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Agriculture (Delinked Payments) (Reductions) (England) Regulations 2024

Volume 838: debated on Monday 20 May 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Agriculture (Delinked Payments) (Reductions) (England) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register.

This instrument continues the important agricultural reforms we are making in England. Through these reforms, we are investing in the long-term prosperity of the sector and the future of our precious environment—things which I know many in this House care deeply about. The instrument applies progressive reductions to delinked payments for 2024. Delinked payments were introduced on 1 January 2024 in place of payments to farmers under the basic payment scheme in England. We are phasing out untargeted subsidy payments, as they have held the industry back and done little to improve food production or the environment. We are doing this gradually, over our seven-year agricultural transition period in England. That period began in 2021, so we are now in the fourth year of the transition.

The Government first announced the reductions in this instrument in the agricultural transition plan, published in November 2020. We are applying the reductions to delinked payments in a fair way. Higher percentage reductions are applied to amounts in higher payment bands. We plan to make delinked payments in two instalments each year, which will help farmers with their cash flow.

By continuing gradually to reduce these subsidy payments as planned, we are freeing up money so that farmers can access a wide range of environmental land management schemes and grants to suit all farm types. At this year’s National Farmers’ Union conference, the Prime Minister reiterated our commitment to maintain total farm support at an average of £2.4 billion per year across this Parliament. Therefore, the money that is no longer being spent on untargeted subsidies is not lost to farmers; instead, it is being put to better use. It is being redirected to the sustainable farming incentive and other farming support, which help boost agricultural productivity and resilience, increase food security and deliver for the environment. Our new schemes are investing in the foundations of food security and profitable farm businesses—from healthy soils to clean water.

Earlier this year we updated payment rates in our environmental land management schemes, the average uplift being 10%. Some payment rates went up by significantly more: for example, species-rich grassland has risen from £182 to £646 per hectare.

This summer, we will launch up to 50 new actions, which will allow farmers to access scheme funding for things such as precision farming and agroforestry for the first time. The new actions give farmers even more choice about what they can do, especially those on moorlands and grasslands.

Nearly half of all farmers are now in one of our environmental land management schemes. So far, there have been around 22,000 applications for the sustainable farming incentive under our 2023 offer, and more than 21,000 agreement offers have been issued. There are now over 35,000 live Countryside Stewardship agreements—more than double the number since 2020.

The sustainable farming incentive can help to reduce costs and waste on farms, to make them more resilient and to improve food production by, for example, funding farmers to plant companion crops to help manage pests and nutrients, to assess and improve the health of their soil, and to grow cover crops to protect the soil between the main crops. We are designing our schemes so that they work for smaller farms. We have doubled the management payment for the sustainable farming incentive, which is now worth up to £2,000 for the first year of an agreement. This will help to attract even more smaller farms into the scheme.

Smaller farmers potentially have access to more income than they did before. Under the basic payment scheme, half the money went to 10% of the largest farms. Under the sustainable farming incentive, payments are based on the actions that farmers take, rather than simply the amount of land they have. This means that SFI agreements can produce more income than the basic payment for a typical farm.

Farmers taking part in the sustainable farming incentive are typically more than making up their lost basic payments so far. The value per hectare of applications so far is £148. This, alongside delinked payments for small farms this year—equivalent to £117 per hectare—adds up to more than the value of the basic payment scheme per hectare before the start of the agricultural transition. That is £233 per hectare under the basic payment scheme, versus a total of £263 under delinked payments and the sustainable farming incentive.

This year, we will make it even easier for farmers to access the funding by allowing them to apply for actions previously in Countryside Stewardship mid-tier and the sustainable farming incentive through one application process. In February, we announced the largest-ever grant offer for the agricultural sector, totalling £427 million. This includes a doubling of the investment in productivity and innovation in farming to £220 million this year. This provides support for farmers to invest in automation and robotics, as well as solar installations to build on-farm energy security. It also includes £116 million for slurry infrastructure grants and £91 million for grants to improve the health and welfare of our farmed animals.

We are providing a range of other support for farmers and land managers. This includes a third round of our landscape recovery scheme later this year. The farming resilience fund continues to provide free business support to help farmers plan and adapt their businesses. To date, more than 20,000 farmers have received this support.

In conclusion, the Government continue to back our farmers. We are investing in our new schemes and grants, which are helping farms and food production become more resilient. They also deliver better outcomes for animals, plants and the environment. We must press ahead with these reforms as planned. As ever, I am happy to take any questions. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for setting out the regulations, which, as he explained, follow on from the earlier regulations to delink payments. I congratulate Defra on the second Farm to Fork summit, which seemed to be well received last week, particularly the inaugural publication of a food security index and the commitment to introduce a five-year seasonal workers scheme, which will be extremely well received by fruit and vegetable farmers across the country.

