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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:57 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 9:57 am, 23rd 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.