The Agriculture Bill contains much good, but I hope we in the Lords can improve it in the areas of transition, productivity, support for tenants, food security and health, says Lord Donald Curry.
I am delighted that we are finally able to debate the Agriculture Bill.
It has had a long gestation period and it is rather disappointing that it remains largely the same, other than a couple of helpful additions, as it was when conceived two and a half years ago.
Much has changed since then, particularly over the last six months.
This Bill is the most significant since 1947. To have a blank sheet of paper and the opportunity to shape how our countryside is going to be managed for the next two, three, four decades is a huge privilege.
To be in the House of Lords at this point in time and able to influence this Bill, and I hope we can influence it, is not only a privilege but a massive responsibility.
So, it has to be fit for purpose! Future generations will look back and judge us on these decisions.
The direction of travel as outlined in the Bill is absolutely correct.
This Bill, and the Environment Bill, are an opportunity to put right some of the policy mistakes of the past and address a number of serious misperceptions, but also – and crucially – create an exciting new vision for the management of our precious countryside.
As a farmer, I am fed up of being charged with polluting water and air, destroying habitats, putting species at risk of extinction, keeping animals that are destroying the planet, degrading soil and so on.
If that were not serious enough, it is now clear that over the last 25 years or so our productivity has declined and we are losing ground in the global market place.
Our interpretation and application of science has been lagging behind.
We have a unique opportunity to paint a new picture, and this Bill is the frame to do that.
There is a huge ambition within our farming and food sector to re-establish ourselves as world leaders in agri-food science and be innovators in sustainable food systems.
We can clean up the water and air, we can improve the quality of our soils and help capture a lot more carbon, we can restore habitats and deliver a wide range of outcomes targeted on a geographical basis.
We can help mitigate the impact of climate change, and why shouldn’t we be first past the post in achieving net zero carbon emissions?
We can deliver these outcomes if the schemes are designed correctly and Treasury recognises the huge potential pay back there could be through investing in the countryside.
Far, far greater than the current level of spend.
We won’t realise this exciting future, however, if we find our market and our confidence is undermined by the import of cheap food, agreed in hastily signed trade deals, not subject to our high standards.
Repeated reassurances by Ministers, even in recent letters, that this won’t happen is not enough. No one is convinced.
Let me now turn to the proposed timetable.
Seven years of transition looked a very sensible approach when announced four years ago. What has happened since puts that seriously in doubt.
Officials have been diverted twice from their day jobs in preparing for this. Once through no-deal Brexit planning and recently with Covid-19.
We lost a year through Brexit indecision.
The pilot Environmental Land Management (ELM) tests and trials have just got going.
Farmers know the current support system is going to be demolished, but have no idea how the new schemes will be designed, of the value of the public goods they will be encouraged to deliver or how they will unlock the funding to do it.
There is much to do; the scale of change is unparalleled and time is short.
Defra and its agencies need the capacity to cope and to draw conclusions from the pilots.
Farmers need advice and time to make correct decisions about their future, including whether they are willing to embrace such a radical shift in policy or not.
I would strongly suggest that we need more time.
If the Government is wedded to the transitional process starting in 2021, next year, then an additional year should be added to allow a smoother transition.
Eight years instead of seven.
Smaller deductions in the early years and an extended period would make complete sense.
The gap between the demolition of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and the availability of ELMs is a serious problem.
Better that we take time and succeed in delivering this exciting new programme than rush it and fail.
Let me comment briefly on a few other elements of the Bill.
The Bill does recognise our current performance on productivity is not good enough, but there is no reference to skills and training.
I have a keen interest in this topic and firmly believe we need a professional body to elevate the importance of our sector, with its exciting career prospects.
The Bill is silent on this, yet Defra’s excellent policy paper, ‘Farming for the Future’, references how important it is.
Having a highly skilled and professional industry is essential to improving productivity, reducing carbon emissions and the successful application of ELMs.
The tenancy clauses in the Bill could go further and be more specific.
I would also like to stress that the Bill should register the fact that our food security and self-sufficiency has been shown to be even more important in recent weeks and months.
We are now 17 per cent less self-sufficient than we were in the mid-1980s.
The NFU calculated a few years ago that we would run out of home-produced food on August 12 – the glorious Twelfth.
If we continue on the current trend, it will soon be American Independence Day.
How ironic would that be?
The Bill should embrace an annual review of food security so trends can be identified quickly, particularly in view of the impact of climate change and pests and diseases on global food supplies.
A concern which I share is the lack of specifics in the Bill, particularly in the definition of public goods.
In identifying the value of public goods, Government must recognise the benefits to be gained through public access.
This is not just about maintaining rights of way, but much more about the benefits the countryside can offer to the whole of society – particularly on school visits.
All children should learn about the countryside and the importance of food to help them make informed choices about their diet and help address the obesity crisis.
The countryside is a place of therapy, where mental health can be restored and rehabilitation can take place, as well as providing healthy food.
This Bill has the potential to transform the nation’s health if designed well.