Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 10th October 2018.

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Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset 6:00 pm, 10th October 2018

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will give you that fiver later.

The outcome of the referendum presented us with the opportunity to sculpt for the first time in many decades our own bespoke agricultural policy, and the Department has been absolutely right to build a consensus of interest, ranging from farmers and landowners to environmental groups and other non-governmental organisations; that is absolutely pivotal. I do want to echo, however, a theme that has run through many speeches by Members on my side of the House: there is an anxiety among many farmers—particularly in my constituency, which was aptly named by Thomas Hardy as “the vale of the little dairies”, covering quite a lot of the Blackmore vale in north Dorset—that in an attempt to bring the environmental groups onside, some of the key, principal purposes of UK agriculture have been slightly underplayed.

There is an anxiety that sitting somewhere within this Bill is an idea to create, through some form of environmental public good subsidy, effectively our largest open air non-working museum, where redundant farmers will wear pastiche smocks, lean over gates, chew wheat stalks and talk to people while sipping on a glass of cider, fitting in some form of agricultural production in the few acres that we allow them after they have done all these mad rewilding schemes and other bits and bobs.

As others have mentioned, we also need to educate about the importance of agriculture and what it does to our economy, water, air quality and tourism. We live in an increasingly urbanised country with a very urban-centric media, and we should be trying to find ways through to a new agricultural support scheme of rewarding farmers who open their gates and bring people in, teaching schools and others about the importance of farming.

We must have up front and centre at the heart of the Bill food production and security; I make no apology to the Minister for repeating that. I am inclined to think that in the Secretary of State’s Oxford conference speech of January he thought food production was such an obvious aspect of agriculture that he did not mention it and instead talked about all the other environmental things. I view that as an oversight, but our farmers need to be reassured at every step and turn that food production is important. It is important for all the good things it does, and for the contribution it makes to our economy.

To those who say that food production does not matter and that we can make up the gap in domestic production through cheaper imports, which could be some sort of domestic Brexit dividend, let me point out this: those cheaper imports, potentially raised at lower standards, will only be cheap while there is a viable domestic production sector that introduces market competition. If we kill that off, then—hey presto!—the prices will go up, and will be likely to go up higher to compensate for the greater discount introduced to kill off the domestic production.

Food production is absolutely imperative, and there is no disconnect between food production and environmental farming; the two are now intensely interwoven. In all of my meetings with my farmers and the NFU, I have yet to find one—irrespective of age, I say with respect to my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon—who wants to go back to some pre-European system where we could grub up the hedgerows and put slurry in the watercourses and so forth.

Let me close by saying to the Minister that the mechanism for financial support to agriculture, whatever that system is, needs to be clear, simple, speedy and robust. Moreover, it needs to be regional and bespoke to address the varying types of agriculture that we have in this country. It should also provide stability, to allow investment and to put it beyond political tinkering as and when there is a change of Government. Our agricultural farmers need the certainty that the regime in place is beyond political tinkering. I note that I have the support of the shadow junior Minister, Dr Drew, on that, which I welcome.