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Farming Businesses: Resilience

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 7 July 2016

We have put in place a range of measures to support our farmers and help build their resilience. Government investment in flood defence improvements will provide better protection for 1 million acres of agricultural land. We are investing in innovation, skills and capital items to boost the sector’s resilience, and we are working to introduce a dairy futures market to help farmers manage price volatility.

Volatility in global markets and weather conditions often dramatically affects farmers’ incomes year on year, sometimes by up to 30%. What steps are the Government taking to help farmers manage that risk?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and we have acted to deal with that problem. From April this year the Government extended tax averaging for farmers to five years, up from the previous two years, so that they can better offset good years against bad years. In addition, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a number of schemes, such as the time to pay scheme, which means that it shows forbearance to farmers who are suffering cash-flow difficulties.

Eleven years ago this morning, terrorist attacks were unleashed on our city. We pay our respects today.

As an environmentalist, someone who campaigned in the aftermath of the floods, and a lover of the great outdoors, I am proud to represent Labour as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Many farming businesses depend on trade with the EU. Following the outcome of the referendum, the resilience of farming will be keenly tested. What immediate steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that trade relations with EU partners will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future?

I welcome the hon. Lady and her colleagues to the Front Bench of this diverse Department, and I associate myself with her comments about the terrorist attacks.

Following the decision to leave the European Union, we are holding a number of meetings with officials to plan for our next steps on trade—indeed, we will have a meeting today to hold such discussions. It will be a matter for a new Prime Minister and the Cabinet that they put in place, but early thinking and planning work is going on across the Government.

I am concerned that resilience was not planned for by the Minister in advance of the EU referendum. Trade and regulations for our food and farming industry are linked to the EU more than in any other sector, yet the Government’s cuts to DEFRA up to 2020 will total a 57%—yes, 57%—reduction in its budget. In the light of that, will the Minister explain how his Department will have capacity to analyse the impact of the EU referendum, build resilience, and negotiate the way forward?

For the time being we remain in the European Union, and all existing arrangements continue. Only once we have concluded negotiations and left the European Union will we put future measures in place. On capacity in the civil service, some areas and some EU dossiers have a long-term horizon with which we will perhaps be less engaged and involved, and that will free up capacity for some of the planning work that we need for our own domestic policy.

I record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) for providing us with a taste of Colchester yesterday. One of his constituency’s soft fruit farmers emphasised his concern about his resilience, and his dependence on EU migrant labour. Are plans in place to ensure that farmers are supported should migrant labour be reduced?

As my right hon. Friend will know, I have worked in the soft fruit industry, and I am familiar with the challenges that certain agricultural sectors face with seasonal labour. Ultimately, the decision that she refers to will be for a new Prime Minister, the Cabinet they choose, and the negotiations that they seek. In recent years we have had models such as seasonal agricultural worker schemes, and there are ways to ensure that the required labour is available.

I tabled five written questions in the past week asking what assessment had been made of the impact of Brexit on a range of DEFRA-related areas, from air pollution to waste, water, rural payments, fisheries, food standards and food safety. I got one answer back that basically said that everything remains in place and the negotiations are up to the future Prime Minister, which to me shows a shocking degree of complacency. DEFRA, almost more than any other Department, will be affected by Brexit, and I am not reassured by what I have heard this morning that that work has started.

I disagree with the hon. Lady. The Government put forward an assessment of the potential impacts of leaving the European Union, which was hotly debated during the referendum. Ultimately, the British public made an assessment of what they wanted to do, and the assessment is that they want to leave the EU. The job of the Government now is to implement that decision.