Agriculture

George Eustice Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2024

(6 days, 21 hours ago)

Commons Chamber
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George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I, too, draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a trustee of shares in Trevaskis Farm Ltd, our family business.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin), who questioned the wisdom of bringing the statutory instrument to the Floor of the House. I think it important that the Government have signified that this is an important issue—it is an issue that matters to farmers and that therefore warrants proper consideration on the Floor of the House. I also note that it has flushed out a consensus—somewhat unlikely, so close to an election—among all the major parties. Everyone now seems to accept that area payments, which are subsidies for land ownership, have no place in the future, and that the general thrust of the Government’s plan, although everyone has articulated their differences on it, is indeed the right one. It is welcome that we have that cross-party consensus on the overall direction, because this is a long-term endeavour and it is important that all parties, to a greater or lesser extent, buy into the journey that we are on.

It is also important for us to understand why the Government decided to get rid of direct payments—payments for the ownership of land, which is what the basic payment scheme and, before it, the single payment scheme essentially were. This dates back to fairly recent history in the mid-2000s. In 2005, there were negotiations on reform of the common agricultural policy, and as part of the so-called Fischler reforms, there was a great deal of talk about decoupling farm subsidies from production. Economists throughout the European Union, and here in our own Treasury, were obsessed with the need to get rid of what they called production subsidies, which they regarded as being market-distorting, but they only ever intended the payments for the ownership of land to be temporary. Indeed, when this was discussed by the European Union in the early 2000s, it was mooted that the direct payments, or area payments, would be phased out by about 2020.

However, what we really did by introducing direct payments was to replace one subsidy—for production, which was market-distorting—with another, which was equally distorting. There is a fair amount of evidence that within the first two to three years of the introduction of direct payments for the ownership or tenure of land, about half the entire BPS budget disappeared in inflated land rents, which meant that those who owned land were able to charge higher rents to those who needed to rent land in order to farm. That is a classic example of what happens when we introduce a market-distorting subsidy, which is what the BPS payment was.

It is sometimes said that the BPS payment is an income support payment—that it helps to support farm incomes, and that it has a value almost as a social security payment—but I think that is absolute nonsense, and I did look at the issue carefully during my time at DEFRA. The truth is that 50% of the BPS budget goes to about 10% of the wealthiest landowners in the country. If we were seeking some sort of income support mechanism to help farmers who could not afford to carry on, and we wanted to keep them in the landscape that they were in for social reasons, we would means-test that benefit. We would not have a system whereby the vast majority of the budget went to the wealthiest landowners while some of those trying to make a living in marginal landscapes received nothing, or next to nothing.

It is often said, too, that the BPS helps to support food security. Again, that is absolute nonsense. By its very definition, the introduction of a subsidy for land ownership was, as it was described at the time, a decoupled payment. It was explicitly delinked from any food production. Look at the way the BPS payment worked in the last 10 years or so of its life. Look at the big sectors in the UK that produce most of the agricultural output. Look at horticulture, the top-fruit industry and companies such as G’s, which produces a big proportion of this country’s salads. Look at the pig and poultry sectors. None of those sectors gained anything whatsoever from the BPS payments, even though they were the backbone of food production in this country.

There would probably have been thousands of people across the country who were able to claim BPS payments just because they had more than 5 hectares of land, even though in many cases they were messing around with a few ponies and not producing any food at all. When I was in DEFRA, I discovered a rather extraordinary statistic: 30% to 40% of sheep farmers never received BPS payments. The reason is that the landowner kept the BPS payment and got the sheep farmers to act on a grazing licence, making them ineligible to claim the payment. The sheep farmers producing the food got nothing, because the landowners who were renting out the land captured the BPS payment. For all those reasons, it made sense to get rid of area subsidies.

Some people have said that, in a year when a lot of weather events have brought into sharp focus the risks associated with agriculture, maybe we need something like the BPS to help mitigate the risk. Again, that makes no sense whatsoever, because the sectors that really shoulder the risk are those involved in veg production and top-fruit production, and the BPS payment is a drop in the ocean in their accounts; it is not a significant part of their business model. In my constituency, I have some of the biggest brassica growers—growers of cauliflowers—in the country. They have had a horrendous year, but the few tens of thousands of pounds that they get from the BPS payment is neither here nor there in the scheme of things.

There is a final reason why the SI is absolutely right: this House has already taken the decision to delink the legacy payments from the need to own land, and we now have a fixed reference period, which is what the delinked payments between now and 2028 will be based on. It makes no sense to delay the trajectory of winding down those payments, given that some farmers might have exited agriculture altogether, and others might have come into agriculture as new entrants and will not be eligible for the BPS payment. Having delinked payments from the need to own or have tenure of land, we must now stick to the programme and move forward.

I disagree with the caricature by the Opposition Front Benchers that we have not stuck to the plan for the introduction of the phase-out, ELMS and the agricultural transition. I have to say to the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) that that is nonsense. The truth is that the agricultural transition plan of 2019 set out, with great clarity, the eight-year transition that we would follow. We would gradually reduce the BPS payments and then delink them in 2024, because we recognise the financial dependence that some farmers had on such payments. Even earlier than that, we made it explicit in the Agriculture Act 2020 that there would be an agricultural transition over eight years. Indeed, when the Bill was first introduced to the House in 2018, we made it explicit that we would have such a transition. In Committee, we debated at some length whether that was the right length of transition. The Government have absolutely stuck to the plan that has been set out since at least 2018, and they deserve credit for doing so.

