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Food and Farming Sector

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015

6. What plans she has to increase the productivity, competitiveness and resilience of the UK food and farming sector. (900411)

7. What plans she has to increase the productivity, competitiveness and resilience of the UK food and farming sector. (900412)

8. What plans she has to increase the productivity, competitiveness and resilience of the UK food and farming sector. (900413)

British food and farming is worth more than £100 billion a year to our economy and employs one in eight workers in Great Britain. That is why the Government are committed to working with industry to develop a long-term plan to buy more, sell more and grow more British food. The plan will set out how British food and farming can become a world leader that is innovative, competitive, profitable and resilient, and we will work on that in the months ahead.

I draw Members’ attention to my declaration of interest.

Population growth predictions estimate that we will need to produce 60% more food by 2050, but British crop yields have plateaued over recent years and the agrichemical toolbox available to farmers has been ever reducing. Will the Minister look seriously at offering more support for research and innovation that is focused on increasing yields and on the production challenges that farmers face today?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Following large growth immediately after the war, yields have plateaued in recent decades. DEFRA is spending about £1.75 million a year on research into crops, and our research councils, through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, have a number of programmes in this area. In particular, Rothamsted has a major programme called “20:20 Wheat”, which aims to get yields of wheat to 20 tonnes per hectare in the next 20 years.

This week a dairy farm in my constituency closed its gates for the last time. That follows a 55% reduction in the number of dairy farms in the UK since 1998. What can the Minister say to support British dairy farming?

My hon. Friend highlights a real problem with dairy at the moment. We have had a very difficult year, following a very good year last year. The long-term prospects for the industry are good: demand is growing by about 2% a year, and the Government are making it easier for farmers to average their tax, working with the National Farmers Union to develop futures markets to help farmers manage volatility, and making available investment—through the rural development programme—to help farmers improve their competitiveness.

The number of young people entering the UK food and farming sector is encouraging. What assurances can the Minister give that young people can access the skills they need to ensure that the sector has a secure future in areas such as west Cornwall and my hon. Friend’s constituency?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have Duchy College in my constituency, and many of his constituents attend it. He makes an important point: we want to treble the number of apprenticeships in food and farming and to encourage more young people to choose farming as a career. We are working with organisations such as Bright Crop to get ambassadors to go into schools to help teenagers to choose the right subjects so that they can take up careers in farming. That area will be a major part of our food and farming strategy.

18. Does the Department have a contingency plan to support British agriculture and protect the British food industry’s market access in the event of our leaving the European Union and the common agricultural policy? If so, will the Minister publish it? (900424)

No, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government want to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union, and then we intend to campaign to stay in. The CAP is not perfect, and during the course of this Parliament we will push for a mid-term review. We will also argue for longer term reform so that the CAP serves farmers and consumers more effectively.

Farmers in my constituency, a mere 10 miles from Manchester city centre, are still seeing the productivity and competitiveness of their businesses inhibited by the lack of superfast broadband. What discussions is the Minister having with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to expedite the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas?

The Secretary of State had a meeting yesterday on that very issue. Broadband Delivery UK has made available some £750 million to roll out superfast broadband in our most rural areas, as well as funds to pilot new technologies in the hardest to reach areas. We recognise that this is an important issue, and the Government will focus much of their energies on it.

The Government have withheld from Scotland the vast majority of a €230 million pillar one allocation of EU uplift money. The UK qualified for that money only because of Scotland’s low payments. Can the Minister explain why, against the clearly expressed will of the Scottish Government and all political parties in the Scottish Parliament, the Government intend to deprive Scottish farming communities of most of that money?

The allocations that we have made are based on land types, and historically Scotland has tended to have less per hectare because its land was less intensively farmed, but it actually receives more per farm holding than any other part of the UK. We have made it clear that we will have a mid-term review of that issue, which will include comparisons of land types in every part of the UK.