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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:48 am on 23rd February 2022.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:48 am, 23rd February 2022

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox, from whom I learnt so much in my days as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, on securing this really important and wide-ranging debate. I cannot pretend to be a Devon or Cornwall farmer, but I should declare my farming interests, which included, until 15 years ago—for the whole of my life before that—a very fine herd of pedigree South Devon cattle, of which we are inordinately proud in our house, so I feel I have at least some skin in this debate.

Too many points have been raised for me to cover them adequately here. I have ripped up the speech that I prepared and will do my best to address the points raised. I encourage Members from across the House to bring groups of farmers—by Zoom or in real life—to meet me or representatives of the RPA to talk through their concerns more fully. This is a period of change in agriculture, and change is difficult. We have to keep the lines of communication open. I will do my best to allay concerns now, but I am very keen to do that on a one-to-one basis at any point.

As the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish put it, producing food environmentally is at the heart of what we do as farmers. Many Members mentioned the importance of food security; the Government completely shares that concern. We have not previously had the opportunity to have this discussion in the context of what is happening in Ukraine, but I reassure Members that the food strategy White Paper will be published next month. Food and its production in the UK will be at the heart of that. I was gratified to hear what my hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Simon Jupp) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) said about eating local, sustainable food. We can all do that as a small way of supporting British farming—so optimism, yes, but definitely not blind.

The impact assessments will be published in March. The pot of money available to farmers is the same. It will, however, be more targeted and used to support public goods. We have ambitious environmental goals, which are generally supported across the House. Farmers and fishermen want to help us to achieve those and we want to reward them for doing so. The sustainable farming incentive is piloted this year. We have seen the soil standard; that is going down quite well on the ground—ha, ha—with farmers.

The schemes are designed to be stacked, so the moorland standard is merely an assessment tool at the moment and it will be stacked with other schemes to ensure that farmers are adequately rewarded. That is part of a seven-year agricultural transition. We are one year in. This is new iterative policy making. Genuinely, things will change, and it is right that they do. We are working with about 4,000 farmers at the moment, who are testing our new policies in real life on real farms to see if they work. Where they do not work, we will change them.

I completely understand the angst expressed by Members from all part of the House, in greater or lesser measure, this morning. Farmers are dealing with this period of change and transition by voting with their application forms: 52% of farmers, including myself recently, are now in a countryside stewardship scheme. In those schemes, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon said, we have uplifted the payments significantly, by about 30%. They are well-rewarded, and the aim is that that group of farmers, who will probably be joined by many more this year, will go straight into the mid-tier of our new policies. That is not a complete solution but the interim solution while we get these policies absolutely right.

On tenant farmers, I hope Luke Pollard will be pleased to know that about a month ago we started a six-month working group—which is working hard already under the chairmanship of Baroness Rock, a well-known and vociferous tenant farmer—to make sure the policies work for them. We have been able to ensure that the SFI works well with three-year tenancies, which are the average, but we need to do further work to ensure that the higher-tier schemes are accessible and attractive to tenant farmers. I hope that Members across the House will take heart from what the Secretary of State said yesterday about how tier 3, the upper tier, may be particularly suitable for upland and moorland farmers.

It is a very difficult time for the pig industry. There is a complex problem, which I will not have time to go through, but I will talk about some of the solutions that we came up with at the pigs summit that we held the week before last. We had farmers, processors and retailers in one room. At times, the conversation was difficult, but it was frank and productive. What we as consumers can do is to interrogate continually where the pork we are eating comes from. Some 40% of the pork consumed in this country, much of it out of home, is not British; so please, I ask that when people go and have their pork pie for lunch, they ask where it comes from. We have a long-term problem with the pig supply chain. I have asked for that work to be done and regulatory changes to be worked up if necessary. If necessary, we will refer the whole issue to the Competition and Markets Authority. That careful fact-gathering work is going on at the moment.

We also need to work hard on the immediate problem in the pig sector. We have issued 800 butchers visas, for which there is no English language requirement. We are also encouraging producers very hard to use the skilled butcher route, which has been open to them since January 2021. I am pleased to say that in recent weeks 250 applications have been made by Cranswick and 100 by Karro under that route.