Back British Farming Day — [Caroline Nokes in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 15th September 2021.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 9:30 am, 15th September 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I call Theo Clarke to move the motion.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Back British Farming Day and the future of domestic agriculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture, I am delighted to have secured this debate. I met my Staffordshire farmers last Friday, and having spoken to the National Farmers Union at the Staffordshire County Show last month, I am very conscious of the circumstances that farmers currently face while trying to feed our nation.

The debate could not be more timely. It should be clear from the sea of wheatsheaf pin badges, displayed on many colleagues’ lapels, that today is Back British Farming Day—a day to celebrate all that our farmers do to produce high-quality, nutritious and delicious food while also caring for our environment and maintaining our iconic British landscapes.

Fruit and vegetables are the staple of our diets, and we all know how important it is for our health and wellbeing to eat our five a day, so I read to my dismay that as a country we are only 16% self-sufficient in fruit and 54% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of good, sustainable, local food supply chains. My constituents in Stafford have definitely become more interested in buying products close to home. It goes without saying that there are always going to be some types of fruit and vegetables that we will not be able to grow in this country, simply because we do not have the right climate. Of course, we can all enjoy bananas and citrus fruits from other countries, but we should aim to produce much more of the fruit and vegetables that are good at growing here.

Last year, I sat on the Agriculture Bill Committee, where we scrutinised that very important legislation line by line. The Bill advocated the importance of food security, which is why I backed that landmark Government legislation.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend very much for securing the debate. She talks about the Agriculture Bill. It is really important that, as we move to make sure that we sustainably produce food in an environmentally friendly way, we also produce enough food, really good-quality food, more vegetables, more meat and more milk. As we experience climate change—we are a country that has a climate that can produce food—we must make sure that we can produce enough food in future.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was going on to say that I was very pleased that, in the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government commit to producing a food security report at the end of this year and for three years after that.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Agriculture Act works in tandem with the Environment Bill, and that that will help my local farmers in Hastings and Rye not only to thrive but to increase productivity and thereby food security in the UK?

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was about to say that we are an island nation, so it is extremely important that we are self-sufficient as a country. That is why British fruit and vegetables are so important.

Let me take two examples, of apples and pears, which are two traditional fruit trees that have been found in our country for centuries. In domestic production, total apple demand accounts for only about 38% and the figure is 18% for pears. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs data shows that there has been a significant fall over the last 30 years, so I urge the Minister to work with farmers to reverse this declining trend.

On the other hand, strawberry production is a very positive story. Last Friday, I was lucky to visit Littywood Farm in Staffordshire, where they grow thousands of strawberries, raspberries and cherries every year. I was very interested to hear that they are using modern farming techniques to significantly increase their yield of soft fruit and that they have invested in state-of-the-art polytunnels to make the harvesting process more efficient. That means they have been able to extend the strawberry season from two months to seven months this year, so this is a fantastic, positive story that is being replicated across the country, and I note that since 2010, figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that domestic strawberry production has grown by almost 50%. In 2019, UK production reached a new record of 143,500 tonnes; Members will be pleased to know that that is about 350 million punnets of strawberries, so we will definitely have enough to feed the crowds at Wimbledon and our tennis matches next year, and more. This is a very good example of a model for fresh fruit produce items, which shows that it requires people and real investment.

I will now talk about some of the challenges that farming has faced. We are all aware of the role that weather and mother nature have in determining a crop’s success year on year. Does it rain at the right time? Is the sun shining when wheat is being harvested? Of course, this is very much out of our farmers’ hands, but so much of farming does fall within the Government’s remit, and I hope the Minister will agree that it is very important that decisions made in Westminster have a positive impact in our constituencies in the countryside. I would like to share a story that I heard last week from one of my Staffordshire strawberry growers, which is really quite devastating. They told me that 3,000 tonnes of strawberries were thrown away this year due to not having enough labour to pick the fruit. That equates to approximately £1 million of turnover loss by this farm in just one year. I know we all talk about statistics, but let us remind ourselves that this is fresh food that could have been eaten on British dinner tables this year, but is being thrown away and wasted. Those are not just destroyed strawberries: that represents lost jobs for fruit pickers, and lost income for our farmers.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport)

I was vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farmers for quite some time, and we had the then Farming Minister, who is now Secretary of State, come along to us some years ago. He was warned quite firmly by the fruit farmers there that this crisis was coming. Does the hon. Lady not agree that it should have been foreseen, and that steps should have been in place to make sure there was an adequate supply of agriculture workers so that we do not have food rotting in the fields?

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

The Government have taken steps to ensure there are seasonal workers, and if I make progress in my speech, I will come on to that topic shortly.

I was interested to read an industry-funded report last year that revealed that during the pandemic alone, labour costs have increased by 15%, which follows a 34% increase in wages over the past five years. I have heard from my farmers in Staffordshire that they are very concerned about the cost for growers: they have been told that they may have to pay for workers’ visas, travel, and covid tests in future. To put that in context, one of my local farmers told me that this could cost his business an extra £1,000 per seasonal worker, and on the basis that a farmer might employ 200 or 300 workers on their farm, that is hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional investment. A lot of my constituents will be asking, “Should fruit and vegetable farming remain? Is it economically viable?” That is why I urge the Minister to look into this issue.

It is very clear from the conversations I have had with local growers and businesses that it has been very difficult to recruit domestically. Very admirably, they worked hard to try to recruit domestic workers, but I was told that unfortunately, the manpower just is not there. I will give the Minister a particular example from my constituency, which I heard about at my meeting last week. One farm received 7,500 applications to be a seasonal worker. One hundred and fifty people were shortlisted, and 85 were offered jobs, of whom only 48 turned up. Thirty-two of those left after one week, 24 after two weeks and five after three weeks, so we can see that that farm put a huge amount of effort into recruiting workers, but the labour was simply not there.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I would like to make some progress in my speech, if that is okay, because I know that many colleagues are waiting to speak.

That story, I am afraid, was replicated for growers from across the country, including Dearnsdale Fruit in Staffordshire, which I heard from as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture when we hosted a roundtable on seasonal workers earlier this year. Access to labour is absolutely critical for ensuring the sector has the labour it needs. When it comes to perishable crops, such as strawberries, it is right that we have the workers that are needed at that moment. I commend the Government on the seasonal workers pilot scheme, which they expanded last year to 30,000 visas. It was a lifeline for many businesses and I thank the Minister for the role she played in getting the scheme set up.

Many colleagues would agree with me that there is uncertainty about the scheme. We need to know what it will look like in the future, so that farms can plan ahead. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues at the Home Office to come up with a solution.

I move on to the environmental schemes in Stafford. I am a member of the Conservative environment network and am very supportive of the Government’s environmental agenda, particularly ahead of COP26 in Glasgow this year. Flooding is an all-too-frequent phenomenon in my Stafford constituency. I welcome that the new legislation works to incentivise farms and landowners to implement measures that will improve our environment and reduce the incidence of floodwaters entering people’s homes.

Part of the Agriculture Act 2020 is the environmental land management scheme, which is currently going through various trials in Staffordshire. I was dismayed to hear last week that some of my local NFU members are considering dropping out of the scheme. My constituency is predominantly made up of small farms. The farmers have told me that they find the costs associated with being part of the scheme prohibitive.

