I beg to move,
That this House
has considered support for British farming.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am delighted to have secured this timely debate, which is an opportunity for colleagues from across the House to voice their support for British farming. We have a lot to celebrate, alongside some concerns.
As the Member of Parliament for East Devon, I am proud to represent a corner of the UK with an extremely rich farming heritage. Devon’s farmers play a key role in the life of our county. Around 100,000 people get a snippet of that every year at the Devon County Show at Westpoint arena, which is held almost every July.
We know that the freshest, most sustainable and best produce is both local and seasonal. Local produce from across the south-west is found on shelves across the UK and around the globe. With that in mind, trade deals are of benefit to our region. We must take advantage of our Brexit freedoms, but we must also work harder to take the farming community with us. Leaving the EU allows the UK to leave behind a bureaucratic and inefficient farming policy. The Government rightly want to use our new-found powers to reward farmers for doing more to help improve the environment while also producing high-quality food.
However, the farming industry needs more certainty to both survive and thrive. I regularly hold roundtable events with the farming community in East Devon, and I hear that message about clarity loud and clear. Last month, I invited local farmers to a roundtable event with senior officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Rural Payments Agency. Farmers, agents and others are eager to see how various elements of the new farming funding system will underpin their sustainable and resilient businesses. Support schemes will need to be accessible and simple, and they will also need to reward farmers fairly for taking part in them.
So my first plea in this debate is that DEFRA looks to accelerate the development and roll-out of the sustainable farming incentive. Incentivising farmers to take part in rewilding schemes or to plant trees on prime agricultural land may seem a worthy policy in Whitehall, but it will not put food on the table in the west country. Farmers have said to me, “You cannot eat trees.” Needless to say, a balance is required. Food production and environmental sustainability are not necessarily in competition, and nor are they mutually exclusive, but support schemes should always encourage farmers to produce food. That is the only way to deliver on the ambition of the UK food strategy to maintain or increase our food self-sufficiency, which is all the more important given the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the challenges resulting from the war in Ukraine has been the increasing cost of energy and that one challenge for farmers is the cost of energy? In his autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he would provide additional targeted relief for businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that those businesses must include farmers?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is incredibly important that the agricultural industry is recognised, because energy bills have shot up. Also, quite a few of our agricultural businesses in Devon and beyond rely on heating oil. We know that additional support is on the way, but we will have to wait and see whether that is enough for people to weather the storm. However, I and other MPs in the south-west of all party political colours will be listening to our farmers and representing their views back to Government.
Putting domestic food production first should also apply to trade negotiations. Britain is now free independently to strike new trade deals across the world, and colleagues should have enough time and opportunity to scrutinise such arrangements in the House. Giving Parliament more say in the process, in terms of both the negotiating mandate and the scrutiny of these trade deals, will strengthen the consent for them from the farming industry and the public. That is very clear.
I sympathise with the comments made by my right hon. Friend Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who recently criticised the path undertaken by the Government in signing the trade deal with Australia. The deal undoubtedly brings benefits, but as a Government we can and must do better in the future. In the summer of 2020, I supported an amendment on food standards tabled by the former Member for Tiverton and Honiton to the Agriculture Bill. The Government listened and acted, setting out that our high standards for domestic and imported products will remain.
I particularly welcomed the setting up of the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission, which must ensure that the voices of everyone involved in food production are properly heard. I would really like to see more engagement between commission officials and MPs, with the commission bringing back some of the regional evidence sessions that it held back in 2020. Those were invaluable in feeding back concerns from farming communities in Devon, the wider south-west and across the country.
There are many other topical issues I would like to touch on before I conclude my remarks, and which I am sure are high in the new Minister’s in-tray—not least rising input costs for things such as fertiliser, slurry rules and avian influenza. Those issues are playing on the minds of local farmers, alongside significant concerns about abattoir capacity in the south-west and across the country.
I will finish my remarks by talking about workforce shortages. Those are an acute issue across the agricultural industry, especially in the south-west, and DEFRA must keep working closely with the Home Office on a long-term strategy for the food and farming workforce. Farming is a skilled career, and it is a labour of love for many. Excellent colleges, such as Bicton in my constituency, keep the flame alive in the younger generation, but is it enough and are we doing enough to encourage young people into these careers? There are ample career opportunities for UK workers in the food and farming sectors, but are we selling that dream to people who are thinking of joining the industry or who have an interest in working on our land?
The farming industry needs sufficient access to labour in the meantime, with the industry calling for the seasonal worker scheme to be increased to a minimum five-year rolling programme to help give farms certainty to invest. The Prime Minister committed to look at expanding seasonal worker schemes in his leadership campaign during the summer, and he was absolutely right to do so. I hope that that is something that DEFRA Ministers and the Home Office can take forward, particularly for the poultry and pig industries, which have faced real problems in the last 12 to 18 months.
The hon. Gentleman is making a proud defence of British farming. One of the challenges is around the seasonal agricultural workers scheme—that is certainly true in my constituency, where we will end up with food rotting in the fields, because there are not sufficient people to harvest it. The hon. Gentleman talked about training people from the UK and bringing them into the industry, but does he acknowledge that the changes to the scheme mean that those people from overseas who worked in the sector for a long time are now prevented from coming here and cannot pass on their skills to the next generation?
That is an interesting point and it needs exploring, which is why I am asking for more flexibility in the schemes the Government provide. We know that this is an acute issue in the area that my hon. Friend represents, but also in the area that I represent. The industry is very clear on this issue, which is why I am mentioning its views today.
Unprecedented events are placing a lot of pressure on our farmers, so today’s debate is a timely opportunity for the House to demonstrate its support for the industry, and I am glad to see so many people here who want to do so. Farmers are the custodians of our countryside. They create new habitats, protect wildlife, produce the raw ingredients that feed our nation, and export food around the globe. It is a seven-day-a-week profession and a labour of love across many generations. I look forward to hearing colleagues’ contributions and to hearing from the Minister, who is experienced and knowledgeable, about his support for British farming.
Colleagues can see that the debate is well attended. There are nine colleagues wishing to catch my eye, and they will have about five and a half minutes each until the winding-up speeches begin.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary, and to follow Simon Jupp; he made an excellent speech, and I warmly congratulate him on securing this important debate.
I should say at the outset that I have a long-standing love of the countryside and have spent a lot of my life on farms over the years. For the purposes of transparency, I want to declare that my son is at agricultural college in Yorkshire, my parents-in-law are farmers, and I am the grandson of a farm worker. I should also say that a sizeable portion of the borough of Barnsley is in a national park, and I am proud that there are a number of farms in my constituency.
Let me say something about the challenges farmers face and what I think we should be doing to support them. The UK benefits from better food security if British farmers produce more food. The war in Ukraine has brought that into sharp focus, as it has caused an abrupt decline in global food production, but the UK has experienced a longer decline. According to the National Farmers Union, we now produce 60% of our domestic food consumption, down from 80% in the 1980s. The Government have an important role to play in reversing that trend, but we can all play our part by buying local produce.
A recent report by the CPRE showed that, pound for pound, spending in smaller, independent, local food outlets supports three times as many jobs as spending at supermarkets, and buying direct can be even better for some farmers. In my area, the Hill family, who run a local dairy farm, have shown entrepreneurial spirit by setting up a very sophisticated vending machine so that people can buy their dairy products directly. They call it “Milk From The Hills”—local milk from local cows helping local farmers.
