Examination of Witness

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 23rd October 2018.

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Andrew Clark gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 2:06 pm, 23rd October 2018

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We will now hear oral evidence from the National Farmers Union. Will you identify yourself for the record?

Andrew Clark:

I am Andrew Clark, director of policy at the National Farmers Union.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you for taking the trouble to join us. We have until 2.30 pm for this line of questioning. I am sorry we are running slightly late, but there were some domestic issues that had to be discussed. The first question is from the Minister.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q 25 Thank you, Mr Clark. Do you agree with the central premise of the Bill, which is that the end state should be that we phase out direct area subsidy payments, and instead support agriculture in a different way, helping it to invest in productivity and deliver environmental outcomes and other public benefits?

Andrew Clark:

We certainly agree with the central premise that we should move to a new state. We believe that the transition period of seven years is probably the right timescale at the moment. However, we are concerned that it is difficult to predict the circumstances we will find ourselves in during that seven years—or even next week. During those seven years, while moving to a situation where public goods are the primary reward for farm businesses, there should be an opportunity for Ministers to pause, reflect and review that transition, and to vary payments.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q So you support the power to extend the transition during the transition.

Andrew Clark:

We would like to widen that power slightly to allow Ministers and future Governments to vary the transition according to economic circumstances and the ability of farm businesses to deliver on the public goods that you want to achieve.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q You have talked about food security being an objective of policy. What do you deem to be the correct level of self-sufficiency?

Andrew Clark:

It is a good question. For starters, we are very clear in our mind that food security is a public good. It is in the public interest to ensure that there is a sufficient level of food supply from domestic sources. One of the changes to the Bill that we would like is clarification that it is a particular objective of the Government to achieve food security. We believe this should be a direction of travel, rather than wanting a particular level. Clearly, for different crops, there are different levels of food security. In some crops, we could be 100% self-sufficient; in others, such as bananas and aubergines, we probably never will or should be. We believe food security should be an objective of the Bill and should be in there with public goods.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Finally on this point, do you think the fact that sectors such as poultry, pigs and soft fruit—the ones that have traditionally received no support—are the ones in which we are most self-sufficient slightly undermines the argument that direct payments of one sort or another are essential to deliver food self-sufficiency?

Andrew Clark:

Our objective would be to ensure that there was intervention to assist all businesses, in whatever sector, in contributing towards food security and sustainable management of the land. Every sector has a contribution to make to that. Pigs and poultry indirectly benefit from the fact that they take feedstocks from other parts of the farm economy—notably cereal farmers—that receive direct payments.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Finally—I know we are short of time—part 2 of the Bill gives the Government powers to simplify and improve the legacy basic payment scheme system. What would your organisation most like to see changed during that transition period?

Andrew Clark:

That is a good question. One of the things we would like to see is a simplification of the approach. The objective of simplifying and improving is laudable. One of the concerns about the transition relates to untangling the bureaucracy we find currently with greening—the detail of measurement and that type of thing. In terms of outcomes, however, some of those greening measures potentially have good benefits for farm businesses and the sustainable management of land and soils, and we would be disappointed if the existing benefits from agriculture production were lost during the transition period.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Very quickly, what other worries have you got about this BillQ ?

Andrew Clark:

There are a number of worries. The Bill is fairly silent on three crucial areas that we think need to be addressed. Ministers have rightly made a lot of points about farmers’ proud record on caring for the environment and, in particular, animal welfare and health. It seems to us that the Bill should give greater provision to protecting and retaining farming standards, environmental standards and animal health and welfare standards, in the face of the new trading environment. We would like to see some measures, and perhaps some amendment, relating to that.

As the Minister has pointed out, the long-term commitment is for farming to continue to deliver a contract around environmental and land management. That is a multi-annual commitment, and we believe that there should be a multi-annual budget to go along with that, rather than just a year-to-year budget. We would like to see something that reflects the long-term nature of the farming community’s expectations in the Bill.

The final thing is that we feel that there is not quite enough agriculture in the Agriculture Bill. Although it sets out clearly what types of things can be done—perhaps not how they will be done—it does not say who will benefit from those payments. We think it is important that it is the active land manager, the farmer and the food producer. It should be seen through the prism of food production and the active management of land.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Just a very quick rejoinder. If the Bill goes through unamended, what type of farmers are most at risk from the changes?

Andrew Clark:

The economic modelling that has been done suggests that it is the livestock sector—particularly beef and sheep, and especially in the lowlands. A lot of focus is given to upland farming—I have great interest in that myself, having worked on conservation and environmental schemes for most of my career at the NFU—but lowland livestock farms in marginal situations in the west of the country have few choices other than grazing land. They are particularly vulnerable communities. Very often, they are communities; they are not just isolated farms. They form a network and the backbone of both the landscape and the farming community.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

In this morning’s evidence session, we had two farmers from different parts of the country, representing different types of farms. One was from Cambridgeshire, where the fields have been amalgamated and production is very intensive, and the other was from the south-west, and he said, for example, that the field margins around hedges discriminated against him because he has small fields. On my farm, I have very small fields, compared with my next-door neighbour, and I always feel that we are being picked on.Q

As we go forward, how can we manage to have a system that works for the farmers who have intensified their farms and are going to green them up while not being unfair to the ones who are already very green? How do we reward progress and, at the same time, reward the people who have always been doing the right thing?

