Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:28 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon 4:28 pm, 10th October 2018

I very much look forward to supporting the Bill later this evening. It is important and long overdue, regardless of Brexit, although, of course, Brexit will impact on trade deals and our ability to export and strike bilateral trade deals.

Farmers, like all industries, need as much certainty as they can get at the present time. I therefore think it is entirely regrettable that the Scottish nationalist party has chosen to put politics above certainty for farmers in Scotland. Farmers in Scotland deserve better.

The challenge for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—and he is a friend of mine—is to strike a balance between environmental stewardship and the production of food. There will always be those on all sides who argue that he is erring on one side or the other, but what he must take away from this debate is the fact that it is not just about managing land but about the production of food. We all have these balances in our own lives and our own constituencies. In my beautiful constituency we have to balance the area of outstanding natural beauty status against farming, which is a constant challenge. There is also the issue of access to the countryside, which I will come to in a minute.

My right hon. Friend can further champion the industry by doing more than the Bill stipulates. He can talk more about, and do more to support, our land-based colleges. In my constituency I have Bicton College, which he visited in a previous incarnation as Education Secretary in May 2012 to open the earth centre. We should do more to get young people into farming and show them the industry. The number of county farms has shrunk, and it is more difficult for young farmers to get in. At the other end is the work of charitable trusts such as the Addington Fund, which looks after farmers when they have to vacate their residences at the end of their farming careers. We need to show young people that there is a future in farming. Frankly, there is a demographic problem in farming and we need to encourage more young people into it.

My right hon. Friend has a real chance to be a champion in food production. I alluded to food labelling in an intervention. For too long, we have put up with misleading food labelling and country of origin labelling. The consumer deserves better and needs to know the country of origin. We need to know what is purely British—what has been reared, produced and packaged in Britain—and what has been imported into Britain, repackaged and sold in a misleading way. He can go much further in that respect.

Another issue is of great concern around the Chamber is that of livestock transportation. We can ensure that we have the toughest possible regimes for our livestock exports, which I hope will increase after Brexit.

My right hon. Friend has done a lot regarding our slaughterhouses and abattoirs. I have written to him in respect of one of my small abattoirs, which does very little business. I think we have to have a light touch to secure the best possible practice. One abattoir in my constituency has CCTV as well as someone sitting there, even though it only slaughters animals once or twice a week. The requirements are very onerous for such a small business, and I hope my right hon. Friend will look at those issues when they arise. We should not shy away from the fact that the practices of some communities—for example, halal butchery and orthodox Jewish butchery—are simply not acceptable in animal husbandry terms.

I said earlier that we have a chance to introduce a “buy British” policy, and somebody from the Opposition said that we could not do that under WTO rules. We do not know the rules yet, but we should put buying British products for our schools, hospitals and armed forces at the forefront of everything we do once we are out of the EU.

On land access, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to encourage people to make more use of the countryside as part of the anti-obesity campaign, but there is a quid pro quo. The landscape looks as it does because it is farmed. It is man-made. Stone-walling, ditch-digging and hedge-laying are all done at farmers’ expense, so farmers are due some compensation. Simply to open up land irrespective of that, without acknowledging that it is private land that people are paying to maintain, is entirely wrong. I think there is a wonderful opportunity to review the whole question of footpaths, which are way out of date, and perhaps to look at compensation for farms that are covered in footpaths. We need to look at bridleways and the use of off-road vehicles. We can do so many of these things now that we are coming out of the EU.

This country should be able to feed itself; that is the duty of the Government. I think that the Opposition amendment is unnecessary and, frankly, unintelligible. I believe that the country should be able to feed itself, and I hope that the Bill will bring that goal one step closer.