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House of Commons Hansard
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Agriculture Bill (Eighth sitting)
27 February 2020

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Sir David Amess, † Graham Stringer

† Brock, Deidre (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)

† Clarke, Theo (Stafford) (Con)

† Courts, Robert (Witney) (Con)

† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Dines, Miss Sarah (Derbyshire Dales) (Con)

† Doogan, Dave (Angus) (SNP)

† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)

† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)

† Jones, Ruth (Newport West) (Lab)

† Jupp, Simon (East Devon) (Con)

† Kearns, Alicia (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

† McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol East) (Lab)

† Morris, James (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con)

† Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)

† Prentis, Victoria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

† Whittome, Nadia (Nottingham East) (Lab)

† Zeichner, Daniel (Cambridge) (Lab)

Kenneth Fox, Kevin Maddison, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 27 February 2020

(Afternoon)

[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Agriculture Bill

Clause 2

Financial assistance: forms, conditions, delegation and publication of information

Amendment made: 16, in clause 2, page 3, line 31, leave out from “to” to end of line 32 and insert

“the maker or operator of a third party scheme in connection with expenditure involved in establishing or operating the scheme (including the provision of financial support)”.—(Victoria Prentis.)

The amendment amends Clause 2(4), which permits the Secretary of State to give financial assistance to a third party scheme, to spell out that the assistance may relate to the costs of setting up or running the scheme or providing financial support under the scheme.

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I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 2, page 3, line 32, at end insert—

“(4A) Financial assistance under subsection (1)(1)(f) for protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock shall only be given to a person who satisfies the Secretary of State that they—

(a) achieve, or have undertaken to achieve, standards of animal welfare which exceed the minimum requirements laid down by legislation governing welfare of livestock,

(b) raise animals in such a way that enables them to carry out their natural behaviours,

(c) do not subject livestock to any prohibited procedure (within the meaning of section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006),

(d) do not kill livestock in any place other than in a slaughterhouse unless—

(i) a veterinary surgeon has certified that this is necessary due to the animal’s poor health, and

(ii) the method of killing is humane, and

(e) do not, after IP completion day, export animals for slaughter or fattening unless—

(i) the livestock is exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, and

(ii) it is made a requirement of sale that the livestock shall not be re-exported by the buyer.”

This amendment would set minimum baseline welfare standards for the receipt of financial assistance for protecting or improving the welfare of livestock.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 42, in clause 2, page 3, line 32, at end insert—

“(4A) Financial assistance may only be given under section 1(1)(f) for the purpose of protecting or improving the health of livestock if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State or of any person to whom functions relating to the giving of financial assistance are delegated under section 2(6), the protection or improvement effects a standard which is significantly higher than that required by regulations made by the Secretary of State under section [Duty and regulations governing agricultural and horticultural activity].”

This amendment would require a recipient of financial assistance for protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock to demonstrate that the protection or improvement would be of a significantly higher standard than the baseline required under NC9.

Amendment 5, in clause 2, page 4, line 5, after “section” insert—

“‘fattening’ means the keeping of livestock for the purpose of the livestock gaining weight in preparation for slaughter,

‘humane’ shall be interpreted in accordance with paragraph 4 of Schedule 4 to the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015,

‘livestock’ has the meaning given in section 1(5) of this Act,

‘IP completion day’ has the meaning given in section 39 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2020, and”.

This amendment is consequential on Amendment 4.

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Welcome back, everybody. Our aim with this group of amendments is to highlight the need for financial assistance in clause 1 to be provided for the purpose of protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock only if farmers go above and beyond current animal welfare standards.

I have already touched on this issue. We believe it is important to avoid a situation where public money is paid for current welfare standards being met. I think the public would find that curious, but it is a risk given the systems we have inherited. The nod of enthusiasm from the Minister confirms that the authors of the Bill rather agree, although we say that it is still not entirely clear. I think it is agreed that the taxpayer’s principal role should be to provide funding for public goods that the market cannot deliver or can deliver only partially, such as high environmental and animal welfare standards. The funds available should be used not for marginal welfare gains but to support best practice and farmers who are willing to go substantially beyond the legal minimum requirements.

Of course, there is a whole series of potential issues associated with that. How much improvement? Do we want to set standards to which we want people to move quickly? I am struck when I talk to people about this that I think the industry will do what it is asked to do. Clearly, however, if it is not directed and just responds to the market, people will produce to different price points. Again, that is an issue for the politicians to think about. We had a discussion the other day with the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby about whether labelling gets us there. There are different views, and this is our view.

There are clear ways of identifying significant steps up in welfare for different species of farm animals, and it is extremely important that we tailor our welfare standards appropriately to what would achieve those outcomes for each species. Let me make a few suggestions for the high standards we would like ultimately to be achieved across each sector.

For pigs, funding could be made available to farmers who achieve intact—neither docked nor bitten—tails. There are schemes along those lines in other countries. Getting pigs to slaughter with intact tails is recognised by the Farm Animal Welfare Committee as a good outcome-based indicator of high welfare. This morning, in our discussion of the environmental land management document—I am pleased to see it is now on the table for all to enjoy—we touched on whether payments should be for what is done or what is achieved. I think the debate about that is moving; many of us would like to see outcome-based payments. At least in this area, we can discuss the outcomes we are looking for, and I suggest they are more easily measured. I am told—we heard this from witnesses, too—that such schemes already exist in Germany.

As we outlined in a previous amendment, which sadly was not taken up by the Government, we believe that the Government should encourage a move to free farrowing systems. However, we acknowledge that there is extra cost involved and we believe some payments could be made to cover a proportion of the capital costs involved in making that change. It is a decision for us as a country, as well as for consumers, as to where we want to get to on these standards. This is a clear opportunity.

For laying hens, we would like to see funding made available for farmers who use the best free range systems, such as low stocking density, low flock size, mobile housing and provision of trees and bushes. Outcome measures that one could look at are not trimming hens’ beaks, achieving low mortality and good plumage scores. Such outcomes can be measured; that is a decision we could make. This Committee is a good place to have such discussions, which, over time, could attempt to lift welfare standards in this country.

For broiler chickens, the key issue is often substantial overcrowding. Many UK broilers are stocked at 38 kg per square metre. As chickens in the UK often weigh around 2.2 kg at slaughter, that means approximately 17 chickens are kept per square metre. Without going into the wider points, we know the British public want to see higher welfare standards and many would probably be shocked to see those conditions. As Government Members have pointed out, people want food at affordable prices. We agree with that, so there is a tension and a balance in this, but if one has £3 billion to spend, to some extent one has choices.

At such high densities, sadly broilers can have high levels of infectious pathogens, leg disorders, foot-pad dermatitis and mortality. We believe that to be granted financial assistance, the maximum permitted broiler stocking density could be reduced to a specific number. We have talked today about the long transition period, but on another day we will come to the more show-stopping amendment on standards elsewhere in the world. We have to make decisions about where we want to get to, and then make sure we do not disadvantage our producers.

Funding could support the use of slow-growing breeds and low stocking densities, as scientific research shows that these bring welfare benefits. As an outcome measure, receipt of funding could be contingent on achieving low foot-pad dermatitis scores, which could be measured at slaughter.

Moving to dairy cows, a key issue is those that are kept indoors. Around 20% of UK dairy cows are zero grazed—that is, they are kept indoors for all or nearly all of the year. Again, funding could be made available for farmers who keep their cows in pasture during the grass-growing season, except when the weather is too wet. Such schemes already exist in Sweden. Research shows that pasture-based cows have lower levels of lameness, hoof pathologies, hock lesions, mastitis and mortality than zero-grazed cows. A potential outcome-based funding opportunity could be made contingent on pasture-based farmers achieving low levels of lameness and mastitis. We believe grass-based beef and sheep farmers could receive support for achieving low levels of lameness and disease.

Different research projects sometimes produce different outcomes. It is vital to have effective research into the impact on animal welfare of highly intensive livestock farming. We need that to contribute to a better understanding of what can improve animal welfare above the baseline and what better welfare practices can be promoted within the public goods element of the Bill. Therefore, we will be tabling an amendment to include a requirement for the Secretary of State to promote the conduct of research into the impact of highly intensive livestock farming practices on animal welfare, which, I believe, would be welcomed by many constituents and citizens.

Labour has argued in the past—and we continue to make the case—for an independent animal welfare commissioner, who would keep track of the most up-to-date and evidence-based science on animal welfare, in order to inform and update policy. We think that would be beneficial. We have proposed it in the past and I hope it is something the Government might consider. I am not aware that the Government have indicated thus far that they might do that, but let us see.

We back the great sections of the British public who call for an end to the use of cages on our farms once and for all. The Bill represents a real opportunity for the Government to get behind that call, if they can put in place the financial support needed for farmers to move away from high-intensity farming methods towards those that are significantly more supportive of animal freedoms and welfare. The Bill lacks detail on how financial assistance for improved animal welfare should be used. I hope the Minister has given due consideration to the careful planning needed to ensure that those receiving money for the clause 1(1)(f) public good are truly rewarded for achieving significant evidence-based improvements in animal welfare above the norm. Amendment 42 provides that financial assistance for the purpose of protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock would be given only if the recipient had exceeded a set of baseline regulatory standards, as established in new clause 9.

Amendment 4 provides an expanded alternative. We have a slight sense that the previous amendment may not be carried, so it is good to have a second string. It would put in place a provision that financial assistance would be provided for the public good of improving animal welfare and health only if the Secretary of State was satisfied that the recipient had gone beyond minimum requirements and followed a number of important measures to guarantee animal welfare, as set out in paragraphs (b) to (e). They include that the recipient has raised animals

“in such a way that enables them to carry out their natural behaviours”.

I suspect there would be considerable support for that among the wider public.

High animal welfare means taking into account scientific research that increasingly indicates that good animal welfare helps not only the prevention of suffering but the opportunity for animals to have positive experiences and exhibit their natural behaviours.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. Would he consider, as some animal welfare campaigners do, that natural behaviour would be to allow a cow to keep her calf with her for perhaps the first six months? It is quite difficult to be specific about what natural behaviour might be.

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As ever, the right hon. Gentleman asks a probing question. I made the point earlier that there are many levels of welfare to which we can aspire. Some are even contentious, in the sense that not everything natural is necessarily something that we want to happen.

Responding to consumer demand is complicated. If consumers want the kind of standard of welfare that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, I would suggest that, in the business world, it is a good idea to give them what they want—normally the argument made by the other side—but that is costly. There is a dilemma, again, for this mythical £3 billion pot we are all busily spending—[Interruption.] Well, it may not be £3 billion, we will see. There is a dilemma about which sectors to support, which we will come back to, and what level of welfare is reasonable.

Beyond that, there is a further question. As the right hon. Gentleman suggested, there may be things that lift to a very high standard, but who makes that decision? I suspect that, as ever, there will be a spectrum. There can be very high standards, which we see with the plant-based milk alternatives people are choosing. I choose them in my office, because my colleague does not drink dairy milk. We pay a premium, but we are happy to pay that. Consumers should be given the choice. That would be the answer to his intervention.

