Power to provide for phasing out direct payments and delinked payments

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 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 4:00 pm, 1st November 2018

We have had a comprehensive debate, and I want to pick up on some of the points that were made.

The Opposition’s amendment 107 is about making provisions for determining the status of those persons who have received de-link payments where the agricultural transition period has been extended. That links to the point that I addressed earlier. We are setting a clear course here, and if a decision is made under clause 7 to de-link all payments, as far as we are concerned there will be no turning back at that point. It will be possible, under subsection (1)(a), to continue with the basic payment scheme and make a decision to extend, but if at a later stage of the transition period a decision is taken to de-link all payments, from our point of view it is not possible at that point to turn back, nor would we want to do so. If at that point we decided that we still wanted an old-style subsidy system, the right thing to do would be to pass new primary legislation because that would be a major departure from what we envisage in the Bill.

I was asked about de-linking and about what will happen at the end and whether we will put conditions on what people can spend the payment on. During the transition, we envisage there being a progressive, year-on-year phasing down of the BPS payment. Alongside that, we will roll out new grants for such things as productivity, and we will roll out the new environmental land management scheme.

There is already a huge amount of bureaucracy, inspection and tedious form filling behind the BPS payment. If in year three, four or five the BPS payment is considerably smaller than it is now, farmers will rightly say, “Isn’t this a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Our BPS payment is much smaller, yet we still have this extraordinary inspection regime, we still have to employ agents to fill out all the forms, and we still have to have someone from the Rural Payments Agency come to walk our fields and inspect everything.” At that point, people will rightly ask whether the enforcement architecture surrounding the BPS payment fits the size of the payment, given that it is necessarily being phased out.

That is why our view is that if we de-link the payment we will not attempt to put conditions on that, because it will be a diminishing sum of money anyway towards the latter part of transition. We have not decided when to de-link. That might come later; it could be at the beginning—that is provided for. We would consult on that, but my expectation is that for a period we would phase down the existing BPS payment. A point would then come when, frankly, having all the architecture that we have now to enforce it would cease to be justifiable, and simply de-linking to get the system closed down would be the right thing to do.

The answer to the Landworkers Alliance, the members of which generally complain to me that they are ineligible for the BPS payment at the moment anyway, is that in so far as some of them might be eligible, if they took a de-linked payment they would be able to spend it on anything they wanted, as would any other farm.

A slightly separate provision—although it is linked, and they overlap in some respects—is clause 7(7), which creates a parallel power for us effectively to do what I described earlier: make a rolled-up payment of several years to a farmer who might be deciding to leave the land. We may exercise that whether or not we had de-linked. It will be open to us to run a scheme basically to make an exit payment to farmers, with several years rolled up in one, even if we are proceeding on the basis of clause 7(1)(a)—that is the phase-down. It will also be open to us to do it under subsection (1)(b), but if we were using subsection (1)(b) towards the end of the process to free everyone from the need to have their payment linked to the land, it might be less attractive at that point as an exit package.