Pwyllgor yr Economi, Masnach a Materion Gwledig
Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee11/05/2022
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Hefin David AS|
|Luke Fletcher AS|
|Paul Davies AS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Samuel Kurtz AS|
|Sarah Murphy AS|
|Vikki Howells AS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Andrew Chambers||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Eifiona Williams||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Lesley Griffiths AS||Y Gweinidog Materion Gwledig a Gogledd Cymru, a’r Trefnydd|
|Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd|
|Victoria Jones||Llywodraeth Cymru|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Aled Evans||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Lara Date||Ail Glerc|
|Robert Lloyd-Williams||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 9:30.
The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.
The meeting began at 9:30.
Croeso, bawb, i'r gyfarfod hwn o Bwyllgor yr Economi, Masnach a Materion Gwledig. Dwi ddim wedi derbyn unrhyw ymddiheuriadau y bore yma. A oes yna unrhyw fuddiannau hoffai Aelodau i'w datgan o gwbl? Sam Kurtz.
Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee. I have received no apologies this morning. Are there any declarations of interest that Members would like to make at all? Sam Kurtz.
Oes, os gwelwch yn dda. Diolch, Cadeirydd.
Yes, please, thanks, Chair.
I declare an interest as chairman of Pembrokeshire young farmers clubs and a director of Wales YFC.
Dyna ni. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Unrhyw fuddiannau eraill? Nac oes.
There we are. Thank you very much. Are there any other declarations of interest? No.
Symudwn ni ymlaen, felly, at eitem 2 ar ein hagenda, sef papurau i'w nodi. Mae yna nifer o bapurau i'w nodi. Dwi ddim yn mynd i fynd trwyddyn nhw i gyd, ond oes yna unrhyw faterion y hoffai Aelodau eu codi o'r papurau yma? Nac oes.
We will move on, therefore, to item 2 on our agenda, which is papers to note. There are a number of papers to note. I'm not going to go through each one of them, but are there any issues that Members would like to raise in terms of the papers to note? No.
Felly, symudwn ni ymlaen at eitem 3, sef adolygiad o'r rheoliadau llygredd amaethyddol. Dyma'r sesiwn dystiolaeth olaf adolygiad y pwyllgor o Reoliadau Adnoddau Dŵr (Rheoli Llygredd Amaethyddol) (Cymru) 2021. Gaf i groesawu'r tystion, sef y Gweinidog a'i thîm, i'r sesiwn yma? Cyn ein bod ni'n symud yn syth i gwestiynau, gaf i ofyn i'r Gweinidog a'i thîm gyflwyno eu hunain i'r record? Gweinidog.
We'll move on, therefore, to item 3, which is the review of the agricultural pollution regulations. This is the final evidence session on the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021. Can I welcome the witnesses, the Minister and her team, to this session? Before we move straight to questions, can I ask the Minister and her team to introduce themselves for the record, please? Minister.
Thank you very much, Chair. Good morning, everyone. I'm Lesley Griffiths, I'm the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd. I'm joined this morning by Vicky Jones, who's head of agriculture, Andrew Chambers, legal development team leader, and Eifiona Williams, who's head of water.
There we are. Thank you very much indeed for those introductions. Perhaps I can just kick off this session, Minister, with a general question on this issue. Can you just tell us what discussions you've now had with the farming unions, and indeed other stakeholders, since the outcome of the legal challenge a few weeks ago?
Thank you. So, obviously, we had to pause at the beginning, when we first had the court's judgment, to make sure—. We didn't know if the National Farmers Union Cymru would appeal, for instance. So, once we knew that, I had informal discussions with some of our stakeholders. Formally now there's been a request for a meeting with NFU Cymru, with myself and other Ministers, which is now in the diary.
Officials have really started to ramp up the stakeholder engagement in a way that, unfortunately, we haven't been able to do whilst the judicial review was in process. I think it's fair to say we didn't shut up shop at all over the past—well, nearly—year, while the JR was in process. We continued to engage with farming unions, with stakeholders—about other topics, obviously. This wasn't something that we discussed, but the lines of communication remained open, and I think that's a really important point to make. What we need to do now, we've had the judgment, we all need to respect that judgment, we all need to look at ways to implement these regulations effectively, and, certainly, my early discussions with stakeholders are they're keen to do that as well.
I think I should also point out that we have lost some valuable time, I think that's fair to say, and I think everybody accepts that, so it is important now that we really start to engage. It's great we're going to have the summer shows this year. We'll be able to do some significant engagement then. I should point out my officials have remained members of the Wales land management forum sub-group on agricultural pollution. That group meets on a monthly basis, and they've continued to do that over the past year also.
Given the engagement now you are carrying out with stakeholders, is it a signal, therefore, that you are willing, perhaps, to introduce some flexibility into these regulations going forward?
So, you'll know that the regulations have article 45 in them, a clause in them, which we didn't have to put in, but I thought it was really important that clause was there to bring forward alternative measures. So, you'll be very aware of the history, but, for those who don't know the history, over the past, well, six years, now, since I came into post, I worked very hard to get a voluntary approach in relation to agricultural pollution, and it didn't work. Nobody likes being told what to do. I didn't want to bring forward regulations straight away. This was the very first thing on my desk when I came into this portfolio. So, I thought it was really important to have that clause where individuals, groups of people, can come forward with alternative measures. Now, what it is really important to state is that those alternative measures have to give us the same or better outcomes than the regulations themselves. We've already had one proposal put forward, so there will be a process that that will have to go through. So, officials will assess the process and then send advice to me. So, we're very keen to hear of alternative measures. And, again, over the past year, that hasn't shut down. Officials have continued to listen to people who want to bring forward ideas. But it is really important to say that those alternative measures have to bring forward the same or better outcomes than the regulations.
So, just to be clear then, Minister, you are willing to be flexible, going forward.
