Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 10th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire 2:36 pm, 10th October 2018

It is a pleasure to follow Deidre Brock. I am glad she has finished. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

This is a great day. We can debate the details of an agricultural policy for which we are responsible. We may not agree with the shadow Secretary’s speech, but she made points that now have to be answered in this House. On day one in DEFRA, I was amazed to receive my brief and hear that we were being fined—called “disallowance” in Eurospeak—£630 million because the Commission did not like the cack-handed manner by which the previous Labour Government had gone from historic payments to area payments. That cannot now happen. The people now responsible, I am delighted to say, are sitting on the Government Front Bench. They have brought forward the Bill, which enables us to deliver what I think will be a real future for our farming industry and for our environment.

At DEFRA, I set four priorities: grow the rural economy, improve the environment, protect the country from animal disease and protect the country from plant disease. They can all be fulfilled within the Bill. The common agricultural policy had got itself completely stuck. Originally begun as a heavily subsidised production regime that produced vast amounts of food that could not be sold but had to be dumped on third markets with great export subsidies, it is morphing slowly to an all-encompassing environmental scheme for a continent where, as was pointed out to the Commission during the CAP negotiations, it is minus-45 in northern Sweden and plus-45 in Andalusia. It is impossible to have an all-encompassing regime for the continent. We have ended up with muddles such as the three-crop rule, which is deeply damaging to the mixed variety of farming in this country. We can now design a policy tailored to our own environment for each of our regions, as we touched on just now.

My first criticism is that it would be nice to have in the introduction a mention of food. Food and drink production is huge. It is worth £85 billion a year to the economy, supporting 3.5 million jobs and providing 62% of the food we eat. By the way, that is down from 78%. In 1978, we produced 78% of the food we eat. The CAP has failed even on self-sufficiency. It would be appropriate to have food in the title of the Bill, because that surely is the first role of farming.

What I would like to see—I am delighted no one has touched on it—is us leaving food production to farmers. I cite two countries from which we should take an example. New Zealand and Australia stopped all food subsidies. New Zealand used to have 70 million woolly raggedy things called sheep running around causing appalling environmental damage, including soil erosion and water pollution. In one year, I think 1983, six million tonnes of sheep had to be turned into fertiliser—it could not sell them. It now has zero subsidies for production and has improved its technology enormously. Today, there are about 27 million sheep, but it exports more lamb. That is an incredible achievement and that is the lesson for the Secretary of State: we should not subsidise food production. The New Zealanders have created whole new industries—with wine, and with venison. They hardly had any deer, but that industry is now worth a significant sum in exports for New Zealanders—about $100 million.

Those are the clear lessons. Where the Government can help, and there are opportunities in the Bill, is on technology. The Secretary of State came with me to Harper Adams University and we saw a prototype machine that will go along a row of strawberries in a polytunnel, leave the brown one because it is rotten, leave the green one for tomorrow and pick the big red one for one supermarket and the little red one for another, and pack it on the machine, avoiding all contact with human hands and delivering swift, healthy food to our consumers. The university would like help to get that prototype moving, and that is the sort of area where the Government have a direct opportunity to help.

Secondly on technology, the Secretary of State came with me to Soulton Hall and saw my young constituent Tim Ashton, who has gone for no till. He has managed to reduce costs in wheat production by 60%. In North Shropshire, just outside Wem, he can look Kansas, Australia or Argentina in the eye at world prices. He will make money at world prices. So long as we are not idiotic about glyphosate, with no till, there are the most amazingly beneficial environmental outcomes. Less water is going in the river and there is a huge increase in flora and fauna—so much so that he has stopped counting barn owls because there are just too many. On soil, having seen that, I would flag up to the Secretary of State that clause 1 really ought to list soil improvement as a public benefit to be sought. He has a pretty good list of public goods, but I would add soil and animal welfare, which is very important. I do not think that there is a single person in the House who would not like to see improved animal welfare standards. That is a clear public good that costs. We saw what happened when Lord Deben unilaterally improved our regime on tethers and stalls; there was a huge cost to our own industry and we ended up importing pork products from regimes that are less beneficial. But animal welfare is a public good; we would all support it; and there is room in this Bill to pay for that.

The other country that I would consider would be Switzerland. Do not subsidise food production—leave that to technology, to development and to individual farmers—but consider that livestock farming has an enormous environmental role. Tourism is worth about £30 billion in the rural economy. People will not go to the Derbyshire dales if there are elders and willows and the stone walls have fallen down. They will not go to the Lake district; they will not go to Scotland; they will not go to north or mid-Wales. They will go there if there is a managed number of livestock maintaining the environment. That is the lesson from Switzerland. Very large numbers of sheep, cattle and calves are taken up to the highest Alps in the summer at vast expense—probably the most ludicrously uneconomic way to produce food in the world, but one with a massive environmental benefit, maintaining the landscape. That is the lesson on public goods, most of which are cited in clause 1.

Let us copy New Zealand and Australia on zero food subsidies and following technology, and copy Switzerland on significant payments—more than we get on the CAP at the moment—for the maintenance of those rural and marginal areas where one cannot survive at world food prices alone. Lastly, and very briefly, we are talking about public good and if the farm is large and provides lots of public goods, I do not mind if it gets more public money. The Secretary of State is quite right to criticise the old basic payment in which people just got paid for having vast amounts of land and not delivering public good, but I think it is unfair to penalise large, efficient units if in future they are going to provide lots of public good.

I congratulate the Secretary of State heartily. We will see a lot of detail in the statutory instruments, but the Bill broadly gives us a very good framework to copy New Zealand and Switzerland. With that, I look forward to voting for it tonight.