A cross-party group of peers are plotting a radical overhaul of the Agriculture Bill after a House of Lords report slammed it for giving Ministers too much power over farmers.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, chaired by ex-Farming Minister and Natural England deputy chairman Lord Blencathra, claimed in its report that the Bill would allow the Government to sidestep any scrutiny of its proposed new public money for public goods policy – known as the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
The peers said they were ‘dismayed’ by the skeleton Bill, which contains no detail about the ELMS, but gives Ministers sweeping powers to fine and even imprison farmers, as well as introduce big policy changes through secondary legislation which cannot be debated or amended by parliament.
“The Bill represents a major transfer of powers from the EU to Ministers of the Crown, bypassing Parliament and the devolved legislatures in Wales and Northern Ireland,” reads the report.
“Parliament will not be able to debate the merits of the new agriculture regime because the Bill does not contain even an outline of the substantive law that will replace the Common Agricultural Policy after the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
“At this stage it cannot even be said that the devil is in the detail, because the Bill contains so little detail.”
Conservative peer Anne McIntosh told Farmers Guardian she would be working with colleagues from all parties to amend the ‘unconstitutional’ Bill.
“I would like to see all sorts of details on the face of the Bill, such as how farmers qualify for public goods, what the rate of support is going to be and how they are going to be involved in catchment area management,” Baroness McIntosh said.
“It seems inconceivable they would put these through the backdoor without us having a chance to have a look at them.
“I was a Shadow Minister for nine years, and we were always told as Shadow Ministers to ask for the details to be on the face of the Bill. So I ask, what has changed?
“If the details are on the face of the Bill, then parliament and the devolved assemblies can give proper scrutiny, represent farming views and test the policy before it is brought in.”
Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) chief executive George Dunn said the Lords report ‘chimed with the group’s thinking’.
“The Bill is progressing at a speed which gives little scope for proper scrutiny,” he added.
“Ministers are expecting us to have a lot of trust that they will do the right thing with the powers they will have. To date, there is not a lot of basis for this trust.”
Vicki Hird, from the Sustain Alliance, also felt the Lords were ‘absolutely right’ to be so concerned about the lack of detail in the Bill.
“We have welcomed the new emphasis in the Bill on public benefits and also on a fairer supply chain, but we really do not know if either of these are going to happen, or at what scale, so have to rely on Ministerial and Defra assurances that it will all happen,” she said.
“The peers will, we hope, will work hard to amend the Bill so the Secretary of State really will have to deliver on the many promises we have heard.”
NFU deputy president Guy Smith pointed out that a lack of parliamentary oversight of current agri-environment schemes designed by Defra may have contributed to their problems.
“It is probably too premature to start discussing the detail of the design and delivery of the new ELMS,” he said.
“However, given previous experience of Defra’s role in delivering agri-environment schemes, it probably makes sense for as many scrutineers and different eyes to look at it as possible.”
A Defra spokesman told FG the Bill would enable the Government to replace the ‘outdated and unfair CAP’.
“The Agriculture Bill will also give parliament far more ability to scrutinise decisions over farming policy than it ever had during EU membership, when decisions were too often presented as a fait accompli,” the spokesman added.