Members who speak to their local farmers know that farming has rarely, if ever, been easy. So we must support farmers during difficult times, and the latest outbreak of avian influenza is a timely reminder of that. I acknowledge the need for the Government’s national housing order for poultry, along with steps to improve the compensation scheme, although there is some way to go to get that right. Ultimately, strong biosecurity will help prevent and mitigate many threats, but the Public Accounts Committee reported last week that the Government are not prioritising the significant threat to UK health, trade, farming and rural communities posed by animal diseases. That has led to the Animal and Plant Health Agency site in Weybridge having more than 1,000 single points of failure. The completion of the redevelopment programme, due in 2036, will be cold comfort to farmers, especially given that avian influenza is not the only threat.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the contribution of biosecurity to tackling avian influenza, but does he agree that, because of the interaction between the wild bird population and domestic birds, biosecurity will never be the whole answer to the problem? To be honest, I do not know what the answer is, but to put all our metaphorical and political eggs in the biosecurity basket risks leaving us with no solution in the long term.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I understand that there will be a debate on that subject in the House next Wednesday. That is a really important opportunity for Members to put points to the Minister, who takes these things very seriously. I hope that that debate will be well supported. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
On biosecurity, African swine fever is a real danger, but the Government have not yet shown that they appreciate the need for strong border checks. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about the need to keep it out of this country. It is in Germany, and many hon. Members are concerned about the potential for it to come here.
Farmers do diligent work to keep their livestock healthy, and we all respect the fact that farming can be physically demanding. Despite recent advances in technology, it can, as we heard from the hon. Member for East Devon, still require a significant workforce, crucially at harvest time. The seasonal workers scheme must secure the labour needed to ensure that we can produce the food we need.
In response to a written question that I put to the Minister back in October, he said:
“40,000 seasonal worker visas were available in 2022”.
However, the NFU says that farmers need between 60,000 and 70,000 seasonal workers. It is important to note that those workers are not the same as other economic migrants: they return home after performing critical work and filling labour shortages. I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about what his Department is doing to ensure that supply meets demand.
Despite the large workforces sometimes required, we appreciate that farming can be a solitary experience, so we need to ensure that our young people see farming as an attractive option for their future. The Farm Safety Foundation reported in February that 92% of farmers under 40 rank poor mental health as the biggest hidden problem facing farmers. That is a concerning figure. I know that the Minister will understand this issue and take it seriously, so will he say something about the Government’s plans to target outreach to young farmers to make sure they get the support they need?
To conclude, it is very important that we nurture those who feed us and that we support the stewards of our countryside so that they can fill our national larder and protect our green and pleasant land.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Simon Jupp for luring me back into Westminster Hall for such an important debate. He spoke eloquently about the importance of rural communities, which we all fundamentally believe in. I represent a part of Essex that is known for its rurality and for its coastal constituency values as well. Farming needs to be recognised as a strong, dynamic and entrepreneurial part of our economy, as well as for the agricultural quality that it brings. My hon. Friend also spoke about the fact many of our rural communities maintain our beautiful countryside and about some of the challenges that come with that.
Dan Jarvis spoke about buying local produce, so I will advertise local produce from the Witham constituency, which can be purchased here in Westminster as well. There are the famous jams from Tiptree’s Wilkin & Sons, which holds a royal warrant. With Christmas fast approaching, I urge everyone to make sure they stock up on Christmas puddings from Tiptree.
Importantly, there are many other farms that supply produce, and my hon. Friend touched on the issue of trade—our ability to export around the world. Importantly, we also have the ability to feed our domestic population. In Essex, we have the fantastic Wicks Manor farm, which produces amazing pork products—sausages and bacon—much of which goes across the world. It is also the birthplace of the famous milkshake known as Shaken Udder. We also have Humphreys at Blixes farm; Daymens Hill farm, which has an amazing orchard with nearly 4,000 varieties of apples and pears; and Blackwells farm shop. In addition, this House has the privilege of selling Linden Lady chocolates, which are very famous, in its gift shop—I recommend them.
That is just a small taster of what my constituency’s farmers and producers have to offer. They want more trade and fewer barriers to trade. They want to ensure that they can grow their businesses and see much more progress. Of course, two years of covid have left many challenges. There is the pain of inflation and what that means not only for wages but rising global food prices. Higher petrol and diesel costs also have an impact on farmers’ ability to operate.
Farmers are also being squeezed by the supermarkets. Everyone will be aware of the margins that supermarkets chase. The Government must hold the supermarkets to account.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know the Minister has heard those comments, and he is familiar with the issue too.
Avian flu has been mentioned. I appreciate that the Minister has been involved in many debates, and there have been many meetings across the House as well, and I want to express my thanks for that support. But farmers face numerous pressures in terms of the regulations and some of the enforcement. I would welcome further details from the Minister on the measures that are being looked at to support farms.
In Essex and across the country, avian flu is very severe. One farm in my constituency has been left devastated by an outbreak. Despite the farm taking all the measures around biosecurity—I am pleased to hear that there will be a debate on that next week—the strain was still detected. As we know, it is causing disruption to the poultry supply chain, which will impact on the costs of poultry. I hope that we can continue to have constructive discussions and support our farmers around the implications of avian flu.
I would like to touch on investment in farming. I have picked up already the comments that have been made about the labour market, labour market reform, and the infamous seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which has more than 40,000 available places. We should not always depend on overseas labour, not just in farming, but for our country and wider economy. There are active discussions, which I hope the House will welcome, around the development of the labour market strategy. That is something that I, with the former Chancellor—now the Prime Minister—had been pursuing in Government, and I know that the current Chancellor is also looking at that.
It is important that we support our entrepreneurs—our farmers are entrepreneurs; we have heard about the hard work and the graft that goes into farming—but we must be able to give farmers long-term security around investment in technology. When it comes to picking fruit or produce, capital allowances can help enormously, alongside a solid labour market strategy that attracts and develops the workforce.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. Farming and agriculture are the backbone of our country; they need to be nurtured and invested in. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks.
It is a pleasure to follow Priti Patel, and to be able to say—unlike, perhaps, on some occasions when she was in the Home Office and I shadowed her—that there was a great deal in her speech with which I agree. I congratulate Simon Jupp on getting this debate, and I am pleased at the measure of consensus, because consensus is very important for agricultural policy. In politics, we tend to work on a four or maybe five-year cycle. In agriculture and farming, that is but the blinking of an eye. I should, parenthetically, remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a farmer’s son and now a landowner myself.
The real support for agriculture that we need from Government is more certainty. That, of course, will come from the future of farm payments; they have hit difficulties south of the border. North of the border, we must still wait and see. We welcome the consultation that is outstanding. I share some of the frustrations of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, which came forward with proposals four years ago that would have put active agriculture at the heart of environmental policy; it feels there has been a missed opportunity. However, if we get what we need from that consultation, it would behove us all to welcome it.
