New Farm Payments Bill is welcomed by farming organisations but there is doubt about the Government's commitment to defend interests

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers delivering the key note speech at the Oxford Farming Conference
Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers delivering the key note speech at the Oxford Farming Conference
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Government legislation on the Farm Payments Bill was published this week and has been welcomed by farming organisations.

The new bill will ensure farmers continue to receive Direct Payments for 2020 as the UK readies itself to leave the Common Agricultural Policy.

NFU Vice President, Stuart Roberts welcomed it as a ‘critical step’ to increasing certainty for farmers as they wait to see what sort of trade deal will be negotiated in the weeks and months ahead.

“We have been calling for the government to introduce this legislation and ensure there is no disruption to making farm payments this year, so it is good news they have heard our concerns and addressed them,” he said.

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But he also warned some farmers were still waiting for payments from 2019 and urged the Government to rectify this as well as give legal assurances that agri-environment schemes that will enter into force next year will be unaffected by the UK’s departure from the EU.

The CLA was also positive about the announcement saying its members had repeatedly said what they needed was stability, adding that the next and possibly greater challenge would be to create stability over the longer term.

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers, Professor Fiona Smith, Craig Bennett, Anna Hill (OFC Director and session chair), Minette Batters.

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers, Professor Fiona Smith, Craig Bennett, Anna Hill (OFC Director and session chair), Minette Batters.

The long-term stability of the farming sector was the subject of Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, keynote speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, where she confirmed the Agriculture Bill would be presented to Parliament this month.

Following NFU President Minette Batters at the podium, Mrs Villiers said 2020 would see radical changes in agricultural policy which would include the introduction of the Bill.

As Mrs Batters had called on the Government to commit to safeguarding Britain’s place as a leader in climate friendly food production, Mrs Villiers sought to reassure farmers high food standards would be protected in any future trade deals.

She told the audience: “Our strong British brand is built on high standards to which we hold ourselves. The high standards of British farming are the backbone of food and drink, our biggest manufacturing sector.”

Mrs Villiers said the UK could maintain and enhance its standards amid future negotiations with the EU and other countries, promising to work with the sector to understand their concerns and make sure their voice is heard.

“Please be reassured as our manifesto says, as the Prime Minister has said, we will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality, and grounded in our shared national values.

“We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare.”

She also said the Government would strongly defend national interests and be prepared to walk away from negotiations if they were threatened.

Talking about the Agriculture Bill and the switch away from subsidies she spoke about the new public money for public goods system, describing the proposals for Environmental Land Management as one of the most important environmental reforms for 40 years.

However in the following question and answer session a straw poll suggested delegates were not convinced the Government would defend their interests in international talks.

Pressed on the issue, Mrs Villiers said there would be an armoury of tariffs that would make sure that the UK can maintain standards and that imports do not undercut them.

Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett, who also spoke on the panel, said changes to agriculture were needed to tackle the nature and climate emergencies, including lower pesticide use, boosting trees and agroforestry and reducing meat consumption to ensure “less but better meat” production.

And he warned: “We could and hopefully will have the very best farming practices here in this country for producing good nutritious food, and protecting biodiversity and tackling the climate and given a really good strong fair return to our farmers for doing that, but trade trumps everything.

“We could have the best system here in this country but if we do trade deals with other countries that allows imports of food that have been produced to lower standards, that will undercut our farmers and be devastating for industry,”

Mrs Villiers was challenged on environmental standards during the Q&A, asked how the Government plans to ensure high environmental standards in the UK, support British farmers to drive down greenhouse gas emissions all while negotiating with the US which is not prepared to address climate change in the talks.