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Examination of Witnesses

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:31 am on 11th February 2020.

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Thomas Lancaster:

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.