My Lords, we have come to this final stage of—I think we would say—lengthy deliberations on a Bill which will have a lasting impact on farming and the rural economy. It has been my privilege, coming from a farming background, to have responsibility for the Bill.
It has also presented, if I may say, some challenges from all sides of the House—and quite often from behind me. I am clear that our consideration of the Bill has been full and detailed. My noble friend Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist—to whom I pay a very strong tribute—and I have enjoyed the opportunity to discuss with your Lordships these important matters. I think we would all accept that it has been wide ranging, and I entirely appreciate the commitment with which your Lordships have scrutinised the Bill.
In particular, I acknowledge the cordial working relationship we have both had with the noble Baronesses on the Front Benches opposite and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. We all seek a vibrant future for British farmers and the production of food of high quality and to a high standard. Farmers are also custodians of the countryside and our landscapes, and I believe the Bill provides a framework for these two imperatives: food production and an enhanced environment.
I also take the opportunity to thank the Bill team and all the officials at Defra and within the devolved Administrations for their collaborative working, which has made my task not only—on most occasions—straightforward but especially stimulating and rewarding. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his kind comments. By any measure, consideration of the Bill has been a mammoth task. In many ways, this is not surprising: this Bill is the first major piece of farming legislation for about 40 years, so there was a lot to discuss. We certainly had a lot of discussion.
I feel I know so much more about the personal lives of so many Peers—their favourite butterflies, their favourite trees, their best-loved walks and landscapes, and even sometimes their special hobbies. Their determination to keep talking past my bedtime has been impressive. I have also been genuinely impressed by their commitment to the environment, and indeed to a policy based on nature-friendly farming for the future. Throughout it all, the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, have been the personification of patience and courtesy, and I pay tribute to them both for their professionalism and for initiating the many briefings and discussions which took place around the Bill in an attempt to reach understanding and consensus.
At the end of the day, we have sent only six amendments back to the Commons, and those represent some of the biggest issues where we were unable to reach a consensus. I hope the Commons will understand the strength of feeling from around the Chamber on our concerns, and indeed feel able to reflect on and reconsider its position on those issues. I really hope that it is able to do that, but I suspect that this is not quite the end of the road for the Bill and that it will be back with us again all too soon.
In the meantime, I formally thank both the Minister and the Bill team for getting us to this point. I also thank Daniel Stevens, our legislative officer, for his excellent advice and drafting skills. Finally, I thank my noble friends Lord Grantchester and Lady Wilcox for contributing their expertise with such style and for being such great partners in our team.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his time, patience and wisdom in helping us through the passage of the Bill. We have had a great many amendments to deal with, many speakers and some very late nights. Throughout, the Minister has been thorough in his responses and polite; I am sure, had I been in his place, I would not have remained so placid. I am very grateful to him for his diligence and support.
Like others, I have learned a great deal more about agriculture and the land through the passage of the Bill. I also place on record my thanks to the officials for the numerous briefings we have received over the months since Easter. In some cases, there were over 15 officials on the Zoom calls, helping us to get to grips with the Bill and the many clauses we were attempting to amend.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for their support throughout this process, and those on the Cross Benches who have worked with us to ensure that the issues the public were so concerned about got a proper airing. I agree with her that it will be interesting to see what the Commons sends back to us.
Lastly, but by no means least, I thank the Liberal Democrat whips’ office, without which I would have been floundering with the processes involved in getting to this stage today. This has been a long haul, but we have got there. I again thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, for their guidance on the Bill.
My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, and before her the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Both have contributed enormously to the debates on this Bill. It is a daunting task to be speaking on behalf of my noble friends from the Cross Benches. I could not possibly reflect the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge that resides within the Cross-Bench group. It is a great honour to speak on behalf of my colleagues at Third Reading.
This Bill is of huge significance. I was listening to a presentation yesterday, during which this point in history was once again likened to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the 1947 Agriculture Act. It represents fundamental change: a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape the management of the countryside and how we redesign our agriculture. For myself, and a number of us on the Cross Benches and indeed across the whole House, farming and land management have been our main occupation and our lifetime’s work. So, to have the opportunity of participating in this Bill, trying to shape it to make sure it is fit for purpose, has been a privilege and an incredible experience.
I genuinely believe that the amendments that my noble friends and I have sponsored have improved the Bill. I will not attempt to list them, because I run the risk of missing an important contribution, but I have, once again, been so impressed by the depth of resource, the expertise and the knowledge available on the Benches. To be able to interrogate this Bill line by line and scrutinise with vast knowledge of the subject does demonstrate, once again, the value of this House.
Of course, the job is not finished: I do hope our colleagues in the other House do not dismiss our amendments out of hand, but take them seriously, recognising that they are a genuine attempt to improve the Bill and to cover issues of importance and relevance to the agricultural sector at this great time of change. Also, since this is a framework Bill, we look forward to receiving more detail in due course, particularly as evidence from the ELMS pilots becomes available. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the House will have the opportunity to comment on the ELMS pilots and the plans to roll them out nationally in due course.
