Environmental targets and objectives

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 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, read the First time, and Question proposed this day, That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I remind the Committee that with this we are considering 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 David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Welcome back to the Chair, Sir Roger. I hope that this will be the final session of our deliberations, but anything is possible with this Government. We have already lost one Committee sitting, so let me plough on with new clauses 19 and 27.

The whole point of new clause 19 is that farmers and landowners are being asked to make a dramatic shift in how they perform their duties. I hope that all farmers are to some extent environmentalists—that is why they are on the land and why they care for it—but unless they are among the small minority in stewardship, they have principally been paid for being what they are: farmers or landowners. We are now going to pay them to do environmental things.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the many environmental schemes that are in place? Farmers are already doing quite a lot of this stuff.

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

I agree that there have been schemes such as Blue Flag, but the point is that that was not what farmers were principally paid for. Under the Bill, they will principally be paid to look after the environment in whatever way is deemed fit, and they will need an enormous amount of advice. New clause 19 would implement a mechanism for that.

The Committee has already discussed the areas in which farmers might need support. We have certainly discussed the idea of people advising on land management contracts, whether they come in from local government or whether farmers and landowners bring them in and pay for their advice. The difficulty is that this is all rather fluid and open-ended, so the new clause would give it some substance.

As the Minister says, the advice will be given on a one-to-one basis, but who is going to give it? At the moment there are not many people who can give such advice, and they are very expensive. One might have thought that land agents would be interested, but at a recent event I spoke to land agents who made it very clear that rural is not really where the money or—dare I say it?—the interest is, because they have moved much more into the urban sphere. That will no doubt cause some difficulties.

The new clause covers a range of areas in which there is a need for advice. We do not want to talk in an alarmist way, but this is really important. We are asking people to completely change their business organisation over a very short period. How they operate and, in a sense, their whole reason for being on the land will have to change. I am not implying that it will change completely for everyone, but for some people the change will be dramatic.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Labour, Ipswich

Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is no duty to provide advice, there is a danger that smaller farms will be least likely to get the advice they need, since they cannot afford to pay for it? The ones that most need support are the most likely to lose out.

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

Exactly. There may be less form filling than under the current arrangement, but it will involve some. It will also certainly involve inspection; otherwise, how can we guarantee that the public moneys are being used appropriately for those public goods?

That is the backcloth. As I say, I do not want to be alarmist but, sadly, as all those who have been involved with the land will know, the suicide rate among farmers and farm workers is very high. The rate is high because it is a very lonely occupation. It is also a very stressful occupation when people are losing money, which they often are. The arrangement will not necessarily solve that, because although it is transitionary they will lose money that in the past they have banked, guaranteeing that they can go forward.

On the suicide rate, we have all lost friends. I have particular regard for Gloucestershire Farming Friends, which my old friend Malcolm Whittaker set up many years ago. There are times when the organisation is inundated with phone calls, particularly when forms have to be filled in and people feel under incredible stress. We must be aware of that. I hope that the Minister will at least say something about what will be put in place, in a much more finite way than perhaps he has been able to so far. What people really want to know is, if they are going to make the changes, how they will be helped to do so.

On new clause 27, the Minister will not be surprised that I am going to say a little about smallholdings. He, like me, thinks that they are a wonderful part of British agriculture. The “Land for Heroes” scheme was put in place after the first world war, and people who had no other occupation were encouraged to take up smallholdings, organised largely, but not entirely, through county councils. Certainly over the past 20 years, we have sadly seen a decline in the smallholdings. They have been sold off, not necessarily in their entirety but in ever greater amounts of land. That matters because it is one of the few ways that younger people—certainly those without the means to buy land, or to rent it at the astronomical rents they are sometimes asked to pay—can get in.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman on many of those points. In fact, my local authority, Powys County Council, is investing in the county farm structure, which is really positive. Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that county councils—national Government, in fact—invest in smallholdings? Does he agree with the shadow Chancellor that we should do away with all private farms and have community farms?

