Thames Water: Oxfordshire

Tim Farron Excerpts
Wednesday 7th February 2024

(2 weeks, 5 days ago)

Westminster Hall
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Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the performance of Thames Water in Oxfordshire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank the Minister for being here to listen to my constituents’ concerns.

The River Thames is an integral part of life in Oxfordshire. Whether they are rowing, swimming, punting or walking, Oxfordshire residents love spending time outdoors and around our precious waterways. But our local environment is under threat, thanks in part to the shoddy performance of Thames Water. One constituent described Thames Water as a “disaster of a company”, and I am afraid to say that I completely agree. It dumps sewage in our rivers, fails to unblock drains, fails to fill reservoirs and does not deliver value for money.

It will come as no surprise that I start with the issue of sewage dumping. The statistics speak for themselves: across the network, Thames Water spilled sewage for 6,500 hours in the last nine months of 2023. Right now, sewage is flowing from treatment works at Combe, Church Hanborough, South Leigh, Stanton Harcourt, Standlake, Appleton, Oxford, Kingston Bagpuize, Drayton, Clanfield, Faringdon, Wantage and Didcot. There are 28—I will not go through all of them. It is like this every day. Sewage pollutes our waterways, damages the natural environment, and poses serious health risks to wildlife, pets and humans.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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My hon. Friend is making a remarkably important speech and delivering it very well. We know about the issue because of testing, yet the testing in her area and mine is done by the water companies themselves—in my area, the north-west of England, by United Utilities—so there is a lack of confidence in my constituency, and I suspect in hers, about its reliability. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for the water companies to mark their own homework, that instead the water companies should be charged the full cost of that testing, that that money should be given to the Environment Agency, and that testing should be done independently, so that we can rely on it?

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran
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I thank my hon. Friend for his campaigning on the issue at the national level; my constituents are grateful to him. I could not agree with him more. I will talk about bathing water status in a moment.

Residents set up a huge citizen science group so they could do the testing themselves. They worked with Thames Water at the time, but they wanted the Environment Agency to be properly funded so that it could do the testing and they could have that reassurance. It is not right to ask residents to do that work, and I share my hon. Friend’s scepticism about the water companies sticking to their word and doing the testing 100% correctly, given that it is in their interests to make it look like the issue is getting better.

A mother got in touch with me after her son was admitted to hospital with a water-based bacterial infection on his hand. He is a keen rower, and a blister became infected by dirty river water from the Thames in Abingdon. It is not just about humans: a number of constituents also got in touch to say that they are worried about their pets. Matthew recently contacted me after his much-loved greyhound, Roy, sadly passed away. Matthew is convinced that that happened as a result of Roy going into raw sewage as he was frolicking along on his normal walk, and the vet said that contaminated water cannot be ruled out as the cause of death. There has been a spate of such deaths in Oxfordshire, including in Eynsham and Wolvercote, and I wonder whether there have been any elsewhere in the country. We have tried to interrogate the Department and Thames Water about the issue, but they do not monitor how many animals—that is, pets—are getting ill. Thames Water has biodiversity targets, but to the best of my knowledge the Department does not look at the issue at all. I urge the Minister to do so.

Just beyond Oxfordshire, in the village of Charvil, in Wokingham, a local fisherman described seeing raw sewage float past the end of his fishing rod. It is just disgusting. When we think of frolicking about in boats and the classic English countryside, we do not want that image. Rowers should be worried only about freezing temperatures at this time of year, dog walkers should be worried only about how muddy their pets are when they get home and fishermen should be worried only about their catch. No one should have to endure raw sewage floating past them or risk getting seriously ill by doing an activity that they love. The Government, despite their frequent protestations, are not doing enough.

In Oxford, local campaigners and I fought hard for Wolvercote mill stream at Port Meadow to gain bathing water status. I know the Minister has a keen interest in this, because the River Wharfe in Ilkley, which was the first to gain that status, is in his constituency. We were very proud to follow his constituents and become the second. Indeed, the then Minister with responsibility for water, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), came to wade in it herself when the announcement was made in 2022.

However, at every single data collection point so far, Wolvercote mill stream has been classed as poor. If the water quality does not improve in the next three years, we will lose bathing water status. Despite bathing water status placing a legal duty on water companies to clean up their act, Thames Water continues to discharge sewage from the treatment works at Cassington and Witney, just upstream of Port Meadow. That means that the levels of harmful bacteria, including E. coli, are dangerously high.

The regulations clearly are not working. In April last year, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs promised legally binding targets on sewage dumping, yet nothing has come to fruition. The Government talk about progress in monitoring, but it is not good enough just to monitor the sewage that is flowing into our rivers; we need to stop it altogether. Areas such as Port Meadow simply cannot afford to wait. If it loses bathing water status, the blame will lie squarely with this Government. Has the Minister considered tougher targets for water companies, specifically in areas such as his and mine that have bathing water status? Will he look at introducing a targeted plan for bathing waters that are rated as poor?

This is not the first time that I have raised the issue, or raised it with the Minister. I asked to meet him back in December, after Port Meadow was first rated as poor. I thank his office, and I am sure we will find a time in the near future to discuss it in more detail. However, I am afraid to say that sewage dumping is not the only thing that I would love to chew his ear off about, because it is not the only area in which Thames Water is failing. Almost no part of Oxford West and Abingdon was unaffected by the flooding after Storm Henk in January. It is one thing to see floodwaters lapping at the door, to be scared and to have to decide what to take up to higher levels while trying to get the water out. That is scary enough, but for the residents of Lower Radley, blocked drains meant that they were not looking just at floodwater but at floodwater and sewage in their homes. That was a direct result of Thames Water failing to clear drains that we had been alerting them to for months because they were blocked; in fact, it had been three years since Thames Water had cleaned them. One resident wrote to me:

“This has been going on for some years with zero remedial action from Thames Water…utterly appalling!”

One couple who are suffering are in their nineties. They simply should not have to go through that misery time and time again. Fields, gardens and homes were flooded with water; meanwhile, residents in Farmoor noticed that the levels of the reservoir were low. Thames Water claimed that the level was normal for this time of year, but residents were confused because it seemed that the whole of Oxfordshire was under water except the reservoir. Thames Water said that “dirt and debris” in the rivers prevented abstraction, but one resident described the situation as the water company

“pooing in their own nest”.

Filling reservoirs in periods of heavy rainfall is vital for drought preparedness, but Thames Water’s refusal to invest in infrastructure and fix leaky pipes is putting that at risk. In the south-east, we regularly endure hosepipe bans in the summer; in the summer of 2022, the village of Northend in south Oxfordshire was forced to survive on emergency rations after its water supply stopped entirely. Yet Thames Water loses an estimated 630 million litres of water to leaks every single day—the highest it has been in five years. Thames Water cannot seem to put anything in the right place: there is sewage not in the rivers but in people’s homes, and water is leaking out of pipes while the reservoir’s level drops. It is not just gross; it is gross incompetence across the board.

My constituents are incredibly concerned that, despite that litany of errors, Thames Water is planning to embark on an enormous infrastructure project called the south east strategic reservoir option—known locally as the Abingdon reservoir. It is vast. It will cover an area of 7 sq km and have a volume of 150 million cubic metres. Local campaigners, such as the Group Against Reservoir Development, have raised a number of questions about the water demand projections used to justify this project, the environmental impact of the project and the safety measures that are in place to mitigate any risk of a dam breach. So far, Thames Water has failed to answer those questions. More importantly, however, my constituents simply have no faith that Thames Water has the wherewithal to undertake such a significant infrastructure project. In December, its auditors even warned that the water company would run out of money by April of this year without a serious cash injection from shareholders. Thames Water has been horrifically mismanaged, and there is no sign of that turning around. That is why I am calling for a public inquiry into its super-reservoir plans, to ensure rigorous scrutiny and transparency in their decision making.

It is all the more galling, in the middle of this cost of living crisis, that Thames Water announced late last year that water bills were set to rise by a whopping 60% over the next six years. That increase is to allow water companies to invest in infrastructure, which is something that they should already have been doing, and that they are now asking bill payers to do in their stead. The average household water bill will go up from £456 a year to an expected £735 a year by 2030. The price hikes are going to hit this year: water bills will increase by 6% above inflation in April.

People cannot afford it. They are already struggling; they are on their last 50p, if they even have that. They cannot cope with this. That is why Oxfordshire Liberal Democrats have started a petition calling on Thames Water to scrap this unfair price hike. What conversations has the Minister had with his departmental colleagues and the water company about the fairness of this hike? Is support in place for people who will simply not be able to afford the increase? We are not just talking about people who are on universal credit anymore. We are talking about people who go to work every day. They are in work, but they are in poverty, and this will just make the situation worse.

Do the Government seriously think that it is acceptable for taxpayers to foot the bill for the historical failings of Thames Water? Well, the Liberal Democrats do not. That does not just go for Thames Water; the whole system needs to be fixed. We need radical action. We need to protect our environment and bring down people’s bills. The Liberal Democrats are calling for England’s water companies to be transformed into public benefit companies. That is a new thing for the UK: it is not a social enterprise, as such, and it would mean a complete shake-up of the boards. Public policy benefits would explicitly be considered in the running of the water companies, putting a stop to the prioritisation of profit over our waterways, without the distraction of renationalisation. We want to see environmental experts and local community groups on the boards to ensure proper scrutiny and transparency. The concept is radical and new, and I would like to know whether the Minister has looked into it seriously because, if not, I would urge him to do so. We are also calling for a ban on water executive bonuses until sewage dumping stops, a sewage tax to fund the clean-up of the most polluted lakes, rivers and coastlines, and, ultimately, an end to sewage dumping altogether.

In our view, the Government have acted far too slowly and limply, as our rivers get dirtier and our water bills get higher. Knowing that it is happening is not enough; it is time for radical improvement. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks about what the Government are going to do about it.

--- Later in debate ---
Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I want to reassure not only the hon. Lady but every Member who has customers of Thames Water that the Government will hold the water company to account through the use of the regulators—the Environment Agency and Ofwat. I will shortly meet again with the new chief executive of Thames Water, which follows a meeting that the Secretary of State and I had with the CEOs of Thames Water and other water companies very recently. It also follows on from a meeting that the previous water Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), had back in November. We want to take all these concerns seriously and deal with surge discharges, supply interruptions and internal sewer flooding, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon.

I know that Thames Water is under no illusions as to the scale of the challenge. It has recently published its revised three-year turnaround plan to address some of the concerns raised today, and while we all understand that it will take time to turn performance around, I want to be clear that I expect to see clear and measurable progress being made by the company as swiftly as possible.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I want to press the Minister on the point I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) a moment ago. The Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay), said something encouraging the other week. He said it was not right that the water companies were marking their own homework in assessing the scale of the problem. Does the Minister agree with that? More importantly, will he give us some details on the testing? There are more than a dozen water company assets around Windermere, many of which are failing, but we only know that they are failing when the water companies actually do the testing. Should it not be the case that the water companies pay for the testing but leave the Environment Agency to actually do it, so that we can have confidence that the data is independent?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I will come on to that point as part of my speech. I also want to clarify that we only have to turn the clock back to 2010 to see that only 7% of storm overflows were monitored. For a Government and a regulator to hold water companies to account, they need 100% monitoring, which we achieved at the end of December last year. That is 100% monitoring of storm overflow discharges compared with only 7% in 2010.

