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Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Nick von Westenholz and David Goodwin gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 2:29 pm, 11th February 2020

We will now hear evidence from the NFU and the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs. For this session, we have until 3 pm. Would you please introduce yourselves?

Nick von Westenholz:

Nick von Westenholz, director of EU exit and international trade at the National Farmers Union.

David Goodwin:

David Goodwin, chair of agriculture and rural issues for the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, and I farm in south Northamptonshire.

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

Q You will be aware that clause 9 has quite a broad power giving the Government the ability to start simplifying and sorting out some of the complexity of the legacy CAP scheme, which we can deploy from as early as next year. What would be your priorities to improve the legacy scheme in the time until the new one is rolled out?

Nick von Westenholz:

First and foremost, the content or focus of those simplifications is not as important as giving information to farmers. During the previous Parliament, as the previous Bill was going through, there was increasing anxiety that, while simplification may or may not be coming down the line this year, farmers would not be informed about what those simplifications were, and therefore would be unable to properly prepare in order to meet the requirements of whatever the scheme is. First and foremost, farmers need early guidance about the requirements of the scheme they will be subject to, well in advance of that scheme year beginning. That information is almost as important as what the simplifications might be.

In terms of what the simplifications are, we are engaging with officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as you will know. It will not surprise you that some of the current requirements, such as the three-crop rule, have been criticised by many farmers as overly bureaucratic without really achieving the greening aims it may have hoped to address; that one comes up most often in our conversation with members.

David Goodwin:

All our members are keen to get on and farm. That is what we are hearing a lot of at the moment. They hope that this Bill will enable them to do that, to look for opportunities and to expand their businesses. We keep talking about simplification; anything we can simplify will be a good thing. There is a real worry that we will not meet environmental and welfare aims. We need to ensure we maintain our high standards and do not let them slip.

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

Q In terms of helping new entrants and the next generation of younger farmers, what is most important for your members? Is it access to land at an affordable rent, or is it having an area-based subsidy system as we do now?

David Goodwin:

Access to land is obviously a key concern for our members, but access to land is good only as long as the land they are looking to farm is profitable and viable. Finding ways to enable that is also important. From that point of view, a subsidy system of some description, where farmers are rewarded for the good work they are doing, is still quite high on our agenda.

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

Q Has the NFU done any work on what a sustainable land rent is for different land types without the land tenure subsidy that we have through direct payments?

Nick von Westenholz:

I am not aware that we have looked at that sort of detail on where land rents might sit. It is an interesting question and one we probably ought to look at.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Good afternoon. It is probably no surprise to you that my opening question will refer to the letter to the Prime Minister that the NFU and over 60 other organisations have written, expressing concern about the potential risks caused by imported food produced to lower environmental animal welfare or food quality standards. What needs to be done to this Bill to resolve that problem?

Nick von Westenholz:

The obvious omission from the Bill, in our view, is anything around import standards. It is absolutely right that that should be in the Bill, because if the Government are trying to promote, which we would support, more sustainable production and food systems domestically in the future, which is the core aim of the Bill—to provide a support framework for farming in a high welfare, environmentally sustainable way—they will be fundamentally undermined in that objective if there is not a concurrent trade policy that prevents farm businesses from being undercut by substandard imports. A two-pronged approach in policy terms—trade policy and domestic policy—is needed to prevent undermining that sort of farming, in which UK farmers excel.

The detail of how the Bill is amended or of the terms of the legislation that can achieve that may be quite complicated and something that the Committee needs to consider as it goes through the Bill line by line, but at the core there must be a requirement that if the UK is going to import food, that imported food meets the same standards of environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety as UK producers are required to meet. Of course, the Government have been very reassuring on that point in recent weeks and have given some guarantees in that regard, but we feel that that needs to be underpinned by legislation, because there are real technical challenges in doing this that any Government, whether this Government or a future Government, are going to come up against as they negotiate trade deals and as they pursue a new role for us as an independent member of the WTO.

Photo of Fay Alicia Jones Fay Alicia Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q My question is to Mr Goodwin. Are there any other means that you think should be included in the Bill that might give your members access to land—means that might increase the opportunities for young farmers and perhaps even new entrants into farming?

