News
5th Feb

2020

TFA Blog #02 – The New Agriculture Bill Contains Much to Be Pleased About

 

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 31 January 2020.

The New Agriculture Bill Contains Much to Be Pleased About

 

The revamped Agriculture Bill left its starting blocks just after midday on January 16 having had its formal, First Reading in the House of Commons.  MPs and Peers will now have to grapple with over 90 pages of new legislation that will reset the course of UK agriculture for decades to come.  In many respects, the new Bill has had the benefit of the period of reflection that has ensued since its predecessor Bill became stalled in its Parliamentary journey back in autumn 2018.  The Bill now presented for consideration contains several improvements making it a better Bill than the one that went before, however, the task now is to ensure that we make it the best Bill that we can.

The Government has signalled its intention to begin the policy transition away from direct payments in 2021.  So, whilst we are to expect very little change to support payments this year, we need to be prepared for the seven-year transition that will see the end of the Basic Payment Scheme by 2028.  In the meantime, there will be decisions for individual farm businesses to make concerning whether to see out the seven-year transition or potentially taking the remaining payments as a lump sum in the context of a wider plan to restructure, pursue options for succession or even retirement.

When fully enacted, the Bill will set out the high-level framework to implement the Government’s desired objectives to restructure support for agriculture, largely around public payments for public goods but coupled with a much-needed productivity strand.  The Government has listened to criticisms of the previous legislation and has added to the list of public goods the protection and improvement of soils.  It has also given a nod to the importance of grazing livestock systems by referring to the conservation of native livestock and associated genetic resources as a public good.

A brand-new section of the Bill focuses on food security by making it an obligation for the Government to prepare a report to be presented to Parliament detailing the state of food security in the United Kingdom.  This is massively significant given that it has been many years since a UK Government has thought it important to consider food security as part of public policy.  Sadly, the requirement within the Bill applies only once every five years, which is far too large an interval for such an important issue.  It is hoped that the frequency can be reduced as the Bill is amended through its Parliamentary stages.

Following the Conservative Party manifesto commitment that, when in Government, it would protect the budget for agriculture in every year of the life of the current Parliament, the Bill has a requirement for the Government to produce a multiannual financial framework setting out its plans for the use of its financial assistance powers.  The Bill envisages plans which are at least five years in duration but with the first plan covering the initial seven-year period from 2021.  This was a major, missing element of the previous Bill and something which the Government at the time was loathed to introduce.  Therefore, it is great news that the Government has committed to this now and it gives MPs and the industry the opportunity to hold the Government to account for its plans.  It will also provide much-needed certainty to the agricultural industry at a time of tremendous change.

Most significantly for the tenanted sector of agriculture, the Bill contains a dedicated Schedule of changes to agricultural tenancy legislation.  Throughout the debate on the previous Bill and leading up to the introduction of the new Bill, the TFA has been tireless in highlighting the risk that tenant farmers could be disenfranchised from taking part in the Government’s new financial assistance schemes due to the nature of their tenancy agreements and the legislation which governs them.  To participate in new schemes, many tenants would need the consent of their landlords which cannot always be guaranteed.  It is therefore great news that the Bill contains provisions that will allow tenant farmers to object to landlords’ refusals to allow consent for them to enter new financial assistance schemes.  This will give tenant farmers the confidence they need to make plans and participate as they desire in whatever new schemes the Government brings forward.

The Schedule also seeks to implement several of the recommendations made in the DEFRA consultation on agricultural tenancies conducted in 2019.  This includes provisions to simplify procedures for tenancy succession, allowing rents to be determined by third-party experts as well as arbitration and protecting county council tenants from notices to quit before they reach state retirement age.  Several of the other recommendations which were considered to be more controversial will be looked at again with a view to implementing these at a later date.  However, some of these changes have been discussed for some time so to see them come to fruition is great news.

There are aspects of the bill which continue to need improvement including how the new supply chain regulation envisaged by the bill will be regulated.  Government contends that the Rural Payments Agency is the best body for that whereas it seems more reasonable to consider the Groceries Code Adjudicator to be the right place for this regulation.  We need an assurance that the marketing standards within the legislation will be applied equally to imported product as well as that produced at home.  It is also essential that we ensure that future financial assistance properly supports active farmers –  those in the occupation of land, taking the entrepreneurial risk for the activities taking place on that land and in day-to-day management control.  Payments should not be made to non-active landowners.

In conclusion, A better bill – but still a lot of work to be done.

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