Amendment 31

Agriculture Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 15 September 2020.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch:

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

31: Clause 4, page 5, line 14, at end insert—“( ) The Secretary of State must have regard to the current environmental improvement plan when setting out strategic priorities for giving financial assistance during the plan period.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to have regard to environmental improvement plans when planning the provision of financial assistance for agriculture.

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

My Lords, Amendment 31 would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the Government’s environmental improvement plan when setting out their strategic priorities for financial assistance in the multiannual plans.

This amendment tackles an issue raised in previous debates in your Lordships’ House—the lack of joined-up policy across the different initiatives before us. It was an issue in the Fisheries Bill, and there is a similar issue in this Bill. It was a failing identified by this year’s report of the Natural Capital Committee, which criticised the silo approach to policies being adopted by Defra. It is a failing identified by the Committee on Climate Change, which wrote to the Minister, Victoria Prentis, in June this year, urging the department to develop a joined-up approach, stating:

“Defra has yet to set out how ELM”— environmental land management—

“the Environment Bill, the 25 Year Environment Plan and various policies planned for trees, peatlands and nature will fit together.”

It is also a failing underlined by the latest progress report on the 25-year environment plan, which showed, for example, no progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from natural resources such as agriculture and forestry.

This amendment would forge a critical link between the Agriculture Bill, the Environment Bill and the 25-year environment plan. It would ensure that we avoid the mistakes of the past, where the common agricultural policy made decisions on farming which bore no relationship to the EU’s environmental policy.

We accept that the Government’s current intention is to base the new ELM scheme on the 25-year environment plan. This point was made by the Minister in Committee when we tabled a similar amendment. But this Bill is for the long term, and policy priorities change. Equally, the 25-year environment plan is a long-term document. It would be all too easy for these documents to diverge over time. Without the clear link to the environment improvement plan set out on the face of the Bill, it would be entirely possible for a future Secretary of State to set out strategic priorities for financial assistance under this Bill that bear no relationship to the key environmental strategy set out elsewhere. The amendment seeks to fill that structural deficit. It would provide stability and reassurance for the long term, and policy direction to address the many criticisms of a lack of joined-up government on these issues.

We were disappointed that the Government did not hear the sense of our argument at Committee and come back with their own version of an amendment which would address our concerns. I ask the Minister specifically to give a commitment to come back at Third Reading with a government amendment on this issue. If the noble Baroness feels unable to do so, I give notice now that I am minded to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and to support this amendment. She set out the issues clearly, so I will be brief.

In Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has already mentioned, the Government sought to reassure noble Lords that they were committed to achieving their aim of leaving the environment in a better state than they found it and that the environmental improvement plans involved in this strategy would be covered in the Environment Bill. We were also told that the office for environmental protection will monitor progress and make recommendations to the Government for further action. We do not yet know what sort of teeth the OEP will have and whether or not the Government will follow its recommendations.

How are the Government doing in their aim of leaving the environment in a better state than they found it? The 2019-20 government report on progress with the 25-year plan lists 17 indicators, of which seven are going in the right direction, seven are neutral and only three are going downhill. Noble Lords might think that this sounds quite good, but the September 2019 report from the Natural Capital Committee is more concerning. The committee was asked by the then Secretary of State for Defra to provide detailed advice on how the state of nature is being measured to ensure the delivery of the 25-year plan. The Natural Capital Committee concludes that its assessment

“reveals a distinct lack of robust baseline against which to assess changes in the environment.”

So according to the Government’s own independent advisers, we simply do not know whether the state of the environment is improving or getting worse.

If we are to be sure that support for farmers will also support nature, we need not only a proper system of measurement but to ensure that, when farmers are paid to enhance the natural environment, the payments are targeted at the right things. To quote the management guru Peter Drucker, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Otherwise, the Government will not achieve their great ambition and future generations will wonder why we got it so badly wrong.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat 8:45, 15 September 2020

My Lords, I am delighted to have added my name to the amendment, which is now a cross-party amendment. While I will not repeat what other noble Lords have said, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, on the state of nature, I will say that we have had another report only this week from the RSPB, which shows that over the last 10 years the Government have missed a number of key biodiversity targets.

We will turn our natural recovery around only by giving the right economic incentives to our farmers. I think the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, was the first this evening to mention nature-friendly farming. We will not get the recovery we need for our nature unless we give the incentives to our farmers, who manage 69% of the land in our country. They are key to our nature recovery.

