Agriculture Bill

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Excerpts
Report stage & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords & Report: 1st sitting & Report: 1st sitting: House of Lords
Tuesday 15th September 2020

(3 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 130-II(Rev) Revised second marshalled list for Report - (15 Sep 2020)
Baroness Scott of Needham Market Portrait Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD) [V]
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My Lords, it has been a fascinating debate. A number of noble Lords have made the point that this an agriculture Bill—of course it is—but we cannot get away from the fact that the principle which underpins it is public money for public goods, and the Government are quite right to make that the principle. The link between citizens as taxpayers and the farming industry is now going to be clearer and more direct than at any time in the last half-century. Therefore, anything which helps public understanding of farming and agriculture is actually in the best interests of farmers and landowners.

Many noble Lords have highlighted the importance of public access and recreation in the fresh air and countryside as part of a broad strategy for improved health, well-being and mental well-being, and I agree absolutely with that. I have observed in this debate and in Committee some conflation of the public rights of way network—which is often historic and enshrined in law—and public access more generally. I am not going to give a lecture on that, your Lordships will be pleased to hear. However, it is important that we understand that these are two separate things.

This comes across very clearly in the Bill, in understanding the extent to which compliance with the law on the part of landowners will be taken into account in assessing eligibility. The other issue is public access: opening up not new public rights of way but new voluntary access. My view—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—is that nothing in the Bill or in any of the amendments would create a new public good or in any way force landowners to do something they do not want to do.

A number of noble Lords have talked about the problems of vandalism, fly-tipping and so on. I understand that: I live in a small village, and the lane out of here is often full of litter. Nobody suggests banning cars, even though people are chucking McDonald’s boxes out of car windows; we do not do that. We try to educate, to enforce, and that is the approach we should be taking with public access, not trying to ban the many for the misdeeds of the few.

I would really like the Minister to make it clear whether financial assistance will be available where landowners voluntarily decide to provide new access opportunities or to improve existing ones. I would also appreciate the Minister’s saying whether any of the ELM tests and trials have been related to water and public access to waterways.

Finally, there is the question of what used to be called cross-compliance, to which my noble friend Lord Greaves referred: whether a landowner who blocks a footpath or a public right of way will still be eligible for grants, or whether that will be taken into account. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. As we are talking about access, I should declare an interest as a member of the South Downs National Park Authority.

I do not intend to speak at length as we have a great deal to get through today. We had a good debate on these issues in Committee, and I think we all acknowledged the important health benefits from being in the open air and walking in the countryside. Noble Lords have raised many of these important issues again today and, of course, we concur with many of the arguments that have been put forward.

There is clearly a great deal more that can be done to open up the countryside and provide safe and secure footpaths, particularly for those with disabilities. We also recognise the importance of enhancing public understanding of farming and nature. As we know, the Bill already spells out a commitment to provide financial assistance for public access to the countryside and for greater public understanding.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, again raised the issue of access to water—to canals, lakes and the other things listed in his amendment. As I said in Committee, this Bill is about farming and the environment; extending its remit to the recreational enjoyment of waterways is perhaps pushing its boundaries too far.

On reflection, since Committee, I have had a more fundamental issue with these amendments. We believe that the purposes set out in Clause 1(1) have the right balance of interests between the farming community and the environment. It is a delicate balance, which is nevertheless broadly accepted by those whose livelihoods depend on it. This is why we have refrained from putting amendments to this clause, and it is why, even now, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

All of the amendments in this group are worthy in their own way. The issues that they raise are important and we will happily work with noble Lords to pursue them elsewhere—but not in this Bill or at this time, when there is so much else at stake and the future funding of farming is so fragile.

I hope that, despite the good debate that we have had, the noble Lord will reflect on this and feel able to withdraw his amendment. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Young for moving this amendment and making the case so persuasively. She is raising an important point about what will happen when the environmental standards, which are currently required through cross-compliance, no longer apply when we leave the EU and the existing payments regime is phased out. We agree that it is vital that the standards that apply, such as to hedgerows and buffer strips to watercourses, should not be lost by accident or intent.

It all forms part of the promise made when we left the EU that our environmental standards should be at least on a par with what went before. It is also part of the bigger promise of the Government that they will leave the environment in better shape than when they inherited it. So we cannot afford to go backwards on this issue.

