Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:34 am on 25th October 2018.

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John Cross, Professor Pete Fox and Helen Taylor gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 11:35 am, 25th October 2018

Thank you for joining us. As always, I am afraid we are playing “beat the clock”, but we will do our best to ensure that everybody has a fair hearing. For the record, please introduce yourselves, starting with Professor Fox.

Professor Fox:

Good morning. My name is Pete Fox and I am director of water, land and biodiversity at the Environment Agency.

Helen Taylor:

Hello, I am Helen Taylor and I also work at the Environment Agency, where I am programme-managing our input to future farming.

John Cross:

Good morning. I am John Cross. I am a farmer by trade, but I also chair the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tuberculosis eradication advisory group, and I chair the Traceability Designer User Group for the industry and DEFRA.

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

Q 102 I would like to begin with a question for Mr Cross. I know you are involved with the Traceability Design User Group. A key section of the Bill deals with powers that would enable us to gather more data and information from anyone in the supply chain, including farmers. Can you set out what types of information you would like, or in what way you would like Government to use the provisions in the Bill, to support the important work that you are doing?

John Cross:

The industry—the whole supply chain—has been mindful for many years that the flow and sharing of data within the supply chain has been virtually non-existent. In the past, the Government have had powers to collect data that they needed for statutory purposes, such as notifiable disease, food chain information and food safety. Those statutory needs were catered for, but for many years the supply chain itself has suffered from the weakness that comes from an absence of data in that supply chain. Data is important for eradicating endemic diseases, which hold back the productivity of the national herds and flocks, and for evidencing the provenance of products for international and domestic markets. Obviously, it is in everyone’s interest to be able to stamp out exotic disease in a hurry, should it flare up. Evidencing provenance in the supply chain is important for international trade opportunities, where international customers’ No. 1 question is always about traceability and the availability of information about the product.

We are not well equipped as a supply chain at the moment at all. In fact, the industry has come to the conclusion, fairly rapidly since the referendum in 2016, that it needs to think very differently about its future. It needs a lot more information to manage its supply chain a lot better. It needs to rid itself of endemic disease. It needs to explore the best possible portfolio of opportunity in the global and domestic market. It needs more information about itself, to enhance those efficiencies, drive out disease and trade with a very good evidence base about its product.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you. Ms Taylor and Professor Fox, if you wish to add anything, please feel free to do so.

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

Q At the moment, we have something of a hotch-potch of different pieces of legislation and different systems covering all sorts of different species. There is a different system for cattle, pigs, sheep and so on. Could you explain what you think the common characteristics of a new, single, integrated animal ID and traceability system would look like?

John Cross:

Yes, indeed. As people may or may not know, for the three production species—cattle, sheep and pigs—at the moment there are three different systems. In the main, except for the pig system, they are almost entirely paper-based, with all the problems of workload and cost that go with that.

For the last 20 months, the industry and Government together have formed a group called the TDUC, which is part of an aspiration for a completely new digital livestock information service, and for 20 months Government have been working alongside industry and all the DEFRA agencies, such as the FSA, the RPA and trading standards—everyone who has an interest in livestock welfare, livestock health, livestock movements and traceability, food safety and product authenticity.

Anyone involved in those areas of work is involved in what is a co-creation partnership that, for the last 20 months, has worked to design what we intend to be the new livestock information service, which will be a multi-species, paperless, digital information service that will eventually be real-time and comprehensive. That is where these particular data-collection and data-sharing powers will come in—to be the lifeblood that makes the system work. That will probably be the biggest step change that certainly the ruminant livestock sector in this country has seen in many decades.

The pig industry, which is rather more integrated and further down the road than the ruminant sectors, is part way there, but being part of a single system will add value to it as well. This will certainly be the most enabling action that industry and Government could jointly make to make the ruminant livestock sector fit for purpose for the future. That is certainly a view strongly held by the industry itself.

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

Q A final point: if we got that right and had a single, coherent system, what impact do you think that might have on our market-access efforts in other countries, in terms of giving reassurance to overseas veterinary authorities?

