I have met some farmers and local NFU branch representatives in my constituency—yes, the meeting took place literally in the middle of a field—and they raised specific concerns. They talked about the need for the Government to ensure that UK farmers are treated equally and that they will not be at a disadvantage compared with those in the devolved countries, Europe and the rest of the world. They would therefore welcome a universal framework that applies to the whole United Kingdom.
Some farmers in South East Cornwall have supported public money for public goods as a good principle, but there is some concern about the ability of individual farmers to access schemes to replace the average Cornwall payment of £16,000 under the basic payment scheme through increased productivity. Tenants are concerned about how they will have access to environmental payments when landlords are seeking to retain them, even though the majority of the public good is delivered by the occupier —soil, water and carbon.
There is a general feeling that the level of regulation and inspection from Government and retailers is becoming too great, and that the administrative burden needs to be significantly reduced so that farmers can concentrate on what they do best: producing food. The power given to Ministers was acknowledged, but there needs to be increased scrutiny of contracts, risk-based assessments or inspections, and earned recognition so that the costs in time and money of needless and duplicated visits are eradicated. One farmer gave an example of a recent visit by trading standards to check the harvest interval of his onions, in case someone ate them raw.
Some farmers mentioned the need for sustainable and profitable farm businesses to deliver public goods, and the fact that these factors seem to have been left out of the Bill. They also raised the impact of last winter’s cold weather, with the snow, and the very dry summer. Those environmental factors have had a detrimental impact on businesses and on the security of food supply. Indeed, concern was expressed that the Bill does not acknowledge a secure food supply as a public good, which is difficult to understand in view of the climate and trade challenges. The question of the farmer’s position in the supply chain is always to the fore, and farmers want to know how the Bill will help.
I acknowledge that the Bill will improve matters, but more support is needed for producer organisations, including a wider exemption from competition law and further financial support to engender collaboration. The need for high environmental and animal welfare standards is acknowledged, but it will be impossible for farmers to deliver if their businesses are not profitable.
I welcome the Bill, despite these concerns. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will address some of my farmers’ concerns and sensible suggestions when the Bill is in Committee. I have every confidence that he will be supporting the farmers, and I will support the Bill tonight.