Food and Farming: Devon and Cornwall — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 23 February 2022.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee 9:30, 23 February 2022

Welcome, everyone, to this morning’s sitting. I am still asked by the House of Commons Commission to remind hon. Members to observe social distancing and wear masks—that, apparently, is still the guidance and advice.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered food and farming in Devon and Cornwall.

I am most grateful and delighted to have secured this important debate on food and farming in Devon. It is good to see so many of my colleagues from Devon, and it is very good, if I may say so, to see some honorary Devonians this morning: the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). It is a particular joy to see them so interested in food and farming in Devon. Of course, many of the themes on which we will touch will be of common interest to those whom they represent and so, speaking for myself and, I am sure, all my colleagues, we are delighted to see them.

I should say straightaway that I own farmland in Devon and derive an income from it. Although I do not myself currently farm the land, it is eligible for some of the schemes that I will discuss today and therefore it is possible that I might benefit from them.

A prosperous and flourishing agriculture in the United Kingdom is in the national interest—I do not imagine that that is a controversial statement in this company. It is not a dispensable or superfluous activity. Recent international events have confirmed, in the most dramatic way, that food production, and more specifically food security, is of increasing national importance and should be a vital Government priority. It does not need much imagination or foresight to see that, for some time now, we have been living through a new and unstable phase of international affairs. The effects of pandemics, wars—threatened and actual—and climate change are thrust upon us with every news bulletin. We cannot take for granted an uninterrupted international supply chain and an endless stream of imports.

On Monday this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence observed that the impact of a Russian invasion in Ukraine—now already in action—would be to remove access to the breadbasket of the world. It would have the most deleterious impacts upon vulnerable states and nations throughout the world. Similarly, the gradual erosion by climate change of fertile and cultivable areas of the world, increasing regional tensions, confronts us with a growing threat to the interest of this country in ensuring a constant and adequate food supply to its people. Perhaps not for a very long time has it been so critical that our domestic agricultural policies—under our own exclusive control again after 45 years—should be got right. That is no doubt why the Government sensibly included a legal duty on Ministers, in devising the financial support schemes, to have regard to the need to encourage the production of food and to report each five years to Parliament on food security.

However, agriculture in Devon and Cornwall, like farming all over the country, faces a time of great unpredictability and uncertainty. It must adapt to the major implications of the Agriculture Act 2020 and of changes in our trading relationships after our exit from the European Union.

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

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on initiating the debate. It is specifically about food and farming in Devon, but, as he rightly said, when it comes to farming, Northern Ireland is comparable. Does he agree that, while farmers in my constituency and across Northern Ireland have recently had a reported rise in income, their outgoings will far outstrip their income, and that, if any modernisation or diversification is to take place, the Government need to step up and implement funding streams that can be allocated to those who need them most, UK-wide? The right hon. and learned Gentleman and I discussed this before the debate. He and I understand well that our Minister in Northern Ireland has grasped the important issue of farming—I know that the Minister here has done the same—but does he feel that whatever happens in Devon, the same should happen in Strangford?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

You might say that, Mr Betts; I couldn’t possibly comment. What I can say is that I agree with the hon. Gentleman: the commonality of interests between farmers in Devon and Northern Ireland is obvious and clear. Northern Ireland is an important part of the United Kingdom. It is important for farmers throughout our great country that these policies should be got right. Now is not the time to take unnecessary risks with our capacity to grow food and sustain the nation, but the time to seize the opportunities the moment brings.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

I very much agree with the thrust of my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech. On self-sufficiency and food security, currently the UK enjoys 64% self-sufficiency. The Government have no shortage of targets in other areas. Does he agree that it would be quite sensible to have a target to increase that figure to, say, 75% over the next decade? What is wrong with that?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

I agree with every word of my hon. Friend’s intervention. Food security, as I will come on to say, should be at the heart of the Government’s policy making.

We cannot ignore the international context. What more does it take than tanks rolling across the border of a European nation—one that has been famous in history as the breadbasket of the world? Are we seriously going to assume that from now on the uninterrupted supply of food can simply be counted on? Or are the Government to start to take the precautions necessary to ensure that the food supply for the people of this country is guaranteed? One way to do that would be to adopt the measure proposed by my eminently wise neighbour, my hon. Friend Sir Gary Streeter.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot

On security of supply, one of the challenges that is clear to me is that we have the food, but not necessarily the people to farm it. I heard on Radio 4—yesterday morning, I think—of a pig farm of something like 300,000 pigs where 4,500 were going to have to be killed because it did not have the labour force. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the issue of the labour force in agriculture needs to be taken much more seriously by the Government? The concept that these incredibly complicated jobs are low-skilled or unskilled is utterly wrong; it is not worthy of the people who do them. We need to recognise the skill, reward it, and attract those workers, from both within the United Kingdom and further afield.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

The panel of wisdom assembled this morning is extraordinary; it is almost as if my hon. Friends have read the speech that I prepared last night. Of course the issue of labour is critical.

I supported the departure of this country from the European Union. I believed in every fibre of my being that the freedoms it would permit our nation, if seized and enacted, would bring great benefits, not only to the farmers of our country but to our country as a whole. I do not believe the people of this country would fail to understand the need of British farming for skilled labour. I do not think that was the objection of the millions who voted for Brexit. They would understand a policy of flexibility.

There is no need for us to maintain, with adamantine stubbornness, a policy that leads to labour shortages in British farming. So I agree with my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris completely. Nowhere is this uncertainty felt more keenly than in Devon, where 13% of the economy of the county consists of food production, almost twice the national average. No one seriously argued that an area-based direct payment scheme, such as the one we have, should be retained. Agricultural support should be aimed, as far as possible, at those who look after and promote the wellbeing of the land, or who genuinely make their livelihoods from it.

The aims and intentions of the Agriculture Act 2020 were widely supported, including by me, but those direct payments accounted on average for 55% of the total farm incomes of England. In the south-west, even with the farm payments, the farm business survey found that the average income of a lowland grazing farm in 2019 was just £4,048. Without those payments, there would have been a loss of £10,000, or closer to £14,000 if existing agri-environmental payments are included.

Last year, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board found that the levels of the new environmental land management scheme then published would, even at the advanced tier to which many could not aspire, not remotely replace the current payments. Yet, according to the agricultural transition plan, by 2024 the direct payments will have been reduced by half, and by 2027 they are due to end completely.

The Public Accounts Committee has described the Department’s approach as “blind optimism”. I do not know, but I certainly hope that that is not an accurate description, and I look to the Minister to reassure me. So far, however, no impact assessment has been published of the effects of the design of these new schemes on food production and farming in Devon, or elsewhere. Nor have measurable standards yet been published by which the environmental benefits and farming outcomes can be assessed.

