I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the importance of agricultural and county shows to rural Britain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. Thank you for stepping in today. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the debate, and Members—I know many cannot be here—from all parties across the House and all parts of the United Kingdom for coming to support it, including the Members who have in their constituencies the Royal Highland Show, the Royal Welsh Show, which happened in recent days, and the Balmoral Show, which is run by the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society.
Britain has a long and proud tradition of agricultural and county shows. The 350 that take place a year fuel economic activity in our rural communities, and provide incalculable value to the societies that they celebrate. They showcase the very best of farming—a sector that contributes about £115 billion a year to the economy.
One reason I am so keen to talk about the subject is that the first show in England, I am reliably informed, took place in 1763 in my patch of North West Durham, in the town in Wolsingham. Since then, the shows have become central to the social fabric and economy of the parishes, villages and towns of North West Durham, and they have become wildly popular in modern Britain, with over 7 million people attending them annually. Agricultural shows span the length and breadth of North West Durham. They range from some of the largest fairs, such as the Wolsingham Show, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors to the town every year, to smaller ones, such as the historic Stanhope Show, which is over 180 years old. The very smallest, such as the Blanchland and Hunstanworth Show, right up in the north Pennines, celebrate some of the most rural parishes.
County Durham has a rich history of farming, stretching back thousands of years. The Normans enclosed large areas of it as the County Palatine of Durham back in the early middle ages. Around that time, some of the land in the rural north Pennines was cleared for farms, for mining and particularly for small-scale cattle raising and sheep farming on the hills. In the 19th century, people in Weardale often subsidised their work in the mines with smallholdings and subsistence farming.
Today, for places across County Durham and across the country, county shows still provide a strong link between that rich agricultural history and present day society. Although agriculture has fundamentally changed over the centuries, and county shows have evolved as well, the shows are still unique points at which our towns and villages can come together. Agricultural shows provide people with a unique opportunity to celebrate what makes our local rural communities so special. They incorporate a huge range of rural activities, such as dry stone walling, which I tried my hand at last year at the Weardale Show in St John’s Chapel, and sheep shearing, which I know many hon. Members are always keen to take part in.
Despite the huge diversity in attractions, animals and events on display, what the shows have in common is the local pride that they instil in people and in the small local communities they serve. I am thinking particularly of the fact that cattle are still very much at the heart of even the larger shows in my constituency, such as the Wolsingham Show. Having the winners paraded around the ground is very much the highlight of the day, even with the much broader attractions that are now on offer.
These shows enrich our local communities. They help to reinforce social cohesion, and are an invaluable asset to modern Britain. Unfortunately, as we have all seen, over the last couple of years covid put a stop to some of them. I was at the Eastgate Sheep Show back in May, which was able to go ahead for the first time since my election as an MP in 2019. This year, I hope to see people return en masse to our county and agricultural shows, to help our communities rediscover their social benefits. We all took those benefits for granted not that long ago, but we now realise just how important they are. I look forward to visiting the Weardale Show in St John’s Chapel, the Wolsingham Show and the Stanhope Show later in the summer.
Farms are intrinsic to the identity and image of rural Britain. Without them there would be no such green and pleasant land that we all enjoy. They play a really important part in ensuring that our rural communities are connected to our local towns. While farming practices have changed, meaning that we do not need huge proportions of the population working the ground and the land anymore, farms provide a symbol for many people in those small towns and villages, and a real connection with the land that feeds our nation and other nations across the world.
I would welcome any Member coming to visit my patch this summer. British tourism is incredibly important, and it is not just the agricultural shows themselves that are the driver. They also provide a real anchor for many other rural activities, particularly rural pubs, which I am a keen supporter of, as a member of the all-party parliamentary beer group, and the hospitality trade, which in so much of rural Britain was also hammered during the covid pandemic. I urge anybody thinking of travelling around the country this summer to anchor it with a rural show, and to spend some time in those rural villages too.
In the modern era, farms are at the frontier of so many environmental measures, with farmers committed to working as much as possible in harmony with nature, while producing sustainable and nutritious food and products from their land. I am glad that when we come back in September, the trade agreements that we have negotiated will be addressed on Second Reading, and I am glad that the Department has had the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to ensure that Britain’s agricultural interests are looked after. The Government are driving forward changes to Britain’s agricultural sector, following our exit from the EU. I hope that environmental land management schemes will, over time, provide a real environmental link, while ensuring that good food production is maintained in the UK.
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the importance of agriculture remaining at the heart of the county shows that he eloquently describes. Does he agree that food production must remain at the heart of UK agricultural strategies? That does not mean that we are ignorant of the net zero challenge, and some of the environmental imperatives, but keeping British farmers farming and producing high-quality food must be the overriding goal.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and he is right to highlight that. It is true not just in agricultural farming but for our fishing industry, as I am sure his community would reflect. Nothing has brought that home more than what has happened recently overseas, and the knock-on impact on inflation and food prices here. There is also the security element, so he makes a valid point, which I will return to later.
I agree with the point made by Stephen Crabb, but do we not need to be realistic in this debate and ensure that we take a much more liberal view towards migration policy if we are to support the UK’s agricultural sector? There is no doubt that we have a workforce shortage, which so far the Government are not doing enough on.
