ever illustrated the value of this House and the limitations of another place, it is this Bill. The other place barely considered this Bill, and certainly not in any detail. Your Lordships’ House has sought to scrutinise, which without filibustering has still taken a long time, but it is a crucial Bill which will affect the lives of all of us, directly or indirectly, in the coming years.

There is no more important industry in our country than farming, and certainly no industry more productive or upon which we all depend so much, yet it faces a period of unparalleled uncertainty. I pay tribute to the Minister for listening so carefully and replying so sympathetically, but it is crucial that the Government display sensitivity and flexibility. This was illustrated very well indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who did himself a disservice by talking about “convoluted amendments”. Frankly, we must address this central issue of public goods and public money. I would prefer “public” to have a capital “P”, and to have “good” and “benefit” in the singular, because although the phrase may come trippingly off the tongue, the public good is very different in the farmlands of Lincolnshire from the farming of the Scottish borders. Of course, the farming duty goes with farming, the responsibility for wildlife, the countryside and the overall appearance of the environment, but the fundamental public good is the quality of what is produced, and this is where I cross swords with the Minister.

We touched on this in our debates last week. There is no greater public good and certainly no greater public responsibility than producing food to sustain the nation. Last week we also touched on the fact that the defence of the nation itself depends on the amount and quality of food that our farmers are able to produce. I hope that between now and Report the Minister—I address this to him personally and specifically—will seek to produce in the Bill a schedule or clause that defines “public good”, setting out precisely what it means and precisely what it is.

I will not go on at greater length. I am limiting my contributions to the debates on the Bill because I understand the Minister’s wish to move forward as quickly as possible. However, it must not be speed at the expense of scrutiny and, when we come to Report, ultimately the Government must help to put the Bill into better shape than it is in at the moment.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Greaves has set out his case for the inclusion of Amendments 140 and 141, supported by my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Addington, both of whom pressed the case for an assessment of what constitutes “public goods”.

Amendment 140 would require financial assistance to be provided on the basis of public money for public goods, and it requires the regulations to be subject to the affirmative resolution. More examination is needed of exactly what the Government mean by “public goods” and how that will be defined. It could mean myriad things.

Amendment 141 would give clear instructions to the Secretary of State to order owners and managers of land to take part in a project—that is, a coastal marsh creation or a large-scale moorland restoration—in which they do not wish to participate.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, supports both amendments. She is aware that there are often disputes between tenants and landlords that need to be sorted out. My noble friend Lord Addington said that even small landowners and not just large ones are very wary of change and will often object to taking part in projects. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised the importance of scrutinising the Bill and of taking time to do it. I do not think that we can be accused of not doing so. As he said, farming is extremely important.

It is important that such vital projects for land improvement are not thwarted by individual landowners, but I am less clear that the degree of compulsion is in the spirit of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this issue.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords)

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. We have had a varied debate but I wish to raise some further points and questions.

The Government’s communications on the Bill have focused on the principle of public money for public goods—a principle of almost total consensus. However, our current understanding of what constitutes “public goods” is fairly limited and, although widely used in this debate and the previous one, it is not a term used in the Bill. Although Chapter 1 outlines the purposes for which money can be given, our understanding of “public goods” probably differs according to our political emphasis. For example, my party would have a greater focus on food as a public good. It is a long time since I studied A-level economics, but I am sure that I remember a discussion centring around the fact that public goods are particularly apposite to sustaining a well-ordered society. They contribute to social inclusion and strengthen a shared sense of citizenship. In fact, it was debates such as those that fired my interest in politics and led to a lifetime spent working in public service. Therefore, will the Minister seek to define the phrase for the purposes of this legislation?

Amendment 141 proposes introducing an ability for the Secretary of State to order a landowner to participate in a large-scale tier 3 scheme. The Bill already represents a huge shift in how farmers are funded and this process will be much easier if it has the consent of landowners. Can the Minister therefore outline what powers are already available in the event of an owner or land manager refusing to participate in a scheme, even when there is a clear public interest in that scheme going ahead?

