4. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs: The future of farming in Wales

– in the Senedd at 3:40 pm on 14 May 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 3:40, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

The next item is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs: the future of farming in Wales. Huw Irranca-Davies to make that statement. 

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour

(Translated)

Thank you, Llywydd. My vision is for a successful future for Welsh farming, producing food sustainably, looking after our environment and underpinning our rural communities. The sustainable farming scheme will provide support for farmers to deliver these objectives. My approach is about coming together, listening and working in partnership.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:41, 14 May 2024

I have seen a draft of the analysis of over 1,200 consultation responses, and I want to thank everyone who took the time to respond. I expect to publish the analysis and the Government response in June, but it is already clear that some changes are needed. As set out previously, I am setting up a ministerial round-table to engage on what those changes should be. This will have farmers at the heart of the conversation, alongside others who have an interest in delivery of the benefits farming provides. The round-table will work at pace to identify areas of agreement and focus on areas where more work is required.

Responding to Plaid Cymru, as part of the co-operation agreement, the farming unions and others, the scheme is designed to support all farmers in Wales with an annual baseline payment, in return for universal actions, replacing the basic payment scheme. These universal actions will provide a platform for farmers to do more through voluntary optional and collaborative actions, which will help farmers realise economic, environmental and social benefits aligned to our sustainable land management objectives and in support of our national and international commitments. 

The SFS must be accessible to all farmers and provide the right level of support to help with business resilience. This is why we will include payment for the wider benefits farming provides, going beyond income forgone and costs incurred, to recognise social value. The round-table will help find an appropriate payment methodology, consider the outcomes from the carbon sequestration review and the updated economic assessment based on the revised scheme. The scheme will support farmers to work with the supply chain to meet changing consumer demands and create new market opportunities. It will focus on food production, but lever the opportunities from timber and sustainable management of the land, such as green finance and carbon sequestration, in support of protecting our communities, our language and our culture. 

My commitment to engagement, and to give farmers the time to consider the consequences for their businesses before deciding on joining the scheme, will necessitate a change in the implementation timetable. We will not introduce the scheme until it’s ready. We will initiate a SFS preparatory phase in 2025 to demonstrate the benefits of the proposed universal actions through knowledge transfer, targeted activity and financial support. This will better prepare farmers for entry into the scheme from the start of the proposed transition period in 2026. There'll be engagement with farmers on a data confirmation exercise, to provide an accurate picture of the habitat and the tree cover across all farms. Under the 2024 Habitat Wales scheme, we saw an increase in the area of habitat land under management. So, building on this, I’ll explore giving more farmers the opportunity to access support in 2025, including support to organic farmers.

Existing schemes, such as the small grants schemes, will continue to support infrastructure changes, and we're working on a new integrated natural resources scheme, building on previous landscape scale collaboration. Initially, the aim is to support the development of proposals for further funding. We will focus on schemes that align with SFS and that are expected to provide support in future as optional and collaborative actions.

We intend to undertake activity on sites of special scientific interest and to promote the opportunities of tree cover on farms. We will develop proposals for further optional and collaborative actions, with the aim of introducing these as soon as possible. And through Farming Connect, we will work on knowledge transfer, focusing on on-farm efficiencies and activity that aligns to SFS. To provide certainty, my intention is for BPS to be available in 2025, with the proposed SFS transition period starting from 2026. I will make announcements on the 2025 BPS ceiling and details of the preparatory phase in due course.

Maintaining high standards of animal health and welfare is essential to a thriving agriculture sector. I want Wales to be recognised for its exemplary standards of animal welfare and I'll say more on my plans in due course. I have heard, of course, first-hand the devastating impact that TB has on farms. We remain fully committed to eradicating TB in Wales by 2041. Partnership working is crucial to reaching our shared goal of a TB-free Wales. As part of our five-year TB delivery plan, the technical advisory group is considering on-farm slaughter of TB reactors as its very first priority. I will be updating Members later this week on progress.

The agricultural pollution regulations are designed to tackle the causes of agricultural pollution in Wales. I have heard concerns about how the regulations aim to achieve this. We have initiated the four-year review of the regulations, and I want to identify if changes are needed. I will soon make an announcement on an independent chair for that review.

I have heard also about the impacts on the mental health and well-being of farmers and their families, and we will continue to work with the charities that provide such excellent support to our farmers.

The food and drink industry in Wales had a turnover from farm to fork exceeding £22 billion in 2022. My vision is for a vibrant industry with a global reputation for excellence. We want to be one of the most environmentally and socially responsible supply chains in the world, and we will continue to support Welsh food and drink businesses, including through Food Innovation Wales and Blas Cymru.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:47, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

The focus across our food-related policies is on join-up, partnership and well-being. I intend to publish 'Food Matters: Wales', which outlines our food-related policies and how they support producers, including farmers, and the supply chain to increase the availability of Welsh produce. I want to see Wales at the forefront of a thriving and innovative agriculture industry, and I'm committed to listening and working in partnership to achieve this. Thank you very much, Llywydd.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 3:48, 14 May 2024

I'd like to thank the Cabinet Secretary for your statement this afternoon, also your written statement this morning, and for speaking with me prior to the release of these statements earlier today. Can I just say that it is encouraging from you, Cabinet Secretary, that you have taken on board the concerns that I have raised with you on the future of farming support here in Wales? I believe it is a positive step to show that you are listening to the industry, the unions and those 12,500 people who responded to the consultation. The delay on the implementation of the sustainable farming scheme and committing to the rolling forward of BPS until 2025, is something that I and the Welsh Conservatives have called for, and we're very pleased to see that this is happening to give that longer-term security for our farmers across Wales.