At this point, having talked a lot about fruit and vegetables, I should also say I wholeheartedly support our dairy and red meat sector. From correspondence with constituents and talking to them at the Staffordshire county show in the summer, I appreciate that bovine TB remains a highly emotive topic. I urge the Minister to work with DEFRA to come up with a long-term solution that means the lives of many animals will be saved in years to come, and that ensures my farmers’ livestock will be protected.

Last week I heard some pretty distressing stories about mental health from my farmers—the mental health of those living in rural areas is a subject I feel very strongly about. As a new MP, I set up the Stafford mental health network and we hold regular mental health roundtables. I am very pleased that my farming community is represented on that by one of their NFU members.

My farmers are concerned about the devastating impact of High Speed 2 on their farms and our rural areas. I want to share one shocking story. I heard last week that two farmers have been so severely affected by dealing with HS2 that they have had their shotguns removed, for their own safety, due to a mental breakdown because of not receiving compensation. To be frank, my constituents have been treated with absolute contempt by HS2. No one asked for their farms and villages to be cut in half by the proposed line. They feel they are being treated like an inconvenience. They have had land taken away and have not yet even had payment for it. Others are stuck in protracted negotiations.

It is fair that constituents should be paid the market value for their land or business, and I do not think that is something they have yet received. If HS2 has lessons for any of us, it is that compensation and right of access laws must be tightened to ensure a level playing field. It is a very practical example of where more action is needed to back British farmers.

I want to talk about increasing the volume of British food in public sector food procurement, which is a major opportunity to showcase British food’s high standards and environmental credentials to everyone. I was very pleased to sponsor the Food Labelling (Environmental Sustainability) Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling. It would have required food manufacturers to better label their products to indicate the environmental sustainability of their origins, which would help consumers make more informed choices about the sustainability of the products they buy.

Supermarkets play a vital role in our local food supply chain and they have a very important role in ensuring consumers have the ability to make informed choices about the food they purchase. I have a policy idea to suggest to the Minister. All supermarkets should have what I am calling “an aisle for the British Isles”. Britain has some of the highest food standards in the world. I think the public want to buy food from British farmers. A recent survey said that 80% of respondents supported the increased procurement of British food in schools, hospitals and Government agencies. I totally agree.

The main reason people shop in supermarkets is for convenience. Would it not be a great idea for the consumer to know there was a whole aisle where everything in it was from the British Isles? There could be a local section or shelf for products from Staffordshire. I hope colleagues will support my idea of an aisle for the British Isles and that the Minister will commit to backing this concept, which would improve the situation for British farmers.

To conclude, although today is Back British Farming Day, I believe it is essential to back British farmers 365 days a year. To do that we need to deliver policies, not just in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but across Government, that work for our farmers who go out in all weathers every single day to ensure that we are fed as a nation. Let us not take that for granted.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

It will not surprise Members to hear that I am going to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 10.28 am. Many of you are standing and I do not wish to impose a formal time limit, but I may have to, unless you are all capable of doing the maths for yourselves. I will start with Kerry McCarthy.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:46 am, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate Theo Clarke on securing the debate. I am sure we will all—including the Minister—profess to be united in our support for British farming, but over recent years not everyone has been prepared to back up their words with action, which is what British farmers need right now.

We have spent a long time in this place discussing the future of farming, through the passage of the Agriculture, Trade and Environment Bills. It was clear what the farming sector needed, which was for British standards to be protected, but the Government and many of their Back Benchers consistently voted down amendments to achieve that. That means that farmers have been badly let down by the Government. We see that now with the Government stalling over the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission and, in the trade negotiations with Australia, brazenly allowing unfettered access to Australian imports produced to unacceptably low standards, and trading away references to limiting global warming to 1.5°, just to get the deal over the line.

That is not the only way in which the Government are failing British farmers. We also see empty shelves in our supermarkets and food left to rot in our fields because of a lack of forward planning. We have a shortfall of 90,000 lorry drivers, as well as a critical shortage of agriculture workers, which we have just heard about. One producer in Scotland this week reportedly had to waste 3.5 million heads of broccoli and 1.9 million heads of cauliflower due to supply chain disruption. That is not just a scandal when farmers are struggling to earn a living and families are struggling to put food on the table. They will struggle even more if the £20 cut to universal credit and the rise in national insurance go ahead. It is also contributing to our environmental failure, given that 8% of global emissions are attributable to food waste.

Backing British farming should mean the Government pulling out all the stops to fix the supply chain shortage, rather than what I see as a shadow Transport Minister, which is Ministers across Departments burying their heads in the sand and just hoping it will sort itself out. On a more positive note, backing British farming also means supporting a sustainable agriculture mode fit for the future. It means embracing agroecological practices that ensure farming and nature benefit each other. It means pursuing rewilding, protecting biodiversity, promoting agroforestry, reducing reliance on pesticides and farming less intensively to protect topsoil. The Agriculture Act 2020, with its “public money for public goods” approach, goes some way towards promoting those practices. That is a welcome step in the right direction, but there is more to do on that front, to make those practices the norm, rather than the exception.

We cannot ignore the contribution of industrial animal agriculture to many of the issues we are facing, from the routine overuse of antibiotics and intensive systems to the destruction of the rain forest for cattle ranching and producing livestock feed. It was reported this week that in the Netherlands they are considering plans to force farmers to cut livestock numbers, due to the sheer scale of ammonia pollution. I am glad the NFU has thrown its weight behind the ambition for net zero but, if net zero is to become a reality and we are to have a genuinely sustainable food and farming system, all these issues must be addressed.

I am proud to be a Member of this House who backs British farmers through my words and my actions. I have consistently supported better scrutiny for trade agreements, pushed Ministers to embrace more sustainable models for agriculture, and called for action on the growing crisis in our supply chains. With both COP26 and the Christmas rush approaching, I hope that all Government Members, not just the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, will join me in pushing the Government to act.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset 9:50 am, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and to follow Kerry McCarthy, who I know has much interest in this area. I should first like to declare that I am a farmer’s son in my home constituency of West Dorset. When we talk about hands on, I mean hands on in terms of calving cows the night before the general election, and I would like to think that I can offer some insights to the debate and to the House.

It is increasingly clear to me that we, in this House, need to step up to the plate, because our farmers, I am afraid, are under attack from all sides, whether it is the environmental lobby, those who believe in a vegan agenda or others. It gives me considerable cause for concern when it comes to farmers’ mental health, as my hon. Friend Theo Clarke mentioned in her opening speech. Whether it is environmental campaigners or not, we need to think about the supply chain, and about our supermarkets, because the thing that really concerns me is that our supermarkets are in a very dominant position. I do not share my hon. Friend’s view. I believe that they abuse that position with our farmers, and I think it is time we called them out for it.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator is, in my opinion, a complete waste of time. It does not do what it should do. Why is it that supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s can, on the back of a milk contract, threaten a farmer that if they do not provide or sell their cows to that supermarket they will tear up that milk contract? That is fundamentally unacceptable, and every one of us in this House should stand up and call it out for what it is. I encourage my hon. Friends and Opposition Members to support me in doing so.

