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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:09 am on 23rd February 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

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 am, 23rd 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.