Q Welcome, witnesses. We have five of you, so this is going to be challenging to say the least. We will hear evidence from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, the Traceability Design User Group and Livestock Information Ltd. Would you please briefly introduce yourself?
I am Simon Hall. I am the managing director of Livestock Information Ltd, which is a very new company, set up on
I am John Cross. My roots are in farming, and I still have a farming business. For the past three years, I have chaired a pan-industry and Government design working group that has worked with Simon to co-create the new traceability system that will be delivered by LI Ltd. For the sake of openness, I should say that I have just been appointed as chair of that company, so I will be working with Simon, who is the managing director.
I know that at least one of you has given evidence to these sessions before—maybe two or three of you—but please enjoy the session, which runs until 11.25 am.
Q The Bill explicitly recognises animal health and welfare and native breeds as a public good. In recent years, we have seen a specialisation in arable in some parts of the country and a concentration of livestock in others. Some say that we need to get livestock back on the lowlands, so that we have more permanent pasture, more crop rotation, more organic matter in the soil and so on. I wonder whether those of you who feel able might comment on the benefits of livestock in our land management and in the farming system.
I speak particularly on behalf of native breeds, rather than livestock generally, but I think that promoting our native breeds is hugely important. Dealing with economics first of all, you have pointed to the uplands as an area where it is harder to grow crops and where people therefore keep livestock, but that does not rule out having livestock elsewhere. If we have the right sort of livestock, grazed at the right density and in the right place, we are providing environmental benefits because we are creating the sorts of habitats we want. We are keeping down import costs—that helps the climate—which reduce farm incomes. There is a business and an environmental side to livestock, which are an important landscape feature as well. There is something exciting about seeing interesting animals wandering around our farms. It all helps towards tourism, and a sense of place and location. There are huge arguments to support increased livestock use.
I speak as a mixed arable and livestock farmer, as opposed to my involvement with Livestock Information. There is absolutely no doubt that the combination of livestock on arable land has a profound effect. It is something that I would encourage the whole industry to look at, because as soon as you start to improve the organic matter levels, the vibrancy and the life within the soil, you realise the benefits that come with drought resistance and inherent fertility. In particular, if you involve a blend of, say, pigs and ruminants on arable land, you also have a profound effect on the birdlife that then decides to come to live on that farm. It is something that I believe in passionately, and it works, but certainly—as I heard referred to in the earlier session this morning—you have to be mindful of stocking densities. In particular, it is a matter of making good use of grazing legumes, which we are pioneering. It is a valuable mission that the Bill mentions, because we need more organic matter in arable land.
Just picking up on that point, I have been working on CAP issues for 20 years, and this is the first time that we have had the opportunity to get animal welfare into the new farm support system. We have only ever had one animal welfare scheme in the last 20 years, which was in Scotland, so it is really important that we start to get animal welfare payments into the system and, particularly on the stocking point, make sure that farmers are paid to go higher than the welfare standards they have at the moment. I think you will get win-win situations, with benefits to animal welfare, benefits to the environment, benefits to rare breeds, et cetera.
The RSPB is a big landowner and farmer—we have 30,000 livestock across our estate. In a lot of cases, those livestock are essential to the public goods that we deliver, particularly the high nature value farming systems that, again, have been a key feature of many CAP schemes in the past. We want to see future schemes in England supporting those high nature value farming systems. Extensive livestock production will be a key feature of those systems in future and is important in supporting species such as curlew and other breeding waders, or habitats such as upland hay meadows.
John’s point about densities is absolutely right, because overgrazing is a major problem for a lot of our designated sites and habitats. The opportunity we have in the Agriculture Bill, and with environmental land management schemes specifically, is to support farmers to find that optimum balance, which Martin Lines talked about a lot in the previous session and which can go hand in hand with a more profitable livestock farming system as well.
Q I have just a couple of further points. Mr Bowles, you are right, this is the first time that a country has put as much ambition into rewarding high animal welfare outcomes as we do in the Bill. Your organisation runs the RSPCA Assured scheme. What lessons can we learn from that about having a payment-for-public-goods model for farmers who go above and beyond the regulatory baseline? Also, if I may, a question for Mr Hall: in terms of livestock traceability, are there market opportunities for us in having that higher health and higher welfare supply chain, which can be demonstrated through the project that you are working on?
