House of Lords
Tuesday 21 July 2020
The House met in a Hybrid Sitting.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.
Retirement of a Member: Lord Morris of Handsworth
My Lords, the hybrid sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
I should like to notify the House of the retirement, with effect from today, of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, pursuant to Section 1 of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. On behalf of the House, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his much-valued service to the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please can those asking supplementary questions keep them short and confined to two points. I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the political situation in Hong Kong.
My Lords, we are deeply concerned by the situation in Hong Kong. China’s new national security law breaches the Sino-British joint declaration and directly threatens a number of Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. Early reports of the law’s initial implementation are also troubling. We will not look the other way on Hong Kong and we will continue working with partners to hold China to its international obligations.
I thank the Minister. What prospects are there for fair and free elections in Hong Kong this autumn and what steps are the Government taking to assist young activists, such as Joshua Wong, who are not BNO passport holders?
My Lords, obviously there have been elections even this year at local level. We continue to impress on the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese authorities the need to ensure that one country, two systems is sustained, maintained and, indeed, strengthened. However, recent events have indicated otherwise and we continue to lobby both Administrations in this respect, including protecting those people who do not qualify for BNO status.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the statement by the Chinese ambassador a few days ago that we were interfering in China’s internal affairs. Will the Minister make it clear that this is entirely a breach of the Sino-British agreement and that it is not a breach of Chinese internal affairs to stick by the terms of an international treaty? Will he ensure that the widest number of countries take our position of understanding and give us support?
My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. The agreement on one country, two systems that we signed with the Chinese authorities is registered with the UN. China is a P5 member and has international obligations. Therefore, we believe that standing up for the rights of Hong Kong nationals as well as BNOs is absolutely the right thing to do. I assure the noble Lord that we are working with international partners to ensure that we get broad support for the United Kingdom’s position. Indeed, as we saw recently at the Human Rights Council, that is happening.
My Lords, there was cross-party support for the Foreign Secretary’s shock at seeing the persecution of minorities in China and the suppression of peaceful protestors in Hong Kong. People may also be shocked to know that the Government have given export licences for British-made tear gas, which, according to Amnesty International, is being used against peaceful protestors in Hong Kong, and has granted government export licences for spyware, wire-tapping and surveillance technologies. Will the Minister ensure that the UK’s strategic export control lists are now updated so that no British-made technology can be used in the suppression of minorities or against peaceful protestors in Hong Kong?
My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord has noted, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made a Statement yesterday in the House extending the embargo on arm sales to mainland China, which will now also be applied to Hong Kong.
My Lords, the appointment of senior judges to give service in Hong Kong is an important part of its international character. What are the prospects of that continuing?
My Lords, my noble and learned friend is right to raise this important issue. As we have seen in recent announcements, the appointment of judges has passed to the chief executive, but we also note the important announcement of Lord Reed, who made it clear in his statement on Friday 17 July that whether this practice continues will depend on if such a service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law.
My Lords, while I support the actions of the Government, I urge them to consider the ordinary people and companies in Hong Kong who accept the new security law in order to make a livelihood. Please can the Minister confirm that any action taken by the Government is proportionate and supports the rights of both the Hong Kong people and of British and other companies operating there, such as the Hong Kong bank, Standard Chartered, Swire and Jardine, to go about their normal lives and conduct their businesses in this changed environment without gratuitous criticism and recrimination?
My Lords, I draw the attention of the noble Lord to the opening paragraphs of the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. They stress again that we see China as an important strategic partner and that we believe that it has a positive role to play on the international stage. However, it must fulfil its international obligations. I cannot speak for private companies, but our challenge is not with them or indeed with the normal citizens of Hong Kong. We believe that their rights should be respected by the Hong Kong Administration and the Chinese authorities. That is what we are standing up for.
My Lords, at the beginning of June, the Foreign Secretary suggested that the new Magnitsky powers might be an option in respect of the police brutality and other actions in Hong Kong. Yesterday, in respect of the national security legislation, he said:
“We will patiently gather the evidence, which takes months.”—[Hansard, Commons, 20/7/20; col. 1835.]
What of the clear evidence of Chinese officials being involved in forced organ harvesting and the oppression of the Uighur people? Does the Minister agree that the Government should accelerate the timetable for the Magnitsky sanctions to be imposed on those Chinese officials who are involved in such persecution?
My Lords, I have made clear on a number of occasions my strong concerns and the fact that Her Majesty’s Government have raised the issues of what is happening with the Uighur people and other minority communities in China. On the specific point about the Magnitsky sanctions, the noble Lord will respect the fact that it is not right to speculate about what any future designations may be.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Hong Kong is just one of the UK’s responsibilities, shared or otherwise, in the Indo-Pacific region. These include, for example, the Korean peninsula and the five power defence arrangements that protect Singapore and Malaysia. In the context of global Britain and the reversal of the east of Suez policy, will the Government provide the details of our international obligations for Hong Kong and the region and confirm that they have the funds and the capacity to meet them?
My Lords, we believe in a strong, stable and safe Indo-Pacific region. We have stood up for Hong Kong on the basis of our strong belief in principles and in law and we stand firmly in support of the agreement, which has been deposited with the UN. On our wider responsibilities, we continue to work with our international partners in pursuit of those objectives.
My Lords, I declare my position as a co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. Can the noble Lord the Minister say what steps the UK Government are taking to protect students from Hong Kong and students who might be supporting the rights of the people of Hong Kong in British universities, given the significant evidence of intimidation? What protection will be given to academics and institutions that stand up against such efforts?
My Lords, the answer is simple. Anyone who breaks the law in the UK by hounding or attempting to intimidate students will be held to account according to the law of the land, which is our law.
My Lords, I join those who have pressed further on the main issues relating to Hong Kong, including breaches of the joint declaration, the threats to freedom of speech and assembly and the need for democratic elections. My specific question for the Minister is to ask whether talks in relation to the situation in Hong Kong have been held at the Commonwealth level, given that, as a former overseas territory, Hong Kong was once part of the Commonwealth. This could be particularly relevant for young people and students who may wish to pursue their studies not only in the UK but in other parts of the Commonwealth.
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we are working in that context with all our partners in the G7 and at the UN. We are also working with Commonwealth nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which are supportive of the UK Government’s position.
My Lords, will the loyal veterans of Her Majesty’s Hong Kong Military Service Corps still living in Hong Kong, who have long petitioned Her Majesty’s Government for the right of abode in the UK, be granted this now? Will their request for full British passports, which all other members of the corps retained before 1997, be agreed, in line with the statutory provision for fairness in the military covenant?
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord has raised this issue consistently and regularly both with me and with my noble friend the Minister of State at the Home Office. Since our last exchange, I have written to the Home Office and I am awaiting a reply. When I receive one, I will update the noble and gallant Lord accordingly.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed. We come now to the second Oral Question.
Covid-19: Social Mobility
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social mobility.
My Lords, the Government are committed to levelling up opportunity across the country. The £1 billion catch-up package announced on 19 June is designed to tackle the impact of lost teaching time. Included in the package is a national tutoring programme worth £350 million to increase access to high-quality tuition for the most disadvantaged young people. This will help to accelerate their progress and prevent any widening of the gap between them and their more affluent peers.
I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that, before Covid-19, research by the Social Mobility Commission and others pointed out the barriers to social mobility in Britain. Covid-19 has now resulted in school closures and greater unemployment, as well as other damaging effects. Why does the Minister think that measures aimed at improving social mobility in the past have failed and how will the Government deal with the extra challenges of Covid-19?
My Lords, it is obviously not yet possible to know the full impact of the pandemic on social mobility in this country. However, since 2010, the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their counterparts has been narrowing. The £1 billion catch-up package is significant and, as I said, will hopefully help to ensure that we do not see the gap widening.
My Lords, the Association of Colleges’ summer survey, published yesterday, indicates that three out of four colleges require additional resources to provide free college meal vouchers to eligible students over the summer. In my diocese, 52% of students at City College Southampton receive free college meals. We welcome the £96 million of ring-fenced funding announced yesterday for all 16 to 19 providers to supply additional catch-up tutoring. Will the Minister say how the Government will support colleges to ensure that all eligible students receive free college meals over the summer?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has stolen my thunder. We have indeed announced a £96 million package to support the FE sector, and we recognise that more than 200,000 16 year-olds are educated in that sector. The Social Mobility Commission commended the discretionary bursary funding that is available for disadvantaged students attending FE colleges, which should go some way to helping those students.
My Lords, there is nothing more important to social mobility than education, and now Covid has caused a generation of children to miss months of school, affecting their life chances. That is especially true for those who have exams next year. Does the Minister not agree that we should be mobilising an army of volunteers to help teach in summer schools?
My Lords, along with the catch-up package, it was announced that schools will be equipped with Teach First summer school resources and that £7 million will go towards holiday activities and clubs. However, my noble friend is correct in what she said about students taking exams next year. That is why disadvantaged year 10 students are among those who will be provided with one of the 200,000 laptops we have had delivered.
Is the Minister aware that if we do not extend the ban on evictions beyond 23 August, we will have an enormous amount of downward social mobility, with children and their parents moving into poverty, homelessness and fecklessness? I would like to see all the departments working together to stop hundreds and thousands of children falling into homelessness and having their futures destroyed.
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that Covid recovery is of course a cross-government priority. In relation to housing matters, he will be aware that the working families tax credit was increased by an additional £1,000 and that changes were made to local housing allowances during this period.
Can I take the Minister back to her answer to my noble friend Lady Massey’s supplementary question? Does she or does she not accept that decline in social mobility predates Covid-19? Though the epidemic has exacerbated problems, too many young people were already facing a life of insecure and low-paid work as a result of years of austerity and a lack of focus on issues of inequality in our education and social security systems. Does she accept that blame should not be laid entirely on the pandemic and that government policy must also take its share?
My Lords, the quality of employment for young people has been a priority for this Government. That is why we have seen the development of high-quality apprenticeships and £2,000 additional funding, of which the noble Baroness will be aware, for each young person who is taken on to an apprenticeship after 1 August this year, for a limited period of time. I referenced the attainment gap, which is more of an academic measure. However, there are improvements in social mobility when one looks at, for instance, the number of disadvantaged students going on to university. However, we strive for greater and more dynamic social mobility in this country.
My Lords, we know that the early years are a crucial stage for social mobility, with the poorest children already 11 months behind their better-off peers when they start school. Recent work by the Sutton Trust on the impact of Covid has shown that one-third of early years providers in the most disadvantaged areas may have to close within a year, and that almost 70% of settings anticipate operating at a loss over the next six months. Given this, will the Minister say what plans the Government have to introduce a package of support for early years providers in the coming months, including an increase to the early years pupil premium for at least the next year?
My Lords, the education sector is made up of a number of different types of providers, and early years providers are businesses, except for the maintained nursery sector. I am delighted to tell the noble Baroness that, yesterday evening, the Government announced that the early years entitlement of £3.6 billion a year will be paid in the autumn term, regardless of the number of disadvantaged 2 year-olds, or 3 and 4 year-olds, who are attending. That is a massive plank of financial support for the sector going forward in what are, unfortunately, uncertain times.
My Lords, every child from whatever background needs to be furnished with the tools to make a success of their life, whether that be through further education or going straight into employment from school. This Government have made a commitment to levelling up society. To help fulfil this agenda and to increase social mobility, does my noble friend agree that apprenticeships remain a route to assist young people to be introduced to the workplace, providing them with the necessary skills and training that will help them on the ladder and opening up future opportunities? What plans do the Government have to ensure that apprenticeships are a realistic option for our young people in this challenging Covid environment?
My Lords, apprenticeships are indeed a valuable opportunity for many young people. The ASK programme—apprenticeship support and knowledge—equips teachers to make sure that young people are aware of these opportunities. The funding I have outlined is in addition to the £1,000 already given to employers to take on apprentices who are aged 16 to 18 or are under 25 with an EHC plan. During the crisis, their training has been made flexible so that it can be done remotely, and we have encouraged employers to furlough apprentices when they can.
My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration in the register of interests. The Minister will know that the most recent Social Mobility Commission audit found that the Government had not done enough to help disadvantaged 16 to 19 year-olds with a student premium or to help the poorest into post-school training. Will Ministers now reverse cuts to further education colleges and act to increase participation in adult education? What steps will they take to ensure that, post Covid, low-income, working-class households will get fairer access to higher education?
My Lords, as part of the skills recovery package, the Chancellor announced £100 million to support young people who want a high-value level 2 or 3 qualification where there might not be employment opportunities. FE capital is part of the “build, build, build” response to the recovery. A White Paper in the autumn will outline this Government’s priority to have an FE sector that is no longer the Cinderella of the higher education sector.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed.
Covid-19: Childcare Sector
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the childcare sector.
My Lords, the preschool sector plays a vital role in educating our youngest children. We understand that this is a challenging time for many businesses and we will continue to ensure that early years providers get the best possible support from the Government’s support schemes. We will continue to work closely with local authorities and the early years sector organisations to monitor the impact of the pandemic and on any further support measures required.
I thank the Minister for the Answer, but it will not address the fundamental problem of underfunding in the childcare sector, which was on its knees before Covid. The early years entitlement covers only a fraction of the actual cost. If we want mothers and fathers to play their part in the recovery, we must pay the childcare sector fairly and properly, otherwise the recovery and the development of many children will be damaged. What can the Government do to stop this disaster unfolding?
My Lords, in addition to what I outlined about the early years entitlement continuing to be paid in the autumn term of this year, many of these businesses have been able to take advantage of the various schemes that have been offered, such as the job retention scheme and the business interruption loans. If a furloughed worker in an early years setting is still in employment in January next year, they will of course also be eligible for the £1,000 bonus. Substantial support is going into these businesses, which we recognise are more often than not small businesses.
I was pleased to hear my noble friend refer to the early years entitlement scheme. Are the Government happy that this amount will be sufficient, when many early years providers will have a significantly reduced demand for a period while people come back to attending early years provision? Will this entitlement be sufficient to keep organisations and facilities in deprived areas operating?
My Lords, we have seen a welcome increase in the standard of early years provision over recent years, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Some 96% are good or outstanding. As I outlined in my Answer, we are monitoring the situation closely to look at what support the sector needs, but many grants have been available. If an early years provider was in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief, they were entitled to a £10,000 business grant. We recognise that we need to respond to each part of the education sector differently, but we are monitoring the situation to make sure that we have the latest information on the viability of this sector.
The Minister might possibly be aware of a view given by Caroline Nokes MP, who I think spoke for a lot of people. She said that the Government’s reaction to Covid
“is a recovery designed by men, for men, and it’s not giving the answers families need.”
I feel, as a male of the species, that I am allowed to say that. I point to a recent report by a very distinguished prominent woman, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and her “Best Beginnings” strategy, which has just been produced. What is the Government’s initial reaction to it? When do they expect to give a comprehensive response to it?
My Lords, I do not recognise the outline of the response that the noble Lord gave. The Government’s response to the pandemic has been comprehensive and they are responding sector by sector to the various needs. The department works closely with the Children’s Commissioner. I am sure that the Secretary of State will respond to her report in due course.
My Lords, given the absolutely critical role of early years education, particularly for the poorest children, why are early years providers being excluded from the Government’s catch-up funding programme?
My Lords, children in reception will be part of that catch-up provision. Every year there is a £60 million supplementary grant to the 389 maintained nursery schools. As I outlined in response to other noble Lords’ questions, the education sector is made up of very different types of providers. Early years providers are one type of provider and are businesses. We have responded to the different sectors appropriately. Schools are funded purely by the taxpayer; higher education is another different type of structure. Unfortunately, the response to education institutions is not one size fits all, so things that are available to one set of institutions might not be appropriate for others.
My Lords, it is quite clear that there has been a greater degree of difficulty in areas of social deprivation when it comes to early years. A higher number of institutions have not opened and a higher percentage expect to close. Do the Government have a coherent strategy about how to get effective early years provision into deprived parts of the country?
My Lords, as I have outlined, the quantity and quality of provision in disadvantaged areas have been improving. Many of the maintained nursery schools that I mentioned are in areas of disadvantage. We have specifically funded £20 million of career development for early years providers in disadvantaged areas. I hope that the Government’s response to make sure that places were open in early years provision and in schools to vulnerable children and those of critical care workers will bear fruit for those children.
My Lords, the Prime Minister has put parents in an impossible position by urging a return to work over the summer while failing to provide adequate support for childcare. [Inaudible] Working mothers will suffer particularly badly from the Government’s inaction. [Inaudible] Notwithstanding the early years entitlement continuation mentioned by the Minister, why have the Government not announced any additional funding targeting childcare providers since the onset of the pandemic?
My Lords, I am grateful for early notification of the noble Lord’s question because I had slight trouble hearing it. As I outlined, numerous support schemes have been available to this sector, which, as I said, is a number of small businesses. As of next month, the early years sector will be eligible for the kickstart fund, which is for paid provision of jobs for young people who might be at risk of being unemployed. The apprenticeship support that I outlined is also available for the early years sector. However, the major schemes that have been available to and taken up by the sector have been the business interruption loans, the job retention scheme, the bonus and other financial support that I outlined. These are businesses, so we have responded appropriately for the sector.
My Lords, can I take my noble friend to the other section of children in care: the group that is, by definition, among the most vulnerable in society? All the indications are that the pandemic means that they will be the hardest hit as they leave care. What special measures and funds will the Government provide to help this group?
