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House of Commons Hansard
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17 March 2016
Volume 607
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4. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on farmers of the UK leaving the EU. [904154]

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9. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on farmers of the UK leaving the EU. [904161]

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I believe that farmers are better off remaining in a reformed EU. The vast majority of our exports are to the EU—for example, 97% of lamb exports and 92% of beef exports. As part of the single market, we do not face the tariffs and barriers that we face in trying to export to other countries. That is vital for the health of our farming industry.

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This week, European Commissioner Hogan announced a new package of measures to support the UK farming sector. Following that, UK farming union presidents have called on DEFRA, devolved Governments and the European Commission to work together on this new support package. Can the Secretary of State assure me that these trilateral talks will go ahead without any impact from the EU referendum campaign?

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Absolutely. I was at the European Council on Monday, making the case for UK farmers. I want to see investment from the European Investment Bank helping our farmers to increase productivity, particularly in areas such as dairy in producing more products like cheese and butter to be able to add value to our industry.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the EU is an invaluable support, both financially and socially, to rural communities across the UK, and that we absolutely need a resounding in vote in the referendum? If so, will she urge her farming Minister, the Minister of State, to listen to her, to the Prime Minister and to farmers themselves to ensure that our farmers do not bear the cost of internal Tory party feuds on 23 June?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that rural communities depend on food and farming, which face much more export barriers than other sectors. For example, we have been trying for 20 years to get UK beef into the US, and we are still trying to get poultry exported to China. We have on our doorstep access to a single market of 500 million people for our fantastic UK products. I think we need to build on that, rather than leave the European Union. No single country has full access for agricultural products without being a full member of the EU.

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The Secretary of State is quite right in saying that, after BSE in 1996, British beef went back into France and across Europe in 1999 because of single market rules. Twenty years on, we still cannot get it into America or China, so where are all the great markets going to be if we shut ourselves off from the EU market?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If we look at the UK lamb industry, we will see that 40% of all the lamb produced by British farmers goes to the EU. That supports not just the farmers but our rural landscape and countryside. The fact is that no single country that is not a full member of the EU has tariff-free, hassle-free access to that market. Norway has to pay tariffs and pay into the EU, and Switzerland has to pay tariffs. Canada has quotas and tariffs on agricultural products. We should not take that relationship for granted.

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One EU regulation that my sheep farmers complain to me about is the need for carcase splitting, which adds time and hassle, especially as farmers search for incisors poking through gums. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the Government’s efforts to simplify that cumbersome regulation?

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We are making progress. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for farming, has recently had a meeting on the issue. We need common standards across Europe to make sure that we can freely trade with those other countries. As I have just said, that is particularly important for the sheep sector, 40% of whose products are exported to the EU.

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Even with the EU common agricultural policy payments, farmers are currently struggling because of supply chain issues and low commodity prices, and yesterday’s Budget offered them little help. As the National Farmers Union has pointed out, the

“continued focus on reducing corporation tax does nothing to help the 90% of UK farm businesses who are unincorporated”.

Will the Secretary of State meet the Chancellor to highlight those issues and the need for a fairer tax regime that treats incorporated and unincorporated businesses equally?

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This April, farmers will be able to average their tax over five years, enabling them to deal with the volatile prices they currently face. We have also improved the capital allowances regime for farmers and farm businesses. We are not complacent: we continue to work in areas such as public procurement, with our Great British Food campaign, to make sure that we sell more British food here and overseas.

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I share the Secretary of State’s views on the benefits of remaining in the EU for our farmers, the environment and the wider public good. However, why do we so often hear reports of the UK playing a negative role behind the scenes in EU negotiations, including opposing action on neonics and waste targets, and watering down important laws? If we vote to remain—and I hope we do—can we look forward to the UK playing a more positive role in Europe, starting with showing some real leadership on the environment and CAP reform?

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I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to remain in a reformed EU, but I do not agree that the UK has played a negative role. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has recently led on the international wildlife trade, getting agreement across the EU to help to combat terrible trade in those endangered species. The former Environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), showed leadership on the common fisheries policy by stopping the throwing of perfectly healthy fish back into the sea. We are leading on CAP reform: only this Monday I presented to the European Council a paper streamlining audit requirements, on which we were supported by 17 other member states. We are constantly making progress. We are working to simplify the CAP, and changes have been made to it. Thirty or 40 years ago, there were wine lakes and butter mountains, but they no longer exist.