There are huge opportunities. We have only ever had one scheme in the UK, but we have had something like 52 schemes over the 28 EU member states. The RSPCA Assured scheme is very successful in certain areas, such as laying hens, where we probably have 55% of production, but it is very unsuccessful in other areas, such as sheep, beef, dairy and even chickens, which are all sectors where we have under 5% and in some areas under 1%. The market is therefore not delivering the higher welfare assurance schemes that we want in that particular market.
That is the exciting thing about the Bill, because it will provide the opportunity to give farmers a leg up through, for example, one-off capital grants, and then provide them with payments to ensure that, where the market does not deliver, they can deliver those higher welfare schemes. The RSPCA is very happy that the Bill provides for that two-step process. We think there are very exciting times here for farmers, particularly in those areas where we have not traditionally gone into higher welfare schemes. For instance, at the moment, 0% of ducks in the UK have access to full-body water. The expression “taking a duck to water” does not exist for UK duck farming. That is a tragedy, not just for ducks, but for UK farming.
There are undoubtedly opportunities in the marketplace if we can evidence welfare standards, provenance, and so on. The Livestock Information programme will put in place a new multi-species traceability service that brings together data based on animals, keepership—the people who have been responsible for the animal throughout its life—and location, the farm where it is based. The whole proposition of the programme that we are delivering is about using that data not only to better inform Government responses to animal disease control and ensuring food safety, but to enable the industry to take advantage of that data to evidence its standards and demonstrate to its consumers, domestically or internationally, the standards to that livestock is produced, the provenance of the animals and so on in real data. Working in partnership with Government and industry, there is an opportunity to set out our stall in a world-leading manner.
To build on what has been said, an important aspect of the Livestock Information service—if it goes as far as I hope it does—is that it will give greater recognition to individual breeds. It will make it clear that what you are buying is a saddleback or whatever. At the moment, it is very difficult for the consumer to know that what he or she is buying is what the butcher or supermarket purports it to be, or to know when they use nebulous language to imply that it has a particular provenance. If we can get to a system whereby people are promoting particular breeds associated with a particular area, we will do well to create a much stronger sense of place and local identity, which will help with creating new markets.
Q I think at least three of the witnesses are part of organisations that were signatories to the letter to the Prime Minister at the end of last month warning about the potential risks of lower standards for imported food. Will those three witnesses, and perhaps others, comment briefly on what you think will be the effect of allowing imports of food produced to lower environmental welfare and health standards on consumers, producers and the environment?
For the RSPCA, this is probably the biggest omission in the Bill. The Government have resisted putting anything in the Bill that says that we will not import produce or food to lower standards than those of the UK. I cannot see why they have resisted that. The Secretary of State said, “Trust me, because it’s in the manifesto.” Frankly, I do not think that is good enough. Last year the Government tabled their own amendment to the Trade Bill that said exactly that. I hope they do the same here, because if they do not, they will leave British farmers who are producing to those higher welfare standards open to US imports.
For instance, 55% of the pork meat and bacon that we eat is imported. Virtually all that comes from the EU. If you start importing that from the USA, where they still have sow stalls, where they still give their pigs ractopamine, which is an illegal drug in UK pig farming, you are opening up to cheaper imports coming in, particularly if you do not have consumer information and labelling. I am pleased that labelling is in the Agriculture Bill, but this needs to be part of a matrix. You need to have the same standards for food coming in. The RSPCA is not afraid of higher welfare food coming in. What we are afraid of is food coming in that is illegal to produce in the UK.
I agree with everything that has been said, but I think we need to be careful about putting too much trust in labelling. I cannot see that people are going to make many purchasing decisions on the basis of labelling. Something like less than 5% of decisions nowadays are based on labelling, which includes all the various organic and assurance schemes. This has to be dealt with by legislation and regulation. You cannot leave it to consumer good will in the supermarket.
I agree with all that. We worked very closely with the NFU to co-ordinate that letter. We view assurance around import standards as a foundational element of the whole future farming policy and as really important to farmers’ ability to invest in public goods schemes with confidence.
The letter not only touched on a defensive ask, but pushed a more aspirational agenda around a role for the UK to set out a world-leading trade policy that takes account of societal demands such as climate change, biodiversity and all those sorts of issues, which are not reflected in modern international trade policy, and certainly not at the World Trade Organisation.