John Cross:

Over the years, I have been quite heavily involved in international trade development, and one of things that struck me in the south-east Asian markets that people talk about, and particularly in China, where there are huge opportunities, is that when you sit in front of Chinese veterinary officials and talk to them about market access, their primary and secondary questions are all about proof of traceability, evidence of traceability, evidence of centrally co-ordinated disease control strategies and data. They talk about product quality and price et cetera at a much lower level later. Any of the big markets we would aspire to balance our whole trade picture with would challenge us on evidencing traceability —that would be their very first question.

Indeed, if we actually look at our proposition, as an English industry out there on the global stage, you cannot get away from the fact that all the other big meat-producing economies and traders have either already done what we are doing or are in the process of doing it now, at pace. I strongly believe that in this country we produce some of the best—if not the best—meat products in the world, but the challenge from future customers and competitors will be to prove it. At the moment, our system creaks and struggles to do that, whereas with the powers that we seek, that would be a real-time service that could be demonstrated digitally anywhere in the world, and that would put us completely on the front foot.

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

Q Good morning, everyone. A simple question: to make the Bill work, what additional enforcement powers will be needed, and do you think that they should be in the Bill or in subsequent statutory instruments?

John Cross:

To completely enable our vision of the livestock information service, your data has to be complete —you cannot function with half or sub-optimal data. If you are eradicating disease, and that is your focus on that particular usage of data, then unless it is complete, you will not achieve your goal. At the moment, DEFRA has powers to collect data for statutory purposes, but it doesn’t actually have the authority to share that data and to allow people within the supply chain to make use of the data.

There are a whole lot of opportunities for farmers themselves. For instance, there is at the moment a desperate need for farmers to make informed purchasing decisions about whether the cattle they are buying have come from a TB high-risk area or an edge area, or whether they are going to a low-risk area. That whole area of risk-based trading—for any disease, not just tuberculosis—needs information. You cannot manage risk without data. You need the ability to collect data in a complete format from everyone, and then you need to be able to share it so that farmers can access it easily and quickly and it is available in the supply chain. That is what is different—the collection of complete data and making it available.

Professor Fox:

First, I would like to say that the Bill provides a really good framework for taking the whole agriculture sector forward. It has a lot to commend it, particularly the provision for payment for public goods and the recognition of a need to transition the sector into a new place.

In terms of the things around regulation enforcement that we would like to see, from an environmental perspective, the Bill could provide an opportunity to have a clear and simplified regulatory baseline. At the moment, we have a series of maybe four key pieces of legislation that are applied disparately, and the Bill offers an opportunity to provide farmers with a clarified and simplified view of what is required of them. I believe that will lead to better conversations between farmers, suppliers and ourselves about what is expected.

Within that, it should be recognised that the provision of environmental goods or public goods should be contingent on compliance with that regulatory baseline in order to give the public confidence that their money is invested in farmers and in outcomes that are genuinely provided in a healthy and vibrant countryside.

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

Q In terms of what the Environment Agency does at the moment, will that just move across into this new regime, or will you need a complete reskilling of your enforcement people to make this operate properly?

Professor Fox:

The issues in farming, and the impacts that farming has on the environment, will be consistent, whatever regulatory or legislative framework is in place. Our skilled workforce is there to advise farmers and to work with them, but then to enforce regulation if necessary—we will be consistent. Unless the Bill or the Secretary of State determines that other regulations will apply, the current framework will roll forward, and we will work on that basis.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

On Tuesday we took evidence on public goods, and we primarily looked at environmental enhancements or public access. One possible public good, of course, would be to encourage farmers to participate in flood alleviation or protection schemes. How far—this may be specifically for the Environment Agency—do you think the Bill could be used to improve flood protection and to encourage farmers to participate in that type of schemeQ ?

Professor Fox:

Part 1 of the Bill provides the Secretary of State with powers to make grants to farmers for various public goods, including the management of water—within that, the management of flooding would clearly be a potential beneficiary. The opportunity to manage floods better through landscape-scale work with farmers is already widely recognised. There are a number of schemes around the country where farmers provide attenuation ponds to reduce flood flows, and in so doing provide important community benefits. This scheme of paying for public goods may well support and augment that, and that can only be welcomed.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Following on from that, obviously there are specific locations where you would wish that work to be carried out. Previously most schemes that farmers have taken up in terms of stewardship have been voluntary schemes. Do you feel there might need to be some degree of compulsion or managing a number of farms together? I can see a situation where 90% of the farmers in a flood plain participated, but if some did not, that could jeopardise what we are trying to do.