As it stands, the Bill gives the Secretary of State complete leeway between the allocations of funding for the different purposes in Clause 1 and Clause 2. Schemes with little environmental value might be supported; we could find that allocations are weighted towards productivity improvements or gobbled up by tier 1 options that add the least environmental value. We cannot afford to do that. We need to ensure that there is synergy between the Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill. The Government’s own discussion paper on ELMS says that the outcomes in the 25-year environment plan are a key guide for this financial assistance. We need to turn that into a reality. The way to do that is to put this in the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I add my support to the thrust of this amendment, moved so excellently by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I support the idea that we need a joined-up approach to tackling environmental challenges. The aim of linking the Agriculture Bill, the Environment Bill and the 25-year environment plan by putting this into the Bill makes eminent sense, especially as I know that this Government are committed to real action and development on climate change and have already done significant amounts to make sure that this country is a world-leader in pushing forward with environmental protections and climate change planning.

I hope that my noble friend will be able to reassure the House on this issue and, ideally, table the Government’s own proposals at the next stage, so that we are able to put this in the Bill. I know that we can be proud of the Government’s record on climate change and that there may well be significant desire to ensure that this is not a contentious issue and that there is cross-party support, as we have seen in the debates so far.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. It is certainly a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Jones of Whitchurch—I wholeheartedly endorse her views—and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.

As a number of speakers have already said, we are seeking to bring about the most profound change in the way agriculture is managed and focused. If ever we had any doubt about the importance of the situation we are in, those who had the pleasure of watching the BBC’s programme on Saturday, hosted by David Attenborough, who talked about extinction in a calm, measured and scientific way, were shown beyond any doubt the challenges that we face. This amendment, bringing home to the Government the importance of linking the environmental challenge to the Agriculture Bill, is absolutely well-founded and I am only too happy to endorse it.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I also declare my interest as a member of the EU Environment Sub-Committee. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, on bringing forth this amendment. As its co-signatories and others who have supported the thrust of the amendment have said, it very clearly demonstrates the link between this Agriculture Bill, establishing public benefit and financial assistance for public goods, with the provisions of the Environment Bill.

I understand the difficulty the Minister is in, having listened very carefully to the words of our noble friend and colleague, the Minister who replied to an early debate, saying that he would love to give a date when the Environment Bill might be coming but was unable to do so. I hope my noble friend will look favourably on this amendment on equating the two Bills.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, this is one of those occasions when we have to try to reference across from another piece of legislation to make a coherent whole. Environmental considerations are key if we are to achieve half of the accepted objective. That is where we are: it is accepted as something that has to happen. We have to combine the two. The entire political class agrees that, since there must be environmental improvement, they are going to have to work with sectors such as agriculture, and just about every other sector, in order to achieve that. Unless something like this is written down, we know that departments and groups of officials and Ministers will tend to go their own way. They are not good at paying attention to people you “should” talk to; they pay attention to people you “have to” talk to. I suggest that something like this would actually be a very good thing to have in the Bill.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I too support this amendment and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling it again. Farmers have absolutely no idea what the future holds and what ELMS will contain—and we have none either. We have a blank canvas as far as that is concerned. Even on the last amendment, on training, my noble friend on the Front Bench said, “We are doing schemes—we still do not really know what we are doing, but we are doing tests at the moment to see what the best way forward is”.

Having heard the debates earlier on Clause 1, and having had support across the House for nature-friendly farming, it would seem to me utterly logical to include an amendment such as this, so that any potential farmer who reads this Bill will see that there is an immediate link to the environment. Therefore, I commend the amendment to the House.

I would also point out that this amendment will not cost the taxpayer a penny. In that respect it is one of the great amendments: it merely links two bits of legislation, and in doing so might even save the taxpayer money, because farmers and land managers will have a much clearer idea of what they are supposed to be doing to try to achieve a better and healthier farming environment.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, the value of the amendment is that it calls our bluff. The environment is something of which we are all in favour, like goodness and all the rest. But the question is: how do we turn our commitment in that sphere into action, and into substance? The amendment brings that home. We should not just get on with the task of agriculture and then add, “There’s an environmental concern, isn’t that nice?” We must relate the two, and this is the way to do it, so I am glad to support the amendment.

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

My Lords, during the various debates on this Bill I have made the connection between it and the Environment Bill that is coming down the line. The environment improvement plans and the Government’s 25-year environment plan cannot be divorced from what is happening in the Bill that we are discussing. All speakers have supported the amendment, and have made very similar comments.

The Agriculture Bill provides for multi-annual financial assistance plans, including identification of strategic priorities for assistance, the regard to be had to these strategic priorities when setting the budget, and monitoring the impact of the financial assistance given. There is, however, currently no requirement to take the goals and ambitions of the 25-year environment plan and the Environment Bill into account when setting strategic objectives for financial assistance.

