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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:32 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon 10:32 am, 23rd February 2022

Thank you, Mr Betts; that is much appreciated. I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox for securing this morning’s debate.

The south-west, particularly Devon and Cornwall, is proudly at the centre of the UK’s food and farming industry, as we have heard this morning. Our whole region is proud of the produce we produce: we should shout about it far and wide, and perhaps we do not do enough of that at the moment. We are an integral part of the UK’s agricultural and economic output and employment. It does not need saying that the value of farming output in the south-west was £4.1 billion in 2019, which is an incredible figure: more than Scotland, and more than twice as much as Wales. Two thirds of all dairy products exported from the UK to the US are from the south-west, even though the south-west is home to just one third of England’s cattle—that is a really interesting statistic.

Devon’s farmers play a key role in the life in the county that I grew up in and am proud to represent a part of. Many residents of our county get a snippet of this at the annual Devon County Show, held in my constituency of East Devon, but all year round, farmers are the custodians of our countryside. They create new habitats, protect wildlife, produce the raw ingredients that feed our nation, and export that food around the globe. As diverse businesses, they offer accommodation to tourists and visitors coming to the best bit of Britain. Almost 20,000 people work in the food and farming sector in Devon: that is 13% of the county’s economy, compared with 8% nationally. As my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall has highlighted, the south-west also has a major fishing sector, with the region totalling 10% of all fishing output, second only to Scotland.

Overall, I support the Government’s position of maintaining high UK food and animal welfare standards, and shifting from the bureaucratic EU cap towards ELMS that will improve our environment and encourage consumers to buy British. However, since being elected I have spoken to many farmers in my corner of the south-west, East Devon, as well as the National Farmers Union and others. I always insist to them that the Government should be in listening mode, but that communication must go both ways, and it does not always feel that way. Farming is a seven-days-a-week job, and those farmers deserve to be productive, successful and profitable. While Britain is now free to independently strike new trade deals across the world, that should not come at the expense of high-quality and popular produce from East Devon that rightly deserves our support.

Some of the best British food and produce is also the cheapest: it is seasonal, it is local, and it has not travelled across the planet to get to our shelves. We are still awash with local greengrocers, corner shops, farmers markets, fishmongers and butchers across vast swathes of the south-west, and they need our support more than ever. We cannot afford to lose them from our towns and villages and, crucially, neither can our local farmers. That is why I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Neil Parish about food standards. I am pleased that the Government listened and took the UK’s high standards off the table of any trade deal. I particularly welcome the Government’s setting up the Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on and inform trade policies and deals. The commission is crucial, and it must continue to play a crucial role as we continue to take advantage of our newfound freedoms after leaving the European Union.

However, clarity for our industry is needed sooner rather than later. Farmers in my constituency believe there should be a clearer direction on the environmental land management scheme and on how payments for farmers will be measured following the end of the single farm payment. They believe that, at its heart, ELMS should keep encouraging farmers to produce food if we are to maintain 62% food self-sufficiency in the UK, and that the quota could and should be increased. Over recent years, one of the advantages of subsidised farming was that it gave the Government an element of control over farming. However, if payments are viewed as not worth the hassle, farmers will be more inclined to do their own thing. The benefits of the scheme, with all its good ideas, will not be felt and the positive impact, as intended, will not happen.

As we have heard, some farmers feel under increasing pressure from the Environment Agency, with farming rules for water making some farming systems unviable. There could be better practicalities surrounding the rules that should ultimately keep farmers making the best use of their manures. I am acutely aware that the Government should look to encourage the food and farming sector to recruit from the domestic workforce, with better pay and conditions wherever possible, now that we have left the EU. It is a theme that has been repeated throughout this morning’s debate. However, sustained efforts by both the Government and the industry to encourage interest in such a career are long overdue, and the skills gap is a problem now—not in a couple of years’ time, when the training has been completed. Places such as Bicton College in my constituency do a great job at helping to turn the situation around, but for many farmers it is too little, too late.

Although the seasonal visa schemes for the poultry industry helped plug the acute gap last year, I hope DEFRA can work this year with the Home Office on a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce. One of the farms in my constituency produces the best turkeys in Devon—I would say that, wouldn’t I? If it becomes clear again that it cannot get turkeys from farm to fork this Christmas without foreign labour, the Government must act quickly to help and not leave it until the last minute. The temporary visa scheme, which did not have many people sign up to it, represented a failure to back our farmers. Crucially, farmers need as much notice as possible.

The south-west is known not only for its food, but for its drink. It would be remiss of me not to mention the thousands of acres of orchards across the west country that produce some of the world’s best cider and perry, which I have been known to enjoy from time to time—in moderation, of course. They support around 11,500 jobs. Recognising and supporting apple and pear growers is vital to protecting those world-class products, and I welcome the Treasury’s measure in the Budget to cut the duty on draught beer, cider and sparkling wine. That is an example of how the Government have listened to our industry, but we can go further and faster.

Following the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, it would be remiss of me not to talk about DEFRA and its hopeful move to Devon. South Devon is perhaps a little far—I suggest East Devon might be a more important and prominent part of our county.

Food and farming can continue to go from strength to strength, but the industry needs to have certainty in order to survive and then thrive. I am not sure it currently has that. People care more than ever about what is on their plate—the pandemic showed us that. We already produce the best. Let’s make sure we keep the skills and expertise to keep it that way and grasp all the opportunities ahead.