This week I have spent much of my time on debate and discussion about the Agriculture Bill. Two weeks ago it passed its "Second Reading" stage in parliament and this week we started the "Committee Stage" of the Bill where a small group of MPs drawn from all parties to debate the Bill clause by clause.
Farming policy has been contracted out to the EU for almost half a century and the new Agriculture Bill represents the first substantive piece of UK legislation on agriculture since 1947. Working on the design of the future framework for farm support, and the new schemes that would flow from it has been a very refreshing and liberating exercise for government and parliament. All too often in the past, any good idea or suggestion for improvement was simply ruled "against EU rules" and nothing could be done. If parliament abdicates responsibility for agriculture policy to an external organisation like the EU, then MPs have no motivation to engage in discussion about how to make things better since they have no power to change anything anyway. That is what has sadly happened to farming and fishing over the last forty years.
Now, as we prepare to leave the EU and take back control, parliament will regain its voice and farmers, food producers and environmental campaigners have an opportunity to get their point across and argue for improvements and influence the policy that will affect them. MPs from all parties are suddenly showing an interest in farming and the countryside because for the first time in half a century they have the power to shape future policy and make a difference.
The premise behind the Bill that I have put together with colleagues in Defra, is that we should move away from the system of arbitrary area subsidy payment that the EU has imposed on us to instead reward farmers generously for the things they do for the environment and other public goods. The current subsidy system has become a bureaucratic quagmire for farmers and is difficult to administer for government. There are far too many ludicrous rules and mapping requirements so that we measure every gateway, bush or hedge in the land. The EU penalty regime around it is unfair and unjust. The area based subsidy system also means that the vast majority of the money goes to the largest and wealthiest landowners in the country while smaller farmers get the crumbs from the table, so as a system of income support it is upside down.
Instead, we want a system that rewards farmers to farm their land in a way that is good for the health of their soils, good for the quality of the water courses flowing through their land, good for farmland birds and pollinators and good for enhanced animal welfare outcomes. We also want to reward farmers based on the value of what they deliver, not, as with some EU schemes, simply compensate them for the money they have lost by acting to try to help the environment.
We recognise that there is a problem of profitability in farming. However, rather than keeping on putting a sticking plaster over that with clunky subsidy payments, the Bill aims to tackle the causes of poor profitability. There are new powers to award grants or loans to farmers to assist them in investing in their farms to reduce costs and improve their profitability; here are powers to support research and development and improved plant breeding; there are new powers to improve transparency in the supply chain so that farmers don't get ripped off by middle men and processors; and there are powers to create mandatory requirements around contracts so that farmers are not stung by hidden charges or penalties or locked into contracts with no clarity or guarantee about the price they will get for what they produce.
Farming is also a risky business so there are times of crisis where a government must be able to intervene too stabilise the market so the Bill creates such crisis intervention powers. Finally, if we want to move to a very different and more coherent system of farm support, we have to do so in an orderly and gradual way to give farmers time to adjust. We have therefore set out a seven year transition period from 2021 to 2028 during which the old legacy subsidy will be gradually phased out and replaced with the new policy. This will be a period of change where we will simplify and improve the old scheme, introduce measure to help support farmers who want to retire and also make available grants and support for new entrants so that we help the next generation onto the land.
There will be weeks of argument ahead, but, despite the uncertainty as we enter the closing stages of our negotiation with the EU, our ability to govern ourselves in areas like farming gets stronger by the week.