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

That would be a very good thing in the sense that we would have much more access to the land. I do talk to the shadow Chancellor from time to time, and he is very keen on the idea that land is available, not by sequestration, but by taking it into public ownership to give people the chance to farm. That is what we are about here. This is very important.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Following on from the shadow Chancellor’s background, the hon. Gentleman says, “taking farms into public ownership”. I am very interested in that definition.

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

I will be very careful. I will reword what I said. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt read what I said when the Official Report is published. I am very clear that there has always been a role for some public ownership of land through local authorities, because that is an avenue by which people can come into farming. It is simply much more difficult—I talk from some experience here. A long time ago, I chaired the county farms estate in Gloucestershire when I was a county councillor. I saw people coming through, desperate to get on the land, and it was always really sad that we had to turn down very good people because never enough holdings became available for the numbers chasing them. Too often, it was not necessarily the farmers themselves but who their partners were that was a vital factor in who got the holdings, which I always thought was grossly unfair. That was the reality of trying to make good what is a difficult operation.

I am merely making the point that we ought to do more to protect county farms and smallholdings. I want to grow them but, at the moment, there should be an embargo on the future sale. The old acre for acre policy was always sensible; somebody sold a bit of land and invested in a new bit of land. The problem is a wholesale reduction of the county farms estate, which precludes many people from coming into farming.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Government legislation must be clear about land ownership? The tenancy market is important; many young farmers get in through a tenancy. The experience in Scotland is that, if there is any doubt cast upon the ownership of land or the right to buy, the tenancy market dries up. Would he agree that the best entry is through tenancies?

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

I do not know enough about Scotland, so I will take the hon. Gentleman’s judgment on that. One of the arguments about the Bill and the changes it implies, is that rents will possibly fall. I do not necessarily agree with that, but it has been put to me by more than one person. That is due to the removal of the area payment, which has pushed up rents because people have more value in the land that they possess. We will have to see; it might become apparent only some years down the line.

At the moment, I am clear that we should go back to the Agriculture Act 1970, which put an obligation on local authorities that had land to protect that land and make it available for those who wished to farm or do other things appropriate to the land that would be within the environmental catch-all we are pushing for in the Bill.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Will the hon. Gentleman give an indication of the size of unit he believes would be viable? Currently, some of the very small smallholdings are not viable businesses.

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

That is a problem. Traditionally, the Gloucestershire smallholdings were about 100 acres. I accept that would be very difficult because a great many of them were dairy farms, although we also had some horticulture. That is probably too small. To counterweight that, the Landworkers Alliance argue that they can make a living out of much smaller pieces of land, farmed in a slightly different way, through agroecology and so on, and maybe they would not do that full time. No one is implying that being a farmer has to be a full-time occupation. It is something that people want to do as part of their portfolio of operating.

We need to protect these bits of land initially. I would love to grow them and see local authorities encourage them. That is important, not just for opportunities for people on the land. It is about strategic ownership and the fact that we should always think ahead. If the state is not prepared to put in some effort, where is the direction coming from?

The good thing about county farms estates, as most of them are known, is that they provided education and opportunities for people to look at the front end of farming and see ways in which to do things differently, by collaboration among the tenants and so on. We will come later to tenancy reform but this is all bound up in it. A third of our farmers are tenant farmers and many of them are on land not just owned by local authorities but by charities. In my area there is the Henry Smith charity, which owns considerable areas of land and has been very good. The Church is an important landowner in the way it encourages agriculture.

I am talking here about the county farms estates and I know that the Minister shares my interest. If we do not get the chance to include the measure in the Bill, with local authorities as cash-strapped as they are, there is only one direction they are going. That is, sadly, to sell these holdings, which would mean that is it. Once it has gone, it has gone forever. It cannot be bought back under the current arrangements.