In particular, in my community, I am keen to see a flexibility that shows an understanding of the local social and economic benefits from agriculture. We have two dairy farms left in Shetland; they have been whittled down—salami-sliced away—over the years. Last week, we had four days without ferries, so our supermarkets, Tesco and the Co-op, which would normally import much of the milk, were not able to do so. For those four days, we were reliant on those two dairy farms for milk for our communities. If there is not an opportunity there for public money for a public good, then I do not know where there is one.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the supermarkets’ dominance of our national food supply chains is now just too much? It is defeating the objective that he mentions, which I have long advocated for: local food, getting through local supply chains to local people, is the way forward.
The hon. Gentleman risks triggering me—if my children were here, I think that is what they would say—because that is a theme on which I have spoken many times. He is absolutely right. I was part of the Government who introduced the Groceries Code Adjudicator. I am disappointed that it has not worked; it needs to be revisited.
There are other powers in the Agriculture Act 2020, and with the Competition and Markets Authority, that could be brought into force, and I think that the consensus in rural and agricultural communities across the country is that that should be done. There is an imbalance between the purchasing power of the supermarkets—which are maybe 10 behemoth commercial organisations, at most—and that of the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of farmers across the country. The supermarkets have been allowed to take advantage of their market dominance for too long, and that absolutely must end.
There are a couple of other areas where the lack of certainty is becoming difficult for the agricultural sector. The progress of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is one. I know the Minister understands that, because I was with him when he heard from the National Farmers Union of Scotland about its concerns. There is a real concern that, because of the way the Bill is framed, we risk losing some of the most important legislation, almost by omission. There must be a more pragmatic and practical way to deal with the concerns that that Bill seeks to address that does not risk unintended consequences.
There are other areas in which agriculture, certainly in my community, could benefit from support, but that requires Governments in Edinburgh and Westminster to be prepared to listen. I see some of the debate about the transportation of live animals by sea and it scares me. The people who talk about that issue seem to have no interest in the fact that those of us in the Northern Isles, having years ago designed the state-of-the-art, blue-chip system for transporting animals by sea, risk being caught in legislation that frankly does not take account of our needs and circumstances.
I know the Minister is good at this, and he has a background that will allow him to do it: he must take his heft into Government and deliver. He must be prepared to listen to the people who know most about agriculture: the farmers. If he does that, the benefit is not just to farmers and farm workers, but to the rural communities across the countryside. Good agricultural policy makes for sustainable rural communities; it is as simple as that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to follow Mr Carmichael, and all hon. Members, in particular my hon. Friend Simon Jupp, whom I thank for securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. I have been promoting him since I got here in 2010; I have been asking, “Why don’t the Government put him in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?” He, a farmer, is now here; I cannot believe it. Someone who understands what we are talking about, and what we want, is a Minister with the power to help us. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a landowner and farmer, so I speak with a lot of passion and experience in this field.
When I was selected as a candidate in 2006, one of my first tasks was to set up a farming group. It meets every quarter. That group started with two members, and now at least 50 or 60 appear. The Minister has often come along to it, either virtually or in real life. We hope this Minister will come long in real life soon, so that our farmers can talk to him and put across their concerns.
My hon. Friend is highlighting the same point as many colleagues: the importance of listening to local farmers on local issues. Farmers in my constituency have asked the Government to extend the policy of culling on a discreet basis for a further three years, when it ends at the end of this year, as part of the co-ordinated approach in Cheshire to tackling bovine TB. Does he agree that it is vital that we consider farmer-led approaches to such challenges?
My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth. In the dying moments of my speech, I will talk briefly about badgers and beavers, since I am slightly concerned about their presence in small Dorset rivers.
What we all want, and the public demand, is cheap food. If we as farmers are to produce cheap food, we need help—not to grow trees and all the other green things, although I totally accept that there is a place for that, but to grow food. We frequently hear Ministers refer to the public good; production of food should be at the top of the list of public goods.
As hon. Members have said, we have had a war, a pandemic, world food shortages and climate change, and there are terrifying predictions of food shortages around the world. We will have to become more and more self-sufficient, and farmers will have to farm more efficiently. Farming is an expensive game. Buying or leasing agricultural equipment—combine harvesters, tractors and all the rest of it—costs hundreds of thousands of pounds. Many farmers simply cannot afford it, not least tenant farmers. We would all like to see some form of grant, through which farmers could apply for money for those sorts of things.
As I said, the public need—and want—cheap food. We have left the EU. I was a Brexiteer; I was one of those crying to leave, and I am delighted that we have left. However, we face a danger if we do not help our farmers. Certainty is desperately needed, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, because as the basic payment scheme slides away and alternatives come in, there is a big hole there; and as a result, many famers, not least those in remoter parts of our country, will struggle. That hole needs to be filled. We need certainty, and they need reassurance. The alternative, which none of us wants, is cheap imports. That is not the way forward. That will not increase self-reliability, or counter all the threats that this country and the rest of the world face.
I will touch briefly on the badger cull. I understand that this is a contentious issue; the badger is a protected animal. I do not agree with that personally. I like to see badgers. We love to see deer, foxes, and every other wild animal, but these animals no longer have predators. If we do not maintain them, look after them and ensure that they are healthy by securing the right numbers, then —as we know—the badger population grows exponentially and disease spreads.
The culling practices have worked. The statistics are pretty impressive; we cannot refute them. They show that culling badgers reduces the impact of bovine tuberculosis, which, as my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce said, has devastated the beef and dairy industries. I urge the Minister to go back to this issue. I believe that badger culling will end, but I urge him to stop saying that we will end it. We must continue the cull, just as we cull deer and foxes, but in a balanced way, so that we have the right balance of wildlife in our countryside.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon mentioned that rewilding must not come at the expense of growing food. There is a place for green trees and rewilding. However, Scotland experimented with it, and once beavers had bred, they did not keep to the allocated space. They went all over the place. They are not appropriate for small rivers in Dorset.
I thank Simon Jupp for setting the scene so well. Farming and agriculture are at the heart of both our areas. I declare an interest as a farmer. I am also a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and have been for many years; we are in regular contact. My main reason for joining, if I am quite truthful, is that the insurance premiums were excellent. I have been a customer for over 30 years as a result.
I am in full support of the farming industry; it is crucial for the UK and an integral part of our economy. It is great to be here to exchange ideas, and also to hear Richard Drax speaking. I happen to disagree with him on one point: I think that all foxes—every one of them—should be controlled, but that is just my opinion. I will put that on the record. All foxes should be controlled. There should not be any foxes, but that is by the by. It is great to listen to other Members, and to see the Minister in his place; he has landed in the right job, and we are all very pleased to him there.
Agriculture plays a pivotal role in Northern Ireland; it brings an estimated income of £501 million as of 2021 —an increase of some 8.3% from 2020. Agriculture thrives in my constituency of Strangford; we have numerous companies that are bywords in the constituency. Willowbrook Foods, Lakeland Dairies, Mash Direct and Rich Sauces have a combined workforce of probably just over 3,000. I have mentioned before that Lakeland Dairies has four factories in Northern Ireland and five in the Republic; that highlights the importance of smooth and frictionless trade. There are countless dairy farmers across Northern Ireland who deal with Lakeland Dairies, and that has proven to be an incredible success in the dairy farming trade.
Employment is a major factor in the agrifood sector, hence the importance of securing funding and support from elected representatives. It does not matter if someone does not come from a constituency that is rich in farming; the supplies from farmers to other local businesses are equally important.
