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Hill Farmers

Volume 619: debated on Thursday 19 January 2017

3. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on hill farmers of the UK leaving the common agricultural policy. (908254)

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

Hill farmers play a critical role not just in producing high-quality food, but in delivering environmental benefits for all the public in our beautiful landscapes. Leaving the EU gives us a great opportunity to look again at their contribution to delivering our very clear twin ambitions to have both a world-leading food and farming industry and, at the same time, a better environment for future generations.

I am grateful for that response from the Secretary of State. Of course, paying for environmental goods will only work as a strategy if the hill farms are financially viable. She knows that some of them are earning £14,000 a year, so income support mechanisms will still be necessary. Can she guarantee that in future trade negotiations she will not allow a flood of cheap New Zealand lamb that will put them out of business?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we have undertaken, from our very first days in the job, to commit to the levels of current support for all pillar one payments until 2020 to give that continuity to farmers and businesses. We have committed to our consultation on the future of the food and farming sector in our 25-year plan, and that will look closely at the level of support that is needed. I absolutely agree that we will need to look at what we do for the future to ensure that hill farmers remain viable and sustainable.

The Secretary of State is right that there is now a real opportunity to create a system of rural support that is bespoke to the United Kingdom and that is an environmental, economic and social policy. In that respect, giving Ministers the opportunity to move the money up the hill to protect those who are clinging on economically is an opportunity that I hope she will grasp.

My hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in this area and his input will be extremely useful when it comes to our consultation. He is exactly right that this is a unique opportunity to create a policy that works for us, not for 28 EU member states. That is exactly what we will be consulting on and what we will be delivering.

Happy birthday from me, too, Mr Speaker.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State or, indeed, the chairman of the Rural Payments Agency would tolerate waiting 13 and a half months for their salary cheque to arrive, yet that is what 50 hill farmers have had to do as they wait for their December 2015 single farm payments. Hundreds more waited up to a year to get their payments. They have been told that in the 2016-17 year they will be at the back of the queue to receive their payments if they farm on the commons. Will she commit to ensuring that those 50 are paid immediately, and will she also commit that those commoners, those hill farmers, who were at the back of the queue last year will be at the front of the queue this year?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is just not apprised of the facts, which are that there are very few—[Interruption.] No. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) shouts 2,000 from the Front Bench, but people have received a payment and there are some challenges to those payments that are awaiting settlement. I would like to say to the hon. Gentleman that the RPA, under Mark Grimshaw, has strived to settle all outstanding claims. There are people challenging them, understandably, but that is what it is. Everybody has received a payment, apart from a very small number where issues such as probate are concerned, or where there are legal or inspection challenges. This year, many commoners have been paid across the board and we are up at 92.8% of payments so far, which is a good achievement compared with last year.

Happy birthday from these Benches, too, Mr Speaker.

Given that lamb as a product is facing large tariffs in its most important market, farm payments will become more important than ever. Long term is not just the three years to 2020. The farming Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has said that we will get at least the same amount, if not more. Yesterday I challenged the Secretary of State for Scotland and he said:

“There is no suggestion that funding to Scottish agriculture will be cut”—[Official Report, 18 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 922.]

after 2020. Can the Secretary of State offer the same assurance that payments will not go down after 2020?

The assurance I can give the hon. Gentleman is that we will be looking at how to achieve our twin ambitions of a world-leading food and farming sector while ensuring that we leave the environment in a better state. We will be looking at the facts and then we will decide what level of funding is required to support those ambitions.