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Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking (1) to prepare farmers for the removal of direct support over the next decade, and (2) to equip farmers with the skills required to adapt to a competitive trading environment.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Our agricultural transition plan explains how we will prepare farmers for the phase-out of direct payments, using the money freed up to offer environmental land management schemes that will pay farmers for delivering environmental improvements. We are offering support to help farmers adapt to the transition, including through the future farming resilience fund. The Government are contributing towards the establishment of the institute for agriculture and horticulture—of which my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Curry, is the moving force—which will drive skills development in the industry.

My Lords, I cannot remember a time when a feeling of uncertainty permeated the farming industry more than it does right now: uncertainty over the impact of trade deals, over inflation and over the future of ELMS. When might the Government make announcements about ELMS so that farmers can begin to plan ahead with some confidence? Secondly, does the Minister agree that we should use the transitional period between now and the end of the decade to ensure that farmers come out of this process in better shape than they went in and better equipped to deal with net zero, the restoration of habitats and, importantly now, the production of healthy, wholesome food to feed the nation?

My Lords, I am absolutely convinced that farming is going to be a profession and a skill that will be much in demand in a hungry world. But the noble Lord is absolutely right: there is uncertainty because of commodity price spikes internationally and because of changes to farming systems. We are doing all we can to skill up farmers for a different world—a different world of support, in which they will be incentivised. We want to make sure that they do so in a way that reflects how young people want to go into an industry and to be skilled. I am happy to work with the noble Lord and other noble Lords on making sure that we understand how we can help farmers at this difficult time.

Can my noble friend explain to the House what specific support will be given to tenant farmers, who risk being ineligible under the new schemes?

My Lords, tenant farmers can access the sustainable farming incentive, which is the entry-level scheme. Where there are difficulties between landlord and tenant, we are seeking to iron them out with the committee headed by my noble friend Lady Rock, which has representatives of the Tenant Farmers Association, the CLA and others, to make sure that tenant farmers will be a fundamental part of future British agriculture. It is the only way for many people to get into farming, and we want to see it thrive.

My Lords, currently farmers are losing basic payments at a faster rate than they can claim under the new sustainable farming incentive. As a result, many of them are suffering financial hardship. When is Defra going to increase the range of environmental standards under ELMS that can be claimed so that farmers can get their finances back on an even keel?

We have announced a number of the areas of the sustainable farming incentive, the soil standard and many others. We are going to make further announcements in the next few weeks on other aspects of the environmental land management schemes. We recognise that farmers have to face price spikes—for example, in the areas of fertiliser production—and we have brought forward their area payments by six months, which will give them the cash they need to purchase the inputs they need to make sure that the next season’s growing crop is in the ground.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a farm owner. Does the Minister agree that English farming should make every effort at this time to maximise cereal production to offset the Ukraine/Russia supply shortages? If so, what steps will the Government take to ensure that this happens?

My Lords, I have already outlined one area in which we are helping. I am glad to say that the fertiliser production plants in this country that were either mothballed or operating at half-rate are producing again. We want to make sure that we are doing all we can to reflect the global issues here. The truth is that we are almost self-sufficient in wheat; we get very little from Ukraine and Russia. What is happening is a human tragedy in those countries, but it is also a tragedy in countries that depend on them for wheat. The perverse result is a very high spot price for wheat of £318.75 in November, which will be of huge benefit to farmers as they plan for future years. But we have to understand that the Ukraine crisis is causing global uncertainty, and Britain has to be a part of resolving that.

My Lords, the removal of the CAP should be liberating, but only when farmers are sure that the replacement will not lead to drastically falling incomes, making food production uneconomic. The rush for carbon offsetting is leading to the sell-off of farms for tree plantations so that air travel can continue unhindered. Does the Minister agree that, if farmers feel it is more economic to sell off their land rather than continue to use it for agriculture, surely there is something wrong with how the Government are implementing the changeover?

The Government want more trees planted, but we want the right trees planted in the right way. Many of these plantings are under the headline of environmental social governance. To me and the Government, the “S” matters as well as the “E”. If an airline—the noble Baroness used this as an example—is buying land and kicking off the farmers, that may be quite “E” in terms of what they are planting, but it is not very “S”. That is why we are taking action to make sure that private sector investment in our natural environment is done properly, with the proper social underpinning.

My Lords, given the current reluctance of farmers to alter their normal cropping to pick up on ELMS, would it not be a good idea for the Government to find a way to sponsor additional FWAG officers, and particularly to train those FWAG officers in the field? Those last three words are the important ones because it is all very well learning in a classroom, but FWAG officers are enormously trusted by farmers so the new trainees have to learn how to talk to farmers. If they could do this, it would be an excellent way of allowing farmers to see the opportunities for not only increased wildlife in the countryside but improving their bottom line.

Farming and wildlife advisory groups are incredibly valuable because the advisers are trusted interlocutors. The noble Lord is absolutely right that they need to be skilled both technically, which they can learn in the classroom, but also in understanding the practicalities of agriculture. There are a great many courses available; more so now, as we have increased the GCSE programme to accept environmental management. But he is right that there needs to be a practical element to training and I am very happy to have further conversations with him and others about this.

My Lords, the Minister has mentioned that, in the new farming regime, farmers will be assisted and paid for environmental improvements as well. But as he knows, our record on public access to farmland is truly lamentable and one of the worst in Europe. Will the Government give the House the assurance that, when they look at the new regime, they will encourage farmers and insist that they allow much more public access?

I have been absolutely determined to facilitate much more access to the countryside on my brief watch in this post, but the truth is that we could spend ELMS 20 times over on different schemes. We have a crisis of species decline and are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We therefore have to use ELMS to do that. There are many other things that we could be and are doing, but I want us to focus on how people want to access the country. Some people do want to walk right round the coast of England but some just want to walk out of their town on a circular route. I want to ensure that we are working with farmers and landowners to deliver for those sorts of people as well.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned incentivising farmers. I would like to know how he thinks that the Government are incentivising farmers when they do environmentally unfriendly trade deals with places such as Australia, which come in and undercut our farmers’ produce on animal welfare and environmental value?

We have a firm commitment that, in all trade deals, we will not compromise on environmental and animal welfare standards. We also have to recognise that, if you are going to bring food right across from the other side of the world, there is a carbon price to pay for that. We want to make sure we are favouring local food, produced sustainably by British farmers, and that is what we are working to achieve.