This is often reported as: “We want protection.” Actually, as David said, we want to be able to compete on common standards. No UK farmers are calling for protectionism for its own sake, but there is an opportunity to call for a more sustainable trade policy that has a bit more imagination regarding how we can fight the climate and environment emergency, while embarking upon a new international trade policy, as we now will.
It has been very well addressed already, but briefly, if society is sincere about animal welfare and is aspirational—which it should be—then it should not look for one set of standards domestically and, to a certain extent, export its conscience and accept lower standards from elsewhere. You should be consistent in your attitude to animals.
Should some financial assistance be provided for animal welfare activities that go beyond, for example, the legal minimal requirements and normal good practice? If so, what types of activities could that include?Q
Yes; the RSPCA, as I said earlier, is delighted that for the first time we have the opportunity to provide financial assistance to farmers. One of the things that is missing from the Bill—it says it in the explanatory notes, but it is not explicit—is that financial assistance should be given only to those above baseline standards. We had a system where farmers could have been paid even if they were doing things that were illegal. I do not want to replicate that in the new farm support system.
There are a lot of things that we would like the Government to introduce to give farmers a leg up—for instance, providing brushes for cattle, hoof-trimming for cattle to reduce lameness, rubber matting for cattle to give farmers a leg up to farm at higher welfare standards, and then giving them the opportunity to get money that is not provided by the marketplace, which is the difference between farming at higher welfare and what the marketplace delivers.
There is a whole range and suite of issues that could be gathered. The RSPCA is delighted that the Government are looking at them seriously, and we hope that some can be trialled in the next year.
There are two aspects to your question. The first is whether we have got the regulations right in the first place. Although we might have the right standards, I think that most people on our side of the table would hope that Dame Glenys Stacey’s report is implemented, if not in full, then to a large extent. It might be useful to expand a bit on that in a moment.
In terms of paying for meeting regulatory standards per se, I think this is something that applies throughout. Farming will go through the most immense structural change over the next four or five years, as we move to an unsubsidised, more market-facing world. There will be an incredible variety of costs for people as a result. I do not think that there is anything untoward about the Government helping people to make that transition over the short term. I am talking about significant short-term capital expenditure on the Government’s part, to get the industry match-fit—not only in terms of welfare, but in terms of having the right business processes and practices in place. After that, you can say, “Now you’re on your own. We’ve helped you to get up to the standard that we expected of you. Now it’s for the market to support you going forward.”
Most legislation nowadays gives powers not duties. There is nothing unusual about the Agriculture Bill in that regard. The Bill is about the tool used to implement the policy; it is not the policy in itself. It would be useful to have the Government’s policy, to know what they are going to try to implement.
Having said all that, we are talking about some really quite complicated stuff. Food production, which is fundamental to our existence, is all based on natural processes that are really complicated. We are going through huge structural changes and as a country we have not been great at managing structural change. Bearing all that in mind, it is important that Government have a full range of tools to do as they see fit, in consultation with stakeholders. I would hate the idea that, for reasons of legislative propriety or whatever, we ended up constraining Government so much that they could not do things that, in a few months’ time, we might decide are absolutely essential.
We are very sympathetic to having more duties to balance the range of powers. A report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee the last time the Bill was in Parliament was quite scathing on that point. Clauses 4 to 6 are a positive step in setting out strategic objectives and they come with a range of duties on Ministers to have multi-annual financial plans, set objectives for those and have regard to those objectives when setting the budget for those plans. That is a big step forward in this Bill on the duties-not-powers point.
We would like to see a duty in the Bill to have an environment and land management scheme. At the moment, it is a legal requirement under CAP-funded rural development programmes to have an agri-environment scheme—you cannot not have one anywhere across the UK. We want to see that duty replicated in the Bill.
It would be interesting to look at other areas in the Bill as well. There are lots of powers in the Bill around fair dealing provisions and supply chain transparency, but there are no duties on Ministers to use those to improve supply chain transparency. That is another area where you could include a duty to clarify how those powers were going to be used and that they were going to be used.
Clause 1(1) says:
“The Secretary of State may give”— and then it lists the public goods. We would like to see a “must”, and the RSPCA would like to see that too. The Secretary of State would still be applying the letter of the law if £1 went to animal welfare in the next five-year period. We would like to see some minimum payments under those particular public goods.
