Environmental targets and objectives

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 20th November 2018.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must, in exercising functions under this Act, take all reasonable steps to—

(a) further the purposes within section 1(1)(a) to (g), and

(b) following a public consultation, bring forward proposals for environmental targets and objectives for the achievement of the purposes in section 1(1)(a) to (g) to secure the maintenance, recovery and restoration of the environment, so that the environment is healthy, resilient and sustainable for the benefit of people and wildlife.”—

This new clause includes a requirement on ministers to introduce specific targets to ensure the bill meets its objectives.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Phil Wilson Phil Wilson Labour, Sedgefield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 17—Primacy of public purposes—

“The Secretary of State must ensure the payment of public money delivers primarily the purposes in section 1(1) so that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations.”

This new clause is intended to ensure that the list of public purposes set out in Clause 1 are the primary objective for payments under the Bill.

New clause 19—Financial assistance: duty to provide advice—

“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to secure the provision of training, guidance and advice to persons receiving financial assistance under this Act, for the purpose of enabling those persons to deliver the purpose or purposes for which the financial assistance is given.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may include provision for advice on matters which include but are not limited to—

(a) the impact of any practice upon the environment,

(b) business management, including the development of business plans,

(c) the health and welfare of livestock,

(d) the safety and health of workers in any agricultural sector,

(e) innovation, including alternative methods of pest, disease and weed control,

(f) food safety, insofar as it relates to the production of food or any activity in, or in close connection with, an agri-food supply chain,

(g) the operation of any mechanism for applying for, or receiving, financial assistance under this Act,

(h) marketing of any product falling within an agricultural sector under Part 2 of Schedule 1.

(3) Regulations under this section are subject to affirmative resolution procedure.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make provision for training, guidance and advice to be made available to persons receiving financial assistance.

New clause 27—Smallholdings estates: land management—

“(1) A smallholdings authority which immediately before the commencement of Part 1 of this Act holds any land for the purposes of smallholdings shall review the authority’s smallholdings estate and shall, before the end of the period of eighteen months beginning with the commencement of Part 1 of this Act, submit to the Secretary of State proposals with respect to the future management of that estate for the purposes of providing—

(a) opportunities for persons to be farmers on their own account;

(b) education or experience in environmental land management practices;

(c) opportunities for increasing public access to the natural environment and understanding of sustainable farming; and

(d) opportunities for innovation in sustainable land management practices.

(2) No land held by a smallholdings authority as a smallholding immediately before commencement of Part 1 of this Act is to be conveyed, transferred, leased or otherwise disposed of otherwise than—

(a) in connection with the purposes listed in subsection (1); and

(b) in accordance with proposals submitted under subsection (1).

(3) For the purposes of this section, “smallholdings authority” has the same meaning as in section 38 of the Agriculture Act 1970.”

This new clause would limit the disposal of smallholdings (‘county farms’) by local authorities and would require local authorities to review their holding and submit proposals for future management to provide opportunities to extend access to farming, education, and innovation.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

New clause 16 aims to get specific targets into the Bill, to ensure that it meets its objectives in relation to the public goods for which financial assistance is provided in clause 1. Those objectives are all laudable, but verge on the vague. The new clause would include targets and objectives to ensure that air quality is safe; that our fresh waters and seas are in good ecological and environmental status; that our soils are healthy and used sustainably; that the extent, quality and connectivity of habitats is increased, and natural processes are restored; and that the richness of species is maintained, and their abundance is restored to at least favourable conservation standards on land, in fresh water, and at sea.

We know from the Climate Change Act 2008 that legal targets with identified milestones have a proven track record in delivering environmental outcomes. We could have a separate debate about whether we are doing enough to meet the targets in that Act when it comes to future carbon budgets, but that is a matter for another day. We at least have targets that set out the future programme, and also provide farmers with policy certainty and a framework for future investment. I accept that setting out such targets on the face of the Bill would be rather complicated, particularly as we are still looking at quite a lot of the detail about how to measure some of the public goods, reward farmers for meeting them, and so on. Rather, new clause 16 would impose a duty on the Government to bring forward targets and objectives as soon as possible.