Pigs need space; they need a quantity of bedding and materials to fill a range of species-specific behaviours, such as rooting, foraging, nesting and exploring. Providing fibrous materials, including straw, brown wood, mushroom compost or natural vegetation, assists with comfort and can reduce aggression. Similarly, systems for laying hens should allow for species-specific behaviours such as nesting, foraging, dust bathing, perching and exercise, including walking, running and brief bursts of flying.

Many years ago, when I lived in a rural area, I discovered a chicken that had come off a lorry, doubtless on its way to not a happy place. I do not think Trevor ever imagined she would be mentioned in dispatches in the House of Commons, but it was astonishing to see how quickly that bird went back to exhibit exactly those behaviours, given the environment we imagine she had been in for many weeks. That was quite an eye-opener.

I think the British public would want to see many of these measures. The question is: are they prepared to pay the price? That is part of the debate. It is not just animal welfare enthusiasts who are asking for them. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee, the Government’s independent advisory body, has stated:

“Achievement of a life worth living requires provision of an animal’s needs and certain wants…Wants are those resources that an animal may not need to survive or to avoid developing abnormal behaviour, but nevertheless improve its quality of life.”

Tests of higher welfare standards should include a provision that recipients of public money are not involved in the live export of animals for slaughter or fattening. Of course, that is a long-running issue, which I will re-rehearse only briefly; I suspect the Committee is familiar with it.

At the moment, it is mainly sheep that are exported for slaughter, with most animals coming from England. Often, calves—mainly young dairy calves—are exported live, and put on a long journey to Spain or Italy for fattening for beef and veal. Those long journeys are stressful for the animals and, in some cases, result in great suffering due to overcrowding, high summer temperatures and injuries received en route. Calves exported from Scotland are often taken by road to Ramsgate in Kent and then by ferry to northern France, from where they can be driven all the way to Spain or Italy. I am told that previous journeys that have taken calves via Ireland have lasted up to 135 hours.

The practice has been highly contentious for many years and we believe it should be ended once and for all. That would do a great amount of good and have only a limited impact on the industry, as only one British sheep in 300 is involved in such trade and only 1.5% of British calves were involved in the export trade for fattening in 2017.

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Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the reason we can discuss this practice is because we have left the European Union and have the freedom not to comply with single market rules?

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The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, as he well knows. At the very least, it seems evident that those involved in the live export trade should not be receiving public subsidy for good animal welfare. There is probably widespread agreement on that. Having said all that, there need to be exceptions for genuine cross-border movements from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, provided that the animals involved are not re-exported from the Republic. We provide such an exemption in amendment 4.

Other requirements for receiving money for higher standards should include that livestock are not subjected to prohibited procedures such as mutilations, as defined in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and that livestock are killed only in the controlled environment of a slaughterhouse unless a veterinary surgeon certifies it necessary due to the animal’s poor health, and the method of killing is humane. Amendment 5 provides definitions for the practices outlined in amendment 4.

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I will be brief. Under clause 1, which we discussed earlier in the week, the list of objectives for which financial assistance can be given includes, under subsection (1)(f),

“protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock”.

Therefore, much of what the hon. Gentleman talks about is already covered in the Bill. While I can understand his wish to incentivise less tail docking and castration of pigs, reduce the density of broiler chickens and phase out farrowing crates, the intensive pig and poultry sectors have not received funding through the common agricultural policy system. My worry is that he is looking at ways of switching support from the farms that have relied on it —particularly extensive farms in the uplands, those farms that are producing the habitats and environmental public goods that we want to protect—to the intensive sector, which already manages very nicely. Switching to some of these more welfare-friendly methods on a large scale could mop up quite large amounts of the money available.

My second concern is about amendment 4’s proposed new subsection (4A)(d) to clause 2 of the Bill, which talks about killing livestock

“in any place other than in a slaughterhouse”.

I am a little worried about the practicalities of how that relates to sick and injured animals on farms. The amendment states that a veterinary surgeon must have certified that the animal should be put out of its misery because of poor health, and that

“the method of killing is humane”.

I read that to mean that on every occasion when a farmer wishes to humanely put an animal out of its pain or misery, they must be observed by a vet. In our village, I have a neighbour whose farm has 16,000 laying hens. It is an extensive system; they go outside. They are barn-raised hens produced under the very best welfare standards, but from time to time a hen will be injured or, in some cases, attacked by other hens and my neighbour will need to euthanise it. I do not think it is realistic or practical to expect that the farmer will call a veterinary surgeon on every occasion that happens and incur a fee of maybe £40 or £50.

Similarly, on my own farm, until last Saturday we had four hens. Unfortunately, a pet dog got into our field on Saturday afternoon and killed two of them, and when I went on Sunday morning to let the two remaining hens out of the shed, one of them was obviously in a very bad way. The tail feathers that we thought had been pulled out by the dog were hiding quite a nasty injury, and I had to kill that hen myself. It would not have been realistic for me to take that hen to the vet, or to call a vet out. There are many instances in which an animal is in great distress, maybe because it has a broken leg, and waiting for a vet to come would not be practical, even if it were economically feasible.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not support his amendment, because I do not think he has looked into the practicalities of animal welfare on a farm when animals are sick. I think back to when we used to keep a load of sheep. Sometimes sheep were in a very bad way; perhaps they had had difficult lambing and were haemorrhaging. This might be taking place at 2 o’clock in the morning, so the most humane thing to do was to put them out of their misery straightaway, without any delay and certainly without waiting for a vet to come, even if that were practical. If the hon. Gentleman wants to come back with similar amendments on Report, I hope he will look at paragraph (d) again, because most practising farmers would look at it and say, “This is not going to help animal welfare. This is going to mean animals dying in suffering, particularly if by breaking these rules I lose all my subsidies.” I think many farmers would be very worried about that, so I hope the hon. Gentleman understands the practicalities.

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It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend, who as ever makes some very valid points. Animal welfare is important to us all, and I am proud that, broadly speaking, it is also very important to farmers in this country.

Touching briefly on the issue of live exports, as I imagine the hon. Member for Cambridge knows, the Government has a manifesto commitment to end excessively long journeys for animals going for slaughter or fattening. We have said to date that we are actively looking at this important issue, and I understand that a consultation is planned imminently for this spring, so that we can take it further as quickly as possible.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman very clearly, and not just by nodding, that there is no intention that payments will be issued to farmers for achieving basic welfare standards. The Government are world leaders in animal welfare, and are committed to retaining that status by maintaining and strengthening our standards, as part of a comprehensive series of measures to improve animal welfare. Using the powers in this Bill, we are developing a scheme that aims to improve welfare. As part of that, we are exploring a one-off grant system that will help farmers to improve welfare on farms, and might well include some of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Cambridge, which we discussed earlier in our consideration of the Bill.

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For clarification, would that grant system be for capital expenditure to change the animals’ accommodation? If so, does the Minister envisage that there will be ongoing revenue-type subsidies to maintain the higher welfare standards, or is it just capital that is being looked at?

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I envisage the specific grants that I was just talking about as payments to enhance buildings, for example, or for other welfare issues. However, the hon. Member is right to mention other means of paying for welfare, and it is true that the Bill is currently flexible. I expect that we will get into the detail of that sort of issue as we progress with devising the schemes to improve animal welfare. She is right to highlight that issue, and should make whatever points she wants to as we devise the schemes. We are exploring a payment-by-results scheme, under which farmers could receive ongoing payments for delivering specific animal welfare enhancements that are valued by the public but, as the hon. Member for Cambridge said, not yet sufficiently valued by the market. The hon. Member for Bristol East is therefore right to continue to make whatever points she wants to in that space.

The amendment would restrict in primary legislation what will be included in the new scheme before those involved in the industry, as well as the Animal Welfare Committee, have had the opportunity to have their say. What defines enhanced animal welfare must be designed in consultation with those involved, so that the schemes deliver the best possible outcomes for consumers, the industry and, most importantly, the animals themselves. Our understanding of animal welfare today is far ahead of where it was when I was growing up on a farm, or 20 or 30 years ago. It would be short-sighted of us to set out requirements in legislation for payments, as it would restrict our ability to develop or amend schemes, such as the enhanced animal welfare scheme, when more evidence becomes available.

Turning specifically to amendment 42, improving the health of the national livestock, herd or flock, requires widespread co-ordinated action. We intend to launch the first schemes to improve the health of farmed animals from 2022 to 2023, concentrating on endemic diseases. We are co-designing schemes with farmers and vets, prioritising cattle—both dairy and beef—sheep, pigs and poultry, with the intention to widen participation to other species. Previous experience has shown that, without action being taken by the majority of farmers, efforts to control disease and improve health do not achieve very much.

That action does not have to be significantly above the legal standards to be very effective, but it does need to be part of a concerted effort on the part of farmers and others, which can, of course, include central Government. We are worried that the amendment would restrict us to providing financial assistance only, in effect, to better-performing farmers. Actions such as tackling endemic disease are best done when a large proportion of farmers and livestock owners are involved. If we limit the number of those who can benefit from a scheme, we will not be as successful in achieving our goals.

The hon. Member for Cambridge teased out the question of what constitutes a significantly higher standard of animal health. There is no single measure of animal health at the moment, and different actions to improve it will have different levels of public and private benefits. I am sure that we will continue to discuss such matters. At the very least, the amendment would make an important part of the financial clause difficult to work in practice, and could go so far as being counterproductive. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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That was an interesting and illuminating discussion that, as ever, probably raised as many questions as it answered, sadly.

I will start with the points made by the sharp-eyed right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby. I am sorry to hear about his unfortunate incident with the dog at the weekend.

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It was our favourite.

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I am sorry to hear that. The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I fully concede that this was not a drafting error; I am not sure we guided those doing the drafting in quite the right way. I accept that we could improve on that. What we are trying to tease out, however, relates to the questions and points that I have already raised about what the public want from the Bill. He implied that he was tempted to support one of the amendments. I would like to tempt him to support the other one, which does not have those objections attached to it, but I fear that I shall be disappointed.

We are pushing for a commitment to much higher standards. The Minister made a series of important points. On live animal export, we absolutely support using the opportunities available and we hope that the Government will get on with it. We would all like that to happen.

The point relates to some of the earlier tensions. I think the Minister said that there is no intention to pay for basic welfare standards, which I understand. Page 20 of the policy discussion document—I hate to keep referring to it, but it makes the point and has illuminated the discussion—asks what tier 1 could pay for and gives a wide range of examples. There is a tension between what she said and some of those examples, not least because what it could pay for depends on exactly what is being paid for on what unit. Farms are not all the same; some are mixed farms.

The cross-compliance regulations that we had under the European Union made it incumbent on the whole enterprise to conform to rules and regulations, but we do not know, frankly, how that will work in this new set-up and whether one part doing one thing disqualifies or qualifies. Those are exactly the reasons why we wanted a more detailed discussion, because we do not know the answers.

I understand the Minister’s predicament, but it is all very well for her to say, “Ah well, these things are difficult. It’s going to take time. The world’s going to change,” and all the rest of it, but it ain’t going to change for the people who are farming next year. They will have to deal with this, alongside the reductions that are coming, like the sword of Damocles over them, at an unspecified pace. I am afraid that I do not think that is good enough. We need to sort out some of the thinking behind it.

