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Leaving the EU: Farming Policy

Volume 657: debated on Thursday 28 March 2019

The Agriculture Bill will underpin an ambitious new system based on paying public money for public goods. This will support a profitable farming sector that produces world-class food while protecting and enhancing our precious countryside.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the farmers of Brecon and Radnorshire, and indeed the farmers of the United Kingdom, that whether there is a deal or no deal, their future will be of paramount importance once we leave the EU?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that farmers will be of paramount importance no matter which scenario we end up with. With regard to upland farmers, I can reassure him that my Department is in close contact with the sheep sector in preparing for these scenarios. Indeed, at yesterday’s EFRA Select Committee I specifically referenced the effect of EU most-favoured nation tariffs on sheep exports in a no-deal scenario.

The Government talk about a trading relationship that is “as close as possible” with the EU, but they have repeatedly rejected the best way of securing it, which is a permanent customs union and strong alignment with the single market. Given that 90% of Welsh lamb exports go to the EU, will the Minister listen to Welsh hill farmers and press for the closer economic relationship that they need?

Along with all the other options, the House rejected that option last night. It is a fact, of course, that 30% of the lamb produced in the UK is exported to the EU. Indeed, a large proportion of Welsh lamb, with its smaller carcases, meets that market. We are well aware of the problems that would occur. Of course, the best way to avoid that situation is to vote for the deal.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group for the horse, and we heard yesterday that 87 horses were killed on our roads last year. Will it be possible under future farming policy to extend bridle-paths? Will the Minister consider extending the period for the registration of existing paths so that none are lost and so that our overstretched volunteers and authorities have time to confirm them?

Yes, I am aware that a number of stakeholders are not aware of that deadline. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss that. One of the public goods that we could deliver through the Agriculture Bill is better public access, which could include bridleways to join up existing paths so that not as many horses have to use the roads.

Looking at farming policy, the Government announced recently that they would allow farming produce into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland tariff free. What is the Minister’s opinion on the European Union reciprocating that?

By not only announcing our tariff regime for other borders but making it clear that we do not wish to have a hard border across the island of Ireland, we hope that the Republic of Ireland will show a similarly flexible view and that the European Union will not impose any restrictions that the Irish Government would not wish to follow.

We are discussing farming and food, so there must be a case for hearing without delay Mr Richard Bacon.

Mr Speaker, because I can lip read, I know that you want me to ask a question about pork and pork products, and it is true that we have a very successful industry, but it is—unfortunately, from the point of view of this question—unsubsidised by the British taxpayer. However, farm payments are central to farm policy. One of the horses running in the 14.50 at Cheltenham recently was called Single Farm Payment. Unfortunately, the horse came last. Can Ministers tell us what implications there are for farm payments, or do they feel that, as usual, delays were inevitable?

I can report to the House that performance of the basic payment scheme in 2018 was much better than in previous years, with 98.8% of payments being made. We have guaranteed that the system will apply for this year and next year. Moving forward, we will have an exciting new scheme under the Agriculture Act—as I hope it will then be—that enables us to green the economy and make basic payments to more environmental schemes.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), said in a recent Delegated Legislation Committee:

“The Government look forward to negotiations on the UK’s future economic partnership with the EU, during which we will be able to discuss the relationship between the UK’s new GI schemes and the EU schemes.”—[Official Report, Eleventh Delegated Legislation Committee, 26 March 2019; c. 10.]

We now have confirmation that brand protections for high-quality products, including Scotch beef, Scotch lamb and Scotch whisky, have become bargaining chips in the big Brexit bodge, and that there will be no support on day one of a no-deal Brexit. What financial compensation will be offered to Scotland’s food and drink producers for this UK Government policy blunder?

I have to say that that is a load of nonsense. British consumers rely on geographical indicators to ensure that products they buy from the continent are kosher—are the right thing—and I think they would expect the same from us. I think there would be very productive negotiations, and I hope that we would reach quite rapid decisions on most of them.

There is a crisis of species decline in this country. While we can all see the virtues of operations like rewilding and species introduction, it is in the farmed environment where we will turn it around. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that in the Agriculture Bill and in Government policy, there will be a drive towards the right incentives to protect species and reverse the decline in biodiversity?

It is not just that that is within the Agriculture Bill; it is front and centre within it and central to the way we will continue to support the agriculture industry and deliver the public goods that taxpayers want.

I very much agree with the Minister when he talks about the importance of Europe as an export market for our lamb producers and hill farmers, but last night 160 of his colleagues voted for a no-deal Brexit, including the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon). A no-deal Brexit would expose lamb exports to a 12.8%, plus €171.3 per 100 kg, tariff. Will that be good for sheep farmers?

The best way of preventing a no-deal Brexit is to vote for the deal. Nothing yesterday was supported by the House. The deal is the best thing for agriculture, the future and our long-term relationship with the European Union.

The problem is that the numbers participating in countryside stewardship continue to plummet. Morale at Natural England is at an all-time low, and there is the real problem that no money is going into environmental land management schemes. What will the Government do to move us towards an environmental payment scheme?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in some ways. We have not delivered the support for those environmental schemes that we should have delivered. I am pleased that the Rural Payments Agency has now taken that over from Natural England. I met its chief executive this week. If we cannot to get the money out on time, other farmers will not be incentivised to join those schemes, so my priority is to improve the situation, as we did with the basic payments scheme.