Amendment 155

Agriculture Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 21st July 2020.

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The Earl of Devon:

Moved by The Earl of Devon

155: Clause 16, page 12, line 44, at end insert—“( ) making provision for future contributions to existing rural socio-economic schemes;”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would safeguard the availability of financial provisions to continue the socio-economic programmes under Rural Development Programmes in the event of delays in the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench

My Lords, I congratulate the Committee—we have made a lot of progress in the last few minutes. It is good to see that we are now up to Clause 16, focusing on support for rural development.

It is an honour to move Amendment 155. This is a simple amendment, supported by the CLA, which seeks to ensure that there is no gap in the support for rural socioeconomic schemes such as the Growth Programme and LEADER scheme, which are currently administered by the RDPE. They do so much to support the development of rural business through grants, training and the provision of advice. I have already noted my farming interests but, specific to this amendment, I should note that our rural heritage tourism business has applied for, and been granted, an RDPE grant—although, as far as I am aware, it will not be impacted by this amendment.

The work of the RDPE in assisting and administering rural development using European funds is key to maintaining the productivity and employment currently enjoyed by many otherwise struggling rural businesses. These are the businesses that, by current estimates, will suffer most from the economic catastrophe that is Covid-19 and the subsequent brutality of Brexit.

The role of the RDPE is due to be taken over by the UK shared prosperity fund, but we currently have no idea when that will take place. This amendment seeks simply to ensure that there is no gap between the winding up of the RDPE and access to the European funds and the establishment of the UK shared prosperity fund.

In a series of questions in this House on 21 May 2020, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, made it clear that, while the Government could give assurances about the UK shared prosperity fund, they could give no assurances whatever as to its timing—and so, we remain in the dark. Perhaps the Minister can shed some more light on when the UK shared prosperity fund will take effect.

Without this amendment, these key socioeconomic schemes may find themselves falling into that transition chasm, lost in the valley of the shadow of death. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My Lords, I want to speak to my Amendment 156. It tries to ensure that as many as possible farming families, who, to me, are the backbone of rural England, will be able to survive on their land through the various agricultural crises that will inevitably come their way over future decades. The first crisis is the dramatic changes introduced by this Bill.

Anyone who talks to farmers, tenants or owner-occupiers who are farming land that could probably not be described as prime agricultural land will know that, without the single farm payment, they currently have little chance of survival. They cannot survive solely on their agricultural production to produce the family income. All too often, the single farm payment provides more than 100% of their agricultural returns. As we all know, this will soon not be there anymore. Some farmers and their families branch out into other enterprises on their farm, involving tourism, leisure or local services such as contracting or some form of engineering. But mostly, these farming families—wives, sons, daughters and often even the farmer himself—depend on cash wages from local businesses, which allow the farming household to survive on the land. The whole survival of the farm and the family, or families, on it depends on the vitality of the wider rural economy around them.

It is important to remember that, throughout England as a whole, agriculture represents less than 5% of the rural economy. This dependency on outside jobs is particularly obvious on those farms, both lowland and upland, involved in livestock—mostly up and down the western side of England and, of course, in Wales and Northern Ireland. The further you get from urban centres, the more this applies.

What I am saying should not surprise anyone as this feature of rural living was one of the founding principles of the CAP with its two pillars: Pillar 1 supporting agriculture per se and Pillar 2 supporting rural development. The EU decision-makers knew that, to keep farmers on the land and prevent them leaving to join the urban unemployed, a variety of rural jobs would need to be available to both men and women near their farms. Returning to this country, and going back even further in history, it should be noted that, when Lloyd George started the Rural Development Commission before the First World War, he had exactly the same targets in mind. The RDC eventually became the Countryside Agency until it all got swept into Defra and then, of course, disappeared.

I am trying to give back to Defra a very small arrow in its quiver to continue the good work started so many years ago. It is not a new game but a tried-and-tested tool to help farming families stay on their land. I am also trying to give Defra a small reason to justify keeping “rural affairs” in its title.

I know that the Government will say that all this is going to be taken care of by the shared prosperity fund —as my noble friend Lord Devon has just said—but how and when will we know? Rural proofing is a concept that has lost its way recently, so what makes us think that the shared prosperity fund is going to break that mould? Can the Minister guarantee today that there will be a well-financed ring-fenced rural fund that will be an essential part of the shared prosperity fund?