However, for this scheme to be truly successful, ensuring a broad range of voices is heard is crucial. Therefore, I have some key questions regarding future collaboration and stakeholder engagement. I'm interested, Cabinet Secretary, in how the ministerial round-table is going to be structured to guarantee balance and representation from all farming sectors and relevant stakeholders, including those with specific concerns about aspects of the sustainable farming scheme. Can you also inform us today of what date you intend for this round-table to start? You said last week that you'd burn the midnight oil to make sure we get these things delivered at pace. So, it would be very interesting to know what timescales you've set on setting this up. 

Can you give some assurance to the industry as well that, when people partake in these groups, their voices are going to be listened to? Because something that came through during the co-design phase was that people fed into this, and it wasn't listened to. So, I'd like some assurances from you that they are going to be listened to. 

The announcement that you made this morning mentioned the sustainable farming scheme, including payments for social value, and this is a very interesting concept. But I think clarity on what that is is actually needed, because I do hope that this is a real positive shift and that, at long last, the Government here recognises that farming adds social value to Wales in terms of environmental, cultural and also economic value to our communities. 

We also know that the impact of the initial sustainable farming scheme was devastating for our farm businesses, with 5,500 job losses across the industry. So, I'd be very interested to know—I know Llyr Gruffydd has asked you this question as well—when are we going to see an updated impact assessment, because, if we're having changes to the scheme, obviously we're going to need a new impact assessment to see what any changes are going to do. 

As I said earlier, I and my group welcome the extension to BPS into 2025. This does provide some degree of certainty for our farm businesses. I know you said you'll be making an announcement in due course, but I think people today will want to know what that BPS rate is going to be. Will it remain unchanged into 2025, and what additional schemes, like woodland creation, are also going to be carried forward, going forward into 2025?

This pause does give us that opportunity to look at these proposals again, and we do need to see substantive changes to the sustainable farming scheme, because, in its current form, it doesn't work. But, if we need to get it to work, it needs to work for all farmers right across Wales, because the farmers that I speak to, and I'm sure the farmers who you've been speaking to, Cabinet Secretary, still have issues around the tree planting, around common land, around tenant farmers, around SSSIs and some of the universal actions, which some farmers find insulting and overly bureaucratic. And we do need to have some more detail from you about how you intend these changes to feed into your ministerial round-table to make sure that those changes are actually going to be implemented by Government so that, actually, the industry can get on board and actually deliver this scheme for you.

The statement mentions considering the outcomes from the carbon sequestration review for informing payment methodologies. What I'd like to know is: will the review look beyond the sequestration of trees and consider all different types of grass and also hedgerows, because that hasn't actually been looked at before, and I think that we need to have a big piece of work around the carbon sequestration of grass?

I was going to talk about animal welfare, but you said you'll be telling us about that in due course. And also you're going to be making a statement, hopefully, on TB. I hope it's being made to this Chamber, and not written, because I think it gives us an opportunity to scrutinise any work that you're doing. 

Cabinet Secretary, I've only got about 30 seconds left, but, from my point of view, this announcement today is welcome. It has been welcomed by the unions, and the people I've spoken to on the phone—my friends and colleagues that I've got in the industry—welcome it as well. And I put an open offer to you, Cabinet Secretary: I'm willing to work with you in a very open and pragmatic and constructive way to make sure that we can have a scheme that delivers for our farmers. But, as I said earlier, we do need to see fundamental change if we're going to make it work. Because that's what I want to see. I want to see a scheme that works, that delivers for future generations, delivers for our farmers now and ensures we have a vibrant rural economy in Wales, because doing that will deliver all the environmental, cultural and biodiversity benefits that you want to see and also the thriving farm businesses that I'm sure everybody around this Chamber wants to see as well. Diolch.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:53, 14 May 2024

James, thank you very much, and thank you for your comments welcoming the announcement that was made on the way forward. And, just to say, it is a way forward. I used a rugby analogy earlier on in an interview. A lot of what we are doing now is the preparation for the roll-out of a scheme where there is actually a lot of agreement already—the framework, the objectives, not only in terms of food production, but also social value, environmental imperatives, climate change imperatives—but it's right to actually do some more work on those areas that have been identified in the consultation, which indeed—. We haven't seen the final, the full analysis of the consultation, but I've seen some of the interim findings, and it's pretty clear and obvious where those areas where we need a bit more work are. But it is some more work, and that's where the ministerial round-table becomes very important. And the way that that is working, the reason it is a ministerial round-table, is that there'll be a lot of work behind the scenes, not only with farmers and with the farming unions and so on, but also with the environmental and the wildlife groups as well, to make sure that we get the details right so that then we can proceed and we proceed in a way that all farmers can be part of this, because we need farmers to feel that they want to step up to the mark and be part of this, but we also need to deliver those wider imperatives.

You covered such a lot of ground there, James, but, just to say, very briefly, many of the issues that you covered are exactly the ones that the ministerial round-table, and the work that goes underneath it, is designed to flesh out. So, I am not going to pre-empt it.

So, when you talked about timescales, you will not have to wait long until we make announcements, both on the membership but also on the way that that ministerial round-table will take all this work forward, including, by the way, the streams underneath it. There are two or three areas that we want to bring forward underneath. One of those, by the way, is on sequestration, and it is trees and more. Because arguments have been put forward to say that there are other ways also to do sequestration. We need to test those arguments as well—not just accept them; we need to test them. So, I think that's the work that needs to be done.

We will be making a subsequent announcement on TB, as you say.

Economic impact: one of the conversations that we've had with the farmers' unions is that it was right for Welsh Government to put in front of the public the economic analysis that we had, but it was actually two years out of date, and it was based on a previous iteration of proposals. It wasn't even based on the most recent ones. However, we need to do an updated economic analysis, but the economic analysis needs to be done when we know the details of what that scheme will look like, and not before. Because we need to say to farmers, 'Well, here's the economic analysis, and here are the tools that we're going to lead through this transition as well.' And some of this could be actually creating new opportunities within our rural areas as well.

