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I greatly appreciate the chance to talk briefly tonight about upland farming, not least because my hon. Friend the new Minister—my hearty congratulations to him—represents Penrith and The Border, a part of the world that we both know well. I know that he has the same problems I do with farmers who are struggling on upland pasture. He is very shrewd, and although he is new to the job he certainly knows his subject. I think we can both agree about one thing—it takes a very special sort of farmer to be able to ply this trade on the moorland and uplands of the United Kingdom.
Cattle and sheep on the lonely but lovely purple-capped landscapes of Exmoor are bred to be tough, and so are the people who tend that land and always have done, but mostly it is not much of a living. In the LFAs—the less-favoured areas, as Whitehall insists on calling them—some farmers, as we well know in this House, barely cover their costs. They have to rely on unpaid family labour to help run their businesses, or diversify. Their savings have dwindled hugely. Holidays, new cars, nights out and even clothes are sometimes luxuries that they can no longer afford.
In my constituency there are lots of hill farmers. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the difficulties facing these farmers in the current climate and operational system are discouraging the next generation of younger farmers? Ultimately, when we look across our beautiful fields, what we see is the result of the work these farmers do, and I have great concern for the future.
As always, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head; he is absolutely right. He knows as well as I do—we are roughly the same age—about the closure of agricultural colleges across the United Kingdom and the failure to invest in farming and young farmers. Our inability to help finance young farmers to get into farming has proved to be almost insurmountable. A lot of us, including me, should really be farming. That is what we set out to do, and we have ended up in such an esteemed places as this.
I am afraid that this entire situation—my hon. Friend put it very eloquently—is not a sob story but a reality. He and I know it to be the truth, because these people are our constituents. They are proud and extremely hard-working people. It is not that they do not want to be farmers—of course they do; it is what their parents and grandparents did, and they want to continue a tradition as much as anything else—but the balance sheets do not add up. They cannot grow cereals or exotic vegetables on unsheltered land at high altitude. They have to graze livestock instead—the most uncertain and least profitable part of cattle and sheep farming. Hill farmers are rightly at the end of the production chain. They are more vulnerable than most to price fluctuations, as we are seeing at the moment. If their costs go up, that comes out of their pockets. In some ways, it is a miracle, given the economics, that they have survived, but miracles do happen.
Let us look at some local things. The best sheep tags in Britain are designed by an Exmoor company—an excellent local company called Shearwell. Despite all the challenges on Exmoor, it still supports two markets at Cutcombe and at Blackmoor Gate—fantastic! However, because cheap imports such as New Zealand lamb and Polish beef are flooding in, prices get squeezed, and I am afraid that our hill farmers and other farmers take the hit. Farm incomes on uplands like Exmoor are way down. Not long ago, the average income was roughly £31,000. That may sound like a reasonable amount of money, but remember it is just turnover—most of it comes from subsidies, not profit. A similar lowland farm would reckon to be getting about double that—possibly £60,000 or more—yet it is our hard-pressed hill farmers who have helped to create some of the finest landscapes in Europe, and not just in our country.
I am always very interested in how we can help upland farmers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one thing we could do for them is encourage more sporting shooting projects in the uplands, thereby giving them more income and finance to help them in their farming projects?
My constituency is the home of the stag hounds and some of the finest shoots in Britain. I have, I think, 11 packs in my constituency and I assure the hon. Gentleman that shooting, hunting and fishing put an enormous amount back into my constituency, as is also the case in my hon. Friend the Minister’s constituency of Penrith and The Border. If there was ever a reason for repealing a ridiculous Act, this may be the time to do so. I thank the hon. Gentleman and hope he will join us in the beautiful Exmoor to ride to hounds.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to Exmoor every year. Hill farming is the driver for wealth creation across whole swathes of our rural economy. Diversification has become a necessity on moorland, encouraged by Governments and imaginative implementation by farmers who will turn their hands to anything legal to keep going. It is, of course, a case of having to do so. Many hill farmers will never break even on farming activity alone. They know it, we know it and I know the Minister knows it, but the burning issue for us all is how to achieve a financial solution that persuades farmers to continue doing what they have always done
Personally, I am not convinced—I am interested to hear the Minister’s views on this—that we have got this right. I hope that we will hear a much more joined-up approach now that this country is being run by our one-party Government. We should strive to achieve an outcome that compensates farmers fairly for the efforts they make preserving, protecting and looking after our landscape.