We also need to bear in mind some of the things that have happened over the past year when it comes to animal welfare. No one in this House feels more strongly about animal welfare than I do. I appreciate the support, earlier this year and last year, from all Members of this House for my private Member’s Bill, now the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021; however, we need to put the record straight on a few examples. Previously in debates in this House we, and I am afraid the Opposition particularly, have given the impression that animal welfare is substandard in this country, and that the Government have somehow given in on animal welfare standards. I remind the House that the Government have been very clear on our import standards, and I continually seek reassurances from Ministers that they will not be changed. For the record, that means that hormone-injected beef and chlorinated chicken will not be permitted in this country. I want to be crystal clear on that.

We should also call out those whom some of my farmers refer to as “environmental do-gooders”. By that I specifically mean those people who genuinely believe that it is better for the environment to eat an avocado that has been flown from 5,000 miles away to the breakfast table rather than some meat or produce that has come from around the corner. That is the sort of attack that our farmers are under, and I believe that we must stand up and push back on those things much more.

We have mentioned, and I am sure we will probably mention it a little more, the supply chain, which has been progressively under pressure over the past six months. We have seen the “best before” date of milk in the supermarket getting closer and closer to the day we buy it. Some people say that is a problem. I believe that it is the biggest and best opportunity that our farmers have had for a very long time, because it is putting pressure on a very centralised and commercialised supply chain that provides the supermarkets with considerable profit. Our farmers, including dairies in my constituency such as Hollis Mead, now sell their milk almost literally on the doorstep. They provide small shops with their milk, which is cheaper than if bought from the supermarket.

I am conscious of the time, Ms Nokes. I thank you once again, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on securing the debate. I would like to place on the record my continuing support for our farmers—not only in my constituency of West Dorset, but across the entire nation.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:55 am, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank Theo Clarke for setting the scene and for giving us all an opportunity to participate. I very much look forward to the Minister’s reply, and I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister and her staff for all the responses that she gives us on the issues that we raise. We are especially pleased to see her in her place, and we look forward to having a working relationship in the future.

I am a keen supporter of Back British Farming. I always say that we in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are better together, which does not become less true the more times I say it. As a proud representative of a rural constituency, and with the joy of living on a farm, I always offer my support for British farming. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and I give a personal commitment to the Back British Farming campaign. Every day before I go to work, I have two eggs—I go to work on an egg or, in this case, two eggs. I eat eggs in the morning, and I probably do so in the evening as well. If anybody is backing the egg industry in the United Kingdom, it is probably me.

Statistics from the Ulster Farmers Union indicate that there are over 25,000 farm businesses in Northern Ireland, producing a wide variety of raw materials. The union says:

“Farming in Northern Ireland is not just a job but it is a way of life and we are extremely proud of our family farming structure.”

The farming sector in Northern Ireland is worth £4.5 billion a year, supporting one in eight jobs in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we make exceptional-quality products, and I want to see them sold all over the world, as is the case. Like other hon. Members, however, I look to the Minister to reassure us, because it is important that our produce is not in any way disadvantaged by trade deals. Beef, sheep and dairy are the largest commodity sectors in Northern Ireland, but we are being impacted on—I am a Brexiteer, by the way—by the effects of Brexit and the insidious Northern Ireland protocol. Lord Frost is very clear about how we should go forward. We support him in that, and he supports us, but we need the Prime Minister and Government to support us as well.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, the total income from farming in Northern Ireland fell some 23% between 2017 and 2018. The agriculture industry is at the fore for everyone and, in some way, benefits us all. Hon. Members have referred to farmers’ mental health. Like the hon. Member for Stafford, I have seen a real issue for farmers’ mental health in my constituency. I am not quite sure whether it is due to the pandemic—it is probably the pressures of life and environmental issues. For the record, the National Farmers Union and the Ulster Farmers Union, which are sister bodies, have committed themselves to net zero carbon by 2030. There is a commitment from farmers to work with the Government, and we need help with issues such as jobs for seasonal workers.

Increasing prices and delivery delays are not helping our families. My constituency of Strangford is a very strong farming community. In addition to the impacts of Brexit, the protocol gives absolutely no reassurance, so I agree with some of the comments made in previous speeches by the hon. Member for Stafford in the Chamber and elsewhere. We have seen sluggish improvements to our agriculture situation since Brexit, and there is no doubt that improvements are needed.

British farming goes above and beyond to create a countryside that works for everyone. UK farming contributes over £120 billion a year, which is an incredible amount of money. According to the statistics, UK food and drink exports exceeded £23 billion and went to 220 countries worldwide in 2019. We in Northern Ireland are doing our bit. We can do more, and we need our Government to support us.

In conclusion, I want to speak up for Willowbrook Foods, Mash Direct, Rich Sauces and Lakeland Dairies, all of which have created over 1,000 jobs in their factories. They work alongside our farmers, which, in turn, creates tens of thousands of jobs. When it comes to ensuring that we produce the goods, I believe that we must stand up for British farming and scrap the Northern Ireland protocol. It is always there and can never go away.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley 9:59 am, 15th September 2021

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend Theo Clarke on securing such an important debate on Back British Farming Day.

The Meon Valley constituency has a range of farms and agricultural businesses contributing to a thriving economy, from traditional family farms to vineyards. I pay tribute to them and their employees, who work so hard to bring high-quality produce to the market in the UK and around the world. I also pay tribute to all our farm shops, such as Westlands Farm Shop in Wickham, for selling British food and, as mentioned before, getting local food into local shops, so that local people can buy it. That is very important.

I keep in contact with producers throughout my constituency and I recently visited Hambledon Vineyard, one of the oldest commercial vineyards in the UK and one that is winning international awards for the quality of its English sparkling wine. The climate in the south downs is perfect for wine growing and, as climate change hits us, I am sure that English wines will dominate around the world, and certainly should dominate shops in the UK. If we are going to be self-sufficient in fruit, we should also be self-sufficient in wine.

I hope that, in time, my colleagues at the Treasury can be convinced to review the taxation of English sparkling wine, which attracts a higher duty rate than non-sparkling wine. We have a growing export trade, but it would help our vineyards to thrive if we allowed wine drinkers in the UK to enjoy it more with lower duty rates.

When I think of what our farming does for the environment, I am reminded of my visit to Manor Farm, when I walked the farm with Jamie Balfour and a number of other farmers from the area. We saw that it makes sense to incorporate rewilding alongside the management of woodland. Jamie manages extensive areas of woodland on his farm, and although we want to promote tree planting through schemes like the National Forest, we must also remember how important farmers are for managing woods and the wildlife they are home to.

A few months ago I visited the Horam family on their farm near Droxford, where we discussed just how high-tech and forward-looking agriculture is now, aiming to save water, to recycle, including the plastics used on the farm, and to use satellites and drones to monitor the health and growth of crops. The investment that farmers make in machinery and technology is enormous.

We have so many farmers who take great pride in the stewardship of the environment, promoting natural and organic methods. I am pleased that our support, post-Brexit, focuses on environmental goals through the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Environment Bill. The future is looking bright, and I pay tribute to the National Farmers Union for all the work it is doing to keep us on the right track to make sure that happens.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann 10:02 am, 15th September 2021

I thank Theo Clarke for securing the debate as we celebrate Back British Farming Day. I also put on record my thanks to the farming unions across the United Kingdom, especially our own Ulster Farmers Union for the work it has done in making this day such a success, showcasing the best of British farming and raising issues that are pertinent to the industry at this time.