Andrew Clark:

This is one thing I wanted to pick up in evidence to the Committee. The legislation that we are looking at is only half of the formula that needs to be delivered in order for farms to be profitable, sustainable and productive in future. It is the policy that goes alongside that legislation that is important. That policy needs to be one of opportunity, that creates opportunities for farms to follow the approach, whether it is public good provision, or becoming more productive or, hopefully, doing both those things together.

Looking at that policy and the measures that are available, it is important that the Agriculture Bill ensures, in fact, almost places a duty on Ministers, to deliver schemes that help farms to be both more productive and more sustainable in future. Those two themes would apply both to the farmer in the west country and the farmer in East Anglia. There are great opportunities for both of them to manage soils better or protect waters and thereby manage their farms in a more profitable and productive way in future—for instance, by nutrient management and introducing some of the approaches in terms of minimum till agriculture. That would apply to both farming situations.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian

This a very straightforward question, but I am not sure you are the person to comment on it. Do you think in this primary legislation an opportunity could be taken to resolve the red meat levy discrepancy between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and EnglandQ ?

Andrew Clark:

For fear of breaking into devolved discussions, I suspect that the Agriculture Bill is not the right place. I suspect that the reform of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 that set up the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board in the first place, might be the appropriate place. Whether legislation is the way to sort that out or having the parties sit round the table and come to agreement, it is part of a wider issue, which again is perhaps not covered in the Agriculture Bill as much as it should be.

Scotland is absent, as we know, from the schedules, which from a UK farming perspective is concerning. We would like to see a common framework in agreed areas across the whole country, because that benefits every farm business and allows the free flow of goods and services and agricultural activity across the whole UK economic area.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

World Trade Organisation rules have come up as a potential concern—that could constrain payments such as less favoured areas or coupled support. It has been said that the Secretary of State could potentially limit devolved Administrations or even England. In earlier evidence, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds saidQ that WTO concerns were a red herring. Is it a concern you share, considering that we have an aggregate measure of support in the amber box? Are you concerned about the WTO being an issue?

Andrew Clark:

There is clearly an obligation on the UK to be a responsible party to the WTO. However, the measures that have taken place that can influence that compliance and participation are devolved to individual parts of the UK and the Governments there. I think that devolution should be respected, but the Governments in each part of the UK need to come together, compare and agree an approach that works for every part of the UK.

We are concerned that, although there might be no intention at the present moment for some of these powers that are granted under the Agriculture Bill to be used by Ministers, this Bill could last 40 years. It could be another decades-long power. Those powers could be used very differently by different Administrations in future. In terms of the WTO obligations and powers, we are not sure how those powers might be used in future.

It is clear that we need to get some more clarity about the powers. That applies not just to the WTO provisions but to many other powers. I think the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee counted 26 new powers granted to Ministers across the Agriculture Bill. We need to have clarification about how those powers are going to be used, in order to have the full sight of Parliament and stakeholders such as the NFU on those detailed concerns.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

Q To follow up, as the amber box is as much as £3 billion, it would be highly unlikely unless an entire payment were to go into the amber part of the WTO, where that could be a concern. It is hypothetical as opposed to realistically going to arise, isn’t it?

Andrew Clark:

At present, it is hypothetical, but the point I am trying to make is that there is delegated ability to take action in each part of the UK. There needs to be agreement about how that is played out in a mature and professional way. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it is impossible. Clearly, £3 billion spent on an amber box in one country is impossible. We do not know what the total budget would be either. There are a number of factors around there that are still uncertain. What we would like to see is agreement between the devolved parts of the UK and Westminster about how that is taken forward and how those powers are deployed.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

Q I note your contention that there is not enough focus on food production in the Bill. Would you agree with me that there is also not enough focus on the delivery of safe and healthy food? Would you support a duty on the Secretary of State to support the development of local supply chains and other measures in order to ensure delivery of safe and healthy food?

Andrew Clark:

I am not sure I would go as far as a duty, but that is the sort of thing the NFU would like to include in the policy measures that are available and follow from that. Certainly, one of the objectives of food security could be strengthening and building local supply chains, both to private citizens and to the public sector as well.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

You mentioned earlier that livestock and lowland farms were identified as being particularly at risk. Given that they are already on fairly poor land—they are often coastal farms—does the Bill allow any mitigation to support those farms, and if not, what does the NFU recommendQ ?