I want to pick up on some of the specific points made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon on bathing water status. I know how important this issue is, having campaigned in my constituency for a bathing water designation on the River Wharfe in Ilkley. The hon. Lady rightly raised the issue of the “poor” classification on her bathing water designation. I know the challenges of that, since my local bathing water designation is still classed as poor. As we both recognise, that is why it is incredibly important to have a specific plan to tackle improving the designations poor, sufficient, or even good, to bring them to an excellent rating.

At Wolvercote, the Environment Agency is currently undertaking a nationally funded joint bathing water investigation, both in Yorkshire and in the Thames region, including enhanced monitoring and DNA sampling. That will help the Environment Agency find the sources of bacterial pollution and develop plans specifically on a local catchment area approach to address them.

Thames Water also has a role to play in fixing the problem. That is why, as part of its business plan from 2025 onwards, it will identify and address additional actions needed to improve the quality of the bathing water site, which the hon. Member referred to. Although those business plans are subject to scrutiny by Ofwat, to ensure value for money for customers, I welcome those positive steps to protect people and the environment.

I want to pick up on some points made about data. We must remember that bathing water quality in England has improved significantly due to robust regulation and strong investment. In 2023, almost 90% of designated bathing waters in England met good or excellent standards. That was up from 76% in 2010, despite stricter standards being introduced in 2015.

To address the point on storm overflows: the frequency and duration of storm overflow discharges in the Thames region is completely unacceptable, though it would be unrealistic to suggest that the issue can be simply turned around overnight. Independent estimates show that eliminating all discharges nationally would cost between £120 billion and £600 billion, increasing water bills between £271 and £817 per annum by 2049.

Our storm overflows discharge reduction plan is the most ambitious plan to address storm overflow discharges in water company history, delivering £60 billion of capital investment by 2050. The Government have also driven water companies to ensure that 100% of storm overflows, of which there are about 15,000, have been monitored. Furthermore, our plan for water, which is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to clean up our water, makes a step change in how we will manage our waters, delivering for customer bill payers and for our environment.

I also want to pick up on supply interruptions, which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon referred to. I know that customers in Oxfordshire and the wider Thames region have experienced multiple supply interruptions, largely as a result of adverse weather, in the past 18 months. I understand how frustrating that can be for customers. Water companies must by law ensure a continuation of water supply throughout an emergency. Plans must cover a range of risks and include the provision of alternative water supplies. Those requirements are set out in the security and emergency measures direction 2022.

I wish to assure hon. Members and the House that, during any incident, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs engages closely with water companies to obtain accurate and timely updates on the scale, impact and response, to ensure incidents are being resolved as swiftly as possible, and that impacted customers—particularly vulnerable customers—have access to alternative sources of water, such as bottled water, when a supply interruption takes place.

I understand how pressing a problem this is for affected customers, particularly in the Thames region. For that reason, this is another issue I will raise directly with the chief executive when I meet him shortly, as we have done in relation to recent supply interruptions in the Reading area.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned storm Henk. Extreme weather can also lead to sewer flooding, such as that experienced during storm Henk in January. I understand how difficult and distressing it can be for the public when sewage gets into their gardens and properties. Indeed, recently I spoke to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris); although her constituency is not in Oxfordshire, she has constituents who are part of the Thames Water region. We specifically talked about Lambourn in her constituency, where again Thames Water’s response to an incident has not been sufficiently robust. I expect the chief executive of Thames Water to update me on what it is doing in Lambourn when it is dealing with surface water flooding.

I want to be very clear that any sewer flooding is unacceptable and that Thames Water has reassured me that it plans to invest £1.12 billion in 250 sewage treatment works between 2025 and 2030, including those in Oxfordshire, to increase capacity to prevent sewer flooding from happening again. Ofwat will also assess internal sewage flooding inside people’s homes as a core performance commitment and where companies fall short of that metric they will be required to return money to customers under Ofwat’s outcome delivery incentives.

The hon. Member mentioned Abingdon reservoir. There is obviously a clear need for the water industry to improve the resilience of water supplies through new water resources infrastructure. Abingdon reservoir is subject to ongoing assessments, which will continue in the future, to develop the design and to understand the impacts of the scheme. Thames Water will need to ensure that any scheme that it builds will not only possess the resilience that we expect within its supply systems but has proper environmental benefits that can be demonstrated to its customers. Of course, any new development of this nature must also provide at least 10% biodiversity net gain, which again must be capable of being demonstrated.

Although the hon. Member did not mention it, I am also aware, from speaking to Members with constituencies that neighbour hers, about Witney sewage treatment works, so I will just use this opportunity, given that time permits, to provide an update on that. I am aware of the discharges from Witney sewage treatment works and the impact they have had on local communities. I share Members’ concerns about that and I want to reassure them that the Government and the regulator will take robust action on pollution incidents.

A criminal investigation into sewage discharges at Witney is currently being conducted by the Environment Agency, regarding significant sewage pollution incidents impacting the Colwell Brook and Emma’s Dyke downstream of Witney sewage treatment works. This was brought to my attention by the Solicitor General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). Although it would be inappropriate for me to comment in any detail, because this is an active investigation, there are significant consequences when water companies pollute the environment. For example, in July 2023, following an Environment Agency prosecution Thames Water was fined £3.3 million for discharging sewage that caused significant environmental impacts.

I also wish to assure the House that the Environment Agency is ensuring that treatment capacity at Witney sewage treatment works is increasing, meaning that the site will be able to treat more sewage before using its storm tanks, which will reduce the risk of pollution in the future. That work is due to be completed by 31 March 2025.

Furthermore, the Government are strengthening regulation. The Environment Agency can now use new powers to impose unlimited penalties, raising the previous cap from £250,000. This change came into effect at the end of last year and it will apply to water companies for a wider range of offences, following the Government’s changes to broaden the scope of the existing civil sanctions regime to remove the previous cap on penalties.

We are also increasing funding for the Environment Agency. Its funding was raised by both Members who have spoken today. We are providing £2.2 million per year specifically for water company enforcement activity, so that robust action is taken against illegal breaches of storm overflow permits. Both hon. Members said that the Environment Agency was not being given enough money, but I can reassure both of them and the House that, as I say, an additional £2.2 million per year is being given specifically to the Environment Agency to carry out enforcement action.

I have tried to go through all the points that have been raised, but I want to be as robust as I can. For the reasons that I have set out, it is therefore critical that all water companies, including Thames Water, clean up their act, behave transparently and take urgent action to improve their performance when they fall short. If they do not do these things, the Government will not hesitate to hold them to account.

Question put and agreed to.

Hedgerows: Legal Protection

Tim Farron Excerpts
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this morning, Ms Elliott. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who made a fantastic speech, and others who have spoken commendably in the debate so far, especially the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby).

There is feverish political speculation at the moment, with all sorts of discussions about demographics, electoral movements, and blocs in the countryside or around the country. There is talk of how people will vote—red wall, blue wall—but we are very much focused on the dry stone wall where we come from. That is a particular Lib Dem demographic.

I am grateful to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who raised an important point. People think about the lakes, the dales and Cumbria and they think of dry stone walls. Those walls are not all in open landscape. Many are historical, many are ancient and many are in the midst of what was once pasture but is now quite mature woodland. There is an awful lot of that around the Kent estuary near where I live, for example. Huge biodiversity benefits come from dry stone walls and they are also incredibly important to our cultural heritage, as has already been said. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that we still have miles and miles of hedgerows in Cumbria, which are of enormous significance.

I have been involved in judging hedge laying competitions at Arnside and Stainton, where I assure you, Ms Elliott, that I was guided by people who actually knew what they were talking about, as well as considering just what seemed nice to me. Also, the Westmorland County Showground regularly has national and international hedge laying competitions, so it is a major part of our culture, as well as being part of the agricultural skillset that it is so important we protect, export and maintain.

There can be no doubt that hedgerows are of enormous significance to our country and our nature. They are teeming with life and are vital. I will focus most of my words on hedgerows in agricultural areas. As the hon. Member for Copeland said, 70% of England is agricultural, so the land on which we farm will be a huge part of protecting, maintaining and expanding our hedgerow network. It is also worth bearing in mind, however, the importance of residential hedgerows in built estates, in people’s gardens, and in public spaces, parkland and so on. We need to make sure that we have planning laws and regulations that support and promote those, and I might come on to that subject if I have time towards the end of my relatively few words.

If we think about the scale and size of Britain’s hedgerows—there are more than half a million miles—they would stretch to the moon and back. They are of great significance, bearing enormous biodiversity. They are an important wildlife habitat in their own right and the most widespread semi-natural habitat in the UK. They support a large diversity of flora and fauna and make a great shelter for animals and flowers. Their berries and nuts are a vital source for what are believed to be 1,500 different species of invertebrates in the UK that have their homes in our hedgerows. I think of the Government’s biodiversity action plan and the 130 species that are closely associated with hedges, including lichens, fungi and reptiles. Many more use those structures for food and shelter, at least during some point of their life cycle. Bank voles, harvest mice and hedgehogs all nest and feed in hedgerows, alongside birds that include blue tits, yellowhammers and whitethroats, while bats use them as what we might call “commuter routes”. We talk about nature corridors—they are so important.

There are many things we can say, and I will say, about the transition to the new ELM schemes. For those who have been able to get into them, there is the prospect of local nature recovery. Many farmers and landowners are involved in the project from Kendal to Penrith, which will potentially provide a continuous corridor, much of which is based upon the extension and maintenance of hedgerows. It will bring huge benefit to our biodiversity, by tackling climate change, and by providing an improved home for nature. Let us be honest, they are important boundary structures and really effective for efficient land use.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome set out so well, the loss of cross-compliance is really key. Like a lot of the current transition, a foreseeable mistake has been made. Alongside all sorts of other legal obligations, until last year every single one of the 85,000 farmers who receive basic payment also had an obligation through cross-compliance to maintain their hedgerows and do other environmental goods. I am not defending the direct payment schemes, but I will push back a little against those who said they were universally awful. They were not without environmental gain, and that was achieved through cross-compliance. I support the transition, but I think it is being done badly.

Under cross-compliance, 85,000 people were obliged to maintain their hedgerows, and 5% of them would have received an inspection from the Rural Payments Agency every year—so farmers knew it was coming. Now, barely 10% of people are in SFI. Of the 1,100 farmers in my constituency, fewer than 100 are in SFI schemes, and a minority of those will be in hedgerow options. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome set out very well, they are laudable and good, but they are also impractical, bureaucratic, and do not replace the money that has been lost. It is good that the options provided through countryside stewardship are there, but they will only be available to a very small minority of farmers, and a very small minority of Britain’s current and potential hedgerows. We are losing a lot to gain a little.

I do praise the Minister when it comes to the development and granting through Natural England of the Kendal to Penrith countryside corridor—that is a really great thing. For every one of those, however, I can name several that got turned down. The Lynster Farmers’ Group in Meathop and Ulpha bid for a scheme to protect their hedgerows from the totally avoidable flooding caused by the failure in managing the River Winster to follow its proper channel out into Morecambe bay. I would really love the Minister to look again at that, to ensure those farmers can protect their wildlife, both flora and fauna, including hedgerows.