So, many of the things that you covered there are things that the ministerial round-table will—. And just one final, just to clarify: this isn't a pause whatsoever. There is actually work to be done now, in order that we can get to a point where everybody's on board with the detail of the full roll-out of a sustainable farming scheme that will be there, I think, if we get this right, for the generation ahead. It'll be dynamic, but, if we get this right, in this seven, eight years after EU withdrawal, then we put certainty, not just on farming, but on what we are trying to do as well with landscape management, on climate change and biodiversity and everything else, for many years to come. But thank you, James, for the welcome of this.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 3:57, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and may I also welcome the statement made by the Cabinet Secretary this afternoon? I think it does strike a pragmatic and sensible note, and I thank you for that. It responds positively to many of the demands made by Plaid Cymru. I've raised many of these points in the Chamber, and I know—and I'd like to thank Cefin Campbell, as the designated Member as part of the co-operation agreement—that many of these issues have been discussed widely, and I thank Cefin for achieving so much on many of them.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru

Now, Plaid Cymru has been insistent and consistent as well in our call for a delay in the implementation. So, clearly, it’s something that I raised with your predecessor. She pushed back, saying that she wouldn’t accept it. I know initially that you were saying that maybe you could proceed with some elements where there was agreement, and others maybe would need more work. Well, I think that this is the right call, and I welcome the delay that you have outlined today.

The sustainable farming scheme will have an impact on generations of farming, and I think that we all know, deep down, that we have to get it right and not get it done quickly. Even if it means another year of uncertainty, another year of, some would say, unnecessary delay, I think that that 12-month period will be less painful than maybe 12 years and more of making the wrong choices. So, it is the right call, and I thank you for being willing to make that call.

So, it is an opportunity, as I say, to step back and reflect—not pause, because you’re saying that it’s not a pause, so I'll run along with that one, if that’s what you wish. But it is an opportunity to make necessary changes and to ensure, certainly, a buy-in, a greater buy-in, from the farming sector than we have seen so far, but also to make sure that we have scheme that is sustainable, in that it works for farming and for nature.

I think as much as we're refining or amending or changing elements, we're also, hopefully, using this process to build a consensus, a greater consensus, around the action that, collectively, we all need to take. So, I welcome the round-table approach. I think, again, that bringing those voices together is important. It is key that those with lived experience of farming sit around that table, because they will be able to tell us what works on the ground, and I think maybe that’s something that we maybe missed somewhat in the past.

But I want to ask you specifically: can you therefore confirm that your intention now is to no longer demand 10 per cent tree cover from all participants of the scheme? Clearly, you're looking at a broader range of options. That sounds to me like taking the insistence on 10 per cent off the table. It may work for some, but it will now not be a prerequisite of being part of the scheme. Maybe you could confirm that for us.

You referenced the universal actions in your statement. Are you still looking at 17 universal actions, because it read more like a wish list than a practical expectation of the sector, to be honest? Is there, as the round-table and these other groups do their work, now an admittance that maybe you need to rationalise that somewhat?

You reference that you'll develop proposals for further optional and collaborative actions with the aim of introducing these as soon as possible—that's what you say. Are you, therefore, saying that there is a possibility now that maybe those elements, or parts of those aspects of the scheme, could well be introduced at the same time as the universal elements in 2026? Because I know many in the sector, particularly in the environmental sector, would be concerned that that is where a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of achieving for nature will happen, but by delaying the universal, we may well be inadvertently delaying the collaborative and the optional aspects.

People still need to know how much money we're talking about. We can design a scheme, we can talk about principles, but until people know how that practically impacts the viability of their business on an economic level, and, of course, how that impacts how ambitious we really can be in terms of nature and the environment, then it's difficult, isn't it? We're floundering a little bit when it comes to knowing whether we're in or not. So, that further delay, I suppose, doesn't mean that you can articulate in any more solid form what kind of figures we are talking about, but it would be good to understand maybe whether you feel you can do more on that front.

Photo of Llyr Gruffydd Llyr Gruffydd Plaid Cymru 4:01, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

The stronger focus on the social value of agriculture is something that we as a party have been calling for for some time. I think it is right and fair that there is financial recognition of the social, cultural and linguistic contribution made by the sector. Now, what that looks like, of course, will be the subject of debate, but I want to put it on record, as we as a party had ensured that that was in the agriculture Act, that we've very pleased to see the emphasis that you're placing on it in the scheme.

Finally, you refer to the technical advisory group on TB. Of course, considering on-farm slaughter is the first issue. Many of us want to see more far-reaching changes, but that is a priority. You suggest that you'll make a statement later this week. Can you tell us whether there will be a change on that front within weeks, not within months? Thank you.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:02, 14 May 2024

Diolch yn fawr, Llyr. You've raised again many issues there, but can I thank you just for welcoming the pragmatic and sensible approach, as you described it, of the way forward? Because we do have to design a scheme that, when it is ready to go, brings everybody with it, and that does, by the way, include all those people out there who support the wildlife and environmental ambitions, including amongst the farming community, as well as the farming community themselves who are going to be so integral to delivering this, and building the consensus that you mentioned is the way forward.

