Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:30 pm, 30th October 2018

One Bill at a time. When legislation is introduced on the future shared prosperity fund—I understand that there will be a consultation later this year—everyone will then have an opportunity to participate in that debate, but it is a debate for another time. We have enough issues on our hands at the moment.

Amendment 88, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, is similar to amendment 52, with the exception that he has added a paragraph (d) that would effectively require us to have regard for self-sufficiency. I note that he has borrowed the language in paragraph (d) from section 1 of the Agriculture Act 1947. Obviously it was a very different time—1947 was immediately after the second world war. We still had rationing books; we did not end rationing in this country until 1954. Our levels of self-sufficiency in the run-up to the second world war had been woefully low.

To put that in context, self-sufficiency today is very high by historical standards. In the late 19th century, and up until the second world war, our level of self-sufficiency hovered between 30% and 40%—far lower than it is today. It was a series of interventions, including the 1947 Act and others, that meant that it peaked at somewhere close to 70% in the late ’80s. As a number of hon. Members pointed out, there was a cost to self-sufficiency at that level: appalling levels of intervention, perfectly good food being destroyed, and production subsidies to produce food for which there was no market. The old-style production subsidy regime that used to pertain to the common agricultural policy was totally dysfunctional and severely discredited, and was therefore dismantled some time ago.

It is important to recognise a distinction between self-sufficiency and food security. Sometimes people conflate those terms. Food security depends on far more than self-sufficiency. We know that to deliver genuine food security both nationally and internationally, vibrant and successful domestic production and open markets are necessary. Just look at this summer, when we had an horrendous drought and crop failures across the board. That happens. It is the nature of farming, and it is therefore important, in order to protect food security, that we have open markets and trade. That has always been the case.

The other reality is that in a modern context the greatest threat to food security is probably a global one. We have a rapidly growing population, set to reach 9 billion by 2050, and we have the countervailing force of climate change and a lack of water resources, which means that in parts of the world where we are currently producing food it may be more difficult to do so in 10 or 15 years’ time. Scarcity of water could be a global challenge. The issue of food security is less about national self-sufficiency in case there is another world war—our negotiations with the EU are challenging but we do not envisage it getting to the state of our requiring something like the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939. The challenge on food security, insofar as it exists, is ensuring that we can feed the world.

Another question is how best to deliver food security and a successful farming industry. Is it best to do so through direct payments—subsidy payments based on how much land farmers have? Direct payments were decoupled from production some 15 years ago, so those who suggest that direct payments are somehow a guarantor of food security are wrong. Many hundreds, or possibly thousands, of people own a bit of land, have a job in the City where they earn their income, mow the grass a couple of times a year and keep a few pet sheep on the land, but nevertheless hit the collect button on their single farm payment. That cannot be a viable, long-term approach.

The question therefore is how do we best support a vibrant and successful farming industry? Our view is that we should not do it through subsidies of the old style, but by supporting farms to become more profitable, to reduce costs, and to produce and sell more around the world. That is why the approach that we have taken to deliver food security, such as it is, is included in subsection (2), which covers the power to give grants to help farmers to invest, and the power to support research and development so that we can see the next leap forward in plant breeding or in animal genetics. There are powers later in the Bill that we will debate at a future date to allow producer organisations to be formed so that farmers have more clout in the marketplace and get a fairer price. There are powers to improve fairness and transparency in the supply chain. Where we want to end up is with a successful, vibrant, profitable farming industry that is able to produce more food.