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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:13 pm on 1st February 2018.

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Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:13 pm, 1st February 2018

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

I thank Mr Carmichael for securing the debate and recognising the challenges that we face in Cumbria. There have been many good contributions from Members across the Chamber. I thank my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy for expressing her concerns about food security and labour, which are an important part of the debate.

We have heard that British farming is critical to our economy, providing thousands of jobs and the cornerstone of our food production. It is therefore important for the Government to step up to the plate to get the best deal and maintain the high standards that we have heard about, to enable our businesses and farms to flourish and remain successful. When we negotiate our trade agreements, it is important to make sure that they work for British farming, while protecting the high standards of food safety and animal welfare that our consumers expect. As we have heard from a number of Members, it is important that any deals do not undercut British farming.

Food and farming need to be a clear strategic priority and a cornerstone of the broad industrial strategy that the Government are promoting. I agree that there is a clear need, as hon. Members have said, for a plan to enable food and farming to grow more, so that people have a greater appreciation of British food and are encouraged to buy British at every opportunity. We also need to look at the brand of Britishness to help us to export more and get others to appreciate our high standards.

It is important that we appreciate exactly what is at stake for the farming industry with Brexit. If we get it wrong, that is the nation’s food security, nutrition, environment and public health, as we have heard. Farming is an integral part of the Labour party’s vision of a fairer society—one that tackles the increasing social ills of food poverty, poor diet, environmental degradation and inequality. We believe that we must be ambitious in the creation of our new British agricultural policy, which should aim to establish a new deal and a consensus on what a modern farming industry can do for the economy, rural communities, consumers and the environment. Change cannot be left to market forces alone, as long as farming is critical to our food security and to stewardship of the natural environment.

We have to look at better food labelling, which is vital. If our farmers are to be able to compete fairly under any new trade deals, product labelling must be clear and unambiguous so that people know exactly what they are buying. Such labelling should include the country of origin and method of production.

As we have heard, the issue of farm labour is critical and immediate. Farmers and food manufacturers need to have access to a wider labour market. Without access to that labour, the agricultural sector and food manufacturers will face severe difficulties. A lack of labour will lead to consequences for UK agriculture. We could end up with product being left to waste, the movement of investment and operations out of the UK and, on top of that, price inflation for consumers.

At the moment, the profitability of many farms is too dependent on direct payments from the CAP. Because of the huge diversity in farming and the volatility in many areas, we need to consider how we can support farms to become more resilient, while mitigating the volatility. When it comes to replacing the CAP, we believe that a future payment system must broadly seek to do the following things. We need to look at how we target support to farmers who provide the most public good but may struggle to compete in the market, through no fault of their own—for example, the hill farmers in my Lakeland constituency. Any future system must be transparent as well as relevant. It must be easily accessible—we have heard about broadband—and cost-effective. It should reward environmentally sustainable practice and environmental stewardship, such as the management of habitat and natural resources. I believe strongly that we should recognise the cultural and historical landscape for the benefit of us all.

We should also support flood mitigation through land management, so we need to look at how any future programme can include that. We also need to include technological innovation, and consider how investment in it could meet the aims of improving resource efficiency and animal health and welfare, managing disease and adding value. It could also be used to encourage investment in machinery and software. It is important to support rural communities and family farms as part of any system. They, too, are central to the economy.

In short, any new system must enable profitable and sustainable farming businesses that support a vital and dynamic rural economy. Farmers tell me that their big problem at the moment is uncertainty about the future, so I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I hope that anything being developed will provide that certainty and direction for our farmers, so that they can engage in long-term planning for sustainable future prosperity.