I have the privilege of representing a constituency that has a large number of farming families and many agrifood processing facilities. Together, they work day and night to bring world-leading produce from farm to fork, safe and traceable, with the very best welfare and environmental standards. They also sustain thousands of jobs providing household incomes that, in many cases, have been established through generations of farming families.

It is this tradition and this economic lifeblood in our rural communities that must be supported for future growth. Yet, on this Back British Faming Day, these farmers and processors face the threat that arises from the pursuance of free trade deals that do not offer the protections needed or demanded by our farming community.

It has been a matter of deep concern to me, shared by many colleagues across the House, that in securing the agreement with Australia the Government showed no regard for protecting the world-leading standards we demand of our farmers. The same fear exists around negotiations with New Zealand. Rather than equivalence on food welfare and environmental standards being a prerequisite to agreement, no such protections for either producers or consumers are being sought or secured. That makes the Government claim to back British farming questionable.

Like many hon. Members here today, I have the utmost respect for my hon. Friend Neil Parish, who is a great champion of British farming. On 21 July in this place, he eloquently outlined five asks of the Government that would protect our standards and support our farmers, yet I see little evidence of any progress on those asks. That is a matter of deep regret and concern. We need the Government to step up and let their support for British farming be evidenced in actions, as their words—as we know in Northern Ireland—have counted for little.

The Northern Ireland protocol must be addressed in a way that restores our place within the United Kingdom’s internal market. No barriers should exist for potato producers who want to bring seed potatoes into Northern Ireland from Scotland. The hiatus on approvals for plant protection products threatens local growers. Those are just two examples of some of the ridiculous restrictions that our farmers and producers are facing in Northern Ireland because of the protocol. In that regard, the clock is ticking louder and louder and time is running out fast. The Government must act and the protocol must go.

Finally, our processors of these fantastic British farm products need labour to maximise output and to transport it. Yes, we need a long-term strategy, but in the short term we need urgent flexibility in terms of short-term visas to help alleviate the labour shortage.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 10:06 am, 15th September 2021

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Theo Clarke on securing this debate. If Jeremy Clarkson’s farm show on Amazon has proved anything, it is that farming is not an easy career choice. Even for those who present car shows, it is still incredibly difficult to turn a profit. That is the interesting point about the debate that we are having today—the difficulties that the farming community face, both now and in the future, and the opportunities that are being presented to us outside the European Union. I believe that there are significant opportunities for farmers outside the EU. Not least, as has already been referred to, is the point about public money for public good. The ELM—environmental land management—scheme has huge potential, but it has the potential to work only if it works in conjunction with farmers. Across the House, both here and now and in previous weeks, I have heard from many colleagues that the ELM scheme is already looking too difficult, that there is not enough information about it, that the schemes are too complicated to even apply for and that the variety of funding schemes are also too difficult, so if I may make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister in the short time that I have, it would be to ensure that the co-operation with farmers is far greater than it currently is.

There have been interesting pinch points in the two years since I was elected as a Member of Parliament in which I think DEFRA has taken the wrong approach. I am thinking of the animal transportation consultation, the badger culling consultation and, now, the new rules for water. Those have all antagonised the farming community to a significant degree and they make farmers think that the Government are not trying to work with them. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, is here in the debate, let me say that I will be writing to him to ask whether his Committee could inquire further about the rules on water and the difficulties that they will pose for farmers across the country. If anyone would like to join me in writing that letter, please see me afterwards.

There are huge opportunities. I should declare my interest as a champion of regenerative agriculture in the Conservative Environment Network—and, indeed, my other half is someone who worked in that field. There are new opportunities to see how we can farm, so that this is not just preaching about do-goodery when it comes to climate change, but is about how we can lower people’s costs to produce more productive food. Whether that means no-till farming, regenerative agriculture or looking at how we grow non-monocultured crops, the opportunities are very much there.

A number of colleagues have referred to the point about trade. I serve on the International Trade Committee, and we do scrutinise the deals that are being signed. I think there needs to be more co-operation between the EFRA Committee and the trade Committee, so that when deals are struck, they can be reviewed together. I will be pushing for that and I hope that there can be more debates in the Chamber of the House of Commons. But as my hon. Friend Chris Loder said, there are already pieces of legislation in place under the sanitary and phytosanitary standards that require a vote in Parliament for any changing of the standards. It is worth bearing that in mind.

We have a fantastic opportunity in this country, through our trade deals, to export our world-class produce to new markets. We should embrace that and see the opportunity it presents to embolden our farmers, not reduce them. Of course there should be caution, but let us make sure that we can also open those new markets.

Finally, there is a huge opportunity in our schools to talk about seasonal variety and how we farm on this land. We are doing ourselves an injustice when we fail to teach about farming in our schools.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 10:10 am, 15th September 2021

I congratulate my hon. Friend Theo Clarke on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to highlight our farms. What a fabulous showing we have on the Government side, particularly from south-west colleagues. It is great to see.

I will not repeat what others have said about how brilliant our farmers are and how well they are doing in very difficult circumstances. I just want to put on the record my thanks to all the farmers in Truro and Falmouth, many of whom I have met over the past year, and some of whom I met only a couple of weeks ago. I want to raise a couple of points, from the horse’s mouth, that came out of that discussion. I know that Committees are doing an awful lot of work on the trade deal, and I think we can do better on our communication to farmers; that is where we are falling down.

The farmers had particular concerns about beef carcase imbalance, and thought that any import of cheap food is wrong. They came at it at a very different angle from what I have heard today. They think it is morally wrong that we sell cheap meat to people. People on low incomes should not have to be forced to choose the cheap meet; everybody should have the best-quality meat at a reasonable price. That was the angle they were coming from. They were not trying to be protectionist.

The farmers said that labelling is key. I mentioned that we have lots of work going on on that, and they were very supportive. It is not fair that people get poor-quality or not enough information, so hopefully we can do more on that. From the horse’s mouth, those farmers believe that the Red Tractor system has failed and should be scrapped. They think that there are too many audits on farmers and that there should be one simple standard to follow to allow farmers to concentrate on what they do best.

The farmers also mentioned public procurement. They think there is no reason why we should not be doing that, now that we have left the EU. There are many major purchasers in public procurement—we have mentioned schools and hospitals—and we should absolutely be concentrating on British and sustainably produced produce. When feeding our children and our most vulnerable, why would we not want to give them the very best?

However, I want mostly to talk about daffodils—sorry, I got in first. This is a huge issue in Cornwall, and one that is racing towards the end of the clock. When can export our daffodils to the US and the middle east, and they are worth more than £100 million to our economy—hon. Members may come up with other figures. If the Treasury is listening, that is 20 million quid in VAT receipts. At the moment, we do not have anyone to pick them and we are facing a massive brick wall when it come to the Home Office. Please, Home Office, listen to our plea! I am afraid that when I speak to the Home Office about this—I will be quite strong and robust—it tells us that this is now a Department for Work and Pensions issue, and that British people can be recruited to do the job. They cannot. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford a story about picking strawberries. Growers can put a plea out to thousands of people, and in the end, after two weeks of work, they have got nobody left.

There are different solutions to that. I would like to see an extension of the seasonal agricultural work scheme. It is time limited. The season is from January to April—it is very exact. It cannot be mechanised, and British people will not and cannot do that work. We have to come up with a solution. That is a plea not to DEFRA, which I know is on side, but to the Home Office, to do something about it. Otherwise, we will see all those daffodils rotting in the fields.

