Tom Lancaster, Principal Policy Officer, provides an update on the Agriculture Bill

This week, the Government’s new Agriculture Bill will get its second reading in the Commons. As the first opportunity for MPs to debate the Bill, and all that it means for farming, food and the environment, this is a crucial milestone.
 
With our partners in Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link, we have published a briefing for MPs ahead of the debate. This sets out six key areas where we think the Bill should be improved in order to realise the Government’s aims of a ‘Green Brexit’.
 
These six asks centre around what is missing from the Bill, including clarity on future funding, the absence of any powers or duties to bring forward robust and effective protections for land and the environment, and the need for duties on Ministers that match the powers that the Bill bestows on them.
 
What I want to do here though is reflect not on what’s missing, but what the Bill does include. As I said when it was first tabled, there is much to be welcomed in the Bill, and the policy statement that accompanied it. Below I outline some of the main features and their strengths and weaknesses.
 
Public money for public goods.

The first clause in the Bill outlines the reasons that Government can use to provide financial support to farmers and land managers. Although the Bill does not use the phrase ‘public goods’ Clause 1(1) effectively provides the Governments definition for these.

We have always encouraged Defra to focus on those goods and services that society needs, but which the market doesn’t provide. This list largely sticks to that definition of public goods by focusing on areas such as improving the environment and climate change mitigation.

One of our priorities during the passage of the Bill will be to make sure that this list of purposes is not expanded. To do so would torpedo the Government’s stated objective to reform agriculture policy and overcome the flaws of the much maligned Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and in doing so undermine the potential of this Bill to drive forward real improvements to the natural environment.
 
Environmental land management.

Clauses 2 & 3 provide Ministers with the powers to develop environmental land management schemes in England, which are set to be the centrepiece of a future policy.

In general, these clauses provide all of the powers necessary to develop well designed and effective schemes. That said, the devil will be in the detail, and adequate scrutiny of secondary legislation here will be crucial.
One particularly welcome aspect is the power to make the details of payments public, maintaining the ability to scrutinise what public money is being used for. One major omission however, is that there is no duty on Ministers to actually use these powers, or to have an environmental land management scheme at all. This is a backward step compared to the CAP, which requires member states and regions to develop and fund agri-environment schemes. 

A defined and managed transition.

Clauses 5, 6, 7 & 8 provide the powers needed to achieve a transition away from direct payments.

Importantly, Clause 5 sets a timeframe for this, starting in 2021 for seven years. We have always argued that Government need to set a clear timeframe for the transition, in order to provide certainty. This does that, and it is important now that, having set a timeframe, that they stick to it in order to avoid creating confusion in the future.

The other more novel aspect of the transition is the power to ‘de-link’ payments from land. This refers to the idea that, during a transition, recipients of direct payments would no longer need to have land in order to claim the payments. As a result of this, they could claim all of the future payments that they are eligible for in one ‘lump sum’.

To many, this sounds odd. And it does carry real risks, primarily that the conditions that farmers have to stick to now would no longer apply, potentially reducing environmental protections. However, if this can be addressed through bringing in new regulatory protections ahead of de-linking, it does have its benefits. First amongst these is that it creates path dependency toward reform and a new policy. For those who have advocated for change to agriculture policy, and are mindful of the risk of Brexit induced drift, this is a major selling point.

It has benefits for farmers too though, as many will be able to use the additional flexibility to invest in their businesses to make them Brexit ready. Or for tenants without a successor and few assets, it will provide them with a potential means to achieve a managed exit and stable retirement.

Where the transition is perhaps weakest though is more in terms of policy, than the Bill itself. Defra have been vague on how they intend to achieve a managed transition. Clarity on this is needed as a matter of urgency.
 
A fair and equitable supply chain.

The Bill also provides wide ranging powers designed to improve the position of farmers in the supply chain.

This is to be welcomed, and recognises that, if farmers are to get a better return from the market in the future, there is a role for Government to level the playing field between farmers and growers and the rest of the supply chain, given the dominance of a few processors and retailers. Clause 25 is particularly important, in that it would allow for the proper regulation of the relationship between farmers and ‘first purchasers’.

However, many of these powers look a lot like those which the Government recently declined to develop when they decided against extending the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. To have confidence that these powers will actually be used then, we and our partners are pushing for a duty on Ministers to ensure better regulation of, and transparency within, the supply chain.
 
Robust protections a gap.

Having said that I wasn’t going to talk about gaps in the Bill, one cannot go without comment. Namely, the absence of any powers to ensure robust regulatory protections for farmers, animals and the environment in the future, and adequate enforcement powers and resources. Defra insist that this is merely a consequence of the ongoing Farm Inspections and Regulations Review being led Dame Glenys Stacey, and that they will act on the recommendations of that review in a future Bill.

Given the uncertainty about the Brexit end game, promises of future legislation can ring hollow. We will therefore be pushing for improvements to the Bill to address this gap.

Cooperation across the UK?

Finally, there is little in the Bill that points to how cooperation across the four countries will be achieved. We can appreciate that the constitutional politics of the UK are dicey at the moment, but that does not change the fact that many environmental challenges are transboundary, as are many agricultural business and economies.

We will continue to push the UK Government and devolved administrations to work together to ensure a common environmental ambition sits at the heart of future farming and land management policies across the UK.

The Agriculture Bill represents a once in a generation opportunity to set us on the path toward a more sustainable farming system. We hope that MPs from all parties will attend to add their voice in support of a farming policy that works better for people and nature.

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