Debates between Lord Clark of Windermere and Earl of Dundee during the 2019 Parliament

Tue 21st Jul 2020
Agriculture Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 5th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Agriculture Bill

Debate between Lord Clark of Windermere and Earl of Dundee
Earl of Dundee Portrait The Earl of Dundee (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I declare my interests as detailed in the register. Along with others, I agree with Amendment 143 in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh: the transition period should begin in 2022 rather than 2021. Equally, the case for being more realistic about timescales, although in a different context, is addressed by my noble friend Lady Rock’s Amendments 151, 152 and 150 respectively. The first would ensure that those entitled to payments receive them within guaranteed periods to achieve certainty of cash flow. The second would, through regulations, offer legal certainty to farmers, otherwise possibly disadvantaged where delinked payments, if introduced, might lead to extended transition periods. The third, Amendment 150, would enable the Secretary of State to increase payments during the transition period, after phasing out had started, to use up any unspent money and, when necessary, to protect the industry from harm.

Corresponding to the pragmatism of the latter proposal is my noble friend Lord Carrington’s useful Amendment 144, ensuring that any cuts in direct payments do not undermine businesses before the new public goods programmes begin. Then, reflecting the purposes and principles of the Bill themselves, there is Amendment 148 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. This emphasises the preservation of animal welfare standards, irrespective of financial consequences, while my noble friend the Duke of Wellington’s Amendment 149 would ensure direct payments to smaller livestock farmers in less favoured areas. Since all these contributions would much improve the Bill, I hope the Minister will accept them.

Lord Clark of Windermere Portrait Lord Clark of Windermere (Lab) [V]
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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.