I thank the hon. Member for raising that point. One important point that I would mention to him, though, is that we need to have a really productive farming sector, and I am glad that the Government are looking to introduce some measures to drive that productivity. If we look across the sea to Holland, which actually has more people employed in the agricultural sector than we do, it has introduced some very productive farming measures over the past few years. There has to be a broader picture, but capital investment in particular is going to be essential if we are to grow our way out of the issues we face with not just food security, but the rural economy.
To pick up on a broader theme that both my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb and David Linden have highlighted, I am really keen that we put our focus on the environment where it can do most good. In my area, we have huge amounts of upland peat, and there is currently a lot of grit removal going on, which is helping to ensure that our rural communities can engage in carbon capture and storage on relatively low-value agricultural land. Peat takes up four times as much carbon dioxide per acre as forestry, so I would much rather concentrate on where we can get the biggest bang for our environmental buck and not be pushing afforestation as widely as possible, particularly on higher-value agricultural land. That is a particularly important point; it is something I have discussed with Ministers, and it is something the Government are moving towards.
British farming is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector; in fact, it is important to remember that we could not have had an industrial revolution without an agricultural revolution before it. Despite the enormous output, with the specialisation and diversification of Britain’s farms and the premium products they produce, we now need to aim for another agricultural revolution. That is why I am so keen to ensure that we get some real capital into our farming communities to help drive the next wave, because those things go hand in hand with each other.
I am proud of the unique output of our farming communities, and I am particularly proud to see them celebrated in these rural shows. As I said, those shows bring us together as local towns and communities to see what is happening on the farm—I am sure Members from across the House will have seen that locally. We do not want our agricultural and rural communities to just become the sites of holiday homes.
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech, highlighting the importance of the shows to rural communities. The Anglesey Agricultural Show on 9 and
I certainly think that my hon. Friend should help with the sheep shearing, and I hope she shares some videos on social media. She raises a particularly important point about the volunteers behind those shows. I have seen it myself on the ground: they could not take place without the volunteers who run the committees, put up the signs and do the fundraising to ensure that they are sold out. Often, the judges will themselves be volunteers. They are the backbone of those shows, reflecting the real link between the rural communities and the shows. I obviously encourage as many people as possible to go to the Anglesey show.
My hon. Friend’s intervention relates to the point I was making about tourism in rural areas. We have to ensure that our rural areas are thriving hubs not only of agriculture, but of environmental land management and tourism. We have to ensure that they do not die— that they do not become dormitory villages or just the sites of second homes. It is really important that those local communities are able to thrive, and that the links between agriculture and the broader economy and our lives are maintained. That is one of the reasons why these shows—including, obviously, the Anglesey Show—are so important.
We must ensure that our farmers are as productive as possible and that they grow for Britain, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was saying. Direct interaction with the farming community through county shows will probably help to address some of the issues and concerns that people might have by showing some of the diversification that takes place in the sector. There is always a danger of an urban disconnect with rural Britain. That is why these shows are so important: they provide an easy and very accessible link between our rural communities and people from across the country.
In the light of the rising costs of food, people are starting to look at food in a slightly different way. The Russian blockade of Ukraine has caused huge problems, following their illegal invasion of that country. It is not so much that Britain needs to be totally self-sufficient in everything, but we certainly need to be more self-sufficient than we have been. When I was a special adviser looking at the balance of trade between Britain and other countries, one of the biggest things that we were importing that we could, actually, easily do here was food. I am particularly glad that the Government are starting to look at that area, to see how we can become more productive and grow more in the UK. That is also particularly important when we look at the environment at the moment. We want to see those food miles reduced as much as possible and see things grown in the UK. We need to take more account of the transportation costs and the environmental impact of that transportation, rather than simply the bottom line in terms of price and other considerations.
Britain’s farms are essential to our national economic interests, not just because they look great and they keep our country looking great, but because we need them to be as productive as possible to help our country. Country fairs are central to that rural economic fabric and to highlighting the great work that our farmers do. They provide unmatched social benefits to our towns and villages. County fairs also play a pivotal role; we saw the county flags around Parliament Square just yesterday, showing that they are also at the heart of rural Britain. The fairs provide a brilliant opportunity for the transfer of knowledge as well, by getting farmers together to see innovations and spread best practice within the rural community.
The shows provide a value beyond their locality as a source of income generation for the wider community, for the people visiting, and as an eye-opener for what farming is actually about in modern Britain. The largest shows—such as the Royal Cornwall Show, of which I know the Minister is a great fan, the Great Yorkshire Show, which I am sure will be mentioned by my hon. Friend Andrew Jones, the Royal Three Counties Show, the Royal Highland Show, the Royal Welsh Show and the Balmoral Show—are not just in their local interest; there is also a national and often international interest in them. They offer a new set of opportunities for our farmers to diversify their operations, expand into new markets and find new, much-needed revenue sources.
Rural Britain must maintain its cherished position in the national fabric. It is imperative that we protect and promote county and agricultural fairs across modern Britain and do everything we can to ensure that they thrive into the future. They provide a stage on which the very best of our rural towns and villages can be showcased, as well as serving as a much-needed driver for innovation, investment and tourism in our rural economies. Their importance cannot be underestimated, and I look forward to visiting my local rural shows in Wolsingham, Stanhope, Hunstanworth and St John’s Chapel later this summer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I start by thanking and paying tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Holden for the intelligent and eloquent way that he set out the issues. It was an enjoyable speech to listen to, and informative as well. It is a timely moment to secure a debate on county agricultural shows in a week when, as my hon. Friend said, the historic county flags are flying around Parliament Square. It is delightful to see Pembrokeshire’s county flag among them.