For all the reasons I have given, we got rid of BPS altogether and decided to move away from area subsidies for land ownership. Not every part of the UK did that. The Labour Government in Wales decided to keep a partial direct payment—an area subsidy—but to add lots of additional conditions to it, including the requirement to plant trees on 10% of a farmer’s land. That has led to protests in Wales, because it is a deeply unhelpful policy and is counter to the interests of Welsh farmers. We should give farmers a choice about how much they do on the environment, not dictate to them that they must act and then give them just a partial slice of the BPS payment they used to have. For the same sorts of reasons, the European Union has had huge difficulties and huge protests. Again, it has tried to retain a subsidy for the ownership of land, which makes no sense. To try to justify it to the public, the EU loaded even more conditions on to it, bringing all sorts of contradictions to the fore.

I believe that it was absolutely right for the Government to take a different approach. We should stop talking about subsidies, because there will no longer be any subsidies to farmers in the future. The Government have statutory targets under the Environment Act 2021—notably, for the delivery of species abundance—and they are a market player. They are paying farmers and landowners for the delivery of ecosystem services, and those services attract a margin. We are no longer just paying farmers a subsidy for owning land, and we are no longer saying to farmers who do a good turn for the environment, “We’ll give you income foregone—we’ll compensate you for your loss.” We are now saying to farmers, “We have targets that we want to hit, and we will allow you to make a profit margin on the delivery of ecosystem services that will help the Government to meet their environmental objectives.”

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred to a 40% reduction in incomes. He was talking about a reduction in the BPS payment, but there is a difference between farm income and that payment, which I will come on to. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire invited the Minister to ask His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to collect data on farm incomes. The Farming Minister and the Secretary of State will know that DEFRA already does that, and the farm business survey, run by the Department, is very long running. It shows unequivocally that since 2016, when we had a devaluation of sterling against the euro, farm incomes have been boosted considerably. It shows that dairy farms saw sharp increases in profitability between 2016 and 2023, and the same is true of arable farms. To a lesser extent, the same is true of some beef sectors, although in less favourable areas—suckler beef production has remained quite marginal. The potato sector and others have not done so well but, overall, farm business income has seen a sustained boost.

None of that takes away from the fact that this is an appalling year. Farmers will lose money because they have suffered dreadful weather and dreadful crop losses, which I completely understand and acknowledge. As we contemplate future policy, however, we must see this in the context of overall farm profitability over the eight years since the referendum result. The truth is that, overall, farm incomes have been stronger than they were previously.

I welcome the fact that the Government have brought forward this statutory instrument. I know that reducing the BPS payment is obviously not popular with many farmers, but as a point of coherent policy, it is absolutely the right thing to do. Ministers deserve credit for sticking to the programme.

Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill

George Eustice Excerpts
Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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My hon. Friend characteristically raises a pertinent point, which I will address. He is right to draw a distinction between exports for slaughter and wider breeding programmes, particularly in the horse industry.

Given the demand from Europe’s slaughterhouses for livestock, especially British sheep, there is no reason to think that this trade would not resume at the first opportunity if we did not legislate now to ban live exports. That is why we must put an end to this unnecessary trade.

Long journey times can lead to a host of animal welfare issues, including stress, exhaustion, dehydration and injury. The journeys that once took young, unweaned calves from Great Britain to Spain for fattening were found to last on average 60 hours, and in some cases over 100 hours.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I warmly welcome the Bill, on which the Department has been working for some time. This measure was a big component of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill in the last Session.

This Bill sends a very important message internationally, because where the UK leads on animal welfare, other countries often follow. My right hon. Friend will be aware that some of the worst problems and the longest journeys relate to livestock going from Australia to the middle east for slaughter. Does he share my hope that the Australian Government will learn from this British example and modernise their laws to end that trade?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. In large measure, that international leadership comes from the leadership he showed, when he was Secretary of State, in placing animal welfare at the forefront of the approach taken by the Government and the Department. I hope other countries will look at that approach and at the benefits it will bring. His leadership is a very good illustration of that.

As my right hon. Friend will recall, even the shortest direct-to-slaughter export journeys from Britain to continental Europe in 2018 took 18 hours. The UK Government, along with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, commissioned the Farm Animal Welfare Committee to examine and report on animal welfare in the transporting of livestock. Its 2018 report drew on a range of sources—

Environmental Protection

George Eustice Excerpts
Tuesday 18th July 2023

(10 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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Indeed. I was planning to explain shortly how the penalties will be used. They will go into the new water restoration fund. It is my decision that that will be localised to the region of the water company that it applies to—ideally as local as possible. It certainly will not go back to the water company to fix the problems that it was having.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I understand what the Government are trying to achieve, but as the Secretary of State points out, the Environment Agency could go through due process with the courts, and there is already the sanction of unlimited fines. What will she do to protect a farmer, for instance, from unreasonable, heavy-handed fines by the Environment Agency, particularly as it now has an incentive to fine because it will keep the money for its own projects?

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey
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On the farming laws related to water, we normally find that people are not trying to break the law deliberately, so it is about guidance and how we make the fixes, but we have to act and, where necessary—in severe or continuous cases—undertake a criminal investigation. That will always be a decision for the regulator—the Environment Agency, in this case. That is where an element of judgment can and should be applied, but ultimately we have to allow our regulator to use the full force of the powers available to it to clean our water and improve our environment.