Q The Bill amends the red meat levy system, in that it irons out an imbalance that has often penalised Welsh and Scottish farmers. Do you think that is sufficient, or should the Bill contain further reforms around the red meat levy?
I had quite a lengthy history in the levy sector. The complexity around this issue is really quite deep, because it depends on where the benefit of the levy investment is secured, where the products derived from the industry are consumed and where the supported supply chains sit. As for the desire to capture and formalise a more even-handed distribution back to the devolved regions: from what I have seen of it, it does do enough. We live in a very complex domestic market; 50% of Scottish beef production is consumed within the M25. That illustrates how complex the mix is. The red meat levy is designed—yes, funded by farmers and processors—to make the best of a supply chain and to deliver business enhancement throughout for the good of consumers and producers. It is quite a complex issue and it is not just as simple as three separate lots of industry all wanting to do their own thing in isolation, because they are all interdependent.
Q This question is specifically for Mr Hall and Mr Cross, just about your organisations. Can you tell us, please, how you reformed; what your role is; what your governance rules are, and what jurisdiction you have in regard to Scotland and the devolved nations?
I will leave some of the technical detail to Simon, but in principle, this is how we arrived where we are now. Yes, we have established traceability systems in this country and they work but, as we speak, they still tend to be a blend of paper and digital—sometimes both at the same time. They work but they are high-maintenance. They are sub-optimal and they take a lot of resource to keep them going. They were, of course, designed to hoard data on behalf of statutory obligations, as opposed to share data, so the design principle needed to be completely different.
I think it is fair to say that Government was faced with the reality of having to achieve an IT refresh at some stage, with some fairly urgent timescales. For a long time, industry has wanted to have the benefit of the use of its own data. Data was being collected about the industry, but the industry could not use it to enhance itself.
We came to a moment after the referendum where the industry and Government were faced with a series of scenarios that required them to think differently and start to think together—this is where the principle of co-creation came in—right across DEFRA and all its dependencies, the Food Standards Agency, the Rural Payments Agency and the others, and right across the industry to form a think-tank as to how you design, hopefully, the optimum traceability and information system that enables Government to fulfil its statutory obligations, but better and faster, while allowing industry to start adding value to itself with information.
If it is a matter of exploring global markets, you can evidence a brand vastly better. In the global marketplace, traceability is king. In that area, you have huge opportunity. Similarly, from the viewpoint of the industry looking to eradicate non-notifiable endemic production diseases, again, to tackle disease risk you need information—you need data. As soon as you have got a unique identification of any one animal, the information you can attach to that provides almost endless opportunity.
But it is in the context of a UK story. This is quite complex. In the current situation, traceability services are delivered through a bit of a mixed economy in the UK. Northern Ireland has a multi-species service operating there for cattle, sheep and pigs. Scotland has a traceability service for sheep and pigs. Wales has a traceability service for sheep. England operates a GB service for cattle, and we operate a pig service for England and Wales, and a sheep service in England.
So, it’s quite complicated. Then, within that, there is a mix of services and databases that come together to provide a UK view of that traceability data, so that colleagues at the Animal and Plant Health Agency, for example, can use that data to respond to an animal disease outbreak or a food safety concern, or whatever.
We have an ambition in England to create a single multi-species traceability service, or a single service capability, including help desk and so on, a single IT system, underpinned by the ambition to exploit data, not only for the benefit of Government and statutory disease control, but to deliver a range of outcomes externally. In that context, the Scottish Government and Welsh Government have decided to bring the cattle services into their own Administrations, and in the case of Wales, to bring the pig service in-house as well.
We are all moving at the same time to a position that respects devolution, where every Administration will have its own multi-species traceability service. Particularly in the context of cattle, that creates a new requirement to ensure that we have a really good UK view of cattle, recognising that we are disaggregating services that are currently delivered through one service, so we need to ensure that that comes together.
DEFRA has asked Livestock Information Ltd, as part of the process of designing and implementing the traceability service in England, also to ensure that there is a way—a mechanism, a service—to ensure that we have good visibility of that UK data. That approach is supported by UK CVOs and so on.