David Goodwin:

There has been a lot of talk within our membership about support for schemes whereby we are looking at contract and share farming arrangements, particularly in the livestock sector, to enable young farmers to come on to land alongside an existing farmer who is perhaps getting a bit older and does not want to do it himself. Quite how the framework for those sorts of things fits and how you make them work has always been a challenge. I have just come back from New Zealand, and it is interesting to talk to farmers out there. There is a lot more progression on units and farmers do not seem to be so static. I think that is perhaps the other issue in UK agriculture: it is very parochial—which is traditional. It is difficult to really say how we could break that mould, but certainly from our members’ point of view, any new, innovative ways we can find to get young people on to the land—not necessarily as managers or owners, but also as good skilled workers—would be good.

Photo of Fay Alicia Jones Fay Alicia Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q May I quickly follow up on that? Are you happy with the proposed schedule for phasing out direct payments—moving away from an area-based payment and towards a system of public goods?

David Goodwin:

It seems to be very quick. I would repeat Nick’s point from earlier: for things to happen in farming, we need to remember how long some of the cycles in agriculture are. For farmers and farm businesses to prepare for that, they need to know what they are preparing for, and they need to know what they are preparing for a long time in advance of it happening. If you are putting a bull in today, you are not going to be selling the calves, potentially, for three years. We just need to be mindful of how agriculture works and how that fits with the legislation’s aims.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Do you have any suggestions as to how the Bill could be improved specifically to enhance food production? The reason why I am asking is that I want to look at ways to ensure that poorer consumers are also able to benefit from the high requirements under the Bill—the requirements for a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way of delivering services. I am worried about poorer consumers being left outQ .

Nick von Westenholz:

I think, taking a view of what the Bill is trying to achieve in totality in terms of a sustainable food production system, that the need to provide consumers with affordable and safe food must remain fundamental to that.

One concern we have is that a singular focus on some of the public goods aspects might lead to the food production aspect being overlooked. Indeed, that was a criticism we made of the original Bill. That is not to downplay the importance of the clause 1 public goods elements and the development of the land management scheme, but we have been clear from the outset of the process, some years ago, that a really comprehensive agricultural policy needs to be built of three key blocks. You need a sustainable, environmental block—the sort of stuff that this Bill does very well—but you also need to keep in mind the need to produce food, which is what farmers do as well. You need to encourage increased and improved productivity in the farming sector. Again, the Bill provides the powers to do that, although we are waiting for details from DEFRA about exactly what schemes and measures might be introduced to achieve that.

We also have a concern around what we call volatility, or what might be called stability. That is the stuff that farm support systems around the world generally do, which is underpin the farming sector as food producers to provide a certain degree of food security and affordable food for their country. Obviously, there are new, welcome food security clauses in the Bill. Our concern is that as we go into the next few years, direct payments will be reduced and replaced with a scheme that is focused on environmental land management, and we will potentially be in a very difficult trading environment, depending on how the next 10 and a half months of trade negotiations go. That perfect storm will seriously undermine our ability to provide food. We try to make clear that this system needs to be as much about providing food for the country as it is about looking after our countryside and our farmed animals.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q Can I ask a supplementary question?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Before you do, I have a large number of people indicating that they wish to speak. Please could Members and witnesses be brief.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q I will be quick. You mentioned that you are waiting for DEFRA to give you further information. Have you highlighted to them which of your recommendations you want them to take forward?

Nick von Westenholz:

Yes. We have good communication with DEFRA officials and conversations are ongoing. Given the immediacy of some of the changes coming in, we are looking for assurance that schemes are going to be developed and deployable quickly. There are concerns over that.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Conservative, Stafford

Does the Bill include the right measures to give tenant farmers certainty over succession, tenancy length and security of tenureQ ?

Nick von Westenholz:

As far as they go, we are pleased with the inclusion of the tenancy clauses in the Bill. They are quite technical and we are looking to develop some amendments to strengthen them, which we will be happy to share with members of the Committee. In particular, we want to bring in more of the recommendations of the tenancy reform industry group, which has been up and running and working for some years now, so that those are properly reflected in the Bill. We will suggest some improvements, but we generally welcome the clauses that have been introduced in this Bill that were not in the last one.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

ThisQ is probably a question specifically for David Goodwin. What role do you see county farms playing, given that the Government and the Minister have in the past expressed support for reversing the decline in county farms? Is that something your members would be interested in?

