Defra Secretary Michael Gove has been forced to fend off accusations that the Agriculture Bill has not been adequately ‘rural-proofed’.
During a House of Lords Rural Economy Committee evidence session on Tuesday (January 22), peers pointed him to comments from the Rural Coalition, which argued the legislation had not been through the process which ensures the countryside is not disadvantaged.
In November last year, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Neil Parish also told peers he did not believe the Bill had been ‘rural-proofed enough’.
And just one month before that, he had warned slashing direct payments could lead to the disappearance of livestock, and therefore rural communities, from upland areas.
But Mr Gove told the House of Lords committee the Agriculture Bill was going through a rigorous, ongoing, rural-proofing process.
He said: “We thought, and are thinking, very hard about the impact of changing methods of support on, for example, upland and hill farmers.
“As we have been designing not just the original Bill, but then developing the Environmental Land Management Scheme and other schemes which flow from the Bill, we have been thinking hard, setting questions and demanding of ourselves and our partners in the Treasury that we model the impact of these changes – not just on individual farm businesses, but on rural areas more generally.”
During the evidence session, Mr Gove also said he had been ‘considering’ the creation of a Rural Economy Strategy similar to the Industrial Strategy.
Asked by Lord Foster whether the Government needed such a strategy with a long-term vision for rural communities and the rural economy, he said: “I think it is an open question and one both of us [including Defra Minister Lord Gardiner] have given some consideration to.
“The question in both our minds is to what extent does it depend on the effective co-ordination initiatives which are already in place and to what extent would creating a strategy of that kind provide a degree of focus and additional drive which might be required.
“Is it duplicating efforts and adding to bureaucracy or is it giving it real political heft? I think it is an open argument.”