Amendment 229

Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Baroness Young of Old Scone:

Moved by Baroness Young of Old Scone

229: After Clause 34, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to consult on a new environmental regulatory regime for agriculture in England(1) The Secretary of State must, within the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish proposals for a new environmental regulatory regime for agriculture in England in accordance with this section.(2) Following publication, the Secretary of State must consult all interested stakeholders on the proposals mentioned in subsection (3).(3) The proposals for a new regulatory regime mentioned in subsection (1) must include—(a) consideration of the role of agriculture in achieving environmental objectives;(b) clear objectives for the regulatory regime with specific reference to the agricultural sector;(c) a new model for securing compliance with regulation formulated with a view to ensuring significant change in the behaviour of producers;(d) targets for compliance with environmental regulation;(e) amendments to existing regulations and new regulations required to maintain agricultural environmental standards following the removal of cross-compliance, and to support the new environmental objectives and priorities proposed in accordance with this section;(f) assessment of the resources needed to implement the new model mentioned in paragraph (c) and achieve the compliance targets mentioned in subsection paragraph (d);(g) any other issues that the Secretary of State considers relevant.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would update the regulatory framework for agriculture to fill gaps and bring it in line with environmental objectives, and to create effective compliance mechanisms.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour

My Lords, I hope that at this time of the night noble Lords are not getting fed up with my voice. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Earl, Lord Cormack, for their support for it. The amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish proposals for an updated regulatory framework for agriculture to fill regulatory gaps that result from our leaving the common agricultural policy, and which would bring the regulatory framework into line with the environmental objectives stated in the Bill and the 25-year environment plan. It would also help to create effective monitoring and compliance mechanisms.

Everyone is pretty clear that the regulatory framework around farming is not fit for purpose. Some farming and land management practices continue to have adverse environmental impacts—ammonia emissions, pollution of rivers, greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion, to mention just a few. It is staggering that agriculture is the primary cause of 30% of our sites of special scientific interest—those jewels in our wildlife crown—being in an unfavourable condition. Yet the current average inspection rate for the environment on farms is once every 200 years. I am not counting inspections by the rural payments inspectors, which are about EU requirements to audit funding and which, hopefully, Brexit will see the end of. However, once in 200 years is not much of an environmental inspection regime.

Changes to the farm support system, as outlined in the Bill, will further jeopardise effective farm regulation. Under the current basic payment scheme, all farmers and land managers in receipt of payments must, under the cross-compliance conditions, deliver something that is catchily called good agricultural and environmental condition—GAEC. It is the regulatory baseline of environmental performance. That requirement to achieve GAEC if one is in receipt of payments disappears with the common agricultural policy. There remains no less need to have a strong set of baseline environmental standards universally required of all land managers so that the specific public good provided above this baseline by the ELM scheme can be rewarded with payment. It would be heinous if ELM scheme public money were to be paid, for example, to improve water quality to a farmer, who, meanwhile, was failing to comply with the basic agricultural conditions that currently exist for other water quality protection arrangements.

Defra’s Farming for the Future update committed to introducing an alternative inspection and enforcement approach. I would welcome that, provided it does not mean a new stand-alone agricultural regulator which would duplicate the expert regulators we already have in Natural England and the Environment Agency—I declare an interest having been chairman of one and chief executive of the other—which not only know their onions but draw on knowledge gleaned from regulating a range of sectors, not just farming. That cross-learning from other sectors is very important. What these existing regulators need is not another regulator on the pitch but a proper framework for agricultural regulation, within which they can work with land managers. They also need proper resources to do an effective job in inspection and enforcement. All of this would be enabled by my Amendment 229, which I am moving.

I also lend my support to Amendment 230, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and Amendment 231, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall. These would replace the measures of environmental protection for field boundaries, including hedgerows, and for ponds and small water body habitats which existed through the catchily named GAEC provisions of the cross-compliance regime under the common agricultural policy, which would otherwise be lost without these amendments.

