I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
As a rural Northumbrian for more than 20 years, I have been closely involved with the trials and tribulations of the local farmers and land managers, whose livelihood is determined by the health of our rural economy. It is a physically hard life, and the Northumbrian weather—perhaps even more dramatic than that in the constituency of my hon. Friend Richard Drax—is a constant companion, with financial rewards sometimes feeling scarce.
The understanding of taxpayer support for farming is a fundamental underpinning of our food supply system, and it is a support that taxpayers buy into, as long as it reaches its intended target and meets its stated aims. The EU’s common agricultural policy did not do that. The voice of UK farmers has too often been drowned out by the demands of French or Spanish farmers. We have been stuck in a system not aimed at investing in the best land use in Northumberland or anywhere else across our islands.
With our departure from the EU and this Bill, we can stop the EU CAP funding bias against our own farming communities and put our own more effective and targeted land-management choices first. This reflects the optimistic outlook that Brexit brings—despite the depression on the Opposition Benches that has positively brought me down to earth—about the fact that we can and should determine our own land-management policy.
At a local level, my caseworker Jen spends a great deal of her time dealing with concerned farmers who have yet to receive last year’s payment, or are wondering whether this year’s will ever materialise. Mapping disagreements, disputes over hedge lines, common land use and cross-border issues with the Scots—not helped by the SNP’s current position—are just some of the challenges that the EU-based system, and perhaps historically our own delivery teams in Whitehall, have thrown up, causing months of financial and emotional challenges for Northumbrian farmers.
In addition to the funding disparity with other EU nations, years of working with our upland farmers in Northumberland has brought to my attention too many stories of wasted time and energy that could be better directed. One of the biggest gripes, as the Minister well knows, is the multiple visits by officials to ensure that EU rules are being followed, each visit adding stress and taking time, when one visit could cover all the issues—like an Ofsted visit, perhaps. Farmers would face one short window of pain, but would then be trusted, left alone to get on with their job. The vast majority of our farmers want to look after the land they are stewarding.
The undue pressures placed on our rural communities have always worried me. Farmers have been asking for help to ease the burden for years, but until now there was nothing we could do. That is why the Bill is so exciting: we will at last be able to create management and financial incentives to suit our needs and this Government’s long-term commitment to looking after our whole environment. We will be designing a system that does not funnel funds to our farmers’ foreign competitors, but frees up our land stewards to innovate; a system that supports a holistic perspective of land management, which puts long-term soil health, food production and water basin management with tree planting; and a system that incentivises long-term investment for public and economic good—the two are not mutually exclusive. Most important, public good is not an empty phrase: it means that we can join up long-term urban and rural health and security needs with the way we use our land—for everyone.
The Bill is based on inherent fairness, whereby farmers are rewarded for what they do and produce, rather than for the size of their landholding. Crucially, it offers rewards for those already working hard to improve the environment and to ensure that their methods of production are sustainable. That will begin to drive change for good across the countryside.
As the MP for one of the most sparsely populated constituencies—albeit the most beautiful, and I will take on anyone who wants to fight me on that—I am pleased that is not just farmers who grow food who will benefit from the new system. I have spoken many times about trees, and this debate offers an opportunity to do so again. As the Minister is aware, I believe we need to be planting at least one tree for every citizen, not one for every five, but the target of 11 million needs at least to be met to allow the long-term thinking we need for land management and water basin stabilisation, to support the timber industry’s needs and to reduce long-term reliance on imports for biomass, for housing frames and for furniture. We must aim to be able to become self-sustaining in timber.