Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:01 pm on 11th February 2020.

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Graeme Willis, Jim Egan and Jake Fiennes gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 3:25 pm, 11th February 2020

We will now hear evidence from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Kings Crops and the Holkham Estate. We have until 4.15 pm. Would the witnesses like to introduce themselves first?

Jake Fiennes:

I am Jake Fiennes, the general manager of conservation at Holkham Estate in north Norfolk.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Before I move on to Mr Egan, may I say that this is a huge room and the acoustics are terrible, so can people speak up?

Jim Egan:

I am Jim Egan, technical advisor for Kings Crops.

Graeme Willis:

I am Graeme Willis, agricultural lead for CPRE, the countryside charity.

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

Q Will you each tell us what you think have been the main shortcomings of the existing area-based common agricultural policy; whether we can, in the short term, modify it to make it work more smoothly; and whether you support the general premise in the Bill of, in the longer term, a move away from subsidies on land tenure to support for the delivery of public goods?

Jim Egan:

From my perspective, one shortcoming is that the current system does not allow fully integrated environmental and farming management. It does not let the whole lot sit together, which causes issues. One of the biggest shortcomings of the current system is its administration in my specialised area, agri-environment schemes, which will put people off, as it has in the past. I do not really want to go much further than that, Minister. There are lots of things, but that is my area of expertise.

In terms of modifying in the short term, my personal view would be not to, particularly on countryside stewardship. I do a lot of work directly with farmers on getting stewardship schemes in, and I have never seen so much demand as this year. I already have 65 people on my books wanting to do the modified schemes. There are obviously things pushing them towards that, but the simplification of the actual stewardship process has been good. We just need to get the payments and other things right in the short term, to provide certainty.

If I was going to modify anything within the wider BPS system, I would perhaps modify the three-crop rule, so I could say that we had done something. However, I think people are used to it, and it is actually very important, in a time of turbulence, that we keep it as stable as we can at the moment.

Sorry; what was your third question?

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

Do you support the general thrust of the future policy, moving from subsidy on land tenure to—

Jim Egan:

Yes.

Jake Fiennes:

If we split it into pillar 1 and pillar 2, the current BPS is rather clumsy and, in places, overly simplistic. We have the ecological focus area ruling within that, which, as Jim refers to, is cumbersome. The three-crop rule and hedge-cutting dates sort of tie farmers into a knot; they are unable to be flexible.

In the short term, farmers are preparing for a transition period, which will start in 2021, according to the current Secretary of State, although I know that some are pushing for that to be extended, because we have just seen a delay of this whole process. However, farmers are slowly taking on board that there will be seismic change within their business. It has happened over a very static two years, but we have seen a real momentum, and there is a general acceptance among those within the industry that this is coming around the corner. If they have an ability to prepare their businesses by going into the current schemes—I think the new stewardship scheme was opened today. I have not looked at it, but I think the detail made it easier and more user-friendly.

We have to put the past aside, with all the issues that we had with the RPA, Natural England and late payments. I think we have moved on from that, and I think this year was an example of the RPA demonstrating very swift payments, and the current stewardship payments are being rolled out as we speak. That is all very positive. Again, I see a greater uptake of the current schemes—the countryside stewardship higher tier and middle tier, and also the simplified scheme.

That will get farmers ready through the transition period, which comes on to the Minister’s third point, where I am in full favour of it. A slight redrafting of the Bill—talking about soil and productivity—basically got the entire land-based community on board.

Graeme Willis:

I think it is well attested that the CAP scheme is inefficient, ineffective and inequitable. People such as Allan Buckwell and Alan Matthews have made that point, and DEFRA’s own research has shown that, and there have been statements, so we very much support that view. In terms of the current countryside stewardship schemes, as Jim said, it is very important that farmers keep faith with those schemes. The simplification has been very helpful.