On farms and food security, the summit recognises the unprecedented challenges all farmers have faced this year. This has been the wettest 18-month period—not just a 12-month or six-month period—since 1836. Also, unprecedented imports have led to competition on very unfavourable terms. For example, given that battery-cage production of poultry has been banned in this country—I do not disagree with that—it is unfair that our farmers face unprecedented levels of imports of battery cage-produced eggs and poultry from EU and third countries.

I would like to press my noble friend to explain how he expects small farms, which he mentioned specifically, to benefit from the provisions of these regulations. We in North Yorkshire are fairly unique in that 48% of our farms are tenanted; that is possibly replicated in County Durham, Cumbria, Northumbria and other parts of the north, and perhaps in the south-west. How does my noble friend expect tenant farmers to benefit, not just under the provisions in the regulations before us but under other provisions that have been announced this year?

I would argue that tenant farms are the backbone of the country. I mentioned the wet weather that we have had, which has had an impact not just on crop production. The AHDB’s figures find that the planting of oilseed rape is down 28% this year, while the planting of wheat is down by 15% and winter barley by 22%, but my noble friend will also be only too aware that livestock farmers have endured an incredibly difficult lambing period. Many have been unable to turn their stock out and have had to rely on feeding livestock, particularly sheep, at a much earlier stage in the year than they would have done otherwise. Cattle have been stuck in sheds with feed running low. I understand that this year straw will be like gold dust.

We all know that, because of the war in Ukraine and other factors, energy and other input prices remain volatile. This is an extremely difficult time, with farmers facing high input costs and very challenging sales prices. Against that backdrop, can my noble friend imagine anything else that the Government can do to extend help to tenant farmers? How does he imagine that small farms, family farms and tenant farms in particular will benefit from the provisions before us today?

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to keeping up the pace of reform, because it is immutable that we will not be able to tackle net zero or species decline without changing farming considerably and adopting nature-friendly farming practices. It is also difficult to imagine how we can maintain food security without altering farming practices, because climate change and environmental degradation are probably two of the bigger risks to food security.

The basic payment system was always a bit half-baked, if I can use that expression, in that it gave substantial sums of money to large farms and rather less of a share to smaller ones. Many of these smaller farms are the ones that are taking major steps to re-engineer their agricultural practices and businesses in order to maintain future economic sustainability and deliver both for the environment and on carbon. It was quite a worry when various newspapers started banging on about the fact that farmers should not have to lose basic payments at this stage because they were facing the pressures that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, just outlined—in particular, the lousy weather this year and last.

However, there are other ways of supporting farmers through that. I do not think that we should allow those things to break our stride on the reduction and delinking of payments. The farming resilience fund that the Minister referred to is the sort of proposition that I would dearly like to see in a unified advice system across the board for farmers—one that takes account of advice not just on transition but on all sorts of things that we are expecting, asking and incentivising farmers to do. I am very old so I remember ADAS. Bring back ADAS and modernise it to deliver for the future because at the moment farmers are sometimes bamboozled by the range of advice that they get.

In terms of the immediate financial pressures on farmers as a result of the climate and weather, there needs to be a stand-alone fund that does not get bound up with the delinked payments issue. I hope that we will see the Government’s backbone in continuing to implement delinking as fast as possible until we get to the point where ELMS is indeed the name of the game and there is no other.

My Lords, perhaps I can ask simple question. I very much welcome the fact of the transition from basic payments to SFI. Let us be quite clear: there has been a heck of a lot of uncertainty during that process, which now hopefully is more concrete, so that everybody knows the direction. I welcome the number of farmers who are now involved in SFI. Coming back to the question about the environment and the objective of bringing back nature into the countryside, how does Defra intend to assess whether these various SFI programmes have been successful, so that they can be modified in future to make sure that they achieve the goals that we all want them to achieve? That is what I would like to understand as we move into the future. Given the flexibility that SFI gives in terms of various individual incentives within it, how do we assess that, how do we manage it, how do we calculate it and how do we change it into the future to make sure that effectiveness is still there?

My Lords, on these Benches we have real concerns and questions in relation to these regulations. This instrument was debated in the Chamber of the other place. The Explanatory Memorandum states:

“This instrument sets the percentage reductions which will be applied to delinked payments in England for 2024. Delinked payments were introduced on 1 January 2024 in place of Direct Payments to farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme … in England … As part of moving away from the Common Agricultural Policy, the Government has been gradually phasing out Direct Payments in England. It is doing this over an agricultural transition period (2021 to 2027), as provided for in its Agriculture Act 2020”.

