My Lords, I add my congratulations to the two maiden speakers and congratulate my noble friend Lord Callanan on joining the Front Bench.
Most of my activities in the European Parliament, the House of Commons or this place have had a rural theme. I am delighted to be a member of the Rural Affairs Committee of the Church of England Synod. In the last Parliament, I co-chaired the all-party water group. For five years, I had the privilege of chairing the Efra committee in the House of Commons. Among those, I primarily advise the Water Industry Commission for Scotland and the Dispensing Doctors’ Association, and I am a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities and of National Energy Action.
In the recent general election and in the gracious Speech there is very little about those who live in the countryside and rural businesses, yet about a third of the population live and work in rural or semi-rural areas such as market towns. In opening, the Minister seemed to indicate that support for farmers would carry on up to 2020 or 2022. But that begs the question: what happens after that time?
The wider farm-to-fork industry, including the food and drink manufacturers and retailers, is worth some £110 billion to the UK economy, employing more than 4 million people. Rural dwellers and businesses such as farmers, farm shops and others are held back by poor services. We have heard a lot during the debate about the poor broadband in rural areas, the lack of access and fast speed and, indeed, in many cases, poor mobile coverage, as well as the lack of affordable homes, lower funding for rural schools and lack of public transport. The poor access to such essential public services, especially the shortage of affordable homes in the countryside, is leading to many young people leaving the countryside. Demographic changes mean that the older people remaining put enormous pressure on health, social care and other services.
It is true that the resilience and resourcefulness of our farmers and growers help to feed the country, but we are only 60% self-sufficient at this time. If we are to improve standards, as the Government have promised to do in the words of the incoming Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we increase standards of animal welfare and other means of production that will only increase the price of food. That will price British farmers out of the market. British consumers primarily buy on price. Cheaper food should not mean substandard imports. As with other businesses, farmers and growers need certainty. Therefore, the question is: what happens post 2020-22?
Upland farmers in the hills up and down the United Kingdom rely for 50% of their income on CAP support through farm payments and stewardship schemes. Who better to act as custodians of the countryside than the farmers? They need access to a reliable supply of labour from the European Union. The Government need to say why they have not yet reintroduced the seasonal agricultural workers system. Rural businesses and farmers need certainty at a time of losing access to a guaranteed market of 505 million consumers and low-tariff access to EU markets, with the threat, as we heard earlier, of tariffs of up to 40% to 50% of their products under current World Trade Organization rules, and possibly 80% tariffs for higher-end products.
There remain alarming gaps in the Government’s policy as to what will happen before, during and after we exit the European Union, particularly during the anticipated extended transitional phase. Which body will adjudicate on any potential trade dispute between UK and EU companies if not the European Court of Justice? Who will be the ultimate arbiter on environmental matters in the UK relating for example to keeping our waters clean and our air of the highest quality, and avoiding and preventing pollution?
On fisheries, I am proud of the agreement that the current Fisheries Minister negotiated—an EU policy that determines conservation and quotas on the basis of science and decisions by the coastal states operating in the respective waters, such as the North Sea and the Irish Sea. Fish do not swim around in purely national waters, so the danger of setting purely national quotas could set back conservation policy in what are currently shared fisheries.
It is incumbent on the Government and indeed all parties to listen to the concerns and suggestions of those who live in rural areas, particularly rural businesses, and act upon them. I hope there will now be the opportunity for rural businesses, as my noble friend Lady Rock stated with regard to other businesses, to pave the way for Britain leaving the EU and to rectify this policy gap affecting rural communities. The rural voice must be heard.