Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Diana Holland and Ed Hamer gave evidence.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 2:46 pm, 25th October 2018

We will now take evidence from Unite and the Landworkers’ Alliance. We have until 3.15 pm, so slightly under half an hour, I am afraid. Will you introduce yourselves for the record, please?

Diana Holland:

I am Diana Holland, assistant general secretary at Unite with responsibility for, among other things, food, drink and agriculture.

Ed Hamer:

I am Ed Hamer. I am a farmer and policy officer for the Landworkers’ Alliance.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q You heard the previous panel. Is the Bill an opportunity or something of a threat for the people you represent?

Diana Holland:

We see it as a fantastic opportunity, but at the moment it is a big missed opportunity. We have been calling for a strategy for agriculture that looks at the whole food supply chain for a long time. What is missing from the Bill is any recognition of the agriculture workforce. A whole lot of things have happened to agricultural workers in recent times. There are ways in which they are protected internationally, because they are recognised as a particularly vulnerable workforce. If you look at the most recent report by the director of labour market enforcement, he includes agriculture among high-risk sectors. While a number of bodies are dealing with the most extreme ends, it is really important that the workforce is included in a strategy for agriculture going forward. We are very supportive of the need to look for a positive way forward, but we have proposals and suggestions for how that could include the workforce.

Ed Hamer:

I echo those comments. Our members certainly find the proposal on the table progressive. We have a couple of concerns. We would like the Bill to be more supportive of the actual production of food—particularly healthy, affordable food for local and regional markets. We also have genuine concerns, which were echoed by some MPs on Second Reading, that nature-friendly farming could displace active farmers who produce high-quality food. Although we understand that food itself cannot be listed as a public good, we strongly believe that access to healthy and affordable locally produced food can and should be recognised as a public good in the Bill.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Q So where do you see opportunities to improve the Bill?

Diana Holland:

We think a clause should be added that specifically recognises the need to protect standards for agricultural workers. Sustain is supporting an amendment, which we would be happy to be attached to, on the kind of protections that the former Agricultural Wages Board provided. We recognise that this is a framework Bill and there are different ways of expressing things, but in the absence of anything at all we would want something very specific to be added that would recognise that matter. This is meant to be dealing with Brexit, and the Treaty of Rome specifically says in article 39 that there should be a fair standard of living for workers in agriculture.

We have seen with the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in England a deterioration in pay. You would expect us to say that; we are trade union representatives. We have collected evidence from our membership that in the year after the abolition, 56% of those surveyed had not had a pay rise. Of those who had had a pay rise, 82% had had it imposed, and of those who had not had a pay rise, one third had gone to their employer to ask for a pay rise and been refused. A series of people formerly covered by the Agricultural Wages Board in England have had their pay completely frozen until the national minimum wage catches up with it, whereas in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that is not the case.

In fact, just this month, the estate agent and land management advisers Strutt & Parker said in Farmers Weekly:

“It is difficult to justify suggesting that English employers should pay their employees less than they would receive if working in Wales—particularly given the shortages in skilled labour the sector is facing.”

They have recommended pay rises of 2.5% to 3.5% to deal with what is happening in England. That is a very specific example, but the unintended consequence—or perhaps, given the estimates made at the time, a recognised consequence—of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is that conditions on not just pay but sickness, holidays and all the other things that were protected are deteriorating. We are extremely concerned, and there is an opportunity in this Bill to look at what is happening. If we are going to deliver decent agricultural production for the future, we need workers who are recognised and remunerated effectively. Without that, we are in serious danger of not being able to deliver in the way we should.

Ed Hamer:

We see a clear opportunity for improvement in clause 1(1), and we have tabled an amendment on agri-ecology. At the moment, the Bill replaces direct payments with environmental land management payments, which in their current form do not guarantee food production in addition to the delivery of public goods.

By contrast, the agri-ecology amendment would focus on holistic farming systems as opposed to set-aside or marginal conservation measures. To give you an example, the payment identified under ELM would pay farmers for income forgone on the field boundaries, whereas in the middle of the field they could continue to spray pesticides or cease farming altogether. With the agri-ecology amendment, the integration of whole farm agriculture and agri-ecological principles would incentivise farmers to produce food on the field in addition to introducing ecological focus areas or diversity around field edges. Under the agri-ecological amendment, it is the farming system itself that delivers the public good.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agri-ecology and other whole-system disciplines such as agroforestry would be covered and empowered under clause 1. We are considering that, but I would be interested in your views on the key barriers to your members’ setting up and what type of support would be most useful.

Ed Hamer:

The majority of our members are farming on smaller acreages, typically anywhere between 1 and 20 hectares. At the moment our biggest challenge is access to markets. Over the last 20 years or so there has been significant under-investment in the infrastructure needed to support small-scale enterprises such as ours; I am thinking of local abattoirs, local creameries, food processing infrastructure, seed networks and things like that. What would really help us is targeted support for local food funding, to recognise the networks and infrastructure required to get the food from the farm to the market.