My Lords, the Government have a care leavers covenant for those young people, recognising that they are some of the most vulnerable children in our society. We have asked universities that accommodate somebody who has been in care to maintain that accommodation during the pandemic. Care leavers have been eligible to receive remote assistance with learning with a laptop. There is a co-ordinated response. I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to the fact that care leavers can be, and often are, some of the most vulnerable. When they are in the care system, they obviously attract the pupil premium and additional funding.
My Lords, 4 million children already live in poverty in the UK. Another 1.7 million children live in households with debt problems. While the pandemic affects all sectors of the country, it seems that children suffer the most. Does the Minister agree that priority should be given to the children’s sector to provide whatever funds are required for the welfare of children?
My Lords, I outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, some of the additional support that is being given through the Department for Work and Pensions. The Department for Education has also given £3.6 million of early years disadvantage grants to try to support language and other development for those young people. We are aware of children in the poorest households. That is why free school meals have been made available during each of the school holidays during the pandemic.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed.
Telecommunications Legislation: Human Rights
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following their announcement about the involvement of Huawei in UK telecommunications, what steps they are taking to include a human rights threshold in telecommunications legislation.
My Lords, we want respect for human rights to be at the centre of all business that takes place in this country. As I said on Report of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, we are committed to bringing back the matter of human rights and modern slavery at Third Reading. The Government are also taking action to ensure the security and resilience of our telecoms networks, with our recent announcement on Huawei and work to develop the telecoms security Bill.
My Lords, has the Minister had the opportunity to watch the video recording I sent her last Wednesday, which appears to show shackled and blindfolded Uighur Muslims in China being led from trains to camps? The Board of Deputies of British Jews has stated:
“The World will neither forgive nor forget a genocide against the Uighur people.”
The Foreign Secretary has said that this is,
“reminiscent of something not seen for a long time.”
What progress has the Minister made in pursing my request to ask British Telecom how it verifies Huawei’s denials of the use of slave labour or the use of Huawei technology in oppressing Uighur people?
It is impossible to have watched the footage to which the noble Lord referred without a sense of horror and deep concern. As my noble friend Lord Ahmad said in answer to an earlier Question, the Government will not look away from human rights abuses in Xinjiang. We are working actively with the Home Office and the Public Bill Office to work out what can be within scope for an amendment on the issues the noble Lord raises about the supply chain.
My Lords, when the Minister comes back at Third Reading on the telecommunications Bill with an amendment, will she bear in mind that although the Government have taken action to exclude Huawei from the 5G work we still need a human rights threshold in order to exert leverage on China to change its current appalling human rights practices, including forced organ harvesting?
The Government have been very clear. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary yesterday used the term “gross human rights abuses.” We will pursue a number of avenues on this because human rights clearly do not apply purely in the telecoms supply chain, but much more widely.
I gently remind noble Lords to keep their questions and contributions brief so that we can get as many in as possible.
My Lords, human rights should be integrated in all UK trade policy, not just telecoms. What work are Her Majesty’s Government doing on this?
The noble Lord is right. They absolutely should be in all trade policy. Announcements were made yesterday by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. We are also doing a great deal of work on the modern slavery legislation. A consultation is out at the moment about modern slavery and the supply chain, and the Home Office will report on that later this summer.
My Lords, I was privileged to speak recently with Nathan Law, the Hong Kong democracy campaigner. Given his assertion that companies such as Huawei serve the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and that we know from the footage at the weekend that that includes the reported use of slave labour in concentration camps, does my noble friend agree with Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, that
“The World will neither forgive nor forget a genocide against the Uighur people”?
What more can we do to stop this genocide?
We have been very clear about the level of concern about human rights abuses of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. We have recently announced important new moves on extradition and arms sales in relation to Hong Kong, and we continue to be at the forefront of raising these issues in multilateral organisations, including the UN Human Rights Council, most recently at the end of June.
My Lords, when the Secretary of State announced a change in Huawei’s status last week he also said that full-fibre and older networks will be treated differently from 5G in terms of their technology, security and vendors. Will the Minister expand on the remit and timetable of the consultation that the Secretary of State announced? Will she undertake to ensure that vendors’ human rights positions will be part of that consultation?
The remit of the full-fibre broadband operators to which the noble Lord refers has been defined as a short technical consultation to understand what alternatives there are in the supply chain to balance the risk of delay and an unwise reliance on a single provider.
My Lords, given the widespread reports of the Chinese authorities forcing members of the Uighur community into forced labour in the Xinjiang region, including in the manufacture of masks and PPE, can my noble friend tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the risk that any of the United Kingdom’s or UK-based companies’ supply chains could include products manufactured using forced labour? What guidance has been given to UK companies in this regard? Are the Government considering mirroring the sanctions that the US has recently imposed on Chinese companies allegedly involved in the abhorrent abuse of human rights?
The Government share my noble friend’s abhorrence at this kind of abuse of human rights. We have led the way with our modern slavery legislation. Some 16,000 companies a year now make modern slavery statements, but we are also aware, as is my noble friend, of how hard it is to track abuses through the supply chain. We have set out a clear modern slavery assessment tool and regularly direct companies to the overseas business risk guidance when they consider operating in areas where human rights abuses are alleged.
My Lords, given the absolute denial by the Chinese ambassador on Sunday of the fact that millions of members of the Chinese minorities are being deprived of their fundamental human rights in Xinjiang, can the Minister assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government will seek evidence of compliance with international human rights law by China before Huawei is afforded any further opportunities for trade with the United Kingdom?
The decisions on Huawei’s place in the 5G network were driven by security considerations. As a Government, we clearly have multiple responsibilities, of which national security comes highest. The advice we received from the National Cyber Security Centre changed and therefore our policy has changed.
My Lords, the Secretary of State said last week that the Government have a clear and ambitious diversification strategy to replace Huawei. On closer inspection, that rather appears to be based on persuading the existing suppliers, Nokia and Ericsson, to step up and hoping that Samsung and NEC will get involved. Given our world-leading creative industries, can the Minister list which British companies have been approached?
I fear I cannot list the British companies but I am more than happy to write to the noble Lord. I am not sure whether that information is in the public domain. However, I reassure him that my honourable friend the Minister for Digital Infrastructure is actively working on this as we speak.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that a regime that is contemptuous of the human rights of its own citizens and of international standards of human rights will have no restraint about abusing the human rights of UK citizens or persons resident in the UK who may have fled from that regime when it has access to telecommunications systems as a means of doing so?
I understand the noble Lord’s point but we work very closely with GCHQ and the National Cyber Security Centre and take significant advice on how we can protect our citizens. We keep that under constant review.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has now elapsed.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, hybrid proceedings will now resume. Some Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the statistical bulletin by the Office for National Statistics Crime in England and Wales: year ending March 2020, published on 17 July, which reported that the incidence of knife crime is at a record high, what action they are taking to address the rise of knife crime in England and Wales.
My Lords, the Government are taking urgent action to tackle knife crime, which is costing too many lives and leaving too many people afraid. Police funding is increasing by more than £1 billion this year. We are recruiting 20,000 more police officers and making it easier for them to use stop and search, and we are ensuring that more knife crime offenders go to prison for longer.
I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. We need a much more ambitious approach so that, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, swords are turned into ploughshares or—to put it into modern language—knives are turned into tools to capture the passion and energy of these young people whose lives are being blighted at the very point when we need their contribution more than ever. Will Her Majesty’s Government commit to a public health approach to this problem, encompassing reducing poverty, increasing youth services and strengthening community policing?
I say to the right reverend Prelate that that is the only way to go. Knife crime problems are not caused by any one source and there is no magic area where we can deploy interventions. It has got to be a multiagency, public health approach, as the right reverend Prelate says.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood of Green. Lord Young? I will move on to the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick.
My Lords, whatever is happening now, it is clearly not working. Research by the College of Policing shows that high levels of stop and search had barely any effect on violent crime. Instead, it can destroy trust and confidence in the police among the very community that the police need active support and co-operation from if they are to be effective in tackling knife crime. Will the Government consider bringing together police leaders and community leaders to discuss a way forward?
The Home Secretary already meets policing leaders and other stakeholders on tackling crime. On the noble Lord’s first point, safeguards are in place to ensure that stop and search is used lawfully and not based on race or ethnicity. On his point about the increase in knife crime and the link to stop and search, I can say—and this is not a defensive point—that the rate of increase has slowed. However, I agree that we have so much further to go, and that working together across different departments and with different stakeholders is absolutely right.
My Lords, it has just been said that stop and search is an important part of the police system for dealing with this matter. Is there anything that can be done to remove the fact that its use appears to be strongly biased against black people?
My noble and learned friend is right that it appears to be used disproportionately towards black and Asian young people. Of course, they are quite often the victims in all this. It is important to add—I think I have already said it—that no one should be stopped and searched based on their race or ethnicity. The Metropolitan Police is quite sure that its increase in stop and search has helped stem knife crime injuries to under-25s, although the figures are just not good enough yet. The Home Office collects more data now on stop and search than ever before, including the race of the person searched and what they were searched for.
My Lords, I feel sure that the Minister shares my concern about the reports of very young people carrying knives, even on their way to school, because they feel afraid and may need to defend themselves. During the last decade, there has been a marked reduction in family support and preventive services. Does the Minister agree that we must now do all that we can to recover effective joint working by the key services at a very local level, including youth services, in order to regain community support, especially for vulnerable young people?
The noble Lord will know that I agree with him because I have agreed with him for many years on this. Family support is crucial. Through the troubled families programme we had that type of multiagency support for families. It is an absolute tragedy that very young people are carrying knives. They do so because they feel like victims; ultimately, they may become perpetrators, but at the heart of this, they are victims. That is why the multiagency approach is at the heart of the type of intervention and prevention we are taking forward.
We know that the Home Secretary speaks to police chiefs every day. When she talks to them about the increase in knife crime, as she must do, what are the police chiefs telling the Government are the reasons for the national increase in knife crime? What action do they consider needs to be taken, and by whom, to address this issue and bring the knife crime figure down?
I know that the noble Lord will understand that I will not relay details of operational conversations. However, I will quote a Member of Your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, who said that while the factors are multifaceted, one thing he is clear about is the rise in the demand from the drugs markets. While not directly related to it, some of the work that the NCA did the other week in taking drugs and weapons out of circulation will undoubtedly have eased some of the problems that our young people face.
My Lords, I know the impacts such crimes have. On 28 January 2000, I was one of the victims of a sword attack in my MP’s constituency office, in which my colleague died. These latest figures show that the Government need a new policy. Will they get those who have turned their lives round after wasting time in prison for knife crime—and who kids can relate to—into schools to convince them to bin their knives?
I very well remember the moment to which the noble Lord refers, which must have left lasting scars for all those involved. Last week, we brought forward in a statutory instrument a compensation scheme for certain offensive weapons. I think that the noble Lord’s wife is behind him, making sure that he says the right thing—I have now lost my track. We have had several knife amnesties over the years. Children need to feel supported in binning the knife and in not carrying knives, as opposed to feeling penalised. I think that that is what the noble Lord’s question stems from.
The recent knife crime figures released by the Office for National Statistics are extremely worrying. We know that hundreds of dedicated and amazing individuals and hard-working organisations deliver excellent initiatives and projects to try to prevent and reduce knife crime across the country. Yet, as is obvious from the figures, with the increased demand on them, these organisations are not able to make the impact we all need. Should we not identify the most successful ones and invest more money in scaling them up? Is it time to review the amount of money allocated and where the money is spent in trying to combat this dreadful knife crime?
I totally agree with my noble friend that we should indeed learn from successes. There are pockets of very good practice all over the country. We do not always have the magic formula to know what the most successful intervention will be. However, our analysis, which was set out in the Serious Violence Strategy, makes it clear that there is a very complex interplay of different factors driving serious violence. It is therefore especially difficult to isolate specifics, but we are definitely sure that prevention and early intervention are key. They are the things that we are investing in, particularly in youth services, and our recruitment of additional police officers will of course help to that end.
My Lords, England and Wales lost more than 20,000 police officers between March 2010 and March 2019. I have spoken several times, requesting the Government to increase police officer numbers by 20,000. Eventually, almost exactly a year ago, the Prime Minister said that the target is to recruit 20,000 new police officers in England and Wales, as the Minister has said. He said that this would be achieved within three years through a new national policing board. How far have we progressed in achieving this target and will we recruit the 20,000 police officers who are desperately needed to address the highest incidence of knife crime in nine years, as the right reverend Prelate stated upfront?
I can quite confidently say yes, we will. We are already not far off that 6,000 figure, and that is in only the first year. Although I confidently told the House the other week that we had reached 6,000, I think that we are at about 4,500 now. In a climate of difficult economic circumstances, I am sure that such a great career will be even more attractive now.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her positive responses to these questions. I add that the academics Stephen Case and Kevin Haines offer a perspective on knife crime with which I think the Government might very well engage. As they and others assert, children and young people need positive, nurturing environments and effective youth services. Communities need positive services and activities for young people, but local authorities, which have been hollowed out through years of cuts, lack the resources to provide these. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that funds are made available to our local authorities to build back better in our local youth services?
I certainly agree with the noble Baroness’s sentiment. It is of course up to local authorities where they deploy their finances, but I get her sentiment. On investing in youth services, the Home Office invested £22 million in an early intervention youth fund a couple of years ago. The Home Office’s Youth Endowment Fund of £200 million runs over 10 years and the Youth Investment Fund of £500 million runs over five years to do just the types of things that she talks about.
My Lords, one of the early interventions that has been shown to be very effective is sport. Young people belonging to sporting teams, rather than gangs, can turn their lives around. Will my noble friend the Minister commit to encouraging more charities and sports organisations to create after-school clubs and other community clubs where these young people can belong to positive teams, rather than gangs?
I most wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend. I can even cite examples, although I will not at the Dispatch Box, where I have seen people whose lives have literally been turned around by their engagement in sport, rather than activity that will lead to a life of crime.
My Lords, the time allowed for the Private Notice Question has elapsed.
Committee (5th Day)
Relevant document: 13th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
My Lords, a limited number of Members are here in the Chamber, respecting social distancing. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House. Other Members will participate remotely, but all Members will be treated equally wherever they are. For Members participating remotely, microphones will unmute shortly before they are to speak. Please accept any on-screen prompt to unmute. Microphones will be muted after each speech. I ask noble Lords to be patient if there are any short delays as we switch between physical and remote participants. I should remind the House that our normal courtesies in debate still very much apply in this new hybrid way of working.
A participants’ list for today’s proceedings has been published and is in my brief, which Members should have received. I also have lists of Members who have put their names to amendments in, or expressed an interest in speaking on, each group. I will call Members to speak in the order listed. Members’ microphones will be muted by the broadcasters except when I call a Member to speak. Interventions during speeches or before the noble Lord sits down are not permitted and uncalled speakers will not be heard.
During the debate on each group I will invite Members, including Members in the Chamber, to email the clerk if they wish to speak after the Minister. I will call Members to speak in order of request and will call the Minister to reply each time. The groupings are binding and it will not be possible to degroup an amendment for separate debate. A Member intending to press an amendment already debated to a Division should have given notice in the debate. Leave should be given to withdraw amendments. When putting the Question, I will collect voices in the Chamber only. If a Member taking part remotely intends to trigger a Division, they should make this clear when speaking on the group.
I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.
Clause 4: Multi-annual financial assistance plans
130: Clause 4, page 5, line 15, leave out “seven” and insert “five”
My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership. I shall speak also to Amendment 142. Both these amendments relate to reducing the transition period for the introduction of ELMS from seven years to five years. I suspect that Members are probably not that keen on the idea at the moment, so for the next couple of minutes I intend to try to persuade them otherwise, because it is important that we reduce the transition period.
Members and indeed the country as a whole are aware of COP 26 this year which was supposed to take place in Glasgow concerning the climate change agreement and getting the Paris agreement carried forward in a positive way to meet our planetary carbon emissions targets, but many people are not so aware of a second major conference, COP 15, about the diversity convention. It was supposed to take place this year in Kunming, China but it has also been postponed until next year.
Biodiversity is a global crisis equal to climate change. Biodiversity is not just a problem of equatorial rainforests; it is a problem in Europe and here in the United Kingdom as well. The 2019 State of Nature report states that
“15% of species in the UK are now threatened by extinction,”
41% are in decline and a third remain effectively static, with only a small proportion gaining in number. Biodiversity is not just about bird spotters or twitchers and a comfortable feeling about nature, important though it is for our mental health and the energy of our countryside. It is also about supporting natural systems and allowing them to operate—ecosystem services such as pollination, soil formation, clean water, atmospheric oxygen, disease control and many more. All these are essential not only to the natural world around us but to our economic performance and indeed to our continued existence on this planet.
One of the great things that I have always praised in the Agriculture Bill is the idea not just of public money for public goods but that it should be concentrated on building up and improving biodiversity and nature in our countryside. That is important because about 70% of the land in England and across the UK is used in agriculture. However, I regret to say that it is because of agricultural management that biodiversity in this country has declined so significantly. I do not blame the farming industry and individual farmers for that, but I do blame the financial incentive system within which they have had to operate.
Why am I asking for the transition period to be reduced from seven to five years? It is because the biodiversity issue is a global crisis as well as one here in the United Kingdom. If we take no action and carry on with business as usual, economic systems will fail. At the end of seven years, we will be almost half way through the period of the 25-year environment plan, which I also welcome, although it must be properly financed and delivered.
It may sound trite, but I remind noble Lords that the Second World War lasted for a mere six years and we managed to overcome all the problems and challenges that affected us globally within that time. At the moment we are in a transition period, moving from being a member of the EU to our global position in just 11 months, with all the challenges that that poses, so surely we can manage to implement ELMS over five years rather than seven. I also remind noble Lords that, on nature depletion, the United Kingdom is not in a good position. We ranked 29th from the bottom out of 218 countries. That is why this issue is so important. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who is the illustrious chairman of our EU sub-committee. For the record, however, I would like the transition period to remain as it is.