The hedgerow options and the approach to hedgerows through the ELM scheme transition is emblematic of lots of other aspects of this transition. While they are laudable and good, they are not remotely capable of replacing a fraction of the income that farmers are losing. I was with farmers in Appleby recently. The least badly affected of them reckoned that through the various ELM schemes he could replace 60% of what he had lost. The average figure for which farmers thought they could replace what they had lost through the transition was less than 10%.

What do those farmers end up doing? Well, they go bust or their mental health ends up in a terrible, terrible state. I am truly frightened for the state of the mental health of many of the farmers in my communities—really frightened. This is not helping at all. The pressure will also lead them to make poorer decisions. If someone sees their income receding, what do they do? What do they have to intensify? They may feel against all their better instincts that they have to rip out hedges in order to maximise short-term value from the land, which I fear is happening. While these are laudable schemes, they are not even remotely attractive enough to draw people into them. They are bureaucratic and do not replace the genuine income that has been foregone, and so people are voting with their feet—like I say, 10% are in SFI. Meanwhile, my upland livestock farmers have lost 41% of their income under the Government in this Parliament.

What are farmers? Principally, they are food producers and stewards of the countryside, and they are proud to do both those things. They do not need beating over the head or to be given huge wads of cash to do things that are instinctive to them. It is really important in all of this that we do not allow people to demonise our farmers, who are doing their best with what they are given—but they are being given far too little.

I have a few words to say against those who may well be “more” culprits—our developers, who will always ask for more lax planning rules to allow them to do whatever they want. I am the opposite of a nimby, but the evidence in the lakes and the dales is that if we are really prescriptive in planning law and say what developers can and cannot do when it comes to affordable homes, zero-carbon homes and protecting and extending nature, they will grumble for a bit, but then realise that that is the only game in town, and they either build or do not build. If the Government were to give to local councils, and not just national parks, the power to be far more prescriptive about protecting and extending hedgerows, local authorities would have the power to do that.

What are the options? We can give planners and local authorities those powers, and we can extend legal protections, as the hon. Member for North Devon rightly said, but let us also think carefully about whether in the short term we need to roll over cross-compliance, so we do not lose all the good that people have done over the past few decades for the sake of a mismatched and botched transition. Ultimately, we are seeing something that is an unintended but totally foreseeable consequence of the transition. The Government can do things now to protect our hedgerows, and I pray that they will.

10.16 am

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott, and to listen to all the contributions this morning. It has occasionally felt like a DEFRA Front-Bench speakers’ reunion, but I have enjoyed all the speeches, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who helpfully contributed to Labour’s internal discussions. I can assure him that we will always be nature-positive in our approaches.

I also listened with great interest to other hon. Members’ speeches, particularly the last one. I can assure the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that whether it is the blue wall, the red wall or a dry stone wall, Labour’s ambitions are boundless now. I listened very carefully to what he was saying about the issues around the environmental land management scheme, and I found myself very much in agreement with a lot of what he said. I also enjoyed the speeches from the hon. Members for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke).

Most of all, I enjoyed the introduction from the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). Before the debate started, I was slightly intrigued because I always wonder what it is that motivates hon. Members to bring a debate to Westminster Hall. I was wondering which of the proverbial five tribes of the Conservative party the hon. Lady sits in. I always thought of her as belonging to the more beleaguered, sensible part of the Conservative party—I am sure that that is where she sits. I was hoping that probably means the Minister has something exciting to tell us at the end of this debate—that she will produce a proverbial rabbit out of the hedgerow, and explain how she is going to deal with what is not at all a good news story for the Government, for the reasons that have been explained.

I thought that, in her normal powerful manner, but gently, the hon. Member for North Devon introduced a considerable range of quite pertinent criticisms of the Government’s record. I will go back and read her speech closely, and hon. Members may find me echoing some of those criticisms in addition to my own.

I welcome the chance for us to discuss a way forward on the agricultural transition that enshrines the necessary protection required for hedgerows, ensuring that they continue to play their vital role in our natural environment. As we have heard, hedgerows are much more than just markers that neatly divide up our countryside and farmlands. They are highways along which wildlife of all shapes and sizes flow, and home to insects that thrive on the pests that are sometimes fond of farmers’ crops. Crucially, they also store carbon and work as a natural means of reducing the risk of flooding.

Experts from the Woodland Trust tell us that two activities are particularly bad for the health and resilience of hedgerows: first, the spreading of agricultural chemicals up to the foot of the hedges; and secondly, poorly timed and over-zealous cutting—already mentioned in the debate—that physically damages the hedges and their ability to play their role as a habitat at crucial times of the year.

We have heard about the cross-compliance rules. I remember the discussions that took place during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020, when some of us talked at length about good agricultural and environmental conditions, the standards of GAECs, and the fact that there were good standards under the old basic payment scheme mechanism. We all have our criticisms of those schemes, but as has already been explained, they did at least produce a structure and a system for 85,000 producers. That scheme ensured that land managers kept a buffer strip within two metres of their hedges and banned the use of pesticides in those spaces. To protect the crucial nesting period, land managers were also prohibited from cutting hedges for six months of the year, between March and August.

None of what we have heard comes as a surprise. We were talking about this during the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 some four or five years ago; the Government knew the cross-compliance rules would come to an end on 1 January this year. I have regularly reminded both the current Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), and his predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), of these points and of the benefits of cross-compliance. Despite knowing the potential consequences, the Government have dithered, delayed and failed to act. Perhaps the first thing that the Minister can do today is explain why we find ourselves in this situation.

The consultation was carried out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year, but the Department has still not responded. We were told the response is to come early in 2024. Well, here we are—early in 2024. Will the Minister tell us when we are going to get that response? Frankly, it is only a response to a consultation. With no cross-compliance rules, protection for hedgerows is now substantially weakened. Does the Minister accept that point? Can she make an assessment of how much damage is likely to be done between now and when new rules are put in place? Because, although I entirely agree with the previous comments and do not expect farmers to be abusing the situation, some can, and I fear some will. What assessment has been made of the damage that will be caused by the Government’s negligence?

We are left with the Hedgerow Regulations 1997, which do offer some protection but only to “important” hedges. Sadly, the definition of “important” is so narrow that it rules out many hedgerows. The soonest we can hope to have greater protection—unless the Minister tells us something in this debate—is summer this year; that is not good enough. If the Government choose to introduce primary legislation to protect hedgerows, as some have suggested, we may have to wait until 2025 before protection is restored.

Of course, it is not just hedgerows. Cross-compliance rules on minimum soil cover, prevention of soil erosion and pesticide-free green cover near watercourses have all fallen by the wayside. History tells us that, without those protections, it is harder for us to meet legally binding targets on carbon and nature. Last week’s report from the environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, shows that the Government are already failing to meet almost all their environmental and nature goals. They should hang their head in shame at that report. We can scarcely afford to make the situation worse. It is interesting that the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned the Stacey review of some years ago; that was another example of things being promised and not delivered. I found myself thinking during her speech that there have been lots of targets—targets are all very worthy, but it is about delivery and action and measuring what is actually going on.

If the decline in species abundance is to be halted, the contribution made by hedgerows will be necessary. They also play a role in meeting the carbon goals that the environmental watchdog warns are in danger of being missed. Not only are they crucial stores of carbon in themselves but, as evidenced in research from the University of Leeds, the soil beneath hedgerows works as a sponge for carbon, capturing an average of 30% more carbon than intensively managed grassland parcels.

Two-metre buffer strips around hedges, which were protected by those cross-compliance rules, are also important to nature restoration. The strips host many threatened species and ensure the resilience of hedgerows. They act as corridors in what can often be inhospitable terrain for invertebrates and mammals. Significantly, buffer zones can also help stop the movement of pesticide and fertiliser away from their intended place of use and reduce run-off into our water system. Given that the Government have once again reneged on promises on neonicotinoids this year, that remains an important issue.

This is a sorry saga. The Government must act swiftly to provide clarity to the sector in the interests of land managers and nature. The first step should be finally to publish the consultation response on the future of hedgerow regulation. It is not good enough that we have yet to see it, over six months after it began. Legislation should also be brought forward at the earliest opportunity to, at a minimum, restore the protection that hedgerows enjoyed under cross-compliance rules. With support from wide across the sector for these measures, including voices such as the NFU and the Wildlife Trust, I urge the Government to move quickly on this issue. Every day without regulation risks more damage being done to these natural marvels.

Rebecca Pow Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rebecca Pow)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair for this fascinating debate, Ms Elliott.

We have our differences, but here we are obviously all true hedgerow lovers, having all got up to get here for the 9.30 am debate on hedgerows. All of us present can be proud of the hedgerows in our area, as well as our stone walls and the other beautiful and iconic features of our landscapes. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate. She is passionate about hedges and has done a great deal of work with the CPRE, whose information I have read; I know that a number of other Members present are also hedgerow champions with the CPRE. Of course, I also thank the former nature Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), for all she has done on hedgerows. She has shared a great deal of knowledge with us this morning.

I grew up on a Somerset farm, and hedgerows are something that was ingrained in me, which is why I have been working very hard in the Department to ensure that we have the full understanding of hedgerows. We have great officials working on this as well; the Department does recognise the importance of this issue.

The farm I grew up on was mixed livestock: we had dairy and arable rotations and so forth. My father, Michael Pow, who very sadly died just over a year ago, was a great planter of hedgerows. Wherever he went out in the Land Rover—I was very often with him, because we were constantly moving cattle from field to field—he would carry bits of baler string, which he would put round trees and hedges to mark them so that the hedge cutter left them and they would not get cut. We now have wonderful standard trees growing out of the hedges on the farm. My father was way ahead of his time in that he cut the hedges only every other year, to leave one side to grow, which is what we are advising farmers to do now, decades on! When I go home to the farm, it is just a burgeoning froth of blossom of hawthorn, as someone mentioned, blackthorn and all the other wonderful blossoms. The National Trust runs a wonderful occasion— I do not know whether it is a day or a week—to recognise blossoms in the hedgerows. They are so valuable to wildlife.

Members really do not have to tell me how important hedgerows are, because I absolutely recognise that. The Government recognise that too. Many colleagues have mentioned the benefits we get from hedges: they provide habitats and wildlife corridors; they are great for holding the soil and stopping water run-off; they are wonderful habitats for our pollinators to shelter and hibernate in; and of course they sequester carbon. Interestingly, hedgerows were not planted for those reasons; started off as boundaries to keep our livestock in, but they have morphed into this wonderful feature that brings so many more benefits. They are so important to our landscape. They have also become important as we adapt to climate change, because they are part of our net zero commitment. They store carbon, and they are really valuable for that.

It is for all those compelling reasons that our environment improvement plan is supporting farmers to create and restore 30,000 miles of hedgerows by 2037, and 45,000 miles by 2050. That will enable all of those multiple benefits to be multiplied even more. We have calculated how much carbon can be sequestered by all those hedges, and we have the figure for 2037. It is interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned that her own Liberal Democrat council has failed its net zero target on hedges. It should probably look to its hedges and to see what it could do to get there. My hon. Friend is right: hedges can make a real difference on that agenda.