I also draw attention to Amendments 296 and 297, in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch, on similar replacement measures to tackle soil degradation. When I was chief executive of the Environment Agency, there was a growing problem with muddy floods after the run-off of soils from bare ground, often from the inappropriate siting or management of potato or maize growing. In the last few years, we have now seen for the first time in aerial pictures of the UK and its coasts evidence of substantial soil erosion, travelling down the rivers and out to sea on a grand scale. If we are not to lose our precious soils, this amendment is absolutely required.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative 8:15 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, it is always a great honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and I am sure that nobody would tire of hearing her, even at this time. I am sure that I will hear a collective sigh of relief because I think this will be my last contribution to the Committee. I thank the Committee for its indulgence, not least my two noble friends on the Front Bench who have had to listen to my ramblings.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, has already referred to the two amendments standing in my name. I am grateful to her and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Quin, for putting their names to Amendment 230. I am grateful again to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and to the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Addington, for doing so on Amendment 231.

As has been discussed, these amendments regard the potential loss of the good agricultural and environmental conditions—the GAECs, or whatever they are to be called. Amendment 230 relates to GAEC 7a, which includes: maintaining green cover at the base of a hedge for two metres either side from its centre; not trimming hedges during the main breeding season of nesting birds; not removing stone walls, earth banks, stone banks or material from these, as they provide important habitats for many plants and animals. If this amendment were inserted, it would amend the Hedgerows Regulations 1997 to ensure that these important protections are maintained.

Replacing elements of GAEC 1 to protect ponds and small water body habitats is also important, because a wide variety of small water bodies are vital for freshwater biodiversity. But they remain largely overlooked and generally excluded, as I understand it, from government policies such as the water framework directive and river basin management plans, which describe how we should protect freshwaters. Small standing waters, ponds and small lakes are particularly important for biodiversity compared to other freshwaters. These waters support a surprisingly large proportion of freshwater biodiversity and are especially important for uncommon freshwater species.

Amendment 231 would change the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations 2018 to provide a requirement for buffer strips of green cover adjacent to watercourses, surface waters, et cetera, mirroring the current cross-compliance requirements in GAEC 1. This amendment would also require land managers to keep a farm map with surface water, boreholes and so on marked outside nitrate-vulnerable zones. The term “surface waters” is included in GAEC 1 and is taken in common parlance to include ponds and lakes. I think that Amendment 231 would provide legal certainty on this. I thank noble Lords for listening to me.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. He set out very clearly the benefits of Amendment 230, to which I was pleased to attach my name, and Amendment 231, to which I am pleased to offer my support. It is a little unfortunate that this got split from Amendment 117 on meadows, which the noble Lord kindly backed after I had tabled it, because the two fit together rather nicely. They are two hugely valuable biological and ecological resources that are to a large extent being destroyed and lost in parts of our countryside. It is undoubtedly true that the common agricultural policy was responsible for a huge amount of destruction, but the cross-compliance, or GAEC, regulations have in recent years helped to at least keep what we still have. It is crucial that under the new arrangements we do not lose that protection, and that is what these two simple amendments aim to do. I hope very much that the Government will be able to take them on board and incorporate them in the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak after the previous three speakers. I added my name to the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone and I support the point that she made in moving her amendment, especially her explanation that this is about updating the regulatory framework, plugging gaps in it, bringing it into line with environmental goals and creating, as I think she put it, viable cross-compliance mechanisms.

Earlier in this Committee stage, I spoke about the need to know what we are talking about when we refer to “environmentally friendly farming” and “nature-friendly farming”. I believe that this amendment, along with others, would help to forge a proper understanding of this and avoid getting trapped in silos—a point made a few minutes ago by my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch.