As my noble friend has made clear, these issues are part of a bigger project to review standards and develop a new regulatory regime. This is fine as far as it goes, but the clock is ticking and we know that these reviews take time. The review will be taking place against intense activity to get the new ELMS regime up and running, with all the supportive secondary legislation that will be required to make that happen.

So there is a real danger that the provision of new regulations will be delayed, and a regulatory gap will occur. My noble friend’s amendment provides a neat solution to ensure that those standards not yet required by UK law will be safely assured for the future.

To be honest, as other noble Lords have said, we do not understand why the Government have not put something similar in the Bill, and there is still an opportunity for them to accept this amendment today. But if the Minister is not so minded, I would be grateful if she could provide sufficient reassurance that the review and its outcomes are on a fixed timetable. Can she also guarantee that our environmental standards achieved by cross-compliance will not be compromised in the meantime? I look forward to her response.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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The primary effect of this amendment would be to provide a new lever to oblige recipients of financial assistance under Clause 1 to meet cross-compliance requirements. This includes parts of the cross-compliance regime where there is no backing in domestic legislation.

A large proportion of the rules currently contained in the cross-compliance regime are replicated in domestic legislation. Rules such as those in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the Control of Pesticides Regulations and the Reduction and Prevention of Agricultural Diffuse Pollution (England) Regulations will continue to provide protection for our valuable wildlife, soils and watercourses. It will remain mandatory for individuals to continue to comply with all domestic regulation, irrespective of whether they qualify for financial assistance.

We understand the important role that regulatory standards play in trade, in protecting our environment and in protecting the health and welfare of animals. That is why the Government will take a proactive approach to engaging with industry. Responses to our landmark Health and Harmony consultation, our wide-reaching review led by Dame Glenys Stacey, and our discussion document on the ELM scheme have informed, and will continue to inform, our regulatory framework. This autumn, we intend to launch an engagement package—the intensive consultation to which the noble Baroness referred—which will provide an update on the thinking around the future regulatory system. We want to use this to start a co-design process with industry, opening the conversation with stakeholders on the best approaches to designing a future regulatory system.

The Government are exploring other possible levers that we could use to encourage more effectively industry compliance, which would deliver improved environmental outcomes. The ELM scheme will cover a range of environmental outcomes to ensure that farmers and land managers improve their practices and are rewarded for doing so. We are considering a range of measures to ensure that we deliver these outcomes, including, for example, requiring individuals to meet certain requirements as a condition of entry within the scheme itself.

Finally, I assure noble Lords and emphasise that we should take the time to get this right—and we have the opportunity to do so. Individuals will be expected to continue to comply with all current cross-compliance regulations until we delink payments from the land or direct payments end, and until not before 2022. The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, worried about the regulatory gap, but we are striving hard to ensure that this does not occur. Through our engagement process and the development of our ELM policy, we will ensure that our high environmental and animal health and welfare standards continue to remain world-leading.

I hope that I have given sufficient reassurance on this important matter, and that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

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Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD) [V]
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My Lords, this has been another lengthy debate on how the financial assistance provided by the Secretary of State is to be properly assessed, including transparency of information to ensure that the public good principles of financial assistance are fulfilled, and on bringing the multiannual financial plan for consideration in Parliament before being brought into effect—quite a simple statement that has a wealth of detail behind it. The financial assistance scheme will have an impact on the farming community. It is, therefore, imperative that this impact should be assessed and that the outcomes and public responses are considered, as the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, said. It is important that there is transparency around payments for public good.

At first, I was not in favour of Amendment 28, as I am anxious that farmers are not subsumed in collecting information and data. However, I understand from my noble friend Lord Allan of Hallam that the majority of this data is already collected by farmers, as he indicated this evening. It is therefore important that this information should be readily available and transparent, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans pressed for.

Again, transparency is at the root of amendments around the multiannual financial plans. Setting expectations around financial assistance is key. The farming community, like every other industry and household, needs to know what it can expect and plan accordingly. Will the Minister indicate how such strategic priorities will be funded if a budget for this annual expenditure is not set?

My noble friend Lord Teverson again returned to his wish to see the plan period brought forward from seven to five years. His amendment found little support in Committee, but I fully support him in his very powerful arguments. The Agriculture Bill is heralded as a new dawn for farming and land management, but it would seem that the Government are taking a very softly-softly approach. In many ways, this is to be welcomed, but it is not good for the environment, which is suffering now. We might previously have said that the environment was suffering badly; now, we say that it is suffering catastrophically. The environment can longer afford for us to take a softly-softly approach. We must act now and move the transition forward from seven to five years: that is part of the process of acting now. As my noble friend Lord Teverson so eloquently and passionately said, we have to do something now. Will the Minister indicate why he believes it is better to take a softly-softly approach and watch the environment deteriorate around us? I do not believe that this was pledged in the Conservative Party manifesto.