Just to pick up on a few of the things that you said there, in terms of funding, I'm pleased that we've announced today that we will actually take forward the BPS funding currently, to give some certainty going forward. Now, in doing so, I have to say that I'm asking those in the Chamber behind me to be good and strong behind me, and make representations as well, because we're going to be asking the UK Government to provide at least the same level of funding as we received this financial year, plus inflation, plus more, if they'd like to give it to us, please. The Bill is £339.6 million, please, plus inflation, and anything else they want to throw in. We are working—our officials are working internally, and with colleagues in other administrations—to develop our funding ask. We do know, of course, that that still leaves a short of what we had anticipated when all those great debates were going on about leaving the EU, but we have the funding package that we have and we've got to work with it. And fair play to the farming unions as well, even though you have voices saying, 'Well, get it from somewhere else', those arguments, they do accept that we've got to actually put the ask somewhere else here, to assist with that. But by announcing that the BPS will continue for 2025 now, I'm trying to give as much certainty as I can without knowing the future budget position, but it's a clear statement of our intent. So, I'll try to make an announcement on other details, such as the ceiling, in due course, but it won't be too long, hopefully, there.

The other aspects I wanted to touch on—. You talked about trees and carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration actions in the scheme is an example that I think does need and does merit further consideration. So, I've confirmed that we're convening a carbon sequestration evidence review panel, which will feed up into the ministerial round-table. I expect the group of partners undertaking this work with us to focus on the evidence associated with actions to support additional carbon sequestration, and the scale of opportunity that we may have in Wales. Now, I'm going to await the outputs of that work before taking any decisions, and whilst it might be slightly frustrating, there's a reason we're going to set some of these in path to actually lift up then to the ministerial round-table. But I will keep Members informed as it comes in front of us. I don't want to pre-empt it.

But trees on farms, let's be absolutely clear: they've got multiple benefits other than carbon sequestration. That includes, by the way, some that are often not mentioned, such as shelter for livestock, the reduction of flood risk and improving water quality. There are many positive reasons for farms to consider tree planting, and indeed many do, and many do want to go further. I'd simply say as well that we are already and will continue offering the grants for woodland creation through the woodland creation planning scheme and the woodland creation grant scheme, because these will continue to be available, and we'll be actively promoting them through the preparatory phase. There's no reason for anyone considering planting trees on their land to delay that decision if they want to proceed. So, this is not that we're pausing everything, we're stopping everything; we want to go ahead with that.

You raised a lot of items there. The phasing of the universal, optional and collaborative approaches, this is a really interesting one for the ministerial round-table. Because there are, and I remember when we were in the climate change committee at that evidence session, there were different views put forward. One of the things within the funding envelope we have to do in this preparatory phase is decide where the optimal mix is here of those universal parts of it alongside those other ones, which could indeed take us much further in terms of biodiversity, environmental gain, climate change, flood alleviation and so on. But we're going to have to consider very carefully where the right balance lies, because ideally we would just want a heap more funding to do a heap lot more, but we haven't got it, so that's where the ministerial round-table, and ultimately I, will have to make some decisions.

And it is worth saying, Llywydd, as well, that I don't think this is going to be plain sailing, easy sailing. There will be some points where it's going to be for me as Cabinet Secretary to sign off and say, 'This is now where we go and where we stand', but to pick up that overarching point that you made, we will do this in an open, collegiate, co-operative manner, working together. When we come to difficult points, that's what I get paid for. But we'll do it based on the evidence we see and the arguments put forward, and that's why it is worth taking just that little bit more time to get this right. But thank you, Llyr, for the other points you raised, the ministerial round-table will bring them forward for discussion.

Photo of Jenny Rathbone Jenny Rathbone Labour 4:07, 14 May 2024

Thank you. I just wanted to ask you about trees and soil health. The WWF seminar that took place two weeks ago, which you weren't able to attend, which Llyr Huws Gruffydd was chairing—I don't recall seeing James Evans there—and I think that some of the important messages that came from that—[Interruption.] Some of the important messages that came from that were the work done by Niels Corfield to demonstrate that, if you want to make a weatherproof farm, you need to plant trees, you need to deal with soil compaction so that you don't have excessive run-off, and instead you have healthier soils that are absorbing much more of the inundations of water that we're getting increasingly. Also, we heard from two farmers who were making more money by having reduced the amount of stock they had on their farms, and therefore they had less cost from having to buy in fodder for their animals, relying more on the grass, which was of a better quality as a result of having to deal with less stock on it.

I just wonder how much conversation you're having with the farming unions to ensure that all farmers know that these are strategies we all have to do, because I'm absolutely happy with pausing to get it right, but the climate emergency will not wait. So, how is this preparatory phase to demonstrate the benefits of these universal actions going to deter people from unsustainable farming practices, like phosphate pollution from farming going into our rivers and seas? And how will it encourage farmers to tackle soil compaction and excessive run-off, and also, most seriously, soil loss? Because once it's gone, it's gone forever. We're told that there only are another 40 or 60 harvests in the soil, and therefore this is urgently needed to get change across the board.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:09, 14 May 2024

Jenny, thank you so much for that question. Do you know, I, like you, am something of a fanatic about soil health, and the way that delivers multiple benefits? And we see it when it goes wrong as well, when you don't have soil, when you just have mud, and you have fields where the run-off is just taking that down into the streams below. Soil health, I can tell you, is part of the deliberations that go forward now in this preparatory phase.

I've come this morning from a visit to a farm not far from here—Sealands Farm, a family-run farm. Some of the work that they are doing that they're quite evangelical about as a family is the way that they're already working—in anticipation, in some ways, of where we should be heading—with multiple diverse crops and rotation, in order to deliver not only nitrogen and feeding the soil and enriching it, and so on and so forth, but doing it in a very scientific and intelligent way, and they've been doing it for some years. It's also bringing down their costs on the farm because what they're doing is using their own crops to feed. They're using it not quite in a closed-farm system, but reducing their reliance on bringing in very expensive outside alternatives and petrochemical-based alternatives, or overdosing their own farm. It's quite scientific, what they're doing. And what they said to me was that this is not unusual now in farming; there are more and more farms doing this.