If he can, that is all well and good but, even so, would it not be a good idea for Defra to have this rural development arrow in its quiver? Would it not be a good idea to hold on to the tried and tested way of helping farmers stay on the land, particularly as Defra already knows that a good percentage of farmers are going to struggle to survive under the new regime this Bill is putting in place?

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I oppose Clause 16 standing part of the Bill. This follows on neatly from the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, with whom I have the pleasure to serve on the EU Environment Sub-Committee.

The original purposes of the rural development fund have made a great change to the countryside, improving the quality of life and economic well-being especially of those living in rural areas that are particularly isolated and sparsely populated, such as where I grew up—Teesdale in County Durham—and also the areas that I had the pleasure and privilege to represent in the other place: deeply rural parts of North Yorkshire.

The policy statement that was published in February this year says of the Rural Development Programme for England for 2014 to 2020:

“This £3.5 billion programme will continue to include support for rural businesses to expand and create new jobs and for farmers and growers to buy innovative new equipment.”

This is under the “Preserving our rural resilience” heading, and it goes to the heart of what is perhaps another gap.

I ask my noble friend the Minister, in summing up, to show that this gap will be closed in the current aims of the Rural Development Programme—which have so well served rural communities—and to show how this voyage into the unknown of the UK shared prosperity fund will actually work in the interests of rural areas. Therefore, my question to the Minister is: how will Clause 16 build on this and how will necessarily limited funds continue to be used for these socioeconomic purposes that have served rural communities so well?

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Non-affiliated

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I also support a number—in fact, the majority —of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. Amendment 157 is in my name and I thank noble Lords who have offered their support for it, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who has also put his name to it.

The farmers—those in our rural communities bringing in the crops and so on—have been on the front line throughout the Covid crisis and they deserve our thanks and an enduring debt of gratitude. In the Agriculture Bill in front of us, we have the opportunity to repay some of that debt, and part of this is what Amendment 157 is all about. Inputting high-speed, reliable and capacity-led broadband and the digital skills with which to competently and comfortably operate online seems to be essential to farmers and all those in our rural communities, to enable them to have optimal business, professional and personal lives.

I am grateful to the NFU for its support of this amendment, and I draw noble Lords’ attention to the rural connectivity survey that the NFU has conducted since 2015. What this shows is quite alarming: over that time period, on almost any measure, there has been a minimal increase in connectivity. Perhaps more worryingly, in the latest figures from 2019, there has been a 2% increase in those who say they have no broadband connectivity whatever. Farmers have told me that they have to go to McDonald’s to get broadband coverage, and while its advertising proudly states that all of its produce comes from British and Irish farmers—which is a thoroughly good thing that gives some circularity to this position—this should be a choice rather than a must for farmers.

Similarly, when one considers tax being digital by default, when farmers have approached HMRC with the issue of not being able to get online, it has been suggested to them that they go to their local library to transact their tax calculations and submissions. While all noble Lords would agree that libraries are quiet and calm places, are they really the venue where one should be forced to set out one’s finances?

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that broadband and digital literacy are absolutely essential? As we set out in our Lords Digital Skills Committee report in 2014, digital literacy is the fourth literacy and as important as the existing three. Does he also agree that this amendment would have social, psychological and economic benefits across our rural communities, where the rates of suicide that currently stubbornly exist are desperately concerning? Surely, good broadband connectivity would be part of the solution to such a tragic issue, which has blighted our countryside for so long.

We owe it to our farmers and all those in our rural communities to have the level of broadband infrastructure that others take for granted in more urban locations and the digital literacy with which to operate effectively online. Amendment 157 puts broadband and digital literacy at the heart of this part of the Bill. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that this amendment would go a considerable distance to enabling us to set aside the digital divide in our countryside?

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Digital) 4:45 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I support of Amendment 157, of which I am a signatory and which was so well proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. As we all agreed during the passage of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, the Covid-19 lockdown has shown how dependent we all are on good, fast and resilient broadband—nowadays, few more so than those in our agricultural sector. Indeed, it is clear from the difficulty many Peers have had in contributing virtually to our proceedings how woeful broadband is in some areas, especially rural ones.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, illustrated the lack of rural connectivity through the NFU surveys and this is backed up by the Ofcom reports. The average broadband speed in rural hamlets and isolated dwellings in a sparse setting was half that in major conurbations in 2018. During the passage of the Bill, I said that the status of the Government’s intentions regarding the timing of the delivery of a 1 gigabit-capable service or ultrafast broadband was unclear. It is especially unclear as regards rural areas and specifically 5G.