Furthermore, the sector employs some 70,000 people in Northern Ireland, so we cannot take away from the importance of those jobs for us in Northern Ireland. We export some 80% of our goods, so we depend on exports to survive. The Department for the Economy has concluded through economic modelling that there could be up to 10,000 fewer jobs, depending on the nature of the relationships established with the EU. I have to put this on the record, and the Minister knows it is coming: the Northern Ireland protocol disadvantages us in Northern Ireland. I know the Minister accepts that issue, but it is important for us that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill be agreed to. When it left the House of Commons for the House of Lords, it was where we wanted it. We hope it will return in a similar fashion.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point on the protocol. We have heard today of the challenges facing famers. Would he agree that in Northern Ireland there are additional challenges because of the protocol? Look at the seed potato issue. We cannot get seed potato from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Some 50% of veterinary medicines will not be available to Northern Ireland in January after the grace period. Does he agree that the protocol needs to go? Great Britain’s farmers would not accept it, so Northern Ireland farmers should not have to, either.
I totally agree. My hon. Friend is our party’s agriculture spokesperson, so I am pleased to have that contribution made. Land use in Northern Ireland is now dominated by improved grassland management for dairy, beef and sheep production; there are also small pockets of cereals, mostly in County Down. I am privileged to have a farm that is agriculturally sound, and the land is very productive, as it is for many farmers across Mid Down and Northern Ireland. I have highlighted the importance of community farming numerous times, and nominated a constituent of mine, Emily McGowan, for the National Farmers Union community hero award. She is a young girl with a deep interest in farming, and I hope she does well.
Community and local farming are the backbone of business in Northern Ireland and the UK. Mash Direct supplies good, healthy, hearty food to numerous large retailers across the United Kingdom at an affordable price. ASDA and local Spars in Northern Ireland are some of their major retailers. That business started out of a kitchen 15 or 20 years ago. Mash Direct has been looking at becoming more sustainable and protecting the environment by installing solar panels at its family farm. It looks forward and has a vision for the future. This is another milestone in how farming can become carbon neutral. The farming industry is crucial to the UK economy, and we must support it. As stated, farming plays a major role in our achieving our environmental targets. It provides tens of thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom, and supports businesses with fresh and decent food for our constituents.
Finally, farmers face increasing stock prices on items such as fertiliser, due to inflation and Putin’s invasion of Russia, yet they still work hard and do their absolute best to provide for us. We should be incredibly proud of our farmers. I fully support them, especially those in my constituency, who I know work tirelessly to support their local community. If they can support us, we must do the same back.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Jupp on securing this debate. We cannot speak enough about the need to support our farmers, who produce the food we need in a way that is good for the country and our health. We talk regularly about the need to support our farmers and landowners in producing more food. We also talk a lot about the need to protect and enhance our natural environment and countryside, which many of us are privileged to live in or represent; there does not need to be conflict between the two. Food production and biodiversity can complement each other; our mistake has been to give farmers the impression that they bear responsibility for our countryside and natural environment declining, and their job to fix it. I disagree, but there is no denying that consumers, driven by supermarkets and Government policy on inflation, hunger for ever cheaper food; they often want to pay less than the cost of producing it—a point made by my hon. Friend Richard Drax.
Farmers face unparalleled challenges and are fighting fires, barely surviving each challenge as it rolls over them. They have little time to think, plan and change the way they produce the food we need. As a result, small farmers in Cornwall are handing over their land to large contractors to farm. I see a significant number of farmers reducing the amount of food they plan to produce this year and next, and lots of farmers are leaving dairy altogether. The production of potatoes and dairy, which are essential to our daily diet, has reduced enormously in Cornwall.
My hon. Friend makes the point that we need to build more national food resilience. It is preposterous that in the 1980s we were producing 78% of what we consumed, but now the figure has fallen to 60%. The grant funding discussed earlier would help farmers, particularly in respect of automation, and allow them, once they have become more productive and efficient, to challenge the power of the supermarkets, which have distorted the food chain. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to rebalance the food chain in favour of primary producers?
I do agree, and that was the subject of one of the first debates I ever secured in this place, back in 2015. Given how farmers’ plans have shifted in the last 18 months, I suspect that less than 60% of the food we consume is grown in the UK.
Urgent action is needed. I am glad to see the Minister in his place; I met him first thing this morning to discuss a similar issue. One thing that was said this morning, and with which I completely agree, is that food security should and must be adopted as a public good, so that we can focus Government funding and support for farmers in order to deliver food security across our nation.
As has been mentioned, we also need a determined effort to maximise high-quality food production—not just to feed our nation but to do so in a healthy way. We know that our NHS is not properly coping with the demands we place on it, and it will not get any better until we really look at our diet, the food we produce and our gut health. It is a massive issue, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, will be looking at soil quality and how it affects gut health.
We need to attract talent, especially in opening up the opportunity to embrace science and innovation, and to harvest the food we need. I go into schools all the time, and so much work needs to be done across the Department for Education, schools, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Government Departments to make farming and food production a key conversation in primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and our homes. Parents also have a real opportunity to talk to their children about jobs in the food and farming sector.
Finally, we need to restore the relationship between the state, Government agencies and non-governmental organisations, so that farmers know they are vital and that we recognise they are vital to our national security and health. They should be supported to transition to modern, sustainable and productive farming and food production. We will not be forgiven by those living in the countryside if we fail to support them and to enable them to play the role they want to play, and are keen to play, in feeding the nation and making the countryside a place that is both secure at home and generous to the world around us.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Simon Jupp, who is almost my constituency neighbour, and congratulate him on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a tenant beef farmer’s son in my home constituency.
Although I could talk a lot about farming across the board, particularly beef and sheep farming, I want to focus my remarks on egg production and the effects we are starting to see. Some people say the situation has been caused by avian flu, but I would like to share some other aspects of the debate that may help to inform the discussion. The egg industry has been going through a period of turbulence for some time. In my opinion, it is because the supermarkets control the supply chain, totally dominate the market and force producers to accept a price at which they cannot afford to produce. I am afraid it highlights the fact that the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which I spoke so strongly in favour of in my maiden speech in February 2020, is proving to be totally ineffective.
Most of my local farmers in West Dorset tell me they do not want to receive Government subsidies, but they have to. Why do they have to? More often than not, they are forced into that position because the Groceries Code Adjudicator is not doing its job and is allowing supermarkets to dominate the field in such a way that farmers cannot continue to provide the goods that we all need to consume. In effect, in my opinion the Government are ultimately subsidising supermarket profits. That has to stop.
We all know that egg production costs have risen. Rising energy costs, the war in Ukraine and inflation have clearly all had an effect on that. But we cannot continue in a situation where large supermarkets’ strong yield-management policies are forcing this to occur. It is not new. Only a few days ago, the British Retail Consortium confirmed that
“some UK supermarkets are putting limits on egg purchases due to shortages largely linked” to the avian influenza pandemic. Well, I do not agree with that. It is wrong. I think supermarkets are hiding behind that explanation a total failure in their yield-management strategies of probably many months, if not longer.
In West Dorset, a number of egg producers have told me that it is now so difficult for them to make money. Let me to put that into context: supermarkets broadly have raised the price of a dozen eggs by 50p over the past six months. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association says that farmers and producers are receiving just 18p of that, in the light of all the additional production costs they are having to bear. They cannot therefore do things like invest in pullets—new young stock—to ensure the future. This has basically resulted in a gradual 13% reduction in egg production over the past year alone. That is not solely because of avian influenza.
