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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon 9:30 am, 23rd February 2022

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.