The four-day Royal Welsh Show has been taking place this week. It is another great success, and it is great to see it back after the difficult covid years. It is a good moment for this debate, as we look ahead to the summer recess that is about to start. Many of us will be getting out and about in our constituencies, and going around our county shows. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said, the smaller—often village-sized—shows are still an important part of the fabric of rural and agricultural life in the 21st century.
My county show—we refer to it as “the county show” —is the Pembrokeshire agricultural show. It is the pre-eminent county show in Wales. It is one of the last remaining three-day shows. Covid has been a huge interruption to the show. It is back this year in a two-day format, but I hope it will return to the full three days in future years. It attracts more than 100,000 visitors every year. It always falls in the middle of August, when there are thousands of tourists visiting the beautiful beaches and countryside of Pembrokeshire.
What we get at the Pembrokeshire County Show is an incredibly impressive shop window on agricultural and rural life in Pembrokeshire. It is not just about farming, although that remains at its heart. It also brings in other industries from the private sector, such as car and machinery dealerships. All kinds of voluntary groups and charities have stands. Myself and Conservative colleagues in the Senedd have a stand, and run advice surgeries. No other event in the Pembrokeshire calendar brings together so many people from so many different backgrounds to celebrate agriculture, farming and rural identity. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham makes about identity and cohesion in a community —that sense of community feeling—is really important. For us in Pembrokeshire, the county show is a great vehicle for expressing that.
It is the Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society that runs the Pembrokeshire show. I put on record my thanks and pay tribute to the team from the society, particularly the new chairman this year, Mansel Raymond. Those Members who have been involved in dairy issues may recognise the name from his time chairing the National Farmers Union dairy board. He is a very successful farmer in the community; he takes over from Stephen James, a previous chairman of NFU Cymru. They and their teams have done a fantastic job of keeping the Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society running during these difficult years of covid, getting it to the position where we can run the show once again this year.
The Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society was actually founded in 1784; it goes back more than 230 years. It was founded exactly at a time when the agricultural revolution was feeding into the industrial revolution, which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham talked about. The founder of the agricultural society was one William Knox; he was not a Welshman but from Scotland, a relative of John Knox. He was a former Under-Secretary of State for America who found himself in Pembrokeshire. The society had some difficult years, but it was re-founded in 1901, specifically with the purpose of running the flagship county show every summer. That has happened every year since, and for the last 63 years it has happened at the Withybush airfield site, just outside Haverfordwest, which is of course the county town of Pembrokeshire.
It is a tremendous show, Dr Huq, and if you ever find yourself in west Wales in the middle of August, I hope you take some time out to visit the Pembrokeshire show. Indeed, I have seen many colleagues over the last 20 years, from all sides of the House, visiting the show when they have been on holiday in Pembrokeshire. They always have a great time.
For all the activities, the stalls and the fun, leisure aspects that tourists and visitors enjoy, at the heart of the show remains agriculture, farming and competition. There are livestock competitions and other types of contest. Farming remains at the heart of the show, which is a really key point that I want to stress, because farming is the backbone of rural life. Some shows around the country have morphed over recent years into more generic country fairs; they have a place and are fun as well. But for the county agricultural shows that we are discussing this afternoon, the key point is that they have farming strongly at their heart. As I said, farming is the backbone of rural life.
I chair the Welsh Affairs Committee, and it is great to see some colleagues from Wales present this afternoon. We recently completed an inquiry into the social and cultural benefits of family farms in Wales, taking into account the signing of new trade deals and some other trends in agriculture. I think that all members of the Select Committee would agree that maintaining vibrant farming is really important, not just for the economic benefits to rural communities, but for protecting something that is quite unique and special about our heritage. That has particular importance for us in Wales, where I think it is fair to say that the farming community is probably the most important vehicle for incubating and protecting the Welsh language, which of course goes to the very heart of our identity in Wales. All these things link together and come together very effectively in these annual agricultural shows.
In the report that the Select Committee produced on family farms in Wales, we highlighted a number of risks that I think it is important to put on the record. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has already touched on them. We made the point about keeping farming principally about food production. There is also the point about tree planting in Wales. We observed as a Committee that more and more high-quality agricultural land is being purchased for tree planting in Wales. That represents an almost permanent loss of agricultural land for these activities. I have a particular concern that some of that land is being purchased by corporations with no real connection to Wales at all. They are, in my view, practising a form of greenwashing: it allows those corporates to say that they are offsetting their carbon emissions. I do worry. I worry about farming when farming is being pushed more and more away from core food production. I worry about farming when more and more land is being given over to tree planting. That of course has benefits, but when it means a permanent loss of quality agricultural land, that is a concern.
The Pembrokeshire County Show will be happening again this August. It is a fabulous shop window on our rural community. However, smaller shows are happening as well. We have the Nevern Village Show and the Fishguard Show. My local show is the Clarbeston Road Show, in the next village along from where I live. They all have their particular characteristics. They all have their local characters and individuals who give so much of their free time to volunteer and to make the show happen. Those people are the bedrock of our communities, and we salute them this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and it is a great pleasure to follow Stephen Crabb, who gave us a wonderful picture of just how important county shows and the smaller shows are to rural life and to the fabric of communities in Preseli Pembrokeshire.
