The Government is "backing Britain's farmers", environment secretary Theresa Villiers has said as she outlined legislation to "provide clarity to farmers on funding support this year" as the UK leaves the EU.

Speaking at the start of the second reading debate in the Commons of the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill, Ms Villiers said the Bill was a "short technical piece of legislation with a simple purpose, to empower the UK Government and the devolved administrations to pay basic payments to farmers for the 2020 scheme year".

She added: "It therefore maintains the status quo for pillar one for this final period before we start to leave the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) behind completely."

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Ms Villiers said: "So the CAP provisions providing the basis to issue basic payments in the UK for 2020 were therefore disapplied by the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement reached last year.

"This policy decision has left a legal gap which we're now proposing to fill. This legislation will provide clarity to farmers on funding support this year.

"If Parliament were to reject this Bill no direct payments could be made by the UK Government or by the administrations in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

"That would have very serious consequences for farmers right across the nation who have planned their businesses on the basis of continuity of direct payments for this scheme year."

She added: "We know that if we're to level up the rural economy in the way we want to for our whole country, we must support the agriculture which is at the heart of our rural communities."

Tory MP Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) asked the Environment Secretary for assurances farmers would not be made poorer by the Government's post-Brexit agricultural policy.

He said: "She must agree, I hope, that the purpose of subsidy at all is to ensure that British agriculture can compete with agriculture say in the European Union or indeed around the rest of the world?

"Therefore, will she ensure her department does the necessary research so that when we move away from direct payments for acreage and on to public money for public goods that money does arrive on the farm.

"We can't afford for our farmers to be poorer because of these excellent intentions."

Responding, Ms Villiers said: "This is a hugely challenging thing to deliver.

"That's why we will be phasing it in over this period of seven years and of course it is essential to get the funds to the farmers who are delivering the public goods which we want to secure."

Labour's shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard confirmed Labour would back the Bill.

He told MPs: "There is an irony that the first piece of legislation that we're considering after the Government's Brexit bill nearly passes is a piece of legislation that extends the EU's farm payments system for a further 12 months.

"Labour will not be opposing this Bill today because we think it's important that our farmers are paid."