We are, though, at a very early stage of designing exactly how that would work. So, we do not have a technology strategy yet for exactly how that would work and whether that means that Livestock Information Ltd would have a copy of all the UK traceability data, or whether it is just providing a window into each of the services and each of the Administrations for the Animal and Plant Health Agency to look at, for example.
We have really good relationships with colleagues in each of the UK Administrations and we are having regular dialogue around how this would work and whether there would need to be some specific governance arrangements around the UK view, and so on.
Q So there is no suggestion of imposing a UK-wide scheme on devolved nations that already have their own.
Q What are your governance rules, and how confident are you that the traceability set-up will be ready in time for the end of the year when we leave the EU?
There are two questions there. The first is easy: our governance arrangements are that Livestock Information Ltd is a subsidiary of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which is the levy body in England. AHDB is a non-departmental public body of DEFRA, so it is accountable to DEFRA but funded by the levy payer, and therefore responsible to the farmer, grower and processor in England.
For us, the attraction of using AHDB as the parent body for this company is the way in which we can embed the traceability service as close to industry as possible, while retaining the sufficient control needed by Government. That model has already been adopted in Scotland, Wales and further afield, in Australia. Livestock Information Ltd is a company limited by a guarantee; it is a subsidiary of AHDB; it has a 49% ownership stake from DEFRA directly—DEFRA is important, but if it wants to exert control it does so through the levy body.
The business case has been approved; we have funding in place; we have procured IT systems; we have a team of around 50 people delivering; we are working very closely with devolved Administrations, and we are aiming for implementation from the autumn. There is lots to do. There is lots of complexity. The No. 1 thing we must not do when we effect this change is compromise our quality of traceability. If we are not ready, we will delay, but there is no indication that we will need to at the moment. We are planning for implementation from the autumn, starting with cattle, sheep next year and pigs later next year.
A parting message: the important thing for us is to be smart and collaborative with the devolved regions, because disease pathogens—whether notifiable or not—and disease outbreaks do not recognise any political boundaries. We have to be smart and have a UK view on disease. If you look around the globe, on the international trade stage we are seen as the UK. It is a UK story if a product goes out, so from the point of view of access, wherever you go internationally, the UK is the recognised body. It is important that we have a smart, collegiate view on this.
This Agriculture Bill does support the delivery of the programme in the way we set out. In part 4, clause 32 talks about granting additional functions to AHDB that will allow it to deliver that English traceability service through the subsidiary body. It currently has the function to deliver the programme and to design and implement the future service, but not to run it. The Bill provides the functions to do that, and the flexibility to provide any UK functions required, or that are sensible. For example, one might imagine that allocating a unique identity for an individual animal might be something that we choose to do once only in the UK, and we may choose to do it from here or from somewhere else.
The Bill provides the functions that we need to deliver this programme in the way that we want in the future service; it also provides some flexibility, should we work together and decide that we want to carry out some UK responsibilities.
Q May I quickly return to the trade deals? Mr Cross, you said earlier that we must not export our conscience to other countries to import cheap, low-quality food from abroad. Quite right—we need to export our high standards, and I think we agree that the Bill is the opportunity to set a world-class benchmark model for regulating agriculture and sustainable farming.
My question is on behalf of our producers. The paradox is that everybody complains about the complexity of CAP, and farmers have a tough time filling in the forms. Of course, the principle of CAP is very simple: you just pay for the amount of land that you have. We are proposing to introduce a system with a lot more complex objectives—quite rightly—for all the different public goods. I share Ms Whittome’s point about the opportunity for community-based markets and more locally based producers—more local sourcing. Do we think that those community groups and small farmers will be able to navigate what sounds to an outsider like a very complex set of objectives, and therefore potentially some complex subsidy systems?
I can make a comment as a farmer rather than chair of Livestock Information. You make a very good point: we are entering a very different scenario. Some farmers will need considerable help in changing that mindset and getting used to a new environment, because it will require a lot more proactivity from the point of view of seeking rewards for those public goods. It will be a more complex—
Advice is a really important part of the story. We would like to see more clarity from DEFRA as to what advice will be made available to farmers, particularly during that transition period. We also understand that the evidence base around environmental advice is a really good investment. All the evidence, particularly from work commissioned by DEFRA and Natural England, suggests that providing advice to farmers as to how they can meet environmental outcomes and navigate some of the paperwork necessary to access the public money is well worth the investment in terms of the outcomes. We know that outcomes supported by advice are better than outcomes not supported by advice.