Certainly within DEFRA, I have been making the point that those schemes are probably under-commented on, because we have a 2030 deadline for addressing climate change by cutting emissions very significantly. Four years through to when ELMs beds in is a very important period in which to get trees in the ground and to get peatland and other high-carbon soils restored. It is very important in this phase to keep putting money in and investing in farming. It is very important that farmers keep faith with that, and the schemes have been expanding, which is very welcome after a rocky start.

We believe that public goods for public money is the right way forward. It is the absolute crux for enhancing the environment, obviously addressing climate change and biodiversity issues. But, as Jim said, it is very important to harmonise what farmers do in producing food and other goods with environmental improvements which we know are very necessary. Bringing those two together is critical so that they are not seem as oppositional.

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

Q If at one end of the scale you have what could be called the broad and shallow but largely universal interventions that most farmers would sign up to—catchment sensitive farming or hedgerows—and at the other end you have land use change through peatland restoration or new woodland being established, what should be the balance between those competing priorities in order to really deliver for the environment?

Jake Fiennes:

Are we referring to the blueprint of ELM?

Jake Fiennes:

We have the regulatory payment. I hear of calls for up to 30% of existing payments that farmers receive, which is about £200 per hectare. I am certainly not in favour of that, because it will not encourage stakeholders to go into the middle tier and I think you will see a great uptake in the middle tier. On the final tier, which is landscape restoration, whether it is on a catchment basis, if we are going to have sustainable, functional land use, it has to be at scale and deliver all the climate change issues and soil regeneration. All these processes will go into the final tier and, having listened to some of the comments earlier about the smaller farmers not working well together but the bigger ones working better, we are seeing a great uptake of facilitation funds and cluster groups. This whole movement is happening. I would not encourage the lower payment to be a major factor, because we would basically go back to a reverse BPS system.

Jim Egan:

My way of answering that would be to look at the fact that in the majority of lowland England, if you split it that way, you will find farmers taking up more than you think, if it is properly rewarded, if it is linked in by the rest of the industry and it is linked together. You quite commonly talk to farmers now who take out anything between 5% and 15% of their land to manage it “for the environment” and also recognise the real benefits of changing what they do: introducing grass lanes to help with grass weed control and to build soil fertility, which helps with cleaner water and so on.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jake that there is a sea change coming. A lot of people stood back, because of the political uncertainty, but they are ready for that. The higher extremes you referenced, such as peat restoration, will be a focus in an area where it can happen, getting those landowners together and talking about it. It will take time. I do not think they are completely divorced and different.

On woodland, it will fit when people start to see natural capital, particularly the natural capital potential of their land, and they have choices of what to do. Then woodland will start to happen, especially where you can get people working together and you can make the links. I would be positive about that.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q I want to put to you a question I asked earlier witnesses. I think that the CPRE was one of the signatories to the letter to the Prime Minister expressing concern about the potential problems with importing food with lower environmental, welfare and health standards. Why did you sign that letter and what should be done in the Bill to tackle the issue? That is particularly aimed at Graeme.

Graeme Willis:

In terms of maintaining standards, we are very concerned—I know that statements have been made about supporting high standards—that undercutting those standards through imports would undermine farmers’ incomes, as well as their ability to perform environmental management. I know that an amendment previously tabled to the Bill sought to introduce a broad requirement that any international trade agreement that was to be ratified must be compliant with UK standards. We think that is a major omission and one of the major things that needs to be addressed in the legislation. We have a common cause with the whole of the farming sector on that. The whole of the NGO environmental sector takes that view. It is a very important element and condition.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Thank you; that is helpful. Jim and Jake, you are very enthusiastic and positive about the change on uptake in stewardship. That has been a long time coming, has it not? What has changed so dramatically, in your view, to make that happen? In the transformation of ELMs, would you agree that it would have been helpful for this discussion and process to have a bit more detail about the Government’s thinking on how it will work?