I hear the Minister’s point about the potential unintended consequences when one is trying to apply a measure to entire herds, but I am not convinced that it is impossible to frame it in such a way that we could do that and still insist on high welfare standards for public money. This is a matter of huge public interest, which is reflected in the amount of correspondence that most MPs get on the issue. If the Government want popular support for these policies, this is exactly the kind of amendment that they would do well to look at. On that basis, I will press the amendment to a vote.

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Would you like to press amendment 4 or amendment 42?

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I would like to press amendment 42 and withdraw amendment 4. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 42, in clause 2, page 3, line 32, at end insert—

“(4A) Financial assistance may only be given under section 1(1)(f) for the purpose of protecting or improving the health of livestock if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State or of any person to whom functions relating to the giving of financial assistance are delegated under section 2(6), the protection or improvement effects a standard which is significantly higher than that required by regulations made by the Secretary of State under section [Duty and regulations governing agricultural and horticultural activity].”—(Daniel Zeichner.)

This amendment would require a recipient of financial assistance for protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock to demonstrate that the protection or improvement would be of a significantly higher standard than the baseline required under NC9.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 10

27 February 2020

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 6
Noes: 11

Question accordingly negatived.

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I beg to move amendment 44, in clause 2, page 3, line 32, at end insert—

“(4A) No more than 5% of the financial assistance given through a financial assistance scheme in any particular financial year shall be spent on administration or consultancy.

(4B) The Secretary of State may by regulations vary the proportion of financial assistance specified in subsection (4A).”

This amendment, along with Amendments 45,46 and 47 would place a 5% limit on the amount of financial assistance which can be spent in any year on administration or consultancy.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 45, in clause 2, page 4, line 3, after “subsection” insert “(4B) or subsection”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 44.

Amendment 46, in clause 2, page 4, line 4, at end insert—

“(10A) For the purposes of this Act, “administration or consultancy” includes money spent on “administration or consultancy other than in connection with the purposes in section [Financial assistance: duty to provide advice].”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 44.

Amendment 47, in clause 5, page 6, line 13, after “year”, insert

“, and (c) the amount of money spent on administration or consultancy, within the meaning of subsection (10A) of section 2”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 44.

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Amendment 44 is another probing amendment. We are seeking to establish what protections there are against the financial assistance schemes’ administration costs being able to swallow large swathes of the budget. This is slightly difficult, since we still do not fully understand how they work; we are in a tricky position, but we think it is important that this issue be addressed.

We have talked already about the importance of having comprehensive enforcement measures in place that work to support compliance with the financial assistance schemes. However, I suggest that it is just as important to ensure that the bureaucracy associated with that does not take over the schemes at the expense of money going to farmers to deliver environmental public goods. The issue is clouded by the fact that we still do not know where the money is coming from—we can make assumptions, but it is not clear: how much will it cost and whose budget is it coming from?

There are plenty of unknowns, and we are trying to encourage the Government to share their thinking with us. We would not necessarily disagree with them, but knowing that would mean that we could query how everything should work. There is a worry that, given the ambition and complexity of some of the schemes, it could all end up costing a considerable amount of money.

If the system is not properly regulated and controlled, there could be opportunities for people for whom environmental goals may not be the chief concern. Even if that is not the case, employing people to carry out these complicated works could consume a lot of legal time and effort—many of those people do not work on the wages that farm workers do, so it would probably be quite expensive.

Of course, there is a delicate irony to all this: one of the chief complaints about the current system is the bureaucracy associated with it. I think we all probably share that frustration. The question is whether the bureaucracy has grown for reasons of its own, or whether there is actually a good reason for it. The Opposition think there is often a good reason for regulation and oversight, and we think there has been too much deregulation over the years. There will probably be a slight difference of opinion on this issue. I suspect that the world is changing a bit now that we have seen the dangers of just dismissing bureaucracy as somehow being a problem; many of us who have worked in bureaucracies think there is quite a good reason for enlargement in some cases.

The Opposition are looking particularly at the clause 3 measures on checking, enforcing and monitoring financial assistance. The Government want the Bill to be simple, but they also want a comprehensive system for checking that it is working. I suggest there is a tension there, which we would like to know a bit about. We are left with a lot of unanswered questions about how any of this will work. Again, it goes back to the detail in the environmental land management document. As I said earlier, it is laced with good intentions but also many questions.

The Minister will doubtless say, “Well, we’ve got seven years to sort it out and it’s an iterative process,” and so forth. I suspect that, among hon. Members who are still in Parliament in seven years’ time, some might well look back and say, “Maybe people should have asked a few more questions.” To cover my back against that possibility—not that I necessarily assume that I will be here in seven years’ time—I am trying to shed some light on this issue.

Looking at the complex web of organisations involved in all these processes—the Environment Agency, Natural England, DEFRA itself and so on—it is fair to ask whose budget any financial assistance will come from. I imagine that argument is going on behind closed doors. Everyone can see there is a pot of money, and presumably everyone thinks they will be given the resources needed. As I have already hinted, there is a real danger that the pot of money will diminish if everyone gets the budget necessary to do what they want. It could be the poor old farmer, or the local rural area, that finds the money has gone somewhere else.

The Government need to tell us a bit more about their estimates of how much all this will cost. We have suggested a 5% cut, which is not an informed figure—we can come up with an informed figure only if we have much more information on what the Government are thinking. Our concern is that, in the first year, it would look as though there is some headroom from the 5% cut. One would imagine that setting up some of these things will be quite expensive in the first place. We can envisage a situation in which the 5% in the first year does not go towards environmental improvements at all.

I used to be a software programmer, and I know how well most computer systems work. People are filled with confidence and enthusiasm but things do not work out in quite the way imagined, not least because the poor people designing the systems have the same problem: if it is not clear what we are trying to do, we cannot always provide a system that fits. My point is that a lot of money might need to be spent upfront. [Interruption.] I thought the Minister was about to intervene and tell me the answer, but she is not.

We certainly need clarity, which goes back to another fairly basic philosophical point: in other policy areas, we are familiar with the difficulty of targeted schemes in one way or another. The argument about universalism versus means-testing, be it for the BBC licence fee or any of the welfare payments, is well rehearsed. We know there is a considerable overhead with running these kinds of schemes. That was part of the reason for the reforms to the CAP some years ago—people had got frustrated with the costs, overheads and bureaucracy.

To return to EU regulation 1307/2013, on direct payments to farmers, we want to make the system simpler. Everybody wants to make it simpler until it comes to designing the system. These things have a habit of growing, so we want to tie it down and get a commitment from the Government. I am not wedded to 5%—I would be very happy to hear a different suggestion—but that is our starting point.

If I were to explain what we are talking about today to my colleagues who are not watching the Agriculture Bill daily, many of them would think about constituents coming to their surgery—I am sure all hon. Members have experienced this—to discuss how the personal independence payments system works, or something like that. In those cases, there is extraordinary bureaucracy. I am sure we have all encountered cases of people saying, “I did manage to walk 10 yards across the room because I was really trying,” which means that they fail. Most of us agree that we do not want people to be put through that, but that is where we get to with these very prescriptive schemes if we are not careful.

That is the challenge, the basic philosophical point, for the Minister and I wish her well with it. It would be helpful to her, frankly, if a tight limit were set so that officials could be exercised in trying to work it all out. I hope people see what we are trying to do. We do not want the public to come back to us and say, “Come on! All you have done is taken money away from local communities and farmers, and passed it on to outside consultants.” Amendment 44 proposes 5%. We have tried to frame it in a way that we think might work, making sure it is spent within that year. We have also been generous enough to suggest that the Secretary of State could vary that via regulation in the light of the iterative process.

Amendment 45 would subject those regulations to the affirmative resolution procedure so that proper parliamentary debate could be had about the changes. The Secretary of State would then be able to make the case for why the proportion may well be higher at the beginning. That might not be unreasonable, but the amendment would provide a method of proper discussion and scrutiny. We think the advice to farmers is important, and we support that, so amendment 46 excludes from “administration or consultancy” any money spent on advice supplied to farmers. We genuinely appreciate that this system is not going to work without that kind of advice.

Amendment 47 would add into the annual report on financial assistance, which clause 5 obliges the Secretary of State to produce, how much money had been spent on administration or consultancy that year. We are trying to create a framework—this is a framework Bill—for proper reporting that is open to scrutiny and transparency. It is almost like a nutcracker getting some purchase or bite on a nut; I suspect that some farmers think that they are already subjected to a nutcracker in various ways. We want to give the Secretary of State the ability to really drive down on administrative costs.

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, we pledged to guarantee the current annual budget to farming in every year of this Parliament. I want to make it completely clear that that commitment is separate from the funding that the Government requires to administer future financial assistance schemes, which itself is determined through Government spending reviews—behind closed doors, as he puts it. To make it crystal clear, the running costs for DEFRA and the DEFRA group are considered separately from the payments made to beneficiaries. I hope that clears up one of his questions.

As we continue to develop the future schemes, we may find that we need to include some administration costs for third parties, such as those incurred to run farm clusters or other groups that bring together multiple farmers and land managers to provide some of the schemes envisaged in the hon. Gentleman’s favourite new document. At this stage, we are unwilling to lock ourselves into saying how much will be spent on administration and consultancy. It will vary enormously from scheme to scheme.

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make sure that we remain transparent about the costs of running our schemes, and I reassure him that we are dedicated to remaining open and honest about our proposals and their costs. The purpose of the ELM document that we have heard so much about today is to start the discussion and to seek input from farmers, foresters and other land managers in co-designing the policy, and to give a demonstration of the open and transparent way in which we are going to be designing the schemes.

Similarly, the new clause we introduced that commits us to publishing annual financial reports on scheme expenditure will enable the public to examine how much we are spending. Those reports could include a breakdown of administration and consultancy costs, if the Secretary of State so desires—I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestions on that. The public, and Parliament acting on their behalf, have a right to expect that public funds will be used wisely and so we will, of course, be following the rules under the Treasury’s “Managing public money” guidance.

I reassure members of the Committee that we recognise and are committed to delivering value for our taxpayers. Indeed, that is partly why we wish to keep such flexibility —to ensure that financial assistance is always delivered in the most streamlined and efficient way. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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The Minister has given a welcome clarification. The obvious rejoinder is: where is the headroom in the DEFRA budget for these very ambitious plans? I suspect we will return to that question. I was just flicking through my favourite document, but unfortunately could not find the appropriate line. [Interruption.] I know; it is a shame. I am pretty sure that there is a suggestion somewhere in there that some of the money saved from basic payments could be used for some of this work. We can return to that point another day.

I am grateful for the Minister’s helpful response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 17, in clause 2, page 3, line 35, leave out

“or operated on behalf of”

and insert “by”.—(Victoria Prentis.)

This drafting amendment is intended to clarify the exclusion of financial assistance schemes made by the Secretary of State from the definition of a third party scheme and also to achieve consistency with other references in the Bill to things done by the Secretary of State. As a matter of legal interpretation a reference to something done by the Secretary of State will pick up things done by others acting in the name of or on behalf of the Secretary of State.