I want to speak to Amendment 143, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, for lending their support. It is a simple amendment, which would delay the start of the seven-year transition period away from direct payments coming into effect from 2021 to 2022. I should like to pause here to explain why this is necessary.
In seeking to delay the start of the transition period to the new policy framework to 2022, I accept that there is wide support across the House for the government objectives in the Bill to move towards a new framework of support for agriculture that focuses on public payments for public goods and increasing productivity. Much of the detail will be set out in supporting regulations and in the Environment Bill, of which we in this House have not yet had sight. However, the changes being envisaged will be the biggest in a generation and look set to be in place for many years to come.
I accept that we are leaving the European Union but note with regret that, in the four years since the vote in June 2016 signalled the beginning of a process of change, particularly in leaving the CAP, we have made very little progress in developing the necessary mechanisms, policies and schemes that would be worthy of the major changes that we are expecting in this Bill. I accept that much of this is down to the political impasse leading up to the last general election and, more recently, to the pressing issues around controlling Covid-19, which I am sure have affected Defra as they have many other departments.
It is essential that we take the time to introduce new schemes and measures that will stand the test of time, rather than simply bringing them in quickly for the sake of it. I fear that there is an overarching desire through the Bill to show that things have changed as a result of our departure from the European Union, rather than to ensure that we put in place good, made-for-purpose, fit-for-purpose, resilient schemes. Let us face it: our track record in delivering new schemes and new IT to support them is not that great.
Following the environmental land management scheme tests and trials, which themselves have been impacted by the issues surrounding Covid-19 and are ultimately delayed, the Government intend to conduct a pilot in England of a new ELM scheme in 2021, with a view to it being fully operational by 2024. However, if it is true that the Rural Payments Agency will be in charge of running these pilots—I hope that my noble friend can put my mind at rest on that—we have to question its capacity to run such a pilot when it is already struggling to deliver business as usual. Once again this year, the RPA has had to ask the Treasury for funding to bridge payments to environmental stewardship and countryside stewardship applicants before being penalised for failing to meet the required payment targets by 30 June this year. What reassurance can the Government provide that there is adequate capacity within the RPA to deliver the pilot, or does my noble friend think that another body would be more appropriate?
I also place a question mark on the extent to which the Government would be able to spend any money saved through the reductions in direct payments starting in 2021. I understand that Defra has identified this as a potential problem and is therefore looking to make an announcement in September about enhanced options for countryside stewardship and productivity schemes. However, we have none of the detail available to us today. In my view, the sensible thing is to delay the start of the transition period until 2022. That is not kicking the can down the road but giving the Government and Defra the time and space to deliver the good schemes that we know they are capable of, rather than producing half-baked schemes.
The reasons for this delay are these: we are being asked to take a lot on trust; we have not had sight of the Dimbleby food strategy, which I understand will not reach us before Report; we have not had the results of the trials of the ELM schemes; the OEP has yet to be set up; and we do not know what its relationship to the Environment Agency, Natural England and the RPA will be. We owe it to Defra to give it time, because of the Covid pandemic, to reach a proper conclusion to these schemes. I therefore ask the House to commit to supporting Amendment 143.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, whose analysis I almost completely agree with, although my conclusion is a little different. I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner, as set out in the register, and that I have been a recipient of the basic payment over several years.
I tabled Amendment 144, to which my noble friend Lord Curry of Kirkharle has kindly attached his name, and Amendment 145 in order to address the problem of the likely gap that will affect farmers as direct payments are reduced in 2021, while the revenue from the joining of any new environmental land management schemes will not arrive until 2024—although this will be mitigated for some farmers who have existing countryside stewardship schemes. This is no small issue. As we have heard in the debates on the Bill, the BPS accounts for some 58% of farm business income, varying from sector to sector, and around 25% of farms are unprofitable without it.
Although the industry has been aware for several years that the Bill was coming and that its major feature would be public money for public goods, rather than an area-based subsidy, the details of the replacement scheme have been few and still remain a work in progress. Adjustments to a new world have therefore been understandably slow because options have been limited. Diversification of businesses into non-farming activities has been done by some farmers, but this has to an extent been dependent on the tenure of their farm—owned or tenanted—their location and their ability to access funds. Some have looked at selling their produce directly to local shops to improve on the low margins imposed on farmers by the power of supermarkets. Others have cut costs to the bone, affecting their family and lifestyle. Others have attempted to raise productivity, but, once again, this has often depended on their ability to borrow. Still others have emulated Micawber and are waiting for something to turn up. Furthermore, like everyone, all farmers face the uncertainties of Brexit, the new trade agreements and, of course, Covid-19.
It therefore seems fair and reasonable to address the problem of the gap between the BPS cuts and the introduction of the environmental land management scheme, particularly since a solution is suggested in Amendment 144 that would not hold up the transition period and would come with no additional cost to the Government. Under current plans, the Government intend to introduce a cut to BPS in 2021 of a minimum of 5%, with progressive increases in the cuts to the largest recipients of BPS amounting to 25%. No details are given as to what percentage cuts will be made in succeeding years, which is highly regrettable from a business planning point of view. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response on this point.
Based on these percentages, it is entirely possible that some farmers, both owner and tenant, will see their BPS cut by more than 50% in 2021 before they have access to the environmental land management scheme, which might address some of the shortfall. The amendment therefore proposes that no farmer should have his BPS payments cut by more than 25% until the environmental land management scheme becomes available. I think that we all wish to see a thriving farming industry in this country. The amendment should help in this respect, particularly because the farming businesses likely to be most affected by the BPS cuts, according to the AHDB, are commodity arable producers and lowland livestock farmers, since these are known to be heavily reliant on direct payments.
Furthermore, this solution to covering the gap between the introduction of the ELMS and the reduction of BPS would bring England more into line with Wales and Scotland. I believe that Wales will make no cuts to BPS until 2022 and Scotland until 2024. The amendment would help to level the competitive playing field.
Finally, I will make one further comment on the environmental land management scheme. The Minister is well aware of my frustration about the lack of detail at this late stage. We all hope for the success of this policy. However, there is an irony in the announced reward formula of covering farmers’ costs as well as profit foregone in that it surely would mean a return to the much-condemned area-based payment, since averages rather than farm specific figures will be used in most cases in tier 1. Furthermore, farmers would also hope that income foregone from BPS will be taken into account in the calculation of income foregone.
Amendment 145 is a technical amendment to ensure that regulations made under Amendment 144 would be subject to the affirmative procedure.
My Lords, there are two strands of amendments in this group: those that probe the Government on the agricultural transition period, such as Amendment 143 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh; and others, such as my Amendments 147, 148 and 154, that would prevent secondary legislation that would undermine animal welfare.
As other noble Lords have said, the agricultural transition period needs probing to understand what the Government’s current position is. The Bill has been floating around for a long time, but there is still no real detail in it, which is very frustrating for us who have to comment on it. On the one hand, I am very swayed by the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. The transition period should probably be as short as possible, simply because we can then move rapidly to a new system of public money for public good. I also do not particularly want to give the Government a lot of time to delay the big, tough decisions they will have to make, but they of course have to give farmers and land managers the time to adapt and improve. Overall, we need the certainty that comes from the Government setting out their plans very clearly. I hope the Minister can set out a timetable for that happening.
The second strand of this group is my amendments which, like so many of my amendments, seek to protect animal welfare. Clauses 9 and 14 grant very broad power to the Secretary of State in what might be termed cost cutting and corner cutting. The clauses should be scrutinised on their own and the Government should make it clear what they plan to use them for to justify their existence. My amendments would prevent the Government cutting these corners for animal welfare so that the Secretary of State cannot simply say, “That’s rather expensive for animals. Let’s see if we can improve on that and cut the cost.” There are probably a dozen other issues that should be added to the list of things that these clauses should not be allowed to tamper with, but for me, animal welfare stands out as a priority.
I hope other noble Lords will join me in their concern about Clauses 9 and 14. We might work together in bringing amendments on Report to curtail these cost-cutting and corner-cutting powers.
My Lords, as before, I declare my agricultural interests as detailed in the register. During the many days of this Committee a considerable number of thoughtful and constructive amendments have been tabled, but in most cases the Government have suggested that they are unnecessary since the matter is already covered in Clause 1 or can be provided for in the new environmental land management scheme. However, the ELMS will not begin until 2024. During the years between now and then, many farms that are currently barely profitable will suffer or disappear.
I will speak to my Amendment 149. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for signing it as well. As I said at Second Reading, my real concern is for the very survival of smaller hill farms during the intervening years from now until the new ELM payments begin in 2024. The Government announced in February that farmers in the lowest band of basic direct payments—up to £30,000 per annum—would have their payment cut by 5% in 2021, with further cuts in the following years. However, the Government’s own figures for 2018-19—the latest available—show that the average cattle and sheep farmer in a less-favoured area received a direct basic payment of £24,000 and still made a profit of only £15,500. Figures for 2019-20, when available, will probably show a slightly better position. Nevertheless, these smaller hill farms are only marginally profitable even with the basic payment and would be commercially totally unviable without taxpayer support.
We all accept that we are moving away from the basic payment system to the new environmental land management scheme payments. The purpose of my amendment is to ask the Government to think again about whether it is sensible or fair to reduce those in the lowest band even by 5% before ELMS payments kick in in 2024.
On Tuesday two weeks ago we debated Amendment 78 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Greaves. Their amendment urged the Government to maintain support for hill farms and other marginal land. I support this general principle. My amendment is more specific and asks the Government simply to protect just the lowest band of recipients from the cuts until the new payment systems come into play.
Last Thursday, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, stated that since small abattoirs operate on a commercial basis they would not fit into the principle of the public good. My contention is that, unfortunately, small hill farms are not in any way commercial on their own, so I believe the public will consider it more than just for taxpayers’ money to be given for the public good of maintaining our small hill farms, which play such an important part in so many rural communities in this country. When the Minister responds to this group of amendments, I hope he will give the Committee an assurance that the Government will look again at the timing and percentage of the reductions in the basic payments for small farmers in the uplands.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of a tenant farming enterprise as set out in the register. I shall speak to my Amendments 150 to 153. Although there is an understandable desire to demonstrate that we are moving away from the old regime of the CAP, we must do so in a way that is effective rather than just quick. The delay in our exit from the EU and the implications of Covid-19 point to a possible delay in the implementation of this new policy framework. These amendments would allow greater flexibility in pausing or even reversing the phasing out of direct payments should, and only should, circumstances require it. This would be particularly important in a scenario where payments to farmers had been reduced but where the funds freed up had not been spent on alternative programmes and remained unused.
Amendment 150 would allow Ministers to reverse reductions in direct payments if they were found to be having a detrimental impact on the nation’s ability to produce food. The Covid-19 crisis will have long-term implications for our country, so this amendment would allow for welcome flexibility. UK consumers, who have valued the domestic supply of food over recent times like never before, will not welcome any dip in that supply. In the event of a pause or a reversal for these reasons, the Government should be allowed to maintain independent financing for the development of alternative schemes, such as ELMS, so that they are not delayed or interrupted.
My Amendment 152 would enable those who have opted to take delinked payments to return to receiving direct payments if the direct payment scheme is extended. If a delinked payment is introduced, the powers to extend the transition period in accordance with Section 8(3) will be used. The status of the farmer would be uncertain. He may be locked out of the system for longer than envisaged. The status of such a person in this situation should be defined in the regulations to provide legal certainty. Given the current uncertainty about what future schemes will look like, this amendment would provide a safeguard against unintended consequences for farmers if the agricultural transition period is extended.
I turn to Amendments 151 and 153 in my name. As any farmer will tell you, cash flow is the number one consideration. This is particularly true for tenant farmers, who have to pay rent twice a year, irrespective of their cash position. A large proportion of farmers are reliant on BPS payments as part of their farm income and any delay to these can have a serious impact on a farmer’s ability to run their business. Ensuring that those entitled to payments receive them within guaranteed timescales will help ensure certainty of cash flow. That certainty will encourage productivity and investment—two clear ambitions of our Government’s wide-ranging agricultural policy.
My Lords, the Committee has already heard some powerful speeches. The more the Bill is discussed, the more respect I have for farmers who, in a time of uncertainty, have a future that is even more uncertain than the present. We do not know where ELMS is going; we have not discussed the Environment Bill. We are threatened with ELMS being run by the RPA, whose record we cannot respect hugely. Farmers are, therefore, in a difficult position. As the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said last week, the advice he has received is to stop all investment. That is a terrible situation to be in at this time. Our farmers should be investing but, in the uncertain world we are faced with, the right thing for them to do is sit on their hands. That is going to cause huge problems. I agree with noble Lords who have said that small farmers, particularly hill farmers, face the most problems and are most likely to fall by the wayside as the current situation continues.
I have put my name to Amendment 143, which would delay the process of implementing ELMS for another year. Given what has been said, there is nothing for me to add, except that I support the principle of all the amendments that have been spoken to. I hope that the Government will show some flexibility on these, because the current situation is untenable for quite a number of farmers.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 143, to which I have put my name. I too have very real concerns that Defra will simply not be ready for the transition period to begin in 2021 and that farming will suffer as a result. To provide the Government and farmers with sufficient time to prepare for transition, we should start it in 2022, rather than 2021. This way, we can ameliorate the transition chasm that I have discussed before. The House has spent four long days in Committee, debating many variations of ELMS, and has made its way through Clauses 1 and 2 of the 54-clause Bill. We hope to rush through the bulk of this legislation in another two days, under huge time pressure. Scrutiny cannot be sufficient in these circumstances and major aspects of this crucial legislation will be barely considered.
The Government have suggested that time is of the essence and that this Bill simply has to be passed so that the transition period can begin on 1 January 2021. They say that farmers will not be able to be paid if it does not. This is simply not true. It was easy for Parliament to extend direct payments to farmers for 2020; we can simply repeat that process. Given that the Government have confirmed that they will maintain the level of agricultural funding until the end of this Parliament, this will have no negative impact on the Treasury or on budgets. What it will do is permit Defra to prepare for ELMS in an orderly manner.
Despite the best efforts of its overstretched and underfunded staff, Defra is transparently far behind where it needs to be. The EFRA Committee took evidence on 16 June 2020 from Defra’s two leads: Tamara Finkelstein, its Permanent Secretary, and David Kennedy, the director-general of food, farming and biosecurity. I recommend the transcript of their evidence to all noble Lords, as it provides a valuable insight into its much-delayed progress. They admit to considerable delays in the tests and trials programme caused first by Brexit, which took many staff for emergency no-deal planning, and then by coronavirus, which meant that many key tests and trial programmes have not begun.
Defra is triaging. For example, it has confirmed that it has abandoned plans to build a new computer system to administer ELMS. Instead, it will be delivered using the current SITI Agri system, which is used by the RPA to administer BPS. Reading between the lines, it appears that tier 1 of ELMS is effectively going to be little more than BPS plus greening obligations by a new name, administered by the same team, using the exact same technology. I would appreciate the Minister’s confirmation of this.
On Thursday, the Minister helpfully confirmed that Defra would publish a multiannual financial assistance plan this autumn. Given the incredible delays disclosed by Defra, what details is it really able to provide? Will the Minister confirm whether, but for Brexit meaning Brexit, Defra would prefer to agree to this amendment and give itself longer to prepare for the transition?
I warmly support the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, which also relate to the transition chasm. However, I cannot support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. ELMS is optional—the quicker the transition, the less uptake there will be and the worse the outcome for our environment.
My Lords, my interests are as recorded in the register. I fully support Amendment 144, in the name of my noble friend Lord Carrington, to which I was happy to attach my name. I am very concerned about the gap in support as the current basic payment scheme is unwound and access to the new ELM scheme becomes available, as planned, in 2024. As I said at Second Reading, this is fraught with risk. The delays caused by indecision on Brexit and then the impact of coronavirus mean that the ELMS pilots are just under way. Meaningful conclusions will take a couple of years or more to interpret. The design of the schemes, and the value of public goods that we hope will be delivered by this brave new model for supporting the management of the countryside, must be promoted to farmers and land managers with confidence. We need the evidence from the pilots and there is no slack in the timetable to experiment or for systems to fail and be rerun, which is why many of us are deeply concerned about the Government’s reluctance to change the current seven-year transition plan. At Second Reading, I suggested that the Government should be willing to extend the period to eight years.
Under the current plans, there will only be three years by the time the Bill becomes law to draw conclusions from the pilots and then launch the ELM scheme to the entire farming sector. Tens of thousands of family farmers are not prepared for the scale of the change that the Bill will introduce. It is the most fundamental change in support, and the greatest cultural change, that any farmer in Britain today has ever faced. At present, there is no way farmers can prepare for this change because, for obvious reasons, there is no information available on the basis of which they can begin to consider their future plans and make decisions.
This change in policy is a unique opportunity to facilitate restructuring of the sector, but this cannot be rushed. Every farmer needs to consider the impact of the change on their individual business. As a result of the scale of this challenge, it is inevitable that there will be a capacity problem. The quantum of qualified consultants who are trusted and able to provide 30,000 or 40,000 farmers with informed advice in good time to make considered decisions will be an enormous challenge. To ensure that the potential benefits which the ELM scheme can deliver, and which will hopefully be realised, will require careful consideration by each farmer and land manager.
