11th Dec


TFA Blog #23 – Royal Assent for the Agriculture Act 2020 Marks the End of the Beginning to Build a New Policy for UK Agriculture

Royal Assent for the Agriculture Act 2020 Marks the End of the Beginning to Build a New Policy for UK Agriculture

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 27 November 2020.

On 11 November, Royal Assent was granted for the coming into effect of the Agriculture Act 2020.  Many comparisons have been drawn with a similarly named Act in 1947, although there have in fact been a further six Agriculture Acts between then and now.  Of course, the new legislation sets the framework around which the Government intends to build its future policy for agriculture now that we are no longer members of the European Union and having completed the transitional arrangements for our exit on New Year’s Eve this year.

A lot of the focus on this new legislation has been on the issue of standards in trade.  Part 5 of the Act sets out marketing standards for UK agricultural produce and Part 6 covers compliance with the rules and regulations of the World Trade Organisation within which the UK has regained an independent seat.  Quite reasonably farmers, environmentalists, animal welfare lobby groups and public health professionals have been keen to make sure that in signing up to new free trade agreements there is no undermining of standards of domestic production caused by accepting imports produced to lower standards.  The Government has sought to resolve this by beefing up the operation of the newly established Trade and Agriculture Commission and promising a yet to be delivered amendment to the Trade Bill which is awaiting Report Stage in the House of Lords – watch this space.

However, the new Act is about a lot more than just standards in trade.  Chapter 1 sets out new powers for financial assistance.  Although there are ongoing discussions about how DEFRA might use these new powers, so far there is no duty for it to do anything.  Various commitments and proposals have been given to the industry and it will be vital that we continue to hold the feet of the Government to the fire to deliver a sensible, pragmatic and holistic package of measures that both supports the concept of public payments for public goods and resolving wider market failures around productivity, resilience and volatility.

For the first time, the Government has a duty in respect of food security.  At least once every three years Parliament will have the opportunity of receiving and debating a report outlining matters about the food security of the nation.  We must ensure to make these debates both meaningful and a basis for affecting necessary policy changes where required.

Part 3 addresses concerns about transparency and fairness in the agri-food supply chain by seeking to look at the relationships between farmers and processors.  Again, there are very few duties outlined in this part of the legislation and uncertainty as to which body will be given the responsibility to oversee any measures introduced to improve both transparency and fairness.  The Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) has long advocated that this responsibility should be given to the pre-existing Groceries Code Adjudicator rather than, as has been suggested, the Rural Payments Agency.  Driving fairer returns for farmers will be a key measure of success for this legislation.

Whilst the TFA was pleased to see changes to agricultural tenancy legislation within Schedule 3 of the Act, they constitute just a very small proportion of the potential reforms about which DEFRA consulted in 2019.  That consultation in itself covered only a small proportion of the territory proposed for change through five reports issued by the Tenancy Reform Industry Group (TRIG), representing the interests of tenants, landlords and professionals, and requested by DEFRA ministers in light of the need to ensure that the tenanted sector of agriculture remains resilient and robust for the post Brexit era.  Throughout the Parliamentary debates on the new legislation the Government resisted amendments to bring in further aspects of tenancy reform promising that it would consider matters in the context of specific tenancy legislation in due course.  No commitment has been given by the Government on when such legislation might see the light of day.

So, this is an important piece of legislation which in many respects could have gone further.  In building post Brexit policy for agriculture and the farmed environment, Royal Assent of the act marks the end of the beginning of the process.  There is much more work that lies ahead to ensure a truly effective and pragmatic policy is delivered.

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