The Minister herself, in answer to a question about upland farming in April 2020, nearly two years ago, said that she understood the need for payment rates to be attractive to achieve the level of uptake and the environmental outcomes we need to see. The Government have suggested—I believe is an accepted and understood figure—that only if we achieve participation in the sustainable farming incentive of around 70% of all farmers can the scheme succeed.

I understand that elements of the new scheme are still under development, but I must tell the Minister that neither the current published rates, nor the schemes as so far defined, are attracting much enthusiasm from the farm businesses and farmers I represent. They simply cannot yet see sufficiently how these schemes will be relevant to the economic survival of their farms. That anecdotal evidence is supported by the growing chorus of concern from the industry. The Tenant Farmers Association, farming one third of the land in England, has described the current plans as

“a complex patchwork of small schemes of limited impact with little which seems to stitch them together.”

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—it is a pleasure to see its Chairman, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, here this morning—the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have all expressed their growing sense of dismay and apprehension. Steadily and relentlessly, the clock is ticking down for Devonshire and Cornish farmers. In the meantime, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, their costs continue to soar.

I understand that in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft coming in to land, sirens and alarms will go off if the plane is approaching the runway either too low or too slow. The sirens are going off now on the Department’s transitional plan. If the market is to play a greater role in farm incomes in the future, it might be less troubling if one could see the necessary vigour and energy invested in creating new markets for British produce around the world—if we could see a bright and bold new vision of a British agricultural export agency with a mission and a passion to convey the magnificent story we have to tell about the quality of British food and to convert it into new opportunities. Perhaps the Minister might say a word about what the Government are doing in this respect.

If Devon and Cornwall’s farmers could sense that the Government were willing to invest in them and back them with the kind of tailor-made and well-designed policies that would lift their collective sales, I have no doubt that they would accept with alacrity the challenge of adaptation, investment and flexibility that these changes will require of them.

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

I was watching “Countryfile” on Sunday night, and sugar beet producers in England were mentioned. As we all know, there is an onus on the Minister, but there is also an onus on the companies that buy the product to give farmers the right price for their product. In many cases, the processing company that was mentioned—its name has escaped my mind—has upped its price, but the price has not kept in check with the cost. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to press the Minister, but does he agree that we should also press companies to give the producers—the farmers—the right price for their product?

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

I completely agree that fairness within the supply and the price chain is vital. I think we have lost some momentum that we gathered a few years back with the enactment of various measures that this Government took in trying to create greater awareness of these matters within the industry and the price chain.

The hon. Gentleman has pointed out one further aspect of what I am attempting to convey. What we need is a conviction at the heart of Government of the importance of British farming. I do not doubt that the Minister herself has that conviction. I do not doubt that the Secretary of State, who is a valued colleague of ours in the south-west, has that conviction. I sometimes doubt that, at the centre of the Government’s councils, that conviction is always as persuasive and influential as it should be. I simply say again: at a time when we are confronting another dictator on the borders of Europe, how much more evidence do we need that food security should be a crucial priority at the heart of Government policy making?

If farmers felt that policies were being designed in our post-Brexit world to lift them up and help them make the most of the market, I have no doubt that they would seize those opportunities with alacrity. They were told that regulation would be handled differently and would not, as so often is the case, stifle farmers with bureaucracy and penalisation, but that there would be—I quote from the transition plan—a “new, more effective approach”. Well, someone appears to have forgotten to send the memo to the Environment Agency. Its new guidance on the farming rules for water has caused widespread dismay about the spreading of muck. I understand that dairy farmers are being visited today and told that they must build more storage for their slurry and invest in their farms—investment that they can ill afford at the moment, and even if they can afford it, they are frequently refused planning permission at the instigation of Natural England.

Again and again I hear the same of other agencies like Natural England, whose chief executive I have invited to a summit meeting on Dartmoor later this year to discuss its relationship with working farmers on the moor. We must see this fabled new approach manifested in the everyday experience of farmers. We must take the freedom that our departure from the European Union has conveyed upon us and create the light-touch, unbureaucratic approach for which the farming community is yearning. We must also see the sums promised for investment in on-farm productivity materialise, increase, and be simple to access and draw down.

Perhaps it is too lugubriously pessimistic to remind oneself of the ill-fated Rural Payments Agency and the long history of misery that its performance in administering the area-based payments so often caused those who had to deal with it. Perhaps it is too easy to believe that the administration of these new, as yet undeveloped and unfledged schemes will suffer the same fate in execution as they have appeared to in design. There are more hopeful omens: all is not doom and gloom, as I know the Minister will tell us. The countryside stewardship applications have been simplified, the rates have been increased and—lo and behold—there has been a 30% increase in the uptake of that scheme. Nobody rejoices in that fact more than I, but as the Minister will accept, it is not by itself enough. I hope she will give us this morning greater grounds for hope than, I am afraid, my more pessimistic observation produces at the moment.

This is not just a question of the observable facts. Sometimes one must rely on one’s intuition, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so often seems to wear an air of defeatism and lack the foresight, conviction and urgency that the situation demands. If they do not feel they are getting a fair audience at the heart of the councils of government, I understand that. That is why each one of us sitting here this morning can play our part in lending strength to my hon. Friend the Minister’s elbow and that of her boss, the Secretary of State. We stand here at their side, urging them on, willing to play any part—willing to march, to organise and to express solidarity with the team that we send into battle to fight the British farming corner in the Cabinet and the Government. In that fight she can count on my loyal, steadfast support.

I cannot, I am afraid, touch much more on optimistic and encouraging notes, because I must now turn to the topic of pigs. The Minister knows that pig farmers have suffered acutely from the effects of the pandemic. I have had correspondence with the Secretary of State on this pressing issue. The measures taken by the Government have been welcome, but inadequate to prevent a silent catastrophe on pig farms in Devon. Barely a quarter of the 800 visas for butchers have been taken up. The situation on the farms is just as desperate as when I first corresponded with the Minister last year—indeed, more so. One such local farmer has written to me just this week to say that even after culling hundreds of animals,

“we have 2,700 fattening pigs here whereas we would previously only have had 600 weaners and 650 newborn piglets. We have had to make significant investment”— they have spent over £100,00—

“into adapting buildings to house all these much larger pigs, as well as buying two new bulk bins to store the extra food and also having to install extra feeding equipment. Meanwhile the cost of animal feed has continued to rocket. The financial burden is immense. The stress of this situation is terrible.”

Thus writes a farming family from Langtree, in Torridge in Devon.

Just yesterday the Irish Government followed other Governments, including Northern Ireland and Scotland, by announcing a hardship fund to allow flat-rate payments to farmers who send more than 200 pigs to slaughter each year. The week before last, there was a crisis meeting with the Minister. I would be glad to hear the progress that the Minister is making in this emergency—and it is an emergency.