Professor Fox:

Absolutely, and flood is not different from many other environmental issues. Introducing schemes that provide for farmers to work together to share and deliver common outcomes would optimise improvements and protection of the environment, not just as to flooding, but for birds and woodlands and for all sorts of other good reasons—not least the protection of water and water quality.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Finally, another aspect of the Bill is concerned with capital grants to farmers to improve their productivity and levels of production. Probably the most effective way of improving the productivity of the land is through land drainage schemes. Indeed, the previous schemes that the EU used to deliver would give, for example, a 90% grant for land drainage. How far do you think we might be pulling in two different directions, where some farmers are investing using public money to improve their productivity but actually put more water down the gutter, and other farmers are getting money for doing the opposite?

Professor Fox:

Where money is set is a matter for Government to decide. We would advise that there are certain circumstances where that might exacerbate already known flood risk issues, particularly around, and upstream of, rural communities, but we will be there to help and support the delivery of Government’s aims in the round, and we will try to mitigate the impacts on flood risk or any other environment issues arising from Government’s stated aims for the delivery of funds.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q So could you see a situation where many farmers could access drainage grants but you could actually block out bits of land where you would not consider that appropriate, with the Environment Agency taking a role in, in effect, blacklisting some of that land that could be brought into higher levels of production?

Professor Fox:

We would be directed by Government to take a particular role. However, I can, through my knowledge and background, understand that, actually, it is not just about all land management needing to change to mitigate flooding. Modelling and studies have shown that quite targeted management of key pieces of land can actually deliver quite big benefits downstream. So I could see us having quite an influential offer to make to Government in advising on how that money should be distributed; but we would take direction from the Government.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Thank you. Quite a lot of Members want to ask questions and we do not have a great deal of time, so I ask for brevity both on the part of questioners and in answers, please.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling)

Mr Cross, in addition to having traceability of foods produced in this country, would you agree that it is important to have traceability of the foods that we shall be importing, in order to maintain some sort of level playing field? If we are going to do that, do you think that the traceability should include measures to protect the workforce for imported food, as well as measures relating to food safety and livestock welfareQ ?

John Cross:

I think everyone in our industry would advocate that food and food products procured outside the country should adhere to, and be produced to, the same standards that would be expected of the domestic industry. Indeed, I think everyone’s aspiration would be for workers to be treated in exactly the same way in those other countries. It is beyond my skillset to know what influence we can have on that, but yes, I think that consumers, producers and the whole supply chain in this country would expect imported food to adhere the same standards and to be of the same production standards as ours.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

MrQ Cross, you have been talking about the livestock information scheme. Is the intention, as you move towards a digital system, also to do away with the ear-tag identification system and move into higher technologies, with chips implanted in animals? And if it is not, are the powers of clause 1 to provide support to the health and welfare of livestock sufficient to enable payments to be made on a productivity basis, to allow livestock farmers to upscale into this digital environment, which will come at some cost?

John Cross:

The investment required to change the way animals are identified from the way they are identified now, in fact a system like the livestock information system—in order for it to work, be real-time and achieve what everyone desires—would have to be based on individual electronic identification. So, over a period, we would have to mandate bovine EID. That would mean a small increase in cost in the tagging of cattle, but as scale develops that extra cost diminishes.

We have not yet looked at the technology required for on-farm reading and the rapidity of uptake. It may be that something could be done to enhance training and equipping at farm level. However, we are making sure that in the planning of this system, those farmers who do not wish at the time to invest in reading equipment, or feel that they do not understand it, will have access to collective reading facilities. In other words, that is where the livestock auctioneer sector is so important for smaller producers who do not want to upscale. They can actually get their livestock read, so that they can adhere to the system without having to equip themselves. So we are trying to make it as flexible and as kind as possible, but industry in particular is fairly ambitious about the timescale of change. We must not try to run two systems alongside each other, because the aim is to go from paper to digital and trying to run both systems would be fraught with problems.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

Q Thank you. I have one question for the Environment Agency. At the moment, you have responsibility for monitoring water quality but not soil quality. As water, soil and air are the three primary tests of environmental benefit, should the Bill give you powers to do that? Or who will have responsibility for soil monitoring?

