Future of Farming: Somerset

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:47 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset 6:47 pm, 18th March 2020

I start my dissertation by firmly apologising to the Minister, who has not had a copy of my speech. I managed to send it to the wrong Minister, so I apologise unreservedly—that just shows quite how incompetent I can be.

Believe it or not, I am very grateful to have this rare opportunity to address the House about a subject that is very close to my heart and that of a lot of Members—farming. As I am talking about farming, I ask the Minister to make sure that we as a Parliament ensure that vets are taken in as key workers. I know that that was not mentioned today by the Prime Minister, and I take this opportunity to put that forward.

Adjournment debates are a bit like Opposition election slogans, especially if you turn them upside down—in our case, it would be, “For the few, not the many”. However, at least the few of us here this evening are demonstrating the best health practices. I am keeping a safe distance from the Minister and I promise that no offence is intended.

This is a difficult time for all of us, I am afraid, farmers included. Let me tell the Minister a bit more about the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency. At the Bridgwater end, we have some of the lowest-lying farmland in the United Kingdom, and at the West Somerset end, particularly on Exmoor, we have some of the highest. Both areas have faced huge challenges even at the best of times. Down on the levels, we have so far managed to survive the winter without a repeat of the devastating floods that emerged in 17 miles of Somerset six years ago. Back then, the Environment Agency was led by deaf donkeys in blindfolds. It took a great deal of persuasion to convince them that rivers work much better when they are regularly dredged, and I pay enormous tribute to David Cameron for leading that charge. Any of my farmers on the levels could have told them that, and in fact, they did tell them that in no uncertain terms—I went to the meetings.

The thing about farmers is that they know the land. They respect the weather. They understand that climate is changing and that we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. They, like me, speak their minds. For example, there is genuine concern about the long-term financial commitment to keep Somerset flood-free. Naturally, I am delighted—as is my whole area, and especially the levels—that the Chancellor’s Budget guaranteed proper funding of £114 million for the tidal barrage. That is incredibly welcome, and I thank the team.

But the Minister will be aware of the question mark that continues to hang over the future of the Somerset Rivers Authority. The SRA is a flood prevention organisation. It uses the expertise of local drainage boards and the most clued-up councils, such as Sedgemoor District Council. The authority gets its funding from various public organisations but also, crucially, relies on a precept that is added to council tax. That is rare, but not unusual. Without that tax element, all the ambitious plans to safeguard people from the horrors of flooding would be at risk. As of now, the precept is not enshrined in law. A private Member’s Bill to fix that passed through the House last year, for which I am grateful to colleagues, but it was then sabotaged by the Liberal Democrats in the other place for reasons that I still, to this day, do not understand.

However, the new all-singing, all-dancing Environment Bill could easily be tweaked to ensure that the SRA can raise what it needs through precepts. I hope that the Minister will be in a position—perhaps not now, but in the near future—to give me an indication of how and when that problem could be solved. I would be happy to have a discussion with him about that.

Meanwhile, farmers on the Somerset levels remain understandably anxious, as we all are, over our future trading relations with Europe. This is dairy country—although not exclusively—and the dairy industry is, as one analyst put it recently, “close to broke”. We have one of the largest milk companies in the country, Müller. We are also the home of Yeo Valley. That is why farmers are puzzled and concerned by the decision of the Secretary of State to potentially halt—it depends how we look at it—the culling of badgers in Somerset. I know that it is an emotive subject for all sides, but there is ample evidence that the cull in Somerset is significantly cutting the incidence of tuberculosis and proving its worth. That is because it is being done well. Badgers and their human supporters may take a different view, but I am slightly shocked and worried that the Secretary of State— I say this advisedly—appears to be siding with them.

Dairy farmers, like all farmers, love their animals. They know how bovine TB can rip through a herd. What kind of message are we sending them? The cull has effectively removed a major health risk. The prospect of vaccinations is still too vague and too far away. I wonder whether the Minister understands the economic tightrope that dairy farmers and beef farmers already face. The only way to make any decent money from milk is to turn it into butter, yoghurt and cheese. Many farmers would struggle or go bust if they could not do that.

Despite all the hurdles, Somerset cheese has developed a worldwide reputation, which is fantastic. But that was before this awful virus stopped worldwide travel, crippled airlines and squeezed economies right around the globe. A week or so ago, you could visit the swankiest cheese shop in the swankiest food mall in San Francisco and find an unpasteurised Montgomery’s cheese from Somerset displayed in pride of place. The only complaint the proprietor would have was that he could not get enough of it. Now he would be very lucky to receive any supplies at all.