With regard to 5G, we have the Shared Rural Network, which is a collaboration between the four networks that started as a 4G project to cover the notspots. Then, we have the seven trials that have been selected in the Rural Connected Communities competition for funding from what is called the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme. It now seems that projects have been selected in West Mercia, Orkney, Dorset, Monmouthshire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire.

How do all these fit in with the several existing funding programmes for full fibre, launched under the May Government, including two voucher schemes to subsidise full-fibre connections to rural premises and small and medium-sized businesses? How are the Government avoiding unnecessary duplication in the rollout of full fibre to the home? What about Ofcom’s determination that there will be market competition in some areas—prospective competition and others—and non-competition in yet others? Is that really the most effective way of delivering the Government’s strategy, particularly in rural areas?

In another development, the Secretary of State did not mince his words last Tuesday on the consequences of the Government’s decision on Huawei, from which it is clear that the operators charged with delivering 5G will now, without compensation, have £2 billion less to spend on rolling it out while bearing, as they will have to, the cost of ripping out high-risk vendor 5G equipment by 2027. Many of his Conservative colleagues thought that he was offering too extended a timescale. This is a huge proportion of the investment which was to be committed by the operators towards 5G rollout. Are there really no plans to compensate operators, and will the full costs actually fall on consumers?

In his announcement, the Secretary of State admitted that this will delay rollout by two to three years. Given that 100% coverage at one gigabit will take much longer to achieve, will the Government now prioritise 5G rollout for rural areas, where full-fibre broadband is least likely to be installed on a market basis in the short and medium term?

I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for bringing forward this amendment, intended to deliver specific priority for rural broadband provision and rural digital literacy. It seems extraordinary in retrospect that broadband connectivity was not included in Annex IV of the rural development regulation as a thematic sub-programme for the purposes of article 7, given that it dates only from 2013. In current circumstances, this is highly relevant—in fact, essential—to the future success of our agricultural sector. It must be part of achieving what are now the UK’s priorities for agriculture.

As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, argued, there should be a full review of the levels of rural broadband provision and digital literacy, especially before there is any obligation on farmers et al to comply with any regulations by digital means. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions about the rollout of rural broadband, but also that he will accept the crucial amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is one of those occasions when you know that somebody in front of you has said it a little better than you. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has done most of the heavy lifting on the basic thrust of this group: are we going to make sure that the rural economy is generally supported, along with agriculture? That is how I take it. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, talked about broadband. As the last few months have established, I am afraid that it is nigh-on impossible to function in the modern world without broadband at the moment, unless you are going to live in a very tight circle. I hope that we will get answers in the affirmative.

Amendment 155, which I have my name to, asks a technical point: are we going to ensure there is continuity of supply if the UK shared prosperity fund takes a bit of time to get up and going? I hope that we will get the answer to that, and I express my total agreement with the sentiments of those who have already spoken.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, I am happy to support the amendments in this group and will refer particularly to Amendment 156, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. For me, as somebody from Northern Ireland, this amendment resonates with our whole rural development approach. Through the rural development programme within the European Union, many rural communities benefited from the LEADER programme. It allowed farmers—and farming families—to supplement their income through like-minded industries such as crafts and other types of revenue-making businesses. It also helped the rural community to survive and ensured that those people were retained there, thus creating vibrant farm enterprises. It was a particularly good model. I would like to hear the Minister say how it is to be translated and transposed, through the Bill, into the local economy of England and Wales. What discussions have been held in the ministerial and officials’ group with the devolved regions about how it is to be translated on the ground, so to speak?

It is very important that productivity and employment in rural areas are underpinned so that farming families survive on the land. It is also important that we provide for sustainable farming enterprises, while recognising the difficulties that such households can face during unplanned-for crises, such as the pandemic at the moment or floods. We have witnessed many horrendous floods, which the science would suggest are a consequence of climate change. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, recognises the function of farming households in the countryside. It recognises that they are the pivot in the farming enterprise and of the rural economy.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to support all three of these amendments. I am probably the least qualified of all in your Lordships’ House to talk about broadband. Even during the previous debate, I lost the picture on my screen and without the Digital Support service would not have been able to regain it. But I accept all that the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Clement-Jones, have said; they made persuasive speeches and clearly have my support. I hope they will have the support of the Government.