Well, it depends what you mean by 'flexible'. As I say, there is that clause in the regulations to bring forward alternative measures, so, if that's what you think of as flexible, then yes.
Okay. I'll now bring in Sam Kurtz. Sam.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Good morning, Minister.
The Chairman's question leads me quite nicely on to my set of questions. You'll remember 9 June last year, where we debated this in the sixth Senedd, and just to quote you, literally verbatim of what you've just said this morning with regard to another proposal—. So, you said:
'I call on all stakeholders again, including the farming unions, who have long advocated an alternative approach, to put forward viable proposals for alternative measures that will deliver equal or greater reductions in pollution. Any approach must be established in law.'
So, that is very much what you've just explained to us this morning, and that I'm very grateful for. You also mentioned the Wales land management forum's agri sub-group. They reported with a massive and well-evidenced list of 45 or so alternative options, which have yet to have an acknowledgement or a detailed response from you, four years on, other than an acknowledgement receipt. Why is that? If there is this sub-group already putting forward 45 alternative solutions to this, why does that not deserve a more detailed response?
Well, I think there have been many discussions around that report. As you say, it was several years ago. From my recollection, there were about 45 recommendations; I think that's probably the correct term to use. I think, of those recommendations, a handful—when I say 'a handful' it was probably about 10—were for Welsh Government. The other recommendations were for others to look at. Many of the actions that they brought forward in those recommendations have been either fully or partially discharged. There were some long-term actions, from my recollections, which will continue to be ongoing. As I say, the majority of recommendations weren't for Welsh Government, they were for others to do, but we do continue—. As I mentioned in my answer to the Chair, officials attend that meeting on a monthly basis, so I don't know if any—. I think this is probably for Vicky. I think, if you attend this group, Vicky, if you could say anything further about the report.
Diolch, Minister. Good morning, committee. The report that was, or the recommendations that were, put forward, the majority are for, as the Minister said, the sub-group. I'm not a member personally, but my team do attend monthly. The majority of those recommendations were actions either for the sub-group as a whole or for multiple members of the sub-group, and those are being monitored regularly. Many of the 10 recommendations for Welsh Government have been either fully or partially discharged, and they are ongoing or long-term actions that are under way.
I'll give you an example, Sam. One of the recommendations—because I had a discussion about this last week, so this is why I've remembered this one—one of the main discussions was that, when we're looking at the post common agricultural policy funding scheme, which as you know will be our sustainable farming scheme, consideration for on-farm support was part of that. So, that's a recommendation. So you don't need to do a formal response to that; that is just ongoing work.
[Inaudible.]—but, if this is submitted to yourself or your department, wouldn't it deserve more than just an acknowledgement receipt, and wouldn't it deserve some sort of written correspondence to formulate why this is going, rather than—? I understand that stakeholder conversations continue, but surely—. Is there a specific reason for not putting something in writing around this?
No, I don't think you should read anything into it in the way that you are doing. As I say, the recommendations that were for Welsh Government have all been either fully, or are ongoing actions that we discharge.
Okay, thank you. Moving on, evidence gathered from here within Wales has shown that nitrate vulnerable zone approaches have not been effective. The nitrates consultation of 2016, which Welsh Government issued, acknowledges that it was too early to assess whether NVZs had effective designations in Wales, and then a quote from Professors Worrall, Spencer and Burt at Durham University:
'The lack of objective success for NVZ designation suggests that nitrate pollution control strategies based on input management need to be rethought.'
Why then the continuation down this line of policy, if the evidence suggests alternative—?
I'm glad you give me the opportunity very early on to say nitrate vulnerable zones no longer exist in Wales. So, these new regulations, which have replaced NVZs, target not just nitrates, they target a range of pollutants—that includes nitrates, obviously, but phosphates, ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions. So, I think that's the first thing to say.
Can I quickly come back there, Minister?
Yes. So, Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 are exactly, word for word, NVZs. So, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I dare say this policy is still NVZ.
Well, I disagree, as I say. NVZs—. And we need to get away from that language. I think it's really important to recognise the challenge we have here. So, up until last Friday, we have had 45 substantiated agricultural pollution incidents this year alone. So, they haven't decreased. The number hasn't decreased. And the reason we had to bring these regulations forward was—. And I make no apology for this; we could not continue in the way that we have. We haven't seen a significant decline at all, and in some years—. If you look at the chart over the years, we've seen increases in some years. And despite all the noise that's been going on over the last year around the JR et cetera, we still haven't seen a decrease. So, we had to do something major.
And I think I should just say that every party in this Senedd, and therefore every Member in this Chamber, is signed up to deliver net zero, and support enhancing rather than undermining the EU environmental standard. So, these regulations, unfortunately, are a direct and unavoidable consequence of adhering to these principles. We had to do something. Now, these regulations have been brought forward after, as I say, several years of trying to get a voluntary approach et cetera. So, these regulations cover more than just nitrates, and I think that's a really important point to make.
Okay. I'll just come back on one final point there. You make the reference to, 'We have to do something.' Isn't it the case then that, given the evidence around this legislation—and you say that it's not an NVZ any more, but the vast majority of it is still worded as such—there are better ways of doing this, regulatory ways of doing this, yet it feels like, 'We have to do something', rather than doing the right thing? And that's what it feels like. The industry feels like there is a need to improve—and we are, as you rightly say, signed up to net zero—yet they feel that this could actually cause more harm than good, given the evidence around similar legislation.
So, I obviously think this is the right thing to do, otherwise we wouldn't have brought forward these regulations. You say 'the industry'; that's a sweeping generalisation. Now, I was talking to a farmer on Saturday who said to me, 'This is the right thing to do.' Those were his exact words. So, it's not everybody, is it? You can't generalise and say, 'The industry thinks this' or 'The industry thinks that.' People have—. It's very polarising—I absolutely accept that— but, if you talk to farmers about the regulations now they're there—. I think there was a lot of—. 'Scaremongering' is too strong a word, but I think, once people have read the regulations—. And if you're already farming to a very high environmental standard, these regulations probably won't affect you in any way.