If ELMS is launched in 2024 as planned, there will be a deluge of applications and the capacity of the RPA and Natural England to cope with the volume will be stretched to the limit. The possibility of every farmer who wishes to participate in the ELM scheme being able to do so in 2024 is unrealistic. For all these reasons, the Government need to think very carefully about the timetable. This amendment is designed to help smooth the impact. Limiting the dismantling of support from the BPS to a total reduction of 25% until the ELM scheme is available is a sensible approach.
I restate what I said at Second Reading: I reassure the Minister that I am enthusiastic about this bold change in policy and genuinely believe that we can lead the world in delivering a wide range of crucial outcomes from the management of the countryside, provided that the policy is well designed and land managers are appropriately incentivised. It would be a disaster if such an important change in policy was rushed through and we failed to engage appropriately. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the department will adopt the timetable proposed in this amendment. It would be very much appreciated by farmers and land managers and would ensure a greater chance of achieving the desired outcomes.
Very briefly, I have considerable sympathy with the purpose of Amendment 149 tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. Smaller livestock family farms, both in LFAs and in the lowlands, are the most vulnerable to these changes. They manage some of the most precious landscapes in Britain and are a crucial part of rural communities. The choice of taking a hard-nosed commercial approach, resulting in many being forced out of business, or a more sympathetic view that would require some special care and support to help those farming businesses adjust to change is a no-brainer, otherwise the impact could be disastrous. The Minister is aware that I chair the Prince’s Countryside Fund. We have supported over 1,000 such farmers through the Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, with considerable success. It is essential that these crucial farming families are given appropriate support to ensure that they can adapt their businesses, not just to survive but to prosper in this brave new world.
My Lords, I will not detain you long. I have every sympathy with the impatience of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to get on with improving our biodiversity. However, I do not think it is feasible to bring this forward from seven to five years, so I am afraid that I cannot support that, however much I am keen for the things that we all hope for to take place.
I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Caithness. The more I have listened to our proceedings, the more respect I have for farmers—I had a great deal of respect for them before—and I can imagine what it is like facing these changes with all the uncertainty that we have just been talking about. Having been not in farming but in retail for most of my working life, I can imagine the concerns about the future. I would also say, however, that we always work to deadlines. If we extended things, we would be in a similar position, so I cannot support any extension as discussed—very eloquently—by many noble Lords.
I have put my name to Amendment 147 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, principally to emphasise my concerns over any reduction in animal welfare. I have no doubt at all that British farming has the highest standards of animal welfare in the world and I do not think for one minute that that will be negated by anything in the Bill, but I wanted to underline my concerns on that.
Again, I give my support in as far as upland farms, and to some extent some livestock in the lowlands, are some of our most precious guardians of the countryside and are really threatened by some of these measures. I urge the Government to look at this; I am sure that they will.
My Lords, the last time that I can remember being called to speak by the noble Baroness the Deputy Speaker is when she was chairman of Lancashire County Council and I was a somewhat dissident member on the back benches. The reception and politeness that I have found in your Lordships’ House since I came here a long time ago is of an altogether greater level than the shouting and ranting I got in Lancashire County Council from time to time. Noble Lords can decide whether they ought to be a bit more robust when I speak—I do not know.
I spoke in the debate last Thursday afternoon about what I might have said today on this amendment, so I will not repeat it. I was accused of being gloomy by the Minister and one or two other people; I thought I had perhaps gone a bit over the top—in a Lancashire County Council sort of way—until I read Hansard. Having read Hansard, I thought that what I said was rather good, but Hansard sometimes has that effect on what noble Lords say in this Chamber.
I very much support everything that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, said this afternoon. I understand the point that my noble friend Lord Teverson and others are making about the need to get on with transforming agriculture and the countryside in this country for ecological reasons and climate change and so on. Nevertheless, the thought that this new, extremely complex, top-down system of working out what people are paid for, with individual assessments of every farm and three tiers that have to be linked together, will be carried out by the Rural Payments Agency fills me with dread. I say to the Government—in a friendly way, because I do want this to succeed—that, in modern parlance, it is a huge car crash rushing over the horizon. We will see. It requires huge resource, effort and ability to introduce large, complex computer-based schemes, which British Governments—not just this Government—are not terribly good at doing. I say no more about it.
I was very pleased indeed to put my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. Again, the particularly small hill farms are the main concern here. As I said on another amendment, which now seems a long time ago in this Committee, unless these farmers get a considerable amount of subsidy, which not only allows them to do things that are desirable environmentally and for the landscape but to carry out their basic job of hill farming and make at least some profit from it, they will simply go out of business. I do not believe that the Minister and the Government have, so far, explained how such farmers will survive under the new system and continue to do their farming. We all know how the sheep farming system in particular works in this country: the people who rear sheep in the lowlands require the sheep to come down from the hills; it is all pretty integrated. If the hill farms close down and stop keeping their sheep, it will have an effect right across the industry and the country. The most important thing is that the hill farmers themselves get the support they need for their own benefit and the benefit of their communities and landscapes.
Can the Minister explain how the new system will do this, when it is supposed to provide only for what are known as public goods and is not meant to be a production subsidy? I do not see how hill farms can continue unless a significant part of the money they get from public funds is, in effect, a production subsidy, whether or not the Government disguise it as something else.
My Lords, I declare my interests as on the register. It is a pleasure to the follow the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and in relation to his comments on Hansard, I tell him, and indeed the whole Committee, that I once asked the late Lord Armstrong, who I rate as one of our greatest ever Cabinet Secretaries, “Robert, when you wrote up the Cabinet minutes, did you write what the Minister said or what he thought he had said?” He told me, “Oh, no, David. I wrote what the Minister would have said if he had thought of saying it.” I sometimes wish Hansard would do the same with my speeches.
I oppose the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in that the seven-year period should not be reduced to five. However, he is right to draw attention to the importance of CBD15 next year. It is every bit as important as COP26. Indeed, in a sensible world, there would not be two conventions but one, since they are inextricably linked. Habitat loss leads to more carbon and more zoonotic diseases as animals are forced closer to humans. However, that is not for this Bill. I think Defra has got the seven-year period right, and so has my noble friend Lord Randall; moving the deadline does not necessarily buy us more time.
This is the greatest and most exciting change in British agriculture since 1970. I am old enough to remember those UK White Papers produced by the ministry of ag, fish and food—MAFF, an excellent department, if I may say so—such as Food from Our Own Resources, which exhorted us to “produce, produce, produce”. One of the many excellent things about leaving the EU is that we will once again be able to design plans to produce food from our own resources and protect the environment at the same time. But let us not pretend it will be a simple change. Studies on ELMS are being undertaken, and the three tiers are being designed, but it will be a mega change for UK agriculture.
The EU system of giving every farm money based on acreage is simple, but utterly wrong, yet giving farmers payments for undertaking environmental land management schemes is infinitely more complicated; farmers need time to adjust, and Defra needs time to tweak the schemes. Of course, we want rid of the perverse EU payments system as soon as possible, but I prefer to take seven years and get it right than five years and get it wrong.
My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, suggests in Amendment 130 that the period of the first plan should be five years rather than seven years. In Amendment 142, he seeks to reduce the seven-year transition period, during which the direct payments scheme will be phased out, to five years. Farmers are already anxious about how their business models will have to change, and would not welcome the shortening of the transition period. Particularly because they do not have enough information on the new scheme, the noble Lord’s amendment is unwarranted and would be damaging.
However, there is considerable merit in Amendment 143 in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, in that the seven-year transition period should start 18 months from now, rather than six, which would give more time for the Government to work out the details of the scheme, and would be neutral in terms of costs to the Exchequer.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in Amendment 144, is right to seek to ensure that payments under the new schemes compensate for the reduction in and ultimate removal of payments under the direct payments scheme. But I think his intention to limit the reduction in total support to 25% is rather modest. I believe direct payments for larger farms are set to be reduced by 25% in 2021, and the noble Lord’s amendment would still permit this to happen, even if such a farm receives zero under the countryside stewardship scheme and other current schemes. As I said previously, the larger farming businesses employ the majority of agricultural workers.
I would not support Amendment 146 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, except in so far as it equates to Amendment 143 to delay the changes by one year. The seven-year transition period is not too long, given the extent of the changes farmers will need to carry out.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, seeks to use this Bill to advance her concerns regarding animal welfare, but I cannot agree with her Amendment 147, which assumes that animal welfare standards are higher or lower, whereas different standards may produce different outcomes, and it is a fine balance. I regret that I do not see the justification for supporting her Amendments 147, 148 or 154.
My noble friend Lady Rock has eloquently explained the reasons behind her Amendments 150 and 151. I can see that where moneys are unspent, the amount provided in a subsequent year might increase if the Government accept carryover procedures. As for her Amendments 152 and 153 on delinked payments, they seem to provide an improvement to the Bill.
My Lords, I have christened this group of amendments, “Mind the gap”. We need some sort of rethink from the Government on a safer way forward.
I support Amendment 143. When I first read the Bill in its earliest form, nearly two years ago now, I thought, “That’s good—the seven-year transition from one system to the next. All will be well; farmers can plan ahead with no problems, and while the single farm payment goes down, they can enter into ELM schemes, with profits, under the new regime.” Defra had three years to get ELM schemes in place, then several years to roll them out to farmers on the ground, which, as others have said, is going to be an almost impossible task. I thought, back then, that it could happen at a manageable place, and all would be well. Farmers would be involved in tremendous changes, but they could survive the transition because the way forward would be clear to them.
But now, two years on, the way forward is still as clear as mud. ELMS have only just entered the pilot stage, farmers have no framework by which to plan and they are saying, “What will ELMS look like for me in my area? I have no idea. What training do I need? I have no idea. Do I need to plan for new equipment or facilities? I have no idea.” No one in the farming community has any clear idea of the future. The details of ELMS will not really emerge from the mist until nearly 2025.
In spite of the delays, we still seem to be stuck with a 2021 start to the transition period. This cannot be right. With the rug of the old world being slowly pulled out from under them, and the new rug unlikely to arrive for some time, I worry farmers will fall down the gap. As others have said, the delay is not really Defra’s fault; we had all the shenanigans around Brexit, and so with this Agriculture Bill doing the hokey-cokey—in, out, in, out—then Covid-19 causing genuine paralysis this year, it is not surprising the timetable has slipped. So, the Government have every reason to take this back and think again before we get to Report. I do not care how they do it, but we need something to close the horrible gap that is looming.
My Lords, I declare my interest as an arable farmer and landowner in receipt of BPS. Before I come to the amendments, I want to defend the RPA after the swipe at it by my noble friend Lord Caithness. What he said might have been true some years ago, but I pay tribute to the Minister for its much improved status over recent years, although it will clearly have its work cut out with the new regime.
The Bill establishes a framework for phasing out direct payments over seven years. It is highly likely that payments under the ELM schemes will result in significant reductions in net income, especially for cattle and sheep farmers, whether in less favoured or lowland areas, and delays in its introduction until 2024 will have a serious effect. Hence, I support Amendment 149, in the names of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but would extend it to certain smaller lowland cattle and sheep farmers. I also strongly support Amendment 144, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, believing that interim financial assistance measures need to be given to these sectors of farming in particular.
I do not support Amendment 130, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, as he did not really mention the effect it would have on farmers, which could be serious—in fact, I do not think he mentioned farmers at all—but I do support Amendment 143, which proposes a delay in the start of the transition period, and appreciate my noble friend Lord Trenchard’s support, even though he is on the Brexiteer side. I also support the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about the lack of detail on the progress of the BPS reduction after year one. I also ask, like my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, whether a new set of countryside stewardship schemes will be forthcoming in the autumn.
My Lords, I declare my interests as detailed in the register. Along with others, I agree with Amendment 143 in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh: the transition period should begin in 2022 rather than 2021. Equally, the case for being more realistic about timescales, although in a different context, is addressed by my noble friend Lady Rock’s Amendments 151, 152 and 150 respectively. The first would ensure that those entitled to payments receive them within guaranteed periods to achieve certainty of cash flow. The second would, through regulations, offer legal certainty to farmers, otherwise possibly disadvantaged where delinked payments, if introduced, might lead to extended transition periods. The third, Amendment 150, would enable the Secretary of State to increase payments during the transition period, after phasing out had started, to use up any unspent money and, when necessary, to protect the industry from harm.
Corresponding to the pragmatism of the latter proposal is my noble friend Lord Carrington’s useful Amendment 144, ensuring that any cuts in direct payments do not undermine businesses before the new public goods programmes begin. Then, reflecting the purposes and principles of the Bill themselves, there is Amendment 148 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. This emphasises the preservation of animal welfare standards, irrespective of financial consequences, while my noble friend the Duke of Wellington’s Amendment 149 would ensure direct payments to smaller livestock farmers in less favoured areas. Since all these contributions would much improve the Bill, I hope the Minister will accept them.
My Lords, this has been a particularly thoughtful debate, as it should be, because underlying the whole series of amendments being advanced is the recognition that this is, first, a major change in how we approach support for our land and our farming. Coupled with that is concern about how we bring about the change, and concern that the period allowed to bring it about is not flexible enough and may not be of the right length. Various proposals have been argued very eloquently that perhaps it should be a bit shorter—five years instead of seven. I favour a seven-year period, because the challenge is so great that we will not be able to tackle it. There are so many changes, not only in our approach—public money for public goods, instead of just production costs—but against a changing background as it is. I do not think many of us fully appreciate the changes taking place in agriculture at the moment.
I have a particular interest in the uplands and hill farming, but one cannot look at hill farming without looking at the low-level farming that depends on, feeds on and feeds from the upland areas. One has only to drive in the national park, for example, and once one gets on to the low-level farming, there are no longer any cattle, mixed farming or dairy farming: all the sheep are down on the low level 12 months a year, and that is causing problems in itself. So there is the unstable nature of farming to start with, and we then wrestle with the problem of how we make sure that the various aspects of the new legislation are tied together. Is Defra capable of handling such a major change when it is also dealing with Brexit and will face the challenge of pressure from the Treasury, in spite of what the Government may say? Then, from my experience of running the Cabinet Office, I am concerned about the ability of the Government, or any public body, to run major computer programmes. We are not always able to employ the best people, we do not have the experience, yet we take so much for granted when we look at these proposals.
I must admit that when I look at the ideas, I think Amendment 146, in the name of my noble friend Lord Grantchester, has some suggestions of a way forward. It suggests a slightly later start date—2022—coupled with some flexibility if we find that even that is too early. It even goes so far as to say that if we find that the seven-year period is not correct, it can be changed by affirmative resolution. I am not sure that I entirely agree with that, but I could be persuaded in an emergency that it is the way forward.
We are right to spend so much time debating this. Unless we get it right, the whole thing will be a disaster and there will be tears of woe, not only from the farming community but from foresters, environmentalists and a whole range of people who love our countryside.
My Lords, this has been a very interesting, thoughtful debate and I associate myself with many of the comments, not least those of the noble Earl, Lord Devon. In normal circumstances, I would agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend, Lord Blencathra, about not extending a deadline, because projects will simply extend to fill the space provided, but we are in extraordinary times, not just because of Covid but because, for the last four years, Defra and much of Whitehall have been able to focus only on one piece of wildlife, that being Yellowhammer.
Yesterday was Report on the Business and Planning Bill. In our deliberations, it became clear that emergency legislation needs to be passed in various situations and circumstances which will run to September 2021. In light of that, it seems logical and coherent across government policy that a move regarding the start of the transition period, from 2021 to 2022, would dovetail very much with that same legislative logic. Does my noble friend the Minister agree?
I also very much support the amendment in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Wellington. If legislation means anything, it must mean that it touches on those in the greatest need. I believe that my noble friend’s amendment very much goes to the point of covering those who fundamentally understand and deliver on stewardship, guardianship, public good and, indeed, equity. Does my noble friend the Minister agree?
Finally, will my noble friend the Minister comment on the current situation with the IT system within Defra? What is proposed for the new scheme, and is this set in stone or are discussions still afoot as to exactly how to structure the scheme from an IT perspective?
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, in particular because I too support Amendment 149. In these proceedings we are encouraged and even exhorted to be brief, and I hope I can meet that expectation, first by adopting all the observations made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and my noble friend Lord Greaves.
Some of your Lordships may remember that at an earlier stage in these proceedings I sought to make a case for the recognition of support for small farms in less favoured areas. I do so again today unequivocally because in my judgment, such support is not only desirable but necessary. It is necessary to ensure the survival of viable businesses, it helps avoid the risk of land abandonment, and it ensures that land continues to be put to good agricultural use, in addition to which it combats depopulation. I would describe all these as public goods. However, they are public goods which have benevolent consequences, because support of that kind and the continuation of agricultural activity in such areas helps preserve communities and support social infrastructure, such as schools, post offices and medical services. I hope therefore that when the Minister comes to address us he will provide an explanation as to why these desirable objectives and outcomes do not find favour with the Government.
My Lords, I support Amendment 130. In my years in business I have run a few businesses in the rural area: principally some forestry in Herefordshire, a little horticulture—down to a very small amount now—a small amount of viticulture, and just 40 acres of woodland registered with the Forestry Commission. I have led a number of large businesses, in India, Sri Lanka and the UK. One of the key determinants of a successful business is not to have a review too long after you start out on a big project such as this one. In my judgment, seven years is far too long when there are quite so many variables.
We have only to listen to noble Lords as we debate the Bill. We hear of variables that were anticipated and of those that nobody ever expected to happen. In addition, there are new problems due to the fact that we will be an independent nation. There are variables caused by climate change—how many of those have we had in the last seven years? There are variables due to Brexit, and due to the Environment Bill, which we have yet to debate. There are variables that will come from the penetration of 5G across the rural parts of the United Kingdom. Broadband is absolutely vital to rural communities.
