In March, arable farmer Robert Goodwill was appointed Farming Minister after George Eustice resigned over Brexit. This week, Abi Kay met him to talk about the pigeon shooting fiasco, badger culling on National Trust land and the Agriculture Bill.
North Yorkshire farmer Robert Goodwill is enjoying his new role as Farming Minister at Defra.
“When I got this job, it was like putting on an old jacket from the back of the wardrobe which felt like it fitted,” he said.
“I have got a degree in agriculture, and we have farmed since 1850 on the same farm.
“Currently it is a very simple farming system with arable combinable crops, but over the years we have had virtually everything, including when we were children a slaughterhouse and two butcher shops.”
It is just as well Mr Goodwill feels this way, as he has stepped into the department at a pivotal time for UK agriculture.
Since the vote to leave the EU, the industry has found itself in the media spotlight in a way it has not been for the past forty years, but last week, it was hitting the headlines for another reason: farmers had lost the right to shoot wild birds which peck out lambs’ eyes and destroy crops.
Following a legal challenge from Wild Justice, an environmental pressure group headed up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay, Natural England revoked three general licences which allowed birds such as crows and magpies to be controlled.
Farmers were given just 36 hours’ notice before the licences were removed, plunging the industry into uncertainty and provoking outrage across the countryside.
Natural England has since taken steps to allow farmers to apply for individual licences, but questions remain over Natural England’s conduct, and Mr Goodwill has now promised to carry out an investigation into the way the situation was handled.
Speaking yesterday (May 2), Mr Goodwill said: “I just came out of a meeting with the Secretary of State, and we are very concerned about the way this has unfolded and the way Natural England may have acted.
“I do not even think Mr Packham and Mr Avery expected it to unfold the way it did. We need to fix the problem and fix it quick.
“Unfortunately, a lot of farmers at an important time of year have been concerned they cannot carry out the pest control activities they have done for many years.
“We need to look into exactly what happened; why the legal basis on which these general licences were issued was, it seems, flawed; whether the legal advice Natural England were given was correct and see what action we can take as quickly as possible to restore the situation.”
It is not yet clear when the initial findings of the investigation will be published, but Mr Goodwill said he would update MPs ‘as soon as we get information’.
One other non-Brexit-related challenge facing Defra and the farming community is getting on top of bovine TB.
At NFU conference earlier this year, Secretary of State Michael Gove promised to investigate a decision by the National Trust to ban tenants from participating in the badger cull after Somerset livestock farmer James Small warned it was undermining the 25-year strategy to tackle the disease.
Mr Goodwill said he knew the ban was making farmers ‘angry’.
“The National Trust apparently say they have been advised by experts about this,” he said.
“I would be interested to know who those experts are. Are they vets, are they epidemiologists, have they published any scientific papers on this, or have [the National Trust] just given into pressure from, in many cases, ill-informed people?
“The badger cull is starting to work and I would be very pleased if the National Trust would look at the most recent evidence.
“I would urge them, on the basis of that evidence, to change their position and allow farmers who are tenants on National Trust land to participate in this scheme which will help us get on top of this very difficult disease.”
On future policy and spending, Mr Goodwill hinted Ministers might be moving towards support for a multi-annual farming budget.
Farmers Guardian understands the Government has been warming up to the idea of supporting an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would commit to this, and Mr Goodwill said conversations with the Treasury were ongoing.
“The point I would make clear is if people are signing up for these schemes which are five years or longer, at the point they sign up, we need to make sure the money will be there from Treasury to pay for those schemes,” he added.
He also went on to suggest money which was previously sent to Brussels would be available for agricultural support after Brexit.
While this may be encouraging news for farmers, Mr Goodwill was less able to provide reassurance on when the Agriculture Bill might return to Parliament.
The legislation has made no progress since November 2018, when it completed committee stage in the House of Commons.
NFU president Minette Batters has since suggested it might not be passed until autumn this year.
The reason Ministers have been reluctant to progress the Bill is because they risk losing it if it is still working its way through the House of Lords at the end of this Parliamentary session.
If it stays on pause in the House of Commons, it will be rolled over to the next session automatically.
Mr Goodwill said: “As soon as it becomes clear when the session will end, we can get the Bill through before that or carry it over and then make progress as soon as possible after.
“What we cannot do is start the work and then lose it because Parliament is prorogued.
“Decisions about when Parliament will prorogue are being made on the basis of what is going on in terms of Brexit negotiations, so progressing these Bills is not a primary consideration at the moment, but we do need to get the Agriculture Bill on to the statute book so we can deliver a new way of supporting agriculture which will be tailor-made for UK conditions rather than a one-size-fits-all European policy.”