Andrew Clark:

At present, the Bill does not go into that detail. That is something that would fall into the policy measures that would follow from this. There is potential for agri-environment schemes to help deliver support to those type of farms. Equally, I would see measures on the productivity cornerstone the NFU has been advocating as being suitable for those types of farm business so they can, as I say, be better, more sustainable food producers, but also sustainable in the environmental sense.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

Do you think the categories of extraordinary measures that can be introduced in the event of market failure or disease having a particular impact on certain sectors of agriculture are sufficient if the country, as a result of the introduction of these new schemes, loses its position on food security and imports take over a much higher proportion of the food consumed in this countryQ ?

Andrew Clark:

You make an important point. We are very pleased to see provision for measures to be taken in exceptional market circumstances. The concern we have around that comes down to a couple of things: first, the power is a power and not a duty. In the circumstances that exceptional market conditions exist and are recognised, Ministers may choose to take action rather than have any expectation or duty to do so. We would expect that would be more likely a duty that should reside with Ministers. Secondly, that it is qualified; there are a number of circumstances that have to be in place for that to be taken into account. We would like to see, for example, a consultation with the industry and consideration given to the marketplace and market returns to understand whether an exceptional market situation exists or could exist in the near future. There is more work to be done on that.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

Everyone agrees that certainty on how and where to invest, and so that people can lend money to farmers and the agricultural sector for investment, needs to be safeguarded as much as possible in the Bill. To put it another way, that is Q something on which the major political parties can coalesce and which will not be subject to tinkering every six minutes or every change of Parliament, and so on. What is your hunch? Is there enough in this Bill? Is it robust enough to give the agricultural sector—those who wish to invest in the staff working within it or to lend to it—the option of doing so in the confidence that there will be a UK agricultural sector 20, 30, 40 or 50 years hence?

Andrew Clark:

It is the start of that. There is certainty through to the end of this Parliament. The reason I raised the issue about a multi-annual budget is because we are not certain about the future. There is a transition path which sees the movement of money away from the basic payment scheme. We are not clear, apart from policy statements, about what that looks like or about the certainty and security that provides for farm businesses to invest in the future. Farm businesses are long-term investments. The food sector relies on 60% of its inputs from the farm sector in the UK, so we would hope that, by the time it leaves Parliament, the Bill will create that certainty and security for farm businesses and the rest of the food sector to invest with confidence. At present, without that budget certainty, I am not sure that there is that absolute cast-iron certainty.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

Sir Roger, may I clarify something?

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

Q Just as, for example, we have that welcome figure of 0.7% of GDP for international development, would you be happier if there were, or are you looking to have, some sort of guaranteed ring-fencing or envelope of money—although how the envelope is spent is possibly subject to change—so that you know full well there is money set aside by the bean counters in the Treasury and agriculture has not been forgotten, particularly in difficult spending rounds?

Andrew Clark:

That would certainly provide the certainty that we have been looking for. Whether a percentage of GDP or not, we would have to discuss—but that would be an ideal.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you. A final question from Deidre Brock.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

On theQ points you were making earlier regarding the free movement of goods and produce around the UK and ensuring that that is not hindered, is it not so that in some cases there are already quite significant divergences of approach in regulations in the four countries of the UK?

Andrew Clark:

I did not hear the middle part of the question, sorry.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

Q In regard to the point you made earlier about the free movement of goods and produce around the UK and that not being hindered, is it not the case that there are already quite significant divergences of approach in regulations in the four countries of the UK?

Andrew Clark:

I do not want the Committee to go away with a misunderstanding. I am not saying that there should be the same policy measures in every part of the UK. There are issues such as food labelling or the use of plant protection products, for example. There is a series and I could provide a minute or an extra piece of evidence about that. There are areas where we think there is an opportunity for agreed approaches across the UK land area that would not conflict with the absolutely correct divergence of policy practice and measures in each part of the UK.

Andrew Clark:

I emphasised the word “agreed”. We agreed an approach between the UK farming unions. Minette Batters, my president at the NFU, chairs a UK farming roundtable, and we agreed the type of approach that we would like to see for a common UK agricultural policy, and the topics that should be subject to that, around a table with 15 different organisations and all the UK farming unions.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you. I am afraid we must draw this session to a close. I apologise to those colleagues who did not get called. I have made a note and will try to give you priority next time round. [Interruption.] No, I am sorry.

Mr Clark, thank you very much indeed for taking the trouble to come. The Committee is indebted to you for answering the questions.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

On a point of order, Sir Roger. This is an Agriculture Bill; we had 24 minutes with the National Farmers Union, and we had 90 minutes this morning from our first four witnesses. This is not a criticism of our earlier witnesses. As we are seeing additional witnesses from the devolved nations with regards to the NFU, is it possible for our previous witness to submit further written evidence to us, or would he come back? As it is the Agriculture Bill, it is a little out of kilter to have only 24 minutes from the senior policy man at the NFU.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I am afraid, Mr Hoare, that these sessions are always a bit “beat the clock”, but it is open to Mr Clark to submit further written evidence, and he indicated that he might wish to do so. I am sure the Committee would welcome it if he chose to do so.