Jim Egan:

Regarding possible current uptake this year, I have always been positive, and I have been proved wrong, year on year, as I am often told by DEFRA’s agri-environment group. This year, in particular, people have heard for a long time that BPS will start going down. They have seen their neighbours’ farms going into the simplified scheme, although not in huge numbers. I work with a company that provides agronomy advice, and the agronomists are starting to understand it.

The weather this year in the east midlands, my patch of the country, has meant that there are farms with no combinable crops in the ground at all—not 5% or 10%, but none. That has made people think. It has made people think about sustainable income streams, support, unproductive areas and what they could do differently. There is a whole raft of different things. There is also a question of who sells it. If you sell it directly and positively, people will do it. If you are negative and you harp on about late payments and so on, the meeting will leave you. I tend to be positive about it. Perhaps that is why I have a long list of people wanting to work with it.

Jake Fiennes:

When you put economically sustainable agriculture to a farmer, he may have had 47 years of being paid just to produce food, irrespective of the quality, quantity and yield he produces on his land. They must realign their business. If we see this transition period take place as of next year, some famers will lose anything from 5% to 20% of their support income.

Agri-environment helps them through the transition period financially, but it also gets them to understand. At the moment, farmers lack good agricultural environmental advice. That is what we don’t see enough of: advice on the ground. Farmers are a particularly fickle community. They are wary of individuals they do not know, so the advice has to come from individuals with whom they have had previous relationships, whether through their agronomy, because we are seeing agronomy become more open to environmental delivery, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups throughout the country, or Natural England, which changed the game of agri-environment 20 years ago. The advice on the ground is key.

If farmers are sold an economic reason and then have an ability to deliver the environmental goods, whatever they may be, through sound advice, we will see greater uptake. The reason we had the stop-start scenario with agri-environment was, as Jim referred to, late payments—“Am I going to get paid for it?”—or commodity prices. We have seen the volatility in commodity prices. If I am getting £200 a tonne for my milling wheat, why do I need to go to an agri-environment scheme when I have already invested in the men, the machinery and the infrastructure to deliver that crop? It is an evolving, moving process, but they are definitely coming more on board with it.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q May I press you on that point? This is a big transition that is envisaged, possibly over a compressed timeframe. Is there the capacity to provide the advice and to do the negotiation? If there is not, what needs to be done to get it in place?

Jim Egan:

I think there is underlying capacity out there. There are enough people to do it. There will be a change of mindset in some sectors, but bear in mind that business is seeing some of the opportunities here as well. Jake is right: it needs to be somebody the farmer trusts—there is a wide range of advisers trusted by farmers—and the advisers need to believe in the scheme. Many advisers have not sold environmental work for the past five years, because they do not believe in the scheme; they do not want to put their name on the line when the payments are late, and when the agreement does not turn up for a year after you have entered into it.

You should not underestimate the impact that that has, because if your adviser walks up the drive and says, “I can’t put my name to that, because I can’t advise you about that future income and part of your business,” it puts people off. We are starting to get a lot of certainty now about stewardship. I know it will change and evolve, but we need that certainty of scheme and of process. The advice is there; people just need to believe in it.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Many land managers derive significant income from the sporting potential of their farms or estates—not just from the sale of game, but from the people who pay to stalk or shoot or to catch salmon in their rivers. Indeed, before agri-environmental schemes came in, the farms and estates managed in that way were probably the ones already doing what we want them to do now. How important do you think it is that any new schemes under ELM dovetail in with the way that these estates are being managed? Do we need to take particular account, for example, of grouse moors and the uplands, where we have a fragile environment that, if managed in a different way, could well revert to what some might see as a carbon sink, but others would see as a downgrading of that precious environment?

Graeme Willis:

Referring to uplands, we have signed a letter to say that we want peatland burning to end rapidly, and the Committee on Climate Change has taken the same view. I want those landscapes to be managed in a re-wetted form, which might help different forms of game. It might not be the same kinds of game management.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Is that blanket bog or the dried heathland and moorland?