There is a silent catastrophe going on in pig farms not only in Devon and Cornwall but throughout our country. The issue requires urgent action. The national interest demands that the Government place food security and agriculture in this country at the heart of their policy making. Surely, as the party of the countryside, we cannot stand by while farming—the very sinew of our rural communities—withers away. Of course adaptations to economic circumstances and modern requirements are necessary but, as the uncertainties and perils of world events remind us with acute and ever-growing force, the neglect of our domestic capacity to feed ourselves would be an omission for which the British people will, rightly, not forgive us.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

Slightly out of order, I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, who I know has to return to a Select Committee meeting.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 9:57, 23 February 2022

I thank you for your co-operation, Mr Betts. Barry Gardiner is chairing the meeting, so I need to go back and check that all is well. I am sure it will be.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox for bringing this timely debate. He speaks with great passion. He has a very rural seat and he understands rural life and farming. I want to echo much of what he said, without trying to repeat it all. The point about food security and the situation in Ukraine is quite simple, inasmuch as we do not grow bananas or pineapples, so we will not become completely self-sufficient, but what we do grow well is grain, chicken, sheep, cattle and dairy.

There is an issue of food security, because Ukraine is the breadbasket of the world, as is the western part of Russia: I have visited Bryansk in the past and I remember that the one thing I wanted to bring home with me was the soil. I have never seen such beautiful soil in my life. It can grow absolutely everything. Therefore, as we change agricultural policy, we need to protect the environment but we need food. That is not an old message but the same message, and I will repeat it while I have breath in my body.

There is not enough food in the Agriculture Act. The Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis, is doing a great job trying to adapt the policy to incorporate food. I still say that food is a public good. A lot of people in this country still do not have enough food, and I am absolutely certain that they believe it to be a public good. The trouble is that we very often debate many of these issues because we are very full-bellied. I should declare an interest: I am overly full-bellied. The simple fact is that we need to produce food, and the type of food that we can produce is affected by the situation in Ukraine. I need to put that clearly on the record.

The payments can be got right. The level of payment has been raised significantly in the new environmental land management system, the sustainable farming incentive and the stewardship scheme, but the other payments are not yet enough to attract farmers into such schemes. We are taking very significant amounts of money away from farmers, and by 2024, half their payments will be gone and will not be replaced by the new payments. Although payments are not entirely expected to be replaced, they need to be enough to maintain a good quality of production.

I believe that we in the Conservative party, and on both sides of the House, see agriculture as the production of food environmentally. Farmers want to produce food. They actually believe that that is in their DNA, and that they should feed this country. That is what they want to do, that is what gets them up in the morning, and that is what gets them to milk their cows, look after their sheep and poultry and grow their corn. That is what they do: they produce good, high-quality food to feed this country. As we adapt our policies, for goodness’ sake let us actually ensure that food is at their heart, and that there is enough payment out there to keep that going.

Many moons ago, Anthony Gibson, who was the area secretary for the National Farmers Union, used to talk about the area payments. He used to say that farmers should really just put them in a separate bank account and not use them, and then one day they could retire in great wealth. Of course, to keep their businesses going, farmers poured all those payments into the farm. You could argue about whether they were right or wrong to do that, but those payments were used to keep them farming and producing food. Ironically, that probably helped to keep food prices down because it kept production up.

That is the other issue that we must face as a Government: if we bring about policies that reduce food production in this country—which we will if we do not do some tweaking—we will import more food, and if we can get it, the prices will go up. The Treasury does not want further food inflation because there is a lot of it out there at the moment. Farming prices have probably never been better, but farming costs have never been higher: that is the issue.

As much as I would love for the Minister to tell us how she will reduce the price of fertiliser from £650 to £250 a tonne, I accept that that is probably beyond her remit. We must accept that, and we may have to accept some more limited use of urea and other fertilisers. My hon. Friend Sir Gary Streeter mentioned the farming rules for water. We are perhaps getting somewhere where we can have some common sense on those. The Minister has worked very hard in bringing that about.

Another issue that was raised when I was at the NFU conference with the Secretary of State and our very able Minister is that Wales and Scotland will defer reducing the basic payment scheme. I am not saying that we should necessarily follow, but we have to realise that there will be competition across the borders, and that farmers in Wales, Scotland and, I suspect, Northern Ireland will have higher direct payments, which farmers use to keep their farming going. That is why it is even more imperative to get those payments right and get them out there.

I will not speak for too long because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon did such a good job of laying out the situation. On labour, he is absolutely right: we in this country did not vote to stop all labour coming in; we voted to have a controlled system. That is where the Home Office has been very slow indeed. We had an interesting meeting with a Home Office Minister, in which he was completely intransigent, and what he told us was largely wrong and we had to try to sort out the situation. I am training my guns not just on the Home Office. I am saying quite clearly, and I want this on the record, that the processors have not done their job. They have not upped their game. They have not slaughtered enough pigs and have kept the situation tight on the farms so that they can buy those pigs at a knockdown price.

Furthermore, and this I really want to go on the record, some farmers in Yorkshire spoke out against their processors for the treatment they had had, because those pigs were under contract but the processors would not take them. They were blackballed by those processors. I want that clearly on the record, because I will not have people bullied, and they are bullies. I know the Minister is doing her best to sort it, but we need some tough legislation in place so that there are proper contracts that those processors honour. The Government have put in place a private storage scheme. The processors have not taken it up like they should, and I turn my guns on them as well.

We need not only big slaughterhouses but some smaller ones, and I know the Minister is working on that, because we need to create some competition. At the moment, those great big players are holding everyone to ransom. We tell farmers, “Get a contract. Get closer to the market. Get your things directly into the supermarkets and the big retailers.” That is fine until farmers are entirely in the hands of the big processors and retailers. Anyone with cattle or sheep can take them to market, and my grandfather used to say, “Take them to market and get a market price.” What he meant by that was that if a person took them to market and did not like the market price, they could bring them home again and take them somewhere else. Once they have been processed—I do not have to explain to you, Mr Betts, why they cannot be brought back—they are gone and in the food chain.

The processor says, “Well, they didn’t really grade—there was something wrong with them,” but very often they were perfectly good, healthy livestock. That is the issue, and we have got to sort that out. I will be interested to read the record in Hansard of exactly how the Minister replies, because we need to get the labour situation and processing right. I have mentioned the farming rules for water, and I believe we will get them right. I say to the Minister that the direction of travel is not wrong, but the means of getting there are not right.

In fairness to the Department, it has worked hard to try to get the system to work but we must reduce the bureaucracy. The Secretary of State gave us assurances yesterday that it would be reduced. I clocked it all, and when he is next in front of the Select Committee it may well be quoted back to him. He also talked about flexibility of payment and said that there are not three pillars any more. He said that we can move money around and have some great tree planting, but if we do not need quite so much for tree planting this year, we can perhaps put a bit more into farming and so on. Let us ensure, Minister, that that is delivered, because that is the benefit of no longer being in the common agricultural policy.

