Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:02 pm on 10th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ruth George Ruth George Labour, High Peak 5:02 pm, 10th October 2018

Were the Minister in his place, I would remind him that many of us have been attending agricultural shows and sheepdog trials for many years, and not just in our role as MPs. Our farms and our farming communities are part of our way of life in areas such as the Peak district. It is important to remember that when we examine the Bill. Promoting agriculture and the proper management of our land is important not only to tourists and visitors, but to those of us who live in rural areas and want our communities to be maintained.

Farming is important not only to our economy but to ensuring that we can continue the rural way of life. I am talking not just about upland farmers, but lowland farmers—in the Peak district, we have both the hills and the dales—sheep farmers, dairy farmers, beef farmers and smallholders. Most farming families have been farming for generations. They understand animal welfare, looking after the land, and how to put together a dry stone wall—a skill that takes years of dedication to acquire.

The rural way of life needs to be sustainable for future generations. The Bill is being introduced at a time when the average age of a UK farmer is 59, 30% are over 65 and only 3% are under 35. The Bill needs to be able to give the new generation the certainty to carry on in farming. At the moment, it is hard for them to see a way forward. The number of farmers in the UK has dropped from 141,000 in 2011 to 126,000 now: a drop of 11% in just seven years. The average income is about £20,000 a year—for lowland sheep grazing, it is about £16,000—and that is for all the hours farmers put in. They work 24/7 in many cases, particularly during the sort of weather we have had this year. Farmers have been out in the freezing weather and out taking water to the uplands when the water pressure has dropped and the supply has not been able to continue. Farming is a way of life and farmers want to be able to continue living it, but they are very concerned that the proposals in the Bill may mean—we have not seen any figures yet—that that is impossible.

It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Trevelyan, who set out clearly the problems that lots of farmers are having with the Rural Payments Agency and the bureaucracy involved in trying to claim a lot of the agri-environment payments on offer at the moment. The thought that their whole income has to be derived from those sorts of projects—the filling out of huge forms, all the bureaucracy, taking photos, reporting everything online and having multiple visits—does not fill them with confidence for the future. One of my local farmers reported that the RPA had asked him whether he was measuring his dry stone wall in metres or acres, and that was when he started to worry that RPA staff really do not know about farming and are far too remote from the farms and what is actually going on.

At the moment, farms are supported with nearly £3 billion via the CAP. Fortunately, we are going to see that continue, but direct payments make up 78% of that amount, so they are incredibly important to grazing animal farms, which actually make a loss. The direct payments are a source of sustained income on which they can rely when they are looking to invest. We need to make sure we have a system that recognises different types of farms, as has been said by Members from across the House. It may well be that we can have different systems of payment for different types of farm, and that that will take away the problems that farmers have having, but the Government need to make sure they set that out clearly for farmers for the future.