Graeme Willis:

The blanket bog, essentially. That could be re-wetted and improved upon, and I think you would get different game. You would not necessarily get the same driven grouse shooting, but it is important to take into account what game management could do in those areas and how it might adapt to that. It would be a different form of activity, but very important. I take the point about large estates, but Jake can say far more about that; it is important that you maintain that kind of management. It has a lot of environmental benefits, certainly in integrating woodland into those environments and into the farming.

Jim Egan:

I have no experience of upland, so I will not try that one. I used to work at the Allerton project for GWCT, and my experience of lowland game management is that, where it is done very well, it is very good. It encourages woodland management, habitat management and the provision of wild bird seed mixes, pollen and nectar. You are right to reference the fact that many of those estates were doing that work before agri-environment and working with agri-environment. We need to be careful to ensure that that management is positive and good, because, like everything in life, there are good and bad shooting estates. For me, it comes back to farming and the environment, completely melded and meshed together. Sporting activity is part of the rural environment and needs to mesh in with it.

Jake Fiennes:

It is an Agriculture Bill and game is not agriculture. We have to remove game, because it is just a landscape pastime. The environment can benefit game. The game community has enough issues to deal with on its table, but we can see that game interests have evolved over the centuries. They will be more crucial in the delivery of environmental goods. Those with a history of managing with a game interest see the benefits. The Allerton project is a great example. The Duke of Norfolk’s estate in Peppering is specifically targeting game, but the benefits to the wider environment are huge. All the game interests form part of an agri-environment scheme, so they are sort of intrinsically linked. Where it is done well, it is done very well, and where it is done badly, it is an environmental disaster. Those with game interests will have to change, which is no different from how those with food production interests will have to change.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Could ELMS incentivise those positive changes?

Jake Fiennes:

I think the ELM schemes will do exactly that. If we can demonstrate better land use for our land that is less productive—use for the environment, biodiversity, carbon storage, cleaner water and cleaner air—everyone gets to benefit.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q Did you just say that game should be taken out of the Bill altogether because it is a leisure pastime, not an agricultural pastime?

Jake Fiennes:

Game is not agriculture. Game has never been part of agriculture. Forestry is agriculture; farming, dairying and beef production are agriculture, but game sort of sits on the sidelines and is not part of agriculture.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q I thought that the whole justification for game shooting was that people eventually eat the birds, even though we know that they could not possibly consume as many as were shot. Perhaps we will agree to disagree on that issue.

Jake Fiennes:

It is a technicality, but game has never been—

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q You have farmed game birds that are released into the world to be shot.

Jake Fiennes:

But a game farmer is not a farmer. He is not a poultry producer either, strangely. Sorry, but it is a real technical difference.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q Well, we probably do not have time to go into that. This is probably a question for Graeme, to start with, but others can chip in if they wish. I have two quick questions. First, still on the management of peatlands issue, game shooting and particularly grouse shooting can be very lucrative for estate owners. Is the mechanism in the Bill about rewarding farmers who re-wet the peatland or manage the moors in a certain way ever likely to be enough to encourage them to do it, or do we need the ban that you are talking about?

My other question is that you mentioned your views about county farms, and I am keen to see what you think should be in the Bill. I think there is general support for the idea that county farms are a good thing, but that does not necessarily mean that they need to go into the Bill. Can you say what you think needs to be in the Bill on that front?

Graeme Willis:

On peatland, it interesting how broad that goes in terms of land management. Going back to the Minister’s question, I would imagine that large-scale restoration might well be part of ELM. The public goods statements are quite broadly framed, but they do talk about soil, and the supporting position statement talks about soil and peat.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q And the climate change thing, possibly.

Graeme Willis:

Yes, climate change being one of the objectives. It is very important, given we know the level of emissions from upland peat, that the intentions of the Bill should cover those areas and ELM should be able to deliver on that within that wider land restoration component, if that be. I think that will be very important, because where else will the resource come from to do that? The 25-year plan had a £10 million fund. Scotland has committed £250 million for restoration, so we need money to be identified that can go towards that restoration over the longer period. There is an issue about the viability of those peatlands in the long term in a warming climate if they are managed in a different way. That makes things even more contentious.