Finally, one of the key problems at the moment is that a significant number of the staff who serve us as civil servants, and do it so well, are still working from home—is it 90% of them? Can my noble friend tell me how many or what percentage of Defra staff are currently back in the office?
My Lords, I will say a few words about the transition period and, in particular, in support of Amendments 150 to 154 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, which have the support of the National Farmers Union and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, among others.
These amendments focus on funding during the transition period and touch on the vital importance of maintaining food security during the period when we are moving over to the new payment scheme. Cash flow is a major problem for many organisations, and in some cases it has been a factor in businesses, and indeed farms, going bankrupt. It has become a huge problem during the Covid-19 lockdown, and it threatens many people’s livelihoods. It has also been an ongoing problem for farmers, who have sometimes had to wait long periods before receiving payments. We know that any new systems need time to bed in, so these amendments make allowance for any problems in the implementation of the new scheme, and I support them.
I am also supportive of Amendment 149 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, as are number of your Lordships. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the need to take special care of small farmers and less favoured areas where farming is extremely vulnerable, which need our support during this time.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I will speak briefly to Amendment 146 but will refer in passing to quite a number of other amendments.
Before the CAP was even a glimmer in the eye of the founder of the European Union, the agricultural sector was operating in a regulated marketplace, which makes it quite different from almost all other kinds of business and commerce. In such a marketplace there is a need for all those involved to have a degree of certainty, which is as important from the Government’s perspective as it is from the agricultural sector’s. The parties need to know what the lie of the land might be, if I may put it thus. That is why Clause 4 is so important, because it sets the framework of the way the land lies for the transitional period and points to the world beyond it.
It seems that the problem surrounding Clause 4 is essentially twofold. First, the process of Brexit has been so drawn out that the length of time to effect a seamless move to the new era is too curtailed for it to be achieved as originally envisaged. Secondly, the coming into being of the ELMS—the environmental land management scheme—which was intended to replace the basic payment scheme, has been so delayed, as a number of noble Lords have said, that it is no longer available for farmers and land managers to transition into it and into the new economic and agricultural environment, which is the heart of the new era. As well is it seeming inherently unjust, it is not part of the basic political and policy proposition that was put to the British people as to how we left the CAP.
Moreover, there is a real risk that it may end up causing a muddle in terms of public policy outputs. If you oversimplify it, under the basic payments scheme, the public goods which the state paid for were farming, and everything else was a kind of bolt-on extra. We are now moving into a brave new world where everything else is public goods and food production is a bolt-on extra. That is quite a turnaround.
Against that background, there is, as several noble Lords have said, a chasm—or what might be described as the valley of the shadow of death—that lies between the two eras and into which a significant amount of both farm businesses and land may fall. This will get in the way of implementing the policies we are discussing; indeed, it may put certain parts of them into reverse.
Although, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said on a previous occasion when discussing the Bill, we must not be frightened of failure, surely the underlying intended purpose is to effect a successful transition from the old to the new. That is why the amendment of the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Curry, is important, as is that of the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, because they recognise, as was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that things may not actually turn out as planned and intended. You need to build into your system a way of modifying your arrangements, and an escape route.
It is clear from our discussion of this clause that the present transitional process is flawed, and those flaws need ironing out, because if we are to make a successful journey from the old world to the new, we have to get to the destination in one piece and not have a car crash.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Teverson has tabled Amendments 130 and 142, which would reduce the transition period between farmers receiving direct payments under the CAP and moving on to the ELM scheme. He is concerned about the length of time that will elapse before the farming community has become fully environmentally aware and responds to the Bill’s ethos of public money for public goods. Both COPs 26 and 15 have been postponed. The number of species facing extinction is growing, and biodiversity, which includes pollination and soil quality, is very important. The current financial systems work against biodiversity. This is not satisfactory.
Most Peers are concerned that the period before ELMS becomes fully operational should be further away, giving farmers more time to adjust to the change. The noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Earls, Lord Devon and Lord Caithness, support this view. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, spoke about the gap between phasing out direct payments and introducing ELMS, and said that no farmer should have more than a 25% cut in their direct payments until ELMS is introduced.
The funding of less favoured areas has again been raised by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and I fully support him in in his concerns. I ask the Minister to give a categoric undertaking that the so-called less favoured areas will receive funding. Unless he does, noble Lords on all sides of the House will continue to raise this important subject.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rock, has tabled a number of important amendments related to timescales, cash flows and delinked payments—all extremely important in reassuring the farming community of just how and when they will receive financial assistance—which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans has supported. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, again raises the issue of animal welfare, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge. We have debated animal welfare on previous amendments, and it is essential that that theme be a thread that runs through the Bill and thus be included in a number of clauses.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, believes that Defra will not be ready in 2021 to move to ELMS, and so wishes to put this off until 2022, and he is supported by other Peers. I share his concern about Defra’s preparedness. However, giving it more time is unlikely to assist. Moving deadlines does not always produce results, as the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, lets Defra off the hook for not having met the deadlines; I am afraid I am not quite so generous.
Finally, farmers are left in the dark on what is approaching, despite its being trailed well in advance. I fully support the move to ELMS, but I am very concerned that insufficient information is available to give your Lordships and farmers confidence that their future will be secured. The Minister needs to provide reassurance that Defra and the RPA can cope, because from what I have heard this afternoon, I do not believe they can.
This is an interesting group of amendments, the various areas of focus being multiannual plans and the transition period. As is customary, I declare my agricultural interests as recorded on the register.
The first cluster of amendments concerns the start date and duration of the multiannual plans. Amendment 130 and, consequentially, Amendment 142, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, would reduce the initial multiannual plan to five years starting from 2021. Moving from a previous group to this group, Amendment 131, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, would extend the subsequent multiannual plans to seven years, in the opposite direction, but leave the start date at 2021. Amendment 143, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and others, delays the start of the transition phase of seven years until 2022, but technically, this seems to leave hanging the oddity under Clause 4(3) that the first planned period of seven years—the transition phase—starts in 2021 and will give rise to two competing seven-year periods.
Amendment 146, in my name, appears to involve a similar anomaly to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, regarding Clause 4(3), by delaying the start of the transition phase to 2022. However, under proposed new subsection (4) in our Amendment 146, flexibility is provided to shorten the transition phase if this becomes necessary. The whole amendment, drafted to replace Clause 8, is designed to provide flexibility. Proposed new subsection (2) would provide that flexibility by accommodating the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic this year through a one-year delay. It would also accommodate the possibility of a subsequent further disruption should a second spike strike, as further misfortune, it has recently been argued, may well be a possibility or even a likelihood.
Is there Minister confident about the readiness to implement the first planned period as soon as 2021? Last year, the National Audit Office was concerned that the Treasury and Defra had not built in enough time to implement the new funding system. Certainly, there are doubts that farmers and land managers would be able to accommodate the change to the support system in order to start next year. However, it could be argued that it may not be necessary to require a further full seven-year period for the first planned period, having had a delay to the start. The planned period could be shortened by the flexibility provided by proposed new subsection (4).
I merely comment to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that the first planned period being longer than subsequent planned periods would appear to make sense in order to allow the trials, pilots and designs of the new ELM scheme to be properly understood, responded to and taken up, in time for any reassessments to be thought through for subsequent planned periods.
I do not know whether we really need to be concerned about election cycles, debated last week, should the plans to change the five-year Parliament Act be taken up. Clause 4(4) of the Bill merely stipulates that subsequent planned periods must not be less than five years.
The Minister will be aware from the UK’s membership of the EU that one multiannual plan is often barely in operation before plans come forward to improve it to ignite responses in the member states.
I appreciate the intent behind Amendment 144 in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Curry, that the viability of farm businesses could be jeopardised by making deductions before measures are introduced, to which participants could make up that shortfall, as I have commented previously.
Amendment 149 in the name of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the impact of these payments on the viability of less favoured areas specifically.
The concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, is well understood. I reflect only that animal welfare standards are enshrined in farm assurance schemes and underpinned by good husbandry, and that regulations are a cumbersome tool in this regard. Welfare standards are not “burdens”, as expressed in this Bill; they are fundamental to good practice.
Amendment 150 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, also calls for flexibility around payments. Although counterintuitive to the phasing out of direct payments, it is similar to effect to our Amendment 142, in an earlier group, which would allow the carrying forward of unspent sums as schemes under ELM may need time to be developed and taken up. The noble Baroness is right to signal in Amendments 151 and 153 that late payments suffered under the RPA’s management, especially at times of adjustment to new systems and developments, must be avoided.
I thank her for her Amendment 152 on the delinking payment provisions. It allows me to ask the Minister to clarify his department’s plans for the introduction of delinking payments from land. The Bill states that this cannot be before 2022, which is understood. As this will be the break from the past land-based payment systems, it would be helpful to have on the record what considerations his department has in mind regarding its introduction. How much notice will be given, especially if it is decided to activate the provision before the end of the transition phase? Can the Minister say that it will not be before the various trials and pilots throughout the country have been completed and the full array of new ELM schemes is available for uptake?
The Minister’s department has not published any further thinking beyond what was published in February this year. I hope and expect that the department has taken forward many aspects of all the measures that make up this framework. As we come to the Summer Recess, can the Minister give the House a clear commitment that there will be far more details against which to judge this stage’s amendments in good time for Report stage, which is expected in mid-September? Last week, the noble Baroness the Minister spoke of more information perhaps coming forward by mid-October. She will be aware that this will be too late. Details of other enhancements are promised to be forthcoming in September. Can the Minister map out the scheduling of information that will be necessary for our considerations on Report?
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. It is always challenging when one noble Lord decides on one timeframe and another noble Lord chooses another. Sometimes the Government must make decisions on their position. Our position has been undertaken through a lot of consideration. I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his Amendment 130, which seeks to reduce the length of the first multiannual financial assistance plan.
We are all agreed that the nature of farming is a long-term affair. For that reason, we felt that having clarity of funding across multiple years was of paramount importance. As drafted, Clause 4 requires that the first planned period will run for seven years. This is designed to match the length of the agricultural transition period, which is a key time for the development of government policy. Schemes will be tested and piloted. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood said—I was not in a position to reply to my noble friend Lord Lucas—the purpose of tests, pilots and trials is to iron out what has not worked particularly well and find those schemes that come forward as the most dynamic and the best value for money for the taxpayer. The findings from these experiences will inform the development of future schemes and strategic objectives. We believe that shortening the period covered by the first plan would hinder our ability to assess schemes and take a considered view of what works and what does not.
The majority of the amendments in this group address the length of the agricultural transition period. I will address Amendments 142 to 146, on the subject of direct payment reductions. The planned agricultural transition period allows a gradual transition from the existing area-based payments to the future system, where public money will be paid for public goods. We deliberately made this time to avoid a cliff edge for farm businesses. Following an extensive consultation, we believe that seven years strikes the right balance between signalling the end of area-based payments and giving farmers time to adjust. Shortening the transition period would mean steeper rates of payment reductions, which we believe would put undue pressure on farmers who are currently reliant on direct payments at a time when they are adapting to a future without them.
I think that most of us agree that direct payments offer poor value for money. Appropriate reductions to these payments will free up funds that can be used to fund new countryside stewardship agreements, introduce the Environmental Land Management national pilot in 2021 and introduce schemes to boost industry productivity, through which grants will be available so that farmers can invest in equipment, technology and infrastructure. The reductions for 2021 will be modest. As I was reminded, there are within the margin of what would often be currency rate changes in previous regimes. They will be no more than 5% for around 80% of farmers, based on the 2018 scheme data. I will look at Hansard because I think that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, spoke about a minimum; my understanding is that it will be no more than 5% but I would like to clarify that point.
A seven-year transition period gives enough time to ensure that ELM is fully up and running before direct payments end. The Government are undertaking a large stakeholder-led programme of tests and trials for certain elements of the scheme design. We plan to pilot our approach in 2021 ahead of the rollout of ELM in 2024. In their election manifesto, the Government guaranteed the current annual budget in every year of this Parliament. We have also published the maximum reductions that we intend to apply in the first year of transition. These were first announced in September 2018 to give farmers sufficient notice. The Government will set out further information on funding for the early years of the agricultural transition period, including direct payments, in the autumn.
Having declared my interests, I should say that I well understand that many of my neighbouring farmers—indeed, all the farmers I know—are very keen to know more on this. I appreciate that. I assure noble Lords that the point is hoisted and that I know why it is important. I look forward to that information coming forward in the autumn.
While direct payments currently form an important contribution to income on many farms in England, we believe that they can hamper productivity growth in the agricultural sector. That is why, within the sum that will be released, that money will be diverted into countryside stewardship and productivity grants so that farmers can start, through their business interests, to take advantage of the money that will move from direct payments into these other areas of support.
While I have been at the Dispatch Box, there have been varying years relating to the RPA. It is interesting, and I think my noble friend Lord Northbrook is correct. The payment profile of the RPA has very much improved since my first exercises on this in 2015. We have seen considerable advance in rates of payment; indeed, this has been a very strong priority of the ministerial team.
Defra’s ELM programme will lead and be accountable for the delivery of the national pilot, working with our delivery partners: the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the Rural Payments Agency. We are working with the RPA to ensure that it has capacity to deliver the pilot, and we are confident that it will be able to do so. This is on the relationship in this first stage of the pilot.
Another concern which the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, and my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond raised was computer programmes. Again, we have all been scarred by computer programme issues. Defra digital, data and technology specialists are currently working to ensure that the IT needs of the national pilot and ELM will be in place on time, and they are focusing on the ability to make accurate payments on time, on which I place enormous importance. We are confident in our ability to deliver these IT schemes.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, tabled Amendment 149 relating to upland farmers, and I am struck by what my noble friend Lord Randall said about lowland farmers as well. The Government recognise that upland farmers play a vital role in looking after the countryside. We believe that they already provide many environmental benefits, and so will be very well placed to deliver environmental outcomes—and incomes—which will be rewarded under the ELMS.
Therefore, I say in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that we are fully seized of the importance of small upland and lowland farmers who have contributed so much, not only to communities but to the landscape more widely. It is really important that they are part of the ELMS, and I believe that what they will provide for the nation will be very considerable. The Government will apply reductions to the payments in a fair way, and smaller farmers will initially experience lower reductions than larger farmers.
Turning to Amendments 150 to 152, we recognise in Part 2 of the Bill that in exceptional market conditions it is right for the Government to be able to intervene. Clause 8 allows for the extension of the agricultural transition period, should it be necessary. The Government believe that seven years is enough time for an agricultural transition, however we may need to act swiftly and robustly in unforeseen circumstances that warrant an extension.
I say particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, but also to my noble friend Lady Rock, that, regarding how delinked payments will work, the Government have made clear that they intend to delink direct payments during the transition period. When that happens, the recipient of delinked payments would not need to remain a farmer to receive them. When delinked payments are introduced, they will replace the current basic payment scheme entirely and for all farmers. The basic payment scheme and delinked payments cannot and will not coexist.
Eligibility for delinked payments will be based on a reference period. For example, it may be necessary to have claimed, or been eligible, under the direct payment scheme in a particular year or years. This is also important: we will consult with farmers before setting this reference period in regulations, and it will be subject to affirmative resolution procedure. I say particularly to my noble friend Lady Rock that timescales for basic payment scheme payments are already set out within the retained EU regulations.
With regard to Amendment 153, when we introduce delinked payments, we may wish to move away from the current approach of making a single payment per year and issue payments more frequently instead; Clause 12 gives this flexibility. We believe that more frequent payments would help farmers’ cash flow, and this has been mentioned by your Lordships.
We will publish details of how and when delinked payments will be paid, following a consultation with farmers on the design of the scheme. Specifying payment timescales and regulations could hinder our ability to adapt the arrangements, in light of experience, in the future. We want to move away from the rigidity of the CAP, so that we can offer a better, more responsive service to farmers.
Turning to Amendments 147, 148 and 154, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that the Government are committed to maintaining the UK’s position as a world leader in animal welfare. What I say now is because of the way that regulations and legislation are drafted, so it may seem a bit technical.
Clauses 9 and 14 provide the Secretary of State with powers to modify retained EU legislation governing the basic payment scheme and the common agricultural policy, known as the horizontal regulations for specified purposes. Those purposes aim to make the scheme simpler and improve it for farmers. The underlying animal welfare standards, to which all farmers must adhere, are not found in this basic payment scheme legislation or in the horizontal regulations; they are found instead in underlying domestic and retained EU law, which Clauses 9 and 14 do not allow us to change. I hope that helps the noble Baroness to understand why her very legitimate issues are not placed within these clauses.
It has been a very interesting debate, and I am fully seized of the points made about what has been described as “the gap”. I hope I have set out what we intend to do with the fairly modest sums—I think it is a maximum of £150 million out of £1.8 billion—that would be spent on these new schemes, which are about moving us forward, both with the ELMS and pilots and in productivity. I am fully seized of the importance of that, and the autumn announcement will therefore be very important, not only for your Lordships but, in particular, for farmers and how they work through these changes.
I repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson: the Government felt that seven years was a responsible length of time for the multiannual financial plan and for an agricultural transition. We want this to be a success for farmers, because they provide us with so much; the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, spoke about this in one of our debates, which now seems a little while ago. We ask the farmer to do a lot, and that is why I think, and the Government feel, that seven years is an appropriate period.
With those points, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, in that full reply from the Minister I heard him justify the seven-year period and explain Clause 8 giving the Government power to extend the transition if necessary. However, I did not hear his response to Amendment 143 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on why the transition is to start next year and not in 2022.