It would be possible for the Secretary of State to set these strategic priorities under the Agriculture Bill, and for that to have no relevance to the key environmental strategy that should be guiding all investment in the natural environment. This appears to be nonsense, and presents a risk to environmental recovery, since the financial assistance schemes created by the Bill, particularly the ELMS, will be one of the main mechanisms for funding and achieving the goals of the 25-year environment plan. The CAP similarly failed to make the structural link to wider objectives, which allowed it to undermine environmental ambitions. But moving away from the CAP presents a unique opportunity to rectify this failure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and my noble friend Lady Parminter, along with noble Lord, Lord Krebs, have set out the case extremely clearly. Amendment 31 would give the Government a duty to consider the country’s environmental improvement plans when setting priorities for financial assistance schemes. This would ensure policy coherence. Environmental improvement plans will be created by the Environment Bill, and the first one will be the existing 25-year environment plan. But we do not yet have the Environment Bill.

The Government clearly intend to design the new environmental land management schemes, which are currently only in pilot stage, in such a way as to support delivery of the 25-year environment plan. However, over the years we have seen the failings of the CAP, highlighting the fact that good intentions do not always lead to the desired outcomes. How often that happens in life. I can hear my mother’s voice in my ear as I speak. Creating structural links between policy areas in law is not only important but vital, with the environment in its current state of catastrophic decline.

The Minister is aware of the concern on this issue, not only in this Chamber but in the whole country. I hope that he is in a position to give reassurance and commitments. If not, we will be supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and others in the Lobby.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 9:00, 15 September 2020

On Amendment 31, I reassure the noble Baroness that the Government will fully take into account the proposed steps and goals of environmental improvement plans, including the 25-year environment plan, when they determine the strategic priorities that will sit within the multiannual financial assistance plans, so the amendment is simply not necessary.

The Government are absolutely committed to achieving their aim of leaving the environment in a better state than when they found it. That is why they are seeking to legislate for environmental improvement plans in the Environment Bill that is currently in the other place in order to drive forward long-term improvements to our natural environment. The 25-year environment plan will be adopted as the first statutory environmental improvement plan and the Government expect it to set the benchmark for future EIPs.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked a characteristically cogent question about the lack of a proper system of measurement, as identified by the Natural Capital Committee. We are engaging with stakeholders, scientists, economists and environmentalists, including the Natural Capital Committee, to develop comprehensive indicators to measure progress towards the goals set out in the 25-year environment plan.

The planned introduction of the ELM scheme under Clause 1 of the Bill clearly demonstrates the Government’s commitment to look at wider environmental objectives when setting their strategic priorities for funding under their multiannual financial assistance plans. Indeed, the ELM scheme will be a key mechanism for delivering the environmental goal set out in the 25-year environment plan by providing farmers and other land managers with public money for the delivery of multiple public goods.

There are six key public goods that the ELM will help to deliver that correspond directly with goals set out in the 25-year environment plan: namely, clean air, clean and plentiful water, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment. Defra’s ELM team is currently working on understanding the full range of actions that the scheme could pay for in order to deliver across all the goals in the 25-year environment plan.

Should there be any changes to the plan or a future environmental improvement plan, the Government will review the ELM scheme to ensure that the public goods that it is funding remain in line with delivering the priority goals and commitments that the Government have set out in the plan. The Government will be publicly accountable for the delivery of the strategic priorities in both its multiannual financial assistance plan and the environmental improvement plans. This House will of course have the opportunity to scrutinise the drafting of provisions for the environmental improvement plans when the Environment Bill reaches this House.

I had hoped that with this reassurance I would be able to persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to withdraw her amendment. However, I cannot make the commitment that she seeks to table a government amendment at Third Reading.

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

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have added their support today. As the evening gets later, we seem to be finding more and more consensus around the Chamber, which is very welcome.

I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who rightly reminded us that, as the Natural Capital Committee flagged up, proper systems of measurement are absolutely crucial in terms of the future of environment plans and the crossover with our agricultural activities. We have to have proper measuring systems to measure outcomes and to measure success, but at the moment those links are not obviously made through legislation.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for reminding us of the State of Nature report and the RSPB report. They make very depressing reading but show the scale of the task ahead and why the sorts of measures that are in our amendment are so important.

I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. He is absolutely right that we do not know what the future holds, but we need to get farmers more guarantees and security for the future, and that is why we are attempting to build in those long-term connections. I am also grateful to him for pointing out that the amendment would not cost the Government anything; indeed, there is a very strong case for saying that the integrated policies that we are suggesting should be introduced might actually save the Government money. That should be a welcome outcome.

I say to the Minister that the Government can make commitments but, as noble Lords have often been reminded on other occasions and in other debates, the Government cannot commit future Governments. We are trying to build in a long-term connection between these two separate arms of Defra’s activity. Yes, I absolutely agree that ELMS will be a crucial part of delivering the 25-year environment plan, which is why it is important that that is in the Bill and that it has long-term resonance to it. The Minister was right to anticipate that I would not be happy with her response. I am sorry to say that I am not. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 258, Noes 208.

Division number 2 Agriculture Bill - Report (1st Day) — Amendment 31

Aye: 258 Members of the House of Lords

No: 208 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Amendment 31

Amendment 31 agreed.

Amendments 32 to 34 not moved.