The trouble is that we were too reliant on the CAP for a method of managing agriculture in the countryside, and it is proving quite difficult to come up with an alternative, but we will; I am determined that we will, and I know the Minister is, too. Again, I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for the debate. It is great to see so many hon. Members from Devon. As far as Northern Ireland and Westmorland are concerned, those Members can become honorary farmers from Devon today.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

Four hon. Members want to speak, so that gives them about seven minutes each to allow the wind-ups to start at 20 minutes to.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:09, 23 February 2022

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am hugely grateful to Sir Geoffrey Cox for an excellent speech, and for raising an important set of issues. I will not cheat: I am not a Devon or Cornwall Member. However, I am a Member from a western county that shares a farming heritage with Devon and Cornwall, particularly when it comes to livestock. As a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, I want to say that my party is utterly committed to those two counties, to the west of England, and to supporting farming, agriculture and rural communities more generally.

Although I differ from the right hon. and learned Gentleman on whether it was right to leave the European Union, it is clear that we agree that the common agricultural policy was one good reason to leave. It is one silver lining. The CAP is restrictive and did all sorts of harm, not only to UK farming but internationally, in terms of fairness of trade, and our standing with other countries, particularly those in the developing world where there is farming. It did not reward farmers for the good that they do.

In principle, I agree with the process towards ELMS. I do not believe that many Members who represent farming communities or people who farm think that ELMS is bad, in principle. However, I am deeply concerned that we may be botching the transition. There are three things I want to focus on. Some are accidental, but some are policy related, and I take issue with them.

A couple of months ago, farmers saw their first reduction of between 5% and 25% in their basic payment cheque. Over the next few years, that will decline to 50% and then to nothing. During that time, people will be—and already are—losing their farm income, without having a replacement available to them. What would any of us do if our income fell by half or more?

Some 85% of farm profitability in the livestock sector is from direct payments, so we are talking a colossal chunk of farmers’ incomes. What Devon and Cornwall have in common with Cumbria is a preponderance of smaller family farms, which, we can be sure, will be hit the worst.

What will happen if farmers have a massive gap in their income over the coming years? They will do one of two things: go broke, or go backwards. They will either leave the industry altogether—taking the golden goodbye or, worse, just leaving because the business fails—or will have to look for other ways to make a living. That will mean piling sheep high, undoing all the good environmental work farms have done over the last several years, and will continue to do only if they are included in the schemes that are to come.

Losing farmers at this point is massively dangerous for food security, for all the reasons that have been given. For all the focus on energy security, and for all that we rely so heavily on supplies from Putin’s Russia, we should be just as aware of the threat to our country’s security if our food supply is interrupted. We are dependent on others for our food supply; more than a third comes from overseas. That is a dangerous place to be. If we do not have farmers, we do not have food. If we do not have farmers, we will have no hands to deliver the Government’s environmental policies, either.

We are focused on a transition towards a system in which we pay public money for public goods. I completely agree with the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, who said that food is a public good—of course it is. There are also environmental and landscape public goods, but if we do not have farmers, those environmental policies are just nice bits of paper in a drawer. They will not get implemented if there is nobody on the land to do that. That is why botching the transition—an accident, I am sure—is something we should all be deeply concerned about.

I also look at what farmers who are in the market to do environmental good—as I know so many are—say about the sustainable farming incentive. They say, basically, that it is not sufficiently attractive to bring them in. I was talking to a regenerative farmer in Cumbria just a few weeks ago who has done enormously impressive things in a couple of years; the quality of their soil has increased enormously. They are absolutely in the mindset to want to get into the SFI, but they have chosen not to bother. It is just not worth the faff. This is a farm that is minded to carry on and do environmental good, but they will just ignore the Government’s schemes because they do not think they are interesting or attractive enough.

What about all those people who are perhaps not so minded, or not so able to go in that direction? They will think, “You know what? I’ll just get another 100 head of sheep. I’ll try to make my living that way.” I fear that the Government are sending farming backwards and decimating it, as family farmers will simply not be able to make a living. They will go out of business, or, at the very least, go backwards, and not meet the environmental targets that all of us, cross-party, want them to. There is the accident. Though the Government are trying to bring people into the ELMS process, I fear they are making the offer too unattractive and setting the bar too high. If people are not in the room, they will not be involved in delivering the schemes.

I am also worried about some counterproductive elements that are coming through in landscape recovery and other aspects of ELMS that are being developed. They provide a very active, real and lucrative incentive for landowners to perform English clearances. They reward landowners in places such as Cornwall, Devon or Cumbria—they probably do not even live there—with money for clearing off their tenant farmers and letting the farm go to seed. That is an outrage. I can see what will happen: people will sit around their Hampstead dinner tables, bragging to their friends about how green they are, having taken a massive chunk of money from the Government. How did they get that money? They got it by evicting someone whose family may have farmed that area for generations. What happens to the farmhouse and buildings? They become second homes and holiday lets. It is a decimation of farming and rural communities, and the Government are incentivising it.

We want to encourage nature. We see people maintaining woodland pasture, and balancing livestock with woodlands. They are doing carbon capture and all those other things that are right. Let us make sure that the funding goes to the farmers, not to landowners who will exploit and expel those farmers and wreck our countryside in the process.

It is very hard to value food production—in Devon, in Cornwall, in Cumbria or elsewhere—if we are signing trade deals with countries that have worse animal welfare standards than ours, thereby bringing down our standards and potentially throwing our farmers under a bus. As has been said, the plight of the pig industry is a reminder that when it comes to migration policy, freedom is no good if it is not used. If 40,000 healthy pigs are slaughtered and thrown away, as NFU president Minette Batters was saying on the radio yesterday, then that is an outrage. That is happening because of a lack of staff in abattoirs and a lack of butchers, and because the Government’s migration policy is not being used in a sovereign way. It is possible to be prisoner to an international organisation, but it is also possible to be prisoner to an ideology that stops us serving our community and our country—and punishes farmers in the process.

Farming is vital to food production in this country. It is vital to our environment, and it is vital to our rural communities. My fear is that as we move from a system that is far from perfect to one that we like the idea of, we botch that transition. That is what the Government are doing. They simply need to do one thing: peg basic payment at the current level and keep it there until ELMS is available to everyone.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

Next to contribute is Anthony Mangnall. I remind Members again to limit speeches to seven minutes, or else the last speakers will not get as much time.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 10:18, 23 February 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, although it is somewhat dauting to follow my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox, the Chair of the EFRA Committee—my hon. Friend Neil Parish—and Tim Farron. I had all the joy of listening to the speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, and none of the costs. It was a startling reminder of the extraordinary contribution that he makes to this House, and of the knowledge of farming that he brings to this place. He said everything that I want to say on this topic, so I will rattle through a few points—adding a slightly fishy element to my speech.