So, I think it's really important not to generalise and to say that, but I do absolutely think these are the right things to do. They've been very tested in the court, and I think we just really need not to be rolling back; we really need to be implementing them effectively. And I want to work closely with the sector, I want to work closely with our stakeholders, I want to work closely with you, to make sure that we do that effectively.
Thank you, Chair.
And on this, can I just bring in Luke Fletcher? Luke.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Good morning, Minister, and the rest of the panel.
There are a couple of things that I think we have an opportunity to come back to later, so I'll stick to this particular point. I was wondering if we could look briefly at the limit to how much nitrogen farmers are allowed to spread per hectare of land. I am likely to come back to this point later as well, but, from my understanding of the draft regulations, the limit was set at 250 kg per hectare, but in the final regulations it decreased to 170 kg per hectare. I'd be interested to know why the amount of nitrate per hectare was reduced between draft and final, and could the Minister explain why Wales, which relies on grass crops, which need nitrate, more heavily than England, for example, will only be allowed to spread 170 kg per hectare whilst other nations in the UK will be able to spread 250 kg.
Thank you, Luke. So, the draft regulations, which were obviously published for scrutiny, didn't contain a derogation, and then the supplementary papers referred to the potential of a derogation in the future. So, the provisions of regulation 45, as I've already said, do enable proposals for alternative measures to be made in the way I've outlined. The 170 kg per hectare limit was established to tackle phosphorous pollution in Wales. As you're aware, many of our river SACs do exceed phosphorous thresholds, and phosphorous causes eutrophication in other water bodies. So, that 170 kg does reflect our previous commitments to the EU nitrates directive. So, in general, we believe that that 170 kg of nitrogen would be sufficient to maintain optimum levels of phosphorous for the crop. Again, where the level of phosphorous doesn't meet the crop need, other organic manures could be applied, and that really aligns with the circular economy approach.
Thank you for that, Minister. I'm conscious that I might actually, with some of the supplementaries I have to that, stray into other Members' questions, so in the interest of safety and not annoying other Members, I'll hand back to you, Chair.
Diolch. Thank you, Luke. If I can now ask Vikki Howells to come in. Vikki.
Thanks, Chair. Good morning, Minister.
One thing, as a committee, that we've been really keen to ensure in our previous deliberations on the evidence is that NRW is sufficiently resourced in order to enforce the regulations. I know that's something that we've written to you about previously. So, firstly, could you give us an update on your discussions with the Minister for Climate Change and NRW to ensure that they do actually have sufficient resourcing to enforce the regulations?
Thank you very much. So, obviously, I do have discussions with Julie James, the Minister for Climate Change—she's the one I work most closely with, although obviously there is cross-Government interest in this policy. I know that the Minister has been carrying out a baseline review of NRW's budget and the way they work. We're looking at co-designing some service level agreements for each policy and delivery area, and obviously the development of the SLA, which I think is due to be completed by the end of summer term, will include the administration of the agricultural pollution regulations. You'll be aware that, previously, we've worked with NRW around the dairy project, so there was funding there, but it's really important that we look holistically at the NRW budget. You'll be aware our departments—rural affairs and climate change—work very closely together, and officials work very closely together, so even though the NRW budget isn't in my portfolio, obviously we work very closely across Government. If we are going to tackle the climate and nature emergencies, it's really important that NRW are able to perform their statutory duties. So, those discussions are ongoing in relation to the budget, but obviously the Minister for Climate Change is very aware of that.
NRW actually specified to us they felt that they needed at least 60 extra staff in order to cope with the minimum extra workload that could be generated by this, but ideally they were looking at about 200. Are those kinds of figures involved in the discussion?
I think, when I last discussed it with NRW, which is probably over a year ago now, 60 was the figure they gave to me. In their discussions with the Minister for Climate Change, I don't know if that's increased, but, certainly, I haven't had that discussion, and that, I would think, would be a matter for NRW.
Thank you. And a final question from me on this. In Scotland, they've got the general binding rules approach, which appears, from my research, to be quite a pragmatic way of doing things in order to manage workload and to target the repeat offenders. Is this something that you are looking into?
Not looking into because I think it's a very similar approach to what we've got. So, in Scotland, they're the same; they have mandatory regulatory measures, not voluntary measures. I think many of the measures that they have in Scotland are very similar—in fact, they probably replicate, or we replicate theirs, I'm not sure which way around. Some go further, and, again, as you're aware, we've got a review in the regulations. So, in four years, we will have to review the regulations, so that will be an opportunity to see not just our regulations, but we'll be able to see others because we'll all have that evidence and that data to ensure that they are working properly. I know, in Scotland, they have a greater level of slurry storage for instance. They mandate low-emission spreading. So, there are differences, but they're regulatory like ours.
I think it's fair to say that NRW take a very pragmatic approach to enforcement. Certainly, when I was responsible for NRW, I had many discussions about this and I never found them to be over the top or anything like that, and I think it's very similar with the enforcement agency in Scotland.
Thank you, Minister. That's all from me on this now, Chair. Thank you.
Thank you, Vikki, and I'll now bring back Luke Fletcher. Luke.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Of course there have been concerns raised by farming unions that an all-Wales approach is disproportionate and could have unintended consequences. If I could pick up on the potential risks to the environment and biodiversity to start with. Many farmers have said that they would move away from cattle because it's not worth the hassle or the cost. This would be especially true on hill farms where farmers have herds of no more than 15 cattle in most cases. There is a risk here that some will choose to either not graze that land, which will lead to more rough grasses, which would decrease biodiversity, or they could move over to sheep instead, which would also cause issues with biodiversity. So, for example, sheep will graze grass to very short stumps, where cattle will leave an inch or so of grass left. This means that, with cattle at least, there's a wide range of diversity in grasses, flowers and weeds, which can in turn lead to more flies, butterflies and moths, which then in turn can lead to more birds for example. And, of course, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for instance, want to see more cattle on our uplands in order to maintain that biodiversity. So, I suppose my question would be: does the Minister accept that these regulations could indeed damage biodiversity in our upland areas specifically?