The noble Earl, Lord Devon, has amendments on the timings of the multiannual assistance plans, as has the Minister. I am encouraged that the Government have tabled Amendment 35, which says

“in the case of the first plan, as soon as practicable before the beginning of the plan period for the plan.”

Can the Minister say just how soon he imagines “as soon as practicable” might be? If he can give reassurances on this, I think the House would be satisfied.

The level playing fields sought in the two amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, are essential so that farmers who are currently living close to the edge of financial viability can be reassured that financial assistance will be provided. This is a very important group of amendments and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, and all noble Lords who have raised important issues about the application and accountability of multiannual assistance plans. All noble Lords, quite rightly, are seeking to provide some rigour in the allocation of £3 billion a year or more which is being set aside by the Government to fund the farming sector for the future. We all have an interest in ensuring that the money is allocated fairly, in line with the strategic priorities, and is seen to be producing value for money.

At the moment, Clause 4 is remarkably light on detail as to how this will be achieved, so I agree with the noble Baroness that an impact assessment is very important and should be standard practice for a government project of this scale. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that the public have the right to see how and where this money is being spent. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, raises an important point, which I very much agree with, about the allocation of moneys to each of the strategic priorities. Underlying all of these contributions is a desire to ensure not only that the money is spent wisely but also that it is all spent, so that we are not left gifting unused moneys which could have been put to good use back to the Treasury.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, have raised issues about the timing of the plans and the need to ensure parliamentary oversight. In this regard, the Minister’s Amendment 35 is helpful as far as it goes, and the 12-month advance notice for future plans is welcome, but he will know that the proposal to lay the first plan before Parliament “as soon as practicable” before the start date is not going to reassure many in the sector whose livelihoods depend on the funding. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that it would be useful to have some clarity from the Minister as to what that phrase means. I would have thought that the proposal from the noble Earl, Lord Devon, of a two-month deadline, was eminently sensible; I hope the Minister addresses it in his response.

I also commend to noble Lords our Amendment 41, which is coming up in a later group and which would require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament about the progress of the tests and trials before the transition can begin, therefore allowing some parliamentary scrutiny of that process.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, raises an important point about the internal market within the UK and the dire consequences for all of us if we do not get the balance right and create a level playing field. This is a huge challenge which is not going to be resolved in this Bill, but he is right to raise the consequences for the farming sector and to urge all parts of the UK to work together on this matter.

I said at the outset that there is a compelling case for more detail on how the multiannual financial assistance plans will work. I am very much hoping that the Minister will provide the reassurance we are all seeking that this work is in hand and that we will see more details in due course, and certainly well before the schemes are launched. I look forward to his response.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to what has been a very interesting debate.

Turning first to Amendment 28, the Government believe that it is important that the public can see how financial assistance being provided under Clause 1 is being spent, as part of our ongoing commitment to openness, transparency and accountability. Clause 2(8) allows the Secretary of State to make secondary legislation to provide that specified information relating to the financial assistance given under Clause 1 is published. Clause 2(9) sets out the information which may be specified. This already includes information about the recipient of the financial assistance, the amount of the financial assistance and the purpose for which the financial assistance was given. Sufficient information will be published under the regulations that the Government are currently developing to underpin subsections (8) and (9).

To inform the development of these regulations, on 4 August the Government launched a public consultation on their proposals for financial and beneficiary information publication. Within the accompanying consultation document, the Government set out how they believe that beneficiary data should be published on a publicly available searchable database, and that details of the name of a beneficiary of financial assistance, postcode, amount of funding received and a high-level purpose of the funding payments should be recorded.

The consultation also proposed that the regulations require the publication of the land management plans—LMPs—which will be a key component and requirement of the environmental land management scheme pilot. The Government seek to strike the right balance between accountability and transparency, on the one hand, and the privacy of agreement holders on the other. On that final point, I assure your Lordships that the Government will publish only information that is relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which it is processed.