South Devon consists of a variety of coastal fishing fleets and small inland farms. Between myself and my hon. Friend Sir Gary Streeter, we have one of the largest proportions of 150-acre farms in the country. I take the view, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale said, that these people are the stewards of our land and our seas. They are not people who want to ruin the land for immediate gain; they want their families, and the generations that come after them, to look after their land, work with it and produce for this country. The landscape in our country is beautiful for precisely that reason—because our famers look after it. DEFRA’s policy has to be aligned with not only the need for productivity and environmentalism, but the need to ensure a future generation of farmers who will look after our land and produce for our population.

During the pandemic, which we have managed to avoid talking about until now, it has been extraordinary to see the role of farm shops in our local rural communities, and the role that farmers have been able to play in producing for that infrastructure. We need to enhance that process and cultivate it. It not only created a circular economy, in which our farmers could produce for local farm shops, but showed people the true value of good, healthy, locally sourced, seasonal food, and of good beef, pork and sheep meat. That is a concept we need to build on.

I routinely hear the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister who is here today talk about engagement with fishermen and farmers; the over-quoted phrase is “working hand in glove”. Broadly, they do work hand in glove, and I know how hard the Minister works, but that hand-in-glove approach must provide fishermen and farmers with clarity on, and ease with, the new initiatives and schemes that we are establishing.

DEFRA has announced a litany of new initiatives, but the complexity of the forms involved—I have run through them with many of my constituents—is spellbinding, not least because these are small farmers. They hope to continue to produce on their land, but are routinely dissuaded from doing so by the complexities of even applying for the schemes. I urge the Minister to make sure that new initiatives are made simpler and easier, and to ensure that we really do work hand in glove with the sector.

We have also heard from colleagues on the need for on-farm productivity and better at-gate farm prices. If we can secure a local network and local market that farmers can sell into by increasing the number of abattoirs that are not in the ownership of supermarkets and foreign countries, we will ensure that farmers can enter the supply chain and improve the at-gate farm price, which is essential. I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Chair of the EFRA Committee did not have more of a pop at supermarkets, but I am sure that if we have a longer debate on this subject in future, he will.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon made a point about targets. All too often, we set targets that seem arbitrary. We have to come back with a food security report. I echo his call for a 75% target on food security in this country, and for that to be a target that we continually improve upon.

It has been surprising to me, in the time that I have been in this place, to see which Government Departments have moved out of London to locations across the country for one reason or another. If there is one Department that should not be based in London, it is DEFRA; it needs to be either alongside some of our agricultural colleges, or in a rural location, where it can work with those who are likely to go into farming or fishing, or to be land managers, or with the academics who spend time talking about this issue. If we hope to encourage people to go into farming, we need to ensure that we are listening to the people who will actually do the farming. That would help the policy that we are trying to put forward, and it would mean that we realised that Whitehall mandarins—I hope that any who are watching will forgive me—do not always know what is right for rural areas, and what we need in our constituencies.

Of course, I would say that south Devon is the perfect place for DEFRA, but I am sure that we can all make that point about our area later. There is a real need to make sure that our local agricultural colleges and those people who are going into farming and fishing have experience of, and hands-on time to get involved and engaged with, DEFRA and policy making. I would be very interested to hear from the Minister on how she is engaging with that. I know that there are initiatives and schemes, but they need to be far more widespread across the United Kingdom.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon made points about exports and how we can promote British food and drink. We already do so to a degree, but I wholeheartedly agree that we can do it more successfully. We are able to say that the produce we are promoting around the world is some of the finest in the world.

We are about to sign a trade deal with Australia, and hopefully will soon sign one with New Zealand, as well as the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. When we sign our trade deals, we should talk about the fact that our produce meets some of the highest welfare standards and is of the highest quality. That produce will be in demand, but it needs financial support, and DEFRA and the Department for International Trade must ensure that they promote ways to get it abroad.

We have heard from lots of right hon. and hon. Members about the opportunity that exists. What matters is recognising the opportunity. All of us agree that we are moving in the right direction, but we need to seize on the new opportunities, provide clarity, stability and—where possible—funding, ensure that we are working hand-in-glove on policy development, and move on from there.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

I call Luke Pollard to speak; I appreciate that he has not been here for all of the debate, but he apologised to me on arriving and gave me a very good reason why he was late.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:24, 23 February 2022

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Betts.

I thank Sir Geoffrey Cox for his speech. The Cabinet and the courtroom’s gain has been our loss in years of farming debates, because what he said here is the argument that Labour Members have been prosecuting against the Government for many years. If only we could have afforded his counsel and his wise words along the way! We might then have been more successful in persuading the Government to back British farmers with actions, not just words.

I declare an interest: my little sisters are farmers in north Cornwall. They have had a tough time in the past few days, as have farmers right across the country, coping with Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin. I thank them and all farmers for looking after our rural communities, and especially the farm animals that have been rather blown around in the past few days.

I back British farming. We need to buy local more. Devon and Cornwall produce some of the finest food in the world. We should be enormously proud of the production and the methods, as well as the stewardship of the production of the brilliant food that comes from our region. If we are to make it real, we need buying British to be a headline Government policy that is actually implemented and reported on each and every year.

I support the measures that my neighbour, Sir Gary Streeter, proposed on growing British more. I have advocated for such a policy from the Front Bench, and I am sure that the shadow Farming Minister, my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner, will do so in a moment. We could aim for a target of 75% by 2040, to match the NFU’s net zero target, but we need to look seriously at how we do this. This is not “dig for Britain” nostalgia, but a hard-headed investment in our rural communities. It is a job creation exercise. At times of international instability, food security is a national security issue, and we should be unafraid to call it that.

Far too often in the past few decades, food policy has been exported and privatised through the supermarkets. We need to take back control of food policy, and talk about high standards, proper wages, proper decency and the environmental gains. We have not been doing that, but I hope the Minister will listen to the cross-party concerns raised here. Whatever colour rosette we wear at elections, the argument is the same: the Government have not been seizing the opportunities presented by Brexit to make a fairer, decent, greener and healthier farming system for our rural communities. They need to do so.

I worry that the opposite is true. I have spoken about this before, and I do not apologise for saying it again: I think there is a Government strategy to reduce the number of farmers in our country—to have smaller farms aggregated into larger farms, with more use of technology, gene editing and more industrialised methods. That may work in the east of England, but it does not work in the south-west. One practical reason is that our small country lanes will not be able to cope with larger farm machinery going through there, but actually, the preponderance and concentration of small family farms, not with huge acreage, but with a passion and a stewardship of the countryside that we should be celebrating, needs to be preserved.

It is not possible to have growth in British production at the same time as the Government are signing trade deals that undercut our farmers. Those deals send the message to farmers, whether Ministers think it is accurate or not, that their industry and the value they create is not worth it—the Government will sell them out in hopes of a trade deal. The Australia trade deal is the model that all future trade deals will follow, and it is a betrayal, baked into a trade deal that the next Government will not be able to wriggle out of. This is a generational betrayal of British farming, and we should be unafraid to call it out.