Professor Fox:

We currently have little responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the state of soils. We are aware of the importance of soils to the production and productivity of our whole landscape, and we are worried about the scale of soil loss, particularly that emanating from farming. It has a large cost associated with it, as well—water companies clearing up the soil and the dredging of rivers that is required as a result of from soil loss.

So we would strongly support a greater focus on soil if this Bill could provide it, and more opportunities to help and support farmers to maintain that core productivity. It is absolutely in everybody’s interests that we keep soil on the farmland. I think that greater focus on soil would be entirely beneficial.

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

This is for the Environment Agency, really. In your experience, does paying people to change behaviour work, or do you think there are better ways to do that? Also, what happens if payments get stopped by future GovernmentsQ ?

Helen Taylor:

In answer to the question whether payments or other mechanisms change behaviour, I believe that we need a variety of mechanisms working together. At the moment, regulations are set to prevent pollution from occurring, for example from the water side of things, and then payment is given to raise that standard and deliver more for the environment and the public goods that we want to achieve. Those things together, or combined, have a better effect than either one or the other.

Alongside that, there are all sorts of mechanisms for providing advice and guidance and showcasing how people could best carry that out. I firmly believe that a combination of mechanisms is needed for the future.

Professor Fox:

I support that very strongly. The role of the supply chain and producer organisations in helping to promote and assure good environmental practice is a fantastic adjunct to any enforcement effort, and also helps support and promote the delivery of public goods. It is about that mixture of carrot and stick, if you like, to achieve the right outcomes for society and the industry.

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

Q What happens if those payments get stopped by future Governments? What would you envisage happening then?

Professor Fox:

I am not sure I can provide you with a view on that. Clearly, what we have in the Bill is a sensible transition period covering a number of years to allow the industry to move into a new framework of payments. I think that is entirely helpful; it will allow the whole industry to adapt to a new way of thinking for the public. The scale of investment will be a matter for Government.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

TwoQ quick questions, if I may; the first is to Professor Fox. You mentioned flood mitigation. The commercial forestry sector is a very important industry in this country. Do you see commercial forestry playing a part in flood mitigation?

Professor Fox:

Yes.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q Thank you—very succinct. Ms Taylor, you are in charge of further schemes. We are way behind at the moment in tree planting in this country. Do you see a way within the Bill of devising a scheme to support the commercial forestry sector over the next 50 to 100 years?

Helen Taylor:

As a point of clarity, I am not in charge of that; I am just trying to support DEFRA’s thinking in terms of future farming. There is certainly room within thinking at the moment to consider the value and benefit of forestry in helping to deliver those public goods.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Ms Taylor, in your views, you state that the Bill would be aQ

“starting point for the conversion of the agriculture sector to the one we would like to see.”

In no other industry is knowledge passed on from generation to generation more than in farming. Farmers know their land best. How do you feel that smaller upland and lowland farms will benefit from the Bill, and how will it encourage the next generation of young farmers?

Helen Taylor:

I agree that knowledge is passed on in this sector. The potential to recognise the public goods that some of those smaller holdings have been promoting and protecting over the years is an advantage for them in the future. Could you repeat the second part of your question, sorry?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Really, it is about how future generations of farmers will feel confident about their potential future on, perhaps, the family farm after the introduction of the Bill. What will it provide for smaller upland and lowland farmers?

Helen Taylor:

It is basically the same point again. I hope that recognition of the value of public goods that the farming sector has the potential to deliver will give them more reassurance and more sustainability into the future. Linking it back into the fact that the business itself is dependent on what we might term “natural capital”— clean water, healthy soil in the right place, a healthy atmosphere and a regulated climate—by farming in a sustainable manner, they are buying into their own future assurance as well.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q Does that mean more rewilding?

Helen Taylor:

Not necessarily, no. I think rewilding is a specific issue for specific places, and it is not necessarily appropriate across the whole of the UK.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Q Mr Cross, as a farmer, do you have a view on this?

John Cross:

I totally agree with several of the things I have heard about the quality, fertility and productivity of our soils. That is something that some in the industry and some areas of the country have slightly lost focus on, and it is something that I myself am very passionate about.

