The government has confirmed it remains confident the Agriculture Bill will secure Royal Assent in time to transition away from EU farming policies as planned in 2021, after the landmark legislation returned to the House of Lords yesterday.
Covid-19 disruption had fuelled speculation that 2021 could prove too early to begin the transition from the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP), prompting the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) to call for a one-year delay to the process.
But the government announced yesterday that the "key legislation" was "on track to become law in time to kickstart the agricultural transition period next year".
The government introduced the updated Agriculture Bill in January. It outlines plans to replace the EU's system of 'direct payment subsidies' for farmers, which pays based on the amount of land farmed with a new system dubbed the Environmental Land Management Scheme, which would use public money to reward farmers for 'public goods', such as environmental improvements or enhanced animal welfare. The scheme, expected to roll out from 2024, will apply to England only.
The plan to reform agricultural subsidies to help enhance UK ecosystems has been broadly welcomed by environmental and farming groups. However, the government has faced fierce criticism over its failure to back amendments to the Bill that would have effectively blocked the import of food products made to lower animal welfare and environmental standards, such as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef from the US.
Moreover, the government's climate advisors the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recently warned that ELMS scheme need further "development and clarity" in order to effectively support climate change mitigation and adaptation.
However, the Government's significant majority prevailed during the Bill's second reading in the Commons in June, when two amendments intended to ensure that new post-Brexit trade agreements do not permit imports produced to lower standards than in place were rejected.
The Bill has now passed to the Committee stage, where Environment Minister Lord Gardiner will lead sittings of the whole house over the next two weeks.
Lord Gardiner said the Bill provided "a once-in-a generation transformation in the way that we farm our land and produce the food that we eat". "We will put our farmers and land managers at the heart of that journey," he added. "This Bill will allow us to support them by rewarding protection and enhancement of the environment, while enabling their businesses to prosper by continuing to produce outstanding British food and drink to be enjoyed in the UK and abroad."
However, the government is continuing to face calls for it to strengthen the bill and provide clearer assurances that it will ensure UK farmers are not undercut by imported products that are produced to lower standards.
The Wildlife Trusts today urged the government to ensure the Agriculture Bill did not weaken pesticide regulation, noting that the legislation provides a "golden opportunity to set high standards".
Last week, Minister confirmed that it would establish a Trade and Agriculture Commission dedicated to ensuring UK trade policy "fully considers our agricultural industry and our commitment to maintain the UK's high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards".
But the Wildlife Trusts today called on the government to prevent the erosion of pesticide standards in future trade deals and implement an ambitious pesticide reduction target that matches or exceeds the EU's target to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by half by 2030.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the group, warned that urgent action was needed to curb the use of pesticides. "In my lifetime 41 per cent of wildlife species in UK have suffered strong or moderate decreases in their numbers and insects have suffered most," he said. "This has had a huge effect on the rest of the natural world."
He added that "current trade deals threaten to make a bad situation worse". "It's up to the government to ensure we maintain our current environmental standards, not let them slip and jeopardise the wildlife we have left," he said. "The Agriculture Bill is a golden opportunity to set high standards in law and make sure insect-friendly farming practices are rewarded."
The step forward for the Agriculture Bill also came as reports emerged of a major row between Holyrood and Westminster over the government's wider post-Brexit plans for environmental and food standards.
The Scottish government is allegedly prepared to mount a legal fight over legislation that would give Westminster unilateral control over the UK's "internal market".
A white paper on the UK's internal market bill, being drafted by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), is expected over the coming weeks.
But the Financial Times reported talks between the Scottish and UK government over the plans are proving fractious and have beenmarred by accusations of "bad faith".
Michael Russell, Scottish cabinet secretary for constitutional affairs, said that while the Scottish government accepted the need for "common frameworks" across the UK and had been working with the British government to agree on them, it was frustrated by proposals from British ministers for a statutory framework for the UK internal market that would allow them to "impose what they like".
The paper reports that the Scottish government has warned it would resist the imposition of a Westminster body, proposed in the Internal Market Bill, that would block any Scottish Parliament Bill that Westminster judged would interfere the internal market.
Concerns over environmental and food standards are at the heart of the row, with Welsh and Scottish ministers having voiced concerns about proposals for a "mutual recognition" regime that could force them to accept products such as chlorinated chicken, the FT reports.