I have a number of egg producers in my constituency as well. If they sell their eggs locally to smaller shops, they can get a good price—for instance, £1 has been increased to £1.89. That is an increase that smaller shops have made, but the larger supermarkets are hellbent on screwing the producers to such an extent that they will no longer be in business. It is the big boys that need to be taken on.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, which concur with my thoughts. I am afraid this is the beginning of a ticking time bomb. If ever there was a time that this House had to urge the Government to give the Groceries Code Adjudicator the teeth it needs to sort this mess out, it is now. If we think there is difficulty in the market today, I can assure this Chamber that in less than 12 months’ time we will not be in a situation where we have a reduction in eggs available for sale to consumers—we will be lucky if we have any eggs on the shelves at all.
Before my hon. Friend concludes what is, as ever, a brilliant speech, I want to say that this does not just apply to eggs. The Groceries Code Adjudicator needs to intervene in respect of horticulture, cereals, livestock and a whole range of things in respect of which supermarkets are, as I said earlier, distorting the food chain. Will my hon. Friend ask this brilliant Minister —there is no one better in the House to do this—to use the powers that the Government already have to act in favour of farmers and growers?
Yes, I will. The Minister has heard that request.
Finally, the NFU has called for a DEFRA investigation into the egg supply chain. The NFU is a bit late with that call, but I think it is right. I hope the Minister will take that on board. My right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes makes a very fair point: this is not just about eggs. Milk was 49p a pint maybe 18 months ago; it has gone up now to more than £1 a pint in most shops. Ask our dairy farmers if they have received that difference—no, they have not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I applaud my hon. Friend Simon Jupp for securing this important debate.
It was not that long ago that throughout the House we were celebrating the Back British Farming campaign. I am conscious that I am probably one of the few people present who does not have a farming background or a link to farming, but as Members know the industry employs more than 4 million people and is worth around £120 billion to the national economy. In South West Hertfordshire, about 65% of our land use is for agriculture.
As someone who does not have many years of farming experience—definitely not as many as my right hon. Friend the Minister—I have proactively spent several months learning a lot more about the industry. Back in June, I held a roundtable in conjunction with the NFU, and I think that a lot of the issues raised then are common throughout the country. They included rising costs, especially for fertiliser; the VAT threshold for those who decide to have farm shops; and rural crime, especially the theft of tools and caravans and the police response. I am lucky that in Hertfordshire we have as our police and crime commissioner David Lloyd, who is very proactive on that.
In a follow-up meeting with farmers in August, I went to the P. E. Mead farm, where they farm more than 800 acres. Although it does not feel warm today, a key issue then was heatwaves and how the changing weather patterns will influence farming in the future. I am conscious that although the Minister is an excellent farmer in his own right, he may not necessarily have the answers, but I wish to put on his radar such important issues from across the industry. Where appropriate, we need to think about how the Government can best support farmers to deal with them.
One of the other things that I did during the recess was work experience: I spent a day with farmers at the PE Mead farm so that I could fully appreciate the trials and tribulations of farmers. As mentioned earlier, mental health is a really massive issue. The Office for National Statistics figures from back in 2015 suggested that suicide rates for male farmers were three times higher than the national average. That cannot be right. We need to think about what more we can do to support this vital industry. Unfortunately, we have seen with the war in Ukraine that food security will continue to be a massive issue. Although there is pressure for the development or change of land usage, my worry is that we are losing a skillset that is really important. Once it is lost, it is lost forever.
I have a personal plea to the Minister on education. One of the few pieces of casework that I have been really successful on is in respect of school catchment areas. I had the case of a young child whose parents were famers and had to live on the farm, but because of the farm’s location they were outside the catchment area for the school that the child wanted to go to. To me, that feels like penalising a family and their children for doing the right thing and ensuring that we have continued food security. I would be grateful if the Minister could take that point away and speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education about how we can ensure that when someone is involved in critical infrastructure related to things such as food production, they have the ability to make appeals about education catchment areas and have their situation considered.
I shall finish there because I am sure that my learned colleague, my hon. Friend Dr Hudson, has more to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Jupp on securing this important debate.
I am proud to represent a large rural constituency, as a constituency MP and as a Member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. My constituency has a huge farming footprint. Our farmers in Cumbria and across the UK produce food to the highest standards with the highest animal welfare standards, and we should be very proud of that fact. I pay tribute to all farmers in Penrith and The Border and across the UK for all that they do. We must remember that during the pandemic farmers were classified as key workers, and they should be classified as key workers in the future.
The cost of living, which we have heard a lot about today, is really affecting the input costs for farmers. They are not immune to such costs, which include fertiliser, animal feed, fuel and energy. The Government support in recent months—such as the energy schemes, the bringing forward of the basic payment scheme payments, the new slurry grants and the fertiliser rule changes—has been very welcome and much needed, but I stress to the Minister that the Government need to continue to provide the support that farmers need during this crisis.
We have been supporting farmers through these challenging times, and as the funding systems change it is so important that we help farmers through those changes. I have seen at first hand in Cumbria how the new environmental land management schemes can work really well for local communities, and the farming in protected landscapes scheme is very welcome in Cumbria. This issue has been a big focus of the EFRA Committee. The current situation makes it even more crucial that the payments under such schemes are set at a fair and sufficient level and are a proper reward for producing the public goods that communities rely on. It is important—our Committee has been pushing the Government hard on this—that we support all types of farmers, including tenant farmers, commoners and upland farmers.
From talking to farmers in my constituency and across Cumbria, I know that there has been a lot of anxiety during this time. I have hosted regular roadshows with them, and I visit livestock markets regularly. I have triggered an EFRA Committee inquiry on the ELMS transition period. Sadly, I think some of that anxiety and negativity is being fuelled by people briefing against the payment system and misleading people on the levels of uptake.
I was pleased to question the Minister and Janet Hughes, the senior DEFRA official involved, at the EFRA Committee meeting last week. There is a 30% uptake of the environmental schemes, both existing and new. The uptake on the new sustainable farming incentive is not as high as that because it started only this summer. I would welcome the Minister reaffirming the point that we want to encourage people to enrol in those schemes and then inform them so the schemes can be improved. It would be welcome if the Minister said we were looking into levels of payment to help farmers through this period.
We have heard a lot about food security in this debate. The issue came into sharp relief in the pandemic and has been highlighted again by the war in Ukraine. Bolstering our food security is a prime priority for the Government. The EFRA Committee has been looking at this—we are in the middle of a food security inquiry—and has heard about supplies of fertiliser to the United Kingdom. We have two plants in the UK: the one in Ince has been mothballed and the other in Billingham has ceased ammonia production. That is critical infrastructure for our country, and I urge the Government to keep watching that. We must also remember that a by-product of fertiliser production is CO2, which is much needed by the food and beverage industry. It is also needed in the slaughter process for poultry and pigs, so there is an animal health and welfare implication. We need to secure that supply as well.
On animal health and welfare, I declare an interest as a veterinary surgeon. To support British farming, we need to have healthy animals. I welcome the Government’s progress in that area. The new animal health and welfare pathway scheme, as part of the new ELMS, is very welcome, formalising the partnership between vets and farmers. But more can be done, such as responding to the calls for investing in animal health infrastructure—we heard Dan Jarvis make that point.