Some of us, going back to the last Labour Government, have a lot of experience with the problems of the RPA and getting new systems up and running. The Minister spoke with great confidence about these systems being viable and how the IT was going to work. All I can say to him is: good luck with that. I hope he is correct.
In the event that the RPA runs into problems, under the Bill as currently drafted—irrespective of the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh —do the Government have the power to delay the start of the transition and the pilots? Despite the noble Lord’s confidence that everything will be okay, many of us will feel much more assured if we know that the legal powers are there and will prevent a headlong rush in the event of teething and administrative problems.
There are a number of points there. I think I said that under Clause 8 the Government allow for an extension of the agricultural transition period, should that be necessary, so there is an important safeguard there; we can extend the agricultural transition period.
I think I did reply to my noble friend; it may not be satisfactory to the noble Lord or my noble friend. We believe that direct payments offer poor value for money, and that is why we want to start in 2021 with, as I say, a modest reduction. I have deliberately said that this will be no more than 5% for around 80% of farmers, so that we can redirect that money into an ELM national pilot, Countryside Stewardship agreements and productivity grants.
Yes, we are all scarred by computer systems. I am the first to say that I am not a computer expert; that is why we have people who are. I repeat that everyone working on these matters is experienced in them, because clearly—as I have said—we want payments on time and a successful outcome for farmers. We also want to make sure that the ELM and all we do hereon in is value for money for the taxpayer. In the end, it is the taxpayer who will reward the farmer for doing the things that we as a society know the farmer can do very well.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his response. I have two questions. He said the RPA would do the trial next year, then he came to a full stop. Does that mean his mind is open and that another body could be responsible for implementing the ELMS in future? Secondly, he referred to the autumn announcement. Can he be more specific on the timing of the autumn announcement and whether we will get that before Report?
I cannot give my noble friend the precise date. I know noble Lords would like that announcement to be as soon as possible—I will take that away—but I am afraid I cannot give your Lordships a precise date. In fact, I do not know the precise date, but it will be in autumn. I am fully seized of the importance of that.
As to whether the delivery body is the RPA in the long term, I believe it is well placed. I cannot give a direct answer as to whether the RPA will in fact do all the ELM. I suspect it may, but that is obviously a matter we will consider.
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, beat me to it. I was going to ask for the date of the Autumn Statement and request that it occur before Report. I reiterate that there really is no point in us coming back to all these issues if the Government are about to issue a Statement that will add considerable clarity and amount to a multiannual financial assistance plan. Anything the Minister can do to get that Statement before Report would be appreciated.
I can say to the noble Earl and other noble Lords that I have the matter strongly in my mind.
I was not going to pursue this, but my noble friend’s answer has perplexed me. He said the Government wish to phase out direct payments as they provide poor value for money. The whole thrust of the debate on Amendment 143 this afternoon is that if whatever will replace direct payments is not in position, is it wise to start phasing out direct payments at that time? Can my noble friend not permit himself a degree of flexibility in this regard?
My Lords, the Government have sought that flexibility in how we reduce the payments, as I say. Although we will make announcements on funding for the early years of agricultural transition, we have also provided that flexibility for unforeseen circumstances in which, for instance, we would need to extend the agricultural transition period.
We want to start in 2021 because this is a journey—to pick up some of the points at the beginning—about how we work with health and harmony. How do we ensure, working with farmers, that we produce very good food and enhance the environment? Of course, I take the point that we must get the system working well, but the prize in all this—public money going to support farmers in enhancing the environment—is a very desirable thing.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, for his support. We are not often on the same side of things and I very much appreciate his remarks and the considered remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and even the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, who understand the biodiversity dimensions of this, even if they do not—[Inaudible.]
There is a real issue here. Funnily enough, I do not disagree with the view of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, about pushing back the start one year, just to make sure we get this incredibly important issue for the nation right before we start. But I cannot believe it can take seven years for a nation such as ours to implement a new system; five years is far more acceptable for what we have to do. In fact, it seems the seven years that many advocate is going back to the mentality of the common agricultural policy and the European Union—that slo-mo mindset that we are trying to escape with this new scheme. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 130 withdrawn.
Amendments 131 to 134 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Amendment 135 not moved.
Clause 5: Annual and other reports on amount of financial assistance given
Amendments 136 to 138 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Monitoring impact of financial assistance etc
Amendment 139 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 140. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or the other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
140: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Financial assistance to be provided on the basis of public funds for public goods
(1) Financial assistance under this Chapter may only be provided if it is in accordance with the rule “public funds for public goods”.(2) The rule referred to in subsection (1) is to be provided for in regulations made by the Secretary of State.(3) Regulations made under this section are subject to affirmative resolution procedure.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require that the meaning of public goods for the purpose of this legislation is set out and agreed by Parliament and provides a clear basis for the provision of financial assistance.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 140 I will also speak to Amendment 141, which is grouped with it although it is a different issue. I will speak to Amendment 141 first.
Earlier on in this Committee, a long time ago, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said—I am almost quoting him—that the Government never use compulsion and would never instruct farmers what they should do. That is a fine sentiment. The purpose of this slightly convoluted amendment is very simple: to ask how the Government intend to proceed on large tier 3 schemes in circumstances in which one or more landowners is being obstructive and refusing to take part.
For example, there may be a large area of moorland, such as an upland moor in the north of England, for which a tier 3 scheme is proposed for a combination of reasons, such as wildlife, carbon sequestration, restoring the peat, water catchment, and improving the management of the farms as a whole in that area. One large landowner, who occupies a strategic position on that moorland massif, may refuse to take part. It is a simple question: what procedures or ways will there be to overcome that and force them to do what is in the interests of the public and everybody in the area?
Amendment 140 is a slightly convoluted amendment that puts to the Government that the words “public goods” are not terribly specific or clear. A lot of people have taken to repeating, because it is a good thing to say, “Public money for public goods”. In the instance of the Bill and Clause 1 specifically, what does this mean? We need to know. The phrase originally came from Michael Gove when he was Secretary of State, who put it forward as a major principle. The cynic in me suggests that, rather than being a principle, in many cases it is a slogan; it sounds good.
Most members of the public, if asked, would say that a public good was something that was good for the public. Some of this confusion is behind some of the amendments we have already discussed and dealt with—for example, the question of food security. Is food security, however defined, a public good or something that is good for the public but, in strict economic terms, not a public good? Earlier in Committee, the Minister was specific that the production of food was not a public good; it is a private good, because it is produced and distributed via the market. That is a summary of what he said, and he is agreeing with me.
I am not an economist, but I have read far too much of what economists have written during my life. I notice that they are rather like lawyers: you can pay them to say what you want, in some circumstances. At its most basic, a public good is defined as a commodity or service that is made available to all members of society. It may be free, like the air that we breathe—to almost quote The Hollies, Pendle’s most famous pop group in history. It may be charged for but available to everybody, like a bus journey; on the other hand, if you have an old person’s pass, as I do, you get a free journey, so it is not clear. It is often administered by government and public authorities, paid for by the public purse, often by taxation but perhaps in other ways. For example, clean drinking water, law enforcement, defence security, rule of law and more specific things—street lighting and primary education—are often cited as public goods. They are the opposite of private goods, which are inherently scarce, if you read what the economists say, and paid for by individuals or private corporate bodies.
A further criterion of public goods is that they are not scarce. Their supply does not reduce if they are used or, if it does, the authorities can come along and replenish them. They can be used by any number of people at the same time. The issue is obviously complex. You might think that roads, for example, have been a good public good for cyclists in the last four months. Whether that continues is a different matter. Public parks are thought to be public goods, and so on.
As it applies to the Bill, the question is which items in Clause 1(1) and (2) can be regarded as public goods. You can make a pretty good argument for most items in Clause 1(1), but the health of the livestock or the soil is specific to a particular farm operation. Putting public money into them might be highly desirable, but are they public goods? Clause 1(2) is about creating new farming institutions or increasing the productivity of an existing farm in various ways. That comes close to direct subsidy of what the Minister said is not a public good, but is simply producing food in a better way. How come increasing productivity and making people more efficient, rather than doing things in a more environmentally desirable way, is a public good? It is not clear who benefits from that kind of thing. It is clearly not about what is good or bad.
What is it about? The truth is that, the more you look into it, the more different people think it is different things. I want to know what the Government think it is. If they are saying to the public that they are not going to reduce farm subsidies generally, but spend them on different things—and perhaps turn them around, as the noble Lord said earlier—I suggest they stop using “public goods” in a vague way or as a slogan in general, and define what they mean. It is only by clearly defining what they mean that they will give clarity, not just to farmers and land managers but to people generally. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in the sentiments behind these two amendments. To consider Amendment 140 first, we are in the dark a little. My understanding—and I hope my noble friend the Minister will explain this in winding up—is that public good and natural capital will be explained further in the Environment Bill, which we have not yet had sight of here. I share the noble Lord’s concern as to what we understand by “public good”.
I was heartened yesterday by an Answer from my noble friend Lord Goldsmith that nature lies at the heart of the Government’s biodiversity strategy. I argue that looking after nature, which farmers do so well, is a form of public good. I am wedded to the idea of natural flood defences as well. I like to think that active farming underlies this. Will my noble friend confirm that we will have a better understanding of what public funds for public goods are—this is the whole difficulty with the Bill—because it is set out in the Environment Bill, which is not before us now? That would be very helpful.
I also support the idea of providing the means to resolve a dispute in the cases set out in Amendment 141. I took a great interest in one of the vexed schemes, because there were 16 to 20 graziers in a project, who had the right in perpetuity to graze on common land that had a different landowner from where they were tenants. It was a very complex situation. I hope that my noble friend and Defra come up with a scheme where the natural capital or public good is provided by the landowner and a tenant benefits from the scheme. I would like to know what the Government have in mind to resolve disputes such as this. There are similar instances that I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will discuss as part of his Amendment 159A, but he has raised issues that are worthy of debate today.
My Lords, we are all anxious to make progress, so I shall be brief.
These two amendments from my noble friend Lord Greaves, which I strongly support, are deceptively modest but very significant in the context of this Bill. As has been said, the concept of public goods has been a persistent and welcome thread through the early sections of the Bill. Some Members may think that it should have been more rigorously defined on the face of the Bill. I do not accept the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that we can wait for the Environment Bill. Frankly, by the time we get there, too much of the present Bill will have been decided.
With Amendment 140, my noble friend rightly seeks to achieve a full parliamentary examination of this essential element of the post-CAP package. I lost count of the number of Members in the previous debate who were referring to public goods, and of course Ministers have, throughout all stages of this Bill in both Houses, referred to public goods. Therefore, I hope that the affirmative resolution procedure, which would ensure that we have a proper parliamentary discussion of this important definition, can happen. My previous service on the DPRRC persuades me that this is the proper procedure here.
Turning to Amendment 141, which deals with large-scale tier-3 schemes, my experience of Dartmoor, where I used to chair meetings of the national park committee, and my experience of Bodmin Moor, which adjoined my home in my then constituency, made me especially aware of the sensitivity of moorland restoration schemes. These can have a challenging effect on all those who are interested in them, and on farms in LFAs, which have also been a common theme this afternoon.
Whatever their respective merits, nobody can deny that they inevitably impact on several landowners and land managers, and a variety of other users. Since the UK has responsibility for the stewardship of no less than three quarters of the world’s heather moorlands, this should be very high in our awareness of potentially clashing interests. I was interested in what the noble Baroness said. Like me, she will be well aware of how difficult decisions can be in deciding between different interests in that context.
It may well be true of other projects with overall beneficial environmental objectives, but the likely economic or other impacts on individuals or groups in those circumstances can be very important. I have had experience of uncomfortable impacts—admittedly relatively short-term ones—from major schemes such as coastal marsh creation schemes. My noble friend suggests that we should have the affirmative procedure to look at the details when then Minister comes forward with these. I hope he accepts that this too offers a practical solution.
My Lords, my noble friend’s two amendments are very interesting. Starting with Amendment 140, I thought that I knew what the public good was, having produced amendments which I thought were centred around it, such as public access and how you support that access and make it more readily available to those with disabilities and so on. However, when I read this amendment, I thought, “Ah, someone else put that at a priority level; that makes it a public good.” It is in the Bill, but is it as high a public good as something else? What happens if it starts to compete, which it will, with other activities? For instance, if you want to encourage a certain animal or plant somewhere and a path goes through it, which changes? On that fundamental level, getting some idea about how the assessments are made is important.
This is probably the start of a discussion that will run over several Bills, but if the Minister replies now, at least we will then know what we are disagreeing with and be taking a step forward. It is very important to find that out here. What is the Government’s starting point on this? How does it relate to various things? The process by which we establish that, if there is any doubt, will become very important as we go forward.
On the next amendment, the noble Lord mentioned one large landowner stopping a scheme. I have met many a small landowner who would stop anything that interferes with his life as it currently exists, so the net might need to be spread a little wider. We are going down because everybody assumes that the way they live is of value. The vast majority have strived to get to where they are, so they will at best be wary of change. Getting some definition of when you are making a change like that, how it will affect you and where the Government must push and say “No, it is going to happen” is something that we need. These are very important amendments in the subject that they deal with, because if we do not have the definition and terms—I thought that I did and, clearly, I do not—then we must find them. Otherwise, this will run into trouble and only serve to annoy us.
My Lords, I well understand why Members who are in the Government are anxious to move this Bill forward as quickly as possible, but if anything ever illustrated the value of this House and the limitations of another place, it is this Bill. The other place barely considered this Bill, and certainly not in any detail. Your Lordships’ House has sought to scrutinise, which without filibustering has still taken a long time, but it is a crucial Bill which will affect the lives of all of us, directly or indirectly, in the coming years.
There is no more important industry in our country than farming, and certainly no industry more productive or upon which we all depend so much, yet it faces a period of unparalleled uncertainty. I pay tribute to the Minister for listening so carefully and replying so sympathetically, but it is crucial that the Government display sensitivity and flexibility. This was illustrated very well indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who did himself a disservice by talking about “convoluted amendments”. Frankly, we must address this central issue of public goods and public money. I would prefer “public” to have a capital “P”, and to have “good” and “benefit” in the singular, because although the phrase may come trippingly off the tongue, the public good is very different in the farmlands of Lincolnshire from the farming of the Scottish borders. Of course, the farming duty goes with farming, the responsibility for wildlife, the countryside and the overall appearance of the environment, but the fundamental public good is the quality of what is produced, and this is where I cross swords with the Minister.
We touched on this in our debates last week. There is no greater public good and certainly no greater public responsibility than producing food to sustain the nation. Last week we also touched on the fact that the defence of the nation itself depends on the amount and quality of food that our farmers are able to produce. I hope that between now and Report the Minister—I address this to him personally and specifically—will seek to produce in the Bill a schedule or clause that defines “public good”, setting out precisely what it means and precisely what it is.
I will not go on at greater length. I am limiting my contributions to the debates on the Bill because I understand the Minister’s wish to move forward as quickly as possible. However, it must not be speed at the expense of scrutiny and, when we come to Report, ultimately the Government must help to put the Bill into better shape than it is in at the moment.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Greaves has set out his case for the inclusion of Amendments 140 and 141, supported by my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Addington, both of whom pressed the case for an assessment of what constitutes “public goods”.
Amendment 140 would require financial assistance to be provided on the basis of public money for public goods, and it requires the regulations to be subject to the affirmative resolution. More examination is needed of exactly what the Government mean by “public goods” and how that will be defined. It could mean myriad things.
Amendment 141 would give clear instructions to the Secretary of State to order owners and managers of land to take part in a project—that is, a coastal marsh creation or a large-scale moorland restoration—in which they do not wish to participate.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, supports both amendments. She is aware that there are often disputes between tenants and landlords that need to be sorted out. My noble friend Lord Addington said that even small landowners and not just large ones are very wary of change and will often object to taking part in projects. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised the importance of scrutinising the Bill and of taking time to do it. I do not think that we can be accused of not doing so. As he said, farming is extremely important.
It is important that such vital projects for land improvement are not thwarted by individual landowners, but I am less clear that the degree of compulsion is in the spirit of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this issue.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. We have had a varied debate but I wish to raise some further points and questions.
The Government’s communications on the Bill have focused on the principle of public money for public goods—a principle of almost total consensus. However, our current understanding of what constitutes “public goods” is fairly limited and, although widely used in this debate and the previous one, it is not a term used in the Bill. Although Chapter 1 outlines the purposes for which money can be given, our understanding of “public goods” probably differs according to our political emphasis. For example, my party would have a greater focus on food as a public good. It is a long time since I studied A-level economics, but I am sure that I remember a discussion centring around the fact that public goods are particularly apposite to sustaining a well-ordered society. They contribute to social inclusion and strengthen a shared sense of citizenship. In fact, it was debates such as those that fired my interest in politics and led to a lifetime spent working in public service. Therefore, will the Minister seek to define the phrase for the purposes of this legislation?
Amendment 141 proposes introducing an ability for the Secretary of State to order a landowner to participate in a large-scale tier 3 scheme. The Bill already represents a huge shift in how farmers are funded and this process will be much easier if it has the consent of landowners. Can the Minister therefore outline what powers are already available in the event of an owner or land manager refusing to participate in a scheme, even when there is a clear public interest in that scheme going ahead?
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for his Amendment 140. Our new “public money for public goods” policy aims to reward farmers and land managers for goods and services that benefit society but are not currently traded on the market. The financial assistance powers in Clause 1(1) provide the Secretary of State with the power to spend money for furthering certain purposes, which in turn can help to deliver these public goods. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to define the “public funds for public goods” rule. This Bill does not include a definition of “public goods” because it provides powers to the Secretary of State to pay financial assistance for a number of purposes that will enable Defra to introduce its future policies, including productivity grants, as set out in Clause 1(2).