Oral Answers to Questions

George Eustice Excerpts
Thursday 6th July 2023

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Lancashire farmers and the efforts they make to keep us all well fed. We are committed to ensuring that payment rates mean that as many farmers as possible can benefit from our offers, and have recently increased payment rates for upland farmers. Through countryside stewardship-plus, we will pay farmers extra for co-ordinating their action and working with neighbouring farms and landowners to tackle climate change, as well as supporting nature gains and keeping us all well fed.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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8. When she plans to bring forward regulations to introduce delinked payments from 2024.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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The Government plan to bring forward regulations to delink payments later this year, as the parliamentary timetable allows. Those regulations will introduce delinked payments in 2024, as planned. Information about delinked payments can be found on gov.uk.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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Delinking the legacy basic payment scheme payments from the need to have land area entitlements could be a really powerful catalyst for change. It would free the Rural Payments Agency and farmers from the bureaucracy of the legacy scheme; remove a very difficult distortion from the land market; and, crucially, free farmers up to make decisions about what to do with their land in future. Since farmers are making decisions about next year’s land use now, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm from the Dispatch Box that the delinked payments will happen next year, and that there will be no reversal of that plan?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I am happy to confirm that, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work he did to get us to this point. Of course, we will be bringing forward the legislation to delink those payments next year.

Protection of Seals

George Eustice Excerpts
Tuesday 27th June 2023

(10 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney
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The hon. Member is absolutely right. I am quite certain that more can be done at every level of government, but he is absolutely right to make the point about certain sensitive locations in his constituency. If we are not able to progress with legislation on a national level, local opportunities should be pursued. Perhaps that is something the Minister might like to address in his remarks.

Coastal tourism in Great Britain is estimated to generate £17.1 billion in spending and support 285,000 jobs in seaside towns. Those jobs are a vital source of employment in many coastal towns, which often suffer from high levels of deprivation and unemployment. Seal watching has already become a mainstay of the tourist industry in Scotland and, with the right protections in place, could bring huge value to struggling coastal communities across England and Wales. In 2015, the National Trust found that 39% of visitors to the UK coastline came with the intention of getting close to nature and wildlife. In Norfolk, nearly 80,000 people a year are estimated to visit the seal colony at Horsey, while certain seals in Devon have developed a cult following among tourists, with their own social media pages and supporter groups.

Seals are uniquely well suited as tourist attractions. Unlike other marine megafauna, they are found in predictable locations, reside in an open habitat and can be seen in all seasons. If managed correctly, seal watching could boost tourism across the UK coastline and increasingly become a valuable source of revenue for British tourism.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I want to highlight the work of the Seal Research Trust in Cornwall. At Mutton Cove, we have a fantastic number of seals and some great work is done. Further to the point made earlier, does she think that, as well as the MMO potentially having powers to introduce byelaws, the inshore fisheries and conservation agencies could also do so; and that, rather than having an offence for disturbance, it might be better to create an obligation on certain marine agencies to give consideration to seals when designating byelaws?

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which demonstrates that there are many routes to achieving the goal that we all want. Perhaps the Minister will address that point in his closing remarks.

Unfortunately, badly managed tourism and inappropriate individual behaviour can threaten this industry. According to data gathered by the Seal Research Trust, 68% of the time that humans are present near seals, the animals have been disturbed. Continued disturbances and a persistent human presence in close proximity to seal habitats can mean the permanent abandonment of formerly well-used habitats, behaviour alterations and reduced survivorship for the whole local population. For that reason, it is crucial that public and private businesses are issued with more than simple voluntary guidance. They must be bound by law to uphold certain standards; otherwise, we may see fewer seals in our seas in years to come.

The damage caused by human disturbance may not be immediate or obvious, but it is very real. Without protection, some seal colonies will be abandoned, costing communities money and throwing the local ecosystem into chaos. Like most British marine life, seal populations are under intense pressure. Although their numbers have boomed in recent years, they must increasingly contend with litter in the ocean, changing prey patterns and extreme weather. However, unlike addressing most environmental issues, improving conditions for seals would be extremely simple for the Government. Reduced rates of disturbance would allow more seal pups to survive until maturity, and would leave adults to properly rest and recuperate between trips to the ocean.

In 2021, the Government committed to becoming a global leader in animal welfare, and to setting high standards for others across the world to follow. Although those are commendable aims, many of my constituents were heartbroken when the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and the Animals Abroad Bill were set aside. They were hoping to see a genuine commitment to the protection of animals, but so far they have unfortunately been let down. Given that two of the Government’s three flagship animal welfare Bills have now been scrapped, I hope that the Department has time to revise its current guidance and create some small pieces of legislation that will show that the Government have not entirely abandoned their commitment to animal rights.

Charities such as the Seal Research Trust, Seal Watch and the Seal Alliance are already doing fantastic work to educate the public. A huge amount of effort goes into their work of spreading good practice. I want to recognise the dedication of my constituent Mary Tester, who is in the Public Gallery, and Sue Sayer from the Seal Research Trust. Their commitment to seal welfare is commendable, and they have done so much to inform and educate people visiting or living near seal habitats. Unfortunately, despite their tireless work, it takes only one bad tour operator or persistently uncaring person in each area frequented by seals to cause serious damage to the local population.

In the coming decades, marine life will be stressed by warming seas, plastics in our oceans and the effects of decades of over-fishing. By creating stronger protections for seals now, we can give them the best chance of surviving the difficult years ahead and ensure that future generations have the opportunity to see these wonderful creatures in the wild for years to come.