Some of the hill farmers I meet have become embittered about the system—with some cause. It is, after all, a minefield of baffling bureaucracy with ever-changing subsidies all packaged in deliberately confusing names which keep altering without much warning. Even the most basic subsidy—I am going to go into acronyms, I am sorry—the SPS, or single payment scheme, has now been renamed the BPS to remind the world that it is just a basic payment subsidy. The poor old farmers, however, have to put up with much worse.
Does anybody remember the HLCAs—hill livestock compensatory allowances—which were paid to farmers to look after the land? They were simplified and replaced by the HFAs—hill farm allowances—but just as we were getting used to HFAs, they were killed off and turned into UELS, which, as everyone knows, stands for the upland entry level stewardship scheme. Don’t bother to write this down: it’s too late and I really can’t go on too much longer with this.
The same thing happened to ESAs—environmentally sensitive areas—but probably not for long, as some of these things tend to come back rebranded with different initials. We are going to be talking about something called CS, which is countryside stewardship. That is fine, but we have been getting used to the CSS, which is the same thing but with an extra S stuck on the end. I do hope everyone is taking this in; I will, of course, be asking questions at the end.
A hill farmer in an SDA or LFA who used to be paid an HLCA which turned into an HFA which then became an UELS or perhaps an ESA and is about to transform itself into the CS has probably been tearing out their hair, or what is left of it, for years. Every one of those schemes comes with complex forms which are to be filled in before—dare I say it?—a single euro changes hands and ends up in the farmer’s pocket.
I did a quick trawl on the internet to try to list the number of different schemes and rules that come under the CAP—common agricultural policy—and can see how it would drive anyone batty. I do not have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and run a farm in a bleak climate, or rely on subsidies to put food on my family’s breakfast table, to find that out.
Most hill farmers will tell us that this is a nightmare system. It is like trying to play soccer with both legs tied together and then finding that Sepp Blatter has shifted the goalposts again. The Minister should not be alarmed. I do not hold him personally responsible—he has only been here two minutes. The muddle is caused by a basic conflict between trying to help farmers and looking after the natural world at the same time. This is where common sense starts to break down.
As I have mentioned, the major funding that farmers get is the SPS, which is known now as the BPS. It amounts to roughly £200 per hectare, but to claim the cash the farmer has to have the land in good agricultural and environmental condition—or, believe it or not, GAEC—among the compulsory standards for which is:
“Avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land”.
That means that if a farmer wants more money, they have to keep wild weeds in check, presumably by towing cutting gear over the land, which is an awful lot easier said than done if they live and farm on Exmoor—it is a hill.
For decades, farmers have managed the moor by burning off gorse and heather in the spring. It is one of the oldest methods known to man. It fertilises the soil with ash, provides new growth for livestock grazing and prevents raging summer fires that could destroy the soil and lead to erosion. But guess what? Natural England came along and told farmers they were getting it wrong and burning too much. A restriction order was placed at the whim of one official, whose views were based on a practice in—dare I say it, seeing that my hon. Friend Mr Goodwill is on the Front Bench?—North Yorkshire. The problem is that vegetation grows far more rapidly on Exmoor, which is why it has to be burned regularly. I mean no disrespect: we are a few months ahead. The result of such interference is that parts of the moor now sprout 10-foot gorse. It is far too tall to be burned safely, so it has to be chopped mechanically, with no soil benefits whatsoever. It makes the area look—I would happily entertain my hon. Friend the Minister on Exmoor—as though a small thermonuclear bomb has just gone off, and it costs us a fortune.
