Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Brighter future for UK agriculture?

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under News & Business

The government’s Agriculture Bill aims to provide certainty amid massive changes for UK farmers, says Ben Parker.

Currently making its way through parliament, the government’s Agriculture Bill heralds the biggest overhaul to UK farm policy since the 1947 Agriculture Act.

The Bill paves the way for a new agricultural policy of “public money for public goods” – phasing out direct payments in favour of a new system largely based on rewarding farmers for undertaking environmental measures.

The Bill aims to provide the legislation needed for UK agriculture to operate outside the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This includes giving the government power to react in the event of exceptional market conditions.

It also seeks to ensure that legislation is in place to “plug the gap” during what could be a seven-year agricultural transition period following the UK’s departure from the EU as the old system of farm support is dismantled and the new system is fully in place.

The Bill also makes provision for compliance with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules –which will see agri-food imports and exports subject to hefty tariffs if the UK leaves the EU without a trade agreement. This aspect will surely become more heavily scrutinised as we near the Parliamentary vote over the Prime Minister’s proposed deal.

The Bill completed its committee stage on 20 November. It is due to have its report stage and third reading on a date to be announced. Although this seems like it hasn’t progressed far considering the 29 March Brexit-day deadline, the Bill is (so far) meeting the NFU’s expected timeline.

This is good news. But it must be noted that Defra minister George Eustice has already explained “that he cannot guarantee that that Bill will be introduced by March”.

It is worth recapping where we are. During the committee stage a Public Bill Committee is selected to examine the bill line by line. Committee members are comprised of MPs in proportion to their party’s representation in the House of Commons.

Committee characters

There is understandably a large representation from the Tories (10) – including Mr Eustice – and from Labour (7). However, Deidre Brock (SNP) and Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru) are the only members selected from outside the major parties.

Like many parliamentary committees, the committee examining the Agriculture Bill reflects wider political tensions. Ms Brock expressed her displeasure that NFU Scotland was not invited to attend as a witness to proceedings.

Mr Eustice responded by stating that the Bill is predominantly for English farmers. However, the exchange serve to highlight an issue which could become a topic of debate once the Bill reaches the later stages of the parliamentary process.

Funding assurances

Mr Eustice has sought to reassure the NFU that there is no secret plan to remove the greening conditions and take 30% of the single farm payment at the same time.

He explained that if the green requirements are removed then “payments linked to them automatically go back into what is called the national ceiling – the budget allocation – and are reflected in the remainder of the basic payment scheme payments.”

This hopefully will ensure that farmers’ payments will not be affected in the short term.

Soil fertility is clearly a major issue for farmers. Labour MP Kerry McCarthy – who is also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming – has a particular interest in soil healthy.

Ms McCarthy has highlighted her concern surrounding the subject by explaining during the fifth sitting that “the UK is just 30 to 40 harvests away from the fundamental eradication of soil fertility in parts of the country.”

She argues that soil health should be specifically mentioned in the Bill. This would essentially ensure that any plans to aid soil health would largely be enshrined by legislation. But Conservative MP Robert Goodwill responded by stating that “soil health is best left to farmers”.

Mr Eustice sought to resolve the issue with a statement which suggests there is much yet still to come. “When we roll out our new environmental land management scheme, it will have a plethora of interventions and schemes to support good soil husbandry and good soil health.”

Making sure farmers who receive public money abide by certain rules is important to MPs. Ms McCarthy made her opinion clear on this subject during the committee’s sixth sitting

Financial assistance paid to livestock producers for protecting or improving animal welfare should be “given only to farmers whose welfare standards are higher than those required by law,” she said.

Mr Eustice has said: “Cross-compliance will remain in the legacy scheme that we will come on to debate, but we will have the opportunity to modify and improve it and to remove some of the rather unnecessary administrative burdens that can get in the way.”

This highlights that inevitable compliance changes are not far away, This is, of course, either encouraging or worrying news depending on your point of view. Cross-compliance is likely to remain in some form post-Brexit – but it may not be viewed positively by some farmers.

Brexit day

Despite the uncertainty that surrounds the Bill and indeed Brexit as a whole, it is at least reassuring to know that our Parliamentary process ensures planned legislation is subject to a high level of scrutiny.

Hopefully, all this talk will help to create a Bill worth waiting for.

Ben Parker is a trainee solicitor at Norfolk law firm Hayes & Storr. For details, call 01328 863231 or visit www.hayesandstorr.co.uk

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