--- Later in debate ---
Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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That is something that the Government recognise. We clearly do not want to see that disturbance by members of the public. That is why, as I said earlier, together with the Seal Alliance, in spring 2021 we launched the new Government-backed “Give Seals Space” campaign to help to raise awareness of the impact that human disturbance can have on seals, and to try to reduce it. To help to address rising numbers of summer visitors to coastlines and minimise the disturbance, in May 2023, DEFRA published England’s first national marine and coastal wildlife code. It is about educating members of the public to ensure that they are aware that their interactions with seals can disturb and have a negative impact.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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I am conscious that we are potentially close to a Division, so the Minister will want to wind up soon. He is right that there is a comprehensive set of legislation dealing with the injuring, killing or taking of a seal. On the issue of disturbance, however, there is potentially a gap. We can do awareness raising campaigns —I was responsible for introducing those at the time—but sometimes there may be recreational tourist boats, for instance, that cause a disturbance. Allowing inshore fisheries and conservation authorities the power to introduce certain byelaws to manage that activity could make a big difference.

Agricultural Tenancies

George Eustice Excerpts
Wednesday 24th May 2023

(12 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome for the report and our response, but I think that some of his characterisations are a little misplaced. Let me say first that in designing the ELM schemes we took account of the feedback we were receiving from those conducting the review. We were in possession of it when it was published some time ago, and we worked with the group to ensure that we were taking it on board. Secondly, of course we want to support upland farmers. We want to support all tenants, to ensure that they have the best possible opportunity to make a living, and to protect the beautiful landscapes that we see not only in Cumbria but in the south-west and other places with landscapes that matter to the British people.

Let me say this, gently, to the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that the Liberal Democrats entered into the political game of trying to keep our farmers tied to the bureaucratic EU land-based subsidies by tabling a motion in the other place. Under that system, far too much time was spent on burdening farmers with complex sets of rules, and on debating whether a cabbage was the same as a cauliflower for the purposes of the three-crop rule. We have to move on to a different place, and that is what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman can play his political games, but we will look after those farmers and ensure that the system works for them.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I commend the comprehensive piece of work done by Baroness Rock and I welcome the statement, but I want to make two points. First, probably the most powerful thing that the Government could do to improve the accessibility of the schemes to tenant farmers is to make agreements assignable from one tenant to the next. I wonder whether any progress has been made on that option. Secondly, if we want to help tenant farmers, we must make it as easy as possible for landowners to bring land to market for rent. Historically, under the Law of Property Act 1925 and the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948, landowners had a right to rent out their land, but following pernicious lobbying by the banking industry that was taken away through section 31 of the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995, and they now need permission from a bank. Will the Minister consider repealing section 31 as part of the ongoing review?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who triggered the Rock review and set it up in the first place. His knowledge is evident to the whole House. I will look into his specific questions and get back to him, but many of these issues can now be reviewed by the farm tenancy forum, and I think that that will be an opportunity to get under the bonnet and inform ourselves much more directly than we have in the past.

Farming on Dartmoor

George Eustice Excerpts
Tuesday 18th April 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I declare an interest in that our family farm in Cornwall is home to a number of rare breeds and native breeds, including a handful of Greyface Dartmoor sheep.

The spur for today’s debate is a specific issue with the conditions that Natural England is applying for new countryside agreements, particularly when it comes to stocking densities for sheep, but behind that are two much bigger debates that I want to focus on predominantly. First, how do we secure the financial viability of certain farming types, particularly in upland areas, as we move away from the nonsensical area payment scheme to something that rewards environmental and other outcomes, such as animal welfare? Secondly, what are the right organisational structure and functions of DEFRA’s arm’s length bodies in a post-EU world, and how do we correct the lack of accountability that was an inherent feature of our EU membership?

On the specifics of this issue, as ever, DEFRA is between a rock and a hard place, in that there is currently a very trenchant debate about water quality. We know that, in some geographies, including places such as Dartmoor, diffuse agricultural pollution, some of it linked to winter grazing, is a contributory factor; but at the same time, there is the issue of farm viability. The Minister’s predecessor gave Natural England a steer to try to adjust stocking densities, but gradually, not suddenly—perhaps over five years. However, it is unclear why that seemed not to be followed through. Either Natural England felt that it was doing that and was simply beginning a conversation with farmers, or perhaps it thought that, with the Minister’s predecessor out the way, it could do its own thing. Or maybe the Minister gave Natural England a different order and told it to be more hawkish and move faster. He might want to explain what happened in that instance.

On the issue of viability, the big challenge is that many upland areas are already quite invested in agri-environment schemes. Some would see limited scope to earn more money through agri-environment schemes as the BPS payment falls away. We have considered this quite a lot in DEFRA, and there are three main answers. The first is that, in some of these landscapes, frankly, land rents are too high. There is a lot of evidence that about 50% of the BPS payment that immediately disappeared in the first few years has inflated land rents, and that needs to adjust. Secondly, the Department must depart from the old-fashioned “income foregone” methodology for payment rates. I would like the Minister to say explicitly today that income foregone will no longer be followed and that there will be a margin for farmers in the new environmental schemes, as we always intended.

The third solution is that the Agriculture Act 2020 made provision for ways to reward farmers other than through the conventional agri-environment schemes. In particular, payments can be made to farmers on a headage basis, for instance, if necessary for higher welfare outcomes, or indeed for rare and native breeds. We made explicit provision for wider payments to be made, acknowledging that, in some landscapes, different public goods might be pursued over and above the environmental ones that people tend to associate with them.