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I beg to move amendment 49, in clause 2, page 3, line 35, at end insert—

“(5A) Financial assistance shall not be given for any act or activity in pursuit of a purpose under section 1 if the land on which that act or activity is to take place is to be used by the applicant, or by a person acting with the consent of the applicant, for hunting of a wild mammal with a dog, whether or not that hunting is exempt under section 2 of the Hunting Act 2004.”.

Amendments 49 and 50 would provide that no financial assistance can be given for land which is to be, or has been, used for hunting (including exempt hunting), or on which an offence has been committed under the Hunting Act.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 50, in clause 2, page 3, line 35, at end insert—

“(5A) Financial assistance shall not be given for a purpose under section 1 if land on which any act or activity is to take place in pursuance of that purpose is land on which—

(a) an offence has been committed under section 1, 3 or 5 of the Hunting Act 2004, or

(b) exempt hunting, within the meaning of section 2 of the Hunting Act 2004, has taken place since 18 February 2005.”.

Amendments 49 and 50 would provide that no financial assistance can be given for land which is to be, or has been, used for hunting (including exempt hunting), or on which an offence has been committed under the Hunting Act.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to amendments 49 and 50. Mindful of the Chair’s previous exhortations, I will not read out the amendments, but I remind colleagues that both amendments ensure that no financial assistance can be given for land that is to be or has been used for hunting, including exempt hunting, or on which an offence has been committed under the Hunting Act.

These are important amendments. I hope the Minister will think carefully about the need for us to show leadership and for this Parliament to pass legislation that is bold and strong and enshrines our values. Those values mean that I am especially pleased to speak to the amendments.

Colleagues on this side will not need to be reminded, but I want to reiterate to the Minister and her Back Benchers that Labour is the party of animal welfare. The Conservative party likes to talk about the last Labour Government—so do I: we should remember that, when in government, Labour brought forward the landmark and history-making Hunting Act 2004.

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Is the hon. Member talking about the most recent Labour Government or the actual last Labour Government?

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I will pass on the semantics, but I thank the right hon. Gentleman.

The Conservative party has an appalling record on animal welfare in government. Announcements are often piecemeal, weak and kicked into the long grass when it comes to the advancement of animal welfare in every sense, including providing financial assistance for land on which hunting takes place.

Many colleagues have repeatedly raised concerns about the use of trail hunting as a cover for illegal hunting. The weight of evidence from independent monitors and non-governmental organisations shows that trail hunting is not a genuine activity. Indeed, a poll commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports found that only one in six rural residents believes that hunting with dogs reflects countryside values; more than nine in 10 think that observing nature reflects true rural values.

The Bill needs to show that we care, that we will lead by example and that legislation made in this House is relevant and sensible. Wildlife crime continues to blight many of our rural and green spaces, and many animal species across the country. There can be little confidence on the Government Benches that wildlife crime is being tackled effectively when the National Wildlife Crime Unit now has only 12 members of staff: they are required to cover the entirety of its UK operations. We need to get our house in order, and provide adequate resources to ensure that we can enforce legislation.

I mentioned the successes of the last Labour Government.

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Mention some more!

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I will. This month marked 15 years since hunting with dogs was banned in England and Wales—two years after a ban was introduced in Scotland by the then Labour-led Government of my noble Friend, Lord McConnell, through the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. The 2004 Act, which banned hunting in England and Wales, was a landmark moment in the fight against animal cruelty, but there is still much to do to end the scourge of fox, deer and hare hunting in the British countryside.

I am sure that Members from across the House will have received pleas from constituents of all ages during the election that we continue to make progress on measures to tackle animal cruelty. In my constituency, I received numerous pleas that we take the matter seriously. I would go so far as to say that people in Newport West care more about animals than they do about—no, that is not true. It could be construed as such, but obviously they care equally for animals and people.

There are still 299 hunts active across Britain. Frankly, the sheer scale of the problem is shocking. The loopholes are widely exploited, and exemptions in the law show that we need to strengthen the ban. We can do that by supporting the amendments. The Government need to crack down on illegal hunting, and they can do that by strengthening the Bill and supporting the amendments. There is no real space for people to excuse away the chasing and killing of foxes as a mere accident, and what possible scientific research could justify chasing deer with dogs for hours across miles of countryside, only to shoot them at the end?

As the system of agricultural support payments shifts towards payment for public goods, we must ensure that public money does not support a cruel sport that should have been consigned utterly to history long ago. It cannot be right for public money, designated to fund real public goods such as animal welfare, could end up being be paid to places where land is also used for hunting with dogs. The amendments would rule that out, and should be accepted by the Government. Landowners are an important link in the chain. Hunts need land to operate on, and the more they are denied it the less opportunity there will be to flout the law.

If we make every effort to remove the temptations and opportunities to hunt, we will be doing what we can to stop the illegal killing of innocent animals. That was recognised by the Labour group of Nottinghamshire County Council, which passed a motion calling for the end of hunting, including exempt hunting, on council-owned land. I pay tribute to colleagues on the council for their activism and campaigning, and for standing up for what is right. By preventing support payments being paid to landowners convicted of knowingly allowing illegal hunting to take place, which we can do by supporting the amendments, we will ensure that landowners think twice before allowing hunting on their land, and provide added impetus to police and law enforcement authorities to pursue charges when they suspect landowners to have broken the law.

I am pleased that the new Minister has been appointed. I genuinely look forward to working with her on the Bill and working with her in the months and years ahead. When I was preparing this speech, I visited her website to see her views on hunting and what she said when she was an enthusiastic and conscientious Back Bencher. Like all good pupils, I found some interesting material. Under a section called “Victoria’s views”, the now Minister, then Back Bencher, noted that some of her constituents would disagree with her support for the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004. I confess that that applies to me too.

The Minister also said that she believes that her support for the repeal of the Act does not mean that she has no regard for animal welfare. I say to her today that she should show us how much she cares by supporting these important amendments. She went on to say that,

“the Government should work closely with rural communities, animal welfare experts and lawyers”.

She is now part of the Government, so she can listen to the experts and support amendments that demonstrate our commitment to strong, secure and effective animal welfare policies.

Opposition Members are committed to ending the hunting of animals with dogs once and for all. The end goal is clear, but it requires us to be on our guard and alive to the new opportunities that may arise to continue the chasing and killing of animals. Amendments 49 and 50 would be an important step on the way to meeting our end goal. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will support them.

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Again, I worry about the unintended consequences of the amendments that have been put forward for understandable and, for a large section of the community, well-meaning reasons. The explanatory statements say that the amendments,

“would provide that no financial assistance can be given for land which is to be, or has been, used for hunting (including exempt hunting), or on which an offence has been committed under the Hunting Act.”

When one interrogates section 2 of the Hunting Act 2004 and the exemptions listed in schedule 1 to find out what is defined as exempt hunting, one reads that that includes flushing using no more than two dogs, so that animals such as rabbits can be shot. In many cases, it says, that can be done to protect the biological diversity of an area or to obtain meat for human consumption.

My key concern is that there is a long list under exempt hunting—I am not talking about trail hunting—including using just one dog, whereas the Act refers only to using more than two dogs. Amendment 49 talks about using “a dog”. The hon. Member for Newport West can correct me if I am wrong, but from what I have read, if a terrier has killed a rat on a farm at any time since 2004, that farm will be exempt from getting any agricultural support. I would hazard a guess that that would cover at least 95% of the farmland in this country, if not 100%.

When the hon. Lady talked about land, she was not specific about whether she meant the bit of land where the offence may or may not have taken place, the entire farm or the land in the ownership of that particular farmer or landowner, or whether the exemption still applies if the land is sold or the tenant who controls that land gives in the tenancy and it goes to a new tenant. My worry is that the amendments leave us with more questions than answers. If they are taken at face value—the Minister is a lawyer, so she is good at taking things at face value—and adopted, we could end up with maybe 100% of land in this country being exempt from getting any support at all.

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I was rather anticipating that we would have a discussion about this issue. This is public money for public goods. We are trying to reflect what we believe is the strong view of the British public that they would not want public money to be used to support hunting. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should try to reflect the will of the people?

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rose—

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I will take the other intervention, which I suspect may be on the same subject, before I reply to them both, if I may.

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If this legislation is meant to be pragmatic —if it is there to support farmers and ensure they act in the right way to steward our environment and our communities—should we not therefore be doing pragmatic things, rather than virtue signalling? We should recognise that cats have every right to hunt down mice if that is what they want to do, and therefore restricting what farmers can do in this way is neither sensible nor the place of legislation; rather, it is the place of press releases.

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My hon. Friend makes a good point, which answers the shadow Minister’s point very well. He has talked about the will of the people: the will of the people was expressed on 12 December last year, when they elected a majority Conservative Government.

I conducted an extensive survey of my constituents prior to my election. We got about 20,000 replies to that questionnaire, which asked lots of questions, including one about hunting. The Whitby part of my constituency was about 60/40 in favour of hunting; in the Scarborough part, it was about 60/40 the other way. I went to a primary school not long before the election, and as we all do when we visit schools, I talked about the issues that the children wanted to talk about. Hunting did come up, and one child who came from a farming family made it very clear that she took a dim view of foxes, and the fact that they had been in her family’s hen coop and were taking newborn lambs. She underlined the need to control foxes.

We are not revisiting the hunting legislation in this Committee; rather, we are looking at what the practical implications would be if this amendment were on the face of the Bill, with its provisions being retrospective and applicable to exempt activities such as one dog killing one rat or two dogs being used to flush a rabbit to be shot. If those exemptions were removed, almost every farm in the country would be covered by that retrospective application.

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I fully accept that we can always improve the drafting. What I am trying to get at is whether the right hon. Gentleman thinks that public money—taxpayers’ money—should be supporting hunting, in whatever form. We are trying to get at that to build on the landmark legislation that has been so popular. As we know, the Government are fairly reluctant to get back into this debate.

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My first point is that if the hon. Member for Newport West had drafted the amendment herself, she might have looked in a bit more detail at what schedule 1 of the Hunting Act 2004 actually says and what exemptions should be referred to, rather than making a general reference to exempt practices. We all rely on pressure groups and lobby groups to help with our work, but taking things at face value is not always the best way forward. Secondly, the objective of the Bill is not to support people killing rats with terriers, or people conducting legal activity within the context of the Hunting Act; it is to support our agricultural industry in a way that also achieves the green environmental objectives that we all want to meet.

The hon. Member for Cambridge will not be surprised to hear that I will not be supporting these amendments. Whether or not Members agree with hunting is almost beside the point, because the amendments are drafted in such a way as to destroy the objective of the Bill, which is to give support to farmers, particularly in some of the most challenging parts of our country—those areas where farming is most difficult to make economically attractive, where predation from foxes and rats are problems, and where other types of pest control need to be carried out. The exemptions within the Hunting Act exist to allow those legal activities to take place, and my guess is that using the amendments to take them out of that Act and make those farms exempt from support would take out nearly 100% of the farmland in the United Kingdom. Even farmers farming National Trust land where hunting is not allowed by the landlord will be carrying out rabbit and rat control, which is one of the exemptions that the hon. Member for Newport West is seeking to bring back in.

