Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 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 4:30 pm, 30th October 2018

I do not accept that criticism of the Bill. We have discussed many times the romantic attachment of some hon. Members to the 1947 Act. Let me just read from it again. It describes Ministers being able to do things that they deem “expedient”. We have a concern about giving the Government and Ministers power to get things done, but that is what has been missing in our time in the European Union. We should embrace the fact that we are now able to get things done as a country.

My final point on food security is that, if we look at the evidence, the sectors that contribute the most to our self-sufficiency as a nation are the ones that are unsubsidised, not those that are subsidised. We are 96% self-sufficient in carrots, which is traditionally an unsubsidised sector for which the current single farm payment is irrelevant. We are 92% self-sufficient in cabbages and 95% self-sufficient in peas. We have seen a big increase of 15% in the production of vegetables since 2010 and a 50% increase in top fruit and soft fruit production. The unsubsidised sectors have been the most innovative and have done most to contribute to our self-sufficiency.

I turn to amendment 89, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow and is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon. It seeks to limit the eligibility for financial assistance across the board to people who are in farming or food production. I understand the intention behind the amendment. The concern, if I could caricature it, is that in future a Government may just give all the money to green non-governmental organisations, which will buy a large fleet of Land Rovers and employ a large army of regional officers to go around chivvying farmers to do things differently. That is not our intention at all.

We have been very clear that we envisage a future where there will be an environmental land management contract principally with the farmer or the landowner. There is a very important reason for that. We cannot deliver any of the public good benefits unless the landowner or the occupier of the land—the tenant—are fully on board and fully signed up to do so. That is why virtually every one of the paragraphs of clause 1(1) refer to the farmland or the farmed environment and managing land in such a way as to promote the environment. To do that, the landowner or the tenant has to be the main recipient of that funding and the person with whom we have the contractual arrangement.

What we do not want to do is rule out the scope for there to be, for instance, some lower level facilitation work to get regional level co-ordination, which a group such as the RSPB or the Wildlife Trusts might engage with. There could be a role to design schemes to have some facilitation funding, as we do now under the EU schemes, for some of those third-sector organisations. In some national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty, we might find that there is a collective body that could do that in partnership with farmers.

While we cannot accept this particular amendment, I understand the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow. With the policy papers that we have launched, I can reassure him that we absolutely intend that it will be farmers, landowners and tenants who receive the lion’s share of these funds. They might choose to subcontract certain responsibilities and tasks to third-sector organisations, but if we want to ensure that there is delivery, our relationship must be with that landowner or land occupier.

First, I hope that I have reassured people that we care about food security but have a slightly different interpretation of it from that which others put about, and that we have a clear view on how that is best delivered. Secondly, the way we have constructed the Bill is designed to ensure that funding goes to landowners and to those occupying the land. Finally, the amendment to bring our Bill into line with the Welsh schedule would actually be counterproductive for those who are concerned that the purpose of the Bill might end up being diluted.