I hope that we can change that, but at least let us look at how to put an embargo on the wholesale sale of these holdings, because we want younger people and new people coming on to the land. Let us give this legislation something it will be remembered for. At the moment we are looking at things that cannot be done, but this is something that we can do in this legislation. I hope that the Minister will say that he is with us, and that he wants these county farm estates to be protected.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:15 pm, 20th November 2018

I will start with new clause 16, tabled by the hon. Member for Bristol East, which seeks to add some environmental targets to the Bill. We discussed this topic earlier in the Committee’s deliberations. As I said earlier, the Government have clearly demonstrated our commitment to the environment through the 25-year environment plan. We are currently in the process of developing a detailed indicator framework so that we can accurately measure progress on those important environmental trends. Obviously, we have already consulted on the key element of our agriculture policy, which is to deliver payment for the delivery of public goods, but fundamentally I see this as an issue for the forthcoming environment Bill. We will be publishing a draft of that Bill later this year, which will deal with environmental governance and environmental principles. In the second Session of this Parliament there will be an environment Bill that will include some of these things.

I will address the point that the hon. Member for Bristol East made about whether there is some division between DEFRA and the Treasury.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Before the Minister gets on to that, nearly a year ago—I think it was December last year—we were dealing with amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and there was quite a controversial amendment about animal sentience. We were told then that the amendment did not need to go in the Bill because the Government were bringing forward an animal sentience Bill. We do not have an animal sentience Bill; we had a draft one, but that all went haywire. I know that there will definitely be an environment Bill, but how can the Minister reassure us that it will deal with the issue of targets?

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

There will definitely be a Bill dealing with animal sentience and sentencing. As I speak, we are considering where we might be able to fit those particular provisions into future legislation.

The hon. Lady asked whether there is a division between DEFRA and the Treasury. There is not. Within Government there are discussions, obviously, and then there is a consensus and an agreement. She kindly offered to protect the Secretary of State through the proposed new clause, but I can assure her that the Secretary of State needs no protecting; he is very good at making his case within Government. We already have some statutory targets through international agreements in areas such as climate change, but we believe that environmental targets and objectives should be picked up through the 25-year environment plan—there were some objectives in that plan—and are fundamentally a matter for the environment Bill. I am sure that she will be very engaged in discussions about that Bill when it comes forward.

I turn to new clause 19, tabled by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud, which concerns the importance of advice and guidance. The Government agree with him about the importance of advice and guidance, particularly as we roll out a new scheme, but clause 1 is absolutely clear that we can already pay for advice and guidance. Subsection (1) of that clause states:

The Secretary of State may give financial assistance for or in connection with any of the following”.

The term “in connection with” enables us to make financial assistance available to support advice, and I want to spend a little bit of time explaining what the Government intend to do in this area.

As I touched on during an earlier debate on other clauses, we envision the new environmental land management scheme as effectively a covenant or contract between individual farmers and the Government. We intend to support a system in which farmers would be able to receive advice on the design of an environmental land management contract. That advice might come from an agronomist accredited by a UCAS Government scheme or from one of our employees from Natural England, or a third-party organisation like the Wildlife Trust might develop a cohort of people who could provide that advice. Having worked with the farmer, visited the farm, walked to the farm and not got too obsessed by maps, form-filling and all the rest of it, they can sit around the table with the farmer, help them put together the agreement, and then sign it off with the presumption that it will be supported and paid for.

We want to get back to a system in which there is much more human interaction, and in which trusted agronomists, trusted advisers who are accredited by the Government, and Government officers from agencies such as Natural England work directly with farmers. We do not want everyone to get bogged down in paperwork, form-filling, mapping and having to spend hours on a helpline, only to find that nobody can help them with their query. We have got a great opportunity to redesign the system.

The hon. Member for Stroud said that, as this is a new scheme, there will potentially be challenges in getting farmers used to it. I understand his point, but until a couple of years ago about 70% of farmers were in either an entry-level stewardship or a higher-level stewardship scheme, so by and large they are very familiar with these types of agri-environment schemes. They have run similar schemes previously, so I think they will be able to pick up these schemes and adapt to them.