Cheese makers such as Wyke Farms also export large quantities to Europe—or they did. Even at the best of times, the margins are uncomfortably tight, and these are not the best of times. There is a stupid urban myth about farmers: that they all plead poverty but still find the cash to buy flashy new cars each year. We have all heard that. I can assure the House—I think the House knows it anyway—that that is not true. Every farmer I have ever known works their socks off to break even. They are rightly worried about the impact of new trading hurdle that comes up. The latest threat is to suspend trade at the Sedgemoor auction centre, which is commonly known as junction 24—junction 24 being the junction on the M5. I have to say that that would be a financial disaster for local farmers. The centre attracts entries from all parts of England and Wales. The impact on the rural economy, if it closes, cannot be overstated. Farmers, by and large, buy and sell their animals at auction. That is the way it has always been done, and it would be almost impossible to do so at the end of a computer, even if one could get a connection, and I will come to that in a minute.

I appreciate that tackling the virus is the most urgent national priority, but I ask the Minister to consider whether there are sensible ways in which auction centres such as Sedgemoor can be allowed to continue trading. The public have already been discouraged from attending sales. The organisers are already considering limiting sellers and buyers. They are doing their bit.

I would like to have discussed the issue with Somerset County Council’s—believe it or not—£108,000-a-year director of public health. However, she is hard to reach and appears to be working at home, as indeed, I am afraid, most of our county staff soon will be. It does not inspire much confidence. I would have expected a decent county council to be making information videos, putting up posters and taking advertising space in the local press to keep us informed. In most counties, people are doing it. That is great. I certainly know that they are doing it in Bristol. I am afraid Somerset, with its fat cat top brass, is silent. This disease demands a better response from county councils. It seems that Somerset is wasting time and money on becoming a unitary authority and is not listening to what the people need. I appeal to the leader of Somerset County Council to please stop posturing and get on with the job.

When this dreadful virus is behind us, there is one other thing that farmers fear: a post-Brexit tariff war with Europe. Make no mistake, farming is a vital industry in Somerset. It employs, indirectly and directly, many hundreds of people, but it is forced to look over its shoulder and count the pennies all the time. We are no longer a member of the European Union, but until December we remain in the system, claiming the subsidies and following the rules. All that will change, particularly for farmers who will continue to farm on the uplands of Exmoor.

It has been recognised for the best part of a century that hill farming on Exmoor is viable only because of the subsidy system. Trying to make a living out of some Exmoor farms, if they were unsubsidised, would be like trying to make a living out of a window box. That is flippant, but true. It is not a comfortable living, and I invite any lowland farmer who thinks Exmoor is a featherbed to spend a hard, wet winter high on the moors. This year it has been hard and very wet.

What we get for our money is the preservation of some of the finest landscape anywhere in the United Kingdom—landscape that forms the key attractions of the south-west’s tourism industry. I can show the Minister plenty of evidence that the landscape is the No. 1 reason most people come to Exmoor on holiday, and rightly so. We welcome any Members of the House who want to come and see how beautiful it is. We must support the hill farmers as generously as we do now.

Without the hill farms much of Exmoor would revert to an ugly, unloved wilderness—all scrub and, to paraphrase, tumbleweed. Much of the moor is still a no-go area for any kind of modern communications. There are dead zones for mobile phones and internet speeds can be so slow that it is almost quicker to post a letter. I know that progress has been made and things have improved, but we are still in an unparalleled national crisis and the Government want people to work from home. That is rightly so and totally supported by the House, but we need a technical taskforce to be able to create a quick fix for Exmoor and other cut-off rural parts. Across the United Kingdom, broadband is a necessity. It is a miracle that our hill farmers continue to put up with it. Thank heavens they do.

Those who want the land to go back to the wild are not living in the real world. Rewilding may be a fashionable fiction in “The Archers”, but it is make-believe for places such as Exmoor. In any case, only proper farmers can make it work. They have to work the land, not learn it in a book. That is why I want the new Agriculture Bill to match every EU subsidy pound for pound, improve the way that farmers are paid and protect the quality of British products against foreign competition. I do not believe we should tolerate the importing of inferior goods with lower standards than our own. There is a long way to go before the new Bill is passed, and I would like the Minister’s assurance that there is still time for constructive change. I am sure that there will be in Committee.

I have asked a lot in this short debate—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Rutley.)