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Environmental land management will, as we said earlier, be most successful if the highest number of participants are enabled to join in. As my right hon. Friend has just made clear, I fear this amendment would limit uptake of our exciting new schemes, and therefore limit the environmental benefits that we all hope will flow from them. For example, under the suggested tiers 2 and 3 it will be vital for farmers and land managers to work together across a wide area, to deliver the environmental benefits we hope for, such as improving the status of habitats. Excluding some land from being eligible could prevent us from delivering those benefits.

I am concerned that the amendment might penalise legal activities. For example, exempt hunting is, by its nature, exempt from the Hunting Act 2004, and is a legal activity with clearly defined restrictions. No one should be penalised or have financial assistance withheld for carrying out or allowing lawful activities on their land.

Amendment 50 concerned me because it would exempt from financial assistance those on whose land hunting had been carried out without their knowledge. For example, hare coursing, which many hon. Members will have had difficulty with in their constituencies, is an offence under the Hunting Act, and is often undertaken without landowner or land manager consent, often by illegal trespassers.

I am also concerned that exempting land that has been used for hunting since February 2005, as my right hon. Friend said, including legal hunting activities, could mean that we are exempting financial assistance from being awarded to lawful landowners or managers, who had no control over what had happened on that land previously.

I hope I have made clear the difficulties in seeking to restrict financial assistance in such a way. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Newport West to withdraw the amendment.

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I thank hon. Members for their interventions and the Minister for her comments. I thank the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby for his advice about not taking things at face value. I promise him that I have spoken at length to farmers in my constituency about hunting, as well as pest control and vermin control, which are two very different things.

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the potential unintended consequences of the amendments. We are willing to work with others in this room to ensure that the amendments are drafted soundly and safely, but we wish to put forward the basic spirit of the amendments today. He has gone to extremes by suggesting that no landowner in the country would ever get any money again. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton made the point about cats killing mice and rats. My cats killed mice and rats, but I am not seeking public money for public good. That is the difference.

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Cats are exempt from the Bill, so that would still be allowed.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that, but the point is, if one is not seeking public money for public good, it is not a problem.

We need to work together to ensure that these amendments come through. Everyone is aware of the pressure groups. There is the idea that hunting is a sport, and it has been taken up as a sport over hundreds of years. We, as a civilised society, should look to close that down. We have no problem with controlling vermin. The right hon. Gentleman made the point about foxes, which I completely understand, having had friends who have had chickens decimated by foxes, which, as he knows, do not eat them, but leave them.

We have no problems with controlling pests and vermin, but hunting is a massive game in the countryside and people do not want to see animals being put through this insecure and frightening sport. The evidence of the unintended consequences of hunting is clear: cats and dogs are killed as a result of trail hunting. It is important that we mitigate to stop that. While we are happy to work together on the wording of these amendments, it is important that we work together to ensure they are accepted. The spirit of them is very clear and I hope the Government will accept that.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division 11

27 February 2020

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 5
Noes: 10

Question accordingly negatived.

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I have not had any notice that the Opposition want to press amendments 50, 45, 64, 46 and 5. Is that correct?

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I think that is correct.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 18—Financial assistance: duty to provide advice

“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to secure the provision of training, guidance and advice to persons receiving financial assistance under this Act, for the purpose of enabling those persons to deliver the purpose or purposes for which the financial assistance is given.

(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may include provision for advice on matters which include but are not limited to—

(a) the impact of any practice upon the environment,

(b) business management, including the development of business plans,

(c) the health and welfare of livestock,

(d) the safety and health of workers in any agricultural sector,

(e) innovation, including alternative methods of pest, disease and weed control,

(f) food safety, insofar as it relates to the production of food or any activity in, or in close connection with, an agri-food supply chain,

(g) the operation of any mechanism for applying for, or receiving, financial assistance under this Act, and

(h) marketing of any product falling within an agricultural sector under Schedule 1.

(3) Regulations under this section are subject to affirmative resolution procedure.”

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to make provision for training, guidance and advice to be made available to persons receiving financial assistance.

New clause 23—Consultation on financial assistance schemes and multi-annual financial assistance plans

“(1) Prior to framing any financial assistance scheme under section 1 or to preparing a multi-annual financial assistance plan under section 4, the Secretary of State must carry out a consultation on the design of the scheme and how it relates to the Government’s strategic priorities for giving financial assistance.

(2) In the consultation under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must consult—

(a) such persons, or representatives of such persons, as appear to the Secretary of State to be representative of interests substantially affected by the scheme,

(b) such persons, or representatives of such persons, as appear to the Secretary of State likely to apply for financial assistance,

(c) any relevant authority under section [Consultation on giving of financial assistance],

(d) such other persons or bodies as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

New clause 24—Consultation on giving of financial assistance

“(1) Financial assistance under section 1 may only be given to a person following consultation with—

(a) the relevant authority under subsection (3) for the area in which land for which financial assistance being claimed is situated,

(b) the owner, or representative of an owner, of any land adjacent to that for which financial assistance is being claimed,

(c) any water undertaker under section 6 of the Water Industry Act 1991 whose area includes land for which financial assistance is being claimed,

(d) such persons, or representatives of such persons, as appear to the Secretary of State to be representative of interests substantially affected by the giving of the financial assistance,

(e) such other persons or bodies as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(2) The consultation under subsection (1) may seek views on—

(a) the amount of financial assistance to be given to a person,

(b) the purposes for which a person is to be given the financial assistance,

(c) the outcomes which the person in receipt of financial assistance should be expected to deliver, and

(d) the potential for giving financial assistance in connection with a third party scheme under section 2(5).

(3) For the purposes of this section and section [Consultation on financial assistance schemes and multi-annual financial assistance plans], a “relevant authority” is—

(a) a parish council, or

(b) where there is not a parish council—

(i) a principal authority in an area with a single tier of local government as defined by section 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, or

(ii) a district council or London Borough Council in an area other than in subsection (3)(b)(i).”

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Clause 2 establishes certain aspects of how financial assistance provided under chapter 1 may be administered. It provides for funding to be subject to conditions and makes it clear that funding may include conditions under which it can be recovered. We recognise that the expertise of individuals outside Government can play an important role in delivery. For that reason, the clause allows financial assistance to be given to those who operate their own schemes and enables the Secretary of State to delegate functions in relation to giving financial assistance. To ensure transparency, the clause also creates a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations to require the publication of information about payments.

Turning to new clause 18, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the types of support that we will look to offer those in receipt of financial assistance under clause 1. This is an important topic.

We recognise that there must be an effective advisory service to support ELM and other schemes established under clause 1. In the discussion document, about which we have heard so much, we have invited contributions on key topics, including on advice and guidance, and some of our tests and trials are focused on this area. For ELM, the tier that farmers, foresters or other land managers take part in could affect the type of advice that they need. For example, some may need advice at the scheme application stage; others may need help and support in planning their interventions. How much advice and guidance they require may change, depending on their level of experience. Therefore, the advice and guidance framework for ELM will be flexible and able to adapt to the specific requirements of the participants and the outcomes that they are seeking to deliver. The new clause would restrict that necessary flexibility.

We are considering a range of approaches for delivering the advice—for example, one-to-one advice and support direct to land managers. That could include, as we have discussed, agronomists visiting farms to give specialist advice. We are also considering group training, telephone and online support, and peer-to-peer learning.

We are still exploring different mechanisms for providing advice for all our schemes, but we would not want to lock ourselves into providing advice that may become out of date in the future and we are keen to retain sufficient flexibility to adapt how we provide advice as we continue to learn. We want to break away from the common agricultural policy’s rigid and inflexible approach. We are firmly committed to offering a range of supportive measures to ensure that our farmers and land managers will have access to good-quality advice, guidance and training.

I come now to new clause 23. We recognise the importance of engaging with farmers, foresters and other land managers as we start to implement our reforms. Consultation and co-design are at the heart of what we will do. We have extensive plans for, and a track record of, working with industry, experts and other interested parties.

The Department published our consultation on proposed reforms to farming in February 2018 and received more than 40,000 responses, each of which was read and considered. We can see the effects of that consultation throughout the policy document that we produced earlier this week. We will also consult on the detailed ELM scheme design after the pilot has started. That consultation will build on what we have learned from the tests and trials, as well as the national pilot, and will help us to refine and finalise our scheme design before the launch of the full scheme in 2024. These activities, I hope, will do exactly what new clause 23 seeks to achieve. We will also seek additional views and opinions from farmers, foresters, land managers and other interested parties through various special events and roundtables held throughout the country.

New clause 24 would require us to consult in an inflexible manner before giving financial assistance. Requiring the Government to consult neighbouring landowners and local authorities before any payment is made could prove problematic and introduce significant extra administration and delay into the system. For example, in the case of our animal health schemes, there are around 67,000 registered livestock holdings alone. While we would not make payments to all these, consulting on every payment to a small proportion could make the delivery of the scheme burdensome and possibly unworkable.

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This goes to the heart of the problem. We do not know how many of these schemes will be administered. Until we know, it is very hard for us to comment.

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The hon. Gentleman and I have had this discussion several times today already. Having new duties to consult, such as this, could result in unintended consequences, which I am keen to avoid. For example, if we need to respond to an emerging environmental issue, such as a novel disease or tree pest blight, having to consult widely on a new financial assistance scheme would make the grant less useful and effective.

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This is both interesting and important. It again goes to the intended relationship between the tiers. Tier 3 schemes, at the catchment-area level, could have a big effect on the local landscape. Even if the Minister does not like our suggestion for tier 1—I see her point, if it would apply to large numbers—surely there is a case for tier 3.

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There will certainly be a case, with the wider tier 3 schemes, to involve more people, because the aim is to cross farm boundaries in order to provide a public good over a wider area. However, we do not want to tie ourselves to an inflexible consultation. Believe you me, I have been involved in DEFRA for under two weeks and I am amazed by the level of consultation with which DEFRA is prepared to engage. I really think that we do not want to tie ourselves to inflexible amounts of consultation, or consultations of the type that do not enable us to react quickly when needed. Responding in a timely manner may be important, such as when dealing with a disease or blight to a particular plant. I am concerned that the new clause is too inflexible.

I agree that the new clauses raise important issues, but I think we should take a flexible but reasonable and proportionate approach to consultation, in line with the Cabinet Office consultation principles. Requiring engagement in legislation is not necessary or, indeed, appropriate, and could result in our going back to the difficult days of delays in payments, which we all worked so hard to get over.

The Government have proven our commitment to joint working and consultation repeatedly, and we intend to continue that. I hope I have reassured the hon. Member for Cambridge and the Committee that we will be taking appropriate action on engagement to ensure that financial assistance schemes are delivered in the best way possible. As such, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

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Today’s discussions have been most illuminating and interesting and have shown the benefit of giving the proposals detailed scrutiny. To refer to my earlier comments, it would be so much easier with the detail before us. I think we are genuinely having a dialogue that explores some of the tensions and issues.