Finally, it is my pleasure to thank all those who have contributed to the smooth running of the process in challenging circumstances: the Bill team was incredibly helpful in dealing with endless queries and in the drafting of amendments; the clerks, as usual, in their guidance and organisational professionalism; the many who work behind the scenes have played a key role, particularly the digital team, who successfully delivered a service to us all so we could contribute in sequence—quite remarkable technology. I thank them all very much indeed. Once again, a big thank you to the Front Bench ministerial team for their tolerance, courtesy, patience and the comprehensive way in which they responded to debates. Thank you.
I do not think we have the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, do we? No. Then we will go on to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood.
My Lords, we have had a very interesting, worthwhile and civilised series of sessions, discussing our individual, and the Government’s, visions, ideas and plans for the future of rural Britain and agriculture. Clearly there are disagreements, but overall there is a degree of consensus, which I personally much welcome. However, while I do not wish to be the bad fairy at the christening, I do wish to point out that this is an enabling Bill, and without the measures that follow, nothing can result. It is about that that I wish to comment and, at this point, I reiterate my interest as declared in the register and note the agricultural organisations with which I am involved.
I feel I have no alternative but to tell the House that I fear the emperor may have no clothes. I have had no information not in the public domain, and I know that some confidential information has in fact found its way into the press. However, I am quite clear that a number of those who are committed to working closely with the Government and Defra on these matters, and who will not fail to continue to do so—people who come from the practical world of agriculture and the environment—are very concerned that the department is simply not grounded in reality. Farming and land management have to be grounded.
In particular, there are real anxieties about the ability of the Sustainable Food Initiative to act as a bridge between the basic payment scheme and ELMS because, quite simply, there is not enough money. It is as simple as that, and those who say it understand these things. Equally, there is no confidence that working IT systems either will or indeed can be put in place in time. After all, we have been there quite recently. Failure in these respects will certainly lead to significant numbers of farms and rural businesses going bust.
The Minister, as many have said quite rightly, has conducted the proceedings in a genial and constructive manner admired by all around the House, but we must not forget what is happening behind the proscenium arch and curtain in front of which he delivers his lines. If I am right—and, unusually for me, I hope I am not, but I fear it is possible I may be—all that we have been discussing over the past few weeks will turn out to be an agreeable hallucination that will turn into nightmares or worse for many in rural Britain, particularly smaller businesses. Perfectly decent enabling legislation is quite capable of metamorphosing into appalling public administration. Let us all hope and pray that it will not happen in this instance, but the potential for it to do so is clearly there.
My Lords, perhaps I may say to my noble friend Lord Marlesford that I will contact him and hear what he has to say. We have heard from the South Downs, Somerset, Northumberland, Cumbria, and we would have heard from Suffolk—that range of great landscape and food production. I am reminded by the two noble Baronesses talking of late nights that of course there are late nights of harvest as we try to ensure we get as much in before the weather changes or before the moisture rate gets too much. There are also early mornings, which is so much a feature of livestock farming. I know very few farmers who think that late nights are a very good idea. So there has been some stamina about our deliberations, and that is something I admire in this House. We really get stuck in and we take to these things.
The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, with his very great experience, used the word “reshaping”, but there are some great constants as well. It is essential that we provide good food in this country. It is essential that we have good husbandry of the animals that we are the custodians of as farmers, that provide food as well.
I also reflect on the experience of your Lordships and, as I have said before, being a Minister in the House of Lords is a very different concept to the other place. I know that there are many noble Lords who know far more about the subject than I do. That is not the case, I suspect, in the other place, and it sometimes does help to raise one’s game.
On ELMS, I well understand the importance of the test and trials. That is why I have been very straightforward with your Lordships that across the piece, in every part of the country, with all land tenures and different topographies, the tests and trials are in place so that this works for the farmer and the land manager. Whether it is tier 1, 2 or 3, it is designed to be their scheme too. I look forward to keeping your Lordships involved and engaged in those matters.
I have to warn your Lordships that obviously Defra will bring forward a programme of statutory instruments; I understand that three will arise from this legislation. However, clearly, in the months and years ahead, statutory instruments will be engaged as we move forward, and I look forward to working with your Lordships on them.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that we have of course found a lot of consensus, and where we have disagreed and there have been civilised collisions, I utterly respect the views that have been expressed. I say to the noble Lord that I think I am grounded, and I know jolly well that my ministerial colleagues are. We are acutely aware, as we go through a period of change, that we need to work with each and every farmer up and down the land and to work collaboratively with them, because this is a joint venture. I am not very good with IT systems—I am always nervous of them. I have taken that point and I have already made that point, but it is helpful to have that on the record. [Interruption.] There must be a farmyard somewhere in the House.
We have all worked extremely hard on the Bill and it has been a privilege to serve your Lordships.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.