I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement, even if most of it was announced this morning in his online conference. For transparency, I remind hon. Members that my little sister is a sheep farmer in Cornwall.
The Secretary of State has majored on the green elements of the announcement, but this is about more than our environment. Of course Labour supports public money for public goods, but that is not what the statement is about. Strip away the green coating and the proposals are a full-throttle attack on English family farms. I say “English” because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish farmers are going in a different direction because the devolved Governments are maintaining support for small farms for longer. Under the Government’s proposals, many small farmers will lose up to half their current support payments within just three years, leaving many financially unviable.
The public and farmers back high standards, but many farms will not be sustainable economically if the economic foundations of their business are undercut by food produced to lower standards abroad. British farmers remain at risk from future trade deals as the Government have chosen not to require food imports to meet the same standards that we hold our own farmers to.
Farmers themselves have not given today’s announcement a ringing endorsement. The panel that farmers convened to heap praise on the Secretary of State’s speech this morning described it as, “disappointing”, “lacking detail” and, “an announcement about further announcements”—not a glowing endorsement.
I am concerned about the 5% cuts for all, the 50% cuts in three years and the new system not even starting until 2022. Why was no sustainable farming initiative announced for next year, just a 5% cut and no bridge to environmental funding? Why was there so little detail on that and why is there a gap? Given that we are both west country MPs, does the Secretary of State share my concern that many south-west farmers will be forced out of business because of the changes? Does he have regional figures on the expected farm bankruptcies? The estimates that I have heard are deeply worrying. With the Government’s new farm exit schemes, there are huge incentives for people to leave agriculture early. How many small farmers does the Secretary of State expect to take that exit scheme rather than go bust?
Labour has five simple tests for the effectiveness of the policy. Will there be more family farms in 2024 than there are now? I doubt it. Will there be more family farm bankruptcies under the proposals? I expect so. Will Britain produce more of its food here rather than importing it? Will we be more reliant on food from America and Australia in future? Will English farmers have a tougher time than farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with their mix of direct payments and environmental funding? Labour backs our British farmers. I am very concerned that the Secretary of State’s announcement today risks breaking English family farms.