All that is very hard for any farmer whose family has been managing the same piece of countryside for five or six generations. Just as one example, farmers have been told that they are not doing enough to protect butterflies and beetles, so they have been lumbered with more controls. I do not think that farmers go around wilfully vandalising fauna or flora—I have never met one who does, and nobody else in the House has; farmers love to see it as much as any of us, which is why they farm—but we cannot expect them to be full-time guardians of the countryside for next to nothing.
The problem is that subsidies have not kept pace with the growing list of environmental responsibilities. That is one of the main conclusions of an important academic study produced by the Exmoor Hill Farming Network. I commend that excellent organisation to the House. It wants the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to invest in a thorough analysis of beef and sheep chains to try to secure better prices for producers. How often have we been here before? It is also after a complete review of the current level of support to these farmers to analyse the implications of
“social exclusion and mental ill-health”.
The Minister will already know from his own experience of hill farming how desolate and lonely it can be.
I accept that there are no quick fixes, but I have to wonder about the sense of moving too fast to achieve some of DEFRA’s more bizarre ambitions of reducing farmers’ reliance on subsidies. It may be a good aim, but it surely cannot be done until alternative solutions and sources of income can be guaranteed. I extend a warm invitation to the Minister to visit our beautiful part of the world. As I have said, I would love to host him.
I offer one caution. Almost 400 years ago, Exmoor was just a filthy piece of barren ground. That is what the writer Daniel Defoe called it. Robinson Crusoe would not give it a second look; he had gone to his desert island. But then came the farmers and—guess what?—they tamed the land. They continue to do so. If upland farmers ever called it a day, who would look after Exmoor? Why would the tourists bother to come? What would happen to the hundreds of rural businesses that we depend on to keep it the way it is? One farmer put it to me rather simply. “All I want,” he said, “is a level playing field”—then he winked—“but please don’t tell FIFA to design it.”
I thank my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger for raising a subject of such importance, and indeed for his kind words. It is a very great privilege to have my first opportunity to stand at the Dispatch Box dealing with a subject of such importance. I apologise in advance for the fact that I am not accustomed to doing so. I am normally barracking Front Benchers from the Back Benches, and it is rather difficult to adjust to facing forward.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, upland farmers are the most powerful symbol of our most fundamental values. Their presence is a living reminder of the formation of the British landscape, with the relationship between humans and soils reflected in the very shape of our fell sides. The uplands are the creation of those farmers. As he said, it is their work that we are celebrating and from which we are benefiting, whether through tourism, ecology, poetry or painting. We see their legacy in the shape of every field and the angle of every dry stone wall. It is their children who support our schools, and it is they who support our rural roads and shops. The lifeblood of our rural communities depends on the upland farmer, and that is as true of Exmoor and my hon. Friend’s constituency as it is of Cumbria, the North Yorkshire moors, Northumbria, Dartmoor, the Yorkshire dales and the whole Pennine ridge.
Upland farmers face three unique challenges. As my hon. Friend said, those are, first, economics and incomes; secondly, bureaucracy; and, thirdly, environmental management. I would like to respond briefly to each of those in turn. First, I can absolutely reassure him that the Government understand the serious issues around farm incomes. The average income for upland farmers is about £23,900, but many farmers in our constituencies operate on incomes that are considerably lower. In my constituency, there are upland farmers on incomes below £16,000 a year.
We looked specifically at the data for my hon. Friend’s constituency and for Exmoor, and we found that the number of commercial farm holdings fell from 603 in 2009 to 510 in 2013. Now, there will be many reasons for that, some of which are to do with economies of scale, and some of which are to do with changes in agriculture, but I feel, and I think he will feel, that that is 100 families whose history, heritage, knowledge of the landscape and investment in the soil have been lost forever.