The south-west is a brilliant place for farming. We have some brilliant farmers in our region, which produces more food than Scotland and twice as much as Wales. In our region, agriculture contributes twice as much to the economy and generates twice as many jobs as it does in the average English region. The agricultural sector in the south-west directly contributes £1.6 billion to the national economy and employs 60,000 people. In Devon, agriculture and food production accounts for 13% of the county’s economy—almost double the national average. The renaissance in farming that we require needs to be shared right across the country.

I share the concerns raised by Tim Farron about environmental land management schemes. They are not working in the way they need to. There is not the clarity or the confidence that farmers need if they are to undertake them. Nor is the sustainable farming incentive working. The Government need to look at the system again, because confidence in it has not been created.

Like Plymouth Argyle against Chelsea, DEFRA was off to a winning start at first. Rewarding farmers for public goods was a good principle that enjoyed cross-party support: the problem is that the practice does not match the ambition that we first came out with. I want DEFRA to be stronger on this, because there is a real case, which has been advocated on a cross-party basis, for looking again at phasing down direct payments and the speed with which they are being phased down. We need to make sure that our farmers are not being forced out of business, because there is a genuine risk that if they are forced out of business, our countryside—that immense rural fabric, that green and pleasant land that we so value—will be eroded. The second home penetration into our rural communities is a real issue. We need a concentration on first homes, not second homes, but those communities are being hollowed out. It is unaffordable for many people to live in rural communities; it is unaffordable for many people to work on a farm in a rural community, because they cannot afford to live there. That issue also needs to be addressed through a proper long-term plan.

The final thing I want to say is about tenant farmers, because the implications of the Government’s changing agriculture policy are felt the most by those farmers, who do not have security of tenure of their lands or ownership opportunities. We know that absent landlords are putting up rents for tenant farmers. We know that tenant farmers, in particular, face the toughest time when it comes to making their businesses work, and I would like the Minister to make a specific effort to build up support for tenant farmers and make sure that the measures she is introducing do not inadvertently affect them. We have an amazing farming sector in the south-west, and I want that to continue, but to do that, we need the Government to do different things from what they are doing at the moment. Having the soundbites, but not the action, will not achieve that, so I hope the Minister listens to the cross-party agreement on what is going wrong and what should be happening in its place.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

I call Simon Jupp. I will start the wind-ups at 10.39, so I ask the hon. Member to make sure he keeps his eye on the clock.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon 10:32, 23 February 2022

Thank you, Mr Betts; that is much appreciated. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox for securing this morning’s debate.

The south-west, particularly Devon and Cornwall, is proudly at the centre of the UK’s food and farming industry, as we have heard this morning. Our whole region is proud of the produce we produce: we should shout about it far and wide, and perhaps we do not do enough of that at the moment. We are an integral part of the UK’s agricultural and economic output and employment. It does not need saying that the value of farming output in the south-west was £4.1 billion in 2019, which is an incredible figure: more than Scotland, and more than twice as much as Wales. Two thirds of all dairy products exported from the UK to the US are from the south-west, even though the south-west is home to just one third of England’s cattle—that is a really interesting statistic.

Devon’s farmers play a key role in the life in the county that I grew up in and am proud to represent a part of. Many residents of our county get a snippet of this at the annual Devon County Show, held in my constituency of East Devon, but all year round, farmers are the custodians of our countryside. They create new habitats, protect wildlife, produce the raw ingredients that feed our nation, and export that food around the globe. As diverse businesses, they offer accommodation to tourists and visitors coming to the best bit of Britain. Almost 20,000 people work in the food and farming sector in Devon: that is 13% of the county’s economy, compared with 8% nationally. As my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall has highlighted, the south-west also has a major fishing sector, with the region totalling 10% of all fishing output, second only to Scotland.

Overall, I support the Government’s position of maintaining high UK food and animal welfare standards, and shifting from the bureaucratic EU cap towards ELMS that will improve our environment and encourage consumers to buy British. However, since being elected I have spoken to many farmers in my corner of the south-west, East Devon, as well as the National Farmers Union and others. I always insist to them that the Government should be in listening mode, but that communication must go both ways, and it does not always feel that way. Farming is a seven-days-a-week job, and those farmers deserve to be productive, successful and profitable. While Britain is now free to independently strike new trade deals across the world, that should not come at the expense of high-quality and popular produce from East Devon that rightly deserves our support.

Some of the best British food and produce is also the cheapest: it is seasonal, it is local, and it has not travelled across the planet to get to our shelves. We are still awash with local greengrocers, corner shops, farmers markets, fishmongers and butchers across vast swathes of the south-west, and they need our support more than ever. We cannot afford to lose them from our towns and villages and, crucially, neither can our local farmers. That is why I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Neil Parish about food standards. I am pleased that the Government listened and took the UK’s high standards off the table of any trade deal. I particularly welcome the Government’s setting up the Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on and inform trade policies and deals. The commission is crucial, and it must continue to play a crucial role as we continue to take advantage of our newfound freedoms after leaving the European Union.

However, clarity for our industry is needed sooner rather than later. Farmers in my constituency believe there should be a clearer direction on the environmental land management scheme and on how payments for farmers will be measured following the end of the single farm payment. They believe that, at its heart, ELMS should keep encouraging farmers to produce food if we are to maintain 62% food self-sufficiency in the UK, and that the quota could and should be increased. Over recent years, one of the advantages of subsidised farming was that it gave the Government an element of control over farming. However, if payments are viewed as not worth the hassle, farmers will be more inclined to do their own thing. The benefits of the scheme, with all its good ideas, will not be felt and the positive impact, as intended, will not happen.

As we have heard, some farmers feel under increasing pressure from the Environment Agency, with farming rules for water making some farming systems unviable. There could be better practicalities surrounding the rules that should ultimately keep farmers making the best use of their manures. I am acutely aware that the Government should look to encourage the food and farming sector to recruit from the domestic workforce, with better pay and conditions wherever possible, now that we have left the EU. It is a theme that has been repeated throughout this morning’s debate. However, sustained efforts by both the Government and the industry to encourage interest in such a career are long overdue, and the skills gap is a problem now—not in a couple of years’ time, when the training has been completed. Places such as Bicton College in my constituency do a great job at helping to turn the situation around, but for many farmers it is too little, too late.

Although the seasonal visa schemes for the poultry industry helped plug the acute gap last year, I hope DEFRA can work this year with the Home Office on a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce. One of the farms in my constituency produces the best turkeys in Devon—I would say that, wouldn’t I? If it becomes clear again that it cannot get turkeys from farm to fork this Christmas without foreign labour, the Government must act quickly to help and not leave it until the last minute. The temporary visa scheme, which did not have many people sign up to it, represented a failure to back our farmers. Crucially, farmers need as much notice as possible.

