Financial assistance: forms, conditions, delegation and publication of information

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I remind the Committee that with this we are considering new clause 10—Annual assessment of funding for purposes—

“(1) The Secretary of State must report on funding for each purpose listed in section 1.

(2) A report under subsection (1) must be made for each financial year and must be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than 31 October in the financial year following the financial year to which the report relates.

(3) The first report shall be made by 31 October 2019 and shall relate to funding in the 2018-19 financial year.

(4) A report under this section must record, on the basis of best data available—

(a) the total sum of funding allocated to each purpose in section 1,

(b) the source of any element of funding under subparagraph (a) which comes from public funds, and

(c) the sums from each source under subparagraph (b).

(5) The Secretary of State must include in each report under this section—

(a) a statement of their opinion on whether any sum recorded under subsection (4) is sufficient to meet their policy objectives in relation to each purpose; and

(b) a statement of the Secretary of State’s intentions if, in their opinion, a sum recorded under subsection (4) was not sufficient to meet their policy objectives in relation to a purpose.

(6) For the purposes of this section, ‘funding’ includes any payment, grant, loan or guarantee.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report annually on the funding allocated to each of the purposes of the Bill, on its sufficiency to meet policy objectives and on the Secretary of State’s intentions if in their opinion funding for any purpose was not sufficient.

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

I turn my attention now to Opposition new clause 10. I recognise that there is a very big issue behind the new clause—funding. We completely understand that. We need to ensure that we have the funding in place to support the purposes we outline in clause 1 in particular. We are absolutely clear about the importance of that. That is why we made a manifesto commitment, which we will honour, to keep the cash totals we spend on agriculture policy the same for the duration of this Parliament—we hope until 2022.

There is also provision in the Bill for a long, seven-year transition. Although we have given no concrete undertaking about the exact quantum of funding after 2022, it is implicit in the Bill and in the nature of the transition that there will be ongoing funding thereafter. We also made a manifesto commitment to introduce new schemes to replace the current common agricultural policy, and that is what the Bill is all about. On 16 October, the Government announced that they will review the intra-UK allocation for domestic support, which will go some way to giving consideration to how we allocate funds within the UK and set the ground rules for allocations after 2022.

At the moment, we spend around £3 billion a year on the CAP. In the scheme of things, compared with the spending of many other Departments, that is a relatively modest sum, particularly if we refocus those resources to delivering public goods—improving the quality of our soils and water, enhancing the beauty of our landscapes, and supporting key Government objectives, such as promoting biodiversity and wildlife on farmland and reducing our climate change emissions to mitigate the impact of climate change.

However, new clause 10 is less about the size of the budget—no doubt we will discuss that later—than about annual reporting on the budget. There are two reasons why it is unnecessary. The first is technical. The new clause would create a legal requirement to list the total funding for each of the purposes outlined in clause 1. As I made clear on Tuesday, the difficulty with that is that many of the interventions we seek will cross multiple purposes. We may have schemes that enhance animal welfare but also the environment, or that enhance the environment but also mitigate the impacts of climate change. It would be difficult to separate those things out and report on the basis of individual purposes.

Strangely enough, it would be far easier to report even more granularly—to report how much money we spent on integrated pest management schemes, catchment-sensitive farming schemes or schemes to enhance farmland birds or pollinators, for instance. We would probably be able to extract that information from individual agreements and aggregate it for reporting purposes far more readily than we would be able to pigeonhole expenditure within the purposes outlined in clause 1.

The second reason—the hon. Member for Stroud may have forgotten this, but he was in the House at the time—is that the last Labour Government introduced the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000, under which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs already has a statutory duty to present an annual report and accounts to Parliament, detailing all our expenditure. These days that includes quite a comprehensive list, as well as reporting of the Department’s priorities and how it is delivering, for example, on its business plan.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Is it not also the case that hon. Members who might have an interest in such things may table parliamentary questions and need not wait for the publication of an annual report?

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

That is absolutely the case, as my right hon. Friend points out. We have scrutiny by the National Audit Office, the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for example, and I always enjoy the many parliamentary questions I receive on every piece of detail about DEFRA’s spending priorities.

A statutory requirement to do annual reporting on DEFRA is in place already. However, this is an important point, so at a later stage of the Bill—perhaps on Report—I might be willing to explain to the House in a bit more detail what information we would envisage publishing as part of our requirements under the Government Resources and Accounts Act. In a world in which we want transparency about how we spend money in this area and what it is delivering, it may well be possible for us to decide to adopt a convention on the particular format of these annual accounts. I am more than happy to return to the House on Report to say a little more about that. On that basis, I hope the hon. Gentleman will not press new clause 10.

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

That is all very interesting, and I largely concur with what the Minister says. The academic Steven Lukes, in his wonderful little book “Power”, always draws a distinction between the “power to” and “power over”. The problem with Government and that piece of legislation in 2000 is that it was all about how Government decide to report and to defray their financial considerations. To me, this is “power to”; it is a more consultative arrangement—there is a need to have a reporting mechanism whereby the Government say what they intend to spend.

That is nothing new, and it is exactly what happens every year under the CAP, which has a mechanism whereby the Council of Ministers signs off the budget, which is then reported to not only Parliament but all the farming organisations. The reality of that is that the farmers are either well pleased or start burning their tyres. That is where we are with agricultural politics, which is big on the continent, if not so big here, because our farmer organisations tend to work through the system. That, however, is the point: they are asking for a system to be put in place.

Farmers are very worried that if such a mechanism is not in place, a future Government of whatever colour or persuasion could, in effect, just say, “Well, there isn’t enough money, so we’re making large cuts, including to all these wonderful schemes that we’ve talked about.” The Minister is very lucid about how all these different organisations could be brought in, but it will not make a jot of difference if there is not any money to run the schemes.

In a sense, the new clause would protect any organisation or any person who clearly wants to obtain funding through the system available. It would give them some security, and all people are asking for is security and certainty. Although we shall not have a vote on the new clause at this stage, I hope that the Minister will reflect on it. It will come back in the Lords, but it is always nice if we can do things in the Commons.

There needs to be some mechanism to say not what the money is but how it will be defrayed. That is important under the CAP, where we had not just pillar 1 but pillar 2. For some of us in rural areas, that pillar 2 money was very important. There is security in knowing in what ways we can go on to make future plans. Otherwise we are subject to the whim of the Government. As has been pointed out before, an urban-centred Government might decide they did not want to farm the country, but wanted to use it for all sorts of other things. I would not want that, and neither, I am sure, would anyone on the Committee. However, it is the danger.

At least there could be a requirement to go on the record and state what was to be spent and how it was intended to keep the different provisions going. We shall not press the matter to a vote at this stage, but we shall keep the right to return to the matter for a vote at an appropriate time.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I suspect that most Members understand the process, but to refresh memories, if anyone is thinking, “Hang on, why are we not voting on new clause 10,” the answer is that we vote on all new clauses right at the end of the Committee’s proceedings. That is where new clauses are taken. Where amendments are grouped—I should like to be able to say, “By the skill of the Chairman,” but actually it is through the skill of the Clerks—some of them, which occur later in the Bill, are taken at that point in the Bill. The fact that something is not voted on now does not necessarily mean it will not be voted on at all. That is not in my gift. It is in the gift of those on the two Front Benches.

Clause 3