During this Committee’s fifth sitting, the Minister said that the Government would do that, and again, I believe he is genuine in wanting to take this forward. He said:

“we have a 25-year environment plan. An environment Bill will come from that, which will set out targets, objectives and commitments to get trends moving in a particular direction. It will give a longer term commitment and buy-in, which successive Governments will work towards.”––[Official Report, Agriculture Public Bill Committee, 30 October 2018; c. 149.]

However, we know—it has been on the front page of the papers—that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has some differences with his colleagues in this area. In this case, those differences are not with the Secretary of State for International Trade, but with the Treasury. The Sun said that the Treasury was trying to block green targets from being enshrined in law. Perhaps when he responds the Minister can tell me whether there is any truth in that suggestion.

The Treasury certainly got its way in the Budget, with little more than tokenistic gestures on the environment. The biggest announcement, £10 million for tackling abandoned waste, seemed to be there only so that the Chancellor could set up a joke about the shadow Chancellor, who had fallen over some fly-tipping and bruised his face. In particular, despite great fanfare when the Chancellor referred in the 2017 Budget to the Government’s intention to deal with plastic pollution, and then re-announced it in the spring, that was a damp squib in this year’s Budget. The purpose of the new clause is to protect the Minister and his boss, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, from their colleagues in the Treasury. We are on the Minister’s side: we want to make sure he can deliver a green Brexit, as we believe he wants to do. We want to help him with that.

The Chancellor’s view that any new laws should be kept to a minimum does not, I believe, represent the views of many businesses. In a letter published in The Sunday Telegraph—yes, I am a Sunday Telegraph and Sun reader; I hope Conservative Back Benchers are listening—members of the Aldersgate Group, including Siemens, Marks & Spencer and IKEA, called for the Bill to set

“measurable targets to cover improvements to air and water quality, soil health, peatland restoration, net biodiversity gain and resource efficiency.”

The group said that those targets

“provide a level playing field”,

which is what everyone wants,

“incentivise investment in innovation, support job creation and help businesses develop commercial strengths in fast-growing areas of the world economy.”

As the group’s executive director says:

“Where environmental protections are ambitious, well designed and properly implemented, they can actually deliver economic as well as environmental benefits”.

We hear a lot about red tape, regulation and targets being a burden on business. I included that to show that business likes targets and certainty. Businesses like to be able to plan, and to know that the Government are on their side.

Reassurances by the Minister will not be enough; we need the promises to be enshrined in law. We know that the Environment Secretary was offered another job just a couple of days ago. I never thought I would say that I was glad that he turned it down, but for the time being I am glad that he is still in post. However, given the current chaos on the Government Benches we do not know who will be in post perhaps even in hours, let alone days, weeks and months. It is important that we enshrine it in law, so that we can protect the noble ambitions of the farming Minister and his boss.

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

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East and to support her in new clauses 16 and 17, which are important.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I should have said at the beginning that I will not press new clause 17 to a vote. I have had a change on that for the time being.

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

It is always great to be corrected by my own side, particularly when I have just said how wonderful the new clauses are.

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

Okay—left hand and right hand. I will speak to new clause 16, which was excellent, and which we fully support because it is about targets, which is largely what the group of new clauses is about.

Although we are losing new clause 17, new clause 16 is important. It tries to tie together the Bill with the environment plan, which is crucial to the Government’s way of thinking. It is about setting targets and putting meaningful arrangements in place so that we can look at where the Government’s joined-up thinking is taking us. We hope that the Government will look carefully at new clause 16. They might agree with what we are doing, but we will look at that on Report.

Again, there is universal support from farming organisations and, in particular, from the various green contributors to the Bill. They want ambitious and legally binding targets set “for nature’s recovery”. Those are not my words, but those of The Wildlife Trusts, which looks at the UN sustainable development goals. Goal two—“End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”—is highly relevant to the Bill. It is about setting ambitious targets by 2030, and indeed some by 2020, regarding the way in which we want to change agriculture across the world. If we do not do that in the UK, we will miss a real opportunity, and the Bill is the opportunity to do that.

I want to speak principally to the two new clauses in my name and in those of other hon. Friends. New clause 19 is about offering advice to those seeking to make dramatic changes to the way in which they farm or operate the land, which is important. We feel strongly about that because it is missing from the Bill. The Government have talked about land management contracts.

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.