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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:18 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 10:18 am, 23rd 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.