That is why I am proud that the Government have introduced some serious reforms to the way the basic payment scheme operates. For example, from 2015, we are equalising the payments for lowland areas and severely disadvantaged areas. The direct payment rate on moorland has almost doubled. That sounds like normal Government jargon, but it is not—it makes an enormous difference. Effectively, it means that lowland farms will lose a certain amount, but it will be a relatively small amount compared with the benefit for upland farmers. DEFRA estimates that the SDA rate will increase from about €200 to €245 per hectare, and the moorland rate will nearly double, from €35 to nearly €70.
That should make a significant difference to upland incomes, but the Department needs to be careful to study this. We must be sure that we look at incomes in the round. We are looking not just at the basic payment scheme, but at all the other forms of support and environmental incentive provided to these farmers. More needs to be done, and we must monitor the impact of the changes to be sure that they remain flexible and that we are attentive to any problems.
Can the Minister answer a question asked of me time and again by my farming constituents in north Northumberland, many of whom are upland farmers? How would the Government support our farmers if the nation votes to leave the European Union in 2017? That is a real concern, and there is a fear that there is no understanding in DEFRA of how the issue might be dealt with.
It is a great privilege to take a question from my hon. Friend, and I congratulate her on her maiden speech. As the representative of Berwick, she represents the epitome of the middleland—that wonderful junction between England and Scotland—and the upland farmers right the way along to the Kielder forest. It is vital that, whatever happens in the vote on the European Union, the Conservative party—indeed, all parties in this House, I hope—and this country continue to provide deep support for farmers. We will be able to do that only if we take some of the arguments my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made and bring the public along with us. It would be dangerous, whether we remain in the European Union or leave it, if we ended up vesting our responsibility in the EU. We must take responsibility ourselves; we must say we believe in the support farmers currently get from Europe, and, whatever happens in the vote, we must continue to provide it, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned and that my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan raised in her question.
The second issue my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset raised concerned complex structures and bureaucracy, and I congratulate him on a most astonishing range of acronyms. It was a fantastic list of what we are all struggling with day by day. I am glad, however, that DEFRA has taken a number of steps to try to recognise how frustrating that bureaucracy can be. We hope that the new countryside stewardship scheme, which he mocked in his inimitable style, will provide a simpler, more robust method of delivering what we all want. We can see this, for example, in one issue that he raised: under-grazing and over-grazing. The countryside stewardship scheme is much more flexible at addressing that exact issue.
The third issue my hon. Friend raised—I am going to face the House rather than Mr Speaker; I apologise, I am learning my role here at the Dispatch Box—relates to the unintended environmental consequences of what we are doing. He used a very good example: the contrast between what is happening in Exmoor and what is happening in the North Yorkshire moors. He pointed out that differential growing rates mean the stopping of burning on Exmoor leads to much more growth of foliage and, in fact, damage to the environment. He is following a very distinguished tradition. That was pointed out by Charles Darwin in his seminal work, “The Origin of Species”. He stated that removing grazing and allowing grass to grow actually reduces the number of species on a given area of land. In other words, allowing that kind of understocking and not having burning in place may result not just in damage to farm incomes, but environmental damage.
That is why Natural England has, I am very glad to say, introduced flexibility around burning regimes. It has proposed allowing larger burn areas and more frequent burn rotations than would be found on sporting estates in the northern uplands. That will of course be key to farmers who do not want to be looking at a fell side that they will see as returning to wilderness and scrub, but it will also be vital for species such as the heath fritillary. I challenge my hon. Friend, if that is not happening on the ground, to please come back to us so we can look at it again, but Natural England has introduced those changes.
I would like to conclude by summarising some of the essential steps that I believe we now require to ensure that we have sustainable upland farming and sustainable upland communities.
