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Brexit: Farmers

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that farmers continue to receive financial support following the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. In 2019 the Government made a manifesto commitment to maintain the current annual budget to UK farmers of £3.6 billion. This was honoured in the 2021-22 spending review. The commitment is being achieved through a combination of Exchequer funding and remaining EU funding.

My Lords, could the Minister give a commitment that there will be adequate and sufficient funding for farmers to develop their enterprises for the purposes of economic and environmental sustainability over the next five to 10 years, way beyond the 2021-22 financial year, thus allowing farmers to adapt and plan for the future?

That is very important. We seek in the agriculture transitional plan to ensure that there is certainty and a vibrant future. Our manifesto commitment takes us up to 2024; obviously, we cannot bind further Parliaments but that is a sign of our bona fides. I think any incoming Government would clearly want to continue to enable that important agricultural production, as well as environmental enhancement.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the National Farmers’ Union. For many years, the delivery of single farm payments has been fraught with problems. Is my noble friend able to provide an assurance to British farmers that, having left the bungling bureaucracy of the EU, every opportunity and effort will be taken to maximise the efficiency and punctual delivery of support payments to farmers?

Yes, my Lords, punctuality is very important, which is why I am very pleased that the RPA achieved a 98% payment last December. Going forward, it is important to codesign the schemes with farmers so that there is a modern approach to assurance and regulation with streamlining but no undue bureaucracy.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I farm in the Scottish borders. What discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations, in that agriculture is indeed devolved?

My Lords, there is not only considerable dialogue between Defra Ministers and devolved Administration Ministers as part of the regular inter-ministerial group for EFRA meetings but, on funding matters, there is consideration by the devolved Administrations’ Finance Ministers and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. These matters have been on the agenda at the recent Finance Ministers quadrilateral meetings.

My Lords, can I try again to get a little more clarity on the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie? We all agree with the statement behind “public money for public good” with regards to farming. Planting trees and nurturing wildlife should be commended, but surely the Government’s primary duty must be our ability to feed our nation and to do that healthily. These are not mutually exclusive, so can the Minister outline Her Majesty’s Government’s plan to ensure that, at the end of the transition period, there is proper balance between those two priorities?

Not only at the end of the transition period but throughout this process, it is essential that farmers in this country produce very good food for the nation and for abroad, while working in collaboration to enhance the environment. That is our purpose throughout the transition and beyond.

My Lords, biodiversity is key to ensuring the success of ELMS and the Government’s whole strategy, as set out in the 25-year environment plan. There is, however, no clear rationale for how ELMS will provide financial recompense for those farmers changing from the countryside stewardship scheme to that scheme. Can the Minister now provide some badly needed clarity to reassure farmers?

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to provide that certainty. For instance, the national pilot on ELM will be available for applications during this year. Information on payments and supporting guidance will be a key part of that because, clearly, we want eventually to have a very considerable number of farmers engaged in agri- environmental schemes, and for those farmers to be paid properly, adequately and punctually for them.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s new approach to sustainable farming. Does the Minister agree that it is quite possible to farm in a way that produces good food and protects welfare? Will he look at the Countryside Restoration Trust, which has successfully pioneered farming for food and wildlife over the last 27 years? Perhaps he could use his influence to ask the Secretary of State to visit Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire to see for himself just how easy it is to make that happen.

My Lords, what has been done on that farm in Cambridgeshire, where Robin Page has been so strongly engaged for such a long time, is about the essential nature of the harmony between farming and the environment. I am very pleased that, as part of our forward plans, we are establishing an animal health and welfare pathway so that we improve the husbandry and welfare of our farm animals. That is a key part of our reforms.

My Lords, the common agricultural policy is an extraordinary testament to waste and inefficiency. However, there are plenty of challenges facing British farmers after Brexit. We encourage —we almost insist—that our farmers become more competitive and productive, squeezing more out of the land, yet at the same time they are supposed to protect and enhance our environment, so we need to square that circle. May I pursue some of the questions we heard earlier and ask whether my noble friend is satisfied that we already have an advisory and support system that is fit for purpose in this area, or whether there is more work to be done? Can he tell us what specific help might be available to older farmers, who may decide the time has come to step aside and make way for the next generation?

My Lords, it is important that we have new entrants coming into farming. That is why we will consult and work on plans to introduce exit schemes for farmers who wish to retire, along with schemes to support new entrants. As part of the much wider advice and guidance, we will enhance the support to farmers, particularly as we champion skills and innovation. Many schemes are coming forward and it is very important that farmers understand what is available.

My Lords, when launching the sustainable farming statement in December, the Government said:

“The changes will be designed to ensure that by 2028, farmers in England can sustainably produce healthy food profitably without subsidy”.

Is it this Government’s intention that 2028 will mark the end of subsidies for English farming, to be replaced by reliance on the market?

What we said was that that would be the end of the direct payments system. We are now concentrating on a system of agri-environment and other support mechanisms, which we think are value for money. They will reward farmers for the provision of public goods.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register. I am comforted by the Minister’s response but, sadly, the world does not stand still as we await details. Bearing in mind the topical issue of flooding, I am concerned that, without specific government support, farming profitability will be insufficient to finance the renewal of field drains that are reaching the end of their life. These are so important to flood prevention and farm productivity. Please can the Minister confirm that this necessary expenditure will be covered by ELMS?

My Lords, on flooding, particularly of agricultural land, a lot of work is going on and I will look into that matter.

I call the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.

I do not think we have the noble Earl, in which case the time allowed for this Question has—ah, he is there.

Thank you very much. At what exchange rate are the payments being made, and does the 10% cut in the CAP budget mean that our farmers are going to get a 10% cut?

That is an interesting point. We decided that we would use the 2019 exchange rates; against the 2015 exchange rates, there is a 22% advantage in using the 2019 exchange rates and I suggest that that is a very good thing for our farmers. I would also say that my noble friend is absolutely right: the EU CAP budget for 2021 to 2027 is going to be cut by 10%. Our manifesto pledge was to maintain £3.6 billion for UK farmers. That is our commitment and we continue with that.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, that we did not have time for his question.