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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 25th April 2017.

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Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Whip 2:51 pm, 25th April 2017

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I congratulate Derek Thomas on securing this debate. Food and farming is clearly a significant industry in Scotland, where 98% of the landmass is considered rural, whether that is “remote rural”, which is defined as an area that is more than a 30-minute drive from the nearest settlement, or merely “accessible rural”, where an area is within 30 minutes of a settlement of 10,000 people or more. Almost one in five of the population of Scotland lives in a rural community. Therefore, jobs in the rural sector are vital to the Scottish economy. It is important that, despite the uncertain times we are in, we continue to support the industry, to ensure that it is on a sustainable footing for the future.

Currently Scotland’s natural environment is worth more than £20 billion per annum and supports more than 60,000 jobs. Between 2010 and 2015, the total turnover of our food and drink industry increased from £10 billion to £14.4 billion; exports in 2016 were worth £5.5 billion, which was an increase of 40% since 2007. So Scottish food and drink really is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. We can see that and we also know the quality that exists within the industry, which is something I will return to later in my comments.

However, there are challenges. The average age of Scottish farmers is now around 58, and only 9% of farm occupiers in Scotland are aged 40 or under. So, as the hon. Member for St Ives highlighted, it is incredibly important that we find ways to bring new young people into the sector, to ensure that it remains sustainable and resilient. We must continue to support industries that are so vital to all of us.

In Scotland, the Scottish National party Government are very keen to support young people to go into the industry, to make sure that fresh and bright young farmers keep the rural economy going in the future. Earlier this month, the Scottish Government announced a fund of £2.5 million to help to develop new entrants into farming. That funding will support the next generation of farmers while increasing the opportunities for young people to establish a career in agriculture. The latest award will see a further 47 new farming businesses share the money, to help them to create and develop their businesses.

I suppose that one of the biggest challenges for any business in a rural economy is the access and uptake of broadband. That is an issue we continue to return to in this House and, as I say, with 98% of Scotland being considered rural, the rollout of broadband to support businesses as we move into an ever more technical world is critical, as it helps the running of rural farming and food businesses.

We are in an uncertain world just now. The UK vote to leave the EU has created significant uncertainty in the agriculture sector. The “hard Brexit” that we so often hear about would be absolutely devastating for sections of Scottish agriculture. For example, cattle and sheep farmers potentially face both high tariffs and loss of subsidy support. There is also the risk to the protection of Scottish protected food names, such as Scotch beef or Stornoway black pudding. We do not yet know what will happen to protected name status. Will we have a scheme here in the UK, given that we will no longer have access to the European scheme?

We also risk losing the common regulatory frameworks that help to maintain food safety, and animal and plant health standards, as well as to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade. Jobs and investment opportunities have been put at risk. For example, there is uncertainty over entering into multi-annual contracts under the Scottish Rural Development Programme agri-environment or forestry schemes. Some of Scotland’s remote rural communities have fragile populations, and EU migration helps to ensure the resilience of those communities. Without that movement of people, there is a real risk, not only for the food and farming industries but for entire communities across Scotland.

The Government’s gamble with our EU membership has created significant uncertainty, with Scotland now facing the loss of much-needed seasonal workers. Agriculture directly employs 65,000 people and underpins our £14 billion food and drink industry, which is one of the fasting growing and most successful sectors in the Scottish economy. Along with other rural businesses, agriculture relies heavily on seasonal workers. However, despite repeated questioning, we have not yet had a clear answer from the UK Government as to what rights will be protected for seasonal workers; an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 seasonal workers are employed in the sector annually. Berry picking alone requires a significant number of seasonal workers, and more than a third of the UK’s soft fruit comes from Scotland.

Clearly, the industry faces challenges. There are common agricultural policy payment issues—there is no point trying to pretend that there are not—and addressing them will be the No.1 priority for the Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government. We have started making 2016 CAP payments, and it is expected that by the end of June the vast majority of farmers and crofters will have received their 2016 basic payments. We understand the frustration felt by the President of the National Farmers Union Scotland with the current IT system for CAP payments. The Cabinet Secretary in Scotland has kept him and other NFUS officials advised of developments in that area, in order to get their valuable input into what else the Scottish Government need to do.

As I have said, the industry provides so many benefits and opportunities for Scotland. It is growing quickly, but for it suddenly to come up against the challenges and risks that Brexit will create has put a big question mark over what we can get by way of guarantees from the UK Government. What protections can we secure for Scotland’s burgeoning food and drink industry, so that it can continue to grow and contribute to the Scottish economy?