I also added my name to Amendment 230 on hedgerows, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I have always felt very strongly about the removal of hedgerows and about their proper maintenance in an environmentally friendly way. The debate about hedgerows goes back a long way—even to before we entered the EU. In many ways, British agriculture was a leader in hedge removal over the years, and I am very glad that the mood on this has changed greatly in recent times.

The replacement of hedges and the retention of hedgerows are very important. There is a certain irony in that originally there were grants for removing hedgerows, whereas now there are grants for replacing them. None the less, I welcome that change in priorities. When I was an Agriculture Minister, I was keen to support EU action to protect hedgerows as part of the development of the CAP’s second pillar.

I believe that many farmers are keen to play their part in the maintenance and re-establishment of hedgerows. An interesting example that I came across recently was of a farmer who had replaced a long stretch of tumbled stone wall with new hedging but then used the redundant stone to construct a series of rubble mounds to create a bespoke habitat for wheatears. It struck me that that was a good example of thinking about the environment at every stage of an agricultural project.

I agree very much with the part of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall, that concerns the ban on cutting hedges from 1 March to 31 August during the breeding and nesting season. In conclusion, perhaps this is something all of us with gardens should consider carefully. Earlier today in this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, I think, talked about the fact that gardeners as well as farmers use pesticides. Well, gardeners often have hedges and sometimes they cut those hedges, even savagely, during the nesting season. Obviously, action to encourage gardeners on hedges is outwith the scope of this amendment and even of the Bill. But I would ask the Minister whether encouraging gardeners to be more environmentally friendly is something that the Government are taking up with the Education Department, perhaps, to make it part of environmental education in schools.

In short, I support both amendments I have spoken to. I hope the spirit of them, even if not every word of them, will be taken on board by the Government.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, what a pleasure to follow a succession of speakers with whom one agrees almost entirely. I added my name to Amendment 231 as an expression of solidarity with all the amendments in this group, which come to the heart of one of the major problems of the Bill. Okay, we are doing away with cross-compliance from the CAP grants most farms have taken advantage of, and moving to a system where a proportion of farms—perhaps a high proportion—will take advantage of, for example, tier 1 schemes. They will be an improvement on cross-compliance if they work properly, because each one will be tailored to the specific circumstances of that farm. That ought to be an advantage, as it ought to be possible to get the best benefit from the particular and unique circumstances of every farm that takes part.

However, the main problem is that there will be some farms—we do not know how many, but they may be large, efficient farms—that decide not to take part in ELMS because they think they can make a profit in the new environment without doing so, without doing all the fiddly things the Government are insisting on through ELMS. Those are the farms where there is a huge risk of a severe loss of environmental benefit and a severe deterioration of everything good that farms give that people have been talking about—ponds, hedgerows and everything else. I do not think we have had an answer from the Government yet on how they are going to deal with that particular problem. These amendments seek to do it by setting up a system of regulation—if I have understood them properly—that will insist that all farms undertake certain basic minimum things.

The Minister has said on at least two occasions in Committee that under the new system there will be no compulsion, and everything will be voluntary. I am very worried about some of these big, supposedly efficient but environmentally inefficient enterprises that might undermine the whole thing.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has withdrawn from the debate so I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 8:30 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall, who have both tabled amendments in this group. This is the last time that we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Randall, in today’s proceedings. He has diminished our discussions by removing himself. I have attached my name to two of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord where I could find a space: the one on hedgerows and the other about ponds.

When we think about the classic vision of farmland, it will contain hedgerows—the amendment also refers to dry stone walls. They define fields and serve as the highways for wildlife. It has already been said that ponds are incredibly important to maintain natural diversity and encouraging the newt population that is much decried by the Prime Minister. All of these things are vital to a healthy and balanced environment and they help to make up a classic pastoral setting. I hope that the Minister can at least say that the protections enjoyed under the previous regime will be transferred and that the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, are recognised. As I say, that is the very least that should happen.

We should have a major framework for environmental standards, but let us leave that argument to one side for a moment and concentrate on the hedgerow and the pond. If we start with those, we will probably not go too far wrong.