We have done some social science research recently on farmers’ experience of those schemes with farmers that we have been working with in south Devon for 30 years on species recovery projects for the cirl bunting. That social science shows really strongly that advice is the key element, not just in getting that environmental outcome but in ensuring that farmers are bought in to the schemes, that they understand the outcomes that they are seeking to deliver, and that they are able to get past some of the bureaucracy, which is an inevitable element of this.
Although direct payments sound simple in concept, you have the eligibility rules, particularly the land eligibility rules; the land parcel identification system; and the fact that you have to measure things to four decimal places. The fact that it is a very poor use of public money and no one really knows what it is for any more, drives a lot of those eligibility rules, because you have to provide some controls around it.
Our experience of the best agri-environment schemes in England, particularly higher level stewardship, is that, supported by advice, they are much more intuitively understandable for farmers—as to why they are receiving that money—than direct payments. Analysis that we have done of Natural England data, which we have not published but will probably publish in the coming months, suggests that payment rates for small farms, on the first 30 hectares or so of agreements, are higher than for larger farms, which is obviously not the case with direct payments. We know that small farms, again when supported by advice, can profit from public goods schemes, given our understanding of higher level stewardship and similar schemes in the past.
It is important to recognise just how much farming is going to change. It is not just a matter of changing the subsidy rules; it is a much bigger structural change. Farmers will be producing much more to the market, which means that we will have a different type of farmer. We are already starting to see those people—people who do not necessarily come from a farming background, who have made a bit of money doing something more commercial, who are coming to farming with business and marketing skills, and who are making a go of things in a very different way. You will know some of them—Lynbreck Croft, the Good Life Meat Company, Hilltop Farm.
People are already doing it and they have quite a big presence. They think in a different way. It is not just about who can take the biggest beast to the market every week or month. It is about sweating all your assets, so you will be selling the meat, but you will be selling meat with a good provenance, to high welfare standards and with a low environmental impact. If you are savvy, you will be finding markets for the skins, the wool, the horns. It may not be much money per item, but together it starts to create more produce with more of a brand.
If you start thinking in terms of your public goods as well—many farms are starting to—and working out what has a benefit, what you can do to improve your soil or your water quality, what plants you can grow that have biodiversity or climate benefits, and start ticking off those, you can get there. It does not need to be particularly complex. In many ways, although I hear what Tom says about the importance of advice, the way that most farmers learn is from other farmers. It is about encouraging farmers to go and see what their neighbour is doing, and not thinking of their neighbour as being their competitor, but as someone who can be a source of guidance.
So, I do not think we need be worried about complexity. Conceptually, what is being promised is more straight- forward. Of course there will be compliance requirements, but many of us think that a lot of the previous compliance requirements were more to do with EU standardisation across 28 member states rather than being particularly necessary to ensure the efficient use of public money. So, I think we can be optimistic about what is happening.
Q May I return to the regulatory baseline issue I raised with the previous witnesses? The RSPB was involved in the Institute for European Environmental Policy report published this week that suggests that, now we have left the EU, there is a real gap in the regulatory baseline because so many regulations were set at EU level. Is there a need for a firmer regulatory baseline in the Bill so that we know what we reward in terms of farmers going above that baseline, and so on?
We, the Wildlife Trusts and WWF commissioned the report from IEEP, who are independent consultants, to look at a future regulatory framework. Because the Bill includes provisions to move away from cross-compliance, and in particular to delink payments from land, that potentially opens up gaps in aspects of current environmental regulatory protections that exist only in cross-compliance, particularly around soils and hedgerows—for example, cutting of hedgerows during birds’ breeding season and hedgerow buffer strips. We think there is a gap in the Bill in terms of powers necessary for Ministers to bring forward regulatory protections for soils, hedgerows and other environmental features, and we would like to see the Bill amended to plug that gap.
There is a big opportunity coming off Dame Glenys Stacey’s review. The farm inspection and regulation review the Government commissioned reported in 2018. It called for a more comprehensive regulatory framework that enables a more advice-led approach to enforcement, so that, rather than farmers being penalised but not really understanding the underlying issue and therefore not able to address it, the approach would seek to blend penalties with advice and incentives to ensure that you get better environmental outcomes.