I am pleased that you mentioned county farms. I am not a specialist on entrants, but I think something on supporting new entrants should be in the Bill through an amendment to that effect. The Minister has spoken about investing in county farms on several occasions and to the EFRA Committee. He welcomed the idea as a very interesting development. The farms could be invested in so that they can produce more peri-urban horticulture, for example, which might be one way to make smaller units viable. As was referred to earlier, there is an economic question around those. An amendment to invest and fund—or to give the Secretary of State powers to invest and fund—county farms to be developed and improved for wider purposes, would be great.

We would also consider asking for a protective lock on county farm estates while they can develop new wider sets of purposes, so that they can be invested in for the future. Wider purposes in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change, supporting connection to the countryside, access to land and landscapes and the realities of farming, would be very welcome.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

Mr Egan, you mentioned that inspection regimes have to be fit for purpose. Which regimes do you think need to be changed under the new legislation? I am also interested to understand from you what success looks likeQ .

Jim Egan:

When you are on the receiving end of the inspection regime does not seem proportionate at all at the moment. It is heavy-handed. We all accept that there must be rules and that there has to be an inspection, but you are working on a farm, on a shop floor that has no straight edges. When somebody can come and deduct a payment for being four decimal places out in area, which is what it could go to, it does not feel right. It actually puts an awful lot of people off engaging with agri-environment schemes and measures because of the pure fear of the inspection. The inspectors are great people—they are doing a job—but they do not engage during their inspection process. There is a finality to the inspection process that says, “Mr Egan, you are wrong.” There is an appeals process, but there is no face to face. That is not a very nice place to be.

It would be better if it was done in a much more approachable way. We all accept that a lot of money goes into the industry, but we should be approachable. We should be able to say, “Oh, I didn’t quite get that right.” If it is a minor infringement, it is nothing. There will be something else on the farm that delivers above and beyond what it was intended to, but it is never taken into account.

When I worked at the Allerton project, we had three inspections in seven years. That is in a place where there is a board of trustees, a management team and we all get on. There is a lot of pressure on the people responsible for that. Imagine being on a farm on your own. It is not a good place. It needs to be more human and a better process.

As for success for me, do you mean in terms of the scheme or the inspection regime?

Jim Egan:

In terms of the scheme, it would be everybody engaging, and engaging willingly and talking about it.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q On the face of it, the Bill seems to be for the support of farmers, crofters and agricultural activities. Getting back to what you were saying, Mr Fiennes, about grouse moors, it sounded that you thought their activity should not be part of the Bill, yet in part 1 of the Bill, the clauses around financial assistance are certainly drawn loosely enough that it could apply to shooting estates, as well.

Jake Fiennes:

I don’t think I was referring to grouse moors specifically. I was referring to game shooting as a community.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q Okay. Do you think it is appropriate, then, that shooting estates receive financial assistance as a result of the Bill? If not, should it be redrawn more tightly, so that they could be excluded? Is that what you think?

Jake Fiennes:

Well, no, I think there are clear benefits from grouse shooting. We can see greater biodiversity on well managed grouse moors. If we look at the burning of peatlands, on Saddleworth Moor last year a huge area of moor had very deep burning within the peat; that was an area of moor that was not managed for grouse, because the heather was very poor, and it was a tinderbox that caught fire very quickly. We must understand the benefits of well managed grouse moors to a landscape that is iconic to the English uplands: 70% of the world’s heather moorland is in England, so it is a key habitat. Admittedly, there are some quite extreme management techniques in places, which we are quite aware of, and the industry is looking inward on how to address that.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q I hear what you say. Do you think it is appropriate that financial assistance could be given to those estates as a result of clauses within the Bill, or do you think that the clauses should be redrawn to exclude those estates?