Rural isolation is a serious issue. Upland areas are, almost by definition, the most sparsely populated areas in Britain. People are trapped by barriers of distance. Traditionally, those are barriers of communication and barriers of roads, but increasingly they are barriers of technology, such as lack of access to superfast broadband. In addition, if one looks at an individual upland farm, one will find that the number of people working on that farm has decreased dramatically in the past 60 years. Farms that might once have employed two or three people no longer do. Increasingly, that means that life in the uplands, if connected to the fact that the number of farms is falling because farms are getting larger, is increasingly lonely. As we know, an auction mart can provide an important way for farmers to meet each other.
That is not to say that we should be portraying upland farmers as victims. They are, as we all know, incredibly resilient and confident individuals who have chosen the life they love deeply and of which we are deeply proud. However, we need to be serious about the fact that isolated lives can be challenging: challenging for education and healthcare for farmers and their children, and challenging in terms of being able to diversify. We talk a great deal about getting people online, but if there is no broadband connection on one’s farm it is pretty difficult to diversify.
All these issues about isolation are important reasons why keeping incomes up through agri-environmental schemes is necessary. However, finding other kinds of infrastructure investment that we can put in place, whether it is for better roads or better broadband, will also be vital to the long-term health of those communities and the long-term life of the whole area, including those very species we want to protect. The whole idea of the countryside stewardship scheme is predicated, of course, on the existence of those countryside stewards, and as my hon. Friend pointed out, in this case the countryside stewards are the upland farmers themselves.
I congratulate the Minister on his contribution today; he has always made good contributions from the Back Benches and is now doing a fantastic job at the Dispatch Box. He mentioned the importance of broadband. I was on Hall’s Fell Ridge on Blencathra this weekend, looking down over his constituency, and I thought about the similarities between the upland farmers there and some of the upland farmers in my Macclesfield constituency, which is on the other side of the Peak district. Does he agree that it is vital to get these roll-out plans clearer, so that farmers can plan ahead to see whether they will be in the roll-out plan for the 99 percentile, or if they are not in that plan to have options to roll out into community-based solutions, which he knows quite a lot about from his own experience?
It is great to take a question from my hon. Friend. He is, of course, not just a fantastic local constituency MP but somebody who knows a great deal about this specific subject and has championed the outdoor industries, the uplands and the connection between the two, so he knows a great deal about diversification.
The point my hon. Friend made, which in grisly jargon terms we could call a point about transparency, is absolutely central. It is very important that rural communities know when they will get broadband and what kind of broadband they can get, so that they can make the relevant plans. There may be areas where broadband delivery may be more difficult, in which case people need to look at private sector providers or focus on the possibility of satellite or point-to-point wireless connections.
I will conclude my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset. I say a very strong thanks to him for raising an issue that matters so much; in fact, this rather crowded House in the middle of an Adjournment debate is a testament to how much this issue matters to so many of us here.
We need to have a much more open conversation, and we need to recognise that one size does not fit all. That means that we need to learn from all parts of this House and from all hon. Members about what is working and what is not working in their constituencies. We need to be better at being challenged on issues such as burning on Dartmoor.
Natural England should be empowered to be much more flexible. We do not need a 300-mile screwdriver operating from here in Westminster to tell people what to do; such a situation should be resolved between a Natural England official and the farmer on the ground in Dartmoor. We ourselves must assess and reassess relentlessly the regulatory methods that we are putting in place; we have to free farmers to farm.
The contribution of my hon. Friend is vital in the process of championing the uplands. I am really pleased that this debate is one of the earliest Adjournment debates of this Parliament. His contribution is also vital in holding people such as me to task, to ensure that we listen, learn and act.
I will finish by speaking personally and saying that I find almost nothing in our landscape as precious or as moving as the contribution of upland farmers over countless generations. We owe it to our ancestors and our descendents, to our landscape and to our rural communities, to give upland farmers the support they require to do their essential work. I pay tribute to the work done by many, many people in this Chamber over the years in supporting upland farmers, but this evening I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this very important debate.
Question put and agreed to.