Debates between Lord Clark of Windermere and Lord Holmes of Richmond 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 Lord Holmes of Richmond
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.

Lord Holmes of Richmond Portrait Lord Holmes of Richmond (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, this has been a very interesting, thoughtful debate and I associate myself with many of the comments, not least those of the noble Earl, Lord Devon. In normal circumstances, I would agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend, Lord Blencathra, about not extending a deadline, because projects will simply extend to fill the space provided, but we are in extraordinary times, not just because of Covid but because, for the last four years, Defra and much of Whitehall have been able to focus only on one piece of wildlife, that being Yellowhammer.

Yesterday was Report on the Business and Planning Bill. In our deliberations, it became clear that emergency legislation needs to be passed in various situations and circumstances which will run to September 2021. In light of that, it seems logical and coherent across government policy that a move regarding the start of the transition period, from 2021 to 2022, would dovetail very much with that same legislative logic. Does my noble friend the Minister agree?

I also very much support the amendment in the name of my noble friend the Duke of Wellington. If legislation means anything, it must mean that it touches on those in the greatest need. I believe that my noble friend’s amendment very much goes to the point of covering those who fundamentally understand and deliver on stewardship, guardianship, public good and, indeed, equity. Does my noble friend the Minister agree?

Finally, will my noble friend the Minister comment on the current situation with the IT system within Defra? What is proposed for the new scheme, and is this set in stone or are discussions still afoot as to exactly how to structure the scheme from an IT perspective?