I will run through the strong legal protections for hedges that we have in law already. The Hedgerows Regulations 1997 prohibit the removal of most countryside hedgerows, or parts of them, without first seeking approval from the local planning authority. Important hedgerows with wildlife, landscape, historical or archaeological value cannot and must not be removed, and local authorities have powers to act should anybody break the law. Also, all wild birds, their eggs and their nests are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits killing, injuring or taking wild birds or taking or damaging their eggs and nests. Taken together, those legal protections safeguard most countryside hedgerows and farmland birds.

However, as we leave the EU’s common agricultural policy and move to our new and, I would say, better system for paying for environmental benefits, we have considered whether we need additional protections to manage hedgerows in law. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned, we ran a consultation last summer asking stakeholders how best to protect hedgerows through effective, proportionate regulation as we leave behind the EU’s cross-compliance system, with which the Labour party is still very much aligned. The response to that consultation should not be a surprise to anybody here, because it showed how much members of the public and farmers share our love for English hedgerows. We received almost 9,000 responses—a huge amount. It will be published imminently—the shadow Minister asked about that—but the information in it has already been looked at and used to inform the recent rise in SFI payments.

We are analysing all the data. There was overwhelming support from farmers and non-farmers alike for maintaining our legal protections. The support and enthusiasm for good hedgerow management shown in the responses from the farming community—from both individual farmers and the industry—show how much hedgerows are valued.

We have to trust farmers to do the right thing. There have been one or two damning comments today about farmers wanting to rip out hedgerows, spray all over them or plough right up to them, should there be a tiny window in which the protections are slightly different from what they were under the EU system. I live among farmers; that is how I grew up, and my husband was an agricultural auctioneer. We have to trust them. As has been said, they are the custodians of the countryside. It is disingenuous to suggest that the farming community will go out and spray, or plough right up to, hedgerows after they have created these wonderful buffers with burgeoning wildlife.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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The Minister is talking to a straw man. I do not think anybody here has said what she suggests. A number of us have said that if farmers are pushed into a situation where they have no other source of income, they will make decisions that they do not want to, but nobody has said any of the things that she mentioned.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We have to be careful. There is a suggestion that what I said might happen if there is a gap. I certainly got that impression from one or two comments, but that may not be how the hon. Gentleman understood them, and his point is on the record.

We recognise the importance of the legal protections in place to prevent any of the concerns that I outlined. We do not want any of those things to happen. Those concerns come from both stakeholders and farmers. I want to make it very clear that, as a result, we will seek to regulate to maintain hedgerow protections as a matter of priority, when parliamentary time allows. That is the rabbit that I am pulling out of the hat today. I hope that will be welcome news, because I think we all agree that this is a priority. We want to make sure that regulation is fair and proportionate to farmers. That has been very clear in all our consultations. We want to get the support of farmers, and we want them to comply with the law where they have to; but we want to work with them, not against them.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) mentioned that advice is important. Advice is critical, so that farmers know what they have to do. There must be guidance that ensures that they can protect hedgerows, and we should reserve sanctions for the most serious offences. On many occasions when I have been out and about, particularly in farming areas and protected landscapes where designated advisers were working with farmers, I have seen how useful it is for farmers to have someone to talk to. I met an adviser recently in the Kent downs area of outstanding natural beauty—now called a national landscape—who was an ecologist. She said that meeting and chatting with farmers was the best way to encourage them to sign up to the levels and different options in the SFI. It can seem a bit scary, or feel like there is too much paperwork, but we have simplified the whole scheme; we have listened to our farmers on that point.

There was a bit of negativity from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the increased payment levels that we have just given for hedgerows. I thought she might have welcomed that. Although they have all gone up, we need to remember that farmers can apply for lots of different levels. It is not just one sum; they can get a sum for recording the hedgerow, a sum for managing it and so on—there are various amounts that will add up, given all the other things they can apply for in the SFI. The idea is that cumulatively the scheme will be attractive; we really want farmers to understand that and apply.

Storm Henk

Tim Farron Excerpts
Monday 8th January 2024

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for contacting me over the Christmas period to raise his concerns, not only about the farm at Short Ferry. It was good to meet his constituent Henry Ward at the weekend to see the EA asset and the implications of the water flooding his farm. I also saw on that visit how the vegetation in the River Witham and the delphs, which sit alongside it, needs attention. As my right hon. Friend will know, I am minded to look at options including dredging and removing vegetation in EA assets to ensure that we deliver a system that moves water further down the system more efficiently, which better protects our farming community. I have seen the report from the NFU and look forward to working with my right hon. Friend, his Lincolnshire colleagues and the NFU to try to get to some conclusion on that.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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In Cumbria, we sadly know only too well the devastating impact of extreme weather events and flooding, so I and all of us in Cumbria stand in solidarity with those reeling from the impact of Storm Henk.

I want to say something positive about the Minister’s statement and what he has said in replies about farming. The worry that I have, which I think many of us have, is that farmers are still systematically at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to tackling flood risk. Can he tell us—he can do it later if he finds that easier —how many farms have received support for managing flood risk through countryside stewardship schemes? In my area, will he agree to direct the agencies of his Department— the Marine Management Organisation, the Environment Agency and Natural England—to act swiftly to support the Lynster Farmers Group to secure action to tackle flooding that threatens farms, livestock welfare, the Grange golf club and other local businesses by allowing the channel of the River Winster to flow as it should?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail and figures he requires, but I reassure him that the Government are taking our farmers and the impacts on agricultural land incredibly seriously. That is why this weekend we announced that farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land will be able to apply for grants of up to £25,000 through the farming recovery fund. That is a step where we have gone over and above what we have done before, and that is in recognition of the fact that the ground is absolutely saturated on the back of Storm Henk, Storm Babet and the constant rainfall we have had over the winter and autumn period.

Sustainable Farming Initiative

Tim Farron Excerpts
Tuesday 19th December 2023

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of transitioning to the Sustainable Farming Initiative.

It is an ongoing pleasure to continue serving under your guidance this morning, Dame Maria. I welcome hon. Members to their seats and the Minister to his. I start by wishing everyone merry Christmas, in the spirit of the debate we have just had.

The sustainable farming incentive is a cornerstone of the Government’s environmental land management schemes. The hallmark of SFI in particular, and ELMS in general, is that public money should support our farmers for delivering public goods. The principles underlying that transition are supported by farmers across the country, by environmental groups and, for what it is worth, by me. The point of this debate is to issue a plea to the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that they start listening to farmers and acknowledge the damage they are doing to farmers, food production and our environment by the way they are managing the transition from the old scheme to the new.

The Conservative manifesto promised £2.4 billion to English farming, yet in the past year the Government spent only £2.23 billion on various schemes and, crucially, only £1.956 billion of that went into farming. The Government have, therefore, broken their promise to farmers to the tune of £444 million last year and, with the phasing out of the basic payment scheme stepping up, they are set to break their promise to farmers to an even greater degree next year.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Recent figures show a remarkably low uptake of the sustainable farming incentive. Does my hon. Friend agree that it simply does not have enough incentive for farmers to join?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; I will come to that in a little while, because I think that does explain a lot of why that underspend has happened. It is easy to see how it has happened; it is not a mystery. It is down to two things: first, the Conservative Government have been very good at phasing out the old BPS, and secondly, they have been relentlessly incompetent at bringing in the new schemes, including for the reason that my hon. Friend set out.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs figures show that around £460 million has been removed from farmers’ pockets in the form of the BPS phase-out, which eclipses the increase in environmental payments of around £155 million. Much of that has not even gone to farmers. It has instead found its way into the very deep pockets of large landowners, including new entrant corporate landowners, looking to do a bit of greenwashing at the taxpayer’s expense.

In the spring of 2021, the Government promised to spend £275 million on SFI schemes in the 2022-23 financial year. Yet, in reality, excluding the pilots, they spent literally nothing—zero pounds, zero pence. This year, the Government plan to spend just shy of £290 million on SFIs. One question for the Minister is: how much of that money will actually go to farmers in this current financial year?

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I understand clearly what the hon. Gentleman is saying but I would respectfully like to put forward a suggestion. There are examples where the schemes have done good. For instance, there are some wonderful farm shops in my constituency, such as Corries butcher’s, a good scheme set up some years ago, and McKee’s farm shop. For those farmers who can afford additional farm shops, this is a wonderful way to diversify in an effort to boost income and ensure functioning sustainability. Does the hon. Gentleman agree—I think he does—that small financial incentives could be a way to support our local farmers to diversify, and that could be introduced through the sustainable farming incentive? In other words, we can all gain.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I go back to what I said at the beginning. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are clear advantages in the scheme, and we support its principle. The problem is that they are outweighed across the piece by the negatives.

What does the botching of the transition mean for individual farmers? Last week, I met a group of farmers in north Westmorland at Ormside near Appleby. One told me that SFI would replace just 7% or 8% of what he is losing in basic payment. Another explained that if he maximised everything in his mid-tier stewardship scheme and got into all the available SFI options, he would replace only 60% of what he received through BPS. The others in the room looked at him with some envy: he was the least badly affected.

Last month, I met a group of farmers in South Westmorland, in Old Hutton near Kendal. One told me that the loss of farm income meant that he had to increase the size of his flock to make ends meet. He knew that in making that choice he was undoing the good environmental work that he and his family had been doing for years, but he could see no other way to keep afloat. That is a reminder that the Government’s handling of these payments means that they are often delivering precisely the opposite of what they intended.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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One issue that farmers in my constituency have raised is that existing schemes to help the environment are not eligible under the sustainable farm incentive, so farmers are incentivised to rip those schemes out, undoing good work that they have done and damaging the environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that a tweak to the payments to recognise good work that has already been done would be welcome?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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My hon. Friend makes a really good point, and that also happens in my constituency. Accidentally, the Government are acting in a counterproductive way when it comes to the environment.

Others at that meeting in South Westmorland near Kendal told me that they are putting off investing in capital equipment because the loss of BPS and the lack of replacement income means that they do not have the cash flow to invest in a long-overdue new dairy parlour, a covered slurry tank or other things that would increase productivity and improve environmental outcomes. The Minister will say that many grants are available to farmers to help them in that respect, and in some cases they absolutely can, but not if contractors need to be paid up front as DEFRA expects farmers to demonstrate that they have the money in the bank to do that before releasing those grants.

DEFRA’s own figures show that upland livestock farmers have lost 41% of their income during this Parliament, and that lowland livestock farmers have lost 44%. One famer near Keswick told me, tongue in cheek, that he had calculated that the fines he would receive for committing a string of pretty terrible crimes would not amount to what he lost in farm income thanks to this Government.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making a very good point. Does he agree that financially aware farms help make financially secure farms, which build food security for the country?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

Absolutely. If we do not give people stability of income and certainty, how can we expect them to provide the food and the environmental gains that we need?

I challenge the Minister to come up with any industry that has been penalised as badly by the Government over the past four years as our farmers. To be fair, I do not think the Government actually intended to do so much harm to farming and farmers. I do not believe they sat down and decided to break their promise to farmers and make a net cut of more than a sixth in farm spending, but those cuts have happened all the same because of flaws built into the system either by accident or by design, which have led to predictable and ever-increasing sums of money being taken out of farming, while smaller and less predictable amounts have been introduced.