There is an existing model of that in the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and its approach. When a breach is detected, there is a visit from an adviser or a member of staff, who says, “You have to address this breach. You can either go and seek advice or invest in infrastructure if necessary.” They come back a second time. If the breach has been addressed, everything is fine; if it is not, they give them a third visit and, if it is still there, then they penalise them. That approach, which Dame Glenys Stacey supported, and we supported at the time, gets better environmental outcomes in a way that farmers also appreciate and can understand, whereas at the moment our regulatory enforcement is very substandard, it is fair to say.
Again, Dame Glenys Stacey found that of 10,600 staff at the Environment Agency, only 40 do farm inspections. As a farmer, you have a one in 200 chance of being inspected by the Environment Agency, and we know that the agency is again cutting back on some of those regulatory compliance visits. There is a huge challenge in the future, not just in how we reward good practice but in how we ensure a level playing field so that the progressive best farmers out there are not undercut by, effectively, cowboys—unfortunately, there are some. The Bill is silent on that, and for us that is one of the biggest gaps and omissions.
The only comment I would make—again as a farmer—is that any more regulation would need to be fit for purpose, logical, proportionate and enforceable. Regulation is fine, but unless it is logical so people can understand it, and it is relatively easy to comply with, it is just a source of frustration to everyone. Certainly, the industry is very keen to move towards an outcome-based form of regulation as opposed to constantly arguing about whether a particular margin is six inches too narrow or not. The industry would be interested in seeing a much more outcome-focused approach.
The EU has been moving towards an outcomes approach, but obviously leaving the EU gives us huge opportunities in the animal welfare sectors, such as sheep, beef and dairy, where there are no specific baseline species standards at the moment. There is a real opportunity to introduce those baseline standards, which will help not just the Bill, but in establishing what the baseline is—and then establishing how to move farmers up the scale, through capital inputs or through specific measures, and paying them where the market does not deliver. There are huge opportunities to improve the baseline regulatory standards in those areas where they do not exist now.
Q This question is mainly for you, Mr Price. My constituency of Rutland and Melton has quite a few farmers who farm rare breeds. Is there sufficient support for rare breeds in the Bill? Conversely, is that support the right thing to be doing? My farmers who do not farm rare breeds would say that there is a question of fairness in giving too much support to rare breeds.
We should do it, first, for economic reasons. These breeds were bred to be in a British landscape. They can survive in parts of the country that other breeds cannot, or cannot without significant inputs. In many parts of the country, people are farming the wrong animals and are doing so expensively, because they are using certain inputs to support them. We need some help in getting farmers to transition away from the old way of doing things into going back to native breeds.
Native breeds can also provide a wider range of products than many other breeds. I mentioned wools, skins, horns and so on, which all have markets, if people think about it, or are incentivised to start thinking about it rather more. There is a role for Government in that.
Then there is the environmental side of things. The grassland habitats that we so cherish are there because they were grazed by certain animals over generations. If we are going to restore those habitats, the easiest, most straightforward way to do it is by using the animals that created them in the first place.
Lastly, there is the social side. Many of these breeds are part of our history. White Park cows came over Dogger island from mainland Europe before Stonehenge was built. They were part of the Cistercian monks’ currency. Some of the earliest Welsh laws are about how you regulate and use those animals. Herdwick sheep were bred to live on top of hills in the Lake district. Swaledales were bred to be a bit further down the fells. They are an immense part of our culture.
Those are all reasons for supporting them. In terms of how you support them, I would be reluctant for us to go down a simple headage route; I think that would just create the wrong sort of incentives. If a farmer chooses to use native breeds to graze for particular conservation purposes that do not bring him or her a direct financial benefit, that is about the public benefit, which should be rewarded, but it is more about making sure that we have the right infrastructure in place.
There is a lot to do with promoting local produce. We have talked a bit about creating local markets. Some of the more savvy farmers I was talking about are doing an excellent job of that, and part of their brand is selling local breeds and local products from those breeds within a fairly narrow radius—30-odd miles. That is where the premium comes from. It is not for everyone, but people are starting to do it, which is interesting.