I don't accept that, of course not, because that's the complete opposite of what we're trying to do. And, again, I go back to what I was saying to Vikki Howells—it's really important we are able to review them, and, obviously, within the regulations, we will review every four years. What these regulations do is target the cause of a wide range of pollution issues that affect the environment, affect public health right across Wales. So, I think we have to accept that they will impact on different types of farms. And I go back to what I was saying again earlier—if you are farming to a very high environmental standard now, these regulations will probably have very little or no impact on you. And farmers have a statutory responsibility not to pollute and I think we have to absolutely remember that.
Again, I mentioned I was speaking to a farmer at the weekend. He's an upland farmer, and we talked about farmyard manure for instance. So, cattle farms in upland areas generally manage much of their manure as farmyard manure, and less slurry storage therefore is needed. So, he won't have to change anything on his farm. So, I think we just have to think about that, and think about each farm, because it's got to be done on an individual basis.
You referred to biodiversity, and, obviously, upland habitats, species, can be more sensitive to pollution. It is still critical pollution is prevented in these areas if we are going to address the climate and nature emergencies. So, what these regulations will do, in my opinion, is prevent unsustainable intensification of upland farming, which could otherwise occur in the absence of a regulatory baseline. So, if we look at the slurry storage that is going to be required in these regulations, it's comparable to pre-existing storage requirements, and they've applied to all farms across Wales since 1991. And I referred to the dairy project that NRW undertook, where, unfortunately—and I haven't seen the figures lately—a significant number of farms, approaching, I think, 50 per cent of farms, weren't compliant. So, we've been doing a lot of work over the past few years to make sure farms are compliant with the existing regulations.
Thank you for that, Minister. Of course, I don't think anyone is denying the need to deal with the environmental crisis, but, of course, as part of that, nature and biodiversity are very important as well. Can I take it from your answer, Minister, that if we did see a negative impact on biodiversity as a result of farmers moving over to sheep because cattle is unviable as a result of this, there would be room for those regulations to be amended in the review period?
Well, as I say, there is the review in four years' time, when it will be for everyone involved then to have a look. But we will have such a huge amount of evidence and data in those four years that we would be able to do that. But there's no point—. You can't just say, 'This is it for 20 years', and then, as you say, if you do get unintended consequences—. Of course that's the case—they would have to be looked at.
Thank you for that. And one final question on unintended consequences, if I may, Chair, and this relates to farmers' mental health. I know that this is actually something that the Minister has done a lot of work on, in fairness, and I know it's something that is a deeply important issue to you, Minister. But this situation is causing serious concern for farmers and, in particular, that their farms might become unviable. Does the Minister accept that these regulations are having a detrimental impact on mental health in the farming community, with some even considering leaving farming altogether? And could she outline what work is being done to address the potential issues around mental health in the farming community?
Of course, if anybody is suffering with mental health issues because of policy, that is a matter of concern. However, I go back to what I said—these regulations are very, very similar to what was in place before. And what I would urge people to do is come forward and get advice. So, Farming Connect is there. For me, Farming Connect is one of the best things we have in the agricultural sector in relation to support. People in England, farmers in England—farmers in Wales will tell you this—look on with envy at it. There is a huge amount of advice there. Please don't just sit and worry about it; please come forward and ask for advice. E-mail me, e-mail you; the advice is there—please come forward for it.
As you say, this is something that I feel very strongly about, and because I didn't come from a farming background, one of the first things I think I learned was that it can be quite an isolating sector. And the perception is of a big, burly farmer, able to cope with anything, and so many farmers have said to me that's not the case. And I think COVID has just heightened things. So, where they would go off to market, even if it's only once a week, and all get together, that didn't take place. I absolutely recognise that. So, even over COVID, I put additional funding in, we worked very closely with our charities that support our farmers in relation to mental health issues. I attended a meeting not that long ago—I was going to say about a month ago, but it's probably two months now, when I think about it—where all the charities came together, to make sure the support is there. But I would just urge anybody, please, one, read the regulations; two, if you're concerned about anything, come forward to Farming Connect. All the advice and support is there—please don't sit at home and just worry about it.
Thank you, Luke. Before I bring in Hefin David, Sam, you want to come in on this particular issue.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Yes, just a quick one on Luke's point around an all-Wales approach. In the co-operation agreement, it's noted that it will be targeted. Can I ask what the definition of 'targeted' is? Is that a targeted intervention in high-polluting areas, specifically, yet still being an all-Wales approach, or is it that the roll-out of this policy will focus on those high-polluting areas first and foremost, so that the resources of NRW, like Vikki Howells rightly pointed out, are targeted at those areas where the most gains could potentially be made?
So, I'm just trying to think what the wording is—it is around 'deployment' and 'targeting'. So, those discussions I've been having with Cefin Campbell, who is the designated Member, to see—. We're working very closely together. But this is an all-Wales approach. But obviously there will be areas—you can look at the map—where the majority of incidents take place. There are some high areas. However, we know that this is affecting all over—. All our waterways are very connected, aren't they, in Wales and pollution travels, unfortunately. So, it is an all-Wales approach, but the actual workings of this, with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement, are an ongoing discussion.
Okay. Thank you, Sam. If I can now ask Hefin David to come in and ask a few questions. Hefin.
Thank you. The National Farmers Union has given us evidence that in Northern Ireland they introduced a whole territory zone around 10 years ago and the level of funding support was between £140 million and £150 million. That would be estimated today to be worth about £216 million. The Welsh Government's made available, for this whole territory zone, £35 million in grant support. That is quite a stark comparison. What is the Minister's response to the evidence from the NFU on that one?