In that context, the Minister will know that I have made the case for a new coronation fund to support rare breeds and native breeds in this country. The King has been passionate about our rare breeds in particular, but also our native breeds, throughout his life. The year of his coronation would be a fantastic opportunity to open a fund to support rare breeds such as the Greyface Dartmoor and others that can be found on Dartmoor. The National Sheep Association has called for this and can see an opportunity to add greater value to some of its produce through such a scheme. I hope the Department will take that forward.

I looked at arm’s length body reform during my tenure at DEFRA, and the truth is that the structure we have was designed for an EU era. Many of these agencies were given powers to, effectively, implement EU law directly, and they were specifically designed to bypass democratic structures. In a post-EU era, we really need to think about how we change this. There is a consultation sitting somewhere in DEFRA—it was due to be published shortly before I departed in September and is still sitting there, should the Minister want it—that basically argues that we should change the function of Natural England when it comes to SSSIs, in particular. It is not sensible for Natural England to have to make the decisions on SSSIs. Instead, Ministers should take such decisions having taken advice from Natural England and others, which would restore accountability.

The Minister will shortly have submissions coming his way, asking him to agree certain licences—for instance, for heather burning on blanket bog. That is because I explicitly made it a legal requirement that the Minister should make that decision based on advice, not that Natural England should make the decision on its own without seeking the advice of Ministers. I hope the Minister will return to that system of accountability and publish the consultation because, in its absence, I am afraid he will be condemned to have episodes similar to this, where things take him by surprise simply because he does not have the powers he should have in the post-EU era.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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Will the Minister give way?

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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I will of course give way to my esteemed colleague.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is cross-party support for the Bill, with Members on both sides of the House wanting it to proceed well in the other place. Does she agree that, now that this concession has been made—a generous concession, I might add—to curtail significantly the regulation-making powers in clause 2, there is nothing for their lordships to object to? Normally, they object to so-called Henry VIII powers, but those have been completely removed, so it should be possible to expedite the progress of the Bill in the other place.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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My right hon. Friend is correct. We have accepted this amendment because we want the Bill to progress in not only the Commons but the Lords.

The import ban will cover all species listed in annexes A and B of the wildlife trade regulations, broadly aligned with appendices 1 and 2 of CITES. That extends to around 6,000 species, including those mentioned in the House.

I take the opportunity to recognise again the concerns that have been raised about Northern Ireland, and the risk, referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), that Northern Ireland would become a backdoor. He queried how we would make progress and clearly set out that he very much wants to be part of the UK. Let me reassure the House that we will do everything we possibly can to ensure that Northern Ireland will not be a backdoor for so-called trophies from endangered species to enter Scotland, England or Wales. Northern Ireland will not be a stepping stone for imports to Great Britain.

In Committee, we discussed the workings of the Bill, and how it operated alongside the Northern Ireland protocol and the UK internal market. Since then, the Government have published the Windsor framework.

Shellfish Aquaculture

George Eustice Excerpts
Wednesday 15th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
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The Chair of the International Trade Committee is more than welcome to come as well. On the basis of cross-party co-operation I am happy to invite the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), as well. However, this lunch, which is rapidly becoming more expensive for me, is conditional on addressing the problems facing the mighty Pacific oyster. For over 100 years, the Pacific oyster has existed in our coastal waters. In fact, in the 1960s, to mitigate the inability to farm many native species in certain parts of the United Kingdom, the Government reintroduced Pacific oysters to help expand and cultivate the aquaculture sector, so that we could grow a proper aquaculture industry.

The lack of clarity around the status of the Pacific oyster has held back the ability to farm it and benefit from its presence in our waters. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been absolutely clear in correspondence to me and the chairman of the shellfish aquaculture all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), that there is no doubt that Pacific oysters are a non-native species. We do not disagree with that point. However, given the prevalence of Pacific oysters, and the almost indisputable presumption that we will not be able to rid them from our waters, it is surely time for DEFRA to recognise that the Pacific oyster has become naturalised to the UK environment.

It is worth pointing out, but I am happy to be corrected on this, that in the guidance on section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, paragraph 18 states:

“A species would be considered to be ‘in a wild state’ where the population lives and fends for itself in the wild.”

If we were not farming them, those Pacific oysters would continue to exist in our waterways. Why not take advantage of what we have?

As the Minister knows, DEFRA has moved positively for those farming Pacific oysters south of the 52nd parallel. However, for those north of the line of latitude, the future looks desperate if not deathly. One only needs to consider the issues with Lindisfarne Oysters, which has been restricted from expanding by Natural England. North or south, east or west, the future of the industry is still in jeopardy because we are failing to be clear about the status of Pacific oysters in our waters.

The knock-on impact of the issue is that shoreline owners stop supporting the sector. I will give the very specific example of the Duchy of Cornwall, which has decided to phase out all Pacific oyster farms over the next two to three years on sites where they exist. It says the reason is that Pacific oysters remain classified as non-native and invasive. That decision alone will close three to four businesses in my constituency, and impact hundreds more across the country. It will also provide an example for other shoreline owners.

To compound the problem, Natural England has already issued advice to Natura 2000 sites, saying that it believes that,

“there should be no new pacific oyster farms and no expansion of existing ones should be allowed”.

Stopping the farming of Pacific oysters will not reduce or eradicate their presence in our waters, so why are we not taking advantage of the chance to build up the sector? To use comparative figures, the UK produces in the region of 3,000 tonnes of oysters while France produces 145,000—95% of which are Pacific oysters.