Let me set out some of the flaws, in the hope that the Minister will address them. First, the system has built-in perverse incentives, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) said, which mean that farmers at the forefront of environmental work are penalised. Farmers who are in an existing higher level stewardship or uplands entry level stewardship scheme lose their BPS—by the end of this month, they will have lost between 35% and 50%—yet they cannot fully access SFI. In other words, farmers already doing good environmental work can only lose income from this process. That is especially so in the Lake district, the Cartmel peninsula, the dales and the Eden valley—some of our most treasured and picturesque landscapes. In upland areas, basic payments typically make up 60% of financial support. Farmers in those beautiful places, which are so essential to our heritage, our environment and our tourism economy are stuck. They are already in stewardship schemes, but their BPS is being removed and they cannot meaningfully access SFI.

The Lake district is a world heritage site. If the landscape changes dramatically for the worse in the next few years because of the Government’s failure to understand the impact of their error, that world heritage site status is at risk, and its loss would cause huge damage to our vital hospitality and tourism economy in Cumbria, which serves 20 million visitors a year and sustains 60,000 jobs.

The Government’s failure to allow farmers to stack schemes to deliver more for nature is foolish and bureaucratic, and it means that they were always going to be taking more away from farmers than they could ever give back.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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I am not sure whether things are just different in North Devon, but my farmers seem to be able to stack their schemes. I was asked to come here today by a lovely lady called Debbs Harding, who is part of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, to fully endorse this programme. Yes, there is more to be done—there is always more to be done. However, I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Democrats welcome the schemes and are not just going back to Brexit, which has been their previous position.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

On the point that SFI can add value, the reality is that, with the exception of moorland options, there is no reason for anybody in a stewardship scheme to add to what they currently lose. My colleague from Appleby, who said he can only replace 7% of what he loses from BPS, is typical of many people. There are exceptions, of course, and I could name people who have done well out of it. Yet when we have taken out the best part of half a billion and put in £155 million to replace it, it stands to reason that the average farmer in North Devon and everywhere else is worse off.

I try to give the Government some credit by saying that this is incompetence and not malice. They did not mean to break their promise; they have just botched the transition and broken it by accident. However, if the Minister will not address the flaw that prevents farmers in stewardship schemes from meaningfully accessing SFI, we can only conclude that the betrayal of England’s farmers is not accidental after all, but deliberate. Will he look at the matter urgently, so that we do not lose farmers pushed to the brink due to the Government’s obvious failure?

Another flaw in the Government’s approach to the new scheme is that they keep chopping and changing. The Rural Payments Agency cannot keep up with the constant flux, as the Government reinvent SFI every few months. The platform for delivery is struggling to keep pace. For example, the Government’s latest edict is that everyone who began an SFI application in September must have completed it by 31 December. If they have not completed and submitted it by then, all their details will be wiped and they will have to go back to square one and start again. To add to that, the Government’s insistence on drip-feeding SFI options to farmers means that many have not applied because they are worried that if they do, a better new option may be revealed soon after.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend talks about SFI options. One thing I have picked up from the farmers in mid and east Devon I represent is that they are concerned about how the options are profligate. At the beginning of this year, more than 100 options for both schemes were new or were being reviewed. I am hearing from farmers in my corner of Devon that they want greater simplicity in the SFI.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I hear across Westmorland and beyond. All that puts people off applying for new schemes because under DEFRA’s rules, farmers can only change or upgrade options once a year, on the anniversary of their entry into the scheme. As a result, hundreds of farms in Westmorland are hanging on. They are unwilling to apply for the latest option because they cannot be sure that it will not be superseded a month later, leaving them locked into an inferior scheme.

I mentioned earlier the concerns expressed to me by farmers in Westmorland about capital schemes. That is a typical concern in landscapes with sites of special scientific interest, especially in the lakes and the dales. SFI moorland payments are higher than others, which is welcome, but farmers cannot get into that option without significant capital spending. For instance, farmers —or more likely a group of farmers—who farm on a common might typically need to spend a quarter of a million pounds on peatland restoration, sorting out leaky dams and slowing the flow of rivers and becks before they can qualify. Yet farmers—many of whose incomes in reality amount to less than half the national minimum wage—do not have a quarter of a million pounds sitting in the bank to pay up front for that work.

The Minister will say that those farmers could get the money back through the grant schemes, but if they do not have the money up front to defray the costs, they are effectively barred from entering. What are the answers here? We could start with the Government revising their payment rates. If we value these public goods—biodiversity, access, carbon sequestration, flood prevention, and so on—we should pay for them accordingly. That is why the Liberal Democrats have committed an extra £1 billion in UK agricultural payments to protect our environment and support farmers. Increasing the payment rates for SFI would draw more people in, and increasing payment rates for stewardship schemes would help too. The payment rates for HLS and UELS are £60 per hectare for commons and £50 per hectare for non-commons. Those rates have not been changed since 2010, so will the Minister address that?

The Government could then get rid of the barriers in the application process, such as counterproductive cut-off points that prevent farmers in stewardship schemes from replacing lost BPS income with SFI options. Next, the Government could do a really radical thing and actually decide on a policy and then stick to it. The Government constantly changing their mind is damaging the ability of the RPA and Natural England to deliver these schemes. The Minister might also consider whether three-year SFI agreements are long enough. Should there in addition be 10-year options, to at least give farmers the choice of a longer, more stable scheme? That would give them the security and stability they need.

On capital grants, the Government could ensure that the lack of cash flow—exacerbated by the withdrawal of BPS—does not prevent farmers from securing capital funding. The transition is a stressful and complicated business for farmers, as well as a costly one. Will the Minister invest more in face-to-face, on-farm, trusted advice to support people as they make these significant business changes? Will he ensure that Natural England does not habitually block access to new schemes to those in SSSIs by throwing hurdles in their way—as we saw on Dartmoor—and instead offers a helping hand to lead farmers into those schemes?

I restate that public money for public goods is the right principle to support farming, but the transition to the new scheme is causing hardship across Cumbria and across rural England as a whole. We need to remember that farmers are food producers first and foremost. If we do not understand that, we run the risk of damaging our food security even further. Already, the UK is only 55% self-sufficient in food. The Government’s approach will mean fewer farmers and less food production. Not only does that further undermine our ability to feed ourselves, it also displaces the environmental damage overseas. It racks up food miles and makes us reliant on food sourced from commodity markets, which will impact on and increase food prices for some of the poorest people in the world. There is a clear moral imperative for Britain to back its farmers so that Britain can feed itself.

Farmers are also our best hope in securing environmental gain. Of England’s land, 70% is agricultural. If we push farmers to the brink, who will deliver our environmental policies? Let us be dead clear: pushing farmers into bankruptcy is bad for the environment. The greenest thing the Government can do is to keep farmers farming, yet by botching the transition they are doing the opposite. [Interruption.] I will draw my remarks to a close soon— I apologise.

I can think of farmers who are essentially staring into the abyss. For example, people in their 60s who are tenants or else owners of a family farm. They are the fifth or sixth generation to run that farm. It is a beautiful place, but at times it is bleak, and it is always isolated. Life can be lonely.

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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Order. Will the hon. Member wind up, please?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

I will. I was a bit too generous—I apologise.

That farmer is working 90 hours a week, with no headspace to deal with the flip-flopping and chopping and changing of the new schemes. They see their BPS disappearing, with nothing to fill its place. There they are, on the farm that their great-great-grandparents farmed before them, and all they can see is that they look increasingly like being the one who will lose the family farm. It will all end with them. Can we imagine what that does to someone, to their state of mind, and to their business and personal choices? What a burden we place on the farmers who feed us and care for our landscape and our environment, all because the Government will not face up to the reality that the transition is bleeding a torrent of cash from our farms, while injecting merely a trickle.

My final word is this. A farmer from near Kirkby, Stephen, who works with farmers on common land, said this the other day:

“I spoke with all the graziers over the weekend. Desperate and broken would probably describe the mood. A few years ago, I scanned a customer’s sheep, and six days later he killed himself. His friend and neighbour to this day cannot forgive himself for missing the signs, as did I”.

I am proud of our farmers and of the work they do to feed us, care for our environment, tackle climate change and maintain our breathtaking landscapes. I plead with the Minister to take note and to urgently make changes to SFI and to the whole transition, so that we do not irreparably damage people, businesses and our land, just because we did not listen to our farmers.

Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill

Tim Farron Excerpts
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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I am happy to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), and to agree with many of the things that he said. My party and I are very supportive of the Bill. To ban the live export of animals, in particular cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and other equine beasts, is a really positive step. We hope there will be no opposition to the Bill this evening, but should it come to a vote, we will support its Second Reading. If there is, we will join the Minister in the Aye Lobby.

We are disappointed—and we are not alone in this—by what is not in the Bill, because it was dropped in the last Session; by the fact that the measures previously promised by this Government are now either being dropped altogether or put through the very unreliable route of private Member’s Bills; and by the length of time it has taken to get here. But we cannot avoid the fact that the ban on live exports of animals is a positive move towards easing unnecessary suffering of animals. The journeys that those animals have been forced to make before being slaughtered are often needlessly stressful and distressing and a threat to animal welfare. It is a basic act of decency that today we begin the process of legislating accordingly.

However, as has been mentioned by more than one contributor to the debate so far, we signed trade deals not very long ago with at least one country that is not abiding by this kind of legislation. Australia still permits live export of animals over long distances, including overseas, for the time being, and in a country much larger and much hotter than the one in which we are legislating to regulate. If we are talking about the impact and influence that this country has on animal welfare, why did we not use that sovereignty and that power to ensure that we were not just exporting the animal welfare problems while importing produce to this country?

That deal threatens not just animal welfare globally, but the wellbeing, welfare and incomes of our own farmers, who abide by animal welfare standards often higher than those we legislate for in this country and legislated for previously through the EU, and are a beacon of strong animal welfare performance. For them to be undermined by that trade deal was an outrageous assault on our farming community and a threat to animal welfare. I hope the Government will learn the lessons from that in any future trade deals.

The Secretary of State, who is no longer in his place, was right when he said that the UK has the best animal welfare standards in the world. I think that is accurate. Not only does it feel correct, but I think it is accurate. I am concerned, though, that they are not just accidentally so. One of the reasons they are so is the nature of the farming we have in the United Kingdom: largely small family farms, maybe large in geographical scope but small in terms of the size of the businesses. They are the basis of our farming economy across the United Kingdom.

I would say that getting rid of the common agricultural policy and moving to the environmental land management scheme is one of those rarely sighted beasts, a Brexit benefit—a good thing, if the Government were handling the transition well, but they are not. We see that at least a sixth of the money that the Government promised to English farmers is not being spent and has not been spent in the last financial year, not because the Government have chosen to cut that money, but because they have just not managed to spend it. Farmers are losing vast amounts of their basic payments and are gaining very little in environmental payments to replace them. I talked to a farmer on Friday who reckoned that he would make up about 7% or 8% of what he had lost in basic payment via the new schemes.