We've given far more than £35 million. I think just in the last three years, we gave more than £40 million, and that's been made available directly to farmers to reduce pollution and to support the necessary changes that they think they have to bring forward in relation to their own farm practices.
We've put £22 million into capital infrastructure improvements. Just in 2018-19 and 2019-20, we had a sustainable production grant. There was really good take-up of that and we opened a further window, I think the following year. That was about £8 million as well.
We also had the farm business grant. That enabled farms to acquire equipment so that they could meet the closed period requirement, for instance. There was also additional funding as part of a wider—. I think that was about £5 million on water quality; I think about £1.5 million went to our farmers there. And also we had Glastir smaller grants. And we're continuing to support farm businesses to implement the regulations through the current RDP—that's 2014 to 2020, but it obviously runs to the end of March—[Inaudible.]
Last month, you may be aware that I announced a package of support for our farmers, foresters, land managers and food businesses. That's over £227 million. That's over the next three financial years, and again, that's obviously a wide pot of money to support the resilience of the sector and the rural economy. But there will be specific schemes within that to enable farm businesses to support infrastructure investment, for example. So, there is some significant funding going forward.
So, you categorically dispute that £35 million figure. With regard to smaller farms that might be struggling, and some of the unintended consequences were discussed earlier, is there flexibility for a farm with, say, 70 cattle, to liaise with NRW to develop—[Inaudible.]—that would enable them to continue? Sorry, am I cutting out here?
No, you're fine.
It's okay, I heard you, yes. So, again, I go back to what I was saying: there is lots of support there for farmers. So, maybe NRW—they certainly can liaise with NRW, but please contact Farming Connect, because that support and advice is there. And we also get advice out in a range of ways—newsletters, et cetera. So, certainly, yes, please do liaise. As I said, each individual farm will behave towards these regulations differently, because if you've already got your slurry storage correct; if you're already farming to a high environmental standard, these regulations probably will have little or no impact on you. So, I go back to what I was saying: I think it's really important to get that message out that that support and advice are there, either via NRW or Farming Connect.
Hefin, yes—anything else, Hefin?
No. There we are. Before I bring back Vikki Howells, obviously you mentioned the funding there. You mentioned quite a bit of general funding, and you're disputing this £35 million figure. So, can you tell us, then, therefore, what specific schemes are available to support farmers to meet these new regulations?
So, we're working those windows up now to open in the very near future, so we will be making another announcement. I mean, just off the top of my head, as I said, I think I gave you £40 million-worth of funding that's taken place over the past few years. We will be opening windows in the next, probably, three or four months for around £100 million of that £227 million, and that will include schemes to support investments to enhance the technical, financial and environmental performance of farm businesses, and to support infrastructure investments, because I know a lot of concern is around the slurry storage, so they will need specific funding for the infrastructure. But I'll make a point I've made before: if you weren't compliant with the regulations before, we cannot give public money to bring you up to the required legal standard. But I do appreciate that, for some farmers, they will need support with their slurry storage.
Okay, thanks for that. If I can now bring back Vikki Howells. Vikki.
Thank you, Chair. Minister, my question was around advice to farmers, and I think you've covered that by talking about Farming Connect and the newsletters that you send out as well. So, unless there's anything that you wanted to add to that, can I just ask about how that advice has been taken up to date—if you've got figures on take-up—and specifically also how you are targeting those hard-to-reach farmers as well?
So, the hard-to-reach farmers, of course, like any group, are, as you say, hard to reach, so I don't think that's just a matter for Welsh Government; I think others have to look at how we reach hard-to-reach farmers. We have some farmers who aren't members of farming unions, and if they don't read their e-mails, et cetera, because we do send out a huge amount of information via e-mail—. But as I say, I don't think that's just a matter for Welsh Government. I think we all have to work together to make sure those hard-to-reach farmers are reached, and I think the summer shows are a great opportunity. I think the Royal Welsh this year will be a very big event, because we haven't been able to meet in person for three years, so that's the sort of place where I think we can manage to reach the more difficult to reach farmers.
You asked me about Farming Connect and, yes, I do have some figures. Farming Connect have held 33 events on the regulations to date. We've had 83 individuals completing the Farming Connect e-learning modules on topics including farm nutrient management, farmyard composting, reducing agri-pollution and slurry management. Farming Connect has support 3,725 businesses under the technical grassland and crop management category of the advisory service, with nutrient management planning and infrastructure advice. They've held webinars, clinics, events and demonstrations, and network events. They really have included the key messages for people in relation to slurry storage and soil and grassland management. I mentioned the publication that we send out to all—. I think it goes to all farming businesses. That's the Farming Connect technical publication. That's allocated to raise awareness of the transition periods of the regulations, because obviously those dates are really important, and also some specific elements of the regulations. And also Welsh Government's spring, summer and winter update, that goes to 16,000 farming businesses. There are lots on the Welsh Government website. There's an FAQ section, for instance. There are electronic workbooks, there are guidance documents, so there's lots of information there. Those are the figures in relation to Farming Connect.
Thank you, Minister. Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, Vikki. If I can now bring in Sarah Murphy. Sarah.
Thank you very much, Chair. Thank you, Minister. I'm going to ask a question about the transitional period. So, the committee has heard evidence from the farming unions that the transitional periods set out in the regulations don't provide enough time for farm businesses to plan and implement the necessary changes. The Farmers Union of Wales has gone as far as to say it
'does not come close to recognising the severe consequences the regulations will have for every farming business in Wales',
even with the three implementation stages up to 2024. So, what is your response to this, and what is Welsh Government doing to help farming businesses reach these targets?
I think I've outlined the support and advice that's there, so I won't repeat that. What I will repeat is: I don't believe there are significant consequences that are going to affect all farms. I've said that it's a matter for each farm as to how these regulations will affect them, but from my understanding, and I talk to the farmers, the majority of them have very high environmental standards in their farming practices, so these regulations won't affect them in the way that I think has been portrayed by some.