Turning to Amendment 18, this is a framework Bill. As a result, the powers in Clause 1 do not in themselves impose a regulatory burden. The Government believe that impact assessments are very important; where the Bill will introduce new regulatory provisions, the Government will produce and publish regulatory impact assessments in line with the Better Regulation Framework guidance. I have reflected on the points raised in Committee by my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. I assure your Lordships that I am fully cognisant of the important role that impact assessments play in providing a solid basis for scrutiny of government policy. With this in mind, I can confirm that the Government will publish the impact assessment narrative that has been prepared for this Bill. It summarises the measures in the Bill that will have a regulatory impact on business and sets out a clear plan for when more detailed, quantitative assessments will be produced for each of those individual measures. This impact assessment narrative will be published later in the autumn.

The Government continue to work closely with farmers, foresters, other land managers and key stakeholder groups to ensure that they have ample opportunities to inform the design of Clause 1 schemes. For example, the Government recently consulted on their proposals for regulations under Clause 2(8) and Clause 3, which will set out the Government’s approach to financial information publication and the enforcement regime to accompany Clause 1 financial assistance, respectively. The Government will also conduct a public consultation before finalising the design of the full ELM scheme, which is to be launched in 2024. This consultation will be accompanied by a full impact assessment.

Turning to Amendments 47 and 106, the Government are keen that we seize the opportunity of EU exit to remake England’s farming policy so that it is suited to the needs and demand of farmers, the environment and the public at large. Welsh Ministers have decided that it is not appropriate to take powers to allow Welsh Ministers to operate or transition to new schemes in this Bill. These powers will be provided for instead by the agriculture (Wales) Bill. We believe that Welsh Ministers must have the space to develop policy to suit the needs of Wales. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, that in forming the agricultural framework, the Government of course considered other countries’ agricultural policy. As this Government develop these proposals further, we will continue to look across the United Kingdom and internationally to be aware of and learn from agricultural policy in other nations.

I turn to Amendment 32. I should note that Clause 4 was introduced following extensive feedback on the Agriculture Bill 2018, taking into careful consideration what would be a suitable timeframe for multiannual financial assistance plans. The first plan period was designed to match the entire agricultural transition period, providing the necessary details on how financial assistance powers in the Bill would be used. Following extensive consultation the Government have legislated for a seven-year transition, as set out in Clause 8. The Government believe that seven years strikes the right balance between signalling the end of area-based direct payments and giving farmers time to adjust. Certainty, in our view, is very important.

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Moved by
31: Clause 4, page 5, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State must have regard to the current environmental improvement plan when setting out strategic priorities for giving financial assistance during the plan period.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to have regard to environmental improvement plans when planning the provision of financial assistance for agriculture.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, Amendment 31 would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the Government’s environmental improvement plan when setting out their strategic priorities for financial assistance in the multiannual plans.

This amendment tackles an issue raised in previous debates in your Lordships’ House—the lack of joined-up policy across the different initiatives before us. It was an issue in the Fisheries Bill, and there is a similar issue in this Bill. It was a failing identified by this year’s report of the Natural Capital Committee, which criticised the silo approach to policies being adopted by Defra. It is a failing identified by the Committee on Climate Change, which wrote to the Minister, Victoria Prentis, in June this year, urging the department to develop a joined-up approach, stating:

“Defra has yet to set out how ELM”—

environmental land management—

“the Environment Bill, the 25 Year Environment Plan and various policies planned for trees, peatlands and nature will fit together.”

It is also a failing underlined by the latest progress report on the 25-year environment plan, which showed, for example, no progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from natural resources such as agriculture and forestry.

This amendment would forge a critical link between the Agriculture Bill, the Environment Bill and the 25-year environment plan. It would ensure that we avoid the mistakes of the past, where the common agricultural policy made decisions on farming which bore no relationship to the EU’s environmental policy.

We accept that the Government’s current intention is to base the new ELM scheme on the 25-year environment plan. This point was made by the Minister in Committee when we tabled a similar amendment. But this Bill is for the long term, and policy priorities change. Equally, the 25-year environment plan is a long-term document. It would be all too easy for these documents to diverge over time. Without the clear link to the environment improvement plan set out on the face of the Bill, it would be entirely possible for a future Secretary of State to set out strategic priorities for financial assistance under this Bill that bear no relationship to the key environmental strategy set out elsewhere. The amendment seeks to fill that structural deficit. It would provide stability and reassurance for the long term, and policy direction to address the many criticisms of a lack of joined-up government on these issues.

