The agricultural transition period for England

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:30 pm, 1st November 2018

I oppose this probing amendment for reasons that I shall set out. The shadow Minister made the good point that people want certainty. In the Bill, we have tried to give a clear direction of travel—that is to say, we believe that the end state should be a system in which we reward farmers based on the delivery of public goods, be that animal welfare or higher environmental outcomes, and in which we tackle the causes of low profitability in farming by improving transparency and fairness in the supply chain and making grant support available to farmers to invest in the future.

The difficulty I have with this amendment is that it would largely undermine the purpose of a transition, if the idea is that we would increase direct payments during the transition. If there were a particular problem that meant that a future Government decided they had to pause the transition, it would be open to them under clause 5(2) to extend the transition period. Provided that they brought those regulations in during the transition period, they could extend it for as many years as they liked, and if a future Government so decided, they would have the ability to say that they would not pursue what we have outlined, which is a phasing down of direct payments. It would be open to a future Government, if they deemed it the right thing, to pause that process, extend the transition and slow or halt the rate of decline. That option and that power are already in the Bill.

The issue I have with saying that a future Government could also increase direct payments during that time is that that would effectively undermine the direction of travel we have set out. It would mean that there was less money—potentially no money—to do the pilots we talked about earlier for the new environmental land management scheme that we want to roll out. It would mean that there could be less money, or no money, to make available to support new entrants to the industry or to help farm enterprises to invest for the future.

Of course, in addition to having the power already to pause and slow the taper on the single farm payment and to extend the transition period, later parts of the Bill, which we will come to at a future date, also contain intervention powers. Those are powers, in a severe market disruption, for the Secretary of State to declare exceptional circumstances in the market and intervene directly at that point to provide income support or market stabilisation measures. I believe the Bill strikes the right balance and sets a clear direction of travel, and my objection to this amendment is that it would largely undermine the purpose of the transition period.

If people want certainty, they need the certainty of a seven-year transition, but also an understanding that in all normal circumstances it is the Government’s intention to reach an end state at the end of those seven years. If we introduced the uncertainty that it might all be changed and that we might pay even more via direct payments, people frankly would not know where they stood, and I think that would send a mixed message. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for Stroud will withdraw amendment 102 and not press amendment 104.