In addition, there needs to be a focus on encouraging the young generation into farming, from abroad and also at home. One suggestion was made particularly for daffodil pickers, although it could also be used for a wider agricultural recruitment scheme. At the moment, there are 5.6 million people with European settled status, and people from outside the EU, who cannot come back to the United Kingdom to work, purely because of quarantine rules. Can the Government look at paying for that quarantine so that we can get agricultural workers back into the field?

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy 10:14 am, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend Theo Clarke on securing this debate. I have a couple of comments on the debate so far, which I have really enjoyed. One is that it is strangely devoid of an understanding of farming as a business and the risks that come with it. From the content of the conversation we have had so far, it seems to fall to Government to insulate farming against every business risk. I suspect that that is not the intention of farmers, and that is something for us to ponder.

To my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, I would say that farming is a place of ambitious targets, perhaps nowhere more so than on the environment, but suggesting we might be self-sufficient in wine production is a target too far.

I pay tribute to Aberconwy’s farming community. The last 18 months have presented farmers throughout the UK with unprecedented challenges. It is impossible to forget the scenes from the early days of the pandemic, when supermarket shelves were empty and people feared they were going to run out of food. However, farmers rose to the challenge, food was produced, demand was met and our shelves were restocked. I would like to take the opportunity to thank our farmers for all they have done in those difficult times. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi gyd.

Livestock farmers across Aberconwy, Wales and the UK have deservedly earned a reputation for producing the finest quality produce in the world. Our beautiful landscapes and mild climate in north Wales mean we have one of the most sustainable places to produce red meat, and I share the pride of the farming community and so many of my constituents that our sheep and livestock farmers operate to the highest animal health and welfare standards anywhere in the world.

However, as has been recognised this morning, farming has been criticised as a major contributor to climate change. These attacks are grossly unjustified, as British farming practices are not only sustainable, but play a key role in addressing the climate change challenge. British beef and lamb farming are among the most efficient and sustainable in the world due to their extensive grass-based systems. We know that agriculture accounts for just 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, but actively managed pastures and grasslands, such as in Dyffryn Conwy, are hugely effective carbon sinks, with several studies finding that grassland could be a more reliable carbon sink even than woodland. I remind those who love our landscapes and those summer staycationers who have been exploring Eryri, our national park of Snowdonia, that the spectacular scenery they are enjoying is the product of the hard work of our farmers. It is an industrial landscape, and our farmers are the custodians of it from Llanfairfechan to Ysbyty Ifan.

In conclusion, I have two asks of Government. First, as we approach COP26, I urge the Government to champion the contribution that farmers are making to our national effort to reach net zero by 2040. Secondly, I urge the Government to challenge robustly the myth that British livestock farming is a major contributor to climate change.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 10:17 am, 15th September 2021

I commend my hon. Friend Theo Clarke for securing this important debate. I rise to speak in this timely and necessary debate to demonstrate that I back British farming, which is something people across the UK have done with great enthusiasm during the pandemic as we all learned how precarious our food supply chain can be.

As we heard from my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory, it is time for the Home Office to take the opportunity to demonstrate its support for British farming. I say that because our farmers do not yet know if they will be given access to foreign workers through the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in just 14 weeks’ time. SAWS is not a new idea. It has been serving the food and farming sector for decades by giving access to foreign workers through visas, but it has been necessary to revive it due to the Government quite rightly bringing an end to free movement of EU nationals.

The Home Office must act quickly to help British farmers harvest their crops. This year, farmers from across my constituency have raised with me issues of staff shortages affecting the harvesting of potatoes and other crops. They are very concerned about the situation they will be in in a few weeks’ time. For many, the crop is already in the ground.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

Certainly, but please be brief.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I certainly will. The hon. Gentleman has tempted me, but I thank him for giving way. It is not just about the crops in the fields; the pig-producing factories cannot get workers either, and those jobs are fairly skilled. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have a duty to not only those who bring the crops in, but those who work in the factories and produce the food as well?

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I welcome that intervention, but that is a slightly different issue because that work is—it is often 12-month work, and the resettlement status and various other things can help with that.

I talk unapologetically about the need in Cornwall, but we need people to be able to come and harvest the crops, which as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned includes daffodils. The Home Office can help farmers by agreeing to our demands to continue access to seasonable agricultural workers next year and by addressing the urgent need facing Cornish MPs, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth, the DEFRA Secretary—it might be awkward for him—and myself. The truth is that we will be driving to London next January, February and March staring at fields covered in beautiful yellow flowers. I appreciate the view, as will anyone who comes to Cornwall on holiday, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said, £100 million-worth of daffodils are picked in Cornwall—we provide 86% and the UK provides 95% of the world’s daffodils—and to see those flowers sitting in the fields for us to enjoy is not fair on those in London and elsewhere who should also be enjoying them. It is also not fair on HMRC.

There is an urgent need to secure a workforce to harvest our daffodils. SAWS is limited, as we know, to edible crops. My ask, and that of my colleagues and Cornish daffodil growers, who produce almost 80% of the nation’s daffodils, is to simply extend the SAWS pilot to include daffodils. That would extend the visa to nine months, rather than six, to cover January to April and would include the harvesting of non-edible crops. If the Home Office is really concerned, it could just specify daffodils. We would be happy with that.

I have not heard any local dissent regarding the fact that citizens from overseas work in west Cornwall and on Scilly. If the Home Office is concerned about immigration numbers—I do not believe that this is not immigration, but seasonal agricultural work to meet a demand—the scheme to keep the 30,000 workers for nine months would suit its desire. This year we needed a further 1,000 daffodil pickers. The Home Office believes that a workforce is here in the UK, but my daffodil producers tested that. They increased pay, advertised widely and locally, and increased the hours available to work. Despite that, we lost 20% of our daffodils, and 274 million stems were left in the ground.

This is an urgent issue. I have spoken to the Prime Minister, the Chief Whip, DEFRA, a Home Office Minister and the Home Secretary about it. When I spoke to the Home Office Minister, he said that we need to demonstrate that the work is not poorly paid with poor accommodation. In fact, the producers increased the money to attract the pickers. The average hourly wage was £12.08. Some were earning £1,000 a week, and each year the accommodation is inspected by the migrant workers officer. Daffodil growers have rightly improved pay and conditions because they know they will lose their pickers to perhaps much more enjoyable work such as—dare I say it?—strawberry picking. It is amazing that strawberries in the sunshine are being left in the ground when it is so much easier to pick a strawberry than a daffodil.

I will leave it there, but this is a devastatingly important issue. I will finish with a quote from Churchill for the Home Office to hear. At the height of the second world war when ornamentals were not allowed to be picked, he said:

“These people must be enabled to grow their flowers and send them to London— they cheer us up…in these dark days”.

Let us do what we can to protect an industry that does so much to cheer up the nation.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes 10:24 am, 15th September 2021

It is very good of you to call me at all, Ms Nokes, as I was late for the beginning of the debate, for which I apologise. I beg your forgiveness and also that of my hon. Friend Theo Clarke. I am sorry to have missed the first minute or two of her brilliant speech. I served with her on the Agriculture Bill Committee and I remember the incredibly erudite and impressive to and fro between the Front Benchers arguing over what happens when sows roll over and that sort of thing—I learnt a huge amount. During the passage of the Bill I was pleased that food production was inserted as a public good. The principle that the Bill now represents standing up for British farmers and ensuring that the industry can thrive in this new world is to be greatly welcomed.