The south-west is known not only for its food, but for its drink. It would be remiss of me not to mention the thousands of acres of orchards across the west country that produce some of the world’s best cider and perry, which I have been known to enjoy from time to time—in moderation, of course. They support around 11,500 jobs. Recognising and supporting apple and pear growers is vital to protecting those world-class products, and I welcome the Treasury’s measure in the Budget to cut the duty on draught beer, cider and sparkling wine. That is an example of how the Government have listened to our industry, but we can go further and faster.

Following the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, it would be remiss of me not to talk about DEFRA and its hopeful move to Devon. South Devon is perhaps a little far—I suggest East Devon might be a more important and prominent part of our county.

Food and farming can continue to go from strength to strength, but the industry needs to have certainty in order to survive and then thrive. I am not sure it currently has that. People care more than ever about what is on their plate—the pandemic showed us that. We already produce the best. Let’s make sure we keep the skills and expertise to keep it that way and grasp all the opportunities ahead.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their co-operation. The Front-Bench speakers will have 10 minutes each.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:39, 23 February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. What an interesting debate it has been. It was not exactly as I expected, and it started in Ukraine. I congratulate Sir Geoffrey Cox on his barnstorming performance and critique of the Government, which I almost entirely endorse. I would like to hear more of it, not least because of some of the important points that were made in general—not just about Devon and Cornwall. He made the point about the lack of impact assessment for the environmental land management scheme, for which we have been calling for a long time. As my hon. Friend Luke Pollard pointed out, many of his points have been prosecuted by the Labour party right the way back to the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020. My hon. Friend also raised important points about pigs, which, as a Member from the east of the country, I am very aware of. I thought some of the comments from the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Parish, were very perceptive, and I associate myself with them. This is a complicated issue, but I am afraid the Government have not covered themselves in glory on it.

The debate is timely because it is happening during the NFU conference, which some of us were fortunate enough to enjoy yesterday, not least the opening address from Minette Batters, who I think would join the case for the prosecution. She said that the Government have shown a

“total lack of understanding of how food production works”,

introduced “completely contradictory policies” on farming, and risk “repeatedly running into crises” through the lack of a post-Brexit plan for UK farming. That is a pretty damning indictment of this Government’s policies and position.

That is also what I hear from people in Devon and Cornwall. As I said, I am from the east, but I am delighted to have trips to that part of the country to hear from people. One of those trips—to see some of the ELMS pilots—was at the invitation of the Minister herself. Those pilots, as I have said before, were very interesting. I contacted one of the farmers whom I had been to see—Holly Purdey at Horner farm, which is an example of a small enterprise, just over the border from Devon—and she told me:

“Our dream is just to show that it is possible to create a positive integrated model of farming that means we can tackle the climate and the biodiversity crisis while producing nutrient dense food for our community”— mixed farming. That is what this is about: a change back to a different form of production. Holly is able to do that, to some extent, through ELM, but many are finding it much, much tougher.

I suspect that many people here will know Robin Milton, the chair of the Exmoor National Park, who has hosted me twice—I am very grateful to him. Members who know him know that he has strong views and is not shy in coming forward with them. He is pretty appalled, frankly, about the effect that the transition to a different support system is having on the upland areas. He was quoted in Farmers Guardian last week as saying that the lack of suitable uplands support package was “reprehensible”. I suspect that that was reflected in some of the comments that we heard from Tim Farron. The Government will say that more is coming down the line and that there is more to do, but frankly, people are making decisions now. They have to live their lives, and they have to have some idea of what the next few months and years will bring. This is just not working for them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale echoed in their points, I have also heard that tier 3 ELM in particular looks all too likely to become a scheme that rewards very rich landowners for carbon capture and storage. In the wider sense of the term, that is a perfectly attractive and good thing to do, but look at the cost in damage to food production and to some of our best agricultural land. The Secretary of State tried heroically to defend the position at the NFU conference yesterday, under tough prosecution from Minette Batters. I have to say that I am not sure that the audience was convinced, but the Minister has the opportunity to put on the record where the idea to split ELM into a third/a third/a third came from. The widely accepted view is certainly that that is what is going to happen, but it is clearly not what most people want. Will the Minister tell us whether the split will be 60/20/20 if that is what it ends up having to be?

The Secretary of State also had to deal yesterday with the extraordinary muddle that the Government seem to have created over some of the labour issues. I will not go into those in detail, but it seems that last week, the Home Office wrote to labour providers to say that they would have to pay a whole lot more—more than £12 an hour in general. As a Labour politician, I quite like higher wages in general, but that has to be done in a way that works and is viable for employers, as the Labour party’s record shows. Many Cornish growers I have spoken to would really struggle to meet those kinds of rates. They had a tough enough struggle last year with much of the daffodil crop not picked and consequently not grown this year. Can we have it on the record from the Minister that, as the Secretary of State said last week, it was a mistake? Will the Home Office clarify that? After listening to the speeches this morning, I have to ask whether the Home Office is part of the same Government. The Conservatives seem to manage different parts of the Government as if they are not part of an overall whole. Well, they clearly are not. They work in completely contradictory directions. That is a strong message that I also get from farmers in Cornwall and Devon, because it appears that different Departments are doing completely contradictory things. That makes no sense to people out there. They do not care which Department it is—it is the Government. The Minister is looking pained, and I understand her pain, but they need to get a grip.

Reference has been made to the interpretation of the farming rules for water by the Environment Agency—another example of muddle and contradiction. In his opening comments, the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon seemed to suggest he was surprised that, after the escape from Brussels, this was happening. Had he never noticed that the British civil service has consistently gold-plated EU regulations over the years? There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems facing our country, and now we see the consequences. We need to get a grip of the way our own systems work, and I see no sign that the Government are capable of doing that.

Fishing was mentioned, so I will draw the Minister’s attention to two of the current problems around our coastlines, including Devon and Cornwall’s. There is huge upset around the Marine and Coastguard Agency boat checks. Those are important for safety, but driving people out of business is not the way to do it. In the last couple of weeks, there have been problems with the inshore vessel monitoring systems, where type approval has suddenly been withdrawn on one system. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is going on.

Finally, I will turn to important points made about tenants and commoners. I am grateful to Jo Joseph and the 3F Group in the south-west for highlighting the concerns of commoners, who feel let down by the Government’s not resolving some of the issues facing them. The points about tenancies are absolutely crucial. It is clear that in a complicated network of systems and negotiations, things are not working at the moment. A point was made strongly to me by a key producer that, in the end, people might be able to manage without a subsidy, but they cannot manage without land. If we lose access to land, we lose the food production.

The Labour party’s approach would be very, very different. We would make, buy and sell more British food, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport laid out a few minutes ago. We would also adopt a much more planned approach to land use to deal with the emerging range of problems so that we can maintain the rich and varied collection of family farms in Devon and Cornwall, which are so important in terms of not just food production, but quality of life, cultural heritage and tourism. They are the key to what makes those places so special, and they are too precious to lose.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:48, 23 February 2022

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox, from whom I learnt so much in my days as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, on securing this really important and wide-ranging debate. I cannot pretend to be a Devon or Cornwall farmer, but I should declare my farming interests, which included, until 15 years ago—for the whole of my life before that—a very fine herd of pedigree South Devon cattle, of which we are inordinately proud in our house, so I feel I have at least some skin in this debate.

