Leaving the EU: Agriculture — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 1st February 2018.

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Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon 3:47 pm, 1st February 2018

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Neil Parish, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I refer hon. Members to the register of interests: I am an active farmer and a recipient of single farm payment.

Many people have referred to the speech at the Oxford conference, which was described in Farmers Weekly as

“one of the most important speeches for UK farming in living memory”.

I think that is testament to the vision that the Secretary of State has had. On the face of it, funds are guaranteed, but it is up to the devolved Governments to set their own policies.

I have been involved in the agri-food industry for my entire career. I believe passionately that productive agriculture and protecting the environment are mutually inclusive—having well-to-do, or economically viable, countryside is the best way to protect the environment. The vast majority of our countryside environment has been shaped by man. We should not kid ourselves that this is North America; this is not a big wildlife park. It is very important that the general public realise that the main purpose of agriculture or farmland is to produce food. Many hon. Members have spoken about the affordability and availability of food, which is what is ultimately important. It is estimated that every household contributed £400 to the CAP every year, but we have affordability, availability, and wholesomeness in food that we have never seen before. The policy framework must recognise the importance of affordability of food because, as Kerry McCarthy said, many people find it difficult to make budgets balance, and we cannot have wild fluctuations in the price of food. It is not good for farming.

I have been involved in produce for ever, or at least since I was in my 20s [Interruption.] Not quite for ever—I thank my hon. Friends for their asides. If the production goes up, the price goes down. We have to have a leveller.

I would also clarify that a support payment, not a subsidy, supports agriculture and the food industry—the biggest manufacturing industry in the country. The vast majority of payments are effectively reinvested in the business. Anybody who looks at agricultural statistics will see that farmers are not making a fortune in the islands; they are not making a fortune in Gordon and they are not making a fortune in Dumfries. It is important to recognise that.

We must bring to the debate the scale of British farming and the proportion produced in the different areas. It is important to realise that the scale of farming in the UK is, on average, bigger than in the rest of the EU. It is very productive and relatively efficient, despite the CAP. A system of payments that achieves environmental and productivity targets would allow a mix of farming. There are 19,700 claimants in Scotland alone. Some 8,000 of them claim less than £5,000, and it is obvious that there is a socio-environmental opportunity there, not just a purely agricultural one.

The National Farmers Union Scotland has its own negotiation to do with the Scottish Government, and I will not speak about Scottish policy here because that will be formed in Scotland, but I would clarify one point. There have been concerns about a DEFRA-centric approach to the devolved countries, despite Ministers being crystal clear that that is not the case. For absolute clarity, I would ask the Minister to state clearly that there will not be a DEFRA-centric policy dropped down on to Scotland.

It is clear from comments made by many Members that we want to see a common framework across the whole of the United Kingdom. That is just good practice. Farmers in Aberdeenshire have as much to do with farmers in Lincolnshire as they do in Essex; similarly up and down the west coast. It is very important that we have standards across the entire UK, and how they are policed is also important. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be policed effectively, perhaps by some sort of super-environmental agency, as DEFRA has suggested.

There is an 80/20 rule in agriculture: 80% of all production is by 20% of farmers. It is probably nearer to 10% to 90%. It is important to recognise that the affordability of food depends on scale and productivity. Having come from the retail sector, I have seen rapacious rationalisation by the supermarket. In the long run, that does not bring us any benefit; it brings far too much dependency on one or two very big players, which makes us very vulnerable to food scares or problems.

Affordable food is every bit as much a public good as the environment. They must go hand in hand and I hope the policy framework will respect that.