I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that there is a case for wider involvement. Earlier, she acknowledged that maybe tier 2 and certainly tier 3 had some similarities with some of the previous pillar 2 schemes. Those of us who have been involved in rural development over many years will be familiar with the European Union LEADER schemes. My understanding and recollection from when I was involved is that there was local authority involvement, and that is the bit I am worried is missing.

It does not seem to have come up in discussion much, but we are talking about public money being spent in rural, semi-rural and sometimes urban areas—my city of Cambridge has a farm—yet the bit that seems to be missing is the public voice, or even the voice of individual members of the local community. I get what the Minister is saying. I was a parish councillor. I started my glorious ascent many years ago on Dickleburgh parish council. As a district councillor, like many others, I used to regularly attend parish councils. In fact, my partner seemed to think that, as far as she was concerned, there was a parish council meeting for every night of the week. There are pros and cons for our parish councils.

My strong sense is that local councils are not party political, by and large. People there are absolutely motivated to ensure the best for their local communities. They are not always as representative as they should be, in my view—I do not think the farming community have to worry about that; in many cases they are well represented on those bodies—but they know their patch inside-out. I remember many discussions about gullies and culverts going long into the night. Sometimes it was hard to keep up. They know their local patch. If we are using public money for transformative schemes for local areas, I think these people have something to add.

I understand the tension with wanting to respond swiftly, but it is important that local communities are taken along in that, and I think there are dangers if they are not, frankly. It is not something that is easily resolved, but I hope that people will go away and think about some of that. To some extent, local councillors are an unused asset and an unused store of local knowledge. There are difficulties, because some of them might have conflicts of interest. In the end, the Minister’s suggestion that consultation is a bit slow and tedious—perhaps I am being unfair—is something we all struggle with, but that is what democracy is like. We are the country we are because we are prepared to spend that time having that discussion with people. I hope I have not misrepresented her.

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Yes, you have.

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Oh, I have. In which case, I withdraw that suggestion. I understand what the Minister is saying. She is trying to find a balance between an appropriate level of involvement without squandering the opportunity to act. I also have to say that a lot of the environmental goods we are talking about are not tackling an immediate crisis. In some cases, they are making long-term transformations, and it is important that local communities have their voice.

Going back to where I was going to start, I made it clear in my comments on a previous amendment that we are strongly committed to the advice-giving role. In fact, I just do not think that any of these things can be done without that offer of advice and help. On Tuesday, I did suggest that with slightly naive optimism. I am a naive optimist and perfectly up for that, some of this will be a bit more difficult than some of the policy papers suggest. We are asking people to change the way that many of them have operated for a very long time. The incentive we are giving them is basically a stick, by saying, “You are going to lose your money.” Some people respond positively to that, which is great—I am sure those are the farms that we are generally shown around.

3.30 pm

My recollection from my days as a district councillor in a very rural area is that there were also plenty of other farmers, and I am not sure that all of them will be quite so easy to work with. It will need advisers who have a whole range of skills, not just farming-related skills. In moving people from where they are now to where want them to be—this goes back to my earlier narrative, and we will probably pick this up when we debate the clause on delinking—there is a risk that a lot of people will just decide, “It’s not for me.” In fact, I have already heard people say that. That is another big decision we have to take and it could be the way we go, but is that we want to do? I am not convinced that it is.

We need to ensure that we have the resources now that the Minister has finally conceded that the budget will not come out of the moneys from direct payments. On one level, that is very welcome. Given that it is not particularly easy, however, it prompts questions about how much it will cost, where the money will come from, and whether we will have the skilled people to do it. I worry about smaller farms. Big farms, which have the resources and are used to dealing with the system, will probably be able to make the transformation. They might not all be enthusiastic, but they will be able to have a dialogue. I worry about smaller farmers, and I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that—going back to my earlier point—there might be a bigger plan. I wonder whether that plan includes smaller farmers in many parts of the country, because there is potentially a big social impact.

Looking back at the previous environmental schemes—which is one of the good bits of the document—the evidence clearly shows that having access to an adviser makes a big difference to their success. It is well worth providing advice to farmers on how they can meet environmental outcomes, navigate the often difficult paperwork—I suspect it is probably now done on a computer—and request money from these schemes, because such advice can help to address gaps in the skills, knowledge and motivation of farmers and land managers. It can help to build confidence, ultimately leading to better outcomes than for people who are not supported by advice. That is something we have heard from stakeholders and from witnesses in Committee.

We finally learnt from the aforementioned document—I think the Minister referred to it—that the Government are thankfully considering a range of different models for the provision of advice, including one-to-one support provided directly to land managers, group advice and training, telephone and online support, and facilitation of peer-to-peer learning. All of those are welcome, and we would strongly support them. It is also very welcome to read in the document that it is anticipated that there will be provision of extensive written information—I am sure we are delighted to hear that—both online and offline.

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I am sure the hon. Member will enjoy that.

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I will read it; I promise.

Guidance will be provided to everyone who participates in ELMS, including guidance on how to deliver the environmental outcomes that they will pay for. Having looked at the 139-page document on how to apply for the basic payment scheme, including the delightful colourful drawings of buffer strips and what a field looks like, I do not underestimate how complicated the previous system was. The challenge is to see whether it can be trimmed down. Based on previous experience in this country, it may be an ambitious hope, but I am sure that is where we all want to get to. As I said earlier, the difficulty is that we still do not really know how it will be paid for.

I want to pick up on an observation from the earlier discussion. A huge number of people would have been made ineligible by one of our previous amendments. There is nothing in the documents or the Bill to stop the entire budget going to one project, which it could do. It could be argued that that might be the most environmentally sustainable thing to do, but there lies the problem. The system being replaced is one under which people basically had almost an entitlement to public support by virtue of owning land—we were very critical of it, although if it had been applied properly and was subject to proper environmental improvement, there was a possibility to make it work—but we have no idea about the distribution of resources under the new framework. We do not even really know what the Government think would be a good outcome. Part of my worry about all this is that there is too much that we do not know.

Advice will need to be made available to farmers about a broad range of areas to incentivise take-up, which we hope to see, and to support them in delivering these environmental public goods. We will need really good information and explanations about why particular practices that people have perhaps been doing for a while are not approved of. We will need really good targeted help for people, with proposed innovations towards better animal welfare practices or alternative methods of pest, disease and weed control. We need clear guidelines on how the various financial assistance schemes work, and support with business management plans, to make the transition to ELMS work for each farming unit. I am still not clear about how we will make sure it is properly resourced and funded, or that we have sufficient people with the capacity to do this. To go back to the question of how many will be in tier 1, if advice is offered to all those people, that will be a big job. We will probably be pursuing the matter of how much that is likely to cost on another occasion through written questions.

If it is the Government’s intention to do all this, it would have been helpful to have a bit more detail in the Bill, rather than an ambitious but rather vague list of plans. That goes back to one of my themes: if we are trying to offer certainty to people in a time of change, we need a bit more than this.

With new clause 18, we propose including a requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State to make regulations to provide training guidance and advice to those receiving financial assistance to help to enable them to deliver the clause 1 public goods. I think we have outlined a decent range of activities. There are no restrictions on suggestions. The Minister says that it is too prescriptive, but she is free to add as many extra suggestions as she likes. That would be helpful. Given that the Government are clearly moving in this direction in general, I am sure the Minister would recognise the importance of sending a strong signal to farmers that the Government really are going to be there to support them. I hope that, on that basis, they will consider supporting that amendment.

New clause 23 says that, prior to framing any financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must carry out a consultation on its design and consult the relevant authorities. I have already spoken about the potential role of parish councils. It does not have to be parishes, because there are areas that are not parished, but we want it to be the lowest tier of local government in order to ensure that the local community has a role. I have hinted that that must be the case for tier 3 and possibly for tier 2. Much depends upon how broad tier 1 actually is. On that basis, I support these new clauses, which I understand will be voted on later, Mr Stringer.

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They will be voted on later. Does the Minister wish to respond?

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No.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Multi-annual financial assistance plans

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I beg to move amendment 37, in clause 4, page 5, line 14, after “period” insert

“, and

(d) set out the budget for each financial assistance scheme under sub-paragraph (c)(i) or (c)(ii) for the duration of the plan period”.

This amendment and Amendments 38 and 39 provide that the Secretary of State’s multi-annual financial assistance plan must include a budget informed by the Office for Environmental Protection to be established by the Environment Bill.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 38, in clause 4, page 5, line 38, at end insert—

“(9A) For each financial assistance scheme, the Secretary of State must have regard to any advice provided by the Office for Environmental Protection, after it is established, about the funding required to achieve the strategic objectives of financial assistance for the duration of the plan period.”

See explanatory statement for Amendment 37.

Amendment 39, in clause 5, page 6, line 10, after “scheme,” insert—

“(aa) any opinion provided by the Office for Environmental Protection, after it is established, as to whether the financial assistance given was sufficient to meet the strategic objectives of the financial assistance,”.

See explanatory statement for Amendment 37.

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These important amendments call for the Secretary of State’s multi-annual financial assistance plan to include a budget informed by the Office for Environmental Protection, which is to be established by the Environment Bill.

The Environment Bill received its Second Reading yesterday and many important points were raised on the Floor of the House. They will receive their own scrutiny, and I will not touch on that legislation today—we certainly have enough to be going on with here. However, there are some important links to the Bill before us, particularly when it comes to the Office for Environmental Protection.

The fact that there are three big environmental Bills going through the two Houses at the same time shows that the Government have realised that they are running out of time to prepare for our ultimate departure from the European Union and that they need to get to grip with the challenges facing this important sector. They are running out of time to prepare our farmers, our farm workers and the agricultural sector more generally for the years ahead.

Our amendments call for the Office for Environmental Protection, for which the Environment Bill makes provision, to influence what Ministers do when it comes to the multi-annual financial assistance plan and the budget contained within it. We believe that the Office for Environmental Protection must be independent. It must be strong and it must be clear about its remit and the expectations upon it. It must push for higher standards, it must push for non-regression and it must push for measures to tackle the climate emergency. If it does those things, then it makes sense for the multi-annual budget to be informed by the scope, remit, strength and inspiration of the Office for Environmental Protection.

We hope that these probing amendments will encourage Ministers and Government Members to develop strong and clear mechanisms that make for long-term and organised funding structures. They are designed to fill the gap in the Bill’s proposal for multi-annual financial settlements. The Bill is silent on how the budget or funding envelopes are set in the first place. We have already had much discussion on that and I look forward to any clarification the Minister can give on those points.

Many stakeholders have raised concerns and called for clarity and further thinking on this point. Whatever proposals are finally agreed and provided for, let us be led by the facts and the experiences of those out there on the farms in our rural communities in all parts of the United Kingdom. That is why the amendments are so important.

The Opposition are giving voice to the concerns today, but it is not just we who are worried. Greener UK says that it wants to see a stronger and enhanced framework for long-term funding in the Bill, which will inspire confidence and demonstrate to the sector that the Government understand the pressure on it, and the need for us to support it wherever we can. The Nature Friendly Farming Network supports calls for greater certainty about long-term funding and notes the need for the Bill to be as strong and effective as possible. I say to the Minister that we should be listening to the experts. That is not just my view; it is the view of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). He noted the other day that we need to listen to experts, and do you know what? I agree with him.