I want to address my brief remarks to the amendments spoken to so eloquently by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. As someone who represented a rural constituency for 40 years in the other place, what they said rang true in every possible way. We must have not only a properly sustained agricultural industry in this country; we also need the rural support industries, of which they both spoke so eloquently and persuasively. I hope that when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, he will accept the absolute necessity of what they called a ring-fenced rural fund because without it, there will be a bleak future.

We have all seen the devastation already wrought by Covid-19. It will take many in the rural communities much longer to recover than many of those in the urban communities. Businesses will have gone for ever; we need to keep all the businesses we can and add new ones. Most of all, we need young people who feel that there is a future in the rural economy. I give my total support to all three amendments and await with expectation the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour

My Lords, I had the very pleasant experience on Sunday morning of paying a visit back to Glenscorrodale, the farm-steading where I grew up. Walking around what is no longer a farm, I was reminded of a number of factors relevant to this debate. From a very young age, I was absolutely convinced that it was not the life for me, but I have never failed to admire my brother and cousins, who stayed in the farming life however hard it was for young people to continue in farming as the decades progressed. These three amendments are really important for that reason. I am struck by just how much has changed in farm life over the decades since I was first able to wander around Glenscorrodale, and how much of farm life now is computerised or driven by technology for productivity reasons.

I echo the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, in relation not just to other rural businesses but to farming itself. Strong connectivity would be worth including in this part of the Bill, and would be a strong signal about the future of those willing to stay on the land, whether in farming, other businesses or a mixture of the two. It is, however, also important that we get the redesigned funding right, following the departure from the European Union. When I was Finance Minister in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, some 20 years ago, I was responsible for negotiating with Michel Barnier, of all people, the redesign of the structural funds as enlargement came on to the horizon. The rural development fund was key to that. I remember arguing very strongly at the time that the Scottish programme should include support for young farmers and their ability to take on responsibility for managing the land, but also perhaps to diversify into other businesses.

Continuity, flexibility and a joined-up approach to these new funds—as driven by the content of Amendments 155 and 156—would be highly relevant in these difficult times. I hope that the Minister will take on board all three amendments in his summation of the debate.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 5:00 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of my noble friend Lord Devon on Amendment 155, and of my noble friend Lord Cameron on Amendment 156.

As I said in an earlier debate, the changes in policy embraced by this Bill are a huge opportunity but a massive challenge. One challenge is the lack of clarity on rural development. I am concerned that the Government’s response to the Rural Economy Committee’s report—I was a member of the committee—rejected a recommendation that there should be a dedicated element of the shared prosperity fund for the rural economy. Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Cameron, has said, there is confusion about where support will come from for farming families, whose survival will depend on diversified activity. It is very unclear where the boundaries are within the potential sources of funding. The scope of the ELM scheme is unclear; the future of the RDPE is unclear; and the long-awaited terms of the shared prosperity fund are unclear. All this is on top of the fact that we await the details of the Environment Bill.

The level of uncertainty is unparalleled; there are so many overlapping unresolved issues. Twice this afternoon Psalm 23 has been quoted, likening the potential risk that we face to

“the valley of the shadow of death”.

The psalm continues with the phrase

“I will fear no evil”,

so I am sure that the Minister will provide clarity on this important issue.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative

My Lords, Amendment 156, from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, provides flexibility as not yet sufficiently available for Defra to help farming households carry out the purposes of the Bill. In the names of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, Amendment 155 is equally pertinent in anticipating delays following the introduction of the United Kingdom shared prosperity fund—hence its safeguards, financial provisions and continued socio-economic interventions under rural development programmes.

With regard to food supply chains, does the Minister consider that local, regional and domestic supply chains ought to be strongly encouraged, while backing for our producers is essential if we are to set them against cheap imports from America and subsidised food from Europe, and that rural development funding should therefore be provided for this purpose? Does he agree that government incentives for food supply chain infrastructure are not the same as subsidising food directly, and do not therefore conflict with the market, but instead—to the advantage of so many communities —would assist production viability, reduce food miles, improve animal welfare and create jobs?