I join the right hon. Member in congratulating Mr Holden on securing this very important debate. He has timed it perfectly, as it comes at the end of Royal Welsh week. However, I congratulate him primarily on a tour de force of a speech, which covered the county agricultural shows in his constituency, their long history, and the importance of agriculture and rural life to his communities and parishes. He eloquently described in great detail how integral these shows are to the social and economic fabric of the communities and parishes that he represents. It will not surprise hon. Members to hear that I will make the same case for the importance of agricultural shows in my constituency of Ceredigion.
We have already heard an interesting point that I had not considered before coming to this afternoon’s debate. The origin and purpose of a number of these agricultural societies and agricultural shows was not only to showcase farmers’ wonderful produce and stock, but to exchange best practice and techniques. That was an important endeavour, and it played such an important role in the agricultural revolution. As a rural MP, I think the importance of the agricultural revolution is often downplayed when we consider the history of the United Kingdom; as the hon. Member for North West Durham said, without the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution would not have followed.
The Cardiganshire Agricultural Society was established in 1784; the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire told us that the Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society was founded then, too, so there was something in the waters of west Wales in that year. I am afraid to say that it was not Mr Knox who founded ours, although I note that he was an Under-Secretary of State for America, so in 1784 he perhaps had a bit more time on his hands, after the 1783 treaty. However, the purpose of that society was to promote agricultural techniques and to share best practice. I am pleased to say that it continues in existence, and continues to meet regularly. I have a fond memory of attending one of their annual dinners in Lampeter some years ago, when I was a relatively new Member of Parliament. It is fantastic that their sharing of best practice continues to this day. Such bodies are of integral importance. They represent broader networks of societies, both at parish and village level, but larger towns would also hold an annual agricultural show.
The first Cardigan county show was held in 1854, so there was a bit of a gap after the society was established. I am pleased to say that we have continued to have annual shows, except during the covid pandemic and in a few other instances over the decades. It is a staple of the local calendar. We have missed it for the past two years; perhaps I underestimated just how much I would miss agricultural shows—not just my home show of Lampeter, but all the other shows that we Members of Parliament have the privilege of—well, a convenient excuse for—attending.
I am pleased to say that in Ceredigion, we have the best part of 20 agricultural shows. Despite the two-year gap forced by covid, they are all back up and running. The first one started in June, and they will continue through to the beginning of September. Obviously, produce and livestock is on show, but they also serve as important social hubs for rural communities. The larger county shows that we have in Cardigan and Aberystwyth are really impressive spectacles and feats of logistics—I am in awe of them—and they are made possible by the committees of volunteers who are in charge of them.
The smaller shows also serve an important function. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the number of challenges that agriculture faces. In Wales, there are changes to agricultural policy, the disruption of covid-19 and Brexit to some extent, and the challenge of losing large tracts of agricultural land to planation for forestry and offsetting schemes. Our farmers come under the cosh, whatever direction they face. Farming is, as I am sure hon. Members know, a lonely profession at times, so the local show is a great opportunity for local farmers to take the day off and socialise with each other. They go to shows to share problems and advice, but also to enjoy each other’s company. We have missed that for two years, so I am pleased that this year we will have the whole host of shows again in Ceredigion.
Some shows have merged; they have had to change quite a bit. We now have a great variety of displays and attractions. If anybody needs a holiday suggestion this year, I invite them to Ceredigion. We have it all. We have the core elements of an agricultural show, livestock displays and goods—vegetables and preservatives, you name it—but we also have speed shearing events, which are fun. Virginia Crosbie may wish to attend a few of those events in Ceredigion before she tries her hand at shearing at the Anglesey show later in August. We also have the harness racing—several racing events, as it happens—vintage displays and tractor runs, and of course we have the Barley Saturday celebration in Cardigan. If Members have not been able to attend that yet, I very much recommend that they catch it next year.
These events are a celebration of our rural heritage, but they also look to the future, and allow us to share techniques and technology. Perhaps most importantly, shows allow young people, especially at the local show level, to try their hand at showing animals, or exhibiting vegetables, fruits or preservatives. They given them a chance to compete. I pay tribute to the Ceredigion Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, or YFC Ceredigion, the county organisation for the young farmers clubs; the opportunities they give to our young people are second to none. YFC Ceredigion had a good time of it in the Royal Welsh Show this week, where it won the display competition. I believe YFC Ceredigion is playing rugby later against Brecknock in the final; I do not think the match has kicked off yet. I wish the team the very best in that endeavour. YFC Ceredigion also managed to win the after-dinner speaking category of the competition run by the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs.
There is a close link between large shows and the network of local, smaller shows at which young people first experience competing in a whole range of categories and codes. Those shows feed up to the counties and ultimately the Royal Welsh Show. We have heard a little bit about the Royal Welsh already. It is a fantastic event —a really impressive week—and I pay tribute to the organisers, who even managed to provide air conditioning for some of the livestock sheds in this week’s warm weather. Fay Jones perhaps will not thank me for reminding the House that the first ever Royal Welsh Show for agriculture was held in Ceredigion, back in 1904, although I am willing to concede that the present location in Builth Wells is just as good for the animal event. Without the smaller shows and the county shows after them, the Royal Welsh would not be the great success that it is.
