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Leaving the EU: Agricultural Sector

Volume 642: debated on Thursday 7 June 2018

2. What plans he has put in place to support the UK agricultural sector in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (905703)

Whatever the nature of our future economic partnership with the European Union, we will design and implement our own independent agriculture policy based on financial rewards and incentives for the delivery of public goods, and support farmers in reducing their costs and adding value to their produce so that they become more profitable.

I take it from that answer that we do not actually have any plans in place yet, and time is ticking. The Minister knows that something in the region of two thirds of our red meat exports go to the European Union. The lack of certainty about our future customs relationship with the EU is now causing real and substantial concern. When will the Minister remove that uncertainty?

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. We have already published our consultation on future agriculture policy—we are analysing the 44,000 responses —and we are looking at this closely. On the issue of trade, the UK is also a very important market for the European Union, notably for Irish beef, poultry from the Netherlands and pork from Denmark, so it is also in the EU’s interests to have a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Farmers in my constituency are concerned about a lack of focus on food production in agriculture policy post Brexit. Farmers are the biggest guardians of our environment, and they can protect the environment and produce food at the same time. What support will the Minister give farmers to enable them to produce food post Brexit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and a number of farmers have also raised the issue with me. I would simply say that the consultation had sections on safeguarding a profitable future for farming, on fairness in the supply chain, on risk and resilience, and on investment in research and development, so there was lots on food production. I simply say that we want to change the way we farm so that it is more sustainable; not stop farming, or do work on the environment instead of farming.

I asked the Minister back in March whether he had held meetings to discuss the problems that might arise because of the overuse of antibiotics in US farming, if we were to move to trading with the US and accept its standards. He would not confirm whether he had met representatives of the Department of Health and Social Care or the Department for International Trade to ensure that we could rule out imports of meat produced in the US, which has five times the use of antibiotics that we have in this country.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met the chief medical officer to talk about the important issue of antibiotics use. We also have the O’Neill report, which set key targets for the UK to reduce its use of antibiotics, and the UK has campaigned globally through various international forums to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that farmers in my constituency, while hoping that there will be a trade deal with the European Union, say that Brexit will provide a marvellous opportunity regardless of whether there is any such deal? In particular, specialist food manufacturers such as cheese manufacturers feel that if we can do free trade deals with countries such as the United States and Canada, that will increase their sales.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is an opportunity for us to have a very different approach to agriculture policy and to support producers in this country as we look to the future. It is worth noting that analysis commissioned by the National Farmers Union shows that, even without a trade deal with the EU, most sectors in farming would see a slight firming in farm gate prices.

One of the most critical issues facing our rural communities is the need to ensure that we have a reliable seasonal workforce to harvest our produce this summer. At the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Immigration Minister said that she would not give anything to Scotland that she would not give to Lincolnshire. In Scotland, that went down like a trailer full of rotten raspberries, and I dare the Minister to repeat it. Will the hon. Gentleman tell Scotland—and indeed Lincolnshire—when he intends to announce a new seasonal workers scheme? What will he say to growers in Scotland and Lincolnshire who now face the prospect of their produce rotting in the fields?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I spent 10 years working in the soft fruit industry and I understand the issue of labour in some detail. We are having discussions with the Home Office and other parts of Government about the future arrangements for immigration and a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.

In the responses to “Health and Harmony”, the two areas of greatest concern were the impact of the withdrawal of the basic payments scheme on smaller farmers and tenant farmers, and the transition period. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about extending the transition period, given that that must be the right way to approach this?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about these issues just a couple of days ago. We made a clear manifesto commitment to protect spending on agriculture until 2022—the end of this Parliament. Thereafter we will have a new funded policy.