Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:44 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Peter Heaton-Jones Peter Heaton-Jones Conservative, North Devon 5:44 pm, 10th October 2018

Let us move from north of the border to North Devon, where, I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, my constituents are watching the progress of the Bill very carefully indeed. Farming is an incredibly important part of our local economy. More than 11% of workers are employed directly in the industry and, of course, that figure increases markedly when we look at all the small businesses and sole traders whose livelihoods rely directly on farming.

Let me be clear that, for us in North Devon, this is about more than just economics. Nearly three quarters of the entire land area of North Devon is farmed. To put it simply, the landscape looks as beautiful as it does because it is managed so expertly by our farmers. They are the stewards of our environment, particularly in an area such as mine with its diverse landscape, as the Secretary of State, who is not in his place, will know because he visited Exmoor over the summer to see the fantastic work being done by the Exmoor Hill Farming Network, which, under challenging circumstances, not only farms productively but looks after that national park environment.

Farming is incredibly important in North Devon, and to underline that I met more than a dozen farmers last Thursday. We had very useful and wide-ranging discussion about the Bill, and I want to thank the NFU in the south-west for arranging it. In that meeting, a series of reasoned and reasonable suggestions was put to me on how the Bill might be improved. I want to run through some of them now, but in doing so I want to make it clear that I will support the Government on Second Reading. I will not be supporting the Opposition’s amendment because, frankly, to decline to give this Bill a Second Reading would be entirely counterproductive and far more about politics than helping our farmers.

One of the main arguments made to me by the farming industry in North Devon is that the Bill needs to focus more on the fundamental purpose of farming, which is the production of food. This is an Agriculture Bill and its greatest impact will be on the industry that feeds our nation, so we must make clear that financial assistance is explicitly linked to agricultural activity. The Bill rewards farmers for public goods to deliver a cleaner and healthier environment, which is to be applauded, but the point made to me is that insufficient significance is placed on the greatest public good, which has to be the production of food in a safe way.

The reality is that financial support is absolutely critical to the survival of many of our farms. Without it, more than four in 10 of all British farms would probably make a financial loss or become economically unviable. Subsidies are crucial, and of course, historically, they have come from the EU under the common agricultural policy.