I do not farm in an area where flooding is a problem, so I do not have any experience there, but designing schemes to encourage or nudge producers into taking a more active role in managing the long-term stability and fertility of their soils has to be the right way to go, because the land’s ability to produce grass or food crops is entirely dependent on its health, structure and organic matter levels. It is the right way to go.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

This is a question to Mr Cross regarding electronic identification traceabilityQ , with which we are quite familiar in Scotland. ScotEID, which is based in my constituency, already covers cattle, sheep and pigs. The recent BSE case was very quickly closed down, and the cohorts were identified. It is testament to the Scottish authorities that they closed it down so quickly. The problem with such systems is that they must be robust, and the Government have not got a very good history of designing systems. Are you looking at existing commercial systems for EID traceability, which could be quickly implemented, rather than starting from the ground up?

John Cross:

The answer to that is yes. If you look around the world, there is quite a lot of not-quite-off-the-shelf, buy-it-and-plug-it-in technology. High-calibre EID traceability systems are in place all over the world. To identify the equipment that would suit the industry best, we have already had an open supplier day to look at technologies and the potential suppliers of such technologies. In fact, 38 companies from around the world came and showed an interest. If we throw the door open, so to speak, and explain to the industry what we want to achieve and what outcomes this country is looking for, those that see themselves as best suited stay with the process. The aim is to procure the best proven system, rather than build one from scratch.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

Q As a supplementary to that, this is all about public money for public goods. Is animal health arguably a public good? Not only would traceability be important, in terms of trade, but traceability can prevent the catastrophes we have had with foot and mouth and BSE in the past, and the effect that sanitary restrictions can have on population movement. What is your opinion? Should animal health be seen as a public good because it is so necessary and affects us all?

John Cross:

“Animal health” is a very complex phrase. You have got animal health from the point of view of the absence or presence of disease, and animal health from the point of view of making a judgment about animals that are sick—there is a welfare issue there, depending on the severity of the disease. Animal health is a wide subject. As I said earlier, animals that are suffering from various levels of endemic diseases can be regarded as suffering from that disease. They are highly inefficient; they are wasteful. Animals that are diseased have a higher carbon footprint than healthier ones. They produce less from the inputs they are given. It is like trying to run an industry with the handbrake permanently on. Nothing performs well enough.

From the point of view of the use of inputs, the future of the environment and the impact on climate change, you are much better off if you have a well-run industry producing very healthy animals extremely efficiently. At the same time, that enables you to do a better job environmentally. Inherently, the welfare of animals is enhanced by the absence of disease. It is all interlinked. Is it a public good? I would say yes. Not entirely, but yes.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Before I revert to the Minister, are there are any more questions from the Back Benches? No.

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

Q I want to come back to a point that Professor Fox made earlier about regulation. You will be aware that the Government have commissioned Dame Glenys Stacey to do a comprehensive review of the regulatory baseline and the culture in which we carry out enforcement. We envisage that that will be something for future legislation.

On the specifics of the schemes we have now, is not the issue you raise covered by clause 3? It is explicit that, through regulations, the Secretary of State can set eligibility criteria for the new schemes, enforce compliance with the new schemes, make requirements about record-keeping, have the power to recover financial assistance and even impose monetary penalties and create offences. That is a pretty comprehensive set of enforcement provisions to sit alongside a new scheme.

I take your point, and the Government accept that we want to review the regulatory baseline and the culture. However, for the purpose of the schemes outlined in the Bill, do you not think the issue is covered by clause 3?

Professor Fox:

I agree that clause 3 has an awful lot to commend it, and I believe that is the framework on which the environmental regulations could be hung. Our aim is to ensure that there is clarity for farmers as well as regulators on what we are seeking to achieve together for the future. In that respect, the clause provides the powers and responsibilities—the opportunity for Ministers to make those schemes and those decisions. However, a bit of clarity in the Bill on the direct linkage of compliance with the environmental baseline, being a prerequisite of getting money for public goods, would make a clear statement about the Government’s expectations for the industry. We are contributing fully to the review by Dame Glenys Stacey, as you know, and we look forward to helping the Government to interpret and determine how they want to take any of those forward in any case.

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

Q But is it not your reading here that through this, the Secretary of State has the power to say, for instance, that an eligibility criterion would require you to be compliant with the existing legal baseline?

Professor Fox:

I agree that it gives the Ministers the choice of doing that.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

There are no further questions. Thank you Professor Fox, Ms Taylor and Mr Cross for coming to join us and for your evidence, which is greatly appreciated. Thank you very much indeed.