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Leaving the EU: Food Producers

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 8 March 2018

As you are aware, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in the United States on departmental business, representing UK interests. I know that he has already written to you about that, and he sends his apologies to the House.

Last week, the Government launched a consultation setting out the policy framework for agriculture after the UK leaves the European Union. This Command Paper outlined a series of proposals to help farmers invest in their farms and become more profitable, to support new entrants coming into the industry and to support collaborative working in areas such as research and development.

There was nearly a state crisis this morning: the pedal came off my bicycle at Vauxhall bridge. I managed to get here just in time.

I very much welcome the Command Paper. It talks much about having a greener and better environment for the future, but does the Minister agree that part of that agriculture paper must include the means of production—good-quality production—and our being able to increase, rather than decrease, the food that we grow in this country as we go forward with a new British agricultural policy?

I very much agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes. He and I both have a background in the farming industry, and we recognise the importance of this strategically vital industry for our country. He will know that we have a manifesto commitment to grow our agriculture industry and produce more food. Our consultation outlines a number of proposals, including improving both our productivity and research and development.

When will a decision be made on the reintroduction of a seasonal workers scheme, so that crops do not rot in the ground this summer?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is an issue on which the Home Office leads. We have regular discussions with Home Office colleagues on these matters and we feed in the feedback that we get from industry on this matter. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his speech to the National Farmers Union, we are looking closely at the idea of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, so that we can have the labour that we need after we leave the European Union.

Most of the food produced and processed in my Cleethorpes constituency is reliant on good supplies of fish. Can the Minister give an absolute assurance that the fishing industry will not be sold out in these negotiations as it was in the 1970s?

We have consistently been clear that when we leave the European Union, we leave the common fisheries policy. Under international law—the UN convention on the law of the sea—we then become an independent coastal state, and we will manage the fisheries resources in our exclusive economic zone and manage access to our own waters.

We have been clear that we will maintain the total spending that we have on agriculture and the farmed environment until 2022. We have also been clear—our paper sets this out—that there will be a transitional period as we move from an incoherent system of area payments, which we have now, to one that is focused on the delivery of public goods. We recognise that there will need to be a gradual transition from the old system to the new.

The EU’s common agricultural policy has been a disaster for the British dairy industry, because it has been designed in the interests of French farmers, not British farmers. How can we put that right after Brexit?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The common agricultural policy has all sorts of inconsistencies. Having a one-size-fits-all agricultural policy for the whole European Union makes no sense at all, and as we leave the European Union and take back control of these matters, we will have the freedom to design an agricultural policy that works for our own farmers.

May I say first how relieved I am that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made it here today to ask this important question?

When the Secretary of State looks at how best to support food producers, he should be aware that the figures of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that 64% of farmers earn less than £10,000 a year and that eight supermarkets control almost 95% of the food retail market. Recent figures also show that farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce that is sold in supermarkets. Can the Secretary of State—or the Minister today—tell me, please, what he is doing to tackle this clearly inequitable and unsustainable situation?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. If we want to move to a position in which farmers are no longer dependent on subsidies, it is important that we support farmers to come together collaboratively, to strengthen their position in the supply chain and ensure that they get a fairer price for the food that they produce. We recently outlined a series of proposals for a statutory code on dairy and a statutory approach to carcase classification for sheep, together with a range of other options.