To give you my example, I farm a community-supported agriculture scheme in Devon, which we started in 2010 without any money. We got a grant from the Big Lottery Fund and were able to invest in polytunnels and the infrastructure required to get our operation up and running, including the machinery that we needed and a delivery vehicle. With that small grant, we managed to build a business over a relatively short amount of time. We are now independent of grant funding.

Our experience teaches us that our members have had similar challenges, but not all have been fortunate enough to secure an initial capital grant. For local food grant funding, seed funding for SME agricultural start-ups would be a fantastic way of getting small enterprises up and running, to the point where they can be financially independent.

Ed Hamer:

Access to holdings has been significantly undermined by the BPS, which has, to a certain extent, consolidated land ownership in the UK over the past 10 years. Many of our members struggle to access land because land prices have gone up by about £2,500—depending on the area of the country—since the introduction of the BPS.

We hope that the end of the BPS and area payments will have some knock-on effect on land prices. If not, we see opportunities within the de-linking, if we could make a condition of it that land should be made available to new entrants. Using the county farms estate would be a fantastic opportunity to provide opportunities as the first step on the farming ladder.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q Could you expand on that? We have said before that we are looking at refreshing the county farm model. What would you like to see?

Ed Hamer:

For many new-entrant farmers, it is quite intimidating to take out a mortgage to buy their own holding and to then try to pay that money back through farming itself. With the county farms estate, there is still the opportunity to rent a small area to start on, even if it does not come with accommodation and is just the land itself, and to then build up a business and a local market for products, to the point where a farmer can start to invest in their own land or find somewhere else to move on to.

As a stepping-stone measure, the county farms estate is a fantastic resource that has so far been under-utilised. It has been very positive to see DEFRA’s soundings on reclaiming that estate for use by new entrants.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales)

Q What concerns do you have about the possibility of standards being lowered for imported food? Witnesses have referred to that already quite a lot. Mr Hamer, your website makes it clear that there is a real shortage in the supply of domestic produce, and that, if new recommendations to eat more fruit and veg were actually followed, current production could not keep up. Would cheap imports fill that gap?

Ed Hamer:

We like to think not. Horticulture is quite a unique example. At the moment, in the UK horticulture receives less than 1% of public funding. Since 2005, horticultural production has declined significantly—veg by 26% and fruit by 35%. At the moment, we import 42% of the vegetables and 89% of the fruit that we consume in the UK.

Post-Brexit there will clearly be an opportunity for renewal within the horticulture sector. We would like to see UK consumers prioritise the high standards that we have here in the UK, and to see a new generation of young farmers access some of that current import market. At the moment, we spend £7.8 billion a year on importing horticultural produce that could otherwise be grown here in the UK. We would like to see an opportunity for new entrants to access that market and use that revenue to generate jobs and employment within the sector. We are certainly worried about the risk of importing fruit and veg from countries with lower environmental and social standards, which would undermine production in the UK.

Diana Holland:

We see food standards and safe, healthy food as going hand in hand with decent treatment and professional, high-skilled jobs. All the evidence that we have is that recent food scandals have gone alongside severe labour abuses and exploitation, because workers are fearful of speaking out about what is going on. We very much believe that the Bill needs to cover the race to the bottom in all aspects and build in incentives to treat workers properly and ensure that decent standards are followed. That could be reflected in certain parts of the Bill.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument on low pay in the farming sector—thousands of low-paid people work in my constituency—and I am trying to understand the driver behind it. I do not necessarily see exploitative farmers trying to take advantage of workers. Is it not the value chain? Do we need to be realistic and expect higher retail prices? Are the British public too used to low prices for farming produce? LookingQ at some of the other aspects of the Bill relating to the value chain, can we change the balance of power away from the far end—the retailers and distributors—and give a little bit more power to the suppliers? Is that not the answer?

Diana Holland:

If that was true, paying workers less would mean the cost of food would have come down, and it has not. There are pressures; we have been part of various studies and commissions on access to safe, healthy food and the implications on wages. There are links that need to be made. However, we are trying to say that a minimum standard needs to be built in, below which no one should fall. Alongside that, there should be a possibility for all the stakeholders in the industry to come together in the way that used to be done with the Agricultural Wages Board—we recognise that there may be equivalent ways of doing the same thing, as has been done in Wales. All of us who are involved directly in this industry, including the workforce—not excluded and shut out, but part of it—could come together to say, “How should we conduct ourselves so that people are treated fairly, and what happens if the industry is protected?”

I completely recognise that there are issues in the supply chain. Those players all have a part to play, but we need them around the table to discuss that, rather than the current system where workers are extremely isolated in that process, in way that they were not before. Before, their voices were part of a system, but now, in England specifically, they are not able to access that any more. That has weakened their position—their pay, sickness, holidays and so on. It has not created the improvements that it was claimed it would.