The transitional periods were put in to provide that phased approach to implementation of the regulations. I said earlier that, unfortunately, I think we've lost nearly a year, because of the judicial review. I don't think it's anecdotal. I've had discussions with the farming unions and I think they would say openly that some of their members perhaps sat back and thought, 'We don't have to rush this', because the outcome could be what they wanted, if you understand what I mean.
So, the initial requirements, which applied from last year, 1 April 2021, they required very little preparation, so it was about nutrient management planning and risk-map requirements, which apply from 1 January next year, if I get my years right now—yes, 2023. They may require some farms to prepare, so that's why we allowed two years for that, but again, nutrient management planning is already required by many of our farm assurance schemes, so I think only minor adjustments will be needed by our farmers. The greatest impact will be on those farms that currently apply nutrients to the land without any nutrient management planning, and that's where the pollution risk is the greatest, or those who, say, produce nutrients in excess of crop need. So, farms will have until 1 August 2024—so that's the following year again—to comply with the storage requirements. And again, let me reiterate: those storage requirements are comparable to those of the existing storage requirements, which have been in place since 1991. So, the greatest impact will be on those farms that don't comply currently with existing requirements. So, that's why we have that transitional approach, because that one for August 2024 will be the one that I think will have the biggest impact.
But we know that insufficient slurry storage is one of the main causes of agricultural pollution, so if you think about when I introduced the regulations in April 2021 to what I've just stated in August 2024, that's three years, and that's ample time.
Okay, thank you, Minister. Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, Sarah. If I can now bring back Luke Fletcher. Luke.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. I was wondering if the Minister could give her views on the viability of alternatives to farming by calendar, specifically the role technology can play. As I understand it, some of your officials visited the Gelli Aur agri-college in Carmarthenshire at the request of my colleague Cefin Campbell, where they've developed capabilities of measuring how much nitrate a field might need, meaning that these regulations could be amended to accommodate up-to-the-minute science; in fact, be led by science, rather than the calendar.
I mentioned earlier about the 170 kg, 250 kg per hectare issue. Does the Minister believe that technology could provide an alternative? Will the Government consider the possibility of slurry spreading being driven by science rather than the calendar year? The project at Gelli Aur, for example, gives us an alternative.
Thanks, Luke. If I can just clarify: officials were—. It wasn't at the request of Cefin. What Cefin's requested is that he and I visit there and we're going to do that in the summer. Officials were already going there. I've been there—I was going to say two years ago now, but everything sort of stopped with COVID. I think it's probably about three years ago that I went to Gelli Aur. I was very impressed with the work that they're doing. So, officials did go there on 12 April and Vicky was one of them, so I will ask her to come in if she wants to add anything.
I think it is really important that we look at what technology can do and certainly the equipment that they had built at Gelli Aur, I would encourage anybody on the committee to go and have a look; I'm sure they'd be very happy to host you. It's very impressive and, as I said, I'm open to proposals for alternative measures, and I know that there has been a proposal submitted. I can't comment on individual ones, but what the process will be now—. I think we have to have them by 1 September [Correction: 'October'] this year, and officials will assess them and then give me advice. But I think it is really important that we look at technology.
We obviously have the closed period, and that's there because we believe that's the time of the highest risk. However, let's be honest, if you want to spread slurry either side of the closed period, you need to assess whether that is a high-risk time as well. But I will ask Vicky to come in to see if there's anything she wants to add about her visit on, I think, 12 April.
It was 12 April. Thanks, Minister. A few of us went on 12 April, and it was extremely interesting. The Minister has covered it very well, actually. We spent a morning there. It was very generous of colleagues at Gelli Aur to spend so much time with us to talk through the work that they've been doing over the past couple of years. They have since submitted a proposal for alternative measures, which we are considering, and the next step in that is to discuss the potential for some of those technologies that we saw. Certainly, as the Minister has said, we're very willing to consider alternative measures that deliver at least equal or better benefits than we're seeking from the regulations, so we're very much open to discussing the potential of technology to help us achieve that.
Thank you for that, Minister and Vicky. That's, if I might say, quite positive. I'm looking forward to seeing where the Government goes with this. And actually, if I could make a request, Chair, that we as a committee perhaps go and visit Gelli Aur. I think it would be quite beneficial for us to see some of that work as well.
Of course, one of the issues that the farming-by-calendar approach causes is that farming is usually done by weather, but, in this case, by definition, will be done by calendar. What we could see potentially is a rush by farmers to spread slurry all at the same time because of that build up, which would, in turn, potentially lead to more water pollution issues, as farmers look to empty their slurry pits, where the calendar allows, all at the same time. How would the Government see that in the context of its overall goals for these regulations? Surely that would be counterproductive if that happened.
Farmers would only need to spread slurry before and after the closed periods if they don't have sufficient storage to manage their slurry properly. Again, the farmer I was talking to at the weekend was saying to me that we should start to value slurry. We shouldn't look at it as a waste product; we should look at it at a valuable nutrient, particularly with the price of fertilisers at the moment, which has, obviously, impacted on the agricultural sector. So, I think the scenario you just played out shouldn't happen if they've got sufficient slurry storage. And I go back to what I was saying: these regulations are no more arduous than what was required of our farmers before.
Of course, we know that there is an issue with capacity of storing slurry, and, of course, with the price of fertiliser at the moment, there's a reason why farmers will be looking to spread that slurry. Wouldn't you accept that?
I would, but, as I say, the only reason to spread it—I think you're saying they have to do it quickly—is if they haven't got enough slurry storage, and they need to ensure their slurry storage. This is something we've been working on with the farming sector over the past few years. I'm not quite sure what more I can add, really.
And on this, Sam, you want to come in.
