It was good to see a number of MPs and Peers at our annual Westminster parliamentary reception yesterday. I hope that the scones we offered provided sustenance to help them through a long evening of voting and debate.
We need politicians to be at their best in the next few days and weeks to find a way safely through the Brexit impasse especially avoiding a No Deal Brexit which creates extreme jeopardy for the environment. We need them to put their energies into other things including to continue to use their political voices for nature.
There is intense frustration that inadequate progress has been made to put in place tangible measures to tackle the ecological and climate emergency and yesterday’s announcement about government spending fell woefully short with tiny increases in Defra budget failing to close the gap between ambition and available resource which has declined over the past decade and remains c40% below what it was in 2010.
What’s more, it now seems efforts over the past 12 months in progressing important legislation may go unrewarded. The likely prorogation of the Westminster Parliament earlier than expected or indeed a possible general election being called means that all legislation that has not completed its passage through both Houses will fall. That means for example, after 1,168 days since the referendum, 555 days since the consultation paper ‘Health and Harmony’ was published, 358 days since it was tabled and 289 days since it was last seen in Parliament, the Agriculture Bill may be no more.
As I have written previously, fixing our broken food and farming system is a prerequisite to addressing the climate and environment emergency that we face. It is also necessary if farmers are to have a better, more secure and certain future.
The Agriculture Bill was a first tentative step in the right direction, promising to redirect funding for farmers toward ‘public goods’, such as the conservation of wildlife, natural flood risk management and public access, amongst others.
Introduced in September 2018, under normal circumstances the bill should have received Royal Assent by now. We should be talking about how to enact its provisions and mapping out a just transition to a new system. But these are not normal circumstances.
We are now faced with acute uncertainty, with no clarity on when an Agriculture Bill Mark 2 will make it back to Parliament. For farmers, this comes on top of the crushing worry that a no deal Brexit has created. At a time when we need to be sending clear signals to the farming community that nature-friendly, agroecological farming is the future, this current mess couldn’t be more damaging.
So what now?
Well, all is not lost. The hundreds and thousands of hours invested in the bill can never be regained. But the platform on which the Bill was built remains: one of refocusing public money on the environmental benefits only farmers can provide; of a managed transition for farmers and steps to improve their position in the supply chain; of a wider context in which we need farming to lead the way in fighting the twin crises of biodiversity collapse and climate breakdown.
And, nearly a year since the Bill was first tabled, we now know much more about the policy intent behind the bill. This should mean that much more detail can be included in the next iteration - there is no excuse now for a ‘framework bill’.
We then will push for a new bill that is much more ambitious, both in breadth and depth. It should retain the core principle of ‘public money for public goods’, forming the long term basis of a policy that fits with the logic of HM Treasury. It must though also though spell out how this will be funded - a huge gap in the current bill - provide safeguards on trade and standards, and set out much more ambitious action on how the UK Government will address asymmetry in the market to strengthen the position of farmers and achieve a fairer, greener and more transparent supply chain.
To borrow from the political lexicon of recent weeks, I both hope and expect that the demise of the Agriculture Bill is merely a ‘bump in the road’. We expect now that Defra will come back with an improved, more ambitious bill that matches the scale of the climate and environment emergency that we face.
Anything less will be a disaster for many progressive farmers and the wildlife that depends upon them.
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