The range of examples to be encouraged comprises outdoor markets; local food delivery hubs; enterprises that collect from farmers to sell to supermarkets, school canteens and hospitals; local farmers’ processing co-operatives; small factories making cheese, bacon, vegetable burgers, apple juice and other products processed from local farms; and, not least, small abattoirs, including mobile ones, in certain farming areas.

Does my noble friend also agree that local food supply chains already work very well with supermarkets, where the majority of United Kingdom consumers shop? This is evident in several countryside areas, such as Yeo Valley in Somerset. A processing co-operative there makes yoghurt, crème fraiche and butter, selling to large retailers, including Tesco. These are organic farmers using agro-ecological systems, yet they can sell their yoghurt at a very reasonable and affordable supermarket price. It is also now well illustrated in a number of other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, how local food hubs and farmers’ processing co-operatives can easily supply supermarkets, school canteens and hospitals.

Currently, and through this Bill, we have to review the best ways of replacing and restructuring previous schemes for rural development. Can the Minister reassure the House that, within the new arrangements, proper government incentives will be given to local food supply chains?

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, Clause 16 allows the Secretary of State, by a negative resolution, to modify existing rural development schemes agreed under the common agricultural policy as to both time and content, and to devise new schemes entirely outside the present parameters. I fail to see any requirement for consultation. Is there any and, if not, why not? Who will represent rural interests in Whitehall and inform funding decisions? The whole point of devolution in Wales and Scotland was democratically to bring the interests of all sectors closer to policymakers—and it has been highly successful.

England has very disparate rural and regional interests that have to look to Whitehall for compromises and single solutions. Perhaps a devolved Yorkshire assembly could occupy the hub that the Government propose to create in York, once the Westminster politicians have been there, done that and departed with the T-shirt. Clause 16, however, creates very significant powers, and their exercise should be open to full parliamentary scrutiny. Will the Government commit to amending the Bill on Report, to require the affirmative procedure? No consultation, and the negative procedure proposed in this Bill, make a very strong case, both in principle and practice, for the stand part opposition of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. She described it as a voyage into the unknown—and that is exactly what it is.

Funding for rural development has, over the period of our membership of the European Union, come from the rural development basic act and the common provisions basic act, and has accordingly been ring-fenced against the austerity cuts that have affected such areas as education and social services throughout this country. That ring-fencing of rural interests is about to be dismantled. I note the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the absence of ring-fencing.

I have always feared, and have said so in this House on a number of occasions, that in the post-Brexit world, there will be overwhelming political pressure on the Government to switch money from rural communities to urban areas. Demands on public services, particularly health and social care, must be answered—there are votes at stake. This issue is even more acute since the last election, when the Government derived significant support from the crumbling “red wall” urban areas, whose interests they now have to consider. The further centralising of services and jobs in large conurbations may drive further depopulation from the countryside. It may even destroy the Conservative Party’s traditional rural base of support. Will the Government make a commitment now, in the post-pandemic world of massive government expenditure, that rural communities will receive the same level of support for rural development as they do at present under the CAP regime? This issue is addressed in Amendment 155.

We await the details of the shared prosperity fund, and I am particularly concerned as to Wales’s involvement in that. I share the doubts expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and Lord Curry, who pointed out how unclear it all is. It is important to build an infrastructure to support work in the rural communities—the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, referred to some agricultural-based industries. Part of that is addressed in Amendment 157, through the extension of broadband and mobile networks. All of us are learning the advantages of working from home and I have no doubt that, with proper investment, fresh employment opportunities in rural areas will arise from that, enabling people in rural areas to lead optimal lives with digital literacy, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, put it.

I have pleasure in supporting all the amendments in this group.

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

My Lords, rural development programmes are extremely important and any delay in their implementation would be a very retrograde step. I support the arguments put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and my noble friend Lord Addington on the shared prosperity fund and look forward to the Minister’s response. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, also supports proper rural development and businesses to encourage young people and others to share in rural prosperity.