Too many points have been raised for me to cover them adequately here. I have ripped up the speech that I prepared and will do my best to address the points raised. I encourage Members from across the House to bring groups of farmers—by Zoom or in real life—to meet me or representatives of the RPA to talk through their concerns more fully. This is a period of change in agriculture, and change is difficult. We have to keep the lines of communication open. I will do my best to allay concerns now, but I am very keen to do that on a one-to-one basis at any point.

As the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish put it, producing food environmentally is at the heart of what we do as farmers. Many Members mentioned the importance of food security; the Government completely shares that concern. We have not previously had the opportunity to have this discussion in the context of what is happening in Ukraine, but I reassure Members that the food strategy White Paper will be published next month. Food and its production in the UK will be at the heart of that. I was gratified to hear what my hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Simon Jupp) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) said about eating local, sustainable food. We can all do that as a small way of supporting British farming—so optimism, yes, but definitely not blind.

The impact assessments will be published in March. The pot of money available to farmers is the same. It will, however, be more targeted and used to support public goods. We have ambitious environmental goals, which are generally supported across the House. Farmers and fishermen want to help us to achieve those and we want to reward them for doing so. The sustainable farming incentive is piloted this year. We have seen the soil standard; that is going down quite well on the ground—ha, ha—with farmers.

The schemes are designed to be stacked, so the moorland standard is merely an assessment tool at the moment and it will be stacked with other schemes to ensure that farmers are adequately rewarded. That is part of a seven-year agricultural transition. We are one year in. This is new iterative policy making. Genuinely, things will change, and it is right that they do. We are working with about 4,000 farmers at the moment, who are testing our new policies in real life on real farms to see if they work. Where they do not work, we will change them.

I completely understand the angst expressed by Members from all part of the House, in greater or lesser measure, this morning. Farmers are dealing with this period of change and transition by voting with their application forms: 52% of farmers, including myself recently, are now in a countryside stewardship scheme. In those schemes, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon said, we have uplifted the payments significantly, by about 30%. They are well-rewarded, and the aim is that that group of farmers, who will probably be joined by many more this year, will go straight into the mid-tier of our new policies. That is not a complete solution but the interim solution while we get these policies absolutely right.

On tenant farmers, I hope Luke Pollard will be pleased to know that about a month ago we started a six-month working group—which is working hard already under the chairmanship of Baroness Rock, a well-known and vociferous tenant farmer—to make sure the policies work for them. We have been able to ensure that the SFI works well with three-year tenancies, which are the average, but we need to do further work to ensure that the higher-tier schemes are accessible and attractive to tenant farmers. I hope that Members across the House will take heart from what the Secretary of State said yesterday about how tier 3, the upper tier, may be particularly suitable for upland and moorland farmers.

It is a very difficult time for the pig industry. There is a complex problem, which I will not have time to go through, but I will talk about some of the solutions that we came up with at the pigs summit that we held the week before last. We had farmers, processors and retailers in one room. At times, the conversation was difficult, but it was frank and productive. What we as consumers can do is to interrogate continually where the pork we are eating comes from. Some 40% of the pork consumed in this country, much of it out of home, is not British; so please, I ask that when people go and have their pork pie for lunch, they ask where it comes from. We have a long-term problem with the pig supply chain. I have asked for that work to be done and regulatory changes to be worked up if necessary. If necessary, we will refer the whole issue to the Competition and Markets Authority. That careful fact-gathering work is going on at the moment.

We also need to work hard on the immediate problem in the pig sector. We have issued 800 butchers visas, for which there is no English language requirement. We are also encouraging producers very hard to use the skilled butcher route, which has been open to them since January 2021. I am pleased to say that in recent weeks 250 applications have been made by Cranswick and 100 by Karro under that route.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I had better make progress; I am so sorry.

Real progress has been made in that space. The slaughter incentive payment and private storage aid schemes, which we put in place at the end of last year at the request of the industry, have been improved, also at the request of the industry, with whom we work closely—I am leaving after this debate to talk to a big pig farmer.

Those schemes are now much more flexible, allowing the removal of the expensive parts of the pig—the bits that make the farmer money—with the rest of the carcase either frozen or destroyed. That is really helpful. We are doing granular work to clear the backlog. I met agri-banking leads this week, and we are trying to help where we can, including with farmers’ mental health, as this is a very stressful situation. On farming rules for water, we are working with the Environment Agency, the NFU, tenant farmers and the Country Land and Business Association. We will issue statutory guidance to the EA in March, when there should also be news on urea.

There is cause for optimism. We have been able in recent weeks to talk about three new, exciting schemes open to farmers. The animal health and welfare pathway was set out yesterday by the Secretary of State at the NFU conference. The farming resilience fund has already seen 1,000 farmers in Devon and Cornwall having one-to-one conversations over the kitchen table about how their businesses can adapt. The farming investment fund has received 695 applications from Devon and Cornwall. We listened and increased the fund from £17 million to £48 million, because farmers wanted to apply. Farmers are voting with their application forms; they want to be part of these new policies.

Many Members raised visas. We have had a seasonal agricultural workers scheme since the second world war. Last December we gave the sector clarity with an extension of that seasonal workers route: 30,000 visas available this year, with a potential 10,000 extra if we need them. Crucially, for some of the constituencies represented here, we were able to extend that to ornamental horticulture. Members will be pleased to know that 85% of DEFRA staff work outside London.

We should be lining up to buy British at home and abroad, and we are doing that with agrifood attachés and the new export council. I am thrilled that there will be pitchforks behind us as we make this agricultural transition, backing us all the way. I encourage hon. Members to enjoy Cornish pasties, clotted cream, Cornish Yarg, west country beef, Tarquin’s gin and turkey from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, and to get with the programme.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon 10:58, 23 February 2022

I am grateful for the Minister’s response, which was, as I expected, a fighting performance. I encourage her to keep fighting; I know that those around me in Devon will support her. We will be her army; she needs only to point us in the right direction, light the blue touchpaper and retire. I thank all Members who have attended this debate and you, Mr Betts, for the extremely patient and civilised way you have governed us, though I hope we have not been too unruly.

I only congratulate the shadow spokesman, Daniel Zeichner, on his superb historical amnesia. I recall spending five years, in long and arduous opposition, bashing my head against a brick wall, trying to get a Labour Minister even to know where Devon existed on the map. I seem to recall that it was a “leafy area” that could look after itself. The behemoth—the leviathan—of bureaucracy was invented by the Labour party, so let us not throw too many brickbats across the aisle.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered food and farming in Devon and Cornwall.