What does that do to farming across the country? We lose farmers. If we lose farmers, we lose the ability to do good environmental work on our landscape, we lose our ability to feed ourselves as a country and we increase the chances of moving to ranch-style farming, which tends to have less close animal husbandry and therefore, culturally and necessarily, lower standards of animal welfare. As we pass this legislation, and I hope we are going to start that ball rolling tonight and that we will all agree to it, let us ensure that we are not, through our fiscal actions, undermining animal welfare throughout the country.

It is true that how we treat animals is a sign of what we are as a culture and whether we are decent or whether we are not. It is absolutely right that we are doing what we are doing; while the challenges out there still remain, if we can minimise journeys of animals from where they are reared to slaughter, as my neighbour the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border rightly pointed out, that is of great significance and importance to tackling animal welfare problems.

My fear is that the red tape and the collapse of the workforce in our abattoirs, not just the inability to bring in vets from overseas, but the lack of other members of the slaughterhouse workforce, mean that many small abattoirs are under enormous threat. Four million pounds will not even touch the sides when it comes to protecting small abattoirs in Cumbria, which are the best in the country—they are family firms, they aid animal welfare and they are massively important to our local economy.

This Bill does many good things, but it does nothing to address a series of other compassionate moves that could have been dealt with in one swoop, as the Government originally were planning to do. The RSPCA, which of course has campaigned for this particular ban for 50 years, found that the dropping of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill last year and the omissions in the King’s Speech broke a grand total of 14 pledges on animal welfare. I will just list a handful of them.

The first pledge was on zoo licensing. The original plan was for animal welfare standards in zoos to be enforced more thoroughly, increasing the penalties for zoos that missed those animal welfare standards. That pledge was dropped and there was no sensible reason for that. The second was livestock worrying, which is a serious problem for our communities in Westmorland. It is unbelievably distressing to farmers, their families and everybody else to see the goring of livestock by uncontrolled animals. In the Government’s original plans, the police would have been given additional powers to protect sheep and livestock from dogs, something that was not only an animal welfare issue, but an economic one for the farmers. There was no obvious reason why that would be dropped.

The third pledge was a ban on primates being held as pets, and dropping that ban was a ridiculous nonsense. There was no reason why it should not have been in this Bill or why the original Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill should not have proceeded. That has been omitted. It is bizarre that that was not all in the same legislation. The fourth was puppy smuggling. We know that, as things stand, people can bring five animals per person in a vehicle over the border legally. We know that puppy farming is a problem, and the failure to tackle it through this Bill just seems peculiar. The lack of additional intervention and action to punish the theft and unlawful importation of such animals seems a massive missed opportunity.

By the way, the Government could have adopted my presentation Bill, the Pets (Theft and Importation) Bill, just a few months ago, if they had wanted to go down that route. The Bill was a reheating of their own promise from the 2019 Conservative manifesto. I just wonder why the Minister did not just seek to adopt my Bill and put it into practice. I would obviously have been very happy if they had stolen every single word of it.

To conclude my remarks, I also regret any sense that one party loves animals more than any other. I understand that, and I am sure that the Government Front Bench is filled with animal lovers as much as every other part of this House. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that that was not enough for, maybe not the Minister, but Government business managers to have acquired the backbone to take on their own Back Benchers when they threatened to be troublesome over a more comprehensive version of this Bill, the one that was promised in the Conservative manifesto and that has now not been delivered.

The omissions from this Bill are a source of shame and anger for many of my constituents in Westmorland, but what remains in the Bill is good, so it would be foolish to oppose it, and we will support its Second Reading.

Rural Communities: Government Support

Tim Farron Excerpts
Tuesday 28th November 2023

(3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
- Hansard - -

It is an honour to serve under your guidance once again, Sir Charles. It is a real privilege to follow everybody in this debate, but especially my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke), who succeeded in securing this debate and made an outstanding speech at the beginning.

I want to cover many issues we have already talked about, and I will start with farming. Farming is crucial to feeding our country, protecting and restoring our environment, tackling climate change, promoting biodiversity and underpinning the landscape that our tourism economy depends on, but it has been badly let down. Farmers across my community feel angry with this Government for many reasons—including the trade deals with New Zealand and Australia that threw them under the bus—but specifically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned, the botched transition from the old scheme to the new scheme.

We believe in environmental land management schemes, and we think the project is one worth supporting. However, the Government promised £2.4 billion in their manifesto for farming in England, and the latest figures for 2022-23 show £1.97 billion for agriculture in England. Environmental schemes have increased in their expenditure to farmers by £145 million a year—great—but basic payments have fallen by £490 million. We see upland livestock farm incomes down by 44% and lowland livestock farm incomes down by 41%.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. If the Government find it so difficult to put money into farming in the way my hon. Friend describes, could they not perhaps give a bit more attention to ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their product at the farm gate? The Groceries Code Adjudicator has not achieved what we wanted it to, but surely somebody, at some point, has got to address the fact that that market is failing, and it fails to the disadvantage of our farmers and rural communities.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point; he is absolutely right. The Groceries Code Adjudicator has the capacity to potentially make a big difference for farmers and growers—producers of all kinds. But the reality is that it does not have the sanctions and remit. It is not allowed to take third-party referrals from the likes of us or the NFU on behalf of farmers who are being stitched up by processors or retailers. It is absolutely right that the Government support farming, but the market should be fixed so it does not exploit our farmers either.

We already have a situation where we are only 58% self-sufficient in farming in this country. We are never going to deliver the environmental goods we need if we do not have those expert hands on the land delivering those environmental policies. Our landscapes are at risk of changing radically, dramatically and negatively to undermine—for example—the £3.5 billion-a-year tourism economy of the English Lake district.

Moving on to broadband, Project Gigabit is a good idea, but there will be many people who miss out. Thousands of homes in my part of Cumbria are outside the scope, or in deferred scope, of Project Gigabit. B4RN—the Minister may be aware of it—or Broadband for the Rural North is an excellent local community interest company. It could absolutely connect all of those homes in—I am going to mention them now—parts of Sedbergh, Kaber, Murton, Long Marton, Winton, Warcop, Ormside, Hilton, Hartley and Bleatarn.

I mention those places because, if the broadband voucher system were still available, they could be connected now through B4RN, if it was not for the fact that Project Gigabit is trying to only ride one horse, and is not prepared to accept that not every issue has to be dealt with in the same way—one size does not fit all. I ask the Minister to look specifically at those communities and consider restoring the vouchers to them so that they can be connected well and connected now.

I want to briefly move on to buses. The right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) rightly points out the importance and value of the £2 bus fare, which I think has increased footfall or “busfall” by about 10%—it certainly has in my community. The £2 bus fare does a fat load of good if there is no bus. I want this Government to give local authorities like mine the power to run their own bus companies and the funding to ensure that they work. Buses often do not make a profit, but they are the oil that ensures that the economy works in communities to keep people connected and to ensure that people can get to work and school, or make use of leisure facilities. Back our buses.

Keir Mather Portrait Keir Mather
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the hon. Gentleman gives way, he will squeeze the time available to the mover of the debate to wind up.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

In which case, I really apologise—I will not give way. I apologise, Sir Charles. I do not want to be ungenerous to the mover especially.

I will finish on health, and I want to talk about cancer in particular. The reality in a community like mine is that, throughout south Cumbria, there are around 700 people having to travel each year for radiotherapy treatment to their nearest radiotherapy centre—the Rosemere Cancer Centre in Preston in Lancashire, which is excellent. That is a two, three or four hour round trip for those 700 people. Swindon has recently been allocated a satellite unit on the basis of 600 patients who would use that centre. My call is for a satellite radiotherapy centre to be placed at the Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal to serve south Cumbria and to ensure that those people receive the treatment they need.

The latest figures tell us that 38% of people in south Cumbria diagnosed with cancer wait more than two months for their first intervention, and 54% of those in places in north Cumbria, such as Appleby, Kirkby Stephen and Shap, have to wait more than two months for their first intervention. We know that, for every four weeks of delay in cancer treatment, one has 10% less chance of surviving. I believe that people in rural communities have as much right to have a life ahead of them than those who live elsewhere, yet we have a funding situation that does not treat them as such. I will finish there, Sir Charles, and thank you for overseeing this debate. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome.

Charles Walker Portrait Sir Charles Walker (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call the spokesman for the SNP, who has five minutes.

Storm Babet: Flooding

Tim Farron Excerpts
Monday 23rd October 2023

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
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Of course it is critical that warnings go out appropriately at the right time, and that was why this incident started to be flagged the previous weekend and why the national flood response centre was set up. There is a comprehensive Environment Agency flood warning service and I advise people to sign up to it, as well as checking whether they are in an area that might be at risk of flooding. One of the issues is awareness. The EA runs a lot of comms programmes on this, but if there is more that should be done, I will look at that in the review.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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When Storm Arwen hit Cumbria two years ago, many of our villages and other communities lost electrical power for several days due to damaged power cables. I know that that has happened to many communities over the last few days. What progress have the Government made since 2021 to make Britain’s power infrastructure more resilient—for example, by creating a national bank of mobile generators to ensure that communities are not left cold, dark and vulnerable for days on end? Have the people hit by Storm Babet benefited from lessons learned from Storm Arwen, or are we no further forward?

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would like to assure the hon. Gentleman that DEFRA has been working closely with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which has a strategy for exactly this issue, because it is critical that power outages are considered when emergencies such as this take place. Effective action was taken over the Rolls-Royce plants in the Derbyshire area; that was a very effective alignment with the Energy Department. Just as an aside, we work closely with the water industry on preparedness, should there be electricity outages, some of which might be linked to flooding. In fact, there was another incident near Derby and it had a clear management plan.

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals)

Tim Farron Excerpts
Wednesday 21st June 2023

(8 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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In their manifesto, three and a half years ago, the Government promised a single Bill that would crack down on puppy smuggling, ban live exports, protect sheep and other livestock from dangerous dogs, and ban the keeping of primates as pets—a Bill that I think pretty much everyone in this place would have been in favour of and voted for. The Government seem to have time on their hands; we will probably finish at about 6.30 pm today, and we stopped at 4.30 pm yesterday, so it is no excuse to say that the agenda is packed. Parliamentary time is clearly available, so there is no excuse for the Conservatives having failed to pass the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill that they promised in their manifesto three and half years ago, in the general election of 2019. We are told that all will be well—that the Bill will be broken up into bits and delivered over the next year. We will see.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Nearly 200 constituents have written to me about the Bill. They want it to happen, and are so worried that it will not. The plan is for the provisions to be put into private Members’ Bills, but given that Members, not the Government, decide what is in private Members’ Bill, and that there is no clear plan for how the measures will be apportioned to Members, I am not filled with confidence that this will get done before the next general election. Does my hon. Friend agree?

--- Later in debate ---
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
- Hansard - -

I do not know when the next general election will be; most of us have no more than a bit of a clue about that. My hon. Friend makes a really good point: there is an absence of leadership from the Government. They have declared what they want to do, and most of us agree with it, yet they are delaying the process, for reasons that have been set out, though they all seem pretty weak. The Government are, at best, dragging out a process that should have been completed by now. At worst, this is in effect a betrayal of their promises to the electorate to care for our animals in a practical way. However, even before the Government begin that weakened and watered-down process, there has to be yet another month of consultation—pointless consultation, I would argue. A cynical person would say that that has the benefit to the Government of kicking the issue into the long grass of the summer recess. They might hope that after that recess, people will have stopped caring, but we will not have stopped caring.

