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Support for Hill Farmers — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:15 pm on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:15 pm, 12th February 2020

I entirely appreciate that and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not going to skip over that point; I have some time left.

The upland areas in particular are well placed to benefit from a system of support based on the delivery of public goods. Some 66% of blanket bog in England is in “triple SI”s—sites of special scientific interest—and is in those upland areas, so projects such as peatland restoration are certainly things that the uplands could do. Some of our rare and endangered bird species are in parts of the uplands so projects to support their recovery also lend themselves well to such areas. I am also thinking of projects that might mitigate the risk of floods by holding water uphill and projects such as the mires project down in the west country, on Exmoor, that can improve water quality by rewetting some of those peatland areas.

All those things mean that the potential for some of the uplands to be rewarded for what they in some cases already do, but may well do even more of in the future, is very high. The reality is that our current system pays the moorland areas, the severely disadvantaged areas, less money than it does the lowlands, even though they are probably doing most of all for our environment. The change in emphasis to payment for delivering public goods means that those severely disadvantaged areas, which historically have been told, “We will give you less subsidy because your land is less productive,” may actually be able to deliver and achieve far more.

I come now to the issue of the transition. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I agree, that getting the sequencing of the transition right will be very important. Although we have not made final decisions in these respects, I will make a number of points to him. First, the Bill provides for us to make available grants and payments to farmers to help them to improve their productivity, invest in equipment and reduce costs, and that will help farmers to get to a position in which they are less reliant on the subsidy payments that they receive now.

The Bill also provides for us to make several years’ payment in one lump sum to help—aid—the retirement of those farmers who decide that now is the time to leave. Linked to that, we know, from all the work that we have done, that if we want to encourage new entrants into the sector, the critical element is freeing up access to land. That is why, if we want new entrants to come in, we have to have projects and ideas to help farmers, who are sometimes in their 70s or 80s and still going, to make the sometimes difficult decision to retire. The measure gives us the option to be able to do that.

The Bill also gives us the power to modify the legacy scheme, to simplify some of the rules around the basic payment scheme, or indeed to simplify and modify the current pillar two countryside stewardship scheme. The integrated administration and control system that is a requirement of EU law is particularly burdensome on some of the current schemes, and we would have the option, should we wish it, to remove that.

Let me deal with some of the hon. Gentleman’s other points. He suggested that the pilot was delayed. The pilot is not delayed: we always intended to go to a full pilot in 2021, and still do, and will. The issue is that we have had trials running. We have 30 trials already up and running—already under way. There has been no delay, and further trials will be added. He suggested that we would not be in a position to roll out the new scheme until 2028. That is not the case. We intend to be rolling out the new scheme to every farmer—a full launch of the scheme—probably around 2024, so we will not be waiting until the end of the transition before we start the new scheme. We envisage that, as the legacy scheme tapers out, we will be opening up versions of the new scheme in advance of that.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we ought to have an active farmer test. I am reluctant to get into that kind of EU rule making, as it was not particularly successful when the EU tried it. However, he makes a very good point: some of the environmental benefits that we need explicitly require grazing, and grazing by the right type of animal, to be taking place on our upland areas, to keep the bracken down and the sward at the right length so that conditions are made most favourable for invertebrates, which in turn helps farmland birds. It is therefore not the case that we want to take land out of grazing; indeed, grazing has an important part to play. We have amended the Bill so that it recognises native breeds and rare breeds in particular as a public good. We changed that in its latest iteration so that we can reward those hill farmers who are using and encouraging the preservation of some of our important genetic resources.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to get farmers a fair price for the food that they produce. Although we chose not to extend the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, we have in the Agriculture Bill taken wide-ranging powers to be able to legislate in the field of contracts to ensure that there is fairness in the supply chain and transparency around what farmers are paid as well as on issues such as carcase classification. There are quite wide powers in the Bill dealing with those things.

My final point is that it is not correct to say that we watered down the GCA. There was a delay in the introduction of penalties for breaches, but those were put in place—I think even under the last coalition Government, but possibly after the end of the coalition Government and under the Conservative Government from 2015. But substantial sanctions are in place and available to it.

I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we see a vibrant future for hill farming. We believe that hill farmers will be able to benefit from our new system of payment for public goods, and they can look to the future with confidence.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).