We were disappointed that the Government did not hear the sense of our argument at Committee and come back with their own version of an amendment which would address our concerns. I ask the Minister specifically to give a commitment to come back at Third Reading with a government amendment on this issue. If the noble Baroness feels unable to do so, I give notice now that I am minded to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and to support this amendment. She set out the issues clearly, so I will be brief.

In Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, has already mentioned, the Government sought to reassure noble Lords that they were committed to achieving their aim of leaving the environment in a better state than they found it and that the environmental improvement plans involved in this strategy would be covered in the Environment Bill. We were also told that the office for environmental protection will monitor progress and make recommendations to the Government for further action. We do not yet know what sort of teeth the OEP will have and whether or not the Government will follow its recommendations.

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Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
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On Amendment 31, I reassure the noble Baroness that the Government will fully take into account the proposed steps and goals of environmental improvement plans, including the 25-year environment plan, when they determine the strategic priorities that will sit within the multiannual financial assistance plans, so the amendment is simply not necessary.

The Government are absolutely committed to achieving their aim of leaving the environment in a better state than when they found it. That is why they are seeking to legislate for environmental improvement plans in the Environment Bill that is currently in the other place in order to drive forward long-term improvements to our natural environment. The 25-year environment plan will be adopted as the first statutory environmental improvement plan and the Government expect it to set the benchmark for future EIPs.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, asked a characteristically cogent question about the lack of a proper system of measurement, as identified by the Natural Capital Committee. We are engaging with stakeholders, scientists, economists and environmentalists, including the Natural Capital Committee, to develop comprehensive indicators to measure progress towards the goals set out in the 25-year environment plan.

The planned introduction of the ELM scheme under Clause 1 of the Bill clearly demonstrates the Government’s commitment to look at wider environmental objectives when setting their strategic priorities for funding under their multiannual financial assistance plans. Indeed, the ELM scheme will be a key mechanism for delivering the environmental goal set out in the 25-year environment plan by providing farmers and other land managers with public money for the delivery of multiple public goods.

There are six key public goods that the ELM will help to deliver that correspond directly with goals set out in the 25-year environment plan: namely, clean air, clean and plentiful water, thriving plants and wildlife, a reduction in and protection from environmental hazards, mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, beauty, heritage and engagement with the environment. Defra’s ELM team is currently working on understanding the full range of actions that the scheme could pay for in order to deliver across all the goals in the 25-year environment plan.

Should there be any changes to the plan or a future environmental improvement plan, the Government will review the ELM scheme to ensure that the public goods that it is funding remain in line with delivering the priority goals and commitments that the Government have set out in the plan. The Government will be publicly accountable for the delivery of the strategic priorities in both its multiannual financial assistance plan and the environmental improvement plans. This House will of course have the opportunity to scrutinise the drafting of provisions for the environmental improvement plans when the Environment Bill reaches this House.

I had hoped that with this reassurance I would be able to persuade the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to withdraw her amendment. However, I cannot make the commitment that she seeks to table a government amendment at Third Reading.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Portrait Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have added their support today. As the evening gets later, we seem to be finding more and more consensus around the Chamber, which is very welcome.

I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who rightly reminded us that, as the Natural Capital Committee flagged up, proper systems of measurement are absolutely crucial in terms of the future of environment plans and the crossover with our agricultural activities. We have to have proper measuring systems to measure outcomes and to measure success, but at the moment those links are not obviously made through legislation.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for reminding us of the State of Nature report and the RSPB report. They make very depressing reading but show the scale of the task ahead and why the sorts of measures that are in our amendment are so important.

I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. He is absolutely right that we do not know what the future holds, but we need to get farmers more guarantees and security for the future, and that is why we are attempting to build in those long-term connections. I am also grateful to him for pointing out that the amendment would not cost the Government anything; indeed, there is a very strong case for saying that the integrated policies that we are suggesting should be introduced might actually save the Government money. That should be a welcome outcome.

I say to the Minister that the Government can make commitments but, as noble Lords have often been reminded on other occasions and in other debates, the Government cannot commit future Governments. We are trying to build in a long-term connection between these two separate arms of Defra’s activity. Yes, I absolutely agree that ELMS will be a crucial part of delivering the 25-year environment plan, which is why it is important that that is in the Bill and that it has long-term resonance to it. The Minister was right to anticipate that I would not be happy with her response. I am sorry to say that I am not. I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.