Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:05 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:05 pm, 10th October 2018

Now we come to the easiest part of the United Kingdom to resolve when it comes to agri-food. I dare not tread into the issue of Brexit. Reference was made earlier to a red line in the Irish Sea, but I assure Members that that will never happen as far as the Democratic Unionist party is concerned. We are part of the United Kingdom, and that is how it will remain.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have been involved in the agri-food sector for about 43 years—I know that that is hard to believe—from working as a primary producer to working in retail and production and processing.

I think that we are about to experience dramatic changes throughout the industry. These are exciting times. When I speak to farmers and industry representatives, they acknowledge that. They know that there will probably be some trying times, but they are excited by the opportunities that we will have after we have left the European Union.

I welcome the opportunity to debate a Bill that will have an impact on every farmer and farm business throughout the United Kingdom, whether it keeps sheep on the Antrim hills or grows wheat in East Anglia. Given that the UK is leaving the EU and the common agricultural policy, it is vital that a new domestic British agricultural policy is introduced. I welcome the regional flexibilities that are proposed for the different regions of the UK. I believe that there should be a variation in the new policy for each of those regions, provided that those variations do not produce competition in the internal market.

I note the name of the Bill, and I hope that agriculture will remain the central theme in any future policy. The Prime Minister is on record as saying— on three occasions, I think—when I put questions to her that agriculture would not be a poor cousin or the sacrificial lamb in any negotiations with Europe. We will hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire, along with those of the Secretary of State and the farming Minister. Agriculture must remain at the top of the agenda.

In Northern Ireland, we employ some 120,000 or 125,000 people in the agri-food sector. There is huge concern in the industry, and of course in the farming community, about EU casual workers. We need to address that during the Bill’s Committee stage, or perhaps it can be dealt with by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. There is a massive shortage of workers in the agri-food sector. A few weeks ago, along with the Chairman of the Committee, I met representatives of the industry, who emphasised that they were reaching crisis point, because the sector did not have enough workers to deal with production. The Government need to deal with that issue.

Food production that involves sustainable but profitable farming is essential. As has already been mentioned, those who are in the black at the bank can do many things. Given the changes that are coming, we must encourage farm production. It has already been mentioned that the Bill needs to give more emphasis to the incentive for farmers to grow and produce food. The incentive is there, but it needs to be made clearer that farmers will be encouraged to produce good food.

In Northern Ireland we have for many years had the Albert Heijn supermarkets in Holland insisting on coming to buy their meat in Northern Ireland because of how it is reared and because husbandry and animal welfare is maintained. That applies right across the whole of the United Kingdom. Across the whole UK, we produce the best food produce to be found anywhere in the European Union. That is a fact, and our standards and our animal welfare must be maintained. It is vital that we do that.

I have talked about opportunities. I believe there are opportunities, but the Government must take the issue of the workforce in the agri-food sector more seriously. Some companies in Northern Ireland are 60% dependent on people from other countries. We must get that situation right in some shape or form, and hopefully we will resolve it.

I want the Bill to allow for a UK-wide approach on matters that affect the whole UK. My party believes there should be an overarching policy across the UK to deal with such issues as marketing standards and crisis fund management. It is important that we do such things collectively.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of this Bill will depend on the trade policy that is implemented. Let us be clear: trade legislation or a Pacific trade deal that views agriculture as a sacrificial lamb for the importation of lower quality and standards than those in UK production will not be accepted. The British public will not accept that. We have a standard and a reputation not just across the whole European Union, but further afield, such as in South Africa and in those other countries that buy our chicken product because we cannot market it anywhere else. Our standard must be maintained. I am sure the farming Minister is aware of that—he has been told about it often enough when he has given evidence to the EFRA Committee.