Jake Fiennes:

A payment system that rewards farmers and land occupiers for delivering public goods should not exclude anyone. As Jim just said, this has to be open to everyone.

Jim Egan:

I do not get involved in policy; I have never worked in it.

Graeme Willis:

In terms of the breadth of it, I think it is still open to question as to how wide it goes. I am on the stakeholder engagement group, so I am limited in what I can say because of confidentiality about that. However, I have certainly seen a slide that shows how wide it might go, and there might be questions around whether it includes, for example, airport operators, which have large tracts of open grassland that they need to manage to keep trees off. Could they do positive things with that?

I think there is a very important question about the amount of resource available and whether those are the right people to receive that resource, as against farmers, given the context we talked about, the viability issues going forward and the cuts to basic payments during the transition. However, something to address the issues across a broad landscape is very important.

On whole-farm areas, we would not want large areas of farmland managed very intensively within a system in which other areas are just managed for public goods. I think they need to be combined and harmonised, as we said before, so that land is shared and used in the very best way, for the environmental benefits and for good, sustainable food production.

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

Q I return to Mr Egan’s point about the control and enforcement regime. If you are close to the schemes, you will be aware that the introduction in the latest EU scheme of a common commencement date—so that everybody had to start at the same time, which caused all the predictable administrative problems for everyone—combined with the introduction of the IACS enforcement regime drove the terrible, draconian regime that you describe.

One thing we have described for the future scheme is that you would instead leave all that behind, and individual farms would have a trusted, accredited adviser on agri-environment schemes. That could be a trusted, accredited agronomist, or someone who works for the Wildlife Trust or the RSPB, and they would be trained to help put the schemes together. They would visit the farm, walk the farm with their boots on and then sit around the kitchen table and help an individual farmer construct a scheme.

We are obviously testing and piloting and trialling that now. If that system could be made to work—an altogether more human system, as you said, because a trusted adviser would do the initial agreement and would maybe visit the farm three or four times a year, not to inspect but to be a point of advice—how many farms can a single agri-environment adviser with that type of remit realistically do?

Jim Egan:

It would depend very much on type, size, place, aspect and everything. I do not think you can put a number on the people that you could hold as clients. I actually do not know how many clients my agronomy colleagues have, because I am new to that business. However, where I work, I would be perfectly comfortable managing 40 or 50 clients and working through with them.

The main premise is not to overlook that that process of walking the farm with a trusted adviser already happens for countryside stewardship. Most farmers will take advice and will rely on somebody working with them. The opportunity that comes from splitting out and putting everything into ELMS—including all the basic payment elements, so that it is one big agricultural and environmental processing scheme—actually means that you can widen that advice and make it broader. The trick will be that those advisers will have to have knowledge of the farming business and will have to talk to others within the business. Even on a small dairy farming unit, they will have to talk to the vet, the feed merchant and the farmer. It is a facilitation skill as much as anything else, and it will require an understanding of how those farming sectors work.

This is definitely the right way to go. We will need professional advice to do that. A farmer doesn’t grow an arable crop without an agronomist. You don’t grow beef cattle without a vet or a feed merchant. So why should you not have what I would call environmental facilitators?

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

Q Based on your assessment of 40 or 50, you would need somewhere in the region of 1,500 to 1,800 of those in England to cover most farms. Is there capacity at the moment in the agronomic and environment NGO world to allow people to go for training and accreditation? Or is it your view that it would be better simply to recruit additional staff at Natural England or the RPA to do it?

Jim Egan:

First, I do not think they should be recruited by Natural England or the RPA. Within the supply chain, there are probably sufficient people. An agronomist has to be trained and to get your agronomy diploma you have to do a BETA—biodiversity and environmental training for advisers—certificate in conservation management. It is only a three-day course, but it is about awareness. Whoever is drawing up the scheme will need to pull on other skills and pull and bring the environmental community and the farming community together. A good person does that already. I do not think you need a new qualification. The qualifications are there. The BETA certificate in conservation management and that type of approach already addresses some of the issues. It would probably need an upland module and a little bit more focus on grassland, because it is an arable-focused course.

