The latest version of the Agriculture Bill was published by the Government last week. But what in it is new, and what are the next steps? Abi Kay has spoken to Defra to get the inside track.
The new legislation introduces a multi-annual budget, which is only applicable in England.
The Bill compels the Secretary of State to set out a ‘financial assistance plan’ for farmers which will cover a minimum of five years at a time.
The first plan, due to begin in January 2021, will last for seven years.
If for any reason the Government wants to significantly change an aspect of a plan, then Ministers must update it and explain their reasons for doing so to Parliament.
It is hoped this measure will give farmers certainty and confidence in the short to medium-term.
Allocations of funding for the devolved regions are expected to be decided before the comprehensive spending review due later this year.
Support for tenant farmers
A new section of the Bill has been devoted to reform of agricultural tenancy rules.
The legislation will now allow tenant farmers to lodge objections if a landlord refuses to allow them access to the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
TFA chief executive George Dunn said: “This will give tenant farmers the confidence they need to make plans and participate as they desire in whatever new schemes are brought forward by the Government.”
Though he welcomed the changes, Mr Dunn called for the Bill to be strengthened still further with more measures to assist older tenants into retirement, encourage landlords to let for longer periods of time and protect tenants from spurious notices to quit.
Former Defra Secretary Michael Gove had originally planned to deliver tenancy reforms ‘in parallel’ to the Agriculture Bill, but the department now intends to put further, ‘more controversial’, changes on hold with a view to introducing another piece of legislation in due course.
Approach to improving soil health
Under the terms of the new Bill, Defra’s approach to public goods has become less ‘pure’ and more ‘pragmatic’, allowing farmers to be rewarded for things like improving soil health.
The department had previously categorised healthy soil as a ‘natural asset from which public goods can flow’, as opposed to a public good in its own right, limiting the scope for farmers to be paid for improving soil under ELMS.
Though officials refused to confirm healthy soil was now being considered a public good in and of itself, soil has been namechecked on the face of the Bill, signalling a softer approach.
Defra is also re-assessing a Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust ELMS soil health trial focused on crop rotations, which was rejected last year.
Food security and production
The new Bill introduces a legal requirement for the Secretary of State to carry out regular audits of the UK’s food security.
It is hoped these five-yearly reports, to be laid before Parliament, will kick-start a public discussion on their contents, with the possibility that resulting political pressure could force Ministers to take action if the country is seen to be underperforming in any specific area.
The revised legislation also establishes a legal duty for the Government to consider the impact of any changes to farm support on domestic food production.
This means when Defra Ministers are considering how the ELMS, productivity schemes or animal welfare policies are going to work, they must show they have looked at how English food production will be affected by any proposed reforms.
Though farmers will not be paid to produce food, as it is not strictly a ‘public good’, food production will be treated as a ‘public priority’ by the Government.
More limited powers for Welsh Government
The previous UK Agriculture Bill gave Welsh Ministers the power to change agriculture policy – a move which was criticised by farm groups who claimed it would have allowed proper scrutiny to be bypassed.
The Welsh Government has rejected the opportunity to do the same in the new legislation, opting instead to work on domestic legislation in the Senedd.
Welsh Ministers have, however, been given certain powers in the Bill allowing them to issue direct payments after 2020, intervene in agricultural markets, collect and share data and control marketing standards and carcass classifications.
The Scottish Government never had a schedule in the old legislation, and is refusing to provide legislative consent for the new UK Bill on the grounds that it ‘imposes unwanted rules’ in devolved areas, such as livestock traceability and organics.
Powers to tackle supply chain unfairness
The original legislation only allowed the Government to regulate contracts between farmers and first purchasers such as processors and abattoirs, but the new Bill will cover all sellers of agricultural produce, with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) being considered as a possible regulator in this space.
Though the TFA has insisted the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) should oversee adherence to any new codes, officials are understood to believe the GCA’s role in regulating the ‘small but important’ network of large retailers is very different to the bigger job created by this legislation.
Recognition for native breeds
The new Bill allows the Government to pay farmers for the conservation of native livestock and equines.
Christopher Price, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, said he was ‘delighted’ with the commitment.
Move away from direct payments
The main thrust of the legislation, moving towards a ‘public money for public goods’ system of farm support, has not changed since the last Bill was published.
Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers has insisted the seven-year transition away from direct payments will begin in 2021 as planned, and the Bill will be passed by April in order to get the ball rolling.
This commitment to the original timetable has been maintained in spite of calls for a delay of at least a year from both the NFU and TFA.
Red meat levy repatriation
After strong lobbying from the devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales, as well as industry bodies in both nations, Ministers agreed to include a mechanism in the old Agriculture Bill for sharing out the red meat levy across Great Britain.
This part of the legislation remains unchanged.
NFU Cymru president John Davies said: “The fact that a significant proportion of Welsh livestock ends up being slaughtered outside of Wales means there is a significant annual loss of levy funds to Wales’ red meat promotion body, Hybu Cig Cymru.
“Once the relevant parties are equipped with the powers they need to address this anomaly, we will look to them to work together to ensure a mutually agreed, equitable and fit for purpose scheme is up and running as soon as possible.”
Under the terms of the new Bill, English farmers will still be offered the chance to take several years’ worth of farm payments in a lump sum – even if they are no longer working the land.
Under the proposals, farmers will be able to bundle together a number of the farm payments they are due during the ‘agricultural transition’, potentially giving them a payout worth thousands.
Alternatively, they could choose to take such ‘delinked’ payments over the course of several years.
Ministers have suggested this golden parachute will allow farmers who want to retire but lack the money to do so to leave the land, opening up opportunities for new entrants.
The cash could also be used for on-farm investment or diversification activities.
As with the old Bill, the new legislation allows the Secretary of State to offer support to farmers wherever there is a ‘severe disturbance’ or threat of a disturbance to the agricultural market which could hit farmers’ incomes.
Extreme weather conditions or an animal disease outbreak would only be considered ‘exceptional events’ for this purpose if they resulted in an actual or threatened market disturbance.
The Bill also gives the Government the power to operate public intervention schemes such as intervention buying, where the state stabilises the market by buying up surplus supplies to be stored until the price increases.
The Secretary of State is due to publish a policy update to accompany the new Agriculture Bill.
It is hoped this will be made public before the legislation reaches committee stage, to allow farm groups to be properly informed before discussing the issues with MPs who are scrutinising the Bill on the committee.
Though the document is not designed to be a ‘scheme manual’ complete with payment rates, it will contain more detail about the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS).
There will also be more information about the productivity proposals, including grants, data and research and development, as well as how the Bill aims to tackle unfair trading practices.