It is clear to me that the more certainty Members have and the more certainty the people out in our country have, the better. There are many people right now who are concerned that we do not have much certainty past 31 December 2020. Admittedly, there have been commitments to maintaining the current level of funding, but so far they are just commitments and they do not necessarily sit well with some of the comments and press coverage on payments to farmers that we saw in the weekend press. I am sure the Secretary of State would attest to the strength of feeling he encountered at his meeting this week.

Clarity, transparency and respect are going to be key now and into the future. Let us make it so and support these amendments today.

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It is always good to discuss funding for agriculture further. I begin with amendment 37. The Government faced a fair challenge from parliamentarians on the previous Agriculture Bill about the funding they were expecting to receive. The Government responded to that challenge and included what I am going to start calling the MAFA plan—the multi-annual financial assistance plan—in clause 4, which covers the seven-year agricultural transition period. This will describe the assistance schemes that are in operation or are expected to come into operation during that period.

Subsequent plans will run for at least five years, rather than seven, and the Secretary of State will have a duty to ensure that plans do not expire without a replacement in place, which is important. However, we recognise that the sector needs clarity on the budget, which is why we guaranteed the current cash total for each year of this Parliament, giving much-needed certainty for the next five years.

On amendments 38 and 39, as the hon. Member for Newport West said, the Environment Bill already provides the Office for Environmental Protection with functions to scrutinise the Government’s environmental commitments. These were rehearsed at length yesterday, and I do not propose to go into them all here. I understand that we have three major Bills going through Parliament at once, which of course have synergies, and where necessary we will refer to them, but the Environment Bill is the proper place to discuss the OEP at length. Having said that, it is right in this context to say that the OEP’s reports will be published and laid before Parliament, and that the Government will be required to publish a response and lay that before Parliament.

In addition to OEP scrutiny, the reporting process envisaged in the Bill provides for a high degree of public and parliamentary scrutiny. For example, through its scrutiny of the Government’s environmental improvement plans, the first of which is the 25-year environment plan, the OEP may consider that the Government could meet one or more of the goals within the 25-year plan sooner—for example, if additional funding was provided to deliver the purposes set out in clause 1.

Under the Environment Bill, the Secretary of State will receive the OEP’s reports and will have to respond to them. The reports and responses will be publicly available so that parliamentarians can question how the OEP’s advice is considered. Any opinion provided by the OEP will already be in the public domain and therefore be available for the Secretary of State and Parliament to consider.

We listened to and reflected on feedback from the previous Agriculture Bill Committee, and as a result this version of the Bill provides much more opportunity for the Government’s plans to be scrutinised, including by the EFRA Committee. I therefore ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

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I welcome much of what the Minister says, but our concern and our reason for tabling the amendments is that, positive though her comments are, this is such a big change that we think it right and proper that there is more regular analysis of it, informed by the OEP. I fully understand why she does not want to rehearse the OEP discussion.

As I have said, our view is that the Bills have been introduced in the wrong order, which puts us at something of a disadvantage. However, if the prime, driving purpose of this legislation is to tackle the environmental crisis, as we think it should be, we do not think that the proposed structure—welcome though it is, and it is an improvement—quite matches that sense of urgency. I perhaps should have said more on this earlier. Seven years is a long time for a transition. While we understand why that is beneficial from the industry’s point of view, from my constituents’ point of view, some want it next week, frankly. People are pushing very hard. At the general election, my party committed to a much earlier net zero date, and we know that the NFU is pushing for a much earlier date than the Government’s. However, there is not that sense of urgency, which our amendments would help to bring forward.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West said, it is not only us saying this; many conservation organisations share our concerns and worries. Their worry is partly that a considerable sum of public money is available and, as I have alluded to before, we want to know how the prioritisation will work. Will it be done at a local or national level? The document that we have been referring to throughout the sitting hints at an issue about prioritisation.

I somewhat mischievously suggested that the money could all go to one scheme, but that is not actually impossible, which is why we want a structure where the Office for Environmental Protection could say, “This is where your big gains are going to come from. This is where you’re going to get the difference.” There is a tension, however, between what would get the best environmental gain, what is most effective, and what will, out there in the world, be perceived as fair in a transition phase from the current system to a new one. That is why we think our amendments would provide a better structure.

We understand that there is tension because the Department wants flexibility; I am sure that if we were running the Department, we would want the same. It is our job as the Opposition, however, to remind the Government that they voted to acknowledge the climate crisis and to try to hit net zero in 2050. In every piece of legislation that is brought forward, we want to see a real commitment to making that happen. We think the amendment would contribute to that.

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I thank the Minister for her honesty about the current funding uncertainties and the issues. I appreciate that she has a massive job on. I am glad to be on this side of the room.

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We’re glad too.

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The Minister is quite right that there will be lots of new acronyms—OEP, MAFA—and we are frantically learning them, so she must bear with us. She is honest in the way that she has expressed her concerns.

We accept that there will be a lot of co-operation—hopefully—as the Bill progresses, because it is important that this is not about us and them. It is not adversarial; a lot of this should be consensual. We should work together to make sure that we get the best for the agriculture sector across the UK—in all four countries. We look forward to lots of probing questions not just from Opposition Members, but from hon. Members on both sides of the House. We look forward to developing and fully understanding the complexities and intricacies of the Bill. With that in mind, I thank the Minister for her comments and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Annual and other reports on amount of financial assistance given

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Two amendments to clause 5, amendments 39 and 47, have been debated. Do the Opposition wish to press either of them to a vote?

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If no, we move on to the clause stand part debate.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Annual assessment of funding for purposes

(1) The Secretary of State must report on financial assistance for each purpose listed in section 1.

(2) A report under subsection (1) must be made for each financial year and must be laid before both Houses of Parliament no later than 31 October in the financial year following the financial year to which the report relates.

(3) The first report shall be made by 31 October 2021 and shall relate to financial assistance in the 2020-21 financial year.

(4) A report under this section must record, on the basis of best data available—

(a) the total sum of financial assistance for each purpose in section 1,

(b) the source of any element of financial assistance under subparagraph (a) which comes from public funds, and

(c) the sums from each source under subparagraph (b).

(5) The Secretary of State must include in each report under this section—

(a) a statement of their opinion on whether any sum recorded under subsection (4)(a) is sufficient to meet their policy objectives in relation to each purpose; and (b) a statement of the Secretary of State’s intentions if, in their opinion, a sum recorded under subsection (4)(a) was not sufficient to meet their policy objectives in relation to a purpose.

(6) For the purposes of this section, “financial assistance” means financial assistance either allocated or given in any form listed in section 2(1).

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to report annually on the financial assistance given or allocated to each of the purposes of the Bill, on its sufficiency to meet policy objectives and on the Secretary of State’s intentions if in their opinion funding for any purpose was not sufficient.

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Clause 5 places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare a report each financial year, which I have spoken about extensively already. The report will detail the financial assistance given under clause 1. The financial reporting provisions seek to provide greater transparency and certainty about the amount of public funding allocated under clause 1. That includes information on the extent to which the financial assistance meets any obligations or commitments under the terms of each scheme.

Mr Stringer, perhaps you can guide me. Should I turn to new clause 2 now?

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Speaking to new clause 2 is in order.

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Thank you, Mr Stringer. I am so sorry to have to keep checking such matters.

Turning to new clause 2, the introduction of the multi-annual financial assistance plans has been welcomed by agricultural stakeholders, including the National Farmers Union. Clauses 4 to 6 will ensure that public stakeholders and parliamentarians have plenty of opportunities to scrutinise the Government’s spending on agriculture, as well as the impact of that spending. Were the new clause to succeed, Ministers would have to return each year to report on every purpose under clause 1. That could have the perverse outcome of schemes being designed to meet the report, rather than activities achieving outcomes in the best way.

Instead, our approach will ensure that we look to meet the outcomes in the most beneficial way—for example, by planting trees, the positive environmental effects of which may not show up for many annual reports but would be felt over a much longer period. We recognise that farms and land managers need certainty over future funding arrangements. That is why we have committed to a seven-year transition, starting in 2021, and have introduced a legal requirement to set out our strategic priorities for the transition period before the end of the year. We have also pledged to continue to commit the same cash total that is currently spent for each year of the Parliament.

I recognise the need for certainty, and it is right that the general public should be able to scrutinise our spending; however, the Bill already gives plenty of opportunity to do that. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Newport West not to press the new clause.

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I am pleased to speak to new clause 2, which would require the Secretary of State to report annually on the financial assistance given or allocated to each of the purposes of the Bill, on its sufficiency to meet policy objectives, and on the Secretary of State’s intentions if, in their opinion, funding for any purpose was not sufficient.

This is an important part of our deliberations, because it is about how we ensure that funding for each public good is adequate and effective. We accept that the Government have a majority in the House, so we must ensure that whatever system they design will work for our farmers, planters, growers and all the livelihoods and communities dependent on a thriving and well-funded agricultural sector. The new clause is about certainty and predictability, ensuring that the Bill provides for a sustainable, effective and transparent funding structure that helps rather than hinders this important sector in our economy.

There is a degree of understanding that no Government can say how much money there will be and where it will come from, but we can have a mechanism that can be reviewed every year. In fact, the system should be reviewed every year, too. Now that austerity is supposedly over, the Government could say to our farmers that money will be available to do all the wonderful things that they promised them during the referendum. That is why it is so important that the new clause is added to the Bill.

If the Minister does not accept the approach set out in new clause 2, what approach will the Government take to providing clarity, to ensure that there is a transparent and genuine approach to funding, and maintaining a detailed annual update on the state of play? I recognise that times will change, and in the future a new Minister will sit on the Treasury Bench. There will be a new Prime Minister at some point, too. I know that the Government cannot commit to money that future Governments will spend, but the Minister can commit to the mechanism. We ask the Government to look closely at the new clause, and we hope that they listen to us, and all those crying out for clarity and common sense.

We have already learned that the British Government spent about £3 billion on the common agricultural policy in recent years, as members of the European Union. We are now starting the process of leaving the European Union, and are sitting in a transition period. I worry that the period will run out far sooner than the Government realise, especially given the announcement about the forthcoming talks concluding this June. We are now on the outside, and those funds can be diverted to delivering public goods to improve the quality of our soils and water; protect, maintain and enhance the natural beauty of our landscapes in all parts of the United Kingdom; and tackle the climate emergency and protect vulnerable communities and industries from the most brutal and deadly effects of climate change. The storms in the past couple of weeks are a very clear example of that.

I mention our membership of the European Union because when we were members the Government were required to follow the mechanism whereby the Council of Ministers signed off the budget. Crucially, that budget was reported to Members of this House and, importantly, our farmers and farming organisations across the United Kingdom. Much of Government Members’ reasoning for leaving the European Union was that it was about taking back control. We heard that mantra many times. It was about making decisions here in this place, removing the influence from afar and so on. The fact that the annual budget was determined by the Council of Ministers and reported shows that we did have influence, we did have a say and we were in the room. We cannot allow our departure to result in a backwards move on transparency, accountability and honouring our commitment to some of the most hard-working people in our economy.