In closing, I thank the scores of volunteers who serve on the committees of these small shows, ensuring that everybody is registered in time, that the information and entries are in order, and that the insurance is sorted out. It was a particular challenge this year to secure marquees for the produce tents. Those volunteers do it year in and year out, often without seeking any thanks or celebration, but it is a great pleasure—once again, I thank the hon. Member for North West Durham for giving me the opportunity to do so—to place on record how much we appreciate their efforts. Without their tireless work to make sure that small and county shows go ahead, the rural community could not come together every year to share and celebrate our rural heritage, and to keep a little bit of that social fabric intact. I am sure that all rural MPs will agree that there is a real and specific type of community spirit in rural areas, and rural agricultural shows make an invaluable contribution to the endurance of that spirit.
Thank you very much, Dr Huq, for calling me to speak. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, but particularly when you have been so flexible with your diary in getting here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Holden on securing this debate. Agricultural and county shows are hugely important for our economy. They are also one of the most enjoyable parts of rural Britain, whether the shows are large or small. In Harrogate and Knaresborough, we have both types, and I love them both. Thanks are due to the organisers of all these shows up and down our nation. It requires a huge effort and great skill to put these events on, and much of the work is done by volunteers; we should recognise and celebrate them.
I will make an immediate declaration of interests—I spent last Friday at the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate. For those who have not visited it yet, it is the largest agricultural show in England and it is, as described, great. There is a 250-acre site in Harrogate. The show is over 160 years old, and there was a wonderful sense of excitement and fun about it.
I will spend a few minutes discussing the ingredients that make agriculture and county shows so special and important. I agree with colleagues that the most significant ingredient is the sense of community and belonging brought about by each show. The Great Yorkshire Show is from Yorkshire, for Yorkshire and, of course, in Yorkshire—it is a part of our Yorkshire identity. Of course, shows across the country are part of and reflect their local community, and that has been made clear in the debate. Some 140,000 people came to the Great Yorkshire Show last week. When I went on Friday, I had a little think about when I first visited, and I think it was in 1973.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham is a generous man, but he is also completely wrong. My point is that the show has been a big part of something I have enjoyed. About 80% of the visitors are from Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-east, which means that many visitors come from a considerable distance away, which obviously brings a significant boost to the tourism and hospitality sectors.
The shows are places where people come together. We have highlighted that that is particularly true for farmers, but the shows are social beyond that; the beer tent does a brisk trade. Shows also celebrate the local agricultural sector, and the stock displays are critical to that. It is always great to see the pride in animal husbandry. Last Friday, I spoke to cattle farmers in the morning and sheep farmers in the afternoon, and congratulated those who had won prizes, such as best in show. The competition was strong, and their delight in winning was good to see. The livestock are the heart of the show.
There is obviously a commercial element to shows, and a strong retail presence. There are also agricultural equipment displays, which are a good way for people to see what is available and learn about new ideas and technology to boost productivity. There is business, and lots of money changes hands, but that is not the beating heart of the show. They are not just trade shows; they are much more complicated, but also more significant, than that. They are a platform for the celebration of the produce of an area, and they are a showcase of that produce. I do not just mean the livestock; I am particularly thinking about some of the smaller food producers. The quality of local produce, up and down all four nations of the country, is absolutely fantastic.
The shows are a platform that enable companies to reach customers and be spotted by bigger distributors. Introductions can be made, knowledge shared, and, later, deals done. I am sure we can all think of examples of how that has worked in our constituency. Certainly, judging by the sampling in the food halls last Friday, the enjoyment of local produce was pretty strong. The shows keep evolving, of course, and there are always new things to celebrate and new things to learn, as well as old. There can be new companies and new displays; for example, this year, the Yorkshire Show had sheepdog trials for the first time, which drew crowds.
The knowledge-sharing mentioned by a number of Members is an absolutely critical but under-recognised part of the shows. That works in a few ways. To give a practical example, Rural Payments Agency staff may be available to answer questions, and there can be expert talks put on to enable the sharing of best practice. Shows are also critical, and practical, for MPs. I had many excellent conversations at the Great Yorkshire Show last week, including with ASDA; I met its representatives to discuss local sourcing and the challenges of food inflation, and I met the National Farmers Union to discuss the challenges faced by local farmers. When I was last at the Boroughbridge Show, I met the Rare Breeds Survival Trust—a charity whose aims I support—and I did so again in Harrogate last week. We also had Ministers present, which was valued by those who got the opportunity to say hello. I do not think my hon. Friend the Minister has yet visited the Great Yorkshire Show, but I hope it is only a matter of time until he does. He would be welcome.
There are many elements that make agricultural and county shows work, but at their heart is a celebration of the countryside, its people and produce, its stewardship and its future. Their anchor is in local communities, and they make communities stronger. They are important to rural Britain, as the title of the debate suggests, but I would like to go further and say that they are important to all of Britain.
I am sure that most people are wondering why on earth the MP for the small, four-mile-long urban constituency of Glasgow East is speaking in the debate. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend Richard Thomson, who had intended to speak—no doubt paying great tribute to the Turriff Show—has had to return to his constituency, so I have been drafted in at short notice. I am sure the Chamber will be disappointed to hear that.
I thank Mr Holden for securing and opening the debate. I suspect there is a good chance that that was his last speech from the Back Benches; we shall see what happens in September.