The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has, as usual, made a very powerful case for assisting farmers and the rural communities to deliver agricultural, food and environmental services. Living as I do in a rural area, but within easy reach of two market towns, I am painfully aware of the issues around the rural economy. With no single farm payment, some farmers on poor land will not survive. They depend on the wider rural economy. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many questions from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron.

The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, objects to Clause 16 being included in the Bill. I have listened to her arguments and can understand where she is coming from. Support for rural development is important; the Agriculture Bill may not be the perfect place to include this, but we have an opportunity to enshrine the rural economy and development in this Bill and ensure that those of us living in rural areas are considered in a more holistic way.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, pressed the case for locally produced goods and food, both through farmers’ markets and supermarkets. I fully support this, as it is extremely important to bring locally produced quality food to a much wider audience.

My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, have an amendment to add broadband connectivity and digital literacy to the list of support for rural communities. Farmers and their families need access to decent broadband to fill in the various forms and licences required to carry out their activities, and their children need access to complete homework and, currently, to take part in lessons. Going to McDonald’s to gain access to broadband is completely unacceptable. We have no access to 5G in my rural area. As someone who struggles with the strength of the broadband signal—or lack of it—and my own level of expertise, I can confirm that assistance with digital literacy is a vital element in improving connectivity. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this subject. Can I personally hold out any hope of better broadband connectivity in the near future?

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:15 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have tabled these amendments today and to all those who have stressed the need to maintain the equivalent of the social economic schemes under the rural development fund. I agree with the many other noble Lords who said that both the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made very compelling cases that underpin those arguments.

It is clear that, to have a thriving agricultural sector, we need a strong rural economy and infrastructure. We need to address the many social problems that are holding those developments back. We know that rural areas are characterised by higher levels of poverty, poorer health and social isolation. Young people in rural areas struggle to find good-quality training opportunities and are held back by poor public transport and the lack of affordable housing. Local businesses find it difficult to access finance and, as the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Clement-Jones, rightly pointed out, have huge difficulties with broadband connectivity. I agree very much with them that digital literacy can go a long way to tackling the digital divide. The opportunities to make rural areas great places to live and work are being squandered.

I was also interested in the question from the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, about whether local food activities such as outdoor markets could be eligible for rural funds. That gets around some of the arguments we have been having about whether production of food is a public good.

Much of the problem lies with the Government’s failure to adopt a joined-up approach to rural development, bringing together all the departments and agencies with responsibilities in this area. Although rural proofing partly addresses the problem, it is still not providing the funding and policy priority that rural communities deserve. Rural development funding remains just one aspect of the solution. Nevertheless, that funding has provided a vital lifeline for many local communities.

The current Clause 16, on support for rural development, is welcome in as far as it goes, but it leaves a great deal of the detail unspecified as so much is delegated to regulation. It therefore leaves a lot to trust—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I share the concern that funding could be lost without an equivalent funding regime in place. I also share noble Lords’ concern that we must have much greater assurance about access to the shared prosperity fund when the details become clearer.

I welcome the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, which provides an opportunity for new socioeconomic programmes to help farming families. He has a great deal of expertise in that area and has made the case extremely well, so I do not intend to repeat it. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government do not intend to focus solely on agriculture in this Bill, without a plan to maintain a thriving social and economic infrastructure around it. A thriving rural community with a strong infrastructure and new economic opportunities is the bedrock of an agricultural system, but it will need appropriate funding.

I have not lined up a biblical reference, which seems to be the order of the day today, but I do pray that the Minister can spell out in detail the access to the different rural development funds that will be available as we leave the EU, and the timescales applicable to each of those funds. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, which goes to the heart of the rural economy and how rural communities play their essential part in it. I turn to Amendments 155, 156 and 157. Clause 16 provides for the continued payment of long-lasting Rural Development Programme for England agreements where they will extend well beyond the end of the current programme in 2020. This is needed because agri-environment and forestry agreements can last for many years. Some will still be active in the 2030s. The Bill does not deal with socioeconomic schemes, because these are short agreements and all payments will have been made by the time the EU rural development funding has been exhausted. Under the withdrawal agreement, Defra will continue to deliver the RDPE under the terms of the EU regulations. It therefore remains the case that all projects agreed under the RDPE will be fully funded for their lifetime. For multiyear agri-environment and forestry agreements, domestic funding will be used to honour commitments once EU funding ceases after programme closure.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and all noble Lords. The Government absolutely recognise the invaluable contribution that rural areas make to our national life, economically, socially and culturally, and are committed to supporting rural communities through post-EU exit funding and wider government initiatives. It is essential that future generations see a future in the countryside, in agriculture or in a wide range of other elements and components of the rural economy. I am minded of what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale said. I have experienced my first Zoom meetings with an agronomist and an arable contractor and so forth. Things that I never thought would happen are happening regularly, so I understand all these things.