I also believe that it is Natural England or the RPA’s responsibility, if they get a bad application, to send it back. I went to DEFRA and Natural England about eight years ago and asked for that to happen and it never did. Natural England continues to re-work bad applications. Once you do that, the farming community will soon know not to go to that person. It doesn’t need degree level; it needs an element of a qualification, a CV and management by a managing authority that is not afraid to take people off the list if they are not doing the job properly.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q Clause 13 provides the power to opt out of direct payments in favour of a lump sum, and therefore opt out of agri-environment schemes. Do you see that as a risk of losing a skillset within the agricultural sector or an opportunity for new entrants and new ideas?

Jake Fiennes:

If I am brutally honest, I do not think the Treasury would sign up to that. If we all opted out, we couldn’t afford it. I am intrigued that that is still on the table.

Earlier you referred to land values. How to devalue very quickly? Everyone opts out and land values plummet —in an industry that is generally reliant on that support in the way it currently manages land.

Graeme Willis:

When I heard about this in the original Agriculture Bill, I was concerned that no constraints were placed on that money. I was not clear about the rationale for that. If the rationale is for new entrants, there is an issue if that is only done through land prices falling. I am not convinced that we can guarantee that when a farm is sold, a new entrant will get that farm. There is no control over that, so it seems too broadbrush. It also seems somewhat a hostage to fortune because large amounts of public money being paid out for what is not a clear set of purposes could play very badly with the public; other people have raised that concern. If that were tied to some investment into the farm, there is an element of advantage there to having a lump sum to invest that could meet the other purposes to improve the farm’s environmental performance and productivity. Also, it could be good if it were tied in some shape or form to supporting new entrants.

Earlier, there was a mention of share farming—some form of succession where there is no son or daughter to pass the farm on to, some mechanism where that was locked in to ensure that a new entrant could get on to a farmstead and actually learn. You mentioned skills: they could learn from the skills of the farmer on that farm and not lose the knowledge of the land, the aspect, the farming and the culture of that farm, and pass that on to a new, younger or older person with a different set of skills. That would be really interesting.

I see it as too broadbrush and not clear at the moment, and I have concerns. I understand that that will be consulted on, but I am not sure whether that is clear from the Bill as it stands, or whether that can be clarified.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Q This question is for Mr Egan. I represent Derbyshire Dales, which is a very large constituency. As well as many large estates, there are many small farms. I was interested in your answer to the Minister about the point that you made in your written statement, that funding should be available for professional advice to ensure that we maximise the environmental benefits. How could that realistically be achieved for my small farmers, who, historically, have been reluctant to take advice due to independence, or simply could not afford to? There are a lot of young farmers—between 20 and 30—in my constituency. How could that be achieved, however admirable it is? What is your advice?

Jim Egan:

I think it can be achieved. The current example of facilitation funds in cluster groups is an absolute classic for that type of farming. I think that there is a facilitation fund in your constituency; there is certainly one not far away. Those farmers could come together. I am not a believer in “one farm, one advice”. If there are six people who farm together with smaller farming units who want to go into a scheme, and will achieve better environmental outputs if they all work together, we can give one set of advice to all of them.

We need to think really differently about where we are going now. It is not just about one-to-one advice; it is about one-to-six advice. It is about, when you put the scheme together, providing the training to those six to implement the measures. I think that it is completely affordable, and it works. We just need to think differently about how we put these things together.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Since the previous Agriculture Bill started, obviously the world has changed in some ways. There is a greater understanding of the climate crisis that we are facing. More work has been done by the Government’s Committee on Climate Change, including very detailed suggestions for land-use management released only a few weeks ago. Would you expect to see some of those proposals begin to make their way into a Bill such as this, and are you surprised, as I am, that there is no aspiration within the Bill to hit a net-zero target at some point?

