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Leaving the EU: Farming

Volume 627: debated on Thursday 20 July 2017

2. What assessment he has made of the opportunities available for the farming industry after the UK leaves the EU. (900587)

4. What assessment he has made of the opportunities available for the farming industry after the UK leaves the EU. (900589)

Leaving the EU presents a major opportunity for UK agriculture. We will be able to design new domestic policies that benefit British agriculture, the countryside and the environment. We have announced our intention to introduce an agriculture Bill in this parliamentary Session in order to provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU. We have pledged to work with industry to devise a new agri-environment system, to be introduced in the following Parliament.

One of the most promising opportunities after we leave the EU will be to expand the range of markets available to our farmers, but that will come with corresponding challenges. Will the Minister please explain what the Government propose to do to open the new markets that will be available to the farmers of west Oxfordshire while maintaining our high standards, which are not always observed in other parts of the world?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Since 2015, DEFRA has opened around 160 new markets to quality British foods. In the future there could be opportunities to export more British produce, particularly meat and dairy. However, as the Secretary of State has made clear, we value our high standards in food production and animal welfare, and they will not be compromised as we develop future trade agreements.

Does the Minister agree that once we leave the European Union we can adopt a new, more effective and more tailored agricultural policy that will benefit farmers in south Gloucestershire and right across the country?

I very much agree. One of the great opportunities that we will have after leaving the EU will be the ability to design more effective and better targeted domestic policies to support our environment and promote productive farming.

Does the Minister agree that the role played by the massive farming base in Northern Ireland—pigs, poultry, grain and dairy—must be utilised and enhanced? What discussions have taken place with the Ulster Farmers’ Union on the needs of the farming community post-2019 and vital subsidies?

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. Agriculture is very important to the Northern Ireland economy—its dairy and poultry sectors are particularly strong. I have previously meet the Ulster Farmers’ Union leaders. Indeed, I met one of the dairy companies from his constituency only yesterday. This Saturday the Secretary of State is planning to meet the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union.

Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker. Farming and crofting leaders in Scotland hope that agriculture will be fully controlled in Scotland post Brexit, and according to fishing leaders the Secretary of State has intimated that the Scottish Government will control fishing to 200 miles—incidentally, Na h-Eileanan an Iar is probably the only constituency to reach 200 miles of the exclusive economic zone. Therefore, can I have it on the record that the Government will indeed be back in this position and that farming and fishing for Scotland will be controlled in Scotland post Brexit?

Some of these matters are obviously already devolved. I think that everybody recognises that there also needs to be some kind of UK framework to protect the integrity of the UK single market. On leaving the EU, we will take control of our agriculture policy, and there is an opportunity to give all the devolved Administrations more control than they currently enjoy to be able to do that while protecting the integrity of the single market.

Does my hon. Friend agree that after leaving the EU we must have a risk-based regulatory system based on sound science to ensure that UK farmers are world leaders?

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We believe that there should be careful risk-based assessment when it comes to regulation. We also have a great opportunity to change the culture of regulation. The reality of the common agricultural policy, as it exists now, is that there are far too many complex rules against which farmers are judged. We have an opportunity to simplify that and have a much more effective system going forward.

The National Farmers Union says that the number of seasonal farm workers coming to the UK has dropped by 17%, and a report published this week states that

“the silence from Government on the labour question is astonishing.”

Food production, processing and packaging rely heavily on migrant labour—the Office for National Statistics states that they make up 41% of the workforce. Why are the Government ignoring the industry’s warnings? Will they compensate for the loss of produce as a direct result of this complacency, and will they ensure that the food manufacturing industry continues to have access to the workforce it needs?

There is no silence from the Government on this issue—indeed, there was a debate in Westminster Hall just last week where we discussed this issue in detail. We have the seasonal agricultural workers scheme transition group, which monitors seasonal labour requirements. It met in March, it had informal discussions last week, and it will meet again later this week. In addition, the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to do a piece of work on the labour needs of this country after we leave the EU.

Well, that all sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? So why does the report say we have a looming food crisis if everything is under control? It says we could actually run out of some foods after Brexit. One of the authors, Professor Tim Lang, accuses the Government of a

“serious policy failing on an unprecedented scale”

for their handling of the food security situation. The Secretary of State is notoriously dismissive of expert advice, but does he accept the findings of this report, and will he meet me and industry representatives to urgently discuss the food crisis before us?

The issue with that report is that it has not looked at the issues as closely as we have in DEFRA. We have been studying all these issues at tremendous length. The truth about food security is that it depends on increasing food production globally at a sustainable level and on open markets around the world, and those are challenges whether we are in or out of the EU. There is nothing about leaving the EU that will affect our food security.