Perhaps I may go further. In terms of this Bill, public goods are goods and services that are valued by society but not provided by the market, including things such as clean water and air, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, the beauty and heritage of the environment and engagement with it.
The noble Lord asked whether productivity was a public good. The more productive the method of farming, often the more environmentally sound that farming method is. Our priority is a productive farming sector—one that will support farmers to provide more home-grown healthy produce made to high environmental and animal welfare standards. More efficient production has the benefits of lower costs and higher yields and, in many cases, a reduced impact on the environment.
The Government believe that by moving to a new system based on public money for public goods, and by supporting farming through productivity schemes and grants, we will put English farmers in the best position possible to boost sustainable food production. Defining “public good” in the Bill and requiring every pound spent under Clause 1 to meet this rule would unnecessarily restrict the Government’s ability to deliver their goal of a more sustainable, productive sector. Perhaps I may reiterate what Clause 1(4) says:
“In framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.”
Amendment 141 seeks to provide powers for the Secretary of State to require landowners or managers to participate in landscape-scale land-use change projects. The Government recognise that the ELM scheme will be most successful if it has very high levels of participation. This could be particularly important when considering locally targeted or landscape-scale projects under tiers 2 and 3 of ELMS, especially where any such projects require collaboration. The Government are therefore working closely with stakeholders, including landowners, to ensure that the scheme is attractive and offers appropriate and sufficient incentives to secure the necessary voluntary participation in projects. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, was correct in saying that the use of coercion in these larger projects is very much against the spirit of the entire Bill.
With that, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister but I have to say that those are the two most disappointing responses I have heard from Ministers during the entire Committee. I have spent a lifetime trying to get practical public projects of all sorts going—some big, some small—and, if I am an expert in anything, it is knowing about obstruction and delays, and overcoming those.
If the Government are relying on the completely voluntary involvement of everybody in tier 3 schemes there will not be many successful tier 3 schemes, although there will obviously be some. Unless there is a backstop somewhere for such schemes, which will cover landscape-scale—that is, large—areas of land, then this is not the way forward. It may be that tier 3 schemes can come in on the back of other ways of organising these projects, but this is disappointing.
I will read this debate carefully but I have to say that, if the intention of this amendment was to get the people who write answers for the Minister to think a little bit, it has failed. I do not blame the Minister for that in any way.
Regarding Amendment 140 on public goods, I have read everything that the Minister said in reply in the document put forward by the Government. As concerns my attempt to get the Government to explain what they mean and answer some of the questions, I will have to try again. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 140.
Amendment 140 withdrawn.
Amendment 141 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: The agricultural transition period for England and the termination of relevant payments
Amendments 142 to 146 not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9: Power to modify legislation governing the basic payment scheme
Amendments 147 and 148 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Clause 10 agreed.
Clause 11: Power to provide for phasing out direct payments
Amendments 149 to 151 not moved.
Clause 11 agreed.
Clause 12: Power to make delinked payments
Amendments 152 and 153 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14: General provision connected with payments to farmers and other beneficiaries
Amendment 154 not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Clause 15 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 155. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this, or any other, amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in the debate.
Clause 16: Support for rural development
155: Clause 16, page 12, line 44, at end insert—
“( ) making provision for future contributions to existing rural socio-economic schemes;”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would safeguard the availability of financial provisions to continue the socio-economic programmes under Rural Development Programmes in the event of delays in the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
My Lords, I congratulate the Committee—we have made a lot of progress in the last few minutes. It is good to see that we are now up to Clause 16, focusing on support for rural development.
It is an honour to move Amendment 155. This is a simple amendment, supported by the CLA, which seeks to ensure that there is no gap in the support for rural socioeconomic schemes such as the Growth Programme and LEADER scheme, which are currently administered by the RDPE. They do so much to support the development of rural business through grants, training and the provision of advice. I have already noted my farming interests but, specific to this amendment, I should note that our rural heritage tourism business has applied for, and been granted, an RDPE grant—although, as far as I am aware, it will not be impacted by this amendment.
The work of the RDPE in assisting and administering rural development using European funds is key to maintaining the productivity and employment currently enjoyed by many otherwise struggling rural businesses. These are the businesses that, by current estimates, will suffer most from the economic catastrophe that is Covid-19 and the subsequent brutality of Brexit.
The role of the RDPE is due to be taken over by the UK shared prosperity fund, but we currently have no idea when that will take place. This amendment seeks simply to ensure that there is no gap between the winding up of the RDPE and access to the European funds and the establishment of the UK shared prosperity fund.
In a series of questions in this House on 21 May 2020, the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, on behalf of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, made it clear that, while the Government could give assurances about the UK shared prosperity fund, they could give no assurances whatever as to its timing—and so, we remain in the dark. Perhaps the Minister can shed some more light on when the UK shared prosperity fund will take effect.
Without this amendment, these key socioeconomic schemes may find themselves falling into that transition chasm, lost in the valley of the shadow of death. I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to speak to my Amendment 156. It tries to ensure that as many as possible farming families, who, to me, are the backbone of rural England, will be able to survive on their land through the various agricultural crises that will inevitably come their way over future decades. The first crisis is the dramatic changes introduced by this Bill.
Anyone who talks to farmers, tenants or owner-occupiers who are farming land that could probably not be described as prime agricultural land will know that, without the single farm payment, they currently have little chance of survival. They cannot survive solely on their agricultural production to produce the family income. All too often, the single farm payment provides more than 100% of their agricultural returns. As we all know, this will soon not be there anymore. Some farmers and their families branch out into other enterprises on their farm, involving tourism, leisure or local services such as contracting or some form of engineering. But mostly, these farming families—wives, sons, daughters and often even the farmer himself—depend on cash wages from local businesses, which allow the farming household to survive on the land. The whole survival of the farm and the family, or families, on it depends on the vitality of the wider rural economy around them.
It is important to remember that, throughout England as a whole, agriculture represents less than 5% of the rural economy. This dependency on outside jobs is particularly obvious on those farms, both lowland and upland, involved in livestock—mostly up and down the western side of England and, of course, in Wales and Northern Ireland. The further you get from urban centres, the more this applies.
What I am saying should not surprise anyone as this feature of rural living was one of the founding principles of the CAP with its two pillars: Pillar 1 supporting agriculture per se and Pillar 2 supporting rural development. The EU decision-makers knew that, to keep farmers on the land and prevent them leaving to join the urban unemployed, a variety of rural jobs would need to be available to both men and women near their farms. Returning to this country, and going back even further in history, it should be noted that, when Lloyd George started the Rural Development Commission before the First World War, he had exactly the same targets in mind. The RDC eventually became the Countryside Agency until it all got swept into Defra and then, of course, disappeared.
I am trying to give back to Defra a very small arrow in its quiver to continue the good work started so many years ago. It is not a new game but a tried-and-tested tool to help farming families stay on their land. I am also trying to give Defra a small reason to justify keeping “rural affairs” in its title.
I know that the Government will say that all this is going to be taken care of by the shared prosperity fund —as my noble friend Lord Devon has just said—but how and when will we know? Rural proofing is a concept that has lost its way recently, so what makes us think that the shared prosperity fund is going to break that mould? Can the Minister guarantee today that there will be a well-financed ring-fenced rural fund that will be an essential part of the shared prosperity fund?
If he can, that is all well and good but, even so, would it not be a good idea for Defra to have this rural development arrow in its quiver? Would it not be a good idea to hold on to the tried and tested way of helping farmers stay on the land, particularly as Defra already knows that a good percentage of farmers are going to struggle to survive under the new regime this Bill is putting in place?
My Lords, I oppose Clause 16 standing part of the Bill. This follows on neatly from the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, with whom I have the pleasure to serve on the EU Environment Sub-Committee.
The original purposes of the rural development fund have made a great change to the countryside, improving the quality of life and economic well-being especially of those living in rural areas that are particularly isolated and sparsely populated, such as where I grew up—Teesdale in County Durham—and also the areas that I had the pleasure and privilege to represent in the other place: deeply rural parts of North Yorkshire.
The policy statement that was published in February this year says of the Rural Development Programme for England for 2014 to 2020:
“This £3.5 billion programme will continue to include support for rural businesses to expand and create new jobs and for farmers and growers to buy innovative new equipment.”
This is under the “Preserving our rural resilience” heading, and it goes to the heart of what is perhaps another gap.
I ask my noble friend the Minister, in summing up, to show that this gap will be closed in the current aims of the Rural Development Programme—which have so well served rural communities—and to show how this voyage into the unknown of the UK shared prosperity fund will actually work in the interests of rural areas. Therefore, my question to the Minister is: how will Clause 16 build on this and how will necessarily limited funds continue to be used for these socioeconomic purposes that have served rural communities so well?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I also support a number—in fact, the majority —of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. Amendment 157 is in my name and I thank noble Lords who have offered their support for it, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who has also put his name to it.
The farmers—those in our rural communities bringing in the crops and so on—have been on the front line throughout the Covid crisis and they deserve our thanks and an enduring debt of gratitude. In the Agriculture Bill in front of us, we have the opportunity to repay some of that debt, and part of this is what Amendment 157 is all about. Inputting high-speed, reliable and capacity-led broadband and the digital skills with which to competently and comfortably operate online seems to be essential to farmers and all those in our rural communities, to enable them to have optimal business, professional and personal lives.
I am grateful to the NFU for its support of this amendment, and I draw noble Lords’ attention to the rural connectivity survey that the NFU has conducted since 2015. What this shows is quite alarming: over that time period, on almost any measure, there has been a minimal increase in connectivity. Perhaps more worryingly, in the latest figures from 2019, there has been a 2% increase in those who say they have no broadband connectivity whatever. Farmers have told me that they have to go to McDonald’s to get broadband coverage, and while its advertising proudly states that all of its produce comes from British and Irish farmers—which is a thoroughly good thing that gives some circularity to this position—this should be a choice rather than a must for farmers.
Similarly, when one considers tax being digital by default, when farmers have approached HMRC with the issue of not being able to get online, it has been suggested to them that they go to their local library to transact their tax calculations and submissions. While all noble Lords would agree that libraries are quiet and calm places, are they really the venue where one should be forced to set out one’s finances?
Does my noble friend the Minister agree that broadband and digital literacy are absolutely essential? As we set out in our Lords Digital Skills Committee report in 2014, digital literacy is the fourth literacy and as important as the existing three. Does he also agree that this amendment would have social, psychological and economic benefits across our rural communities, where the rates of suicide that currently stubbornly exist are desperately concerning? Surely, good broadband connectivity would be part of the solution to such a tragic issue, which has blighted our countryside for so long.
We owe it to our farmers and all those in our rural communities to have the level of broadband infrastructure that others take for granted in more urban locations and the digital literacy with which to operate effectively online. Amendment 157 puts broadband and digital literacy at the heart of this part of the Bill. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that this amendment would go a considerable distance to enabling us to set aside the digital divide in our countryside?
My Lords, I support of Amendment 157, of which I am a signatory and which was so well proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes. As we all agreed during the passage of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Bill, the Covid-19 lockdown has shown how dependent we all are on good, fast and resilient broadband—nowadays, few more so than those in our agricultural sector. Indeed, it is clear from the difficulty many Peers have had in contributing virtually to our proceedings how woeful broadband is in some areas, especially rural ones.
The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, illustrated the lack of rural connectivity through the NFU surveys and this is backed up by the Ofcom reports. The average broadband speed in rural hamlets and isolated dwellings in a sparse setting was half that in major conurbations in 2018. During the passage of the Bill, I said that the status of the Government’s intentions regarding the timing of the delivery of a 1 gigabit-capable service or ultrafast broadband was unclear. It is especially unclear as regards rural areas and specifically 5G.
With regard to 5G, we have the Shared Rural Network, which is a collaboration between the four networks that started as a 4G project to cover the notspots. Then, we have the seven trials that have been selected in the Rural Connected Communities competition for funding from what is called the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme. It now seems that projects have been selected in West Mercia, Orkney, Dorset, Monmouthshire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire.
How do all these fit in with the several existing funding programmes for full fibre, launched under the May Government, including two voucher schemes to subsidise full-fibre connections to rural premises and small and medium-sized businesses? How are the Government avoiding unnecessary duplication in the rollout of full fibre to the home? What about Ofcom’s determination that there will be market competition in some areas—prospective competition and others—and non-competition in yet others? Is that really the most effective way of delivering the Government’s strategy, particularly in rural areas?
In another development, the Secretary of State did not mince his words last Tuesday on the consequences of the Government’s decision on Huawei, from which it is clear that the operators charged with delivering 5G will now, without compensation, have £2 billion less to spend on rolling it out while bearing, as they will have to, the cost of ripping out high-risk vendor 5G equipment by 2027. Many of his Conservative colleagues thought that he was offering too extended a timescale. This is a huge proportion of the investment which was to be committed by the operators towards 5G rollout. Are there really no plans to compensate operators, and will the full costs actually fall on consumers?
In his announcement, the Secretary of State admitted that this will delay rollout by two to three years. Given that 100% coverage at one gigabit will take much longer to achieve, will the Government now prioritise 5G rollout for rural areas, where full-fibre broadband is least likely to be installed on a market basis in the short and medium term?
I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, for bringing forward this amendment, intended to deliver specific priority for rural broadband provision and rural digital literacy. It seems extraordinary in retrospect that broadband connectivity was not included in Annex IV of the rural development regulation as a thematic sub-programme for the purposes of article 7, given that it dates only from 2013. In current circumstances, this is highly relevant—in fact, essential—to the future success of our agricultural sector. It must be part of achieving what are now the UK’s priorities for agriculture.
As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, argued, there should be a full review of the levels of rural broadband provision and digital literacy, especially before there is any obligation on farmers et al to comply with any regulations by digital means. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions about the rollout of rural broadband, but also that he will accept the crucial amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes.
My Lords, this is one of those occasions when you know that somebody in front of you has said it a little better than you. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has done most of the heavy lifting on the basic thrust of this group: are we going to make sure that the rural economy is generally supported, along with agriculture? That is how I take it. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, talked about broadband. As the last few months have established, I am afraid that it is nigh-on impossible to function in the modern world without broadband at the moment, unless you are going to live in a very tight circle. I hope that we will get answers in the affirmative.
Amendment 155, which I have my name to, asks a technical point: are we going to ensure there is continuity of supply if the UK shared prosperity fund takes a bit of time to get up and going? I hope that we will get the answer to that, and I express my total agreement with the sentiments of those who have already spoken.
My Lords, I am happy to support the amendments in this group and will refer particularly to Amendment 156, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. For me, as somebody from Northern Ireland, this amendment resonates with our whole rural development approach. Through the rural development programme within the European Union, many rural communities benefited from the LEADER programme. It allowed farmers—and farming families—to supplement their income through like-minded industries such as crafts and other types of revenue-making businesses. It also helped the rural community to survive and ensured that those people were retained there, thus creating vibrant farm enterprises. It was a particularly good model. I would like to hear the Minister say how it is to be translated and transposed, through the Bill, into the local economy of England and Wales. What discussions have been held in the ministerial and officials’ group with the devolved regions about how it is to be translated on the ground, so to speak?
It is very important that productivity and employment in rural areas are underpinned so that farming families survive on the land. It is also important that we provide for sustainable farming enterprises, while recognising the difficulties that such households can face during unplanned-for crises, such as the pandemic at the moment or floods. We have witnessed many horrendous floods, which the science would suggest are a consequence of climate change. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, recognises the function of farming households in the countryside. It recognises that they are the pivot in the farming enterprise and of the rural economy.
My Lords, I am delighted to support all three of these amendments. I am probably the least qualified of all in your Lordships’ House to talk about broadband. Even during the previous debate, I lost the picture on my screen and without the Digital Support service would not have been able to regain it. But I accept all that the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Clement-Jones, have said; they made persuasive speeches and clearly have my support. I hope they will have the support of the Government.
I want to address my brief remarks to the amendments spoken to so eloquently by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. As someone who represented a rural constituency for 40 years in the other place, what they said rang true in every possible way. We must have not only a properly sustained agricultural industry in this country; we also need the rural support industries, of which they both spoke so eloquently and persuasively. I hope that when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply, he will accept the absolute necessity of what they called a ring-fenced rural fund because without it, there will be a bleak future.
We have all seen the devastation already wrought by Covid-19. It will take many in the rural communities much longer to recover than many of those in the urban communities. Businesses will have gone for ever; we need to keep all the businesses we can and add new ones. Most of all, we need young people who feel that there is a future in the rural economy. I give my total support to all three amendments and await with expectation the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I had the very pleasant experience on Sunday morning of paying a visit back to Glenscorrodale, the farm-steading where I grew up. Walking around what is no longer a farm, I was reminded of a number of factors relevant to this debate. From a very young age, I was absolutely convinced that it was not the life for me, but I have never failed to admire my brother and cousins, who stayed in the farming life however hard it was for young people to continue in farming as the decades progressed. These three amendments are really important for that reason. I am struck by just how much has changed in farm life over the decades since I was first able to wander around Glenscorrodale, and how much of farm life now is computerised or driven by technology for productivity reasons.
I echo the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, in relation not just to other rural businesses but to farming itself. Strong connectivity would be worth including in this part of the Bill, and would be a strong signal about the future of those willing to stay on the land, whether in farming, other businesses or a mixture of the two. It is, however, also important that we get the redesigned funding right, following the departure from the European Union. When I was Finance Minister in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, some 20 years ago, I was responsible for negotiating with Michel Barnier, of all people, the redesign of the structural funds as enlargement came on to the horizon. The rural development fund was key to that. I remember arguing very strongly at the time that the Scottish programme should include support for young farmers and their ability to take on responsibility for managing the land, but also perhaps to diversify into other businesses.
