Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:30 pm, 30th October 2018

As a member of that Committee, my hon. Friend has to digest those points, so he probably has a clearer idea of the work that will be involved, but we recognise that it is a big exercise.

The hon. Member for Darlington raised an important point. I can reassure her that the Government are committed to publishing legislation that will recognise animal sentience. We do not believe, however, that it is right to bring that into the Bill in the way that she has by linking it only to the narrow issue of how payments are made, when we are talking about purposes that inevitably recognise animal sentience, because that is why we are incentivising farmers to adopt high standards of animal welfare.

Amendment 71, tabled by the hon. Member for Bristol East, also seeks to establish an additional rule that says broadly that financial assistance cannot be given unless it is over and above the regulatory baseline. I understand her point, and it is a legitimate question to ask, but it is wrong to try to prescribe it in that sort of amendment, for reasons that I will explain.

As a country, we have done something new in including animal welfare as a public good. I have been clear that I wanted to do that for the last couple of years. I have worked closely with the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, Farmwell and other organisations. We are trying something new. Just last week, I met Peter Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming.

We are considering several things in the design of a future animal welfare scheme. One of those is the possibility that we could financially reward farmers and incentivise them to join some kind of United Kingdom accreditation service-accredited higher animal welfare scheme—perhaps the RSPCA one or others that may form. We may also choose to support farmers to invest in more modern housing that is better for animal welfare. In the pig sector, there are some issues with outdated housing that does not lend itself to providing for modern welfare needs such as enriched environments and straw in barns. We may also have a third category of payment for the adoption of particular approaches to husbandry, such as lower levels of stocking density, systems that are more free range or even pasture-based systems.

Finally, we are interested in the potential for payment by results. Farmwell has done some work on that. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned Compassion in World Farming and its view about payments for curly tails. If pigs go to slaughter with intact curly tails that have not been damaged, that is a good indicator that they have had a higher-welfare existence. Likewise, Farmwell has developed a feather-cover index for a depopulated flock of laying hens, which is a good indicator as to how well people have approached farm husbandry. In a free-range system, there can be good and poor farm husbandry.

It is a complex area. If there is a mixture of payment for capital items to renew housing, which may have higher welfare outcomes, payment for joining accreditation schemes and, potentially, payment by results, it is not always obvious how that would be benchmarked against a regulatory baseline, which by definition does not cover everything.

If the hon. Lady is concerned about money being spent in that area in a way that simply pays farmers for what they are already doing to comply with the law, I guarantee that there will be no shortage of push-back and pressure from within the internal machinery of Government—the civil service, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and other Departments—to ensure that money is spent only to get additionality. We will not have the problem that she perceives, which is that we would spend money on things that are already a requirement by law, but if we were to accept her amendment, we might have a different problem, which is that we would place barriers in the way of policy innovation. For that reason, I hope she will not press amendment 71.