My Lords, I wish to speak on only one of the several proposed Bills related to our leaving the European Union, namely that on agriculture. I declare my interests in agriculture as detailed in the register of interests.
I welcome the proposed agriculture Bill. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, who will presumably be responsible for taking it through this House, on his reappointment to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The farming industry will be one of the most affected by the decision to leave the European Union, and an agriculture Bill is necessary. But the terms of our departure will determine what level of support will be necessary in the future. As 75% of our agricultural exports go to the European Union, tariff-free access to the EU will be essential for all British farmers. Until we know whether this can be negotiated, farmers cannot plan their breeding and cropping programmes, and the Government and the devolved Administrations cannot formulate the required support systems.
Certain types of agriculture are heavily dependent on seasonal labour, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned. Most of this seasonal labour comes from the EU eastern European countries, and at the very least it will be necessary to go back to an equivalent of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme so that fruit and vegetable farms can pick their crops in a timely fashion. It would be helpful if Ministers could very soon make announcements about the future ability of British farmers to recruit seasonal workers from overseas. Of course, there are also large numbers of EU citizens already working on a full-time basis in agriculture. I welcome the publication today of the Government’s detailed proposals for EU citizens already working here.
Then there is the question of financial support. In the previous Parliament, the Government had guaranteed payments to farmers under the common agricultural policy up to 2020. During the recent general election, the Conservative Party stated:
“We want to provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU”.
That is indeed mentioned in the summary of the proposed agriculture Bill, but the manifesto also stated:
“So we will continue to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the parliament”,
which I assume now means 2022. I therefore hope that Ministers will legislate this commitment in the forthcoming agriculture Bill.
It is sometimes suggested that farming does not need or deserve the amount of taxpayer support it receives. In this House, many noble Lords from all sides understand that many farming businesses, especially livestock farms, are not sustainable without financial support. That is particularly true in the less favoured areas of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England. There is an enormous difference in profitability between a large arable farm in Lincolnshire and a livestock hill farm in, for example, Wales or Scotland. Most of these livestock farms are family farms that are important in many ways to their local communities.
My plea to Ministers is as follows. A new agriculture policy must be devised as quickly as possible. We need food security, remembering that only 60% of our food is home-grown. We need to care for our countryside and the environment. We need to provide safe and healthy food for consumers. We must improve the quality of broadband in rural areas. We must sustain our large food processing industry, which is heavily dependent on home-grown raw materials. However, my overwhelming concern is for the social fabric of country communities, and one of the best ways to preserve that fabric is to sustain the family farms of this country. I urge the Government to be mindful of that as they construct a new policy for this country’s agriculture.