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Brexit: Support for Farming

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the Oxford Farming Conference on 4 January, when they intend to publish their proposals for the support to be given to farming following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Farming is uniquely important in producing food, to the environment, for supporting the rural economy and in shaping the countryside. My department is carrying out detailed analysis on future agricultural policy. Before issuing detailed proposals, we will shortly be publishing for consultation two Green Papers setting out our ambitions for food and farming and for the environment. This will be a crucial stage in the ongoing discussion on policy options with our stakeholders as we shape future arrangements.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. He is aware of my long-standing interest in farming. Will he give the House an assurance today that those farmers who farm in upland areas, in particular smaller farmers and those in less favoured areas, will attract the main support and that any farming support will be linked to active farming but will also recognise the work that farmers do in public good for the local community, such as retaining flood water? How long will the consultation period be, and will he ensure that farmers will have equal opportunities with environmental lobbies to be consulted in this area?

My Lords, I give my noble friend the absolute assurance that these two consultations on the two Green Papers will allow the environment and farming to run hand in hand, as they have always done when they work well. We are looking forward to farming interests and all other interests making a contribution. We absolutely want a world-leading agricultural industry and an improved environment. The two can work hand in hand.

My Lords, I declare my interest as on the register. Will the Minister say whether the consultation papers will refer to and explain the old system of deficiency payments commodity by commodity, which served this country so well before we joined the EEC?

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord the precise content of the consultation, but I would say that this is about looking forward. We want to hear from the stakeholders who are affected by these matters what arrangements they believe would ensure that we can have a vibrant agricultural policy. As I say, we want to have as many responses to the consultations as possible, because that is the way we can shape practical policies—after all, we want practical arrangements.

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the Secretary of State, in her speech, put great emphasis on the new freedoms which will come from less red tape for farmers. Can we be assured that no red tape covering environmental protection will be affected by this pledge? Does the Minister agree with the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee that a new environmental protection Act is needed to secure our wildlife, animal welfare and habitats for the longer term?

My Lords, I have a copy of the Secretary of State’s speech before me. This was very much about red tape, such as billboards and the three-crop rule, which is entirely different from our quest, which is to have an enhanced environment. We wish to be the generation that secures a better environment to hand on to the next generations. As I say, with innovative and productive farming, we can have an enhanced environment, and that is really important for the sector.

My Lords, it is welcome news that the two plans, on farming and the environment, will dovetail. But can the Minister confirm that the environment action plan will have clear targets and will not just be a list of wishes, so that we can ensure that farmers are paid for delivering the public goods which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned, rather than continuing the current system which benefits the largest farmers?

My Lords, I should say that this is a consultation document. We want to hear back from all stakeholders what their view is as to how best to secure many of the objectives we want, which, as I say, will dovetail through having a vibrant agricultural sector and an enhanced environment. With 70% of our land in agriculture, the farming community has a prime role to fulfil in that.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that we should rejoice that, for the first time in more than 40 years, we will be able to have an agricultural policy that reflects the environment in Britain and the interests of British and United Kingdom farmers? That is a great step forward and those people who respond to the consultation will know that they have a Government who are capable of implementing what they ask for.

My noble friend is absolutely right that this produces an opportunity. Whatever anyone’s view of what we need now to do, this is an opportunity to have a domestic arrangement for agriculture. As I say, we want to be one of the best leading agricultural countries in the world. The civil servants and officials who are working on this in my department are second to none, and they are working extremely hard along with Ministers on securing the best arrangements for British agriculture.

My Lords, will the position after Brexit not be that we will have at our disposal for our farmers and environment all the money that we give them at present through the incompetent filter of Brussels, plus any share that the Government choose to give them from the additional £10 billion per annum in net cash that we also send down that unfortunate drain?

My Lords, I am not quite sure what the question was, but I think it may be the usual one. As I say, it is really important that we use this opportunity that we have been given to do something that helps British farmers to flourish in an innovative way, that we have agritech and research investment, and that we do things that are good for the British countryside, which is one of our great jewels. As I say, both the environment world and the farming world should be working hand in hand to secure that for us.

My Lords, could the Minister confirm that the consultation document will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, not just to farmers in England? I declare an interest as someone who tries to farm north of the border.

My Lords, obviously agriculture is devolved, but this is clearly an issue. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations on this. It is important that at ministerial and official level we work with those Administrations because we want to ensure that we get the best results for all the UK so that, as I say, we have an environment in which we have strong farming in all parts of the kingdom, with a good environment.

My Lords, the Minister has listed the benefits that he expects farming to give to the countryside, but do the Government have a method of quantifying, or producing a yardstick for, how much these various elements count towards the benefits that we are looking for?

What my noble friend has said is very interesting, and covers some of the areas that I very much look forward to seeing in the returns from stakeholders. It is undoubtedly the case that what farmers do regarding the countryside and good environmental practice is part of what many farmers do day in and day out unrewarded.