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Jonathan Thompson examines the Agriculture Bill 2018 in Farming Monthly National

  • October 09, 2018
  • By Jonathan Thompson, Senior Associate

Brexit Bill Basics

The Agriculture Bill was published on 12th September and will receive its second reading in the House of Commons on 10th October. So begins its passage through the Houses of Parliament. This will take some months and expect it to become law near the end of the current Parliamentary session.

But what does the Agriculture Bill actually do? How will it affect your farming business from day to day? If you are one of the 44,000 respondents to the Brexit Health and Harmony DEFRA Consultation, you will wonder if Michael Gove and his team took note of your points. I know that I am!

I am intrigued to know if there is anything that will help farmers and rural businesses be more creative and flexible with land ownership, occupation and use. That’s the main legal technical point that I made in my consultation response.

The Bill itself makes interesting reading. Yes, a lawyer would state that, but beyond its sensible legal structure and use of the English language, the bill is well set out and readable.

It gives a flavour of the topics that Michael Gove thinks are key to agricultural and rural businesses. If you want a good summary of the main points in Michael Gove’s mind for the future of agriculture, then read the Bill. It’s available at https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2017-19/agriculture/documents.html

It is an “enabling bill”. It doesn’t set out to give the absolute detail for the future; right now it can’t! You won’t find it has glorious technicolour details of how the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) will be run. Nor will you get the detail of the “new” BPS (“British Payment Scheme”?).  The Bill’s purpose is to start a stream of mechanism and legal processes in secondary legislation.

These are statutory instruments. The Secretary of State for Agriculture will be empowered by the Agriculture Act to make statutory instruments.  The UK still makes its own laws, although some are at the behest of EU directives.

The Agriculture Bill enables us (I mean each and every one of us) to help pick and choose what we want. We can try to influence DEFRA, but ultimately they will “pick and choose”.

So what are the individual parts of the Bill? There are eight core parts.

Part 1 provides for financial assistance, first and foremost. The phrasing of the section does give the impression that the emphasis is on the environment first, but that’s no surprise from Michael Gove.

This section provides for assistance for management of land and water; public access; cultural / natural heritage; managing or adapting to climate change; dealing with environmental hazards; and protecting / improving the health of both livestock and plants.

There is also a wide ranging provision for starting or improving the productivity of agricultural, horticultural or forestry activities.

If you think that has a wide range, you’d be right. That can only be good and allow scope for a wide range of agricultural activities and income streams. It allows for improving products from those activities and efficient use of resources.

This part also allows for grants, loans, guarantees or other forms of assistance during this transition period. It also provides that the amount and details of funding given, will be made available to the public. This part also provides for an inspection system.

Part 2 covers financial support post Brexit. It triggers a seven year transition period from 2021 (which can be altered within those seven years). It allows DEFRA to phase out the BPS direct payments, making delinked payments. It also allows for a lump sum payment:  this permits a lump sum for those seeking an exit from agriculture, allowing succession.

The Act then proceeds to start structuring the new system, allowing the RPA to modify the BPS and other EU grants and funds. This is a key section to my mind. It allows farmers & rural organisations time to think about what they want; then to lobby the Government on how this system should work and what schemes should be available. The Bill enables farmers &   organisations that support farming and rural business.

For example, if ELMS are to be for 10 years, does this mean that the TFA’s campaign for 10 year FBTs has succeeded? Tenants may need 10 year terms to get the full advantage of an ELM and have an environmental scheme that achieves a result, on the ground and for public money.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for information to be supplied by all elements of the agri food supply chain. This allows DEFRA (and other Government departments) to deal with information advantageous to the agriculture supply chain, to help benchmarking and commercial effectiveness.

Part 4 provides for the Government to assist the agriculture sector in declaring when there are exceptional / extra market disturbances and make an intervention. This will take the form of offering financial assistance.

Part 5 concerns marketing standards. This is about a balance of protecting farmers and consumers by ensuring good quality produce and welfare standards. This is key to UK agriculture for its export market, as well as internal markets.

Part 6 leads on from the ethos of parts 3 & 5, ensuring that producer organisations become recognised and have an official function and voice in UK agriculture. It also provides for fair dealing by the purchasers of agriculture products – supermarkets.

Part 7 provides the regulations for support provided to agriculture, to comply with World Trade Organisation Rules. This will be a developing area, depending on whether we take a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.

In this Brexit phase of our political and economic history, agriculture has a huge opportunity. This is a piece of enabling legislation, not only for the Government but also for us. It is a time to lobby how the systems will work and what organisations can have an impact and work together. Used well, this Bill is a basic structure to enable us all to work towards a vibrant UK agriculture industry. Make sure you have you say.

This article was originally published in Farming Monthly National’s October issue and can be read here on page 9.

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