An hon. Lady from Cornwall—whose constituency I have totally forgotten—cannot be here but would make the point that in parts of Cornwall they do not want Pacific oysters to be introduced. It is important to put on record that the oyster farmers of Cornwall take a different approach.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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As a neighbouring MP to Truro and Falmouth, which is the constituency my hon. Friend was seeking, I know that there is a wild native oyster fishery in that area. When it comes to the Pacific oyster, my understanding from my dealings while I was Secretary of State and Minister in this area is that there is an acceptance of triploid oysters, which are sterile and thus less likely to spread and have an impact. Is my hon. Friend aware that his constituents and businesses could use triploid oysters?

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall
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I am, and I am also particularly grateful for the work my right hon. Friend did during his time as Secretary of State for DEFRA. I thank him for reminding me about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), and for putting on the record what his oyster community is talking about.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but in parts of south Devon triploids do not work as well as Pacific oysters, and farmers there have a tried and tested method. That is where we have to be careful about the language we use. At the moment the language used by DEFRA is holding back the sector. It is not about saying that Pacific oysters are right for everywhere, but recognising that, where they already exist, there is a chance for us to create a community and an industry that could grow, develop and rival the size of France’s industry.

We are at odds with European countries, many of which have long since stopped trying to eradicate Pacific oysters and have accepted that they are fully resident and compatible. To avoid choking the industry out of existence, we need to look at how we can support and grow the Pacific oyster sector. That can be achieved in three rather quick ways.

The first is to create a new national policy that takes a realistic, pragmatic and holistic approach to the species and the benefits it can bring not just to biodiversity, but through a social and economic impact on coastal communities. We must question, even push back, against the all-too-often precautionary approach of Natural England. DEFRA, through the Minister, should use this new era—dawn, start, beginning, whatever we want to call it—to create an environment that returns the sector to its previous size, and to develop it.

Pacific oysters are only part of the aquaculture jigsaw. The export of live bivalve molluscs is also of the utmost importance. The changing relationship with the European Union has meant that the export of shellfish from class B waters has become far more complicated. Before we go into the weeds on that, I want to pay tribute to the Food Standards Agency for its work and co-operation with the sector in helping to prioritise and implement improvements to UK classification protocols. Since 2021, in England and Wales, class A areas of water have increased from 26 to 40, and seasonal class areas from 19 to 27. That is a significant improvement that should be welcomed.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Food Standards Agency, which has done so much to co-operate and engage with the APPG and my shellfish community, but significant improvement does not mean job done. Our attention must be directed towards creating stability and as much certainty as possible. Within the trade and co-operation agreement there are 18 specialised committees. Two of those, on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and on fisheries, are the conduit—the mechanism—for both sides to address grievances and technical issues, as well as to find solutions and harness improved trade and agreement between parties.

However, like most EU structures, they can be cumbersome and bureaucratic. The SC on fisheries has met only five times since 2020, and the committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures has met only twice. Progress through those committees can be sped up. I politely ask the Minister to put his weight behind that request, and to raise the matter with his EU counterparts. Resolving trade frictions can be achieved through expedited measures. Although the SCs are a valuable avenue, they are by no means the only route to take.

Sort out the trade flows and we can reach new markets, and grow our oyster, mussel, scallop and clam markets far beyond their current levels. Engagement with our friends and neighbours can be only part of the strategy. We also need to look closer to home for what we can do. As already mentioned, the changing relationship with our neighbours has had an impact on trade flows, but our domestic legislation plays a significant role in holding back the growth of the sector, particularly the classification of harvesting waters.

The Minister will be aware of the Seafish report, “Review of the application of the Official Control Regulations for shellfish production as they relate to microbial contamination”. Once we are past that rather tricky title, it is a fascinating report comparing UK and European standards. The purpose of the report was to review the

“application of official controls across different EU member states and to identify the areas of deviation and flexibility that may exist.”

Bearing in mind that the United Kingdom wrote the rules when we were in the European Union, it should be a cause of concern to see other countries take a more flexible and agile approach to those rules. The report goes into forensic detail. In a response to a letter from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, the Food Standards Agency said, in relation to that Seafish report, that it had

“prioritised working on improvements based on several proposals from the report such as: application of different tasting methods for classification results; use of industry sampling as part of official sampling records; reviewing the timeframe for reopening sites after high results; reviewing the relationship between investigative sampling results and the classification record.”

What correspondence has the Minister had with the FSA about the Seafish report? Is he able to share that with the House or put it in the House of Commons Library? Is there an update on the FSA’s progress on those points? It is fantastically good to hear that it is willing to look at the report and act on the recommendations, but we need an update, because many businesses have been waiting far too long.

All businesses in the sector—and all businesses generally—need certainty and stability. The comparisons and recommendations put forward by Seafish would go a long way to creating an environment of stability, thereby attracting investment and opportunities for the sector. The four proposals would not put us out of line or in contention with other countries in Europe. Indeed, they might see us become more aligned with many of their practices. Given that we now sit outside the EU and can act on a unilateral basis, I ask the Minister to push through the proposals as quickly as possible. Implementing the measures will not put at risk our harvest or humans consuming live bivalve molluscs, but will at least make the sector more flexible and able to respond to circumstances that are often beyond its control.

