Environmental land management contracts

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 30th October 2018.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, by regulations, make provision for environmental land management contracts.

(2) A person who manages land may enter into an environmental land management contract with the Secretary of State to deliver one or more benefits under section 1(1).

(3) A person who manages land and who seeks to enter into an environmental land management contract with the Secretary of State must first submit a land management plan.

(4) The Secretary of State must approve a land management plan submitted by a person who manages land before entering into an environmental land management contract with that person.

(5) Regulations under this section may provide for—

(a) one or more persons or bodies to act on behalf of the Secretary of State for the purposes of entering into an environmental land management contract, and

(b) requirements which a land management plan must meet if it is to be approved by the Secretary of State under subsection (5).

(6) Regulations under this section are subject to affirmative resolution procedure.’

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make provision for environmental land management contracts.

Given that the Committee has thoroughly debated the amendments to clause 1, I hope that comments in the clause 1 stand part debate will be brief, and will not rework arguments that we have already heard today.

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

We have debated a wide range of topics and there have been amendments moved to, and discussions on, virtually every conceivable aspect of clause 1. The Government believe that clause 1(1) has a broad range of purposes and outcomes that enable us to deliver all the schemes we want, and that clause 1(2) has all the powers we need to support a profitable, vibrant and growing agriculture and horticulture industry.

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

I shall not say that much more. We have our misgivings about “must” and “may” and some of the issues that arose in the wider debate. It was appropriate to debate clause 1 in considerable detail, because it is the clause that sets the Bill in the direction of travel that it is taking.

I shall confine my remarks mainly to new clause 7, which is important. Not least of the remarks I want to make is that the Government have been clear about setting a lot of store by environmental land management contracts. The White Paper, “Health and Harmony” contained a quite long piece on environmental land management. Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I will not quote the whole of it, but it does say:

“The government will work with farmers and land managers who wish to improve the environment by entering into environmental land management contracts, which could span several years.

These contracts will make sure that the environmental benefits farmers help deliver, but which cannot be sold or bought, are paid for by the public purse.”

This is about money and how we pay farmers and others to do things on the land. The White Paper gives lots of examples, including

“helping deliver high air and water quality” and

“protecting and enhancing biodiversity on their land, by providing habitats for wildlife, for example”.

We feel that new clause 7 is worthy of inclusion because it tries to identify from the Government exactly how environmental land management contracts will operate and the way in which moneys will be paid. The danger is that such things will slip by if we do not draw attention to them. Various organisations support what we are trying to do, including the Uplands Alliance and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee for the lowlands. The Ramblers are keen to ensure that access to the land is a crucial part of any contract that is negotiated, so that when public moneys are granted, people have the right to access the land.

The previous Labour Government spent a lot of time on access arrangements. Sadly, we did not get as far as we wanted on coastal access, but land was made available for what is figuratively called “the right to roam”. That was done in perhaps a more persuasive manner than was necessary—the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 introduced legislative bite—but there was solidity in how access was allowed. That is why it is important that we link access to the debate on clause 1.

I do not have much more to say about new clause 7. We are not happy with some aspects of how clause 1 has been dealt with. There have been lots of promises and good intentions, but there are holes in the Government’s approach to the Bill. It is not just me saying that; the House of Lords Committee was scathing about the way in which so much depends on statutory instruments, rather than being in the Bill. We will vote against the clause, because we feel that it is important to get some of the detail we have been arguing for into the Bill.

We have spent a lot of time—more than five hours—on clause 1, but it is effectively what the Bill is about. If clause 1 is not right, the rest of the Bill is pretty unimportant. We will be tabling other amendments, but we have spent a lot of time on the clause to try to get the Bill right. Sadly, the Government have not moved as far as we want them to. Hopefully, they will get other chances on Report and Third Reading, and things will happen to the Bill in the House of Lords. We are trying to be helpful. We not trying to wreck, but to improve. With that in mind, I hope the Government will understand why we are not willing to vote for the clause.

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

Briefly, the Government regard new clause 7 as unnecessary because clause 1, as it stands, gives the powers necessary to design schemes. The lesson we have learned from decades of working with these schemes is that the environment is inherently complex, so we often need an iterative approach to the design of schemes so that we can add, remove or refine options as we move forwards.

The system that we have had with the common agricultural policy has been completely dysfunctional and unsuited to that aim. We have ended up with a morass of regulations that define everything from the minimum and maximum width of a hedge, to the maximum width of a gateway, what size a buffer strip should be, what type of flowers people can grow, and what type of plants people can grow on top of a hedge. It is a ludicrous morass of regulation and we do not want to recreate it. We need the powers that will enable us to design contracts that really work, farm by farm, at local levels.

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

I hear what the Minister says, but those environmental land management contracts will be even more complicated. A whole-farm approach is great—we want that to happen—but we are going to look at every bit of woodland and watercourse, and all the ways in which field boundaries are currently maintained. That will all be wrapped into the contracts, and somebody has to manage and monitor that. Will that be any easier than the current system?

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

Yes, I believe it will be easier, because our vision is that there will be an expert on the ground. That might be somebody from one of our agencies, such as Natural England, or it might be an agronomist with whom a farmer works, who visits the farm, walks the farm, and sits around the kitchen table with the farmer to help them put the scheme together. Having given it their assent, there is then a presumption that it is supported through the system.

We want less emphasis on mapping, and fretting about a bush in a field in Derbyshire and whether it is an eligible feature, and whether a farmer claimed something that he should not have claimed. We want to get back to a human relationship between an adviser and a farmer, and I believe that we can make the systems work far better. To do that, we must avoid trying to define too much in regulation, since it hampers the ability for judgment on the ground.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 9, Noes 6.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Iain Stewart.)

Adjourned till Thursday 1 November at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

AB29 WWF-UK

AB30 Natural Parks England

AB31 Judith Smart

AB32 The Wildlife Trusts

AB33 Mrs Rachel Thompson MBE

AB34 Scottish Land and Estates

AB35 Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link

AB36 Horse Access Campaign UK (HAC UK)

AB37 Julie Main

AB38 Axbridge Bridleways Association

AB39 The Open Spaces Society

AB40 The Woodland Trust

AB41 Sustain

AB42 Worcestershire Bridleways and Rider’s Association

AB43 Agricultural Christian Fellowship