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Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the future of (1) upland farms, and (2) tenant farmers.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Upland and tenant farmers are key to a vibrant agricultural sector and rural communities. In the tenant farming sector, we have consulted on proposals to support productivity improvements and facilitate structural change. We will publish a response to the consultation soon. Food production and environmental enhancement are central to our plans and go hand in hand. We are working with farmers in all sectors and locations to co-design environmental land management schemes.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that tenant farmers and upland farms are the backbone of the farming community? Will he ensure that they have a vibrant future? In particular, will he guarantee today that the agriculture Bill will bring forward proposals for tenancy reform, and that tenant farmers who currently benefit from countryside stewardship schemes will have the opportunity to access funds under the ELMS and other new moneys coming after the agricultural funds from the European Union cease?

My Lords, 33% of all farms in England are of mixed tenure—owning and renting land—which emphasises why this is important. It is why we have consulted on tenancy reform and are working on improving the situation. These matters are under active consideration. On the benefits of the environmental land management scheme, we are working with all sectors—owning, tenant and those who farm commons—because all this is part of the important work of enhancing the environment.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that he is speaking as Agriculture Minister for England and that his comments are not necessarily applicable in the same way in Wales and Scotland, where agriculture is devolved? Will he ensure, however, that if extra resource becomes available in England, a Barnett consequential will come through for Wales and Scotland? Given the importance of the sheep industry in upland Wales, will he confirm that, if steps are taken by the Welsh Government to help the sheep industry, no action will be taken from London to try to stop them?

My Lords, I am well aware that upland farming and sheep production in Wales are extremely important. That is why our lamb exports to Japan, China and India are a way forward. As the noble Lord has said, it is clearly a devolved matter. Defra has strong and good relationships with the devolved Administrations, particularly that in Wales, and we want the agricultural sector in Wales to be successful, as we want it to be in the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Minister will know that many hill farmers rely on farm subsidies to survive, so can he clarify whether the Government intend to maintain the £3.2 billion cash pot that was previously available for farm support to the end of the seven-year transitional period that is envisaged, even if the pot is distributed in a different way? Will that overall pot be maintained?

My Lords, I take the opportunity of the noble Baroness’s question to speak of a manifesto commitment. We will guarantee the current annual budget to farmers in every year of the Parliament. I am very pleased that in December last year the Chancellor confirmed nearly £3 billion of funding for 2020. By way of a simplified countryside stewardship scheme that is coming in and through the pilots of the environmental land management scheme, we want a scheme flexible enough to work across England and all sectors, so that we enhance the environment and that the public good already being done by many farmers is properly recognised.

My Lords, has Defra commissioned research, along the lines of that carried out by the Welsh Government, as to what land, notably upland, is likely to become unfarmed after the extended single farm payment runs out? Has it calculated what is likely to happen to that land?

My Lords, environmental land management schemes will be available in the uplands, so that farmers can decide about food production, timber production and the public goods that will benefit. I do not see any problem at all about such parts of the country, with the right trees in the right places, being part of our work and the farming community’s work to ensure that we have greater tree cover. I do not see it in quite the way the noble Lord describes, with parts of the country being unfarmed: we will be farming for timber and food production and for the environment.

My Lords, I declare my interest as set out in the register. In its paper Moving Away from Direct Payments, Defra states:

“There is evidence that Direct Payments inflate farm rents, meaning some of the payment supports the income of the landowner, not the tenant farm.”

Does the Minister expect that the removal of the BPS will have the direct impact of lowering rents for tenant farmers?

My Lords, I have to say that I have not studied that particular element. I think our tenancy reforms will ensure flexibility and that, as with all these things, there is a reasonable return for the landowner. As I have said, a lot of land is farmed by a mixture of part-rented and part-owned. I see our tenancy reforms as giving more flexibility and options for tenants to have successful and productive businesses.

My Lords, while the £2.85 billion announced on 30 December is welcome and provides a degree of reassurance for all farmers, the majority of this money will be allocated at the end of 2020, with only £143 million for 2021. There is no certainty for the remaining period to 2023. On CAP Pillar 2, the Government press release states that:

“Remaining EU funding … will continue until the current EU funding is used up or 2023, whichever is earliest.”

If the price of feed and other costs increase as we leave the EU, this money will run out sooner rather than later. Does the Minister accept that natural inflation does not play a part in the Government’s plan for farmers or agriculture?

My Lords, as I said before, we have guaranteed in our manifesto the current annual budget for farmers in every year of this Parliament. Clearly, as we all know, farming costs go up and down. For example, in some years straw is up or down, or corn is up or down, and therefore you get different consequences in different parts of the farming industry. In our manifesto and throughout, we have set out that we support farming and that we want farmers to play a part in enhancing the environment. I emphasise that we recognise the importance of food production and food security, and this will be in our updated agriculture Bill to be introduced shortly.