Lord Clark of Windermere (Lab) [V]
My Lords, this has been a particularly thoughtful debate, as it should be, because underlying the whole series of amendments being advanced is the recognition that this is, first, a major change in how we approach support for our land and our farming. Coupled with that is concern about how we bring about the change, and concern that the period allowed to bring it about is not flexible enough and may not be of the right length. Various proposals have been argued very eloquently that perhaps it should be a bit shorter—five years instead of seven. I favour a seven-year period, because the challenge is so great that we will not be able to tackle it. There are so many changes, not only in our approach—public money for public goods, instead of just production costs—but against a changing background as it is. I do not think many of us fully appreciate the changes taking place in agriculture at the moment.
I have a particular interest in the uplands and hill farming, but one cannot look at hill farming without looking at the low-level farming that depends on, feeds on and feeds from the upland areas. One has only to drive in the national park, for example, and once one gets on to the low-level farming, there are no longer any cattle, mixed farming or dairy farming: all the sheep are down on the low level 12 months a year, and that is causing problems in itself. So there is the unstable nature of farming to start with, and we then wrestle with the problem of how we make sure that the various aspects of the new legislation are tied together. Is Defra capable of handling such a major change when it is also dealing with Brexit and will face the challenge of pressure from the Treasury, in spite of what the Government may say? Then, from my experience of running the Cabinet Office, I am concerned about the ability of the Government, or any public body, to run major computer programmes. We are not always able to employ the best people, we do not have the experience, yet we take so much for granted when we look at these proposals.
I must admit that when I look at the ideas, I think Amendment 146, in the name of my noble friend Lord Grantchester, has some suggestions of a way forward. It suggests a slightly later start date—2022—coupled with some flexibility if we find that even that is too early. It even goes so far as to say that if we find that the seven-year period is not correct, it can be changed by affirmative resolution. I am not sure that I entirely agree with that, but I could be persuaded in an emergency that it is the way forward.
We are right to spend so much time debating this. Unless we get it right, the whole thing will be a disaster and there will be tears of woe, not only from the farming community but from foresters, environmentalists and a whole range of people who love our countryside.