So, what we need to do as part of the SFS and the wider approach to good sustainable farming in Wales is to make that approach much more normal, because we know that there are parts of Wales or individual farms where that isn't happening. So, how do we then lift them up and inform them, help them, mentor them, educate them, give them the correct advice, so that they can also do it as well?

Soil health is going to be critical to the way we go forward, and not least because of exactly what you've said: it also gives the resilience as well. So, rather than having mud that's being washed away, you have good soil that holds the water, holds the nutrients, and is less costly in the long run to maintain. But what farmers will say to me is they need the support to make that happen, not just in the advice, but actually in the way that we design the scheme as well. Soil health is key, often forgotten about by wider civil society out there, but critical in the way we take forward good farming in Wales.

Photo of Russell George Russell George Conservative 4:12, 14 May 2024

Minister, thank you for your statement today. I don't think I picked it up earlier on, but does the Government still intend to pursue the data confirmation exercise this summer, and if so, can you confirm when that will begin?

On 10 per cent tree planting, I just want to make sure that I've got the answer that you gave correct in my own mind. I think the answer was that 10 per cent remains part of the proposed scheme, but there's a greater willingness to change and introduce more flexibility—so, have I got that right—through your ministerial round-table.

And in regards to TB, it's a devastating disease, it has a devastating impact on farming families and it's cruel in farming stock and also in wildlife as well. I note in your statement today that you mention again the eradication of TB in Wales by 2041. So, my question is: is that ambitious enough? Can there be a greater ambition in bringing forward that date? 

You also talk about your TB delivery plan and the technical advisory group. So, my final question there is: to what extent will the technical advisory group drive your decision making? Because, for me, many decisions are perhaps not for the advisory group; they're political decisions, such as the decision to cull affected wildlife, which I really do believe needs to be part of the overall package to eradicate TB. And that seems to be more of a political decision for you, rather than the technical advisory group, and that's why I ask about the extent of you taking your decision making from the advisory group.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:14, 14 May 2024

Thank you very much, Russell. First of all, on the carbon sequestration and the 10 per cent trees, we've set up a panel deliberately to look at that. So, as opposed to ruling anything out, we want to consider those other options as part of that work that others have suggested might be good other ways of doing it. I think quite a lot of people here previously have been signatories to the hedges and edges campaign, and so on and so forth, but there are other options being put forward, including what we can do, actually, in well-managed soil and pastureland, which is quite interesting. So, I think these are the things that need to be explored in there. So, rather than focusing purely at the moment on 10 per cent trees, let's give that work stream the freedom to actually go and look at these, and bottom it out properly. Because some of them might be viable and others might not be, but let's properly bottom it out there.

On the data confirmation exercise, yes, this is key to it, going forward. One of the advantages we had, even though there were some concerns that the HWS may not have the uptake it did, actually, it's been really gratifying to see the response to the HWS, and it has helped, additionally, with some data coming forward. But we know that farmers are saying that some of that isn't accurate, so part of this process will actually be going back to farmers to say, 'Here's what we have, here's our mapping, now can you help us actually fill in the dots or contradict what is actually on that data there, that data there?' and so on. That's going to be integral to this, because if we can get to the point where we have good, accurate data, then we're in a much better position to help farmers and say to them, 'We don't have to do this again and again and again; we'll now know by the end of this preparatory phase.'

One the TB eradication by 2041, I think that is really ambitious. It's often said within this Chamber, 'Look at what's happened in England' and so on, but, actually, the trajectory, over the last 10 years, that we've looked at in Wales, and the decline in herd incidence, has been significant as well, so we're doing some things right here, and we often don't say that we're doing some things right. And some of that is based on this much greater partnership model of working, of giving the autonomy to the farmer, working with on-farm vets and so on, the sorts of things that we see now. Part of it is going to be driven, I have to say now, by, as you rightly say, the TB advisory group, headed by Glyn Hewinson, who chairs part of the Sêr Cymru programme, the TB centre of excellence in Aberystwyth. I've had some discussions with him already; I've made clear, when I've spoken before, saying it's for them now to lift up their advice, as they go forward, to the programme board on TB eradication. Sorry, I realise I haven't addressed the issue on could we be more ambitious. If I thought we could—. But I'm not sure that either side of the border or whatever—. It's quite an ambitious task. If we can eradicate by 2041, if we can do it early, brilliant, but let's see what the TB advisory group actually bring forward as the way forward.

The first thing that they've been looking at—and I'm waiting for the official advice to come up—is the on-farm slaughter, which has been a major issue for many farmers, not least the emotional issue and the impact of standing by as their cattle are slaughtered, with calves in, on the farm in front of them. I'm hoping to have that advice very soon. But where they go from there is where they go from there. They have the expertise, and there's really good—. I don't want to misuse this phrase now, but there's really good farming pedigree and long reach within the people on the TAG as well, but they lift it up, then, to the partnership board, where there is significant direct farming representatives, and ex officio members of the farming unions are on that as well. So, let's see what they bring forward. I'm not going to direct them or misdirect them or whatever. Let's see what they bring forward, but they've got a lot of work cut out in front of them.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 4:18, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

I want to pursue two issues specifically, and one of them follows the question last week that the Cabinet Secretary asked me to ask again this week, so hopefully I'll have a bit more information on that, and that's with regard to BVD. There was good work being done with the BVD eradication plan previously, but unfortunately, momentum was lost on that, as the programme came to a close. Legislation is needed to ensure that testing happens, and that this funded in full. We expected an announcement before Easter, but we are still waiting. So, will the Cabinet Secretary set out the timescale for a Bil in this regard, and give an assurance that the Bill, in being adopted, will be supported with the funding needed to ensure its success?

