House of Commons
Tuesday 21 January 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Secretary of State was asked—
Business Productivity: Birmingham
Birmingham’s productivity increased at twice the national rate last year, and I am meeting our great West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, next month to talk about how we can achieve even more. We have one of the country’s most successful enterprise zones in Birmingham, where we are investing £433 million in local growth funds and increasing skills levels, employment opportunities and connectivity.
Transport for West Midlands and the Open Data Institute found that between 2008 and 2018 congestion had led to 216,000 fewer people being within a 45-minute bus journey of the centre of Birmingham. Will the Secretary of State commit to properly resourcing new public transport infrastructure in Birmingham to enhance productivity and help the city’s almost 2 million people to realise their potential rather than wasting their time sitting in traffic?
The hon. Lady raises a really important point, and she will know that the Department for Transport is looking closely at what more it can do to improve connectivity. I hope that she will be delighted, as I am, that the city centre and Curzon extension is creating 76,000 new jobs and contributing £4 billion to the economy each year, and that since 2010, according to the local enterprise partnership, there are 134,000 private sector jobs being created in the Greater Birmingham area.
My hon. Friend is well aware of the Government’s ambitions to have a giga factory in the UK. It is vital for the success of our economy that we are able to find these new areas of technological growth that can support the uptake of ultra-low and zero-emission vehicles.
Leaving the EU: Businesses in Scotland
The Scottish Government received almost £100 million to help to prepare for Brexit in the run-up to 31 October last year. I am delighted that we now have a good deal with the European Union, so we will be leaving the EU at the end of January, but the implementation period will mean that nothing changes for businesses until the end of 2020. We are working hard on our future trading relationship with our EU friends and neighbours.
With the final destination of Brexit still vague, it is a disgrace that the UK Government are still failing to give businesses the information they need to navigate Brexit, with firms needing more than the Chancellor telling them simply to “adjust”. Will the Secretary of State finally accept the policy of the Scottish National party and the Institute of Directors of providing a £750 million one-stop shop for UK firms?
I am not surprised to hear that the hon. Gentleman is still determined to resist Brexit, but he will appreciate that this Government are getting on with it and ensuring that there is a great deal for businesses. On his point about Scottish businesses’ preparedness, my Department’s business readiness fund enabled various trade bodies, including the Scottish Chamber of Commerce and the Scottish fishing trade bodies, to receive hundreds of thousands in taxpayers’ money precisely to enable businesses to be Brexit-ready.
The Chancellor has been clear that some companies will benefit from Brexit and some will not, but the Fraser of Allander Institute has been clear that it estimates that as many as 100,000 jobs in Scotland will be lost as a result of Brexit. Can the Minister explain why she thinks it fair that Scotland will be hit so hard by a Brexit for which it did not vote?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will be delighted to see today’s employment numbers—yet again, the highest numbers on record—and she will no doubt also be delighted to know that there has been a 12.7% increase in employment in North Ayrshire and Arran since 2010. Jobs are being created, supported by a UK Government who are determined to give people right across the United Kingdom the chance of future growth and prosperity in their area.
Will the Secretary of State talk about the support that her Department is giving to quantum computing in the UK? This technology is growing at an exponential speed and opening up new opportunities in new sectors for the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He may be aware that the Government are investing about £1 billion in a new quantum technologies fund, which will be of benefit right across the United Kingdom as we take advantage of these extraordinary opportunities, so many of which are coming out of the United Kingdom.
I would like to offer the shadow Secretary of State’s apologies, because she cannot be with us today. But it is the Secretary of State who has been AWOL from business—missing in action during the general election and now again, as we prepare for Brexit, shelving the weekly meetings with business leaders. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister promised the workers of Nissan that he would
“make sure we have complete equivalence when it comes to our standards, our industrial requirements and the rest of it”,
but the Chancellor rules out continuing alignment with the European Union. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the necessary alignment for frictionless trade with the European Union continues after Brexit?
I welcome the hon. Lady, who is standing in for the shadow Secretary of State. It is very unfortunate that she decided to play the man and not the ball, because she is absolutely incorrect to suggest that it is my policy to reduce meetings with businesses. In fact, my Department’s priority is to make the UK the best place to work and to grow a business, and I will be increasing the level of engagement and the range of engagement right across the business sector as we leave the European Union and get the best possible deal for businesses and for people.
The Secretary of State did not even say the words “frictionless trade”, and her reassurances will not give businesses very much hope, but given that we know the Prime Minister’s views on business—I think it would be disorderly to quote them in detail—we cannot expect meaningful reassurances. However, Nissan was given private reassurances back in July 2017. We were told at the time that they were too commercially sensitive to publish, but now we have only 10 days to go and Ministers are answering questions on them, so will she publish the reassurances given to Nissan, and if not, why not?
Businesses right across the United Kingdom will benefit from the new potential free trading deals around the world that we will be negotiating as we leave the European Union, but at the same time this Government are committed to getting the best possible free trading arrangements with our EU friends and neighbours for all companies—for Nissan and for all companies that currently trade with the EU.
The 10 days till Brexit will be followed by 10 years of trade chaos, negative growth, lower employment and investment paralysis. Given that the EU has already stated that the trumped-up Tory timetable will not allow for a comprehensive trade deal, will the Secretary of State finally establish a small and medium-sized enterprise support service to allow Scottish firms to navigate this mess?
