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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:04 pm on 25th April 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:04 pm, 25th April 2017

I shall return to that point—the hon. Lady also made it in her speech—as we have some time available, but the debate is predominantly about careers in agriculture and I wanted to focus on how to encourage more young people into those careers.

A number of hon. Members mentioned women in farming. I spoke at a “Ladies in Agriculture” event at the Farmers Club a couple of years ago—the former Secretary of State, the current Lord Chancellor, has also addressed that event. I mentioned a Tesco young farmers group earlier. Four of the 10 farmers in the group I met were women, so I believe we are making progress. It is essential not to overlook the great contribution that women can make, particularly when they are doing increasingly well in areas such as science. Many countries face the same challenge. Indeed, when I attended the G7 in Japan last year, one of their areas of focus was how to encourage more women into farming. Some of their ideas probably would not cut it over here—it was thought that a demonstration of a tractor with pink patterns on the side of the bonnet might help. I am not sure that would work here, but getting more women engaged in farming is a challenge for a lot of countries.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned the importance of encouraging school-age children to consider farming. The current school food plan actively encourages all schools to give children of primary school age an experience on a farm, so that they can see how food is produced. A number of the county show associations also run good projects. The Royal Cornwall Agricultural Association runs an event every year. It invites schools from across the county to come and learn about farming and farming careers. The Devon County Agricultural Association has as usual copied Cornwall and is running a similar project, which is great. We need as many areas as possible to promote farming as a career in schools.

Owen Thompson talked about the importance of farming and fishing north of the border, in Scotland. I regularly visit Scotland, particularly in connection with the fishing industry. I remember a visit to the Shetland Islands last year, where there is one of the key training academies for skippers and captains of fishing vessels. He mentioned the average age of farmers, which is another long-standing problem faced by many countries. The statistics often mask the reality, which is that the father is reluctant to let go of the purse strings but the actual manager of the holding is in the next generation down. Nevertheless, we are keen to do more to encourage more new entrants. There have been a number of projects, including some in Wales and some in Scotland. In Cornwall, the “Fresh Start” initiative worked on helping people to retire and creating opportunities for new entrants.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that, because of Brexit, it is an uncertain world. Brexit is a fantastic opportunity. I take a “glass half full” view of it. We have a great opportunity to design an agriculture policy that is better suited to all parts of the UK. Last week, I had a meeting with NFU Scotland to talk about some of its thoughts and ideas about how we could deal differently with policy in future. One thing of which I can assure him is that I have yet to find a fisherman in Scotland who would like us to rejoin the common fisheries policy having left it. The fishing industry almost universally believes that the decision to leave the EU was the right one, and relishes the opportunities that that brings to the Scottish fishing fleet.

The shadow Minister, Mary Glindon, and indeed the hon. Member for Midlothian, mentioned labour. As the hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants to respect the rights of EU citizens who are here working in the UK. She made that point early on, soon after the decision to leave the EU, and also made the perfectly reasonable point that obviously we would expect that to be reciprocated, which is not controversial. She has also made it clear that she hopes the matter can be settled early in the negotiations. I believe we can give that reassurance to those living and working in the UK now.

The hon. Lady asked about seasonal labour. Having a controlled migration policy and ending the presumption of free movement does not mean pulling up the drawbridge and stopping all immigration. It simply means what it says—having control of migration. It would be for a future Government to decide what work permits they wanted to grant, and whether they should be short-term permits or permits for more skilled people. That could be done based on an assessment of our needs. If there is a need for seasonal agricultural labour, a future Government will have at their disposal the ability to grant the types of permit that would be needed. All those issues can be dealt with.

This was an important debate on an important subject that is dear to my heart. We have made good progress with our work on apprenticeships, and we have done some great work in schools to promote agriculture and food careers. There is further to go, but I believe we have made a good start.