And finally, to follow on from Russell George's question, farmers in my constituency have had to cull cattle as a result of TB over the past few weeks. It is a new experience for farmers in Meirionnydd. Those farmers are listening this afternoon to receive an assurance that you, as the new Cabinet Secretary, understand the seriousness of the situation that they are facing, and that you are ready to take action in accordance with the science. Are you ready to tackle this through culling badgers in a targeted way? Can you give us an assurance that you understand the challenge facing those farmers and that you will meet their needs? Thank you.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:19, 14 May 2024

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mabon. Can I turn, first of all, to the BVD issue? I can give you a further update to the question you raised the other day. First of all, we fully understand and appreciate the very serious impact of BVD, not just on standards of animal health and welfare, but also the impact of the disease on production and the serious economic costs as well to farm businesses. Eradicating BVD in Wales will bring significant benefits to cattle health and productivity, but also to cattle welfare, farm profitability, and also, by the way, carbon footprint. This summer, Welsh Government will make the BVD Wales Order; we'll bring that forward to facilitate an industry-led approach to eradicating the disease. I can bring more detail forward on that subsequently, Mabon, if that's of help, but we will actually bring that forward.

On BTB, I've met with so many farmers now who have been confronted with the emotional turmoil—that's to understate it—of having to go through not just the regularity of TB testing and so on, but also the slaughter, including the on-farm slaughter of cattle. We have to find a way through this. But the programme for government commitment is very clear: it's actually working on the sorts of things that we've done within the Pembrokeshire pathway, working in partnership, using the very best science et cetera; it is exploring the use, as we have done, indeed, of things such as badger vaccination and also supporting the moves to bring forward, ultimately, if we can do it, with the right test to identify that it works, cattle vaccination as well, inevitably. That has to be part of the overall 2041 approach there.

But can I just reiterate what I said to Russell? Our programme for government commitment is very, very clear, but we've set up the TAG with Glyn Hewinson for a very good reason, because it has expertise on there that can bring forward their ideas on where we go next in Wales. I simply want to reiterate one thing here, because people will often raise eyebrows when I say, 'Well, we are doing some good stuff in Wales', and I would say to Members, please contact me and I'll direct you to some of the stuff that we do on the ground, where farmers who are involved in some of these projects are really persuaded that some of the groundbreaking stuff we're doing in Wales is the right one. But, just to be clear, from 2012, which is the year before badger control policy in England, to 2023, on the latest published data, the herd incidence in England decreased from 9.8 to 7.3; it was a 26 per cent decrease.

In Wales, over the same period, herd incidence decreased from 10 to 6.8. It's a 31.3 per cent decrease. I simply put that on record—those are Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures, by the way—to say that we are doing things differently in Wales, in line with our programme for government, but we're also succeeding in many ways. The advisory group needs to say, 'Well, where do we go next then?', 'Where is the next way forward?', and that's the right way to do it, I think: to say to them, 'Work with the farming community. Work with the veterinary service and with others. Work with that wide experience you have to lift up ideas on where we go next.'

Photo of Jane Dodds Jane Dodds Liberal Democrat 4:23, 14 May 2024

I also echo the welcome by others in the room to the reset, as I see it, of the sustainable farming scheme. Really, this is about working in partnership with our farming communities and our rural communities as well. The planned 2025 preparatory period in particular will be crucial for that really robust dialogue with farmers and other stakeholders. 

I just have three questions, if that's all right. The first is around the 17 universal actions. You've explained a little bit about the fact that they will be part of a stakeholder group, a working group, but can you just confirm, in your view, will the 17 universal actions still apply to every single farm? Because that is one of the key issues.

In regard to the 10 per cent tree cover, you've talked about it potentially including hedgerows et cetera, and that it has to be evidence based, but in that evidence, will you be listening to farmers as well, many of whom have got a surfeit of evidence and information—farmers like Gary Jones in Llangadog in Carmarthenshire, who has really robust evidence?

And my third question, which is a really general one, is can you tell us what 'good' looks like at the end of 2025 to tell you that it proceeds in full to 2026. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:25, 14 May 2024

That's a great final question there, Jane. Thank you. I like your terminology there on a 'reset'. There's an enormous amount of work been done on this already—seven years of discussions, consultations, roadshows, whatever. We've got to a place where we do have a lot of agreement—I keep saying this; we genuinely do—on the broad framework, the high-level objectives, and many details of the scheme as well. So, 'reset' is quite a nice way of putting it. I think that analogy of saying, 'Let's just take a little bit more time to get all the details right' links me to what 'good' looks like at the very end.

Let me just touch on the 17 universal actions. One of the things that was clear from what I've read already, the read-out I've had so far—not the full read-out, but the read-out I've had from the consultation—was that many farmers saw complexity within the 17 actions. They worried about would this mean more bureaucracy. Some of them weren't understandable to the farmers either. They went, 'What does this mean?' I think we've got a job, the ministerial group here that this will be lifted up to, to look at those and to see, of those, are they all the right ones, but also are they ones that need better explaining, are they ones that we need to work with farmers to say, 'Well, how do we explain this better? What is this all about?' and so on. So, I'm not saying we're taking any of this out, but I think there's a job of work to actually look at them individually and go through and say, 'Well, if this is going to be something that you take away, outside of a consultation, and say, "Here's a toolkit for farmers", then how do you better present that so it doesn’t look so complex and bureaucratic and so on?'

On the tree cover, will we listen to farmers? Yes, absolutely. And that's why we have set up this carbon sequestration group. But we will also listen, by the way, to those ideas that are coming as well from wildlife and environmental groups on other ways. It's not just coming from one direction. There's been some interesting conversations I've had over the last month and previously on other ways we can take forward carbon sequestration on land throughout Wales, which include trees, but could actually go in other areas as well. But, again, I come back the point that we have to bottom this out with evidence. It can't be just good ideas and aspirations. We have to know that these are going to be effective as well. 