Let me say a word on our trade policy. It is absolutely right that we pursue a policy of free trade in agriculture. It is the right thing for the world and for our country. Obviously, we have been through this over the centuries. The principle of consumer price and choice and the competition that trade induces, including over quality, are absolutely vital and not to be overlooked. The policy is also an enormous export opportunity. Wiltshire is home not only to farmers who produce glorious food for domestic consumption and export, but to some of the most innovative technology, new engineering techniques and methods of protein manufacturing. Those have enormous potential for our county and our country, in the context of the huge challenge of feeding the world, including the urbanised population of China. I hope that our country can play a role in that through our trade policy. That policy is also of great benefit to the world’s producers. One of the great advantages of being outside the common agricultural policy is that we can genuinely welcome the products of the world, as we are no longer in a protective racket that excluded African producers, in particular.

I am also concerned—I know that the Minister shares this aspiration—that our agricultural policy ensures that we eat more of our own food in this country and that we consume more domestic produce. I agree with my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory about the quality of food eaten by our population. I worry about creating a two-tier system, where wealthy people eat glorious British produce while poorer people are expected to eat lower quality food produced abroad, possibly to lower standards. I know that the Minister shares that concern.

It is good and right that we support production through the new subsidy system. In general, we do not do that—and we should not—but farmers have a role in maintaining this country’s greatest natural asset: our land and countryside. Roger Scruton, who should be quoted as often as possible, said that the beauty of the English countryside is testament to centuries of inherited property rights. The principle of supporting those landowners and tenants is important. Secondly, there is the importance of resilience: we are seeing the rise of economic nationalism around the world, and we have learned in the last year and a half the incredible importance of a secure supply of our essentials, including food. I am pleased that the Government are putting food security at the heart of their strategy and that we are developing a national food security strategy.

My thanks to all Members and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for securing this debate. My thanks to Wiltshire farmers and particularly to my friend Peter Lemon, who started the Southern Streams project in the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, which has secured the protection of the streams in my area. Farmers do an amazing amount of work, not only in securing our food but in maintaining our environment.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 10:27 am, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank Theo Clarke for securing this debate.

I begin by saying a huge thank you to farmers in my constituency. They put in tireless hours and are often very underpaid. Farmers are essential workers; they put food on our tables throughout the pandemic—they did not let us down. Yet, they are consistently let down by the UK Government.

The Government should heed the title of this debate and back British farming—not just with rhetoric, but with action. Farming is an essential sector for Scotland: it employs around 67,000 people and supports thousands more in jobs across urban and rural economies, generating a gross output of £3.3 billion annually, directly resulting in a contribution of £1.3 billion to the Scottish economy. However, it has been dealt a hard blow by Brexit.

Just before Christmas, during the chaos preceding the trade and co-operation agreement, a variety of constituents wrote to me; they were blackface sheep farmers and stood to lose thousands of pounds. In Scotland alone, the blackface sheep industry stood to lose £750,000 of sheep if lambs could not be moved to Northern Ireland. That had never posed a problem before Brexit. The then Cabinet Secretary in Scotland, Fergus Ewing, wrote to the DEFRA Secretary of State to raise the issue urgently. It took over three weeks to receive a reply.

Meanwhile, farmers, including some of my constituents, had no idea what they would do in the run-up to Christmas and how much money they stood to lose. That is just one example of how farmers were let down by Brexit, although there are many more. It is hard to see what the advantages of Brexit were for farmers.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

It is good to have the support of the Scottish National party to oppose the Northern Ireland protocol, because that is what the issue is. Farmers in Scotland and Northern Ireland are suffering and something needs to be done. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Unlike the majority party in Northern Ireland, we opposed Brexit. We thought it was going to be a disaster, and we opposed the Brexit agreement. I know the Democratic Unionist party has suffered considerably electorally since the results of their folly in supporting Brexit have been gauged by the Northern Irish electorate.

The UK-Australia trade agreement, when it was signed, was yet another blow for UK farmers. The UK Government, in their desperation to sign anything that might make Brexit appear less of an ongoing calamity for the economy, agreed to a terrible deal with Australia. I guarantee that champagne corks were being popped in Canberra the night that deal was signed. According to NFU Scotland, it was

“a slow journey to the Australians getting unfettered access to UK markets and with no guarantees that the promises of other safeguards will address the fact that very different production systems are permitted in Australia compared to here in the UK.”

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I will make some progress, if I may. The deal as a whole will deliver one 200th of the benefits of the EU over the next 15 years, and is worth only 0.01% of GDP. That causes two problems for farming. The first is the fact that Australian livestock farms will mean that farmers in the UK who operate on a much smaller scale will not be able to compete on price. On the price issue, in the UK we pride ourselves on high animal welfare standards. The same cannot be said of the Australians. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chief executive Chris Sherwood warned that it is legal in Australia to mutilate the rear end of sheep, while chicken can be washed with chlorine and almost half of cattle are given growth hormones. That is a shocking record of animal welfare.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I will pursue my point for a moment. Although the Prime Minister assured us that hormone-induced cattle will not come to the UK, we all remember he also promised at the last election not to increase taxes.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

May I just respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that what I said earlier still stands? The import standards for this country do not permit that. It is a matter of law, and if it ever changed there would be a vote taken in Parliament. Hormone-injected beef is not permitted to be imported into this country, and the same is to be said for chlorine-washed chicken.

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Let us see. Many of the assurances we were given on Brexit have proved very different in reality. Climate pledges were secretly dropped from the deal. Paris agreement temperature goals never made it into the final deal after pressure from the Australian Government. For 0.01% of GDP and to get a post-Brexit win, global Britain ditched essential climate change goals in the lead-up to the most important international climate summit in years.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of John Nicolson John Nicolson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I will pursue my point. I have already taken two interventions and there is a limit to how many I can take in a speech. The impact of global warming on temperature and weather will be felt most acutely by those in the farming community. The Australian deal sets a worrying precedent for trade deals going forward. If any future deal with the United States throws farmers under the bus as much as the Australia one did, many more farmers will struggle.

I cannot finish without mentioning the litany of complaints from the hon. Member for Stafford about Brexit labour shortages and food rotting in our constituency fields. The hon. Lady sounded shocked, as indeed she should, at the appalling waste. But it is hardly a surprise. Once upon a time, right-wing tabloids and Brexiteer MPs assured us that, post-Brexit, townies would be jumping on trains to the countryside, filled with “Pick for Britain” zeal, and would return ruddy-faced from their exertions in the fields. It was never going to happen. It has not happened; Brexit has led to chronic labour shortages, and we on this side of the House clearly warned that that would happen. So please, let us not affect surprise at the clearly foreseeable consequences of Brexit.

We in Scotland have a choice; farmers, and the rest of us, have the option of re-joining the European Union as part of an independent Scotland and to have free movement once again. Farmers play such an important role in society, and I am proud to back them. I wish the UK Government would do the same.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:35 am, 15th September 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate Theo Clarke on securing the debate and for a passionate and honest account. It will probably not be any help to her for me to say that it was a devasting critique of the Government’s position—a critique we heard from a number of others. I am grateful for Danny Kruger for his kind words, and for unveiling the truth of the plan, which is the two-tier system that we all worry about.

