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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:39 am, 23rd February 2022

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Betts. What an interesting debate it has been. It was not exactly as I expected, and it started in Ukraine. I congratulate Sir Geoffrey Cox on his barnstorming performance and critique of the Government, which I almost entirely endorse. I would like to hear more of it, not least because of some of the important points that were made in general—not just about Devon and Cornwall. He made the point about the lack of impact assessment for the environmental land management scheme, for which we have been calling for a long time. As my hon. Friend Luke Pollard pointed out, many of his points have been prosecuted by the Labour party right the way back to the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020. My hon. Friend also raised important points about pigs, which, as a Member from the east of the country, I am very aware of. I thought some of the comments from the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Parish, were very perceptive, and I associate myself with them. This is a complicated issue, but I am afraid the Government have not covered themselves in glory on it.

The debate is timely because it is happening during the NFU conference, which some of us were fortunate enough to enjoy yesterday, not least the opening address from Minette Batters, who I think would join the case for the prosecution. She said that the Government have shown a

“total lack of understanding of how food production works”,

introduced “completely contradictory policies” on farming, and risk “repeatedly running into crises” through the lack of a post-Brexit plan for UK farming. That is a pretty damning indictment of this Government’s policies and position.

That is also what I hear from people in Devon and Cornwall. As I said, I am from the east, but I am delighted to have trips to that part of the country to hear from people. One of those trips—to see some of the ELMS pilots—was at the invitation of the Minister herself. Those pilots, as I have said before, were very interesting. I contacted one of the farmers whom I had been to see—Holly Purdey at Horner farm, which is an example of a small enterprise, just over the border from Devon—and she told me:

“Our dream is just to show that it is possible to create a positive integrated model of farming that means we can tackle the climate and the biodiversity crisis while producing nutrient dense food for our community”— mixed farming. That is what this is about: a change back to a different form of production. Holly is able to do that, to some extent, through ELM, but many are finding it much, much tougher.

I suspect that many people here will know Robin Milton, the chair of the Exmoor National Park, who has hosted me twice—I am very grateful to him. Members who know him know that he has strong views and is not shy in coming forward with them. He is pretty appalled, frankly, about the effect that the transition to a different support system is having on the upland areas. He was quoted in Farmers Guardian last week as saying that the lack of suitable uplands support package was “reprehensible”. I suspect that that was reflected in some of the comments that we heard from Tim Farron. The Government will say that more is coming down the line and that there is more to do, but frankly, people are making decisions now. They have to live their lives, and they have to have some idea of what the next few months and years will bring. This is just not working for them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale echoed in their points, I have also heard that tier 3 ELM in particular looks all too likely to become a scheme that rewards very rich landowners for carbon capture and storage. In the wider sense of the term, that is a perfectly attractive and good thing to do, but look at the cost in damage to food production and to some of our best agricultural land. The Secretary of State tried heroically to defend the position at the NFU conference yesterday, under tough prosecution from Minette Batters. I have to say that I am not sure that the audience was convinced, but the Minister has the opportunity to put on the record where the idea to split ELM into a third/a third/a third came from. The widely accepted view is certainly that that is what is going to happen, but it is clearly not what most people want. Will the Minister tell us whether the split will be 60/20/20 if that is what it ends up having to be?

The Secretary of State also had to deal yesterday with the extraordinary muddle that the Government seem to have created over some of the labour issues. I will not go into those in detail, but it seems that last week, the Home Office wrote to labour providers to say that they would have to pay a whole lot more—more than £12 an hour in general. As a Labour politician, I quite like higher wages in general, but that has to be done in a way that works and is viable for employers, as the Labour party’s record shows. Many Cornish growers I have spoken to would really struggle to meet those kinds of rates. They had a tough enough struggle last year with much of the daffodil crop not picked and consequently not grown this year. Can we have it on the record from the Minister that, as the Secretary of State said last week, it was a mistake? Will the Home Office clarify that? After listening to the speeches this morning, I have to ask whether the Home Office is part of the same Government. The Conservatives seem to manage different parts of the Government as if they are not part of an overall whole. Well, they clearly are not. They work in completely contradictory directions. That is a strong message that I also get from farmers in Cornwall and Devon, because it appears that different Departments are doing completely contradictory things. That makes no sense to people out there. They do not care which Department it is—it is the Government. The Minister is looking pained, and I understand her pain, but they need to get a grip.

Reference has been made to the interpretation of the farming rules for water by the Environment Agency—another example of muddle and contradiction. In his opening comments, the right hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon seemed to suggest he was surprised that, after the escape from Brussels, this was happening. Had he never noticed that the British civil service has consistently gold-plated EU regulations over the years? There is a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems facing our country, and now we see the consequences. We need to get a grip of the way our own systems work, and I see no sign that the Government are capable of doing that.

Fishing was mentioned, so I will draw the Minister’s attention to two of the current problems around our coastlines, including Devon and Cornwall’s. There is huge upset around the Marine and Coastguard Agency boat checks. Those are important for safety, but driving people out of business is not the way to do it. In the last couple of weeks, there have been problems with the inshore vessel monitoring systems, where type approval has suddenly been withdrawn on one system. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is going on.

Finally, I will turn to important points made about tenants and commoners. I am grateful to Jo Joseph and the 3F Group in the south-west for highlighting the concerns of commoners, who feel let down by the Government’s not resolving some of the issues facing them. The points about tenancies are absolutely crucial. It is clear that in a complicated network of systems and negotiations, things are not working at the moment. A point was made strongly to me by a key producer that, in the end, people might be able to manage without a subsidy, but they cannot manage without land. If we lose access to land, we lose the food production.

The Labour party’s approach would be very, very different. We would make, buy and sell more British food, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport laid out a few minutes ago. We would also adopt a much more planned approach to land use to deal with the emerging range of problems so that we can maintain the rich and varied collection of family farms in Devon and Cornwall, which are so important in terms of not just food production, but quality of life, cultural heritage and tourism. They are the key to what makes those places so special, and they are too precious to lose.