Continuity, flexibility and a joined-up approach to these new funds—as driven by the content of Amendments 155 and 156—would be highly relevant in these difficult times. I hope that the Minister will take on board all three amendments in his summation of the debate.
My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of my noble friend Lord Devon on Amendment 155, and of my noble friend Lord Cameron on Amendment 156.
As I said in an earlier debate, the changes in policy embraced by this Bill are a huge opportunity but a massive challenge. One challenge is the lack of clarity on rural development. I am concerned that the Government’s response to the Rural Economy Committee’s report—I was a member of the committee—rejected a recommendation that there should be a dedicated element of the shared prosperity fund for the rural economy. Furthermore, as my noble friend Lord Cameron, has said, there is confusion about where support will come from for farming families, whose survival will depend on diversified activity. It is very unclear where the boundaries are within the potential sources of funding. The scope of the ELM scheme is unclear; the future of the RDPE is unclear; and the long-awaited terms of the shared prosperity fund are unclear. All this is on top of the fact that we await the details of the Environment Bill.
The level of uncertainty is unparalleled; there are so many overlapping unresolved issues. Twice this afternoon Psalm 23 has been quoted, likening the potential risk that we face to
“the valley of the shadow of death”.
The psalm continues with the phrase
“I will fear no evil”,
so I am sure that the Minister will provide clarity on this important issue.
My Lords, Amendment 156, from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, provides flexibility as not yet sufficiently available for Defra to help farming households carry out the purposes of the Bill. In the names of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, Amendment 155 is equally pertinent in anticipating delays following the introduction of the United Kingdom shared prosperity fund—hence its safeguards, financial provisions and continued socio-economic interventions under rural development programmes.
With regard to food supply chains, does the Minister consider that local, regional and domestic supply chains ought to be strongly encouraged, while backing for our producers is essential if we are to set them against cheap imports from America and subsidised food from Europe, and that rural development funding should therefore be provided for this purpose? Does he agree that government incentives for food supply chain infrastructure are not the same as subsidising food directly, and do not therefore conflict with the market, but instead—to the advantage of so many communities —would assist production viability, reduce food miles, improve animal welfare and create jobs?
The range of examples to be encouraged comprises outdoor markets; local food delivery hubs; enterprises that collect from farmers to sell to supermarkets, school canteens and hospitals; local farmers’ processing co-operatives; small factories making cheese, bacon, vegetable burgers, apple juice and other products processed from local farms; and, not least, small abattoirs, including mobile ones, in certain farming areas.
Does my noble friend also agree that local food supply chains already work very well with supermarkets, where the majority of United Kingdom consumers shop? This is evident in several countryside areas, such as Yeo Valley in Somerset. A processing co-operative there makes yoghurt, crème fraiche and butter, selling to large retailers, including Tesco. These are organic farmers using agro-ecological systems, yet they can sell their yoghurt at a very reasonable and affordable supermarket price. It is also now well illustrated in a number of other countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, how local food hubs and farmers’ processing co-operatives can easily supply supermarkets, school canteens and hospitals.
Currently, and through this Bill, we have to review the best ways of replacing and restructuring previous schemes for rural development. Can the Minister reassure the House that, within the new arrangements, proper government incentives will be given to local food supply chains?
My Lords, Clause 16 allows the Secretary of State, by a negative resolution, to modify existing rural development schemes agreed under the common agricultural policy as to both time and content, and to devise new schemes entirely outside the present parameters. I fail to see any requirement for consultation. Is there any and, if not, why not? Who will represent rural interests in Whitehall and inform funding decisions? The whole point of devolution in Wales and Scotland was democratically to bring the interests of all sectors closer to policymakers—and it has been highly successful.
England has very disparate rural and regional interests that have to look to Whitehall for compromises and single solutions. Perhaps a devolved Yorkshire assembly could occupy the hub that the Government propose to create in York, once the Westminster politicians have been there, done that and departed with the T-shirt. Clause 16, however, creates very significant powers, and their exercise should be open to full parliamentary scrutiny. Will the Government commit to amending the Bill on Report, to require the affirmative procedure? No consultation, and the negative procedure proposed in this Bill, make a very strong case, both in principle and practice, for the stand part opposition of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. She described it as a voyage into the unknown—and that is exactly what it is.
Funding for rural development has, over the period of our membership of the European Union, come from the rural development basic act and the common provisions basic act, and has accordingly been ring-fenced against the austerity cuts that have affected such areas as education and social services throughout this country. That ring-fencing of rural interests is about to be dismantled. I note the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the absence of ring-fencing.
I have always feared, and have said so in this House on a number of occasions, that in the post-Brexit world, there will be overwhelming political pressure on the Government to switch money from rural communities to urban areas. Demands on public services, particularly health and social care, must be answered—there are votes at stake. This issue is even more acute since the last election, when the Government derived significant support from the crumbling “red wall” urban areas, whose interests they now have to consider. The further centralising of services and jobs in large conurbations may drive further depopulation from the countryside. It may even destroy the Conservative Party’s traditional rural base of support. Will the Government make a commitment now, in the post-pandemic world of massive government expenditure, that rural communities will receive the same level of support for rural development as they do at present under the CAP regime? This issue is addressed in Amendment 155.
We await the details of the shared prosperity fund, and I am particularly concerned as to Wales’s involvement in that. I share the doubts expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and Lord Curry, who pointed out how unclear it all is. It is important to build an infrastructure to support work in the rural communities—the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, referred to some agricultural-based industries. Part of that is addressed in Amendment 157, through the extension of broadband and mobile networks. All of us are learning the advantages of working from home and I have no doubt that, with proper investment, fresh employment opportunities in rural areas will arise from that, enabling people in rural areas to lead optimal lives with digital literacy, as the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, put it.
I have pleasure in supporting all the amendments in this group.
My Lords, rural development programmes are extremely important and any delay in their implementation would be a very retrograde step. I support the arguments put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and my noble friend Lord Addington on the shared prosperity fund and look forward to the Minister’s response. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, also supports proper rural development and businesses to encourage young people and others to share in rural prosperity.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, has, as usual, made a very powerful case for assisting farmers and the rural communities to deliver agricultural, food and environmental services. Living as I do in a rural area, but within easy reach of two market towns, I am painfully aware of the issues around the rural economy. With no single farm payment, some farmers on poor land will not survive. They depend on the wider rural economy. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many questions from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, objects to Clause 16 being included in the Bill. I have listened to her arguments and can understand where she is coming from. Support for rural development is important; the Agriculture Bill may not be the perfect place to include this, but we have an opportunity to enshrine the rural economy and development in this Bill and ensure that those of us living in rural areas are considered in a more holistic way.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, pressed the case for locally produced goods and food, both through farmers’ markets and supermarkets. I fully support this, as it is extremely important to bring locally produced quality food to a much wider audience.
My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, have an amendment to add broadband connectivity and digital literacy to the list of support for rural communities. Farmers and their families need access to decent broadband to fill in the various forms and licences required to carry out their activities, and their children need access to complete homework and, currently, to take part in lessons. Going to McDonald’s to gain access to broadband is completely unacceptable. We have no access to 5G in my rural area. As someone who struggles with the strength of the broadband signal—or lack of it—and my own level of expertise, I can confirm that assistance with digital literacy is a vital element in improving connectivity. I look forward to the Minister’s response on this subject. Can I personally hold out any hope of better broadband connectivity in the near future?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have tabled these amendments today and to all those who have stressed the need to maintain the equivalent of the social economic schemes under the rural development fund. I agree with the many other noble Lords who said that both the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made very compelling cases that underpin those arguments.
It is clear that, to have a thriving agricultural sector, we need a strong rural economy and infrastructure. We need to address the many social problems that are holding those developments back. We know that rural areas are characterised by higher levels of poverty, poorer health and social isolation. Young people in rural areas struggle to find good-quality training opportunities and are held back by poor public transport and the lack of affordable housing. Local businesses find it difficult to access finance and, as the noble Lords, Lord Holmes and Lord Clement-Jones, rightly pointed out, have huge difficulties with broadband connectivity. I agree very much with them that digital literacy can go a long way to tackling the digital divide. The opportunities to make rural areas great places to live and work are being squandered.
I was also interested in the question from the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, about whether local food activities such as outdoor markets could be eligible for rural funds. That gets around some of the arguments we have been having about whether production of food is a public good.
Much of the problem lies with the Government’s failure to adopt a joined-up approach to rural development, bringing together all the departments and agencies with responsibilities in this area. Although rural proofing partly addresses the problem, it is still not providing the funding and policy priority that rural communities deserve. Rural development funding remains just one aspect of the solution. Nevertheless, that funding has provided a vital lifeline for many local communities.
The current Clause 16, on support for rural development, is welcome in as far as it goes, but it leaves a great deal of the detail unspecified as so much is delegated to regulation. It therefore leaves a lot to trust—a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I share the concern that funding could be lost without an equivalent funding regime in place. I also share noble Lords’ concern that we must have much greater assurance about access to the shared prosperity fund when the details become clearer.
I welcome the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, which provides an opportunity for new socioeconomic programmes to help farming families. He has a great deal of expertise in that area and has made the case extremely well, so I do not intend to repeat it. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the Government do not intend to focus solely on agriculture in this Bill, without a plan to maintain a thriving social and economic infrastructure around it. A thriving rural community with a strong infrastructure and new economic opportunities is the bedrock of an agricultural system, but it will need appropriate funding.
I have not lined up a biblical reference, which seems to be the order of the day today, but I do pray that the Minister can spell out in detail the access to the different rural development funds that will be available as we leave the EU, and the timescales applicable to each of those funds. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, which goes to the heart of the rural economy and how rural communities play their essential part in it. I turn to Amendments 155, 156 and 157. Clause 16 provides for the continued payment of long-lasting Rural Development Programme for England agreements where they will extend well beyond the end of the current programme in 2020. This is needed because agri-environment and forestry agreements can last for many years. Some will still be active in the 2030s. The Bill does not deal with socioeconomic schemes, because these are short agreements and all payments will have been made by the time the EU rural development funding has been exhausted. Under the withdrawal agreement, Defra will continue to deliver the RDPE under the terms of the EU regulations. It therefore remains the case that all projects agreed under the RDPE will be fully funded for their lifetime. For multiyear agri-environment and forestry agreements, domestic funding will be used to honour commitments once EU funding ceases after programme closure.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and all noble Lords. The Government absolutely recognise the invaluable contribution that rural areas make to our national life, economically, socially and culturally, and are committed to supporting rural communities through post-EU exit funding and wider government initiatives. It is essential that future generations see a future in the countryside, in agriculture or in a wide range of other elements and components of the rural economy. I am minded of what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale said. I have experienced my first Zoom meetings with an agronomist and an arable contractor and so forth. Things that I never thought would happen are happening regularly, so I understand all these things.
A lot of the matters raised in this debate are dealt with separately from the Bill, and I will expand on that. As set out in our manifesto, the Government intend to introduce the UK shared prosperity fund to replace EU structural funds. As the Rural Affairs Minister, I do not identify with the commentary on rural-proofing from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who was helpful to us in revising the rural-proofing guidance. We have officials working to ensure that rural-proofing is entrenched in every department. We have been working extremely closely with the MHCLG, which leads on the development of the UK shared prosperity fund, to ensure that its design takes account of the dynamics of rural economies and the particular challenges faced by rural communities. Both departments have been engaging with rural stakeholders to support development of the evidence base around what rural communities and businesses need for the fund. Final decisions about the quantum and design of the fund will take place following the spending review.
My noble friend Lord Dundee spoke about relationships with supermarkets. Some noble Lords are keen on berating the supermarkets. When I spend time going around them, I look at the British produce and the relationship there often is with local farms. That important development of relationships with local produce is strong, whether in large retail outlets or small ones. Clause 1(2) could support productivity measures which could, for example, aid local food chains. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on the consultation requirement, this clause will only amend existing schemes, not create new ones. We have already consulted on the changes to existing schemes, as part of the Health and Harmony consultation.
Beyond the scope of the Bill, the Government are already taking steps to ensure that our rural communities can prosper. In response to my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, through the outside-in approach, as part of the future telecoms infrastructure review, we are supporting the deployment of gigabit-capable broadband to the least commercially viable UK premises. We are already connecting some of the hardest-to-reach places in the country, including through the superfast broadband programme and the £20 million rural gigabit connectivity programme. We have announced £5 billion of public funding to close the digital divide and ensure that rural areas are not left behind. The Government are also working with mobile network operators to deliver mobile connectivity improvements through a shared rural network. I also highlight the Digital Skills Partnership, launched by DCMS in 2017, to bring together organisations from across the public, private and charity sectors to work together to close the digital skills gap at local level.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about 5G rollout in rural areas. The 5G Rural Connected Communities programme is looking at potential 5G test cases in rural areas. Through the Rural Connected Communities competition, the Government are funding up to 10 5G research and development projects to run over two years.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about discussions between devolved Administrations and rural development. As all noble Lords know, rural development is devolved, but Defra officials meet counterparts in devolved Administrations to discuss rural policy and share experience.
Returning to digital, although the current rural development programme allows for support for broadband and digital skills, wider government initiatives are the main funding mechanisms for broadband connectivity and digital skills. These are delivered through DCMS, rather than Defra. The role played by me, as Minister for Rural Affairs, and the rural team at Defra, is to work closely with DCMS and, at ministerial level, make sure that there is a complete understanding of the fact that rural communities need to play their part in a modern economy, and of the need to improve that.
Clause 16 gives the power to continue making payments where agri-environment and forestry agreements have already been signed, using Exchequer funds once the EU rural development funding contribution has been exhausted. Without subsections (1), (2) and (5) of this clause, the Secretary of State will not have the powers required to continue making annual payments specified in existing agri-environment and forestry agreements, and farmers and land managers will not be compensated for the valuable benefits that they are delivering. Furthermore, without this clause it would be more difficult for agreement holders to move from a CAP scheme to new domestic schemes under the Bill. For example, subsection (3)(a) will allow agreement holders to terminate their agreements early if they successfully secure a place in an ELM scheme. The Government want to ensure that the environmental benefits delivered through these agreements are retained and built on as we move from the CAP to a new system of ELM, designed with farmers and land managers in mind.
The powers in subsection (3) of this clause facilitate the transfer of existing agri-environment and forestry agreement holders into new schemes operating under Clause 1, such as ELM or the simplified Countryside Stewardship scheme. For example, subsection (3)(c) could allow an existing environmental stewardship agreement holder who is managing a priority habitat to convert their agreement into a new domestic Countryside Stewardship agreement. Without subsections (1), (2) and (5) of Clause 16, we will be unable to pay farmers and land managers for the work they are undertaking, and we risk complicating the transition to ELM for land managers who are already participating in agri-environment schemes. We intend to offer domestic countryside stewardship agreements until 2024, at which point we want to ensure a smooth transition from both domestic Countryside Stewardship and EU agri-environment schemes into ELM.
I do understand and take on board all the points that have been made and our mutual desire to work to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund is up and running and successful. From a rural-proofing point of view it is imperative that the needs of rural interests, communities and business are taken into account. However, I do hope that the noble Earl, Lord Devon, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I have received requests to speak after the Minister from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
My Lords, I offer the Green group’s support for Amendments 155 to 157 and thank the noble Lords who tabled them and supported them. This debate and the questions have brought out the political impact of the relatively low number of votes in the countryside. We have seen just this morning, with the report on the distribution of the Government’s regeneration fund before the last election, how, since we do not have a rules-based system such as the EU’s whereby funds are distributed to the areas that are most disadvantaged and most in need, it very much depends on the Government’s view of where such money should go.
This debate has focused a lot on keeping what we have in the countryside: alternative businesses, non-farm businesses and alternative sources of revenue for farmers. But what is the Government’s vision for the countryside —where do they see money going, say, from the UK shared prosperity fund? Do the Government see the countryside as a place where there can be large numbers of new, growing, farming, food-producing businesses, and large numbers of good jobs—not simply pickers who are casual workers coming in for a couple of months and then going away again having lived in caravans, but people who can make their lives in the countryside? Is that the kind of vision of a horticulture-rich, healthy food-growing countryside—tying together many of our debates from last year—that the Government have?
My Lords, the vision is for a prosperous rural economy, which obviously includes food production and agriculture. However, a whole range of communities form the rural economy. We want to ensure that all rural dwellers have the same opportunities. I have to say that very few industries have been promised that they will retain the same annual contribution from the taxpayer for the whole of this Parliament; sometimes noble Lords forget that in some of their commentary. That is most exceptional, and it shows that the Government support farmers and rural communities. That is of course why there is a very significant investment in the broadband structure. Therefore, there is a considerable vision for a prosperous, skilled and innovative agricultural sector within a broader rural economy.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for his extensive response to this debate. When will he be able to tell us whether there will be a well-financed, ring-fenced rural fund as part of the shared prosperity fund? When will we know about that?
I am afraid that I cannot give a precise date other than what I said in my remarks, that the quantum and design of the fund will take place following the spending review; I cannot give any further detail. However, I can say that the efforts and the work of Defra with MHCLG are to ensure that there is a very strong rural component so that rural businesses are an intrinsic part of this fund.
I have received one further request to speak after the Minister. I call the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his response to my Amendment 157. He referred to the £5 billion which was set in principle as a response from the Government to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report. Can he tell the House what the pathway is for that in-principle commitment to be rolled out and an on-the-ground practical reality?