Photo of Baroness Worthington Baroness Worthington Labour

My Lords, I want to speak briefly in support of this group of amendments. I would have added my name to Amendment 297 had I got there in time. A key feature mentioned by a number of noble Lords is that the shift towards a system of payments for public goods will remove a layer of regulatory protection from our countryside that we must address. We must ensure that a strong regulatory floor is created so that people can be rewarded for doing additional good work for the countryside. If we shift to a world with no regulatory standards so that everything is expected to be paid for, we will find a huge pressure on the public purse and we will see the potential for backsliding from the standards that we enjoy today.

I particularly wanted to add my name to Amendment 297. Although it appears to be technical in nature, it is an important and significant one in terms of protecting the current standards from the climate change perspective. The amendment would do two things—I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, will articulate this far better than I when she speaks. It would introduce a requirement for environmental permitting to cover the keeping of livestock in intensive fashion. It would add beef and dairy and outdoor pig farms to the environmental permitting process. Adding intensive farming facilities, which can be very significant sources of methane and ammonia emissions, to environmental permitting would ensure that we do not waste public money on reducing those sources of pollution if we can continue to use the existing regulatory standards that do the job for us.

Amendment 297 would also reintroduce a requirement that would be lost through the loss of cross-compliance on farmers to take reasonable steps to maintain soil cover and to limit the loss of soil through wind erosion. These again are sensible standards that we would expect farmers to abide by in order to preserve our soil stock. Soil is a vital element of a healthy, functioning farming system and of our countryside. I will leave my comments there, but I am grateful to make a short contribution to this debate. It is hugely important to ensure that we do not allow any loss of regulatory standards as we shift to the new regime.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, I speak in support of the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Dr Pangloss found the hedge a perfect place for him to do his experimentation. Hedges and ponds are not only items of beauty for our countryside; they are the bedrock above the ground of the countryside. There is no negative impact, except for pursuit of profit, to getting behind these two amendments. In support of them, I ask my noble friend whether the Government will support them; we would not then have to be Panglossian in that respect.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Labour

My Lords, I speak briefly in support of Amendment 230, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. Hedgerows are much more than boundaries and a way to manage animals, as a recent story in my local newspaper, the Halesowen News, illustrated. Local residents in Halesowen were furious when the council “butchered” their local hedgerows. The residents recognised that the hedgerow blocked noise and reduced pollution and they also welcomed the fact that it provided a habitat for many species of wildlife, including nesting birds and small mammals such as hedgehogs, and contained many flowers and fruits essential for the bees.

Hedgerows are an essential component of the local agri-eco system; that is why Amendment 230 is so important in making sure that we continue to give hedgerows the protections that they need. They also play a vital role in reducing the rate of climate change through carbon storage, they regulate the water supply for crops and reduce soil erosion. Animal health can also be improved by hedgerows: a thick stock-proof hedge can prove a barrier to the spread of disease and can provide shade and shelter and reduce wind speeds. Recent research has shown, for example, that lamb survival rates are increased by hedgerows reducing the chilling effect of the wind.

Where there are gaps in the law after we leave the EU, we should take the opportunity through this Bill to ensure that they are filled. Amendment 230 makes sure that hedgerows are not overlooked by the Bill. We cannot let some areas of nature be overlooked, and I hope that the Government will accept this amendment. If the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, cannot accept it, can he set out in some detail for the Committee how the protection that this amendment seeks to put in force will be delivered?

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, makes a powerful case for a new environmental regulatory regime for agriculture in introducing Amendment 229. While I accept that regulation will never stand still but always evolve in line with famers’ and consumers’ priorities and our understanding of the natural environment and what affects it, I think that, at a time when farmers are having to adapt their business models to reflect the loss of what is, for many, the largest single component of their annual incomes, introducing a new regulatory regime would be unnecessarily burdensome and confusing.