It is a pleasure to speak on Back British Farming Day. We all thank the NFU for organising across the country, and in Westminster, and for putting the issues that farmers face at the top of the political agenda. As many Members have already said, today is an opportunity to celebrate all the incredible work done by farmers, farm workers and all those in the processing sectors who produce the best quality food in the world. We thank the key workers for all the work they did, and continue to do, to keep everyone fed during covid; the whole sector can be proud that fresh and affordable food continues to reach people across the country. Previous generations would have marvelled at that, and it should never be taken for granted.

This is why we are so committed to standing behind our farmers and food producers, with Labour’s campaign to buy, make and sell more across the UK. Today, as part of the plan, we are calling for public bodies to buy more British food all year round. Under a Labour Government, public bodies will be tasked with giving more contracts to British firms, and we will legislate to require them to report on how much they are buying from domestic sources with the taxpayer’s money. This is a genuinely ambitious plan to make sure the public sector helps support our British farmers. Frankly, it goes much further towards providing sufficient support to our food producers than the efforts of the current Government, who wheel out hollow gimmicks, such as the Cabinet Office switching from Dutch to English bacon for a couple of weeks during British Food Fortnight. We can do so much better than that. Our plan will assist the economy to recover from the pandemic, and help our British farmers and food producers, who need and deserve our support both now and in the years ahead.

Labour is committed to supporting food producers, whereas the actions of the current Government mean that, on Back British Farming Day, farmers are actually facing a perfect storm of uncertainty, dodgy trade deals, imminent cuts to support and, as we have heard, crippling labour shortages. It is not backing British farming to cut trade deals that undercut farmer’s livelihoods by leaving them vulnerable to overseas agricultural imports produced to lower standards—as was so well explained by my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No, I will not give way because I want to give the Minister plenty of time to answer these difficult questions.

We have heard a number of Conservative Members attempt to big up the Government’s shaky position on trade. I think that in their heart of hearts they know that no one trusts the Prime Minister on this. They know full well that the Australian trade deal has sold out British farming, just as it sold out the climate talks, and just as any future trade deals they make are likely to.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No, I am not going to. When the outlines of a possible deal were announced, it was Labour who stood firm with farmers and demanded that the Government did not compromise on our high environmental, animal welfare and food standards. That is what backing British farming really looks like.

Sold out on trade deals, and also sold out on basic support; it is not backing British farming to slash farm support and pretend that environmental payments will somehow fill the gap. This is just as we predicted in our lengthy debates on the Agriculture Bill, as some Members have already mentioned. With the clock ticking, the new payments are still in the process of being designed, tested and piloted, way behind schedule. We predicted that it would be hard—none of this stuff is easy.

The Minister and I have discussed this on many occasions, and she challenged me to go and see for myself. So, I did. I went on a summer tour to Yorkshire, to Northumbria, to Exmoor; I met those who were doing the trials, and I found brilliant, inspiring and lovely people working really hard. The lessons were clear; it is complicated. It is a good thing to do—I support ELM and the principle of rewarding farmers for environmental improvements—but these schemes are too complicated and inflexible.

The sustainable farming incentive was a panicky fix that might plug some of the gap for some, but in so doing, I was told on the ground, it also risks undermining ELM in some cases. The life support that has kept Britain farming for many decades is now on a timed exit. It will expire, and I feel it will take a good many British farmers with it. That is what I heard, not just from those pilots but from the other areas I visited—from farmers in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and the midlands at the Great Yorkshire Show.

It is not just me saying this; it is farmers saying it. An excellent report published today by the National Audit Office shows that DEFRA has lost the trust of the farming industry, citing the low take-up of the new schemes. I exhort Members to look at an excellent paper produced by DEFRA last week, the “Farmer Opinion Tracker”. The very first figure, for the number who

“understand Defra’s vision for farming”,

shows that it was just 10% in 2019. Well, guess what? After two years of Government effort, it is now 5%. If it was not so serious, it would be funny. There is more in that report: 40% of farmers are

“not at all confident that their relationship with Defra and Defra agencies will develop positively in the future.”

So, there is not a lot of confidence.

These cuts in support will have profound consequences for rural areas. We calculate that rural England stands to lose more than £255 million this year as a result of the cut, putting as many as 9,500 jobs at risk, and that is in just one year, with a 5% cut. By 2024, it will be 50%. It is huge: not backing British farming—slashing British farming.

Then, to complete the hat trick, there are the labour shortages. We have heard a lot about that. It is not backing British farming to take out the pool of workers who not just farming, but the whole food system has depended on for years without a proper plan to achieve that transition. It is not just me saying that; listen to every voice across every sector. We know the problems, which are well documented: people not being able to get to Nando’s; the milkshakes at McDonald’s. We have heard about the crop pickers and the meat factory workers, as well as the lorry drivers, and about the huge pressure on vets.

I have to say, I am astonished that I have not heard anything from the Government Benches about what is happening on pig farms and poultry farms. It is Labour, it seems to me, now speaking for them, because the birds and pigs are packed up on—

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

Where are the Labour Members?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

There will be many more here after the next election from rural areas, and we will be supporting those people, because those birds and pigs on those farms are packed up, at risk of being destroyed if they cannot be kept in good welfare conditions.

The British Poultry Council warns that the labour crisis will lead to less British food being produced. The National Pig Association reckons that there are backlogs resulting in 85,000 extra pigs on farms across the UK, increasing by 15,000 a week. I spoke yesterday to the renowned Yorkshire pig farmer Richard Lister, who told me that people are on the brink of destroying animals on farms. People are understandably very distressed—to pick up the mental health issues raised by the hon. Member for Stafford. He says that this is one of the worst times he has ever known and he fears, as do many, that what we are actually doing is exporting our pig industry. It is really, really serious.

There is much more to be said, but time is short, so let me finish with some direct questions to the Minister, which I am sure she can answer. First question: where on earth is the trade and agriculture commission? It was used as bait to get the Bill through. Where is it? On food security, when will we get the first assessment, as discussed when we took the Agriculture Act 2020 through? It is due soon, surely. It was promised; when will it be with us?

Is someone from Government actually going to respond to Henry Dimbleby’s review? It was a huge piece of work, taking two years. It was called “The Plan”, in marked juxtaposition to lack of a plan from DEFRA. What is DEFRA’s plan? Will the Minister perhaps explain to us why the Prime Minister could not find time to talk to Henry Dimbleby? That was a really hard-worked report, with a range of people involved in presenting it, including the president of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters. It tackles the key issues of the time, environmental degradation and the problems in our food system with obesity. Is it really of so little significance that the Prime Minister did not have time to talk to Henry Dimbleby?

In conclusion, given this catalogue of failure, it sticks in the craw when we see Government Members supporting the wheatsheaf, when British farming faces so many problems as a direct consequence of their own Government’s actions. It is not everybody: I know that many on the Government Benches have felt unease. Some were brave enough to stand up for farmers over the trade issues, but frankly it needed many more. The contrast is stark. Labour backs British farming, today and every day of the year. Unlike DEFRA, the Department that forgot rural affairs, we are committed to ensuring that rural issues are properly addressed, and there will be much more from us on that over the coming weeks. We back British farming, and we wear the wheatsheaf with pride.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:45 am, 15th September 2021

On Back British Farming Day, it is important that we thank all farmers for the delicious and nutritious food their businesses provide every day. On this side of the House, we will always back British farming.