As a member of the EFRA Committee, I guested on the Public Accounts Committee for the inquiry on the situation at the Animal and Plant Health Agency headquarters in Weybridge. It needs a radical and drastic refurbishment, and I urge the Government to make that a key priority. I have seen this at first hand: I came into politics on the back of my experiences in the foot and mouth crisis, and I witnessed things that I never want to see again in my lifetime. The APHA needs to be funded. The Weybridge site is pivotal in our attack and defence against infectious disease. We see that critically now with the avian influenza crisis. I pay tribute to the vets, officials and farmers on the frontline in that horrendous crisis. Funding that infrastructure is so important; this is about animals and people. We have to remember that diseases can transfer from animals to people. That work looks at public health and antimicrobial resistance.
We have heard a lot about rural mental health; the impact of infectious diseases and outbreaks have a massive impact on our rural communities. I urge the Government to look at that.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to our farmers. It is possible to produce food and look after the environment at the same time. We produce food to the highest animal welfare standards. As a Government, we must keep our arms around our farmers and ensure we support them moving forward.
Thank you, Sir Gary; I will ensure that trend is kept to. I congratulate Simon Jupp on securing a thoughtful and fascinating debate. The conclusion of all this is that British farmers still need support, and what they have received thus far is not sufficient to ensure that we have good farming practice.
I feel like a veteran at some of these debates. I have only been doing this job for the past few weeks, but the same themes seem to come up. Quite rightly, there is a tension between food production and biodiversity, and there are issues about the costs of supermarkets and concerns about food security and poor mental health among the farming community.
There were a couple of things that did not come up. One that I want to mention, which only Dr Hudson brought up, is the concerns about ELMS payments. I thought that would be a focus of much of today’s debate, but until the hon. Member rose, there was no mention of it all. I am sure the Minister is more than aware of the some of the concerns and anxieties about ELMS. Farmers are saying clearly that they need to know what will happen, so that they can plan their businesses and know whether they will have a viable future, so I was quite surprised that that was not brought up.
I am absolutely not surprised at all that the other huge issue that did not come up—the one that probably has the most impact on agriculture and farming across the whole of Britain and UK—was Brexit. I am not surprised that Conservative Members do not bring it up, because they would have to acknowledge that the past few years have not been their greatest. Brexit has had such a negative impact on everything to do with agriculture, food security, the wellbeing of rural communities and exports—with everything to do with food and drink. We know that things are bad. We only need to listen to the former Secretary of State, George Eustice, when he lamented the poor deal that was struck with Australia and said—this was testament to his powers of understatement—that it was “not…very good”.
That deal was more than not very good; it was a disaster for sheep and cattle producers, and for beef and lamb exports. The one-sided nature of the deal struck with Australia has allowed cheap imports to come flooding into this country and given nothing in return for the hard work of British farmers up and down the countryside. I am not surprised that Conservative Members do not mention Brexit, because if I was them, I would stay well away from it too, because it has been a singular disaster for our friends.
We heard a lot about animals, which quite surprised me. I always like a debate about animals. My constituency in Perthshire was one of the first to secure the introduction of beavers. I know that there is some despondency and negativity around this—I hear a lot of that from farmers, who are impacted quite severely—but there are also benefits to attractions. I represent the biggest river tributary system in the whole of the UK, in the Tay river and its tributaries, and some of the positive environmental outcomes of beavers are there to be seen. There is almost a small tourist industry set up around them, so that people can walk round and see some of the work of the beavers, so while there are issues and management is of course necessary, it is not all doom and gloom.
I heard the profound words of the hon. Member for East Devon —“You can’t eat trees”—but tell that to the beavers, the bears, the giraffes and the many insects that feast upon our woodlands on a daily basis, if not every minute of the day. Let us not be so negative and despondent about some of the reintroductions of wildlife, because this will be ongoing. There are proposals and plans for further introductions. The sea eagle in Scotland has been a great reintroduction. I know that there are issues—it all comes down to the tension between the introduction of wildlife and the management of land—but we have seen positive impacts, particularly through tourism and people coming to watch this magnificent bird flying the skies once again over Scotland, so let us not have all this doom and gloom when it comes to reintroductions.
I listened to the message from Chris Loder about eggs, and he is right. The crisis in egg production did not start with avian flu; it has been ongoing for years, although it is most definitely exacerbated by avian flu. I know that we will have a debate next week, when we will probably all be back together again, including the Minister—I always enjoy our little get-togethers—and discussing this more at length, but avian flu has had a massive impact, and not just on the turkey and farmed poultry sector, but on eggs. I think it is the NFU that is now calling—and it is right to do so—for an urgent investigation into making an exceptional market conditions declaration under the Agriculture Act 2020, given the severe disruption to egg production that UK consumers are experiencing. I hope that is listened to very carefully.
But I will say one thing: we are different in Scotland. We are not run by DEFRA—for which we can give perhaps something of a sigh of a relief when it comes to these things. We are responsible for all the rural decisions that we make. We are responsible for Scottish agriculture, and it us who will make those decisions, which will be the right ones for the farmers and agriculture communities that we represent. Scotland has taken a different approach. We have not taken the three-pronged ELMS approach, which has been a feature of the Agriculture Act.
As Mr Carmichael said, we are currently consulting on our new piece of agricultural legislation. One thing, among a couple of others, to come out of that consultation so far is a decision to continue with a single payment that will match EU funding up to at least 2025. We have looked at the three prongs of the Agriculture Act and we feel that it is not the way to go. Indeed, we find that there are difficulties associated with much of that. We will do that differently. We will have food production at the core of how we take this forward. NFU Scotland came to the Scottish Parliament last week to tell us very clearly that this is what it wants to see when we design the new legislation. We listened very carefully, and I hope we will be able to satisfy NFU Scotland that a commitment to food production will be at the very heart of the legislation that we bring forward.
We have our own system of grants and support that we are putting forward in Scotland, and we are able to do that. I hope that will be recognised as we go forward.
I do not have time, I am sorry.
The last theme I want to mention comes up very often in these debates and that is the shortage of labour. I am sorry to Conservative colleagues, but this is another consequence of their Brexit. I think they know that. They are not prepared to accept it and say that this is a difficult issue because of it, but ending freedom of movement with Brexit has probably been the biggest single disaster that we have visited on rural communities.
I represent a huge rural constituency. I have got strath, fantastic agriculture farming, hill farming and many hospitality businesses. Every single one of them has told me that they cannot get the labour they require because we have ended freedom of movement. What has happened is that people they had who were stalwarts of their sector and businesses have left, and there is nothing there to replace it. In the Scottish Parliament, we want to establish a new rural immigration pilot.
One of the discussions we have had today is about the independence of Scotland. We cannot do this pilot, and we are so frustrated we cannot do this because we are bound by decisions taken in the Home Office, which we have very little influence over. We need to do something. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme has helped, but it is insufficient. We need more people to come across here. It is not just the seasonal staff, it is the permanent staff we have in the agriculture business, such as vets and people who work in abattoirs. All of them are suffering because they cannot get the appropriate labour. I am pleased that we are only partly impacted by decisions that are taken by DEFRA, but we are heavily impacted by decisions taken by the Home Office and some of the arrangements that were put forward around Brexit.