A lot of the matters raised in this debate are dealt with separately from the Bill, and I will expand on that. As set out in our manifesto, the Government intend to introduce the UK shared prosperity fund to replace EU structural funds. As the Rural Affairs Minister, I do not identify with the commentary on rural-proofing from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who was helpful to us in revising the rural-proofing guidance. We have officials working to ensure that rural-proofing is entrenched in every department. We have been working extremely closely with the MHCLG, which leads on the development of the UK shared prosperity fund, to ensure that its design takes account of the dynamics of rural economies and the particular challenges faced by rural communities. Both departments have been engaging with rural stakeholders to support development of the evidence base around what rural communities and businesses need for the fund. Final decisions about the quantum and design of the fund will take place following the spending review.

My noble friend Lord Dundee spoke about relationships with supermarkets. Some noble Lords are keen on berating the supermarkets. When I spend time going around them, I look at the British produce and the relationship there often is with local farms. That important development of relationships with local produce is strong, whether in large retail outlets or small ones. Clause 1(2) could support productivity measures which could, for example, aid local food chains. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on the consultation requirement, this clause will only amend existing schemes, not create new ones. We have already consulted on the changes to existing schemes, as part of the Health and Harmony consultation.

Beyond the scope of the Bill, the Government are already taking steps to ensure that our rural communities can prosper. In response to my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, through the outside-in approach, as part of the future telecoms infrastructure review, we are supporting the deployment of gigabit-capable broadband to the least commercially viable UK premises. We are already connecting some of the hardest-to-reach places in the country, including through the superfast broadband programme and the £20 million rural gigabit connectivity programme. We have announced £5 billion of public funding to close the digital divide and ensure that rural areas are not left behind. The Government are also working with mobile network operators to deliver mobile connectivity improvements through a shared rural network. I also highlight the Digital Skills Partnership, launched by DCMS in 2017, to bring together organisations from across the public, private and charity sectors to work together to close the digital skills gap at local level.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about 5G rollout in rural areas. The 5G Rural Connected Communities programme is looking at potential 5G test cases in rural areas. Through the Rural Connected Communities competition, the Government are funding up to 10 5G research and development projects to run over two years.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about discussions between devolved Administrations and rural development. As all noble Lords know, rural development is devolved, but Defra officials meet counterparts in devolved Administrations to discuss rural policy and share experience.

Returning to digital, although the current rural development programme allows for support for broadband and digital skills, wider government initiatives are the main funding mechanisms for broadband connectivity and digital skills. These are delivered through DCMS, rather than Defra. The role played by me, as Minister for Rural Affairs, and the rural team at Defra, is to work closely with DCMS and, at ministerial level, make sure that there is a complete understanding of the fact that rural communities need to play their part in a modern economy, and of the need to improve that.

Clause 16 gives the power to continue making payments where agri-environment and forestry agreements have already been signed, using Exchequer funds once the EU rural development funding contribution has been exhausted. Without subsections (1), (2) and (5) of this clause, the Secretary of State will not have the powers required to continue making annual payments specified in existing agri-environment and forestry agreements, and farmers and land managers will not be compensated for the valuable benefits that they are delivering. Furthermore, without this clause it would be more difficult for agreement holders to move from a CAP scheme to new domestic schemes under the Bill. For example, subsection (3)(a) will allow agreement holders to terminate their agreements early if they successfully secure a place in an ELM scheme. The Government want to ensure that the environmental benefits delivered through these agreements are retained and built on as we move from the CAP to a new system of ELM, designed with farmers and land managers in mind.

