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Agricultural Subsidies

Volume 794: debated on Monday 3 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to linking agricultural subsidies to the creation of buffer zones between farmland and rivers, to reduce pollution and encourage wildlife corridors.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Defra recognises that riparian buffer strips are an extremely effective measure to improve the natural environment. They link riverside habitats, provide a valuable resource for plants and wildlife, and enhance water quality. We are working with farmers and other stakeholders to design an environmental land-management system that will pay public money for public goods, delivering an environmental outcome and contributing to achieving the 25-year environment plan.

I thank the Minister for his reply, which sounds very optimistic. However, will these be compulsory? Will there be legislation about it? Will this sort of thing be in the Agriculture Bill so that re-wilding and creating such buffer zones can be absolutely everywhere, rather than just here and there?

My Lords, that is precisely why Clause 1 of the Agriculture Bill sets out that the Secretary of State may give financial assistance for, or in connection with, a number of purposes. One of those is,

“managing land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment”.

There is no doubt that there are nearly 100,000 acres of land in riparian buffer strips beyond two metres. We wish to continue with this because there are a lot of benefits to it.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer. I endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said. It is important that this money is devoted to things such as buffer strips. I also beg my noble friend that, when the new design is put into place, it is simple for everybody to understand and to pay. As he will know from the Rural Payments Agency, payments on the HLS have been disastrous for some farmers.

My Lords, having declared my interests, I have considerable sympathy with my noble friend. That is precisely why we are working and will be working with farmers, land managers, environmental experts and other stakeholders so that we get this precisely right and it is not over-bureaucratic but environmentally outcome-focused, which is so important.

My Lords, agriculture is now the number one cause of water pollution and is responsible for the largest number of serious pollution incidents. Of course, most farmers act responsibly to prevent soil run-off, pesticides and slurry polluting watercourses. However, does the Minister accept that to deal with the worst offenders—those who do not act on a voluntary basis—there must be a credible threat of enforcement of the regulations, whether now or in the future? At the moment that is sadly lacking.

Certainly, the “polluter pays” principle is very current, and this is obviously why we are consulting on the environmental principles and governance issue. The draft legislation on that will be published before Christmas, along with consultation results. It is important that everyone, wherever they are, concentrates on reducing pollution. That is of course one of the great advantages of riparian buffer zones of a certain dimension, because you get an enhanced advantage from that.

My Lords, I declare my interests, as in the register. While I entirely endorse what the Minister said about improving the environment, could he please make sure that the waterways themselves are kept clear to prevent flooding? When riverbeds become swamped with weeds and things, the water will not flow through and away, which causes flooding.

The noble Countess raises an interesting point about pollution and the growth of algae and so forth in watercourses. Clearly, there is a balance to all of this, because part of the use of natural capital is indeed slowing the flow. The noble Countess is absolutely right that we need to ensure that watercourses are positioned so that there is a proper flow of water, but we also need to be mindful of the slowing of flow and the use of natural capital.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, there is a considerable body of opinion among farmers that if they have to plant trees, they have failed in agriculture. What plans do the Government have to get across to farmers that forestry, woodland planting and farming are all part of the same show?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord; it is absolutely clear, coming from a farming background, as I do, that farming and the environment should be in harmony. To get the best produce, you need to look after the environment, soils and fertility—all this is interconnected. I have planted a few trees and they are immensely valuable, not only to the landscape but for shelter, enhancement of the environment and production.

Would my noble friend agree that such environmental work has been undertaken by many farmers over many years? Some of the work is paid and some is not—like mine. Would he agree that food production must remain the prime objective for farmers, although not at any cost, obviously?

My noble friend outlines the importance of harmony. The economic benefit of pollinators and riparian strips, for example, to UK fruit, vegetable and oilseed rape production is estimated to be between £600 million and £700 million GVA per annum, so he is absolutely right. Yes, there are many examples of farmers, whether paid or unpaid, who have done a lot of environmental work. What we want to do with the environmental land management system is to enhance the environment and work with farmers.

My Lords, Dame Glenys Stacey’s review of farmland inspection and regulation shows that farmers currently face a one-in-200 chance of being inspected because the Environment Agency has only 40 such officers nationwide. In the future, how will the Government ensure—particularly since the RPA will not be around to monitor cross-compliance—that the regulation of farming is properly funded so that wildlife and watercourses do not get damaged?

My Lords, I had the privilege of meeting Dame Glenys only last week, and I thank her for the considerable work she has undertaken for the nation. Clearly, it is important that farmers do the right thing and, coming from a farming background, my understanding and knowledge is that overwhelmingly, that is what they wish to do. They are overwhelmingly questioning what they should do, and that is one of the responsibilities that we need to undertake. Clearly, anyone who pollutes the land wilfully and negligently needs to be brought to book; that is important.