I seek clarification from my noble friend the Minister that the cross-compliance rules will also apply to payments under the ELM scheme; I expect that this would mean that this amendment and, indeed, Amendments 230 and 231, in the name of my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, are not necessary. Furthermore, his intention to reduce from 20 metres to 10 metres the minimum length of hedgerows to which regulations apply is surely disproportionate and unreasonable. Is my noble friend not aware that, up and down the country, farmers are putting in new hedgerows?

In Amendment 297, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, seeks to place a limit on rearing pigs on any land at a density greater than 20 healthy pigs per hectare. A friend of mine whose family have farmed pigs in Lincolnshire for generations tells me that this density is very low. I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm that he agrees.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend because I was also hoping to ask for confirmation that hedgerows will be covered within ELMS and that famers will have to meet the cross-compliance requirements. From memory, when we had the debate on Clause 1 and the many amendments that were tabled at that time, it was my understanding that that would be the case. I know that my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge has taken great interest and is very expert in this area. I also am concerned about water quality and our requirements under the water framework directive; I am interested to know if we will keep up with the requirements of the successor water framework directives to come.

My main point is that I find Amendment 229 from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, very interesting, but I would be rather aghast to think that we were going to have a new environmental regulatory regime. I take this opportunity, if I may, to say to my noble friend the Minister that there is great uncertainty at the moment as to what the regulatory regime will be, as we have not yet had sight of the Environment Bill. Perhaps I am being slow here, but I do not see what the relationship will be between the office for environmental protection and the Environment Agency, Natural England, Rural Payments Agency and the host of other bodies. Who will be the policeman in all this and who will be giving the friendly advice to farmers in this regard?

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

My Lords, the case for environmental and agricultural regulation has been set out very clearly by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. It is important that there is an updated regulatory framework. The Agriculture Bill makes radical changes to the way that funding is allocated. The ELMS are very different from direct payments, and it is therefore essential that the framework reflects the thrust of the Government’s intentions. A farm inspection only once every 200 years is pathetic, and indeed dangerous. Bringing the framework in line with the environmental standards that will pertain once the Bill has passed is essential. We cannot have two separate standards, otherwise there will be wholesale confusion. Effective compliance cannot be implemented without an updated regulatory framework; without this, it appears like putting the cart before the horse.

Amendment 230 proposes a new clause to protect hedgerows and gives detail on how this should be designed and implemented. I fully support this amendment, as other noble Lords have. Over the years, since I was a child, I have seen hedgerows ripped out to allow farmers to plough larger tracts of land. This has meant that the feeding and breeding grounds of small birds and insects have disappeared, leading to the disappearance of some iconic species, such as the bullfinch. This amendment seeks to protect the margins at the edges of fields and to reinstate hedgerows. It is important to reconnect with the wildlife that previously lived in our hedgerows and field margins. I believe this is a move in the right direction, and support the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin.

Amendment 231, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, seeks to protect water, wells, springs and bore-holes from pollution. The area where I live is covered with natural springs, some of which provide domestic water supplies; preventing the pollution of this water is therefore extremely important. Farmers should do everything possible to prevent poisonous chemicals from entering the watercourses, and this should include pesticides and herbicides. Water is an important, life-saving ingredient in agriculture, and it provides biodiversity. I welcome this amendment and look forward to the Minister agreeing to this.

Amendments 296 and 297 propose a new schedule, which would introduce animal welfare standards for pigs, cows and cattle, give minimum standards of space and give protection to water and soil quality. Intensive farming and livestock management has a downside on both animal welfare and soil quality. I support this amendment and look forward to hearing positive comments from the Minister. I feel a bit sad that I am getting quite excited at the prospect of actually reaching—[Inaudible.]

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Yes, we are all excited.

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 296 and 297 in this group. I am also speaking in support of the amendments in the names of my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Randall. He has made a significant contribution to this and other debates, and we are grateful to him for raising the issue of protecting hedgerows this evening. It is an issue which many people care deeply about, and a number of noble Lords have reflected that this evening.