We support the overall approach, so we will not be opposing the SI, but we have concerns about the process of transition of farm payment mechanisms in general, the resultant department underspend to date and the impacts that these are having on farmers, their economic welfare and, in many cases, their very economic survival.

The debate today so far has largely mirrored that which happened in the other place, most people being supportive of the long-term transition and policy objectives, but equally being deeply concerned about the implementation of that transition. These changes need to be assessed against the broader implementation of the whole package of measures. The truth be told, our farmers are really struggling to survive financially.

As has been said, we have had one of the wettest winters since 1836. In many cases, winter and spring crops have not been planted and livestock farmers have also suffered. The NFU farming confidence survey, published just a few weeks ago, showed that mid-term confidence is at its lowest since records began in 2010. Because of a lack of confidence, production intentions are plummeting within all farm sectors. That cannot be good for farmers or our food security. Also, the relentless wet weather has caused farmers real hardship: 82% of respondents to the NFU survey said that their business had suffered, which cannot be good either. We are increasingly seeing the impacts of climate change and I ask the Government and the Minister to be more flexible and responsive to the impacts of climate-related events on our farmers. The Government must recognise the role that farmers play in flood prevention and adequately reward them for the important work that they do in mitigating floods and protecting us from further flooding.

We have this £200 million underspend in Defra and are now four years into a seven-year transition under the SFI. The NFU survey also found that profitability had fallen for 65% of respondents. We have this big period of transition, weather events and real economic hardship for our farmers, so questions must be asked about the impact of these regulations against this overall background.

The Explanatory Memorandum states that

“compared to applying no reductions at all, the 2024 reductions set in this instrument will release around £970 million to £1,010 million”.

These are huge amounts of money, and we are worried about the impact of this change. The Government must be in possession of an overall impact assessment of the transition to ELMS to date, but this information has not been published. I ask them to be more open and flexible with the information they provide.

The Minister in the other place said of the overall budget that it is the same cake and that budgets are not being reduced. Against this, some of the slices have not been eaten because there were underspends, the department is undertaking new and more complex sets of measures around supporting farmers to undertake environmental stewardship, with a greater number of schemes being developed overall, and new organisations are now eligible for payments. Added to this, we have had the rise in inflation, which means that the budgets were not as large as set out.

All of this is adding increased financial impact; farmers are being asked to do more and there are more schemes, so the money is being subdivided to a greater extent. Given that no impact assessment is included with this SI, how does the Minister expect us to make adequate judgments about the money being provided and the decisions that lie behind that? What is the factual basis for the figures the Government have put forward? How confident are they that they have the right figures, that they are set at the right rates and that they are capable of achieving the policy objectives?

Finally, what is Defra doing to improve the situation for our farmers? What assessment has it made of the overall support that farmers need and how best it should be provided at speed and at scale? What other problems has it had to date with the implementation of the present system? What is being done to support small farmers and tenant farmers, in particular to make applications? The Minister proudly stated that half of farmers have made applications; by that same logic, half have not engaged with these schemes as yet, so how can we do more to bring them into these schemes and make them work more effectively?

My Lords, we do not oppose this SI, as we did not oppose the agricultural transition plan, but we think that the implementation of ELMS and the agricultural transition away from the BPS need to work much better and the Government need to look at how they can provide better support for farmers while this transition takes place. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, asked specific questions about small farms and tenancies; they are having particular challenges, so it would be good to hear from the Minister on that.

We have heard a lot today about how climate change continues to threaten farmers’ livelihoods. I am sure the Minister is aware that the NFU has suggested delaying ELMS while certain things are sorted out. While we have some sympathy because of the struggles farmers have had recently, delaying the implementation of ELMS and the phase-out of basic payments is not the solution.

Policy-driven agricultural practices have been one of the single biggest drivers of wildlife loss in the UK over the past 50 years. We are concerned that, if you start delaying the ELMS rollout, all you will do is create more uncertainty at a time when farmers desperately need certainty. They need to be able to plan—and to plan to farm in a way that provides food but also benefits nature. As my noble friend said, we will not reach net zero or be able to tackle species decline and biodiversity loss without the widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming practices. We have also heard that the biggest long-term risk to our food security comes from climate change and environmental degradation. That is why it is important that we get these schemes to work effectively for farming.