While changing the regulation and testing methodology can help, there is no substitute for simply improving our water quality. Despite some Opposition mischief and misdirection, I am hugely proud to have voted in support of the Government’s landmark policies to help clean up our rivers and coastal waters. Our Victorian-era network is creaking under ever more pressure from development and age, but our new laws have pushed water companies to invest a further £56 billion over the next 27 years and have set actionable targets that are punishable with hefty fines if not met. Those measures, without raising the costs on households, are set to bring our water network up to speed and ensure that waste water and sewage management plans are adhered to and delivered so that the public can have faith in our water companies to do what is right.

Through not just the Environment Act 2021 but the Agriculture Act 2020 and environmental land management schemes, we can help change habits to improve the quality of our waterways. If we bring farmers and fishermen together, they can help one another understand how what happens on land can have a huge impact on water quality far off the coast, impacting many aquaculture farms. Joining land and sea-based businesses in common cause and understanding will help improve biodiversity and protect our landscape and seascape for future generations.

I have several businesses in Totnes and south Devon in the aquaculture space, but the reality is I should have hundreds more. Perhaps the most effective case study is Offshore Shellfish—the largest mussel farm in the UK and, soon, Europe. Based out of Brixham and operating in Lyme Bay, it is an extraordinary success, despite immeasurable challenging circumstances facing the sector. In succeeding, it demonstrates just how much potential there is in the aquaculture sector. Offshore Shellfish has pioneered blue offshore food production and, in doing so, has been recognised internationally as being technically, scientifically and commercially 10 years ahead of any competitor in Europe. Indeed, it has already been contacted by the Dutch, the French, the Germans and the Irish to run trials and pilot schemes, showing just how viable and brilliant its model is and how brilliant British innovation in the sector can be. However, to attract long-term investors, the Holmyard family, who run that extraordinary company, need to be able to reassure investors about stable access to markets, strong and comparable testing regimes, good trade flows and clean waters.

My asks are perfectly simple. They are those of the APPG for shellfish aquaculture, so they are not new, but they come with a warning: failure to act now will condemn the sector. The Minister has the powers, ability and understanding to make the necessary changes. At the end of this not quite Chancellor-esque lengthy speech, I hope he will take the opportunity to take advantage of our new-found freedoms, use the agility of not having to consult 27 other countries and change our rules and regulations to unlock the huge potential of the sector. If he does, not only will he be a champion of the aquaculture sector—I know flattery gets you everywhere in this place—but he will effectively and meaningfully go a long way to help coastal communities level up, without having to use Government resources. The potential is there. The opportunity is there. I know how hard the Minister works on the issue, so I look forward to working with him.

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Thank you for calling me, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to be able briefly to highlight a few issues. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his knowledgeable contribution. His delivery was almost as rapid as mine—although his abbreviations are much easier to understand. I thank him very much. I found out only this morning that the debate had changed, but when I saw it was on shellfish, I recognised right away—representing Strangford, as I do—that I could make a contribution on the subject.

DEFRA’s figures indicate that wee Northern Ireland, as I call it, produced more oysters than even England did in 2020, so it is important that we have an input in this debate. It is clear that this is yet another UK-wide fishing industry that needs improvement to balance the key goals of conservation and production.

Of course, the Minister knows that fishing and shellfish aquaculture is a devolved matter, but in Strangford we have a very active, thriving and economically viable industry, with Cuan Oysters. We have had it for a number of years—I cannot remember not having it in Strangford lough, to be truthful. I recognise the work that it does, the contribution it makes to the economy and the jobs that it creates.

I understand that the Department feels that it is inappropriate to develop a policy for a non-native species. However, I agree with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, to which the hon. Member for Totnes referred, that Pacific oysters are not harmful, that they in fact increase biodiversity and that they can benefit native oyster populations by acting as a settlement surface. Why should anyone want to change that? The hon. Gentleman was right in his request to the Minister to seek to have the position overturned.

Worldwide, oyster reefs are generally considered highly desirable habitats, and there are many projects under way to create or restore them. Whether native or non-native, the fact remains that all oysters are equally good for the environment; they clear waters of algae, remove carbon and nitrogen, and increase biodiversity. Again, why would we want to change that successful process? Indeed, oyster farmers control the accessible wild stocks in their areas, making use of the resource and reducing the visible population. There is a strong argument to be made that, if we continue to restrict the UK industry, it will not stop the spread of Pacific oysters.

The popularity of Pacific oysters is growing in the UK, as evidenced by the demand for them, and that cannot be ignored. There are areas where oyster festivals attract tourism and economic growth. Many things come off the back of what the hon. Member for Totnes said. I agree with the APPG that we need a national policy that is realistic and pragmatic and that takes a holistic approach to the species. We need a better understanding of what is before us.

Another issue that I wish briefly to touch on is—this will not surprise anybody—the dreaded EU bureaucracy. My goodness! We never get away from it, do we? I know that we do not in Northern Ireland—I will not get into the Northern Ireland thing at the minute; that is a matter for the future. It is necessary to purify shellfish after harvesting in UK waters, as many of the waters around our coast are not deemed clean enough for shellfish to be consumed directly after harvesting. However, following Brexit, the EU will only accept shellfish that are already safe to eat, so the UK industry can no longer export produce for purification, even though the waters are the same.