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his Amendment 140. Our new “public money for public goods” policy aims to reward farmers and land managers for goods and services that benefit society but are not currently traded on the market. The financial assistance powers in Clause 1(1) provide the Secretary of State with the power to spend money for furthering certain purposes, which in turn can help to deliver these public goods. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to define the “public funds for public goods” rule. This Bill does not include a definition of “public goods” because it provides powers to the Secretary of State to pay financial assistance for a number of purposes that will enable Defra to introduce its future policies, including productivity grants, as set out in Clause 1(2).

Perhaps I may go further. In terms of this Bill, public goods are goods and services that are valued by society but not provided by the market, including things such as clean water and air, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, the beauty and heritage of the environment and engagement with it.

The noble Lord asked whether productivity was a public good. The more productive the method of farming, often the more environmentally sound that farming method is. Our priority is a productive farming sector—one that will support farmers to provide more home-grown healthy produce made to high environmental and animal welfare standards. More efficient production has the benefits of lower costs and higher yields and, in many cases, a reduced impact on the environment.

The Government believe that by moving to a new system based on public money for public goods, and by supporting farming through productivity schemes and grants, we will put English farmers in the best position possible to boost sustainable food production. Defining “public good” in the Bill and requiring every pound spent under Clause 1 to meet this rule would unnecessarily restrict the Government’s ability to deliver their goal of a more sustainable, productive sector. Perhaps I may reiterate what Clause 1(4) says:

“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Amendment 141 seeks to provide powers for the Secretary of State to require landowners or managers to participate in landscape-scale land-use change projects. The Government recognise that the ELM scheme will be most successful if it has very high levels of participation. This could be particularly important when considering locally targeted or landscape-scale projects under tiers 2 and 3 of ELMS, especially where any such projects require collaboration. The Government are therefore working closely with stakeholders, including landowners, to ensure that the scheme is attractive and offers appropriate and sufficient incentives to secure the necessary voluntary participation in projects. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, was correct in saying that the use of coercion in these larger projects is very much against the spirit of the entire Bill.

With that, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

I thank the Minister but I have to say that those are the two most disappointing responses I have heard from Ministers during the entire Committee. I have spent a lifetime trying to get practical public projects of all sorts going—some big, some small—and, if I am an expert in anything, it is knowing about obstruction and delays, and overcoming those.

If the Government are relying on the completely voluntary involvement of everybody in tier 3 schemes there will not be many successful tier 3 schemes, although there will obviously be some. Unless there is a backstop somewhere for such schemes, which will cover landscape-scale—that is, large—areas of land, then this is not the way forward. It may be that tier 3 schemes can come in on the back of other ways of organising these projects, but this is disappointing.

I will read this debate carefully but I have to say that, if the intention of this amendment was to get the people who write answers for the Minister to think a little bit, it has failed. I do not blame the Minister for that in any way.

Regarding Amendment 140 on public goods, I have read everything that the Minister said in reply in the document put forward by the Government. As concerns my attempt to get the Government to explain what they mean and answer some of the questions, I will have to try again. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 140.

Amendment 140 withdrawn.

Amendment 141 not moved.

Clause 7 agreed.

Clause 8: The agricultural transition period for England and the termination of relevant payments

Amendments 142 to 146 not moved.

Clause 8 agreed.

Clause 9: Power to modify legislation governing the basic payment scheme

Amendments 147 and 148 not moved.

Clause 9 agreed.

Clause 10 agreed.

Clause 11: Power to provide for phasing out direct payments

Amendments 149 to 151 not moved.

Clause 11 agreed.

Clause 12: Power to make delinked payments

Amendments 152 and 153 not moved.

Clause 12 agreed.

Clause 13 agreed.

Clause 14: General provision connected with payments to farmers and other beneficiaries

Amendment 154 not moved.

Clause 14 agreed.

Clause 15 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:30 pm, 21st July 2020

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 155. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this, or any other, amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.

Clause 16: Support for rural development