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Leaving the EU: Farming Policy

Volume 659: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019

The Agriculture Bill lays the foundations for farming policy in England as we leave the EU. This new policy will be a system that pays public money for public goods, rewarding farmers for delivering environmental and animal welfare benefits. The protection of our countryside will allow us to leave the environment in a better state than when we found it while we support farmers to produce high-quality food in a sustainable way.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but within that does he see soil health as a public good on its own terms or merely as a proxy or gateway for other benefits such as biodiversity, flood management—so important on the Somerset levels—and food productivity?

Having studied soil science at university, I understand that soil is one of our greatest assets, and indeed the numerous environmental benefits and services that can be derived from activities that enhance soil health will be eligible for public money.

I am glad that the Minister has had a change of heart on that because he argued against my amendment on soil during the Bill Committee, but now he is on the Front Bench. What are we doing to try to meet net zero emissions from farming either through the Agriculture Bill or other mechanisms? The Committee on Climate Change again endorsed that this week. What are the Government doing and when is the target going to be reached?

The hon. Lady makes a good point and, indeed, emissions from agriculture have fallen by about 16% since 1990. However, progress has stalled in recent years, with little change since 2009, and I know from the work we did together on the Environmental Audit Committee that we need to make further progress on that, particularly by looking at methane, which has a briefer half-life than other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and so needs to be dealt with in a slightly different way.

As we know, the potential of leaving the EU is creating some uncertainty so can the Minister reassure Cheshire farmers and the National Farmers Union that the current funding schemes that their members are working with will not be phased out until replacements are available to ensure that there will not be any loss of funding during any period of transition?

We have made the decision clear with regard to the 2019 and 2020 schemes, and I remind farmers that the deadline for applications this year is 15 May as usual. I hope that they will get their applications in; sadly, in most years, we get a lot of applications in the last 24 hours.

NFU Scotland and other farming organisations north of the border are increasingly concerned at the lack of agreement between the UK Government and the Scottish Government to allow a Scottish schedule into the Agriculture Bill. Will the Minister meet me and a cross-party delegation, including the NFU and crofters organisations, to hear from them what the industry would want in that schedule?

I would certainly be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I was in Aberdeenshire recently and met representatives of the Scottish farming unions, and last week I met Roseanna Cunningham from the Scottish Administration and discussed a number of issues.

Where is the Agriculture Bill? It left Committee months and months ago, and given that we are spending an infinite amount of time on statutory instruments updating what the EU Commission is now doing, can we be assured that we will not have to completely rewrite the Bill— although that could be useful in this time of climate change? We just need the Bill back so that farmers can have some certainty.

I am as keen as the hon. Gentleman is to make progress. Perhaps the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), will be able to help, because as soon as we can clear the logjam and get Brexit out of the way, we will be able to get on with it. She is part of the team that is negotiating an accommodation between the two main parties, so perhaps she can help us to make some progress on Brexit so that we can get on with the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills.

I must say to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) that I have received two approaches about him this week. First, I received a letter earlier this week in my office telling me what I already knew—namely, that he was a splendid fellow—and then I was at a book launch last night, when somebody beetled up to me to tell me that she was a constituent of his and that he was a splendid fellow. I do not know whether this is an orchestrated campaign, but I require no persuasion on this matter.