All this dither and delay is transparently not because Government Members are all monsters who hate animals—that is clearly not the case. It is because the Government are scared of unhelpful amendments from their own Back Benchers. That is in keeping with what was demonstrated earlier this week by the mass abstentions on Monday night. Rather than challenging bad behaviour or standing up for what is right, we have a Government who habitually bravely run away. As Lord Lamont said in this place of a previous failing Conservative Government, they are a Government who are in office, but clearly not in power. That weakness is not just embarrassing for the Government, but costly: it costs animals the protection they need, or at least delays those protections, and it costs our country the reputation it deserves. As such, I support the Opposition’s motion, as I hope they will support my private Member’s Bill on pet theft and importation, tabled on 6 June. By the way, if the Government wished, they could give that Bill its Second Reading next week. I am not precious: it is all theirs if they want to take it off me.

The Government’s own Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill matters, because how we treat animals and how we allow animals to be treated marks out what kind of people we are and what kind of country we are. We are a nation of animal lovers, not just in theory but in practice, so we cry out for a Government who will act in accordance with those values in practice. Liberal Democrats have a track record of animal rights advocacy, including improving standards of animal welfare in agriculture, ensuring the protection of funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and ending the practice of housing chickens in battery cages while we were in the coalition Government. That matters because, like humans, animals experience suffering, pain and fear, so it is crucial that we change the law to better protect animals from harm.

Of particular interest to our communities in Westmorland and Lonsdale is that the Government’s Bill would have extended the cover of law on livestock worrying to include deer, llamas and other animals, and would also have given police more powers to investigate and prosecute the worrying of sheep and other livestock. NFU Mutual estimates that livestock worrying costs farmers £1 million a year, and the word “worrying” does not conjure up the reality of what that practice actually means and what people in our communities understand that it means. For instance, sheep worrying by dogs means ewes miscarrying lambs, lambs being separated from their mothers, and horrific incidents of goring causing unspeakable pain and suffering.

Just as the Government’s weakness in this case is sadly characteristic, so is their willingness to put political considerations ahead of animal welfare. It is not that they do not care about animal welfare—they just do not care as much as they care about the politics. The Australia and New Zealand trade deals are a case in point. Those deals were agreed despite farmers and animal welfare charities protesting the fact that they gave an advantage to those who practise lower animal welfare standards over British farmers who practise higher standards. The Government’s desperation for deals at any price for political reasons came at the cost of British farmers and animal welfare. Here we see a pattern: this delay, or this betrayal, is sadly characteristic. That might be hard for Government Members—many of whom, of course, care about animal welfare—to hear, so I challenge and invite them to prove me wrong by backing my private Member’s Bill and supporting today’s motion unamended.

Agricultural Tenancies

Tim Farron Excerpts
Wednesday 24th May 2023

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for their work. We want to avoid any such perverse incentives. We do not want to motivate landlords to take land from tenants for the purpose of, for instance, rewilding, or to remove them from the sector for any reason. We want to encourage a positive working relationship.

There are, of course, some challenges. If, for example, a tenant applies for a grant under our new slurry scheme to introduce physical structures that will last well beyond the length of the tenancy, the landlord will need to have some engagement in the process and to support that tenant. We want to open up these grants to tenants as well as owner-occupiers, so that tenant farmers can invest in their productivity as well as their sustainability and their ability to make a profit.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
- Hansard - -

I welcome and broadly agree with the review, and pay tribute to Baroness Rock and her team for their hard work. I am grateful for advance sight of the Minister’s statement, which also included much encouraging information. However, the Government have dragged their feet in responding to the review, and many of the policies that will affect tenant farmers have already been set in train, which is one reason why a mere 27 of the more than 1,000 farms in my constituency, roughly half of which will be tenanted, have taken part in the SFI so far.

I think the Government should stand rebuked by two particular elements in the review, and I should like them to look at those again. First, does the review not remind them to ensure that landscape recovery includes tenant farmers, and that the landscape cannot be gobbled up by water companies and large estates, which is what is beginning to happen? Secondly, given that many tenant farmers in Cumbria and elsewhere are upland farmers, does the Minister recognise that the intention of funding environmental schemes via the system of income forgone discriminates against the uplands and will force many hard-working tenant farmers out of the industry altogether, to the detriment of our environment and of food production?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Environmental Land Management Scheme: Funding for Upland Areas

Tim Farron Excerpts
Wednesday 3rd May 2023

(9 months, 4 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
- Hansard - -

I beg to move,

That this House has considered environmental land management scheme funding for upland areas.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and great to see the Minister in his place to respond to what I am going to say.

Our uplands are precious beyond measure. They are on the frontline in the fight to restore nature and to tackle climate change. They provide us with water for drinking and with the opportunity to protect population centres from devastating flooding. They underpin our tourism economy and are home to our most stunning historic landscapes. They provide food and they enable the flourishing of communities that are as much a part of our heritage as the landscapes that they care for.

I support the transition to the environmental land management scheme. The principle of public money for public goods makes sense and is, in theory, a great improvement on the area-based payments of the common agricultural policy. I also welcome a move to a more sustainable payments scheme that supports environmental benefits alongside ensuring food security. In practice, however, the Government are sadly putting our uplands in peril, and they are doing so needlessly.

Farmers across the country are being put at risk by a failure to listen, but in the uplands that failure is worst of all and threatens to be catastrophic. In this debate, I aim to speak for upland communities in Westmorland, but also for communities elsewhere. While preparing for the debate, I visited many farms and listened to dozens of farmers, and my hope is that the Minister will acknowledge the Government’s failings and commit himself to putting them right.

The transition from the old farm payments scheme leaves upland farmers especially exposed as they typically rely on the basic payment for more than 50% of their income. As the basic payment scheme is phased out—every farm will have lost at least 35% of its BPS this year—upland farms will need alternative sources of funding to fill the gap. Those sources of alternative funding are, however, not forthcoming, and the consequences will be devastating.

It is my honour to represent more than 1,000 farms in Westmorland and Lonsdale, but the last time I checked fewer than 30 had registered for the new sustainable farming incentive. Those farms have lost a huge chunk of their BPS, and most of them so far have nothing to replace it. That is the Government’s fault. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rules dictate that farmers who are not already in the countryside stewardship or higher level stewardship schemes cannot maximise SFI benefits because the schemes do not fit together seamlessly. This means there is a guarantee that almost all upland farms will not be able to replace their lost income and that their financial viability will decline steeply.

If farmers are in a stewardship scheme and also received the basic payment, they can expect to get no more from their stewardship scheme. Meanwhile, they lose their basic payment. Therefore, in the transition, farmers can only lose income. That is the case for many farmers, including lowland farmers, but especially those who farm in the uplands. Why can we not permit those in stewardship schemes to provide additional environmental value by applying for an SFI that fits with stewardship?

The new schemes seem to have been written deliberately to disadvantage upland areas, in particular because Ministers chose to stick with income foregone plus costs as the principle underlying payments for SFI and stewardship schemes. That caps, or limits, income for delivering for nature, climate and water at the amount a farmer could have earned from beef and sheep in the uplands, which is an awful lot less than the famer could earn elsewhere. The lowland rate is £151 per hectare, but the upland rate is only £98 per hectare.

The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is on the record saying that DEFRA must depart from

“the outdated income foregone methodology”

for payment rates. I wonder why DEFRA has chosen to ignore its former Secretary of State. Why, instead, do the Government not pay farmers a fair rate for the immense value of the environmental work they do, rather than giving them the equivalent of the poorly paid work they have given up? If we valued nature and valued farmers, that is what we would do. Why is there not equality of opportunity? Why are we not allowing all farmers who want to deliver for nature to do so? Why are upland farmers effectively being locked out?

The failure to pay upland farmers a fair rate is a major reason why most have been put off even applying. Another reason is the Government’s choice to reveal the SFI options in a drip, drip, drip fashion over time. Many farmers I have spoken to in the past few weeks, including two in the Eden valley, tell me that they have not applied for two reasons: first, the payment rates are pathetic and it is just not worth their while applying; and secondly, they are waiting to see whether something better comes along from future options that the Government may or may not reveal. All the while, those famers and others are seeing their incomes eroded by the phasing out of BPS and have no alternative sources of funding to replace it.

In particular, we desperately need more detail on the new moorland option. I am glad there is one, but can the Minister tell us when it will start, what it will be worth and when farmers will have the full details of what it will entail? Take-up of the option is slow, yet as the chair of the Uplands Alliance, Professor Julia Aglionby of the University of Cumbria, points out, DEFRA has refused to fund a digital app that would have enabled effective and efficient moorland surveys. Relatively small decisions such as that make a big negative difference, and reveal the Government’s apparent disinterest in the plight of our uplands. It will be a disincentive for our farmers to deliver more for nature and the climate.

The lack of clarity and the limited nature of the options available are particularly damaging for tenant farmers. How are they to make long-term decisions about their businesses when the Government are dribbling out incomplete information now and again and leaving them effectively in limbo? Meanwhile, as Baroness Rock revealed in her very welcome review of tenant farming, many tenants are being forced out so that their landlords can access ELM schemes for themselves.

I sincerely hope that it was not the Government’s intention to advantage wealthy absentee landlords at the expense of hard-working farmers, but whatever their motives, that is nevertheless happening. DEFRA has repeatedly said that the transition aims to stop big payments going to large landowners, yet we see asset-rich landowners embarking on 21st-century clearances, and scooping up big payments in the process. We are already seeing new money pouring into the uplands and being invested in land for its hope value—for carbon credits or offsetting. It is transparent greenwashing in exchange for wads of taxpayers’ money, while farming families are turfed out and cleared from the land for which they have cared for generations.

Many upland farms have the potential to get into the countryside stewardship higher tier, yet reports from throughout the country show that few of those who might qualify even begin the application journey, mostly because Natural England has had its staffing so badly cut that there is no one to help those farms or groups of farms to get through the process. Just the other week, farmers near Ullswater put it to me that the Government are missing out on a vast amount of nature restoration, water quality improvement, and carbon reduction and sequestration, all because of penny pinching in relation to Natural England and farms being locked out of the schemes that were supposedly designed for them.

Many farms have benefited from the Government’s shift towards more grant funding, and that is a good thing, but even then there is a failure to understand how farms really operate. Capital grants work on the basis of reclaiming outlay that farms have already made, but upland farmers’ cash flow is disappearing with BPS. The grants are often welcome, but they ignore the reality that farms need regular, reliable revenue funding for the good work that they do, not one-off chunks that they have already had to spend up front. The very fact that DEFRA is paying BPS in instalments—which is also welcome, by the way—is a clear admission that it realises that cash flow is vital and that the loss of BPS without replacement will cause huge damage to businesses in the uplands and elsewhere.

This litany of mistakes, incompetence, unfairness, penny pinching and broken promises is putting our vital uplands in a treacherous position. It is surely obvious that the Government will not spend the promised £2.4 billion on farm support. With so few farms entering the new schemes, while every farm is losing BPS, it is surely impossible for the Government to have kept that promise.

