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Leaving the EU: Farming Policy

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 17 January 2019

The Agriculture Bill is a central part of the Government’s programme of legislation to deliver a smooth departure from the European Union. It is the most significant reform of agricultural legislation in more than 70 years. The Bill creates powers to build a new environmental land management system; to incentivise higher animal welfare; to support technology and investment on farms; and to improve fairness and transparency in the supply chain.

I welcome the Agriculture Bill, because for nearly 50 years our farmers have been tied to a fundamentally flawed common agricultural policy where payments are skewed towards the largest landowners. Can the Minister provide further detail on the public goods that will be rewarded under the new scheme?

I thank my hon. Friend for the sterling work he did on the Agriculture Bill Committee and as a member of the DEFRA team until recently. As he says, we are completely changing the focus of our agricultural support for the delivery of public goods. That could include improving habitats, water quality and soil health, promoting biodiversity, advancing animal welfare and allowing public access.

The Minister will have received the letter sent to every single Member of this House from all of the farming leaders asking the Government to take no deal off the table. That would also unlock meaningful cross-party talks on how we get out of this total mess, so why will the Government not do that?

The way to get no deal off the table is to agree a deal and to engage in a discussion about it. I simply say to hon. Members: what kind of deal do they think they would get from the European Union if they are unwilling to countenance no deal? It is nonsense.

I welcome this Government’s commitment to, and Ministers’ earlier responses on, the issues of public goods, the environment and animal welfare. Will my hon. Friend confirm that future agricultural policy will also include a commitment to high-quality food and food safety?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Government have been absolutely clear that we will not compromise our animal welfare and food safety standards in pursuit of a trade deal.

Hill farmers are essential to our landscape, food production, biodiversity and water management. Does the Minister realise that 91% of hill farm incomes come from the basic payment scheme, which his Government are planning to phase out over the next seven years? Will he therefore commit to a bespoke scheme or set of schemes to support upland farmers and other upland businesses?

Upland farmers, including sheep farmers, will be able to readily access many of the public goods listed in clause 1 of the Bill. Organisations such as the Uplands Alliance are very excited about the potential for a new scheme based on payment for the delivery of public goods.

The Bew review is looking into the mechanisms for allocating farm funding across the UK post Brexit, but do the Government intend to launch reviews of the legislative and governance frameworks that may be necessary to maintain a level playing field for Welsh farmers in the UK’s future internal market?

There are two ways in which a UK framework can be delivered. First, it is important to recognise that agriculture is devolved. Although the Welsh Government have asked us to add a schedule to our Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, they also intend to introduce their own future legislation. There are provisions relating to compliance with WTO rules, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will also provide an approach to state aid rules.

On Tuesday, I met members of the Irish Farmers’ Association—there were other things going on as well as the debate—and they made it very clear to me how vital it is to get a long-term customs arrangement in place as soon as possible. They say that that view is shared by farmers in Northern Ireland. What is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to make sure that that happens?

As was made clear at the very start of this session, the Secretary of State is, as we speak, in dialogue with Members of this House to establish a consensus, so that we can indeed have a customs arrangement after March.

The Minister has been quite sanguine in saying that he now supports the Norway option. Is that view shared by the rest of the DEFRA team?

The DEFRA team, which includes me, supported the Prime Minister’s deal, because the deal that she brought forward was the way to most closely deliver the outcome of the referendum. That deal has now been rejected by this House, so of course we must consider all alternatives.