David Goodwin:

Yes, very much so. County farms have been a shining light for getting younger people into holdings. In the counties where it works well, it works very well. Obviously, there are counties where there are challenges and more pressures on estates. Unfortunately, we see those in the news regularly at the moment. There are some good examples. The number of county estate farms is very small, compared with the number of people who are perhaps looking for opportunities. Some of those individual holdings are very small and do not always offer the stepping stone that is needed. Going on from there, there is still a lack, particularly with tenanted farms, of progressional farms to go on to from a county starter farm.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Mr von Westenholz, the suggestion of insisting in the Bill that we only import food produced to the same standards as our farmers produce is absolutely the right principle, and the Government are committed to that in principle, but Q can you just talk us through the practicalities of what the relevant change to the legislation would be? I am just concerned about what it actually means to insist on equivalent standards. How would that be articulated in the Bill? Is that insistence not more appropriate to the trade negotiations, which will get into the actual detail of different sectors, important exports and so on? How would you frame that piece of legislation in a way that did not just open the door to all sorts of challenges on a concept that is not well defined?

Nick von Westenholz:

It is a fair point, because the question of how you compare standards in this country with those in other countries is very complicated. I think there is a way that you can still build requirements into the Bill that address those concerns. Basically, you can provide safeguards to the Government’s stated aim on these issues. I should add that that is one reason that we very strongly called for a commission with the Government, stakeholders and industry to be set up that would examine these very difficult issues and make clear recommendations for precisely how the Government can safeguard our standards in future.

In terms of the Bill, you could require the Government to produce a register, for example, of what our food and farming standards are, or certainly the ones that we are keen to safeguard. We can then put in a requirement that imports should meet those standards or should have to demonstrate that they do, and possibly some sort of reporting mechanism to demonstrate whether imports are meeting those standards. There have been several amendments to this Bill and the last Bill to attempt to address that.

You could introduce amendments that are much more explicit. For example, they could set out the sorts of veterinary medicines—whatever it might be—that are prohibited and would not be allowed to be put on the market, as well as goods treated with those medicines that could not be put on the market in this country. That would be a very clear and straightforward legislative safeguard on standards, but you would be looking at quite a lot of text if you were to go completely across the board. There are a number of options.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q I am not quite sure, but this question is possibly to both witnesses. The Bill is to a great extent an enabling Bill, and the words “the Secretary of State may” appear frequently. I wonder whether, were you going through the Bill with a red pen, you would change any of those mays to musts. In particular, I am looking at how we make the move from having been a full member of the EU and part of the WTO by virtue of that to completely being just on sole membership terms with the requirements of the agreement on agriculture. I am looking at any mays to musts and how to get to compliance with the agreement on agriculture.

Nick von Westenholz:

I think as a point of principle, we would not just argue that any mays need to be turned into musts. We recognise that this is an enabling Bill and the merit of the Government’s having legislation that gives them flexibility. There would probably be some points where we would be more forceful than others, such as the powers around exceptional market conditions. At the moment, there is a “may” power for Government intervention when exceptional market conditions are adversely impacting agriculture—this speaks to that point I was making about volatility, as agriculture, probably more than other economic sector, can be subject to climate volatility, weather volatility, market volatility and so on—but we think there should be a trigger there that requires a “must” for intervention. I know some have argued that there should be more of a “must” clause around the financial assistance powers. I am not sure whether that would do the trick, because it could still be an inadequate amount of financial assistance that is provided.

The new clauses addressing multi-year financial plans and reporting are important and we are pleased to see them; we think that those, alongside the Government’s guarantee on the total budget, are just as important in giving farmers certainty and the ability to plan for the long term.

I did not quite understand the question on the WTO agreement.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

Q I wanted to emphasise those provisions of the Bill that pertain to the WTO and ask whether any of those “mays” to “musts” were in that area.

Nick von Westenholz:

Not that we have identified, but I will have another look at it after the session.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

Mr Goodwin, in relation to the next generation of farmers, I would be interested to hear whether you have had any feedback from institutions and how you are working with universities and colleges to ensure that the next generation take advantage of this new legislationQ .

David Goodwin:

We are working closely with various county agricultural colleges at the moment. We have just run an event in the north—I have forgotten the name of the college—in association with DEFRA, through our DEFRA grant holder, to engage with our members about this Bill in particular and the ELMSs that are coming forward. That is a project that we were looking to roll out considerably further; unfortunately, our timescale was put back when Parliament was prorogued and we had to postpone a lot of events that we were planning to run. Agricultural colleges lend themselves well to setting up and running events with our members and our target audience of potential members and people who are looking to come into the industry. We are certainly doing as much work as we can with county colleges and the universities, which are all struggling a little bit for students at the moment.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q My question links in with Ms Crosbie’s question and is directed to Mr Goodwin. As you know, the ageing population of farmers is changing. Is there anything specific in the Bill that you think needs to be changed that could help more young individuals to go into farming? Is there something that you feel needs to be specifically looked into?