Across Scotland, agricultural and county shows are hugely important to the cultural fabric of local communities. Some events have taken place for hundreds of years. Indeed, the First Minister marked the 200th anniversary of the Royal Highland Show this year, emphasising its importance as
“a place where the agricultural sector meet, debate and exchange ideas. And it showcases often to audiences who might not otherwise think very much about these things”— myself included—
“the quality, the variety and the importance of Scottish agriculture and of the Scottish food and drink industry.”
In the past two years, the pandemic has prevented many agricultural and county shows from going ahead, but it is fantastic to see these events go ahead this summer, and to see people from not just across Scotland, but across these islands, embracing and celebrating the rural community. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention the various issues that have affected, and still affect, the farming and agricultural community across Scotland. As Ben Lake said, the conflict in Ukraine, the devastating impacts of Brexit and the ongoing disruptions caused by the pandemic continue to worry our farmers.
North of the border, the Scottish Government are committed to supporting rural and agricultural communities. Indeed, earlier this year, the Scottish Government launched the national strategy for economic transformation, which makes it clear that every part of Scotland, especially rural Scotland, is crucial to the recovery from the pandemic. In March, the SNP Government set up a food insecurity taskforce to advise on the problems that the invasion of Ukraine would cause, including the difficulties caused by increased costs—a point already made in the debate. The taskforce has already reported, and some of the key recommendations have been accepted, such as the establishment of a new food security structure in Scotland.
Alongside pressing the UK Government to do more to support the food and farming sectors, the Scottish Government are using their powers to the maximum in order to address the challenges that face our farmers every day. Indeed, our First Minister has already announced major investment of more than £200 million through the 2022 to 2027 environment, natural resources and agriculture strategic research programme. By contrast, the Conservative Government in Westminster remain committed to a disastrous Brexit policy that undermines farmers, while also failing to address the significant cost of living crisis, which is devastating for our rural communities.
I can absolutely get behind the tone of the debate that the hon. Member for North West Durham has brought to the Chamber. However, when we politicians turn up at agricultural and county shows across these islands this summer, pose for our photo ops—some of which might include sheep shearing—and chat away to our constituents, we must remember what we have voted for. Did we support a Brexit that harmed farmers, and a Tory Government who are failing to act on the cost of living crisis, which is undoubtedly impacting on rural communities?
Agricultural and county shows should showcase the very best of farming and rural communities across these islands. However, such communities can flourish only if they are properly funded and supported, and the success of farmers in Scotland is fundamental to our environment, our economy and our reaching our sustainability goals. They should never, ever, be taken for granted.
Thank you for filling in at the last minute, Dr Huq. I thank Mr Holden for securing this important debate and informing us of the many agricultural shows that operate in Durham. I remember as a nine-year-old going to the Royal Show at the National Agricultural Centre in Stoneleigh, which sadly has now closed. I was amazed at the animal activities and the sounds and smells, which stayed with me, so I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about agricultural shows.
The years 1066, 1939 and 1966 are all famous in our history. The years 1763, 1796 and 1838 probably mean little to most of the population, but mention them to farming communities the length and breadth of the country and the response will be different. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Wolsingham Show, which was the first agricultural show to be held in Britain, in 1763. The Otley Show in my constituency was first held in 1796, and is now the longest-running one-day agricultural show in the United Kingdom, and 1838 saw the creation of the Yorkshire Show, now the Great Yorkshire Show, which Andrew Jones spoke about at length. It is now the largest show, with 140,000 visitors, and I am sure that will grow year on year. I did not go this year, but I went last year, when there were only 130,000 visitors. We are clearly ramping up the visitor numbers at the Yorkshire agricultural showground.
All agricultural and county shows play an extremely important role in rural Britain. They provide an insight into farming and an opportunity for farmers to promote stock and produce, as well as the food industry more widely. They are above all a celebration of British farming, but they are not only that. We need to reflect on the fact that farming can be an isolating job on a day-to-day basis. Shows give farmers community, something to aim for, and an opportunity to reaffirm their pride and commitment to farming. Farmers put a huge amount of time and effort into their stock, and shows provide the platform to build both their reputation and their business.
It is not just farmers who benefit from agricultural shows, though. Whatever their size, shows give the public the opportunity to learn more about farming and build an understanding of the connection between our farms and the food on our tables. In a world of prepackaged, pre-cut supermarket produce, it is a much-needed education about the origins of our food. In a world of uncertainty about the quality of our food, it gives the public the reassurance that livestock is well cared for by our farming communities.
Agricultural and county shows provide an opportunity for us to celebrate rural life and the invaluable contribution that farming makes to this country. Agriculture is a vital industry filled with talented and hard-working people, but under the watch of our current Government, the farming sector has been beset by crisis after crisis, from the pig backlog that resulted in tens of thousands of healthy pigs being culled, to the avian flu outbreak of the past year—the worst in living memory.
During these difficult times, farmers in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and mainland Europe have been able to turn to their Governments for help. Farmers in England have not been given the same support. This year, at agricultural shows up and down the country the main topic of conversation among many attendees will be the latest set of crises bearing down on the agriculture sector: inflation, lack of seasonal labour, and the botched roll-out of the environmental land management scheme. It is a dangerous combination that is putting the future of British farming and agriculture in jeopardy.