The other thing we are doing is having a seven-year transition in which we gradually wind down the single farm payment. During that time we will be piloting the new system. That gives us plenty of time to familiarise farmers with the new system, and to perfect the system, so that when we roll it out fully we do not have problems along the way, and to ensure that we have the capacity to give advice in the area to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.

The other point I want to address is about the holistic advice to farmers. We have been looking at projects run by a number of organisations, including the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which gives a lot of technical advice and has a network of what it calls monitor farms so that it can share good practice and knowledge transfer, and the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which runs very good peer-to-peer support groups to help farmers with their business management and help them address change. It has had some success with that. We are keen to learn from that as we roll out support for farmers. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, farming can be a very lonely business. I grew up in a farming community, so I am familiar with the issues. There has always been the great tragedy of high levels of suicide in agriculture—usually about 50 a year. That figure has been fairly constant for a number of decades. We want to ensure that, as we go through this period of change, we give farmers all the support we can to help them adjust and move to a new system.

New clause 27 is all about county farms, about which the hon. Member for Stroud and I share a passion. This is the first time today I have been able to mention the 1947 Act. As he is aware, sections 47 onwards and part 4 of the Act established county farms and the right of local authorities to buy them. The new clause looks familiar because, although we often say that this is the first Agriculture Bill since 1947, that is not quite true. It is the first major Agriculture Bill since 1947, but of course there was the Agriculture Act 1970, which rolled forward some of the provisions from the 1947 Act and changed others. It created the requirement for local authorities to submit a plan to the Department and seek our agreement for any consolidation and reorganisation. That was a time-limited power, and I understand that new clause 27 is effectively attempting to replicate it. Earlier this year we laid before Parliament—I have to sign these off every year—the 67th annual smallholdings report, under section 5 of the 1970 Act, so there are still some requirements under that Act.

I want to explain what we intend to do about county farms. My view is that we should create a financial incentive for local authorities to invest in and commit to their county farms in the long term. The idea that I have in mind is to create, under clause 1(2), a fund for investment in county farms that is open to local authorities, subject to their submitting to us a clear plan demonstrating their long-term commitment to their county farm estate. I would like to see more emphasis placed on turning county farms into what might be called incubator holdings, to genuinely support new entrants. At the moment the problem is that once people get on to a county farm, they often get stuck there for 20 or 30 years and do not have the ability to progress.

Our idea is to look at what we can learn from other parts of the economy where there are, for instance, innovation centres offering mentoring for setting up new businesses; where the local enterprise partnership might be involved, working with the local authority to draw down additional funding; where it might be made a requirement for local authorities to have partnership agreements with private estates, so that they have farms to move farmers on to after five years; and where we might also support the development of peri-urban farms on other parts of local authority land.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I am pleased to hear the Minister’s proposals. Can he confirm that they will apply UK-wide and not just to England?

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

The scheme would be for England only, for the reasons I have outlined.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stroud understands that, rather than drafting a clause that requires that to be done, I believe that we can deliver the outcome we seek simply by establishing a fund to help local authorities invest in a county farm estate, subject to meeting conditions that demonstrate their long-term commitment to the scheme.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 25 Decision Time — Environmental targets and objectives

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I have had no indication that any of the other new clauses in this group are being pressed to a Division, so I will move on.

Before we come to new clause 18, I will clarify the procedure so that everyone understands. The Clerk left me a note saying that the lights go out at 5 o’clock, which is a polite way of saying that the knife comes down. At that point I have to put whatever is being debated to the vote—there is no choice and it cannot be withdrawn. After that, I will put the Question on any amendments that have already been discussed, of which there is one—it must be moved formally. Any other business then falls.

Let us do the maths: there are eight new clauses, with two and a half hours to go. Seven of the eight new clauses are in the name of the official Opposition, and one is in the name of the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith. It is up to you to prioritise, but bear in mind that any new clauses that we do not reach can be re-tabled on Report.

New Clause 18