Taking the bull by the horns? progress of the UK Agriculture Bill

Since Mr. Gove outlined his vision for a ‘UK Agriculture Policy’ in January at the Oxford Farming Conference, the government has produced its Agriculture Bill. Parliamentary consideration of the Agriculture Bill moved to Committee stage following the second reading on 10 October.

The Committee has completed 14 sessions and received 77 pieces of written evidence. It was expected to report back to the House of Commons by 20 November, but there is, as yet, no sign of this promised report.

Meanwhile mainstream press and commentary on the progress of the Committee’s deliberations has been virtually nil, so it is difficult to summarise the key issues.

However, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) has also been scrutinising the Bill, in parallel with the Committee stage of the Bill (rather than prior to this stage as is conventional) and has produced its scrutiny report.

EFRA was clearly miffed (‘deeply disappointed’) about the break with parliamentary traditions.

Furthermore, EFRA is also concerned about the extent to which the Bill delegates governance of the agricultural, food and environmental affairs to the Secretary of State through statutory instruments, without convincing justification, notwithstanding the Bill’s ‘enabling’ function.

EFRA is demanding that a full timetable of associated statutory instruments be provided, and that there should be an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of these instruments (more ‘meaningful votes’?). Clearly, there are major details about what ‘taking back control’ actually means still to be worked out.

EFRA’s report highlights what may be taken as the key issues with the content and intent of the bill. On the central theme of the Bill – ‘public money for public goods’ – EFRA echoes concerns expressed elsewhere:

  • insufficient attention is being paid to the balance between agricultural production and the environment (see, also, the NFU on this point);
  • there is no indication of how public goods will be prioritised, or how the ‘limited pot’ of funding will be allocated;
  • the extent to which farmers and landowners will be able to access this public money to offset the phased elimination of direct payments, from 2021 to 2027 (the agricultural transition period) is unclear.

The EFRA committee asks that a multiannual financial framework should be established before the transition period begins, and that the regulations for public money for public goods also be set before the transition begins.

Given the workload of the civil servants working at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, albeit considerably expanded in number already, this is a tall order, unless the payment schemes are largely based on existing stewardship schemes.

However, there are good reasons to argue that existing schemes, especially if as promised they are to made much less bureaucratic, are not fit for purpose, and that radically new schemes are needed (e.g. CRE, 29. Nov).

As I noted in February, the critical questions (how much should we pay; for what; and to whom) all still have to be answered.

There still seems to be an implicit presumption that all of the £2.5bn currently spent on direct payments in the UK will be available for ‘public goods’, which I am quite sure is not shared by the Treasury and other spending ministries.

EFRA, again echoing (among others) the NFU, is also concerned that the Bill makes no reference to the defence of current UK quality and production standards in any future trade agreements, especially since this is not (yet) incorporated in the Trade Bill.

Similarly, EFRA notes that the intention to ensure fairness along the food supply chains is welcome, but strongly suggests that this task should be entrusted to the existing Groceries Code Adjudicator (with sufficiently widened remit and powers), rather than, as in the Bill, to the Rural Payments Agency, whose competence and reliability does not claim any confidence amongst producers.

The simmering disputes between Edinburgh and London about the governance and government of agriculture (see this piece by my colleague Michael Keating, and this one by Andrew Moxey) have also been evident in the Public Bill Committee’s hearings, being the opening subject of the first session of the Committee.

Mr. Eustace responded to the apparent omission of any evidence from either the Scottish NFU or members of the Holyrood administration as follows:

“The Scottish government have not yet signaled that they wish to be part of the Bill. Indeed, our understanding is that they intend to pass their own Bill, which is why it was decided at the time that this Bill would not apply to Scotland.”

Once again, ‘taking back control’ appears to be considerably more complicated and controversial than envisaged in the vote to Leave and be our own masters.

No doubt we will hear considerably more of these, and other key issues, as and when the Bill returns to the House of Commons for its third reading, and again in the House of Lords scrutiny of the Bill.  Watch this space.

On the other hand, and not yet being discussed, what happens if there is a Peoples’ Vote, which now needs to be considered as at least a possibility?

Could the UK maintain the Bill’s ‘de-linking’ of Direct Payments from land, claim the direct payments due from the EU on its farmers’ and landowners’ behalf, and redistribute them according to the provisions of the existing Bill?

Where does control actually lie (de facto as opposed to de jure) in the event of the UK deciding somehow to rescind or suspend Article 50?

By David Harvey, emeritus professor of Agricultural Economics at Newcastle University, with the Centre for Rural Economy.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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