Agriculture Bill gains Royal Assent as farmers prepare for 'new era'

Post-Brexit legislation preparing the UK farming industry for life outside the EU has become law
Post-Brexit legislation preparing the UK farming industry for life outside the EU has become law

The Agriculture Bill has now been given Royal Assent following its first introduction three years ago, a milestone which industry leaders say represents a 'new era' for British farmers.

The post-Brexit legislation, first unveiled in 2017's Queen's Speech, paves the way for new support for farmers as the UK leaves the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.

It will be replaced by a new 'public money for public goods' system - the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.

This will reward farmers for environmental improvements, such as better air and water quality, higher welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding.

Since the first version of the Bill was published in 2018, major improvements have been made to ensure the importance of food production were properly recognised.

The final version of the legislation also includes a requirement for a report to be presented to parliament focusing on the impacts that future trade deals could have on the industry.

Further amendments to the Trade Bill are expected to assign this responsibility to the Trade and Agriculture Commission.

The NFU said news of the Bill becoming law represented a 'landmark moment' for the British food and farming industry.

President Minette Batters said: “Simply put, the Agriculture Act will set how we farm in this country for generations to come.

“Getting to this point has not been easy. Two years ago when the Bill was first published, the clear absence of food production and food security troubled many.

"The NFU made the case at the highest levels of government that this piece of legislation needed to recognise the role of farmers as food producers and I am pleased it now does that much more robustly."

The Bill will also play a role in ensuring farmers are not undercut in trade deals by food imports that would be illegal to produce in the UK, as the government recently put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing.

Mrs Batters said, however, the Bill's introduction did not mean that the issue of domestic agricultural policy was 'solved forever'.

"Farmers across the country find themselves in uncertain and challenging times and it is crucial that the government continues to work with the NFU and our members to shape how they use the powers granted to them in the Agriculture Act.”

The Bill's incentives will provide a vehicle for achieving the goals of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and its commitment to reach net zero by 2050.

This new system will replace the EU's Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidy system, which largely pays farmers for the total amount of land farmed.

The government said this system had 'skewed' payments towards the largest landowners, rather than rewarding them for any specific public benefits.

Defra Secretary George Eustice said the legislation would 'transform' the way the government supported farmers.

“The funds released as a result of the phasing out of the legacy BPS will be re-invested into a roll out of our future farming policy, which will be centred around support aimed at incentivising sustainable farming practices.

“We will support farmers in reducing their costs and improving their profitability, to help those who want to retire or leave the industry to do so with dignity, and to create new opportunities and support for new entrants coming in to the industry.”

The government said it would also report on UK food security to parliament every three years.

The first report will be published at the end of next year, and will include analysis of the impacts on food supply of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as a wide range of themes including global availability of food, food safety and consumer confidence.

How does the Agriculture Bill affect farmers?

The government plans to phase out Direct Payments in England from 2021 to 2027. In the first year, the biggest reductions will be applied to the higher payment bands.

From 2022, the government plans to ‘delink’ Direct Payments from the requirement to farm the land. This will simplify the payments as they are phased out.

Farmers and land managers will still be able to enter into new Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreements in the first few years of the transition period.

The government encourages CS agreements as a viable, long-term source of income for delivering environmental benefits and preparation for the upcoming Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme.

From late 2024, there will be the opportunity to participate in the new ELM scheme to enhance the environment and deliver public goods, such as clean air and boosting wildlife.

The government is working with stakeholders including farmers and land managers to design the scheme, including through its current programme of tests and trials.

It added that there will be a 'smooth transition' from CS to the new Environmental Land Management scheme agreements.