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Agriculture Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:44 pm on 3rd February 2020.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 7:44 pm, 3rd February 2020

It is a huge honour to follow a quartet of excellent maiden speeches from Members from across the House, each of whom has big shoes to fill and a big personality to match. My advice, as someone who has been there, is: be yourself, and you will do wonderfully well and be a big personality in your own right.

The Secretary of State was right when she said at the beginning of this debate that farming is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. Therefore, some of the issues could be wrongly dismissed out of hand when we consider farming, its impact and what it means for the British mainland. Northern Ireland produces an awful lot of the food consumed on this side of the channel, so it is important that we have a joined-up approach to our agrifood matters. I am delighted that my colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly Edwin Poots is the Minister for agrifoods and the environment there. I hope it will make a relationship with the Secretary of State easier because of the good connections and good support we have had from the current Government.

However, the Secretary of State and this Bill have to address the fears that too many farmers in Northern Ireland have about potential tariffs east-west, on the movement of foods, grains and other products from the British mainland to Northern Ireland. The potential for those tariffs creates a volatility in prices and has helped to drive down farm incomes in previous years. Those and threatened tariffs will only serve to do much more. This Bill is important, providing a new opportunity for agricultural product and agricultural payments that should be flexible, to meet the needs of the regions of the United Kingdom. I say that because the needs of Northern Ireland and what we produce will be different from those of Wales, Scotland or England. Therefore, these things must be flexible. They must address and support the primary producer where it matters most; help increase his or her sustainable productivity; help put money back into the pockets of our farmers; improve food security; and protect our naturally beautiful countryside.

In Northern Ireland, agriculture is king, with 75% of all its land being used for agriculture. It is used to produce meat, dairy and eggs, which account for 80% of our food output. In Northern Ireland and Ireland, animals use more land than is used to grow any crops, including indigenous products, such as potatoes. Therefore, it is essential to understand how important land and agricultural produce are in Northern Ireland; our turnover is £4.5 billion, employing one in eight people, which works out at more than 25,000 farm businesses in our country. That is threatened by volatility in the market. The big issue is that farm incomes have fallen by 23% in the past year and a half, from £467 million to £360 million in the past year.

I go back to the key point: the tariffs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that could be introduced as a result of Brexit would drive that down further, which is why all the commitments made from the Dispatch Box about ensuring that those tariffs will be minimal or non-existent, and ensuring that things are frictionless, have to be met in reality, otherwise farmers will be put out of business in Northern Ireland. What will that do? It will help to destroy food security here in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we produce most of the milk consumed on this island. We produce some 73% of the beef consumed on this island. Do not destroy your food basket in Northern Ireland, and make sure that our products are protected by this Bill.

We export about 800 litres of milk a year to the Republic of Ireland, so we are also an export nation in food production. I have already given the figure for the amount of beef eaten in the United Kingdom. We want to produce so much more of that product, and if this Bill does anything to encourage agrifood production, to increase the opportunities for farmers to produce more, that will do more to sustain farming and increase farm incomes, and will address many of the problems and concerns people have about cheap food coming into the UK.

Agritech has been mentioned in the debate. I am sorry to get on to this subject, but in Northern Ireland every year 1.1 million tonnes of solid animal waste is produced. Its calorific value is 15 millijoules per kilogram. At the same time, Northern Ireland’s heating demand represents around 24,650 GWh. If we bring those two things together with agritech, we will be able to utilise that solid waste, which could account for around 20% of Northern Ireland’s heating need. There is a huge opportunity that has to be grasped, but how? Can the Bill support such innovative technology? Can it ensure that those who wish to get behind such technologies have the financial support to allow them to invest and create not only jobs but the opportunities that arise from addressing those needs? Of course, that would also give environmental support. As we all know—it has already been raised—phosphates are destroying much of our land and affect water pollution, which can also be addressed by agritech.

The needs I have described require investment, and the only way that we can do that is to ensure that the Bill really gets to the heart of it and addresses the needs of the primary producers, who care most about the environment because they work in it and need a good environment to make the best, tastiest food on these islands.