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Farming Sector

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 26 January 2017

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the priority that will be accorded to the farming sector during negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. (908389)

We fully recognise the importance of the farming sector. In leaving the EU, we have the opportunity to take the British farming sector forward and to ensure that it thrives. As highlighted recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we will no longer be bound by EU rules and will consequently be able to design an agricultural system that works for us.

Although Brexit may create some uncertainties in the short term, it will open up exciting new markets and new opportunities in trade for British farmers and for food and drink manufacturers across the country. What steps are the Government taking to help the sector to seize those opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right. The food and drink sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, and there are huge opportunities to be seized. The Government have addressed that through the creation of the Department for International Trade, which is working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on a plan to boost our food and drink exports by almost £3 billion over five years.

UK farmers face a triple jeopardy from Brexit, with the loss of common agricultural policy subsidies, potential new tariffs on currently tariff-free trade with the EU, and the prospect of trade deals with bigger countries such as the US flooding the UK with cheaper imports that have lower food safety and animal welfare standards. The Secretary of State said that he would do everything necessary to protect the City of London. Can the Minister give the same assurances to UK farmers and farming businesses, which make up 25% of UK businesses?

The hon. Lady is right that the farming sector is extremely important. The Government have already put in place measures to ensure that the current level of EU funding is protected until 2020, the end of the multi-annual financial framework period. Furthermore, I think that she should have more confidence in the sector. British agriculture produces some of the finest products in the world, and I have no doubt that the arrangements that are put in place will ensure that they continue to thrive in the international market.

May I ask my right hon. Friend how the Government will approach the regulations and directives that will be created and implemented between now and the date we leave the European Union? We probably have no intention of keeping those regulations or directives, such as the ban on glyphosate. The National Farmers Union is very clear that that measure will be very damaging to British agriculture. Will we have to implement it before we leave?

The Government have made it absolutely clear that, until the date of our departure, we will continue to play a full part in the European Union, which does mean observing all the regulations that are implemented. The great repeal Bill will absorb the body of EU law into British law. Once we have left the European Union, we will be in a position to review all that legislation and take the decisions that are best for British agriculture.

At this moment in time, the UK Government are withholding nearly £200 million of convergence uplift money that is meant to go to Scottish farmers. Does the Minister agree that the Government should pass that on to Scottish farmers to ensure that they will not be left even more high and dry if there is a hard Tory Brexit?

I do not recognise that description. The British Government are engaging extremely closely not only with the Scottish Government, but with the Scottish farming unions. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, whatever deal we do, it will be in the interest of Scotland as much as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Some studies on the future of agricultural policy, such as a recent one by the Centre for Policy Studies, rather downplay the importance of food security. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that food security remains at the top of the Government’s agenda? A shock to the system could completely destroy existing trading links and leave the country in a very vulnerable position.

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. British agricultural standards are among the highest in the world, and I assure him that the Government will do nothing to jeopardise the reputation that British farming enjoys.

Almost 40% of EU funds are spent on the common agricultural policy, so it is clear that supporting farming is a central aim of the European Union. Will the Minister comment on the schemes that the Government are considering as replacements for the CAP to reflect the importance of farming to the UK?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government have already guaranteed the current level of CAP funding until 2020. I assure her that the Government will make sure that the interests of agriculture are at the very forefront of our calculations. British agriculture is a huge asset to this country, and we intend to protect it.