I wholeheartedly support the Bill, both in principle and in detail, but farmers in my constituency in Wiltshire are hoping for some assurances from Ministers about their future.
The context for the debate is a fact that is not often mentioned—it has not been mentioned much today—which is that we have very cheap food in this country. Households in the UK spend less on food than those in any other country in the world except for Singapore and the United States. Cheap food is obviously a good thing in itself, and no Government will want to see inflation, so the question is: how do we maintain it? We can do it in three ways: first, through science and improving yields, particularly through the use of pesticides; secondly, we can keep our food cheap by subsidising its production; and thirdly, we can use competition and import cheap food from abroad. The Government propose changes to all three methods of keeping food cheap, with less pesticides, fewer subsidies over time and more competition. All those things are welcome in principle, but all could impact on farmers’ livelihoods. I am sure they will not, but I hope we can get some assurances.
First, on the science, we can and should lead the world in the development of sustainable food, but we need to be pragmatic, not absolutist, in how we proceed. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown about the use of neonicotinoids, and particularly their impact on the oilseed rape crop. We either need to allow neonicotinoids or prohibit imports that use them.
Secondly, on the subsidies, the principle of public money for public goods is absolutely right, but surely the primary public good—the most essential good there is—is food itself, so I welcome the fact that the new system will
“encourage the production of food”.
I urge Ministers to emphasise that and reassure farmers that they will not be turned into mere wardens of the landscape.
Lastly, on competition, farmers support the principle of free trade—or at least I hope they do and think they should. We want to sell our beef and lamb to America, and we do not fear American produce coming here, but that works only if we have a genuine free market in which producers compete on a like-for-like basis across a genuinely level playing field. In that market, Britain—and Wiltshire most of all—will be a winner.