My understanding is that there is almost a £1 billion funding gap for agriculture to meet existing nature-recovery and net-zero targets. I do not expect the Minister to pull £1 billion out of his back pocket, but it demonstrates that this is a huge problem that needs addressing. Instead of doing what the NFU has suggested and pausing ELMS, have the Government thought about using the emergency financial measures available to them in Section 21 of the Agriculture Act? There are powers to add an additional emergency fund on top of SFI for farms that are suffering the greatest climate damage. Have the Government looked at that as a way of supporting farmers? Given the terrible weather we have had, including flooding, would that be an option?

I want to look at some of the farmers’ concerns, because the NFU is clearly not happy with the way things are at the moment. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about many of the concerns in the NFU’s latest annual farming survey, which gives a good overview. It shows the lowest level of confidence in at least 14 years, and extreme weather and the phasing out of subsidies are cited as the primary drivers. Tom Bradshaw, the new president of the NFU, said his concern was that,

“if members don’t have confidence, then we as a country can’t deliver food security”.

That is a real worry.

One factor in that is the weather, about which we have heard a lot, but what was quite striking about the survey was that mid-term confidence had been hit harder than short-term confidence. That is striking because it shows that farmers are losing trust in the Government’s ability to support them through this transition period and during the challenges of climate change. Will the Minister comment on that? How are the Government working to bring back farmers’ trust? It is very important.

On the weather, analysis by the non-profit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit forecast that crops could be down by nearly one-fifth as a result of the wet weather, and that it was likely that prices for bread, beer and biscuits, for example, would rise. Has Defra made any forecast of the impact of continued bad weather on inflation and on harvests, for example?

The NFU is concerned that the combination of the BPS being down by 50% and all these extra pressures will mean that farmers are more likely to borrow. Borrowing is more expensive, and the NFU is concerned that, as Tom Bradshaw, put it, we are facing

“the perfect storm of events”.

This is about looking at the bigger picture of how the Government will support farmers. What steps are they taking, or proposing to take, to support farmers with those extra costs?

We know that red diesel has been a particular problem, but I am not expecting the Minister to answer the difficult questions around red diesel today. I have spoken before about the benefit that family co-operatives can bring when costs are high. Have the Government looked at that, particularly around investing in new machinery, which can help to mitigate some of the difficulties that farmers are facing?

Finally, we completely agree that we need a fairer system of payments based on the principle of public support for public goods, which ELMS is bringing in, but the Government need to grasp that more must be done to make the system work much more effectively than it does at present for farmers and the environment.

I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate and I welcome the strong level of support across the House, largely, for these measures.

I start by addressing one or two of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She touches on a common theme that comes up when I am out and about. I was at the Chelsea Flower Show this morning and there were a few farmers there—not many, but a few. The issues are about what is going on and where the money is going. The same amount of money is available today as there was yesterday and will be tomorrow. It is £2.4 billion each year over the course of the Parliament, so there is not less money available.

To anyone who has been in receipt of the basic payment scheme as—full disclosure—I have been for probably 40 years, it is a pretty blunt instrument. You get your cheque. There is a little bit of cross-compliance. I received mine in Scotland. It came in two tranches: one at the year end and one about six months after the year end. For anybody who feels that transitioning away from the BPS is somehow bad for cash flow or bad because there is less money in the pot, they have misunderstood what is going on .

The issue of confidence is critical. For sixty-something years—I cannot remember the exact number—if you have been a farmer, you have been used to one system. You farm, you get your BPS payment. If you were interested in other stuff, you could get into an agri-environment scheme, but they were pretty challenging to get into and pretty expensive to join; they really only suited the larger landholdings.

This is a significant shift away from that, but I get that any shift is challenging. Looking at my own farm arrangements, I find myself wondering how we are going to make all this work. Instead of just getting the money, you have to think about what you are going to do. It is public money for public good, so it is a proper shift in mindset. When you get that big shift, it does knock confidence. I am acutely aware of that. It means that people have to think totally differently about their farming operation.

If I am absolutely blunt, that is exactly what ELMS is designed to do and should do. The way that we have been farming has not been overly helpful to productivity or to innovation and—as I think all of us in this Room would collectively agree—it has been deeply unhelpful for the environment. To me, this change is absolutely welcome and necessary but I know that it causes a bit of stress and strain. That is one reason why it has been spread out over a seven-year period.

