Brexit: Food Prices and Availability (EUC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:39 pm on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Devon The Earl of Devon Crossbench 2:39 pm, 25th April 2019

It is a sobering honour to follow the noble Viscount, who is such an eminent expert in the field of environmental science.

A predecessor of mine named Ordwulf, the Saxon Ealdorman of Devon, ordered bread, cream and jam for workers rebuilding Tavistock Abbey after the Viking raids of 997 AD. Earls of Devon have been purveying the Devon cream tea—cream first, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—ever since. It would be sad if our current European entanglements were to endanger that ancient farming food legacy, as it appears they might if the current EU-wide tariffs on clotted cream are abandoned. I am grateful for the work of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and the committee, as well as for its report, which forensically dissects the risks to our crucial farming and food industries in these uncertain times.

I am glad to offer a maiden speech on a topic close to my heart. As convention requires, I will introduce myself without controversy, although that may be challenging given that I am an old Etonian hereditary Peer and the youngest of four siblings. In my defence, I chose none of those characteristics. I did, however, choose to take this seat. I shall explain why and what I offer to this House.

Here, I suffer from a split personality as I am one of the youngest and yet one of the oldest Members of your Lordships’ House. As a youngster, I am father to Joscelyn and Jack, who have skipped school to be here today. I am husband to AJ, who has exchanged successful, sun-drenched California for damper Devon and the charms and challenges of a 700 year-old family-owned heritage and social enterprise centred on Powderham Castle. Those who have ridden the Great Western Railway beyond Exeter will have passed Powderham, and may have glimpsed its estuary-side marsh and farmland, which we have stewarded since the 1300s—an interest relevant to this debate. We principally farm venison and arable crops, while providing grazing for beef and sheep and foreshore for shellfish. We also host a food festival which celebrates Devon’s farming and food heritage.

Professionally, I am another lawyer, but I offer some distinguishing characteristics. I was called to the Chancery Bar before a chance meeting in another bar—in Las Vegas—caused my relocation to the US. I became a California litigator, specialising in technology and intellectual property disputes. I continued to work on IP and technology matters, and now practise in Exeter and London. As a youngster, therefore, I offer the House the services of a relatively tech-savvy father of a school-age American immigrant family and a dual-qualified lawyer who passionately runs a local heritage SME in his spare time.

Turning to my alter ego, I am the Earl of Devon. In that capacity, I am one of the older Members of your Lordships’ House, vying with Arundel, Shrewsbury and others for pre-eminence from the mists of medieval history. By repute, Empress Matilda first bestowed the earldom on Baldwin, who held Exeter Castle against the usurping King Stephen in one of England’s earliest European entanglements. Baldwin’s descendent, Hugh de Courtenay, was summoned to Parliament by Edward I in 1283. Your Lordships may recall that Parliament sat in Shrewsbury, not Westminster, that year—a regional precedent perhaps to be considered again when the Palace is being restored. Hugh was confirmed to the earldom in 1335. Since then, we have served almost every monarch while championing and defending the interests of Devon. That is the historic reason for my being here: simple public service, trying to do a job that is older than this venerable institution and for which many have lost their lives.

Indeed, far from occupying a comfortable hereditary seat for the past 700 years, we have actively engaged in this nation’s narrative. Some examples are pertinent to this debate. We fought at Crécy and Poitiers, becoming founding Knights of the Garter; our arms adorn St Stephen’s Hall as a result. A Courtenay cleric was Richard II’s Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury; his arms sit alongside the Throne in this House. His nephew was keeper of Henry V’s purse; he both financed and died on the Agincourt campaign and is buried beside Henry V in Westminster Abbey—a surprising grave-mate for our most heroic medieval king. The Wars of the Roses saw successive attainders and beheadings, but we backed both sides and survived; another Courtenay cleric thus officiated at Henry Tudor’s coronation. A Courtenay was Henry VIII’s champion at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, before losing his head to the Reformation. We provided six ships to fight the Armada and hosted William of Orange to dinner on his first night on English soil, welcoming the Glorious Revolution. We served King George and Queen Victoria alongside the Iron Duke from these red Benches, feasting on a diet of Corn Laws. My grandfather was one of the last on the beaches at Dunkirk; he took a bullet through his helmet in north Africa before devoting his life to defending his home from the ravages of time and the taxman, welcoming visitors for a Devon cream tea from 1959. He never made a maiden speech but my father did; he was the final hereditary Peer to do so by right in 1999.

If I can offer one consistent theme from this somewhat self-indulgent and appallingly patriarchal history, it is this nation’s ever-ambiguous relationship with mainland Europe. Here we are in yet another passionate Brexit debate but, as our family story shows, for a millennium this country has not settled its relationship with the continent, and I do not expect it ever will. We are blessed and cursed in equal measure by our geography. As an island nation, we simply cannot control the equivocal nature of our physical relationship with Europe. We will always question whether we are in or out. What we can control is how we live with that ambiguity. I fervently hope that we can cease the hatred and invective and end the interminable years of political bickering over Europe, allowing us to focus on what truly matters and what can really improve people’s lives. It is notable that while this mother of all Parliaments fiddles over Brexit, our country and our environment literally burn. We saw wildfires in north Yorkshire on the hottest Easter Monday ever recorded—Earth Day, ironically—and London has been ablaze with climate change protests.

Turning to the report, in response to the committee’s conclusion that tariffs will increase food prices in a no-deal Brexit, the Government repeat the tired refrain that food prices are much more subject to exchange rates, and global commodity and fuel prices, than tariffs. While there may be technical merit in that point, reference to escalating global commodity prices begs the obvious question of why, with climate change gathering momentum, we are devoting almost all of this nation’s political energy to an ancient and insoluble argument over Europe, rather than focusing efforts on a climate catastrophe the like of which we have not seen before.

To echo the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on food prices, my old preschool teacher, Mrs Wooldridge, runs a local food bank in Newton Abbot. It is our charity of the year this year. It reports ever-increasing food insecurity. Can the Government explain to Mrs Wooldridge why lower-income families in the heart of Devon—such a farming and food Mecca—are struggling to feed themselves healthy and affordable food? What specific efforts will be made to avoid escalating food-bank dependency if we ever exit Europe?

On farming, I agree with the Minister that Brexit affords a rare opportunity to revitalise agriculture. We all know that agriculture sits at the heart of trade and our nation’s place in the global economy; the Woolsack reminds us of that every day, stuffed as it with our earliest tariffed export. I second the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. Can the Minister please let us know when we will see the Agriculture Bill and whether the Government will elevate the production of sustainable, local, affordable and healthy food to the top of the list of public goods that farmers are to deliver? Finally, on tariffs, please can the Minister explain the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the Devon cream tea, particularly the cream?

In conclusion, I thank all those who have enabled me to be here today: my family and the teams caring for Powderham and my practice; the remarkably able and patient staff of this House, including the doorkeepers and the security staff who risk their lives daily; and the many of your Lordships from all corners of this House who have been so welcoming and encouraging. I thank you all.