Food and Farming: Employment Opportunities — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 25th April 2017.

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Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 2:30 pm, 25th April 2017

I have always wanted to say that.

According to data from the Department’s farm business survey in 2013-14, the greatest barriers for individuals who want to join the farming sector are the non-competitiveness of salaries, which was cited by 64% of respondents; the lack of job opportunities, which was cited by 55%; and the fact of not owning a family farm, which was also cited by 55%. You can do the maths, Mr Walker. We must increase our efforts to change the perception of the sector, to attract new entrants, to come up with solutions and to provide assistance for young people to overcome barriers to the industry. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what has been done since the release of those figures to address the concerns that they raise.

Examples of initiatives to address this challenge include the industry-wide careers initiative Bright Crop, which seeks to inform school pupils, parents and careers advisers about the range of careers and progression opportunities available in the industry. Other industry career campaigns should be co-ordinated around Bright Crop to provide consistent information that helps to inform and inspire young people about careers in the sector, and outline clear career frameworks that show progression. We need young people, as well as people of all ages, in the food, farming and fishing sectors, because they bring ambition and creativity.

Events over the last decade have demonstrated that food security should not be overlooked. We are still dependent on food imports, because the UK’s farmers produce only 61% of what the nation consumes. Productivity has been rising at an average of 1.5% per annum, but we are in great need of young and highly skilled farmers to come up with ways to keep increasing it. We need technically savvy entrepreneurs and driven young people to use the available state-of-the-art technology, from GPS mapping systems to high-tech milk machines, to keep British farming at the cutting edge of production trends and to fulfil demands. Additionally, because of the current uncertainty over the value of sterling, retailers and consumers are looking increasingly closer to home to meet their needs. The creativity of young people would also help farms across the UK to achieve diversity goals highlighted in a VisitEngland survey in 2016, which showed that 28% of young people were looking at tourism, 16% at contracting, 14% at property and 12% at opening farm shops.

I regularly meet fishermen and farmers and their representatives. On Friday, I met the National Farmers Union and local farmers and we discussed the skills gap at length. The NFU is a founding member of the industry-wide AgriSkills forum, which seeks to respond to the skills gap by professionalising the industry through skills development and lifelong learning, so that it is seen as a career of choice rather than a last resort. As people enter the industry, it is important that they are encouraged to undertake professional development that helps them to progress in their careers. Continued emphasis on lifelong learning and development will help to attract new entrants to the industry and retain skills within it. The agricultural industry has put significant effort into working towards that goal by launching training and professional development schemes across different sectors. For example, the dairy sector has launched Dairy Pro, which enables workers across the sector to participate in relevant, demand-led training that recognises their experience and builds on their practical skills.

I am concerned that not enough is being done in schools, by careers advisers or in Departments to promote careers and opportunities in the sector. Having said that, I recently joined hundreds of children at an open farm day in Chyvarloe, near Gunwalloe and Helston, at the invitation of local farmer Paul Parfitt. It gave the children the opportunity to see at first hand how our food is produced and what careers are available in food and farming. I also took my family to Tregullas Farm, which is run by the Amiss family on the Lizard, for its open farm Sunday. Open farm Sundays are a successful initiative to increase public awareness of farming and food production. Such initiatives help to dismiss the image of something similar to Tolkien’s character of Farmer Giles. In case hon. Members are not familiar with him, Farmer Giles was a fat gentleman with a red face who chewed on straw and enjoyed a slow and comfortable life which, given recent events, may be something that hon. Members covet over the next few weeks. I may well find myself doing so on 9 June, but I am not quite there yet.

In reality, farming is far from that picture. Farmers are dynamic and hard-working members of society. I have been privileged to discuss with farmers, both during my time in this place and in my pursuit of becoming a Member of Parliament, the opportunities and challenges that they have faced and will continue to face. If we are to address the specific challenge of recruitment, we must move away from this image of Farmer Giles. We must inspire young and talented individuals to look at the sector and do justice to those who already work in it. I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about hoping to see

“more young people being encouraged to engage with countryside matters”.

We must change young people’s attitudes towards agricultural careers and inspire more young people to get involved. I ask what the Government can do. In an age of population growth both here and overseas, in which there are more mouths to feed, there still seem to be more jobs than people. What can the Government do to address the exodus of talent from rural areas, which is something that we are very aware of in Cornwall and on Scilly? I support farmers and food producers who say that schools and careers services must work with the industry to promote farming as an aspirational career choice, and must make better links between STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and their applications in farming. A greater understanding of the range of opportunities in the sector would help to dispel the myth that farming is low-paid and low-skilled. It is important for there to be opportunities for the industry to engage with organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, and for the National Careers Service to work with the sector to provide continuous careers advice and informed information about career and work prospects in the agriculture sector. We need a partnership approach with the industry, with cross-party support, that recognises agriculture as an important and attractive sector to be in. That would be of benefit in further challenging the existing perception.

It is important to recognise that fit-for-purpose qualifications have a crucial role to play in apprenticeships for our industry. I understand the Government’s aspiration for apprenticeships to be the qualifications of the future, but the industry, the employers and the apprentices, and their parents and families, will need a minimum period of transition to allow the inclusion of qualifications that fall outside the current Government criteria while the new trailblazers provide their credentials. I ask the Government to work with employers in the industry even more than they are doing already to develop the 16 to 19 skills plan, so that vocational and technical qualifications and courses are made relevant to the industry and appealing to young people.