On what 'good' looks like when we get to the end of the preparatory phase, what 'good' looks like will be that, as a result of the process we've gone through, there is good agreement and a coalition of the willing to go forward with this. That's one aspect of what 'good' looks like. And the second aspect of what 'good' looks like is it achieves all those objectives that we're trying to do, so we come out the other end with a scheme that, yes, is good for those higher standards of food production, animal welfare, soil, water quality, and all those wider public benefits, including tackling climate change and promoting biodiversity as well. That's what 'good' looks like, but it has to be as well something that we've designed together and that there is a willingness from people to take forward together as well.

That doesn't mean that 'good' looks like everybody being in total agreement on every single issue. That is not going to happen, I can guarantee you now. But if we're all standing at the end of this process and saying, 'We've got broad agreement. We think this is going to be not just good, but it's going to be good for Wales'—. Because other people have said to me, 'Why don't we look at other schemes elsewhere?' One of the things that the farming unions and others have said is that, actually, what we need is something that is bespoke to Wales, the type of farming we have, the type of landscape we have, the type of environment we have. That's what 'good' will look like.  

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 4:28, 14 May 2024

We're way over time on this statement and the time the Government has allocated for it, so if we can have concise questions, and also concise answers.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour 4:29, 14 May 2024

I very much welcome your appointment, Minister. I very much welcome the way in which you've hit the ground running. The announcement that you made today, I think, demonstrates a real willingness to move forward, but to do so in conversation with people affected. I actually fear that you're going to spend most of the next few years protecting Welsh agriculture from the impact of Brexit. We've seen that the UK Government has sold Welsh farmers down the road with their trade deals. We also see the way that bureaucracy and barriers are being placed to trade for Welsh agriculture. So, I hope that, in the work that you take forward, Minister, you will ensure that protection of Welsh farmers from the impact of Brexit is at the heart of that. But I also hope, Minister, that you won't lose momentum through the next period, because you've demonstrated a willingness to listen, to talk, to discuss, to debate, to have the conversation across the whole of Wales about what our ambitions and our visions are for agriculture. But we need momentum to deliver that. We need to set those targets, to set those objectives, and then move forward together to deliver that. And the momentum you've created in the last few weeks is going to be essential to drive that policy forward through the next few years.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:30, 14 May 2024

Alun, thank you very much. I will take that compliment, and particularly from a former agricultural Minister himself, and the time I genuinely enjoyed working with you when I was UK environment Minister and we sat across the table in Brussels and so on—sometimes we're in danger of harking back to those days a bit too much. I can hear the grumbling going on already so I won't.

Your point on lots of momentum is absolutely key. Look, I've only been in post, I think, for four weeks now, or whatever, but I said from the word go that we would listen, we would engage, and then we would get on with it. So, don't let anybody be under any mistake that this, as has sometimes been referred to today mistakenly, is a pause, a delay or whatever. It ain't. It's a part of the process going forward, with farmers, with the wildlife and environmental organisations, with Welsh wider society, with rural groups and organisations who are so concerned about getting this right. There is no loss of momentum. We've set out a timescale that we need to go forward, but the direction of travel is very, very clear, and we will get on with this and we will do it together, Alun. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 4:31, 14 May 2024

Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement. Can I first start by thanking NFU Cymru, Farmers Union of Wales, the Tenant Farmers Association, common land associations, the Nature Friendly Farming Network, CLA Cymru, the organisers of the Welshpool mart protest and the mart protest in Carmarthen, and the organisers of the protest that took place on the steps of the Senedd? For three years, I've been plugging away with your predecessor, trying to get changes to the sustainable farming scheme, and it is only when the sector woke up and acknowledged that these big changes were coming, and saw the reality of what was being asked of them by the roadshows that were being held, that Welsh Government finally took notice and has brought forward a delay, which I believe is an acknowledgement that, up until this point, Welsh Government has been missing the mark when it's been coming to this sustainable farming scheme policy.

But one thing that I want to touch on, just briefly, in terms of the Habitat Wales scheme is the roll-out of that, riddled with errors, as you mentioned, where farmers weren't able to upload habitat data of their own farm to the system, which sometimes had been undertaken by Farming Connect. That's a breakdown in the data element of farming policy, which needs to be rectified. I've written to you previously about land mapping as well, and the apps available on that. And also around greenwashing and afforestation, of outside agencies buying up Welsh agricultural land, to totally afforest an area for greenwashing, and offsetting their conscience by not changing their business model but planting trees across a large swathe of agricultural land. I think that needs to be addressed, because there are specific cases in my constituency, around Llanboidy, and other areas as well. How can that be addressed through the sustainable farming scheme?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:33, 14 May 2024

Thank you, Sam. Listen, I'd echo the thanks to all those organisations who made submissions to the consultation but who also engaged, including in the run-up to the protest. And I've said previously, I think, in terms of Senedd Cymru, Welsh Parliament, people actually protesting outside we should welcome. It's part of the political engagement. We really should. And then we should listen to what's being said. It's not that we take everything on face value, but we should listen and engage. That's part of being a proper, mature Parliament.

In terms of the consultation, can I just put on record my thanks to Lesley Griffiths and her officials for all the work that they've done? They've taken some brickbats, particularly when the protests were going on and so on, but there was a genuine, meaningful approach to engage. It was a genuine consultation as well. I think that's reflected in my ability to come in now, at this timely juncture, and just reflect on it and think, 'Right, well, how do we take it forward?' It was a genuine consultation. But the points you make on HWS and the data and the mapping are well made. We do need to get this right going forward, and that will be of help not only to the sustainable farming scheme itself, but actually to wider land management in Wales going forward for many years to come. We haven't got it right. The HWS, curiously, as I mentioned earlier on—the take-up has been greater than expected, which is really good. But what it means now is that we can use some of the things that have come forward to go back to farmers and say, 'Right, what's wrong here?', as well as the other mapping that we have. So, there's work to be done on that.