Farmers, those in the industry and Opposition Members have been warning for months that British agriculture faces a chronic shortage of workers this year, but the Government have apparently not listened. The response in ramping up the number of seasonal worker visas has been very slow: they are now at 40,000, but the NFU has said it wants 70,000 worker visas to bridge the gaps. NFU survey data for April showed an estimated notional seasonal worker shortfall of 12% in horticulture—three times the figure for the same month last year. Industry experts say that there will be a catastrophic waste of home-grown fruit and vegetables this summer due to the lack of workers. Ultimately, many agricultural businesses face bankruptcy if they cannot access the necessary labour to harvest their crops. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will address those issues when they go to the shows this summer.
On top of a shortage of workers, farmers are also contending with soaring inflation, which is pushing up the price of agricultural inputs. Independent consultant Andersons’ latest inflation estimate for agriculture is 30.6% — three times higher than general inflation. Agflation is a huge issue, and one we must address.
As we all know, the invasion of Ukraine has resulted in significant increases in gas prices. For some farmers, the price of gas is now as much as 200% higher than it was at the start of 2021. Without food security, the food supply that people up and down the country expect will start to disappear. We saw shortages of food on shelves during covid; we might be back there again, perhaps worse. Some greenhouse growers cannot afford to heat their greenhouses and we are seeing a drop in the production of crops like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, which will mean more imports and potentially more shortage as demand builds across Europe.
In addition, fertiliser production is also heavily linked to gas. As international gas prices soar, so does the cost of fertiliser. In January 2021, the cost of ammonium nitrate was £200 per tonne; it is now £900 per tonne and rising. We are seeing a catastrophic conflation of problems affecting farmers, who will be going to the shows this summer and discussing them with each other, and raising them with us as politicians.
Food businesses face the same problems. I recently spoke to a Yorkshire biscuit manufacturer that has seen a huge increase in the prices of all its main ingredients. Margarine, sugar and wheat prices are all affected by the war in Ukraine and the agricultural worker shortage. The manufacturer cannot afford to increase workers’ wages, but has had to put up its prices as inflation is running at over 10%. That same issue was raised with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough in his discussions with Asda at the Great Yorkshire Show. As Asda is a Leeds-based business, I will also be discussing those issues with the company.
These latest crises take place against the backdrop of the slow introduction of the ELM scheme—another big talking point among farmers, the NFU and the Country Land and Business Association at shows and elsewhere. The Government are phasing out direct payments, but were are seeing a significant gap between the ELM scheme’s introduction and direct payments being phased out. Farms could go to the wall if the scheme’s roll-out is not accelerated. This is another example of agriculture being pushed into a difficult place. If the Government continue to push ahead as they are, many farming businesses will go bust. This not only harms farmers, but undermines our efforts to reach net zero, which may force us to import more food, produce to lower environmental standards, and use more carbon to get it here.
Many Government Members will be preoccupied over the summer by yet another Tory leadership election, but at agriculture and county shows, I fear people will be more concerned about the challenges facing British agriculture and food businesses. While the Government may be content to amble on without a plan, Labour pledges to provide agricultural communities with the support they need. On the ELM scheme, the Opposition support the NFU’s call for basic payment reductions to be paused for two years to provide more time for the scheme to be rolled out. We would reprioritise the ELM scheme to secure more domestic food production in an environmentally sustainable way, as part of our plan to support farmers to reach net zero. The shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team will be at shows all summer discussing these issues and offering solutions. I hope the Minister can offer us some now.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Holden for securing this important debate. What better way to end our last moments of this term before we leave for the summer recess than talking about our amazing regional agricultural shows?
We have had a virtual tour of agricultural shows across the country during this debate, from the Wolsingham Show, which we were told is the oldest in the country, beginning in 1763, to the Ynys Môn Show—I am sure we all look forward to seeing pictures of Virginia Crosbie shearing sheep in due course. We also heard about the Royal Welsh Show and the Pembrokeshire County Show, mentioned by my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb, as well as the Cardigan County Show. In typically modest Yorkshire style, my hon. Friend Andrew Jones highlighted that the Great Yorkshire Show had 135,000—I think he said 140,000, but my figures say 135,000—visitors this year, which beat the Royal Cornwall Show, which had a mere 126,000 visitors. However, we did have the Prime Minister, so I trump him there. The Royal Highland Show—although a long way from Glasgow East—was mentioned by David Linden. It would be remiss of me not to mention the Cockermouth Show. My hon. Friend Mark Jenkinson, who is my Parliamentary Private Secretary, so is unable to speak in the debate, was telling me before the debate what a wonderful show it is and that he will have a stand there this year. I am sure everyone looks forward to that.
There are more than 400 show days per year around the country, put on by over 350 agricultural and county shows. They welcome over 7 million visitors and act as a vital link between rural and urban Britain. Shows of all sizes, big and small, connect our rural communities and play an important part in the tapestry of rural life. Agricultural shows bring people together to network and do business, and they give the public a glimpse into farming life. They play an important role in continuing to inform and education the population about where our food comes from and the vital connection we all need to have with the natural world.
Agricultural shows provide a chance for farmers to discuss emerging technologies and innovations with manufacturers. Several hon. Members made the point about the importance of farmers getting together at these shows and talking about their working practices. They are a fantastic showcase for the diversity and success of British agriculture, particularly for people who do not work in the countryside. They offer benefits to small businesses and the local area, and they are a great showcase for the amazing regional food and drink that is produced up and down our country.