We will continue to work on our agriculture Bill, and maybe when we come back to discuss these issues in the future we will be able to detail more about how we are approaching this, the difference we are hoping to make and how we are hoping to serve Scottish farmers.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I congratulate Simon Jupp for securing this debate. We had many positive contributions from across the floor. They echo many of the points that have been made from Labour Benches over the last few years, whether that be on labour supply, trade deals or the importance of food production. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis on echoing Labour’s cry to make, buy and sell more in Britain, and milk from the Hills will certainly be part of that. I congratulate Richard Drax on convening his farmers groups. I wish him luck with the Minister. Should he be unlucky, I am very happy to oblige whenever he requires.
I will come to the future later, but let us start with the present. What are we seeing, and where is the support for British farming? Frankly, farming is hurting at the moment. There may be good prices for some, but there is still no respite, particularly for those in the pig sector. It is a very grim time for poultry farmers. Avian flu is horrible, and we know the APHA is struggling. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central and Dr Hudson, I am afraid that last week the Secretary of State ducked my question of what happens if we get another disease outbreak. Crossing fingers and hoping it does not happen does not constitute a plan.
We should not allow avian flu to be a cover for the longer term problems egg producers have been highlighting for many months. Back in the spring, egg producers warned retailers that costs were running ahead of prices. At the egg and poultry fair, retailers failed to show up. They were replaced with cardboard cut-outs. It is a failure in the food system. What have the Government done? Nothing. The Agriculture Act was supposed to produce action on supply chain fairness, but all we have had is consultations and no outcomes.
I ask the Minister once again: where is the dairy code? Where is the pork supply chain code? Can he confirm that the daft proposal to move the Grocery Code Adjudicator into the Competition and Markets Authority is dead? Or is that yet another thing that the “Department for Running Away From Any Problem”—DEFRA as it was formerly known—does not know the answer to? At first I thought the points Chris Loder made about the GCA were slightly unfair, but he pointed out that it does not have the powers it needs, exactly as we argued during the passage of the Agriculture Act.
“overall, the truth of the matter is that the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return…We did not need to give Australia or New Zealand full liberalisation in beef and sheep—it was not in our economic interest to do so, and neither Australia nor New Zealand had anything to offer”—[Official Report,
I admire his candour. I just wish he had listened to the many organisations, including the Opposition, that made exactly the same points at the time, not many months after the Conservatives sold out British farming. No wonder so many are so furious; they are right to be.
There are more made in Britain—or rather made in Marsham Street—gaffes that are undermining British farming. Look at the meat export sector. I was at Lancaster auction mart last week to see the sheep auctions and to hear from farmers at first hand about the problems they face. There are not just high input costs, fertiliser costs and labour shortages, as if they were not enough. The latest is the gold-plating of rules for export into Europe. If that is not resolved by
How do the growers feel about the support they are getting? The NFU published a report this week showing that many are walking away from contracts and cutting production by as much as 20%. They cite a whole range of extra costs, including fertiliser, wages, packaging and transport, but the killer is energy. Farmers in competitor countries have support from their Governments, but here there is no certainty beyond a few months. The Minister knows full well that farming is a long-term businesses in which decisions about whether to plant are made many months ahead. Without certainty, the only sensible decision for too many will be not to plant. The end result is that this country will be less secure and will depend more on imports, almost certainly produced to lower standards, just as we warned during the passage of the Agriculture Act.
I could give many more examples, but let me conclude by looking briefly at future prospects. To replace basic payments under the common agriculture policy, a new system was introduced under the Agriculture Act. The intellectual case for moving away from direct support was couched in terms of public money for public goods, and we agreed with the broad principle, but we argued then—we believe we have been vindicated by subsequent events—that food security is a public good. I was delighted to hear Derek Thomas endorse that point.
Frankly, it was never clear whether the Government believed that a volatile and vital sector such as food production requires direct Government support or just indirect support through environmental schemes. The problem now is that they seem to be achieving neither. The ELMS saga has played out in public view over recent months. The headlines in last week’s Farmers Guardian screamed out: “ELM uproar” and “New Ministers tear up scheme plans”. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what is going on. Perhaps the Minister can also tell us why Parliament is always the last place to be told. Is it true that there will be an announcement on
Informed sources—I include the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border in that—tell me that the changes may not be as dramatic as the headlines suggest, but perhaps the Minister can clarify that. Is tier 2 ELMS being replaced by countryside stewardship? If so, is that the genuine nature recovery network system promised in the Environment Act 2021? If not, how is it supposed to work? What is happening with tier 3—the landscape recovery part of ELMS? Has it been postponed, scrapped or scaled down? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
Replacing more than 80,000 schemes under basic payments with just a couple of thousand so far under the sustainable farming incentive leaves a whopping almost £1 billion hole in the rural economy. To some extent, I echo what the hon. Member for South Dorset said. Frankly, is that what the Conservatives mean by supporting British farming? I wonder.
What assessment has been made of the impact of all this? Does the Minister know? I have asked him before and I ask him again: what assessment has his Department made of the economic impact so far on the rural economy? What assessment has been made of the environmental impact? I do not think we will get an answer because I know the answer: none and none.
Under this Government, support for farmers and the rural economy is haemorrhaging. The failures of this Government make them a threat to our farmers, undermine our food security and, despite the heroic efforts of the staff in the agencies, are leaving us dangerously exposed in the event of further animal disease outbreaks. Our farmers deserve support. They are not getting it at the moment, but they will with a Labour Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and pay tribute to my hon. Friend Simon Jupp for securing the debate. I was going to start by saying that we have seen the Chamber at its best today: we have seen a huge amount of celebration of and positivity about UK agriculture. I am sorry that the speech made by Daniel Zeichner soured that mood, to be honest.
The truth is that if the hon. Gentleman looks around him, he will see how many members of the Labour party are here to provide support, and how many members of the Conservative party are here. Seeing how many Conservative Back Benchers have come to take part in this very important debate demonstrates how important rural communities are to the Conservative party and to this Government.
I will respond to the hon. Gentleman later; I will start by commenting on the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon. He talked about how the new schemes are going to change the way in which we farm. This will be an exciting moment in UK agriculture: we will move in a direction where we can balance growing food—food security is a very important part of our agricultural production and our supply chains, and it will continue to be so going forward—with improving our environment and our biodiversity.
The good news is that UK farmers are very much up for that fight. They want to get involved in it, and are very proud of the landscapes they have created. I think it was my hon. Friend Derek Thomas who made reference to people criticising farmers and saying that they are the problem. He hit the nail on the head: farmers are part of the solution. The beautiful rolling landscapes that we see in Cumbria and in Devon are not there by accident, but because farmers have created those landscapes through the way in which they have produced food for generation after generation. The beautiful stone walls in North Yorkshire are not there for decoration, but to keep sheep in. We need to recognise that and celebrate it, and help and support our farmers through this process, because they are up for the fight.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon went on to talk about trade Bills. I would put a much more positive spin on this than the hon. Member for Cambridge.