I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend Theo Clarke and congratulating her on becoming co-chair of the excellent all-party group on fruit, vegetable and horticulture. She has briefed me on the recent meeting she had with her local NFU. I know she enjoyed her local county show, and she is already encouraging me to go to the English Winter Fair in her constituency. I loved my hon. Friend’s idea of aisles for the British isles, and we will certainly continue to work closely with supermarkets, as we always do, to ensure that buying local and buying sustainable become the watchwords of the future.

Other hon. Members who were unable to speak today include yourself, Ms Nokes, who spoke to me this morning about Tom Allen, a pig farmer in your constituency. I would not want anybody to be under any illusions that Members on my side of the House do not regularly raise difficulties on behalf of their pig and poultry farmers. I will come on to labour very shortly.

My hon. Friend Fay Jones is not only an excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary, but also a stalwart champion of farming. I was pleased to visit farmers in her constituency with her earlier this year, including a pig producer.

Kerry McCarthy was concerned about intensive animal farming; she has spoken about this subject often.

My hon. Friend Chris Loder was concerned about fairness in the supply chain. We have, as my hon. Friend knows, done a great deal of work on the dairy supply chain, but possibly the time has come to begin thinking about fairness in the pork supply chain.

Jim Shannon goes to work on two eggs, and long may that continue. I would like to reassure him and Carla Lockhart that I met the Ulster Farmers’ Union at breakfast today, and we talked about labour.

My hon. Friend Mrs Drummond spoke passionately about English sparkling wine and woodland management and gave us a great tour of the farms and farm shops in her constituency.

My hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall has been watching Jeremy Clarkson, which does not surprise me at all. I would love to fill him in on the current position with the farming rules for water because some progress has been made in that difficult area of muck-spreading, something that Jeremy Clarkson writes very well about in The Sun today.

My hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory and my hon. Friend Derek Thomas, my south-west colleagues, talked extremely passionately about difficulties with daffodils. I can assure them that the Secretary of State is very well seized of this issue indeed.

My hon. Friend Robin Millar was understandably focused on livestock production and spoke lyrically about how actively managed grassland can be—and often is—a carbon sink. He also spoke, very importantly, about how the look of our countryside is the result of many generations of careful management.

My hon. Friend Danny Kruger covered both the corn laws and Roger Scruton with his paeon of praise for free trade and agriculture. He is rightly concerned about two-tier food, which is something we all need to talk about a great deal. It was good to hear about Peter Lemon and his Southern Streams project. That is absolutely the sort of project we will aim to encourage and promote with our future agricultural subsidy support.

Labour shortages are undoubtedly a great challenge in agriculture. They always have been. I grew up on a plum farm and our Secretary of State grew up on a strawberry farm. We had an interesting collection of people picking our plums when I was a child, including me. It has been made more difficult by the extraordinary disruption of the pandemic and, of course, changes in immigration law to which people have to adjust. It has to be said that the work is temporary and the work is hard, but it is definitely not low paid, which is an important message to get out.

We in DEFRA are working extremely hard to address this problem. We have extended the seasonal workers pilot. We have 30,000 visas for both EU and non-EU citizens this year. We will work across Government to see if that can be extended again, as it has in previous years—this is not new. We also have people with pre-settled and settled status, many of whom sadly went home for the pandemic and have not come back. We are leading a review into automation, which will conclude in the next couple of months. The ultimate aim must be to reduce our complete reliance on migrant labour, if we are to have a sustainable labour force. That is a cross-Government piece of work that has to be supported by the Department for Work and Pensions, going into the future, and we are working hard on that. I do not shy away from how difficult that challenge is, nor would I pretend it is entirely new.

On global competition and trade—

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will not; I have a lot to get through, I am afraid. It is important that we do not view our trade policy as a race to the bottom. We have extremely high standards in this country, not least on animal welfare, which I for one am determined to promote. I have rehearsed many times before—and will not go into now—the various tools in our toolbox for protecting standards. I draw attention to one new piece of work, which is our consultation on labelling. The more we can encourage people to be aware of the food that they eat, the better. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth touched on that with her remarks on insurance schemes.

I am pleased to announce that we are increasing our range of agrifood counsellors to help break into new export markets. We have two at the moment, in China and the UAE. They work with a large team of people in the embassies who promote food and drink. They are experts who work in a granular and technical way to break open new markets and help our traders to export abroad. The NFU has called for that for some time and I am pleased we have got that through and that it will help our traders.

Regarding Henry Dimbleby, of course we will respond as a Government. Nothing has changed; I have always said it will be a six-month process and we are working hard; I work on it every day. We are aiming for the end of the year, as we always have been. Food security was always promised in December, and the report will come in December, as it has to. Nothing has changed on that.

On future farming, this is a seven-year transition. It is challenging. We are transforming the way that those who farm are supported in this country. That is a major benefit of Brexit. I am off to the G20 after this debate to tell them what we are doing on sustainable agriculture. They are very excited and interested in the progress we have made. These are the biggest changes to the sector in more than 50 years. We will no longer pay people for the size of their farm. We will pay them to promote environmental and health and welfare outcomes.

The schemes are being rolled out, as we know. Yes, it is difficult; yes, it is challenging; yes, there have been calls for more information. Now there are calls that there has been too much information and it is all too complicated. No, we will not get it all right at once. This is iterative; we are working with thousands of farmers to pilot and test. Nevertheless, I am sure that the vision is there. At the end of a five to seven-year period, British agriculture will be in a much stronger place, to argue, if it needs to, for Government help on exports and for support to promote environmental outcomes. I am determined to leave it in a strong shape.

I will conclude, as I want to leave my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford a few minutes. We are in a significant period of change for British farmers. The first sustainable farming incentive agreements will start in November. We have an exciting story to tell. It is difficult but, if we get it right, the prize is enormous. We, as farmers, are always at the mercy of the weather. We can demand that the Government provide a decent system of support to back and encourage us. As we think today about the great work done by British farmers this year, showcased by Jeremy Clarkson, not so far from my farm, I hope we realise that British farmers are worth backing and supporting. We on this side of the Chamber will always ensure that that happens.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 10:54 am, 15th September 2021

I welcome the Minister’s announcement today. It is fantastic to have such support from across the House, particularly from my Conservative colleagues, backing Back British Farming Day.

It is important that we have policies that mean farmers can keep farming, feeding us, caring for the environment, helping to prevent natural disasters, such as flooding, and maintaining the varied and beautiful landscapes in Staffordshire and across the whole UK. Listening to colleagues today, it is clear that there is recognition of the vital role that farmers play in providing us with high-quality, healthy and nutritious food. That is certainly a message I will take back to my constituency.

It is important that we never take our food or the people who get it to our tables for granted. Farmers and our rural communities face unique challenges that the Government need to recognise. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of food security for our island nation. The British public support backing British farmers and we need to implement schemes such as the aisle for the British Isles, as I suggested today.

I hope the debate will provide a catalyst for some positive progress, particularly on seasonal agricultural workers. I am committed to working with my Staffordshire farmers and Ministers to back British farming.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered Back British Farming Day and the future of domestic agriculture.

Sitting suspended.