Graeme Willis:

On where those targets are expressed, we know that the Environment Bill has been laid before Parliament. The relationship between the Agriculture Bill, the Environment Bill and all the other policy instruments is very interesting, and remains to be resolved. If you had gone in the right order, it might have been that you had the Environment Bill, then the 25-year environment plan, and then the Agriculture Bill, because the main funding mechanism seems to be environmental land management, which would deliver on the kind of targets that you set through the 25-year plan. That can be established through the legislation in the Environment Bill.

I am not sure whether it is right to put a target in this Bill at the moment—it may be a commitment by the Minister—but I think there is a possibility of introducing further regulation that might address that. Obviously, there is the Environment Bill. One of the complicated issues is whether the Agriculture Bill could reference the Environment Bill, because it has not received Royal Assent. There is a question about how we address targets, and whether that is set out through the Office for Environmental Protection, for example. It is a complicated relationship.

I think that the situation has changed, and therefore what the Agriculture Bill is able to do, and the amount of funding that comes forward to deliver on those targets, is critical. Clarity about the long-term funding arrangements is therefore very important, as well as how those would seek to address the climate change issue.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q I very much agree with you about the complex interaction between the pieces of legislation, but we know that the sector produces a certain amount. Could there not be a target for the sector?

Graeme Willis:

A target for the sector would be very interesting. I know that the NFU has come up with its own leadership statement of a 2040 target. It would be interesting for the sector. I would flag up that when emissions from agriculture are referenced they are land use, land-use change and forestry emissions, which relate to agriculture. Peatland use, particularly, is not mentioned, which is very high indeed—particularly on lowland peat. Those need to be factored in. It is of great concern that those do not get mentioned adequately. I think there are powers within the Bill to address those.

I suspect that if you had sector targets for agriculture you would argue for targets for other sectors. I am not sure whether those are in place. In the agriculture sector, I think that there will be ambition, given the right funding, to do a lot more on climate change, certainly in terms of locking carbon up in soils, where it belongs, rather than losing it to the air. There is great potential for that.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q I am trying to get my head around the deal in payments with respect to an early retirement scheme. When answering an earlier question, you talked about the way it could affect the value of the land. Could there be a situation in which a tenant takes the money and runs, and then the landowner is looking for a new tenant but without the agricultural support? It is difficult to attract one. How will the environment be managed if the payments that would have been forthcoming for the environmental land management schemes were not there? What would happen in practice in a situation where a tenant takes early retirement and takes the money, and then expects the landlord to pick up the pieces?

Jake Fiennes:

There could be a technical mechanism relating to tenant’s dilapidations from the landlord’s perspective. The landlord could seek to recoup that if he was going to devalue the land by taking those future payments away. There is a technical mechanism that allows that to happen. That strengthens the landlord’s ability to retain that land to rent to others or to new entrants. It is important that there is some kind of mechanism within the Bill for that. Potentially there would be land abandonment because it has no value, or we would see deep intensification of land areas that have no support mechanism. Then we are trying to deliver environmental land management on a landscape scale, and we have these blackspots in between with no support mechanism. That would be my concern.

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

Q On that point: do we want land rents to stay as high as they are? Would it not potentially be beneficial for landlords to have to fight one another to attract tenants on to their land?

Jake Fiennes:

Land rents are artificially high based on the support mechanism. We will see that slowly diminish. Commodity prices will periodically affect land prices. The horticultural sector does not rely on support at all. The average age of the British farmer is 62: land rents are overly high and they will be reduced, thereby suddenly allowing new entrants to come in who will be more open to environmental land management and public goods proposals. We will see a wholesale change. We are expecting a recession in agriculture through this transition period, for all the reasons being discussed today. Where there is change there is opportunity, and the opportunities are there for another generation to move in and manage land environmentally, economically and sustainably.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

If there are no further questions, I thank the witnesses for attending today on behalf of the Committee.