Yes, thank you, Chair. Just quickly, you mentioned previously article 45 and alternative measures, and then, in response to Luke just now, you said 1 September.FootnoteLink Is that the deadline for any alternative measures, therefore anything on 2 September will not be considered?
I'm looking to officials here. Am I right on 1 September?FootnoteLink
Yes, I can see some nodding heads. So, that means there are four months left to have a look at any alternative measures before the drawbridge is drawn up and we commence. Is that—?
But please bear in mind that we've been looking at alternative measures with the sector since May 2016.
I appreciate that, Minister, but Luke's given an example of Gelli Aur with technology advancements. To lift the drawbridge when technologies continue to develop—. I received an e-mail yesterday from a company that is able to monitor phosphates and nitrates within the waters in real time. The technology is ever-evolving, and then, to bring in, in four months' time, a deadline to any alternative measure seems counterproductive.
Vicky, could you say a bit more about the date, please, and then what will happen after?
Yes, of course. Thank you. In terms of the date, we put some dates in the legislation for submission of alternative measures, and that enables, as we say, other parties to submit their ideas for alternative proposals for us to be able to consider, and implement any that we consider to be giving at least equal or better benefit. I think, in terms of absolute deadlines, yes, there is a deadline in the legislation. I think with the work that we are doing with stakeholders more generally, I would hope that we would be aware of new and emerging technologies. I mean, as the committee has said, there are new and emerging technologies all the time and so I would hope that our continuing liaison with stakeholders, businesses and farming groups would mean that we're alive to the potential developments of those issues, and that we would be aware of those in advance, and look to take a proportionate and pragmatic approach. I think that the Minister would not want us to draw the drawbridge down on a particular date, if we were aware that there was a new and emerging technology. But obviously, the legislation is framed in very absolute terms—that's the nature of legislation. But I think in practice, we would want to take a pragmatic approach, but we have to have a stop somewhere to enable us to consider these proposals.
Thank you. I would disagree that you would have to have a stop somewhere. If you're always looking to improve water quality in continuum, then the advancement of technologies and any alternative solution to provide that should surely be a never-ending continuum. Because bringing a set deadline in means that, regardless of the discussions that you're having with stakeholders, should something come forward that changes the game, in essence, that date is there in legislation. We can have the flexibility all we like, but if it's in legislation, doesn't that give us a real difficulty in trying to bring forward something alternative?
Thank you. I'm sorry if I maybe wasn't expressing myself quite as clearly as I intended. Of course there will be a continual review and a continual consideration of new and emerging technologies through the review periods that we have built in, as well, to the regulations. So, we have these four-year reviews, and for this initial phase, we have the ability to look at alternative measures and proposals, but there is that ongoing continual review of regulations as well. And as part of any review, we would always be considering new and emerging technologies. I'm sorry if my original answer didn't quite convey that.
I appreciate the clarification. I just therefore don't understand why 1 September this year needs to be the end of that first period with regard to alternative measures.FootnoteLink Chair, I'll hand back to you.
Yes. And why impose such a short time frame? Why was that decision made?
Well, it was 18 months when it was first brought in, which I think is quite a long time.
But, as Sam Kurtz has just said to you, the technology in this area is developing all the time, so 18 months isn't really a long time, is it, Minister?
Well, you've got to take into account the five years previously, as well. So, as I say, it's six years now, so it'll be six and a half years. You have to have a date when you consider, as Vicky explained, and then it will form part of the review. You're quite right. I went to Gelli Aur, as I say, at least three years ago—at least. So, you know, it does take a long time to develop the new technology. I don't think you're going to get one every month, for instance. We've got one in already, and I think there could possibly be more coming forward. Groups of farmers may get together and come forward with other ideas, not necessarily technological, and we will consider them all. But you do have to have a date in the legislation.
Okay. I'll bring back Sarah Murphy.
Thank you, Chair. Just to ask some questions about the future national minimum standards. We did hear concern from farming unions that compliance with the regulations will form part of the future national minimum standards, and that that could result in compliance being a prerequisite to accessing future support through the proposed sustainable farming scheme. The NFU has said that this places in jeopardy businesses who are unable to reach regulatory compliance, such as tenant farmers, and farmers suffering a bovine TB breakdown being particularly at risk. So, Minister, are there any plans for compliance with the regulations to form part of the future national minimum standards?
I don't think it's appropriate for farms to receive payments designed to deliver environmental outcomes where those same farms do not meet baseline regulatory standards in order to protect our environment. The national minimum standards are currently in development—that'll be part of an agricultural Bill—but I think, whilst they're in development, there shouldn't be any expectation that access into the scheme would be facilitated if anyone was failing to comply with the law. It's the law, so, you know, if you're not complying with the law, then, obviously, you can't expect to have that funding.
Regarding what you say about TB breakdown and tenant farmers, if they have issues with their landlord—. And again, as part of the sustainable farming scheme, as you know, it's really important that that funding goes to the active farmer, not to the landlord, so I think that's a really important point to make here as well. I think from an enforcement point of view, NRW are very pragmatic. So, for instance, with a TB breakdown, and a farmer can't comply, I think NRW would work with them to see what sort of approach to take, and they would take into consideration that they were in a TB breakdown. Again, as I say, Vicky talked about her officials being on the Wales farm management forum sub-group; we've got a representative from the Tenant Farmers Association on there. It is really important we hear the tenant voice. So, just to reassure you that they do have a seat at the table.
Thank you very much, Minister. Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, Sarah. I know, Hefin, the Minister has touched upon, perhaps, some of the questions you were going to ask. Do you want to come in at this stage at all, Hefin?
Yes. My Teams phone is ringing here, and I don't know how to mute it, so if you can hear that, I apologise.
No, that's fine.
Just regarding the response you gave, you went into detail on TB farms affected by bovine TB, but with regard to tenant farmers, if they are in dispute with their landlord, they could find themselves in a court battle that would prevent them from meeting their statutory obligations. So, can you just be clear that there's flexibility there to understand that, and that the person tackled should be, in those circumstances, the landlord, surely?