Perhaps the single most important thing—we touched on this a bit in the earlier session—is abattoirs. For many of the people that I work for and represent, abattoirs are at least as important an issue as support going forward. We have huge numbers of people who are producing the right animals to the right standards in a very environmentally friendly way. You hear people talking about how their motivation in life is to ensure that their animals have a life worth living and then only one bad day—the day they go to the abattoir—and you have people who want to buy the products, but the whole thing is being stymied in significant parts of the country because there is no abattoir that can cope. If there is an abattoir, it generally will not be able to take the small numbers of non-standard animals and give you back the by-products—the horns, the skins and so on. In many cases, there is no abattoir at all.
If we are talking about short-term Government capital investments, it seems to me that there is a desperate need to invest in pop-up abattoirs or mobile abattoirs. There are practical problems with all of that, but if I could get anything across to the Committee, it would be the need to make sure that we have an abattoir network that is fit for purpose over the next few years, and for the Government to invest in creating that. It does not need to be a long-term investment; once it is there, the market can function and support it, but it is getting us there that matters.
Q I should like to take you up a level, in the sense that since the initial iteration of this Bill, we have become very aware of the climate crisis and Parliament has declared a climate emergency. Do you think there is enough in this Bill to reflect that need for urgent action, particularly given the recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change on policies for net zero referred to earlier? If the NFU can look for a target for 2040, should there not be something in this Bill referencing that?
We have supported in the past, and would still support, a sector-specific target for net zero by 2040, to reflect the ambition of the NFU and others. We would support an amendment to that effect in Committee and beyond. As a statement of intent and clarity on the role that the sector could play in that climate emergency, it is still a really useful thing to look at. We would also stress that, although this is the Agriculture Bill, in the climate change world there is a lot of talk about nature-based solutions such as peatland restoration, coastal habitats and woodland creation, and the Agriculture Bill, particularly through the land management schemes that flow from it, will be the central mechanism for delivering those nature-based solutions and the aims of the Environment Bill.
Thinking about how public money for public goods can support more sustainable food production that is also carbon and climate friendly, it has an important role to play in building soil carbon, potentially supporting minimum tillage systems, cover crops and other land management interventions that build resilience to climate change in the future. We see climate change running through public money for public goods, from farmed and non-farmed landscapes, and the Agriculture Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we have had in the past decade or probably will have for decades to come in helping to meet the climate emergency that we all face.
Q I have a very quick question: farmers are being incentivised to create habitats for ground-nesting birds, barn owls, red squirrels or hedgehogs. Do you feel that payment should be made for delivering those species, or would creating the habitat be enough? Would predator control be something that your members would be content with, if it were part of that management?
Q My constituency is Ynys Môn, and I met my farmers recently. They think that they get quite a tough deal from the public and that it stems from the term “farm payments”, so they are looking forward to moving away from that, but they are equally concerned about “public money for public goods”. You talked earlier about communication and advice to farmers. How are we going to communicate this to the public?
I will pick up on Robert Goodwill’s question. There is a lot of debate about payment for actions and payment for results. On payment for results, we would see it as the logical thing to pay for the habitat condition, not the number of species or number of birds, because that is not something that is necessarily within the farmer’s control.
There is potentially a role for predator control in future schemes, but there are a lot of steps that need to be gone through before we get to that point, because often predation pressure is a proximate cause, not an ultimate one. The ultimate cause might be forestry providing a reservoir of foxes, crows and other predators on breeding waders on neighbouring moorlands, so removing a block of conifer might be the one thing that you need to do, not investing in very expensive predator control in perpetuity. Getting an understanding of those landscape dynamics is an important part of that question.
In response to the question about selling farming, to a large extent that is up to the individual farmer. It is the farmer who creates their brand, and you would hope that their brand would focus on all the good things they are doing—high welfare standards, low environmental impact, sense of place, provenance and so on. Many of the new-style farmers that I was talking about are doing that; it is fundamental to them.
Having said that, there is a role for Government at the higher level in “Brand GB”, and one thing we might want to look at is greater use of geographical indicators. There are certain breeds that are associated with Wales that the Government—possibly the Welsh Government, I am not sure—have a role in promoting and helping businesses with.
I thank our witnesses very much for the time you have spent with us. The Committee is very grateful. If you feel that you were not given time to respond to colleagues’ questions, you can still submit evidence about those answers. The room will be locked, colleagues, and we start again at two o’clock in this room, where Mr Stringer will be in the Chair.