The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend George Eustice, was a very good Secretary of State. He fought tooth and nail on behalf of UK farmers during those debates, and secured a number of concessions from the Government on that journey. What we have been left with is a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand that has brought those countries closer to us and allowed us to co-operate and work with them, which will give us huge opportunities in future. There are massive markets around the world in Asia and North America where we can sell top-quality UK beef and lamb, working with Australia and New Zealand—which have the opposite seasonal activity to us—to supply those markets. Bringing them closer through those trade deals is the first step on that journey, and I am very proud of what UK farmers produce. We should celebrate that and make the most of it in trying to exploit those markets moving forward.
Turning to Dan Jarvis, I am delighted that his son is going to agricultural college—did he say Askham Bryan? I think he just said that it was a college in North Yorkshire, but I hope it is Askham Bryan, which I know is a very good college. If there was ever a moment when we needed bright young people to come into our sector—the next generation to take us forward—this is it, and I celebrate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has family getting involved in the sector. We should do all we can to encourage that. One of the first meetings I had when I took over as Minister was with the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs, looking at some of the work it is doing to encourage young people into the sector. It is also very in tune with some of the mental health challenges that young people and farmers in rural communities are facing. Anything I can do in this job to help it on that journey, I will do.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central also talked about biosecurity, which is very important when it comes to dealing with avian influenza: anything we can do to increase the biosecurity of some of our professional poultry units is to be welcomed. He went on to talk about African swine fever, which is a challenge that is spreading across Europe. That is why on
There has been a lot of talk about seasonal workers; clearly, I am not in a position to announce those figures, but we are in close discussions with our friends in the Home Office and hope to give clarity on that issue as soon as possible. That neatly takes me to the former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Priti Patel. She started with a series of massive plugs for her constituency and the great food producers of Essex, including Tiptree, which I do recognise as one of the premium jam producers in the world, not just the country. She went on to talk about avian influenza. It is fair to say that Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk have been at the epicentre of that disaster. My heart goes out to those poor farmers who have found themselves victims of that terrible virus. The good news, from a national point of view, is that we have robust supply chains in place. There will be turkeys for Christmas. There are some challenges in the goose market, but the chicken market is also fine.
Mr Carmichael, who always attends these debates, is a great advocate for his farmers and fishermen. He was the first to raise the Grocery Code Adjudicator, along with my hon. Friend Chris Loder, who mentioned the adjudicator a number of times. It is important to understand what the Grocery Code Adjudicator can and cannot do. Their role is to ensure that contracts that are entered into are adhered to appropriately and not violated.
If an egg producer has signed a contract at X per dozen eggs, the supermarket has the right to expect the producer to stand by that price. The producer could procure and secure the feed supply for the same period as the life expectancy of a laying hen, which is about 14 months. The producer could sign the contract for X amount per dozen, secure the price per tonne of feed and therefore protect the margin. The price of feed has gone up exponentially and farmers have reached the point where they must make a decision on whether to enter into a new contract for a new price or at the same price. About a year ago, many of them voted with their feet and said that they were not willing to sign up to that level of contract. The retailers made a mistake when they did not to see the huge challenge coming in the egg-supply market, and we are now seeing that.
What is the role of the Government? It is to encourage conversations between retailers, primary producers and wholesalers on a regular, monthly basis. The Secretary of State and I meet the farming unions, the hospitality sector, retailers and the processing sector to ensure that those conversations take place. I hope that that will continue to bear fruit, but I acknowledge there are challenges in the sector that are not linked to avian influenza.
My hon. Friend Richard Drax has been a great advocate for farming for a long time. He was one of those who celebrated my elevation to this position. So many people celebrated my arrival at the Dispatch Box, I felt like Ronaldo must have felt when he joined Man U and all the fans celebrated. I reflect on how that worked out in the end—let’s see how that goes.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset talked about grant funding, and he will have seen today that we have announced some grant funding to help farmers improve slurry systems. We are very much committed to supporting farmers with capital expenditure to allow them to invest in new tech, especially if that will benefit animal welfare and the involvement of modern practices and technology in food production.
My hon. Friend went on to talk about bovine TB, of course. There is probably not enough time for me to get into that subject today, but what I will say is that we must use every tool in the box to fight bovine TB. That includes vaccinating badgers, it includes ensuring that we have improved biosecurity and it includes culling badgers where that is essential. We should be guided by the science and not by anything else—not by the calendar and not by political lobbying, but by the science. That is what the Government will do.
I think that, for the first time, Jim Shannon managed to get to the right of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset when he committed to shooting every fox in Northern Ireland. I wish him well in his pursuit—[Interruption.] I know it was tongue in cheek. He is a huge advocate for the farmers of Northern Ireland, and they are great food producers. He also mentioned the price of fertiliser and the challenges with fertiliser, as did my hon. Friend Dr Hudson, who talked about CF Fertilisers. Yesterday I met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to see what we can do to co-operate and work together to assist CF in ensuring that we continue to supply the nation with ammonium nitrate, nitric acid and carbon dioxide, which of course is very important.
I know that I am running out of time, but I want to make a couple of comments about my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, who talked about potato and dairy farmers leaving the sector and the importance of education. Education of our consumers is one area where we could criticise the agricultural sector. I do not think that we have done a very good job as farmers—I put my hand up as one of those farmers—of ensuring that our consumers understand how and where our food is produced. We have to do better to ensure that the next generation fully understands where and how our food is produced. Education was also mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Mohindra.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border talked about grant schemes, which I hope I have mentioned. He also mentioned the work of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Sir Robert Goodwill. It continues to be a great critical friend of the Department, and I would encourage it to continue its great work.
My hon. Friend for Penrith and The Border also talked about the reward for—that is, payments for—hedgerows and so on. I hope that when we announce the new schemes, which I hope will be very soon, he will see the fruits of those discussions. I am very keen to ensure that farmers want to take part in the schemes and feel part of the solution. But money is not the only barrier. I think that we can help, assist with, and tweak some farming practices. Hedgerows are a good example. It is not just about money; it is about being able to get on to the land and cut the hedges at the right time. If we can fund and assist with wildlife strips by the side of the hedgerows, it is possible to cut a hedgerow in January and February without running on to the commercial crop. That has the added benefit of creating a wildlife corridor and leaving berries and so on the hedgerows for wild birds to feed on during that time.
I think I have run out of time—apart from for mentioning Pete Wishart, who gave us his rant about Brexit once again. We will have to come back to that on another occasion, but I enjoy the same loop of conversation we have with him every time.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I thank everyone who took part in the debate to demonstrate our support for the British farming industry. If I may, I will highlight a couple of people who made remarkable remarks. Dan Jarvis mentioned mental health. That is an increasingly big problem in the farming sector. My right hon. Friend Priti Patel mentioned supermarkets’ pricing structures. They have had their jam; it is time that farmers had some, too.
My hon. Friend Richard Drax mentioned uncertainties over subsidies and also made a plea to continue the badger cull—a message well heard in the west country. Jim Shannon, who is not a fan of foxes, made a number of good points about agriculture in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend Chris Loder made excellent points about the Groceries Code Adjudicator, on which I have been informed this afternoon. My hon. Friend Mr Mohindra told us about his experience of working on a farm—I am sure it was udderly brilliant. My hon. Friend Dr Hudson talked about food security, and rightly so. I highlighted that issue in my speech. And finally, Pete Wishart seems to disagree with the referendum result—’twas ever thus, Sir Gary.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered support for British farming.