A number of hon. Members said that virtually every show has had to stop for the past two years because of the pandemic, and it has been welcome seeing so many of them being held again this summer. The strong attendance at shows up and down the country shows how much they not only have been missed, but are valued by so many people. For the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, agricultural shows give us the chance to meet people from all kinds of farming backgrounds and rural lives across the country. They help us better understand the experiences and views of members of the farming community, who can help shape ideas, ask questions and offer challenge.
The future farming and countryside programme, which is leading the farming policy reforms in England, attended 28 events in June alone. These included the Royal Cornwall Show, the cereals show in Nottinghamshire, as well as shows in Norfolk, Hereford, Lincolnshire, Devon and Northumberland. I look forward to attending the North Devon Show next month and, as a proud Cornishman, I am sure I will get a warm welcome. Attending the agricultural shows is valuable to DEFRA. I know the Secretary of State and all Ministers have been working hard to attend as many shows as possible this summer and will continue to do so. I also know how important attending shows is to local Members of Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham mentioned. They give us that important connection and ability to discuss rural issues with so many people.
Agricultural shows are of great value to farmers. As well as the opportunity for networking and seeing examples of best practice, they allow farmers to give feedback to DEFRA Ministers and officials. For example, we have spent much of the summer so far talking about the new sustainable farming incentive, which opened at the end of June. These conversations have been extremely fruitful for talking about the benefits of the sustainable farming incentive and other environmental schemes and grants, and receiving feedback on what farmers want to see in the future from our work. Conversations with farmers at shows provide vital feedback that we will incorporate in our future communications about the scheme, helping many more farmers than just those we meet in person to understand the benefits.
Of course, agricultural shows afford broader benefits to the economy. For example, they provide income and employment for small businesses, such as exhibitors and marquee manufacturers that rely on agricultural shows, as well as local accommodation providers, caterers and equipment hire providers. The economic benefit of these shows goes beyond the agricultural sector in supporting the rural economy.
Agricultural shows also play an important role in connecting rural communities and educating the wider public. The Country Land and Business Association commented that agricultural shows are particularly important to the culture of rural areas. The shows act as a vital link between rural and urban Britain, and can be used as a major education tool in informing those who attend about the diversity of agriculture and land-based activities, and in promoting the importance of those who live and work in rural communities.
A further point can be made in relation to land management practices, given that the shows are seen as showcase events. Since the start of the century, we have seen the importance of the environment and the role that land managers play as custodians of the countryside. It is here that education is becoming so important; and, in a practical sense, shows provide a larger audience for the essential message of what agriculture is and does.
Let me respond to a number of the points raised during the debate. Several colleagues wanted to thank the many volunteers who make these shows possible; I would like to reinforce that point. From my own experience, I know the importance of the hundreds of volunteers who give their time to put on these shows. It is right that we all acknowledge their work and say thank you to them for all that they do.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire made a really important point about making sure that food production is at the heart of agricultural policy. That is something that we have demonstrated with the publication of the national food strategy; with the events of recent years, including the events in Ukraine, it will become even more important going forward to put food production and security at the heart of our policy making. He also said that farming is a unique part of our national heritage—a point that I am sure many of us can get behind and welcome.
Ben Lake made the point that shows give a great opportunity to young people, which I have seen many times. One of my earliest memories was being given the day off school to attend the Royal Cornwall Show, which is something I would encourage. I am not here to make education policy, but it is important to teach our young people about where our food comes from, in order to help them better understand the importance of food production and our environment, and the central part that our famers play in that. The more we can give our young people the opportunity of engaging with these shows, the better, because they are a really great way of teaching them about those things.
One thing I was aware of before—but of which I have become particularly aware in the two weeks that I have had this role—is that sadly sometimes our farmers are presented as the villains when it comes to environmental protection and net zero. I think that is very unfair, because certainly all the farmers I know are really committed to sustainability and to doing everything they can to protect out natural environment. Again, our agricultural shows can play a vital role in getting that message out and helping people to engage with the farming sector, in order to understand all that the sector is doing to work with us to protect our environment, fight climate change and adapt to it. That is an important point to make.
In closing, this has been a great debate and a great way for most of us to end our time in Parliament before we head off to the recess. Agricultural and county shows are an essential part of the ongoing relationship between DEFRA, farmers, land managers and the wider public. They continue to be a fundamental element of our open dialogue with farmers, and we are committed to working in partnership with them. Like all Members who participated in the debate, I celebrate our agriculture and county shows, and I wish them the very best for the future.
I thank Members for the broad and mostly cross-party spirit in which the debate has been conducted. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie, my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb and Ben Lake, who gave us a great tour of west Wales—I might even get down there myself this summer.
David Linden does not have any shows in his patch, but he stepped bravely into the breach today, as did the Minister— I know there was a debate about whether he or a Minister from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would be responding. I thank Alex Sobel and my hon. Friend Andrew Jones, who is just down the road from me; it is always great to see him here. My hon. Friend Mark Jenkinson was suffering in silence today, but at least he got a shout-out for Cockermouth.
I want to highlight the important economic benefit of these shows and the invaluable contribution that they make to our rural communities and the sense of belonging there. Most of all, I thank the volunteers at the shows, who keep them going year after year, because they are such a valuable part of our rural communities. I thank the guys at Wolsingham Show and Stanhope Show, and the Weardale Agricultural Society, which is run from St John’s chapel. I look forward to seeing them in the next couple of months.
More holiday suggestions than you can shake a stick at.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the importance of agricultural and county shows to rural Britain.