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The hon. Lady refers to the EU budget. May I ask her how many times in the past 20 years it has actually been signed off?

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Obviously, the right hon. Gentleman has far more technical knowledge than I do on the subject. I will not give a figure for fear of its being wrong. I accept that he has a lot more information. All I would say is that we were actually at the table and were part of discussions. We were not excluded; we were very much included. Even Margaret Thatcher agreed that we were part of those discussions, so I accept that.

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My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, but I cannot resist joining battle with the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, who refers to an old canard about the European Union. Of course we all wanted the auditing to work better, but are we so sure that it works so well here? If he is confident that it does, he would support the amendment, which is an opportunity for us to show that we can do it so much better. I invite him to join us today.

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Order. We are straying some way from clause 5 and new clause 2, so I ask the hon. Lady to come back to them.

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Thank you for your valuable advice, Mr Stringer. I intend to get back to the subject, without the sparring, which would be very interesting.

Our farmers deserve a funding and reporting system that they can understand and is fit for purpose. In fact, they deserve to have a system in place, full stop. Farmers across Wales, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland are very worried indeed. They have let us know in no uncertain terms exactly how concerned they are, and I share their worries. If a mechanism for reporting annually is not in place, a future Government of whatever colour or persuasion could in effect just say, “Well, there isn’t enough money, so we are making large cuts, including to all those wonderful schemes we talked about and told you we would keep.”

I say this to the Minister. This is a time not for empty words or—dare I say it?—hot air, but for common sense and for the Government to recognise that they have a responsibility to farmers and farm workers across our country. That is why new clause 2 should form part of the Bill, and I hope Members from across the House will reflect, consider and give their support to it.

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My apologies, Mr Stringer, for straying slightly from the detail of the amendment. This is an important amendment, because it says that the public should be able to go through the list of extremely good aspirations in clause 1, on which there has been no disagreement, and see how much money has been allocated to each of those categories, including managing land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment—I will not go through the whole list. That begins to make it real for people. It is fair to say that it was pretty hard to see how the money that they were putting into the European Union was being spent.

This is a great opportunity for the Government. Imagine the Secretary of State or the Minister being able to stand up next year and say, “For each of these categories, this amount has been spent.” The Opposition will be able to do the opposite: we will be able to point to subsection (1)(f) and say, “Actually, it appears that no money at all has been allocated to protecting or improving the health or welfare of livestock.” The goal is to make it simpler and more immediate, like the excellent moves made some years ago by, I think, Lord Whitty to get some transparency about how the money was spent through the CAP in the first place. That transparency allows any of us to look through the statistics on the DEFRA website and see just how much money is being allocated locally and to which organisations, and I am sure some of us have done so.

David Cameron always said that sunshine was the way to throw light on something—to open it up and make it more transparent. I should have thought that the Government would be keen to do so and trumpet their achievements in that way. However, it appears that we are still lost in this slightly opaque, internal world of money effectively being allocated behind closed doors. This amendment opens that world up, gives people the opportunity to ask questions, and gives the Government the opportunity to trumpet their achievement. I cannot for the life of me understand why they do not want to do that—other than that, of course, it is never what Governments do.

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Minister, do you want to come back in?

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No.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 6 and 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

The agricultural transition period for England and the termination of relevant payments

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I beg to move amendment 9, in clause 8, page 8, line 5, after “extending” insert

“or pausing the transition process and”.

It is my pleasure to move this amendment, although I am hopeful that the Minister will be able to satisfy me that it is superfluous. As we have already heard, the Government’s plan is to switch over from the basic payment scheme, which pays farmers for being farmers, to a system of environmental land management that pays farmers for delivering public goods. That will be a seven-year graduated transition, which I hope will be smooth and go according to plan.

However, clause 8(3) allows a degree of flexibility if things do not go entirely according to plan. There are a number of reasons why that might happen—some within the Government’s control and some beyond their control. We have heard that the environmental land management pilots will be concluded by 2024. We have been slow getting started with those—partly because of the parliamentary inertia over the past three and a half years; I will not suggest who might be to blame for some of that—but we are now in a position where we can move forward. The British people have given us a majority and our marching orders, which are for a quick march towards the ambition of delivering these objectives for our farmers.

We may not have all the evidence we need to fully develop and deliver every aspect of environmental land management at the time we hope to start doing so. Therefore, this amendment will allow us to not waste public money on a scheme that has not been fully proven with the evidence, including scientific advice and ecological evidence, that we need. There may be some administrative glitches in the introduction of the new system; Governments do not have a good track record of delivering big IT systems on time—or, indeed, on budget. There may also be external factors relating to weather or disease and the impact they may have on farming, so it makes sense to have the flexibility that clause 8 allows for.

I hope the Minister can give me some clarity about how this may work in practice. If the process is to be extended and the seven-year transition ends up being, for example, a nine-year transition, will that take place in nine equal steps, or will we be able to—as my amendment allows for—pause the transition and start a little bit later? Could we stop the clock on the transition from BPS to ELM, and then resume after a one-year or two-year pause? I am sure that the Minister will be able to reassure me that that is perhaps not intended but allowed within the flexibility of the clause without my amendment. However, the reassurance would be very helpful to me, because I suspect that the existence of the clause in the Bill just might have something to do with the time that I spent at DEFRA last year.

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I certainly would not want to intrude on a private argument on the Government side, but our view is that this is symptomatic of the problem of just how slow the process has been in coming forward. We have before us, of course, a Bill that has been delayed. The right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby made suggestions as to where the responsibility might lie, and we can all argue about that one. I suggest that there would have been a simple solution, but I am sure that he would not agree. The trouble is that a huge number of questions are left unanswered, as we have been highlighting throughout the day, and the suggestion that there might be further delay is cause for great concern.

It is worth highlighting what the National Farmers Union says:

“The NFU believes that with less than a year to go, time is rapidly running out for the government to have all of the necessary legislation and implementation decisions and process in place for this timescale. There are still many aspects of the transition and the successor future farming support policy which remain unclear and the concern is that there will be a ‘gap’ before alternative and effective schemes are in place and the start of the phasing out.”

As I think has become apparent in this Committee, we very much share those doubts: we have been talking about the reasons pretty much all day. We understand how ambitious many of the things that the Government are trying to do are. In the document to which we have been referring for much of the day, there are timelines, although I have to say that they are a bit like Mr Barnier’s account of the trade position of various countries. The timelines are not entirely clear in terms of where we are likely to be at a particular point.

We would be worried about a further pause, because as I have said we just cannot afford it. We are in a climate and ecological emergency. There is no pause button there. The Bill has already been delayed. If we are to reach net zero more quickly than 2050—my suspicion is that the Government would like to do so, although that date is what they are committed to—we will have to move more quickly, so any pause or delay to a more sustainable and environmentally supportive system of land management is disappointing.

We recognise the delicate balance, because if what we are discussing proves as difficult as I am suggesting it might be, there is then a dilemma for the Government. One of the gaps in the explanations today has been about the period, probably post 2024, as we go through the next part. It is one thing to do tests and trials and then to move to a national pilot, but to then move it on to a national scale is challenging, for many of the reasons to which I have referred.

We would want to go more quickly—[Interruption.] The Minister enjoys the fact that I am in the privileged position of being able to say that in opposition, but basically this entire institution should be bending itself, at every opportunity, to find ways of moving more quickly to challenge the climate crisis. That is what we would be doing.

The Bill needs to be stronger and quicker. We need the clearer targets. I am therefore inclined not to support the amendment. I think the message that needs to go out after today’s discussions is that we need much more clarity, and providing more clarity would actually help the Government to achieve what we all want, which is to move to a new system more quickly and more efficiently and ensure that it works for all those in rural communities.

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Yes, speed is important, but so are certainty and good government. I know that many people in this room will agree with me that direct payments are poor value for money and untargeted and can and have inhibited productivity and environmental improvement in the past. We have therefore been clear in our intention to phase out direct payments in England. We know that farmers need certainty. That is why we have been clear about the length of the agricultural transition. As has been rehearsed many times today, we are pressing ahead with plans for our ELM scheme.

In the meantime, a simplified countryside stewardship scheme will continue to provide funding for farmers, woodland owners, foresters and land managers.

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Will the Minister give way on that point?

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I can anticipate what the hon. Gentleman will ask. It will be a domestic grant scheme with a more transparent administration process and regulation and enforcement regime, to encourage more applicants and simplify the application and payment process. It is designed to enable a smooth and efficient transition for land managers from CAP payments to ELM payments.

I also reassure hon. Members that phased reductions to direct payments during the transition period will be set in regulations under the powers in clause 11 for payments under the basic payment scheme and in clause 12 for delinked payments. There is no obligation in the Bill for reductions in every year of the transition. We have allowed for flexibility, as I have explained.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, who was a great Minister in this role and has been enormously helpful to me during my speedy learning process as I have tried to get ready to take this Bill through Committee. I reassure him that if there are unforeseen exceptional conditions, such as those that he outlined earlier, that would have an adverse impact on farmers, clause 8 already contains the power to extend the transition period, if necessary. There is no need to make a decision now. There is sufficient flexibility in the Bill—we can make a decision later if necessary. But his point has been heard.

In conclusion, I hope I have demonstrated that the seven-year transition period set out in the Bill provides farmers with certainty and enough time to adapt to life without direct payments.

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On this point, the Minister did not quite anticipate me. On the question of what happens when, I think I heard the Minister say that there is no guarantee that there will be further cuts to direct payments in any particular year. Surely there is a danger of our reaching a point where there will be a dramatic change. Things could be gently phased, but if this is not done in the first few years and we try to get to 100% in seven years’ time, the maths is obvious. There is a real risk here. If it is all backloaded, people will face a dramatic cliff edge at some point. Surely we want to smooth things out.

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That is why we are going slowly, or relatively slowly. That is why we have a seven-year transition period. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the back page of his favourite document and the policy document published on Tuesday, which gives an indication of the likely timeline. It is important that we retain some flexibility.

We have included in the Bill the ability to set reductions at an appropriate rate during the transition and, if circumstances deem it necessary, to extend the transition. I ask my right hon. Friend to withdraw amendment 9.

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I am conscious that I have broken my golden rule of not intruding on my successor’s policy areas for at least 12 months after leaving a Department, but we must thank the usual channels for the fact that I am here and able to participate.

I thought it a little ironic for the Opposition to be criticising us for the delay, given that they are, by and large, the architect of that delay—together with some of my former colleagues, who have sadly departed this parish following the general election. I have heard the Minister’s comments. I do not think my amendment will be necessary to maintain the flexibility I wish to see. She has reassured me in that regard.

The Minister has also underlined the fact that we already have very good stewardship schemes in operation, so it is not a case of having to wait for better environmental objectives to be met: we already have schemes in place that are delivering on a day-to-day basis. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(James Morris.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 3 March at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence to be reported to the House

AB48 Prof. Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham) and Julian Hosking (Member of UK PGR Group and former member of UK FAnGR Committee)

AB49 Greener UK/Wildlife and Countryside Link further submission

AB50 The National Trust

AB51 Tessa Burrington

AB52 The Wildlife Trusts