Committee passes verdict on Agriculture Bill: our reaction

Today the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has released its report on the Scrutiny of the Agriculture Bill. Here’s an outline of our views on some of the key recommendations from the Committee.

Our Outdoors and Natural Resources Director, Patrick Begg, has already commented on the report, saying:

“The Committee is right that, above all else, Parliament should amend the Bill to ensure a 7 year budget for post-Brexit farm support, and that UK farmers aren’t undercut by imports that don’t meet our environmental standards. These two measures would give much-needed confidence to farmers to get behind the Government’s reforms.

“I’m worried though that the Committee is veering towards seeing farming and the environment as being in opposition. In the long term, a healthy environment is the foundation of a productive farming system – it’s a false choice to suggest we can trade off healthy soils or water quality against producing food. The National Trust wants to work with all those with a stake in this debate to get the design of the new Environmental Land Management schemes right, so they deliver for the environment and for farmers.”

Here’s more on our views…

Powers, but few duties

The Bill provides powers to the Government, but places few duties on Ministers.  For example, at present, the Bill contains no requirement for the Secretary of State to create an environment land management scheme, or to ensure fairness in the supply chain, which risks leaving key parts of the reforms such as these vulnerable to short term changes of direction. The Committee expressed its concern over this imbalance, which, combined with a significant delegation of powers to Ministers, “does not provide sufficient clarity about how the new system for agricultural support will function and how delegated powers will be used” in future secondary legislation. They recommend that Government should ensure that there are sufficient opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny as the new system and policies are implemented.  We’re part of Greener UK and as such have been seeking an amendment to the Bill to introduce duties on ministers, rather than the handover of powers, to ensure ambition set now is acted on in the future.

A new system of rewarding farmers – public money for public goods

The Bill proposes a new system of agricultural support on the principle of public money for public goods, with those goods identified including the management of land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment, and maintains, restores or enhances cultural heritage or natural heritage; supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland and better understanding of the environment; mitigating or adapting to climate change; preventing, reducing or protecting from environmental hazards; and, protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock and plants. This direction of funding is both welcome and necessary. Under the Common Agriculture Policy, farmers have been incentivised to manage their land intensively, and evidence shows that the natural environment we rely on for our own and the land’s health and future productivity has suffered.

Food production and security

Whilst the Committee welcomes this approach it expresses disappointment about “the important balance that must be struck between food production and the environment”.  We think this implies that it is possible to choose between these two key objectives. In our view this list of ‘goods’ are the fundamental building blocks needed to support future food production. Without effective land management to restore healthy soils, encourage cleaner, slower water and ultimately restore our natural ecosystem we can’t sustainably support the production of the food we need into the future.  As our Outdoors and Natural Resources Director, Patrick Begg, said in his evidence to the Agriculture Public Bill Committee, you cannot have long-term food production without a healthy, thriving, well-stewarded natural environment.

Tom Lancaster, Agriculture Policy Officer at the RSPB, gave evidence to the Efra Committee on behalf of Wildlife and Countryside Link, which we’re a member of. Tom set out for the Committee why it’s justifiable to pay farmers and use public money to incentivise farmers to do certain things where there is market failure. An approach where farmers are paid public money once through the tax system and then again at the till is inherently inequitable.

Funding priorities 

The Committee expressed concern about the lack of information about how much financial assistance might be allocated to each public good or how they might be prioritised. They believe this will not give enough clarity to farmers about where to focus their efforts in order to qualify for financial assistance. They want the Government to set out how the listed public goods would be prioritised when competing for a limited pot of funding. To address this concern, we believe Government should undertake a regular independent assessment of financial need to inform an appropriate level of future funding which looks at what needs to be spent to deliver environmental outcomes. Take a look at our joint research with the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts for more on this.

Phasing out direct payments and moving to a new environment land management system

The Agriculture Bill provides for current direct payments in England to be modified and phased out over a transition period of seven years from 2021. The Committee recommends that the Government should, before 2020, outline how it would phase out direct payments over the entire transition period, in order to give some certainty to those who currently receive direct payments under the CAP.

Defra are proposing to deliver future financial assistance through working with farmers and land managers through environmental land management contracts.  The idea is to design, test and trial elements before piloting it widely and then rolling it out nationally. We’re currently working with Defra as they work up these pilots, drawing on our experience across our own land, particularly where we’re taking a ‘payments for outcomes’ approach at places like Malham, and also where we’re testing the scope for public-private finance partnerships to further support delivery of environmental outcomes, such as our joint Natural Markets project with think tank Green Alliance.

The Committee recommends that in 2020, before direct payments are reduced, the Government should conduct a review of whether the new environmental land management schemes are sufficiently advanced to begin replacing the direct payment system. Done well, we have confidence that an environmental land management system, based on a payment for outcomes approach, can deliver the changes needed to restore our natural environment and ensure a sustainable future for farming. We also recognise that progress needs to be made, and will continue working with Defra and partners to help ensure the system’s success.

Future trade deals

There was widespread agreement from those who gave evidence to the Committee that any future trade deals should not compromise the quality of food imported into this country. The Government however, believe it’s out of the scope of the Agriculture Bill, and instead should be picked up in the Trade Bill, which is currently passing through the House of Lords.  However, an amendment to the Trade Bill to ensure that trade agreements would maintain or enhance UK food standards was defeated in the bill committee in the Commons, leaving the question still open.  Thus the Committee urges the Government to accept an amendment to the Agriculture Bill stipulating that food products imported as part of any future trade deal should meet or exceed British standards relating to production, animal welfare and the environment. We and our partner organisations in the Greener UK coalition back this approach.

Fairness in the supply chain

We’ve written on this blog before about the issues facing small agricultural producers and abattoirs in the UK, who can be placed at unfair disadvantage to larger operators further up the supply chain such as processors, distributors and retailers. The Committee welcomes that the Agriculture Bill provides the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations to introduce obligations that promote fair contractual relationships between farmers and the first purchasers of their products. However, whilst the Government considers the Rural Payments Agency the appropriate body to oversee and enforce fair dealing obligations; the Committee highlights that it doesn’t have the confidence of farmers and lacks relevant expertise. Instead, it recommends that the Groceries Code Adjudicator is a more logical entity to oversee fair dealing obligations than the RPA.

Overall, the Committee’s recommendations are welcome, and timely.  As the Agriculture Bill moves towards Report stage, we’ll continue working with our partners and Government, to ensure the best possible future for farming in this country.

For more on our work and views on the future of farming post-Brexit, take a look at our website, or browse through this blog. 

Louise Sampson, Advocacy Officer, National Trust.

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