This is an opportunity. This was a very rushed abolition, as part of trying to get rid of red tape. The reality of it has not been a minimisation of red tape; it has just been a reducing of conditions, as we feared and said that it would be. If we really want people to choose to work in this industry and to feel respected in it, we need to do something about that. This is a fantastic opportunity to do just that.

Ed Hamer:

Our members are largely self-employed—most of our members manage their own holdings. Consumers need to become more aware of the true cost of production, but the problem lies more in the supply chain: if you go to the supermarket now and spend £1 on produce, farmers receive anywhere between 8p and 20p. The rest goes to the middlemen and the supermarkets. Local food systems demonstrate that if you can reclaim a larger percentage of that food pound, you can generate much higher levels of income on a smaller area. One of our biggest challenges is accessing those local markets so we can reclaim the food pound. Then we can support decent livelihoods on small areas.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I should say that I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on agro-ecology and I tabled the amendment on moving to a more agro-ecological approach that Ed mentioned.Q

The briefing from the Landworkers Alliance was very useful, particularly the paragraph stating what France has done to move towards a more agro-ecological approach, but I want to ask about the economics. I think agro-ecology is sometimes perceived as being just about caring about the environment, and not about improving farming productivity. Could you say something about the fact that there may be fewer inputs? We heard some evidence—I cannot remember if it was in this Committee or in the EFRA Committee, which is also looking at the Bill—about how taking some of the land out of production and using it to increase biodiversity, through pollinators and that sort of thing, can increase food yields. Is that just nice to have or could it make farming more productive?

Ed Hamer:

The agro-ecological principle is a whole-farm approach; it does not take fields one at a time in individual focus areas, but looks at the inputs to the farm as a whole, as you say. Anything you can do to reduce dependence on external inputs will have not only a beneficial environmental impact but a beneficial economic impact on the farming system. Examples from our membership demonstrate how mixed farms used cereals for livestock bedding and then manure to fertilise the cereals. They used waste from the horticultural enterprise to feed a pig or poultry enterprise alongside. So by being sensible with food waste, in particular, on the farm, you can recycle those inputs and then essentially cut your losses through that margin.

On food waste, it is also worth bearing in mind that small farms tend to be much more concerned about and aware of what food is being wasted. Again, going back to local marketing, consumers are much more willing to accept food of a slightly lesser cosmetic appearance when dealing with local markets, compared with what you can sell through to the supermarkets. So there are a number of economic and environmental justifications for the agro-ecological farming system. Those are just a few of them; I can come back to you with more afterwards.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Ed, you talked about the potential through de-linking and smaller holdings. I wonder what potential there is for reducing supply chains with existing farmers. I ask that from the rural perspective of upland and lowland farmers, such as those I represent in Cumbria, as well as isolated communities. What potential is there for that in the Bill? What infrastructure would be required to facilitate thatQ ?

Ed Hamer:

Could you repeat the thrust of the question?

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

You referred to how we can essentially shorten supply chains, and your answer seemed to be focused on de-linking opportunities. I am keen to understand the opportunities for existing farms—particularly family farms—in upland and lowland areas.

Ed Hamer:

My experience is from growing up on Dartmoor, where at the moment many of the farms are entirely dependent on the subsidy to survive. What they would like is to follow our model in terms of accessing those local markets, but the nearest abattoir is 25 to 30 miles away—there used to be one five to 10 miles away. If there was a nearer abattoir or a co-operatively-managed meat hanging facility where they could store meat after it has been to the abattoir and then bring it back for processing within the local community, thereby cutting the distance the product has to travel, that would certainly help.

There are also things like local food market infrastructure. You used to have traditional farmers’ markets regularly within each market town. Now the infrastructure does not exist, but if spaces could be set up every Saturday for farmers to get out and market their wares to the local community, that would be a massive step in the right direction. So the infrastructure is quite important, but retail opportunities are also key for those farmers.

We also need to think about skills and training, because a lot of farmers—certainly my neighbours—traditionally do not think they are born marketers; they are happy to stick to the farming. However, they have got many skills, and increasingly consumers want to know the story of where their food comes from. Consumers increasingly want traceability and accountability in the food system. What we demonstrate through our system is that our consumers get to know us personally and support us for a whole season. By doing that, they invest in the farm and—not only that—they have a strong sense of accountability for where their food comes from. Moving forward, that provides a really robust business model.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

Q My farming grandad is in my ear saying, “It used to be like that.” We moved away from that because of Government policies. Do you feel that the Bill brings a new opportunity to return to the past, in some ways?

Ed Hamer:

Certainly. We have always said that what we propose is nothing new. It is not a step backwards but returning to the roots of agriculture, where most consumers used to know the farming community where their food came from. It is not a romantic notion. What we are selling is what consumers want: trust, accountability and traceability, and to know that they are supporting the local economy as well.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Any further observations? In that case, thank you very much indeed, Ms Holland and Mr Hamer, for taking the trouble to come here. It was good to see you.