Our amendments propose a new schedule to modernise regulations relating to intensive farming and the management of livestock and soil. They fit in with the suite of amendments on the need to create a new regulatory framework regime, which has been expertly introduced by my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. As she and other noble Lords have pointed out, the Bill in its current form fails to provide the regulatory baseline which will be lost when we leave the CAP cross-compliance requirements. For example, when we are no longer bound by the good agricultural and environmental condition standards in England, there will be gaps left in relation to good soil management, hedgerow management and the protection of small water bodies.

The Bill also misses the opportunity to update the regulations on some of the emerging environmental issues in agriculture, where we are rightly demanding higher standards. For example, there are regulatory gaps on the need for climate change mitigation and adaption, and for the use of integrated pest-management techniques to cut down on the use of pesticides.

Rather than deal with this in a piecemeal way, an overarching framework should be drawn up, which seeks to plug the existing gaps and, more importantly, sets out a new model based on the objectives of the Bill to better manage land in a way that improves the environment. Farm payments are clearly part of this. It would include setting standards and targets for compliance with the regulations. It would need to address the failures of the Environment Agency to have a credible programme of farm inspections. As my noble friend Lady Young’s amendment makes clear, it would also require a detailed programme of consultation, to ensure buy-in from stakeholders and to help deliver behaviour change.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, for her support for my amendments, which address the impact of ammonia emissions. Agriculture currently accounts for about 88% of total UK ammonia emissions. These come primarily from livestock manure in slurry in stores and when spread on the land as fertiliser. We are now much more aware of the dangers. As well as having direct health impacts, ammonia reacts in the soil and the air to form other pollutants. This is why the Environment Bill 2020 sets a target of an 8% reduction in ammonia emissions compared to 2005. Although small, we are still way off meeting this target and urgent action is needed in this area. The Agriculture Bill should play its part by bringing intensive beef and dairy production, and outdoor pig operations, into the environmental permitting regime. This would help us to meet those emission reduction targets.

Our amendments also address the scourge of soil degradation, which has already been debated and it was agreed needs urgent attention. It impacts not only on food production outputs but on greenhouse gas emissions, increased flooding and reduced water quality. The amendments would amend the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations to place stricter requirements on high-risk crops, to minimise soil erosion and diffuse pollution.

These are very specific amendments, but we agree that they should be considered in a wider regulatory review, as proposed by my noble friend Lady Young. I therefore hope that noble Lords will support them.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 8:45 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for another thought-provoking debate. Agriculture has a key role to play in the protection of the environment and helping us achieve the targets set out in the 25-year environment plan. The noble Baroness’s amendment raises some important aspects of an effective regulatory regime. We agree on the importance of consultation. The Government will increase their engagement with interested parties on agricultural regulation in the autumn. We will be seeking evidence and views to help develop plans and policies, to ensure that we have the best possible regulatory system for the agricultural sector in the future.

Existing regulations and regulatory bodies will continue to protect the environment. Having listened to their comments, is seems that some noble Lords are forgetting —or choosing to airbrush—all the domestic regulation that protects our air, water and land. For example, the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations include important protections that mandate action to reduce soil loss. The regulations on nitrates and on slurry, silage and agricultural fuel oil are designed to protect our watercourses. The Government will also raise standards, where needed, to protect our environment. As announced in the clean air strategy, the Government will require and support farmers to take more action to reduce ammonia emissions. We will work with farmers and land managers to uphold our standards.

While our current regulatory regimes will continue to work to ensure that the environment is protected, leaving the CAP is an important moment. The Government intend to seize this opportunity, engage with industry and work in partnership to strengthen how we regulate in the future. In establishing a new regulatory model, we want to work with the sector to get it right while ensuring that we always have a robust system of inspection and enforcement in place to uphold our important standards.