As I say, I think NRW would have a pragmatic discussion. They would talk about it to the tenant and the landlord. I am aware. I've met with the tribunal representatives a few times to talk about how we can help tenant farmers more in this respect. So, I think there would be a pragmatic approach taken by NRW, and it would be for them to discuss it with the farmer.
Just regarding the mechanisms for that pragmatic approach, I'm just trying to understand how that would happen in reality. Would you have sight of those cases, that they're difficult? If they didn't want to take the flexible action that was necessary, would it be up to the local Member of the Senedd to bring it to your attention and try and help?
I can't think of any time when I would have had notification. I'll ask Vicky if officials do.
No, Minister, we wouldn't necessarily have prior notification, but, of course, we are always contactable, and can always be notified. But I would imagine it's more a discussion between the individuals and NRW.
But, obviously, if you were aware of an issue, and if it was of concern, you could raise it with me. I probably wouldn't be able to intervene in an individual case, but, certainly, you know, I could offer some advice.
I just feel like we're heavily reliant on NRW here to interpret this—
Yes. It's their statutory responsibility. Yes, absolutely.
Okay. And you'd expect there to be some kind of remit, reporting to you or to us, to scrutinise, to see how that is happening, so that we can understand how that flexibility is being applied.
As I say, I can't think of any time that they've raised concerns with me. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but I've never had notice of it. As you heard Vicky say, they wouldn't either.
Okay. Thanks, Chair.
Thank you, Hefin. Minister, obviously you'll be aware that it's not just agriculture that is responsible for pollution incidents. Obviously, water companies are responsible, industry is responsible. Can you tell us whether you're actually applying the same rigour to those areas as you are to the agricultural industry? And, if so, what other measures, as a Government, have you introduced to tackle pollution incidents in general?
So, obviously, water sits in the portfolio of the Minister for Climate Change, but, as I say, we're one department and we work very closely together. But, when water was in my portfolio, up until the last election—. As you say, they are heavily regulated in a way that the agricultural sector wasn't. So, for instance, they have to apply for permits, to NRW, for instance. I've heard this many times, that the farming sector was being targeted, but I go back to the figure I gave you before: 45 incidents—substantiated incidents—of agricultural pollution, up until last Friday, this year. We can't let it carry on in the way that it has done. These regulations were necessary to ensure that we deliver net zero—I mentioned that before—and that we don't undermine our environmental standards. As we left the European Union, we've got very high standards here in Wales, and we want to maintain them, and we cannot let a few spoil it for everyone. So, I think it is really important. But, we're not just targeting agricultural pollution. I am aware that pollution happens from other areas, and I know that the Minister for Climate Change continues to have discussions with the water sector, for instance.
Before you introduced these regulations, of course, you did promise not to introduce them during the pandemic. Why did you then, therefore, go ahead and introduce them during a pandemic?
Unfortunately, we're still in the pandemic, aren't we? So, I go back to what I was saying: we hadn't seen any decrease in the number of incidents. We're still having, on average, three per week, and that has continued into this year, unfortunately. I got to a position where, clearly, the pandemic was going in a way that none of us, I think—. Well, we didn't envisage a pandemic, did we? Certainly, it didn't go in the way that we envisaged. I talked to stakeholders, and the reason we introduced them when we did was because the number wasn't decreasing, but also we had that transitional period, and I felt that was enough time, working closely with the sector, to be able to bring these regulations forward. And if I can just reiterate one more time, Chair, that these regulations, when you look at them, are no more stringent than the current ones.
Okay, thank you, Minister. Are there any other questions for the Minister?
Yes, just to come back on that point.
Thank you, Chair. If these regulations are no more stringent than what's in play at the moment, why then are we having those substantiated agricultural pollution incidents, and what evidence shows that this new regulation will stop that?
Well, that's a really good question, because I am asked what do I want to see—what targets will we set, for instance. So, this is very long-term action. Even if we had no agricultural pollution incidents from this week, it will still take years and years for our water quality to recover, for our rivers to recover. So, these regulations are obviously mandatory. I didn't want to; nobody likes being told what to do. I wanted to do a voluntary approach. That didn't work, as we've seen an increase. This is the law now. Farmers have a statutory duty not to pollute, and we are going to have to watch very closely to see what improvements they do bring forward. That's why the review is there, because we need to make sure they work. But the most important thing is that people aren't complying, so we now want to make sure that people comply. And, as I say, the support is there and it is really important that we see a reduction, because it is harming the agricultural sector's reputation here in Wales. I don't want that, I wouldn't think you'd want that, and I don't think any farmer that I speak to wants that, and they absolutely see themselves as part of the solution to the climate emergency. This is their opportunity now to do it.
Okay. Thank you very much indeed and thank you, Minister. Our session has come to an end, so thank you to you and your team for being with us this morning. A transcript of today's proceedings will be sent to you for accuracy purposes in due course. If there are any issues with that, then please let us know, but, once again, thank you very much indeed for being with us today.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Symudwn ni ymlaen, felly, i eitem 4 ar ein hagenda. Dwi'n cynnig, o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42, i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod. A yw'r Aelodau i gyd yn fodlon? Ydyn, dwi'n gweld bod yr Aelodau i gyd yn fodlon. Felly, derbyniwyd y cynnig ac fe symudwn ni i'n sesiwn breifat ni.
We'll move on, therefore, to item 4 on our agenda. I propose, under Standing Order 17.42, to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting. Are Members all content? Yes, I see that they are. Therefore, the motion is agreed and we will move to our private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:35.
The public part of the meeting ended at 10:35.
The Government has now clarified that the date in question is 1 October, not 1 September.
The Government has now clarified that the date in question is 1 October, not 1 September.
The Government has now clarified that the date in question is 1 October, not 1 September.