In the uplands, where BPS makes up such a large proportion of farm incomes, the betrayal is felt even more sharply. Will Cockbain, who farms near Keswick and is the chair of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association, tells me that he has written to the Prime Minister four times setting out very clearly that the BPS cuts for upland farms, even if they are in countryside stewardship schemes, means a loss in farm incomes of more than 50% in direct support. He pointed out that tinkering with countryside stewardship does not come close to compensating for the loss of BPS. Will the Minister clarify whether his Department has done an economic assessment of the impact of the transition from CAP to ELMS on upland farms? If such an assessment has been done, will he please commit today to publishing it? If one has not been done, why not? Will the Minister now commit to doing one?

The forecasts of the farm business income survey show that, in the most recent financial year, upland farms will have seen a 51% drop compared with average farm incomes over the previous three years. The average income for an upland farm is now £16,300. Farm business incomes for upland farms for 2028-29—the end of this process—are not predicted to improve beyond £16,500, even with the full introduction of ELMS. That equates to an average hourly rate for farmers of £4.20, which is much less than half the minimum wage. This catastrophic fall in incomes is a direct result of Government policy and choices, or at least of the incompetent application of those policies.

The consequences are stark. We will see farms fail. People whose families have farmed in our uplands for generations will find themselves in the crushing position of being the one who lost the family farm. We do not think enough about the mental health impact on farmers and their families of the uncertainty caused by this botching of the transition. What does it mean for our upland communities when families that have formed the backbone of village life for centuries get uprooted because the farm has failed because of the Government’s failures? What does it mean in children lost from our schools, jobs lost, lost demand in the economy and the loss of homes and human dignity?

We do not think enough about the damage to our environment caused as farms cease to farm and farmers decide that they cannot afford to farm with care for the environment. Without farmers, we will lose the essential partners we need to put environmental policies into action. Even the best environmental plans in the world are useless pieces of paper in a drawer without the expert hands of farmers to put them into practice.

Many upland farmers will go broke and many more will go backwards. Having spent time on farms in the lakes, dales and elsewhere in the last few weeks, I am struck by how many have looked at their falling incomes and the fact that the new ELM schemes are either impossible for them to enter or too unattractive or restrictive, and made the reluctant choice that the only thing they can do to make ends meet is to farm more intensively and get more livestock, and in doing so undo the good environmental work that they and their families have done for decades. It breaks their hearts, but it seems to them to be the only alternative to losing the farm. How stupid and irresponsible to design a scheme meant to protect and enhance our environment, but to deliver it so badly that it does the exact opposite.

Might I suggest that the Government could make one of two choices? First, they could pause the phase-out of BPS to give farmers breathing space to get into the new ELM schemes—and, indeed, to give the Government the breathing space to fix their mistakes and put them right. Or they could choose to turbocharge the introduction of ELMS and demonstrate a commitment to supporting upland farmers to address the nature and climate crises. Throughout covid, we learned that with political will Departments can, at great pace, introduce new schemes to address crises. I suggest that this is a crisis on multiple levels.

There are only 6,500 upland farms. It cannot be beyond the wit of DEFRA to bring in an effective scheme for early next year, 2024, that enables upland businesses to thrive, delivering for nature and climate and underpinning a tourism economy that in Cumbria alone is worth £3.5 billion every year. Surely now is the time to admit that if we want to ensure that we do not devastate our environment and our capacity for food production, £2.4 billion is a wholly inadequate sum of money. If we care about biodiversity, reducing greenhouse emissions, the production of good-quality British food, protecting water quality and maintaining our landscapes, we must surely add at least another £1 billion to the pot. Central to the Government’s failure is that they are trying to do a range of incredibly important things on the cheap.

It is our farmers in Longsleddale, Kentmere and other upland valleys who protect thousands of homes in Kendal, Staveley and Burneside from flooding. It is our upland farmers in the lakes who maintain water quality for the whole of the north-west of England. It is our upland farmers who produce food, and maintain, shape and protect our historic landscape—so much so that UNESCO awarded world heritage site status to the Lake district largely on the basis of how the national park is farmed. We remember that Liverpool recently lost its world heritage site status. That is a warning that if we fail to protect this awesome natural environment in the lakes, we could lose that status, too, causing damage to a tourism economy that employs 60,000 people across Cumbria.

Our upland farmers are at the forefront of the fight against climate change, as they restore peatland and woodland, including imaginatively managed woodland pasture. They are crucial to nature recovery and biodiversity: 53% of England’s sites of special scientific interest are in the uplands. All that is at risk because the Government are not listening to farmers, are failing to understand the impact of their actions, and lack the humility to accept where they have made grave mistakes.

We will not stand by while this Government, by accident or design, cause avoidable harm to our uplands and the people who are their faithful stewards. I am proud to represent and fight for such a breathtakingly beautiful and important part of our country. But I am prouder still to represent the people—the families at the heart of those communities—who take care of that landscape. I hope that I have done them justice today, and that the Minister will acknowledge the peril facing our uplands and act before it is too late.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair)
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The debate can last until 11.30 am.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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Thank you for that guidance, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for calling this important debate.

Farming is the lifeblood of our communities. I know at first hand the invaluable work that farmers do. They keep food on our tables, nurture our natural environment, improve our biodiversity, and protect the environment for future generations. It is only right that we take time to consider how best we can support our farmers —our custodians of the countryside—to run sustainable, productive and profitable businesses, and to ensure that there is an offer for all types of farms with our environmental land management schemes.

We recently announced detailed plans for the nation’s farming sector. Our environmental land management schemes have something to offer for every type of farmer, and we plan to introduce further offers and are updating others so that they can be more focused on producing the great food that we consume, and the environmental gains and climate outcomes that we want to deliver.

Upland farmers can take advantage of 130 actions through a variety of schemes. That is more than 60% of the total actions available to all farmers. The level of coverage is similar for farmers grazing livestock on the lowlands, arable farmers, and those growing horticultural and multiannual crops. Those actions are designed to work alongside farming practices, and to protect and enhance our most environmentally important sites.

In order to ensure that upland farmers can take advantage of what our schemes have to offer, we are making it easier for farmers to apply for paid actions. This year we have improved the application process, increased the rates and broadened the scope of countryside stewardship. That includes allowing agreement holders of higher level stewardship to take up countryside stewardship revenue agreements alongside their HLS. That will benefit farmers who already have an HLS agreement but want to increase their income from schemes by doing more on their land. We have introduced a new, fully improved online service for countryside stewardship mid-tier applications. That service is closer to the application process used for the sustainable farming incentive, which we know farmers find straightforward to use.

In the uplands, a number of farms are on common land, and we have designed the sustainable farming incentive so that it works for those farmers. Eligible single entities can apply for an agreement on common land, and they will receive an additional payment to help with the cost of administering that agreement.

There is more to our offer than countryside stewardship and the SFI. Upland farms can also apply to the landscape recovery scheme, which funds large-scale projects to produce environmental and climate benefits through bespoke, long-term agreements. The uplands were well represented overall in round 1; a majority of landscape recovery projects involved groups of land managers and farmers, including tenants, working together to deliver a range of environmental benefits across farmland and rural landscapes. Applications for round 2 open this year, and projects in upland areas are likely to contribute to the focal areas for that round.

For farmers in areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks, our farming in protected landscapes programme provides funding for one-off projects. We have funded more than 2,400 fantastic projects, and earlier this year we decided to extend the programme for a further year; it will now run until March 2025. Farmers who have livestock can also get funding for a vet, or a team chosen by a vet, to visit their farm and carry out health and welfare reviews for eligible livestock. That is part of the SFI offer.

Additionally, we are offering grants to support animal health and welfare. The first round is open, and grants will go towards the cost of a list of items designed to improve the health and welfare of livestock. We are also funding free business advice for farmers through the resilience fund. More than 10,000 farmers have taken up the offer so far. I encourage all upland farmers to take advantage of that free service and find out what might work for them and their businesses.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said that he welcomed ELMS and that he wanted to see the schemes go forward. I therefore find it strange that his party chose to vote against our new environmental schemes only a few weeks ago. His party voted to retain the old EU common agricultural policy, which to my mind was a vote against food security.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I am happy to clarify.

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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Let me just finish the point. In my head, that was a vote against food security, given that the old area-based payments were specifically de-linked from food production in 2005 and have inhibited productivity improvements. I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to clarify why he chose to stick with the old common agricultural policy.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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At the moment, the BPS is set to be reduced by 35% this year. As I set out in my speech, one of the options, which would get farmers out of the mess that the Government have put them in, is for the Government not to make that cut this year, given that they clearly have not spent all that money on the environmental schemes, as they promised. That would be a way of keeping farmers farming, which is the best thing for food production and the environment. That money could have kept many people focused on environmental delivery, rather than either moving out of business altogether or choosing to intensify their farming. Both those things are happening on the Minister’s watch.

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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So the motion put forward by the Liberal Democrats was misworded, because its effect would have been to take us right back to the beginning of the process. It would have scrapped countryside stewardship and the ELM schemes. It was basically a vote against river restoration, because it would have ended all the funding to our environmental schemes. That includes 32,000 countryside stewardship schemes already in existence and signed up to by farmers, which would have disappeared if the motion had passed. It feels like a gimmick. We are in the business of delivery—of trying to help farmers move forward and improve our environmental output and biodiversity. The hon. Gentleman wants to play games, and I think that is really disappointing.

Let us look at what we have actually done. We have set out all the details of our farming schemes, which are designed to make farms profitable, resilient and sustainable food producers while protecting nature and enhancing the environment; we have announced an additional £10 million of support through the water management grant to fund on-farm reservoirs and better irrigation equipment; we made 45,000 visas available for seasonal workers in 2023 to increase productivity in horticulture; we launched the £12.5 million fund for robotics and automation to help with innovation in agriculture; we announced plans to regulate pig contracts to ensure fairness in the pig supply chain; we doubled the money for slurry infrastructure for farmers to £34 million through the slurry infrastructure grant; we have registered New Forest pannage ham under the geographical indication scheme; we have increased payment rates for farmers under countryside stewardship and the sustainable farming incentive; and we passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023, unlocking key technologies to improve UK agriculture.

That is a fantastic record of support for our farmers, but it is not the end of the process. We are very keen to engage with our farming communities and our farmers to support them. We will continue to listen to those farmers, engage with them and understand the challenges that they face. We will constantly review the process, and we will work with farmers to ensure that they continue to be profitable as well as to improve our environment and biodiversity.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I asked a number of questions and I would be grateful if the Minister would answer them all, although he may not have to time do so verbally. One question I am really keen that he answers is whether his Department conducted an economic impact assessment on the transition from CAP to ELMS for upland farmers. Did that assessment take place?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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We have consistently and constantly engaged with farmers through the development of the SFI. There have been a number of farmers on working groups, working directly with DEFRA to design the schemes to ensure that they work for farmers in a practical way. That is an ongoing process. Instead of saying, “At this moment in time, this is our assessment of this brilliant project,” we consistently and constantly engage with farmers in the real world to understand the challenges they face, to improve the schemes, to listen to their views and to support them.

We have had an interesting debate. We stand ready to help and support farmers on the uplands, the lowlands and the arable fields of the east of England wherever we can to continue to produce great food and look after our environment.

Question put and agreed to.