Farmers are amazing; they are incredibly resilient, but they are also incredibly resilient to listening. It is not as if this has come as a shock to anyone. We have been advertising it on the front page for a number of years now but, of course, this year is the year when it starts to really bite. If you have not been paying attention, you are going to feel some financial pain. We cannot hold everybody’s hand in this space. A huge amount of effort and energy has gone into consultations and into all the prototypes for the SFI modules. A huge amount of consultation has been done with the industry. Defra teams and Ministers have gone to agricultural shows; they have gone around the block telling everybody, “You have to pay attention; there is change coming”. But, as with all things in life, sometimes you start to pay attention only when it starts to hurt the wallet.

I know that there is a degree of concern and a degree of change but, as I think everybody recognises, this transition is long overdue. We really need to get on with it, so I am grateful for the overwhelming support. This is something that we should plug on with.

I will try to answer a few specific questions now. I was asked about financial support for farmers in the event of a crisis or financial emergency. In the event of an exceptional market disruption, the Government have powers to act to support farmers by making a declaration under Section 20 of the Agriculture Act 2020. These powers are intended to deal with unforeseen short-term shocks to agricultural markets where there is an adverse effect on the price achievable for one or more agricultural products. We have seen some pretty big shocks over the past few years, some caused by the weather and some caused by world events. The Government continue to keep this measure as a backdrop. I know that we look at it and think about it, but we have not got round to using it yet. I hope that it is a rainy day one that never has to come out.

Quite a lot of questions were asked about the rationale for delinking. I hope that I covered a lot of this in my opening comments but, broadly speaking, it is vital that we continue gradually to move away from untargeted subsidies as planned because these payments have inhibited productivity improvements and are, I believe, fundamentally unjust. The scheme that we have now delivers a much better outcome and will deliver a much better outcome in the long term.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh asked whether this is the right time to go through a reduction in the BPS, given the weather and other activities. The Government recognise that many farmers are facing challenging conditions—not least the extreme wet weather, which was referenced several times during the debate and has affected enormous parts of the country—but cancelling the planned reductions to delinked payments is not an effective way of addressing these challenges or setting businesses up for a successful future. The longer we hang on to this, the longer we hold everybody back. These payments are untargeted, so increasing them does not direct support to those who most need them. In fact, you do not have to be a farmer to be in receipt of delinked payments now; if you have retired from farming, you will still get what you were due. Perpetuating that is not a helpful way of addressing either today’s issues or the issues that will undoubtedly come in future.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh asked a couple of questions about tenant farmers and small farms. This is a challenging area but, on the basis that the basic payment scheme paid you for the chunk of land that you owned, the smaller the chunk of land, the less money you get. This transition allows you to earn more money on a smaller farm, by picking up the delinked payments and engaging with the SFI options. Again, I appreciate that this is challenging because you have to think about what you are doing and you will probably have to make some adjustments to your farming model but, as I have said, this has been signalled to the farming community—small farmers, tenant farmers and large farmers—for a long time. It will take a little time for it to bed in. The money is available; you just have to work out how to go and get it. The money is there. Noble Lords look as though they do not believe me, but it is. The options and choices are there. You have to go out and engage with that.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked what had been done about an impact assessment. One has not been prepared for this instrument because it is not a regulatory provision. However, the Government have already published evidence providing in-depth assessments of the impact of removing direct payments. This includes the 2018 and 2019 farming evidence compendiums, our 2018 assessment of the impact of removing direct payments, and the 2021 and 2022 Agriculture in the United Kingdom evidence packs. If the noble Earl wants more information on that that I can supply, I would again be delighted to do so.

No evidence has been published on the implementation of the transition to date. There was no evidence in this pack on the impact of these changes. From my point of view, it made it quite hard to assess the changes.

It is pretty early days in this transition, so I am not anticipating that we would have that evidence. We do a lot of consultation directly with farmers and with the industry through organisations such as the NFU, and we have developed a new food index to look at how that might be impacting food security, so quite a lot of measures are evolving and coming through. I would suggest that it is a little early to try to measure impacts at this stage.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Teverson was keen to understand what consultation we are doing with industry and how we are working with it. Have I got that right?

I thank the Minister for asking. What I am really trying to say is that we have here a unique instrument that can use various elements of the SFI to get the sort of environmental improvement goals we all want. How are we assessing them so, that over time, we make sure that this state aid, in effect, that we are giving to farmers is used effectively to achieve what we want to achieve? How does that assessment work—not now, but as we start to move through the implementation?

I thank the noble Lord for that helpful clarification. There is a lot in that, and if I may I will write to him with the details rather than go through them all now.

Unless anybody has anything further they would like to ask, I think I have covered most of the questions. I believe—and the Government are right behind this too—that this instrument is essential for our agricultural reforms. We must press ahead as planned so that we can fund our schemes that support farmers to be resilient and sustainable over the long term.

Motion agreed.