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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:

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.