David Goodwin:

As we have touched on at various points in this session, the crux of the matter is this Bill’s enabling farmers to run effective, efficient and sustainable businesses, both environmentally and economically. From a young farmer’s point of view, the foundation of all this must be a strong, stable agricultural industry. The only way to attract young people into agriculture is to offer them opportunity; it is difficult to sell the idea of working 150 hours a week and being paid less than the minimum wage to people who are not necessarily in love with agriculture. There are no specifics that spring to mind, but anything we can do to support agriculture is a positive.

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

Q I want to turn to a different part of the Bill, chapter 2, and the provisions on fair dealing and transparency in the supply chain. Can you tell us which sectors suffer the most from a lack of transparency and fairness in the supply chain? Which are most likely to be price takers? What regulations or steps would you like the Government to take, under the powers in this Bill, to ensure that farmers are in a fairer position relative to others in the supply chain?

David Goodwin:

I have a very quick point on that, specifically pertaining to the lamb industry. We have had quite a lot of feedback from our members about lack of transparency: under the sheep legislation as it is at the moment, we are forced to electronically tag and identify all the sheep, but currently the abattoirs and processors are not required to pass that information back down the chain or identify those carcases as pertaining to those animals. There is a perceived transparency issue with some processes. It is not that potentially we are not being paid the right amounts, but I think people would like to know what our killing out percentages are, so that we can improve performance and make better informed decisions.

Nick von Westenholz:

We are working through our commodity boards, which is the way we cover the different steps in the NFU to address exactly how the powers will be used. We are pleased that those powers are in the Bill, but lots of them rely on secondary legislation to operate, so it seems that potentially there is still quite a job to do once the Bill is enacted to ensure that the powers can be used properly to do what they are supposed to do. We look forward to working with officials to work out exactly how those powers can be deployed once the Bill is enacted—that is a feature of the enabling aspect of the Bill. We certainly think the focus on improving the supply chain is a critical bit of the Bill.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Let us turn to the delinking proposals for a moment. There does not seem to be a great deal of detail in there. The intention is to bring in new people, which we would support, but are there dangers of unintended consequences? Would you like to see more detail?

Nick von Westenholz:

Yes, absolutely. We would like more detail. We understand there was an intention to consult on them at some point under the last Bill, so presumably that will still happen. You are absolutely right that there are potential unintended consequences, not least because those aspects of the Bill relate to England, and there could be a very different way forward in other parts of the UK. That would potentially lead to a very different looking system between England and other parts of the UK. We need to understand the details. Some people might be attracted to the implications of delinking, superficially. Once you delink—particularly with the potential to move to lump sum payments, which is one of the reasons for doing so—you are moving away from some of the things I spoke about earlier, such as being able to manage the transition for the next few years, particularly in the volatile circumstances that might arise for farming. So yes, the long-winded answer is that we would like more detail.

David Goodwin:

We tend to agree on the whole. There is a feeling of quiet optimism that it might offer opportunities for young people to come into agriculture. Without some detail to see exactly how that might work and whether it is feasible, people are keeping it at arm’s length.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Returning to the volatility/stability question, the CAP was much derided in many quarters, but I would say it has delivered some of the goals that it originally set out to achieve, including a measure of stability. Apart from changing “might” to “must”, what other things would you like to see to ensure stability for the future?

Nick von Westenholz:

The main parts of the Bill that are relevant are around the transition. Currently, the Bill still has the timetable of beginning to phase out of BPS next year and going over a seven-year period. We have called, as have others, for a delay in that process. That is still absolutely right because we are unlikely to know the trading environment in which farming will operate until potentially very late this year, possibly even into next year, yet the schedule has us beginning to phase out of BPS next year. As David mentioned, agriculture works on very long timeframes.

While we do not know what the future looks like, delaying that is important, not least because this Bill, the previous Bill and the health and harmony consultation that it was predicated on, all took place in a very different political environment where the future relationship with the EU and some other aspects were envisaged very differently. Things have changed, and the Bill and the transition period should also change. We could face some very volatile times ahead and we need to be able to manage that.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for this session. I thank the two witnesses on behalf of the Committee. We will move on to the next evidence session.