Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:45 pm, 30th October 2018

We may; we might; we must—some time, over the rainbow. Lots of bits of legislation are possible, but they are not necessarily going to be introduced very quickly, so rural affairs must feature.

The amendment is more of a probing amendment. As we move towards environmental support payments, we must consider what that means for farmers. I have always been a doughty champion of smaller farms and tenant farms. Given what my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington has said, I worry that there are holes in the legislation, with regard to how it will actually work. In the evidence session I referred to the regulatory underpinning, which is important but, as yet, not at all clear. That is why we wanted evidence from the Rural Payments Agency, despite all its failings, and from the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and indeed from Dame Glenys Stacey, to know what the format is. We have had her interim report but no final report yet on how the regulatory regime will operate for farmers. That is important because, although we are debating primary legislation, but that is what will underpin it. Rural communities are important and we need to know what the Government will say about that.

In terms of the national interest and social justice, we must be able to feed ourselves. We feel strongly about food security, and I have argued for that. It has not really featured in the past decade, although it did in the previous one—it drove agricultural policy. It was one of the reasons we changed at European level from the previous regime. We strongly felt that it was better to pay farmers—in this case, landowners—and that may be where we dug ourselves into a problem. I always argued that there should be a de minimis and a de maximus payment structure. Colleagues did not necessarily agree with that, but that is why we have ended up with some of the problems we have had in respect of the area payment scheme. We need to look at how we can encourage our farmers to produce more of their own produce, and that is a reason for probing this. It is about good-quality, healthy food—we have had that debate already. We need to look at how that is coming forward.

That all sounds theoretical, and like good things for good people, but that is what we have committed ourselves to in the Welsh schedule, so they are getting this. We may well say, “Lucky old Wales” and feel disappointed that England does not have the same. It would be interesting to know how we will defend the interests of England. That point was made at great length at Second Reading by John Redwood. Who speaks for England? Wales certainly has greater flexibility in how it can use its money in its schedule. I have said that it is likely that we will end up with four different agricultural systems—nuanced, but different. We must understand where England stands, particular in relation to Wales. Should Scotland and Northern Ireland come forward with the same proposals, they would need to be looked at. We must look at how payments will be allowed as well as for what, and to whom. That is why agriculture, horticulture and forestry are crucial in how we look at who gets the money and for what reason. That is about public interest, and it is about putting what we really want people to do on the face of the Bill.

A fundamental change is going on here, because this is the biggest change since 1947. From day one we still have to get people producing food, which is no doubt what the hon. Member for Ludlow will talk about. We have to give them some incentive to stay on the land. I talked earlier about the uplands, which are particularly problematic because of the way we have supported and subsidised them. That can change and they have to do different things with the land. I am interested in how it all comes together. It is again the link between the environment and food. In this case it is less about health, although maybe the health of farmers ought to be taken into account because they are under enormous pressure financially and physically.

I hope the Minster can agree that there are some issues here that we have to address. The alternative is to run down our farming system and become more and more reliant on imports. That is not something I want to see but somebody will have to fill that gap if we are not producing at least the same amount of food. Personally, I think we should be 80% self-sufficient. It would be wonderful to be 100% but we do struggle to grow bananas at present—with climate change, there is always an opportunity.

There are reasons why we would always import and export food, being a major export of the British economy. Knowing what will happen to the way we treat farmers and other users of the land is crucial. That is why we are probing with this amendment. No doubt we will come back in future with a slightly more thoughtfully worked-through amendment, which would allow us to bring both the environment and food production elements together. It will be very interesting to hear what the Minster has to say to allay some of our fears and show the way forward, and to hear what the hon. Member for Ludlow has to say.