The powers in subsection (3) of this clause facilitate the transfer of existing agri-environment and forestry agreement holders into new schemes operating under Clause 1, such as ELM or the simplified Countryside Stewardship scheme. For example, subsection (3)(c) could allow an existing environmental stewardship agreement holder who is managing a priority habitat to convert their agreement into a new domestic Countryside Stewardship agreement. Without subsections (1), (2) and (5) of Clause 16, we will be unable to pay farmers and land managers for the work they are undertaking, and we risk complicating the transition to ELM for land managers who are already participating in agri-environment schemes. We intend to offer domestic countryside stewardship agreements until 2024, at which point we want to ensure a smooth transition from both domestic Countryside Stewardship and EU agri-environment schemes into ELM.

I do understand and take on board all the points that have been made and our mutual desire to work to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund is up and running and successful. From a rural-proofing point of view it is imperative that the needs of rural interests, communities and business are taken into account. However, I do hope that the noble Earl, Lord Devon, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 5:30 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I offer the Green group’s support for Amendments 155 to 157 and thank the noble Lords who tabled them and supported them. This debate and the questions have brought out the political impact of the relatively low number of votes in the countryside. We have seen just this morning, with the report on the distribution of the Government’s regeneration fund before the last election, how, since we do not have a rules-based system such as the EU’s whereby funds are distributed to the areas that are most disadvantaged and most in need, it very much depends on the Government’s view of where such money should go.

This debate has focused a lot on keeping what we have in the countryside: alternative businesses, non-farm businesses and alternative sources of revenue for farmers. But what is the Government’s vision for the countryside —where do they see money going, say, from the UK shared prosperity fund? Do the Government see the countryside as a place where there can be large numbers of new, growing, farming, food-producing businesses, and large numbers of good jobs—not simply pickers who are casual workers coming in for a couple of months and then going away again having lived in caravans, but people who can make their lives in the countryside? Is that the kind of vision of a horticulture-rich, healthy food-growing countryside—tying together many of our debates from last year—that the Government have?

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, the vision is for a prosperous rural economy, which obviously includes food production and agriculture. However, a whole range of communities form the rural economy. We want to ensure that all rural dwellers have the same opportunities. I have to say that very few industries have been promised that they will retain the same annual contribution from the taxpayer for the whole of this Parliament; sometimes noble Lords forget that in some of their commentary. That is most exceptional, and it shows that the Government support farmers and rural communities. That is of course why there is a very significant investment in the broadband structure. Therefore, there is a considerable vision for a prosperous, skilled and innovative agricultural sector within a broader rural economy.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his extensive response to this debate. When will he be able to tell us whether there will be a well-financed, ring-fenced rural fund as part of the shared prosperity fund? When will we know about that?

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am afraid that I cannot give a precise date other than what I said in my remarks, that the quantum and design of the fund will take place following the spending review; I cannot give any further detail. However, I can say that the efforts and the work of Defra with MHCLG are to ensure that there is a very strong rural component so that rural businesses are an intrinsic part of this fund.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

I have received one further request to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his response to my Amendment 157. He referred to the £5 billion which was set in principle as a response from the Government to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report. Can he tell the House what the pathway is for that in-principle commitment to be rolled out and an on-the-ground practical reality?

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As I say, the purpose of trying to start with an outside-in approach is precisely to ensure that rural areas and farms are connected—very often the village is connected but the outlying farms are not. That is where we want to ensure, in working with this £5 billion and the £200 million rural gigabit connectivity programme, that these are absolutely geared to ensure that rural areas are not left behind. I am most grateful to my noble friend for raising the matter.

Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his, as ever, courteous concluding remarks, and in particular his extensive comments on rural connectivity, which were enlightening. I am disappointed that we still lack detail on the UK shared prosperity fund and the Minister was unable to provide any enlightenment greater than what was given back in May. It has been a helpful debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contribution on this key issue of rural development. I particularly acknowledge the tireless work of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, on the subject of rural prosperity and the survival of farming households.

All noble Lords are well aware of the tremendous fragility of our rural economy and the many small rural businesses that are key local employers in areas of often desperate poverty and huge social deprivation. The noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Clement-Jones, have done well to highlight the issues of rural connectivity as key issues that have been so graphically shown during the lockdown. Might the Government consider following the lead of Northern Ireland, which I understand has sought to implement rural connectivity by connecting the furthest and hardest-to-reach properties first and not last? I hope that we can revisit these issues on Report but until then, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 155 withdrawn.

Amendments 156 and 157 not moved.

Clause 16 agreed.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 158. 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 debate.