I cannot understand what the difference is. It is a bit like it was for us in Northern Ireland when the EU said that we could not bring in plants and seeds, when the soil was the same on 31 December as it was 24 hours later. That policy has meant a dramatic fall in shellfish exports, with many businesses unable to operate at all.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The EU reversed its earlier position when it came to the export of depurated live bivalve molluscs, which is really quite outrageous. It told the Government, in the latter part of 2020, that that trade could continue and that it would just draft a new certificate, and then it just changed its position, inexplicably, in February.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention; as always, he brings knowledge to the debate. That is part of the debate, and it is part of the evidence base that backs up the very point that the hon. Member for Totnes and others are making.

As with so many issues, that barrier to trade is not logical, but then when did anything logical come out of the EU? I say that maybe a wee bit cynically, Ms Elliott. There may be a few others here who agree, and there may be some who would say, “No, that’s not entirely correct.”

--- Later in debate ---
Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. We have had a wide-ranging debate, from Brexit to car tyres to pop stars. I fear that I cannot compete with some of the connections my colleagues have in that sector, although I have to put on record my connections to both Michael Jackson and George Michael, which go right back to the 1980s, when I first bought their records. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. His efforts and those of other members of the APPG for shellfish aquaculture are very much appreciated, and I thank all those who have made valuable contributions to the debate.

Aquaculture is a vital part of the United Kingdom’s seafood industry, and shellfish aquaculture in particular holds an important place in our coastal communities. It supports local economies and provides sustainable, healthy, low-carbon food. The Government support the sustainable, industry-led growth of shellfish aquaculture. However, as Members have noted, there are challenges facing the sector.

Let me start by looking at export issues. The Government continue to challenge the restrictions imposed by the European Union on the import of live bivalve molluscs. It is my belief that the EU’s decision only to import live bivalve molluscs that are already fit for human consumption is unjustified. It does not align with the terms of the trade and co-operation agreement. DEFRA continues to push the EU on this issue. We do not expect the EU to change its position any time soon, but we will continue to push it as robustly as we can.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice
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My recollection is that the EU basically used an animal health certificate and just changed the wording to preclude live bivalve molluscs, so it probably does not require a legal change from the EU; it simply needs the EU to draft a particular type of export health certificate that would accommodate live bivalve molluscs. Given that there has been a slight thawing in relations with the EU following the discussions on Northern Ireland, does the Minister think this is something the chief veterinary officer could broach again?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work he did as Secretary of State. I do not want to over-promise—I would rather over-deliver—but I recognise what he says about the changing relationship with the EU. Now that we have resolved the challenges with Northern Ireland, we are into a new phase of co-operation and working with our friends in the EU, and I hope we can continue to raise the matter with them and find a suitable conclusion that will help businesses up and down our coastline to export great-quality products to the EU as soon as possible.

Agricultural Transition Plan

George Eustice Excerpts
Thursday 26th January 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I honestly entered the Chamber with optimism. I thought today was the day we would get a positive Opposition able to join the people up and down the country who are being positive about this. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is disappointed we have had positive comments from non-governmental organisations and farming organisations, which seem to be welcoming the plans.

Let us get to the points the hon. Gentleman made. He said we made announcements at Oxford, but what we announced at Oxford was the lifted payments for countryside stewardship. Today we are announcing the SFI, which is the other scheme. That is on the website now. There are six extra schemes in there, some of which—the low-input grassland and improved grassland schemes, for instance—are designed to help and support exactly those upland farmers he mentioned. There is also support through countryside stewardship to assist with the maintenance of stone walls, so there are lots of things for farmers to embrace.

The hon. Gentleman asks: can we do both? Can we keep the nation fed and improve the environment? We have full confidence that we can. Looking at the data and at history, this country gets about 1% more efficient year on year in the way we produce food. That means that in 10 years’ time we can produce the same amount of food on 10% less land. I think we can do better than that. With investment in new technology, we can be more productive on the most productive land, and on the margins around those fields we can add true biodiversity and environmental output.

Let me give a practical example. If we convince farmers not to cut their hedgerows in August or September, as was traditional, but encourage them to cut them in February, that would provide a huge pantry of berries for small birds to feed on throughout the winter. Combining that with support for wildflower strips next to the hedgerows would encourage the development of lacewings and ladybirds, which eat aphids, which are the pests farmers use pesticides on to stop the damage to their crops. That would be a win-win by working with, not against, nature. That is what we want to encourage farmers to do, and that is how we will deliver food security, environmental benefits and better biodiversity.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con)
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I warmly welcome the inclusion of a new hedgerow standard under the sustainable farming incentive, and particularly the inclusion and recognition of Cornish stone hedges within it. Hedges are probably the single most important ecological building block in our farmed environment, and it is right that that is recognised.

However, to get the movement we need toward our 2030 species abundance target, we need widespread participation in the schemes, as the document published today outlines. It is very welcome that the Government have increased the payment rates already, but can he confirm that if we need to increase them further in the years ahead to get the participation rates we need, he will not be banned by antiquated EU laws around income forgone—those are still sitting in retained EU law—and that we will pay whatever it takes in the market to get the participation we need?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who was the forerunner of many of these thoughts and schemes. The work he did in the Department has led us to this point, and I pay tribute to it. He is right to identify hedgerows as the corridors of wildlife. They are a huge source of biodiversity and a place where wildlife can thrive. We will, of course, do all we can to not only support individual farmers, but build that network of hedgerows and those corridors for wildlife.

All these schemes remain under review. One of the reasons we are here today and were not able to do this last year is because we were running pilot schemes with farmers and listening to the feedback they were giving us. The scheme we have today is in a much stronger place than it would have been if we had acted earlier. We will continue to have dialogue with NGOs and farmers to ensure we get the outputs we require.