The Government envisage a future regulatory system designed with a focus on outcomes, both environmental and related to animal, health and welfare, with the core principles of partnership, adaptability, proportionality, transparency and efficiency at its heart. The Government will work across the Defra group to develop a shared strategy for farming and land-management regulation. This shared strategy will set out a clear vision for agricultural regulation and allow co-ordinated action and improvement across agencies aligned to Defra’s priorities, including those in the 25-year environment plan.

I am glad that my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge tabled Amendment 230. Hedgerows and field boundaries are the very essence of our countryside; they provide vital resources for mammals, birds and insect species. As well as being an important habitat in their own right, they act as wildlife corridors, allowing dispersal between isolated habitats. Many are also important historical and cultural landscape features. The Government recognise the crucial role hedgerows play in providing habitat in the 25-year environment plan and are committed to protecting them.

I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who is probably involved with this matter, that we already have domestic legislation, as he must be well aware, in the form of the Hedgerows Regulations 1997, which prohibit the removal of important hedgerows and have played a role in helping to stop the net loss of hedgerows that was observed before their introduction. Since the Hedgerows Regulations came into effect, evidence shows that the decline in the length of hedges reported in the 1980s has been halted and rates of removal have fallen markedly.

The role of hedgerows as important habitats for birds and their nesting sites is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Specifically, hedges may not be cut during bird-nesting season as this would harm birds or destroy their nests. Existing regulatory regimes protect hedgerows from removal and protect their function as important habitats. We want to support farmers, as custodians of the countryside, including through the creation, maintenance and protection of our hedgerows and other field boundaries.

My noble friend’s amendment would bring the rules on hedgerows, stone walls and stone and earth banks, which are contained in cross compliance, into domestic legislation. Cross compliance will continue for all BPS recipients for the time being. We will not start making delinked payments until 2022 at the earliest and not before consultation. In place of automatically replicating cross compliance rules in regulation, the Government intend to review the most effective mechanism to deliver against their environmental goals. A number of noble Lords have raised the fact that, under Clause 1, ELMS can provide financial assistance for hedgerow planting and maintenance where this helps to deliver environmental public goods.

The Government want to work with their partners to ensure that their regulatory response is effective and proportionate. We are committed to maintaining and improving environmental standards, working with and listening to industry to help us do so. To my noble friend I say that the Government are absolutely seized of the importance of hedgerows and boundaries, and we will be working in all respects to safeguard their future. They are really important.

To the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, I say that I am reminded of the Year of Green Action last year and the importance of encouraging—well beyond the farming community—those of us who garden, have allotments or can make a difference in some way. I certainly use this opportunity to suggest that, unless it is for safety reasons, we should not cut our hedges too early. I am also mowing a lot less and it is interesting to see so many more pollinators on my very scrappy grass.

Amendment 231 would amend the farming rules for water, and with it I shall also address Amendments 296 and 297. The Government understand the urgent importance of protecting our soils and have committed in the 25-year environment plan to having sustainably managed soils by 2030. Clause 1(1)(j) provides for financial assistance to manage land or water in a way that protects and improves the environment and for the protection and improvement of soil. The Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations, known as the farming rules for water, already cover the management of buffer strips. It is expected that all farmers will continue to implement these as a reasonable precaution to prevent diffuse pollution. If farmers fail adequately to utilise such measures where necessary, they will be considered to be non-compliant.

The Government agree that records can be important for demonstrating compliance and also understand the value of buffer strips in mitigating pollution. The Government will conduct and publish a review of the farming rules for water early next year, where the effectiveness of these regulations will be fully assessed and stakeholders consulted. During the review, the Government will ensure that watercourse buffer strips and the inclusion of inland water sources are duly considered. The clean air strategy commits to extend environmental permitting to the dairy and intensive beef sectors by 2025, and the powers to extend the legislation to these sectors are already in place. As part of this work, we will consider whether other sectors need further regulation.

