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

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.