And finally, your point on greenwashing—you are so right. One of the areas that we are interested in, beyond SFS, is whether we can look at a real scheme with integrity, with real ethical integrity within it, that could lever funds that are beyond the taxpayer funds into enabling farmers to do more, and it could be within biodiversity schemes, landscape management schemes, it could be within tree planting, but not on productive land, yes, but, of course, farmers make commercial decisions as well, they do. But we’ve got to make sure that what is being done in Wales is to the benefit of those land managers, landowners and local communities in Wales. That’s it. So, we need to think collectively about how we can bring forward something that does that, because there is scope. We’re talking about a scheme that is predicated upon, if you like, public funds going into developing the support and the sort of farming we want to see in future, and the sort of food production and the wider benefits. Beyond that, there could well be a quantum of funding out there that if we design something correctly, that could be quite interesting, and there could be more that we could do. There could be more we can do in biodiversity and environmental gain et cetera, et cetera, but getting that right, not having greenwashing, not selling it to outside bodies. So, there's a piece of work to be done.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour 4:36, 14 May 2024

Thank you for statement today, Cabinet Secretary. Back in early March, I addressed a packed-out meeting of local farmers in Penderyn who wanted to share with me their hopes and their fears regarding the proposed sustainable farming scheme. The overall message from them was that Welsh Government needed to pause and reflect in order to get this new scheme right for farmers and right for Wales. I’ve already been in touch with some of them this morning and they all very much welcomed the news that you are indeed pausing and reflecting on this crucial scheme.

So, I have two questions for you today. Firstly, how are you ensuring that your ministerial round-table captures views from the diverse strands of our farming communities? I’m thinking, for example, of common land farmers, tenant farmers and non-unionised farmers too. And, secondly, I note your reference to developing proposals for further optional and collaborative actions. Now, farmers that I’ve talked to would really welcome this. And as part of this work, Cabinet Secretary, would you consider some of the approaches used under previous schemes such as Tir Gofal and Glastir, which many farmers believe worked well for them?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:37, 14 May 2024

Thank you, Vikki, and thank you for those suggestions as well. We will certainly consider, going forward, how we get that balance right with the optional collaborative, and where we can learn from previous schemes. And we will certainly make sure that in the membership of the ministerial round-table, going forward, that the interests of those who are tenant farmers but also those who farm common land—sometimes there’s an overlap with those two as well there, in your own constituency, similar to mine. We’ll make sure that there is representation on that as well. We do need to make sure that the membership of that is fully reflective of the farming community and its diversity, but also of those wildlife and environmental groups as well, because I think key to holding this together is getting everybody in the same room and saying, ‘Let’s get to see where we agree and let’s see where we need to do further work', and that’s what this is all about today.

Photo of Laura Anne Jones Laura Anne Jones Conservative

Diolch. Thank you for your statement, Cabinet Secretary. It certainly is encouraging, and I want to believe what you say, and I really hope that I can when more detail comes forward in future months. You’ve released this today on World Farmers Day, so I just want to reiterate the importance of the farmers, and that it takes enormous dedication, passion and hard work to be a farmer. Not only that you have to be master of all trades, not just one, being a farmer is something that’s often underestimated, unless you see it first-hand like I did, growing up and having a father that I hardly saw unless I spent time on the farm myself.

But they are masters; I didn’t appreciate until I was older the variety of skills that they have, and those include, of course, getting the best out of the land, preserving hedgerows, planting trees. And it’s nothing new. Farmers have the knowledge, the expertise, and they now have to be an integral part of getting this SFS right. And I want to seek assurances from you today, Minister, that you will involve farmers and that there will be a degree of common sense now, and reality attached and decisions being made, and that when it comes to cross-border issues, you will work with the UK Government to iron those out, and that if we look towards the longer term goal, which is a fantastic goal of improving soil health, then those farmers will be subsidised if they are going to lose money from having fewer crops or something to do so, which can happen.

So, I just want to reiterate the importance of getting this SFS right for the whole of the agricultural community; economically, socially, environmentally it’s so important. And I thank you, and I welcome your statement today. We have great hopes for you, Minister. Please don’t let us down. [Laughter.]

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:39, 14 May 2024

Okay, no pressure. [Laughter.] Look, I can give you that genuine assurance that the work in some ways only starts today, because, now, this is really the business end of delivering an SFS that is not only coherent and comprehensive, and sets an approach now for a generation, going forward, but also brings everybody with us. There's a job of work to be done with that.

It's interesting that the First Minister has now joined us, and you've touched on your knowledge and background within farming. The First Minister himself also has referred to his background as well. I've got family within farming on my wife's side as well, and very different types of farming, both in Italy and in Wales, and dairy production. My own constituency, similar to Vikki—we often say, Vikki and I, we evangelise about the fact that when you look up to the hills, round about four tenths of our constituencies are upland hill farming, much of it common land, some of it tenanted, but multigenerational farmers as well. Coming off Sealands farm this morning, seeing the work they're doing, which almost looks to the future—they're actually quite well ahead in many areas—you think of all the good work that is going on and we need to make that, then, commonplace through the way that we design this scheme.

Just finally, on your matter on cross-border issues, I genuinely do—you wouldn't be surprised for me to say this as a former UK parliamentarian. I want to make sure that we do work well across borders on farming, but also on a range of issues as well. But I want that to be reciprocal, whether that is to do with actually having our input from other Cabinet Secretaries on trade deals and the implications for our farmers, financial settlements around the quantum of funds we will get going into farming and other matters as well, and also how we can share practice. I think all of those argue for a good, pragmatic, grown-up approach to actually working across, with other devolved nations as well as with the UK Government. Thank you very much.