On pig production, I say to my noble friend that the largest intensive pig sector installations are already regulated through the environmental permitting regulations. Installations with more than 2,000 places for production pigs over 30 kg and 750 places for sows currently require a permit. I have taken some advice on pig density: it is considered that a proposed pig density limit of 20 pigs per hectare is particularly low.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about policing and advisers. Existing bodies will continue to protect the environment. The Environment Agency and Natural England will use advice-led enforcement.

I turn to Amendment 233. The Government are conducting a comprehensive post-implementation review of the slurry, silage and agricultural fuel oil and related nitrate regulations. This review will consider all the provisions in the regulations holistically and look at how we regulate more modern practices, such as the use of slurry bags. The Government are committed to the environment and have set ourselves challenging goals in the 25-year environment plan. To meet these, we need to consider the best way to manage environmental pressures, including slurry and silage. This review is already under way and we should not pre-empt its outcome. We should take a broad view of the changes, if any, needed to ensure we can meet those 25-year environment plan goals.

I shall repeat what I said on the previous group to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. I am very happy to discuss her thoughts on these matters, particularly since the Government are well-seized of the importance of a proportionate and proper regulatory regime. We already have our domestic regulations and requirements, and we will continue with cross-compliance until there has been consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, should not worry; they will not be lost until we are working on replacements. It is very important that we work together on this, so I say to the noble Baroness that I am sure the experts will be happy to discuss this with her, and I would be delighted to be part of that if she would like. I hope she is reassured of the importance that the Government place on ensuring that we have contemporary regulations that are couched to improve the environment and to work with farmers. On that basis, I hope she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 9:00 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, rightly pointed out the possible environmental downside of those farmers who choose not to enter ELMS, which will of course be voluntary. The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, rightly pointed out that if we have to pay for minimum environmental standards that are currently delivered under the cross-compliance regime it would have a huge impact on the public purse.

The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, were anxious about a new regulatory regime being too burdensome for farmers at this time of flux, but I think that this is just the time. It is really important to give farmers a clear regulatory framework in which they can operate and make other changes to their farming businesses driven by the requirements of this Bill and our exit from the CAP. It would be really useful for farmers to know what is expected of them and to get the help and advice they need from the regulator on how to comply with the regulatory framework. I press the Government to move as quickly as possible on this.

I was not quite clear on, and I will want to read again in Hansard, what the Minister said about the continuation of some sort of cross-compliance. It would be useful to get from the Minister, if possible, a note to clarify the assurances that he gave about many of these issues being covered by other regulatory regimes, just so that we can be sure that all the things put in these amendments as needing to be preserved when the cross-compliance regime disappears are fully covered by existing regulatory requirements, particularly domestic regulation. We are not airbrushing that out; I simply continue to point to the fact that, even though we may have domestic regulation on soils, muddy floods continue to occur. It is only where we have seen local engagement by the Environment Agency with groups of maize farmers, for example, working with them collectively, that some of the intrinsically difficult practices in maize production have been reduced. The domestic regulation does not seem to be working; only in-depth collaboration in an advisory capacity with the regulator produces the results.

I thank the Minister for his offer of a meeting; I shall take him up on that. I look forward to the consultation and the extensive work on a new regulatory model that will kick off in the autumn. I hope that does not mean that anything dreadful is going to be done to the Environment Agency or Natural England. They need to get on with it, rather than be reorganised. We do not need a single environmental regulator just for agriculture. It is vital that we have skilful regulators who know what they are talking about because they are specialists and who draw their expertise also from case law and experience in regulating the same issues across a range of sectors. I welcome the fact that the Government will think long and deep and talk earnestly with the rest of us about that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 229 withdrawn.

Amendments 230 to 234 not moved.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I understand that neither the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, nor anyone else listed to speak wishes to move his Amendment 235.

Amendment 235 not moved.

Amendment 236 not moved.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 236A. 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.