It is a bit like a stuck record, if I can use 1970s terminology. SNP Members said that we would not get any kind of a deal. They said that the Prime Minister would not be able to reopen the withdrawal agreement. They said that we would never get out of the EU. The fact is that this Prime Minister has been able to negotiate a good deal with the European Union that works for businesses and people right across the UK, and we are opening up new opportunities. Just for once, be a little optimistic!
It is clear from that answer that our Government have no plans to save Scottish firms from the sinking ship that is Brexit Britain, but we do have the lifeboat of independence. On Scotland’s right to choose, does the Secretary of State still believe that it is wrong to utterly rule it out and disrespectful to do so and is it still “never say never”, or are those laudable democratic principles to be sunk with the Brexit ship?
I would just draw the attention of the hon. Gentleman and those on his Benches to the very recent Deloitte CFO confidence survey, which demonstrates the biggest ever jump in business confidence, as a result of the certainty that we now have about the way ahead. Business certainty is absolutely key, and if he wants to do something for businesses, he should stop trying to hammer their confidence and start looking to work with the Government on the opportunities that lie ahead.
I welcome and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) on winning his seat—a great result. We have reduced carbon emissions by more than 40% since 1990, while growing our economy by more than two thirds. We are currently decarbonising our economy faster than any other G20 country, and more than half our electricity now comes from low-carbon sources. We have the largest offshore wind capacity in the world.
Net Zero Teesside is potentially a world-leading carbon capture, utilisation and storage project in my constituency. Not only will it reduce emissions, but it will cut energy costs and help to secure our long-term industrial future. Will the Minister back Redcar’s industry and fully support that project?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are absolutely behind such initiatives. We have a well-developed forest nursery sector, and we encourage the planting of UK-grown trees, as proven by our £640 million Nature4Climate fund. That builds on our support for preserving areas of great natural beauty, such as the Malvern hills in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we hope to plant an additional 75,000 acres of trees a year by the end of the next Parliament.
Small things make a big difference when it comes to climate change. Waunfawr primary school in my constituency has an eco-community, and it decided to switch from plastic bottles to glass bottles to provide its milk. It had lots of problems finding a dairy that would provide glass bottles, but eventually it did. How will the Department ensure that fewer single-use plastics are used by businesses, and by those in local government and the public sector?
I do not know the detail of what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I would like to hear more about it. We have made strong efforts in this area, and we must trumpet the fact that we are world leaders in combating climate change. As he knows, we will be hosting COP26, and I would be happy to take him offline, as it were, and pursue this conversation further.
Plenty has been done, and I commend my hon. Friend and welcome him back to his seat after a hard-fought campaign. He will know that through the Treasury and the £400 million fund, we are extending the provision of charging facilities for electric vehicles—that issue is the single reason that prevents people from buying EVs. Manufacturers are clear about our intentions and our 2040 target for the full roll-out of EVs. We are looking to bring that target forward, and the cost curve is coming down.
I am genuinely sorry that the Minister did not attend the International Renewable Energy Agency assembly earlier this month. Had he done so, he would have learned that solar auctions are now achieving 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour, which is less than £14 per megawatt hour. Is it time to consider making a global green grid alliance an objective of COP26, and seeing whether a feed-in tariff from the UK could incentivise the development of an interconnection with Morocco to deliver such low priced electric power in the UK?
Obviously, I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place. I was more troubled to see that his leadership campaign was perhaps not launched with the sufficient energy and enthusiasm he shows so often at the Dispatch Box. On building alliances, the Government’s position is that we are always open to building alliances internationally. We are taking leadership with the COP26 conference. On the climate change agenda, we are taking coal off the grid. We are always open to building alliances internationally.
Absolutely. I welcome my hon. Friend to his place—another very successful campaign. On fracking, the moratorium is what it says: we are stopping it. The only way it can be resumed is by compelling evidence, which so far is not forthcoming. So the moratorium stays and fracking, for the time being, is over.
Support for Small Businesses
Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and the British Business Bank is supporting over £7 billion of finance to over 91,000 small and medium-size enterprises. Through our business productivity review, published in November, we set out the steps we are taking to boost small business productivity, including: funding a small business leadership programme, strengthening local networks and expanding the knowledge transfer partnership programme.
I thank the Minister for her response. I was at a local business breakfast last week. Alongside the predictable issues of late payment, Brexit-readiness and parking, which I would have expected, I was surprised to hear naturally Conservative people lambasting the Government for refocusing priorities northward post-election, which they see as quite shameless and political. How can the Minister ensure that the good idea of regional rebalancing does not end up clobbering small firms and sole traders in Ealing, Acton and Chiswick? The streets are not paved with gold there and they already feel under the cosh.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that the Government completely back business, whether in the north or the south. We want businesses to grow wherever they are in the UK. That is highlighted by the fact that in her constituency alone there have been 193 start-up loans, representing £1.6 million. It is clear that the Government are willing to support entrepreneurs and all business owners who want to grow, wherever they are.
On Saturday, I was out on Mapperley Top in my constituency speaking to small business owners and shopkeepers. One of the issues they raised was access to finance. What support is being given to help small businesses like those in Mapperley get access to finance?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome him to his place. I am really pleased that, so quickly into being an MP, he is out talking to as many businesses as he can. Clearly, access to finance is a key priority for many businesses. I have already outlined the applications to start-up loans. One interesting element is that applicants for start-up loans are able to have a mentor. He will also know that we have taken action by offering small retailers a third off business rates for two years, starting in April. We are committed to increasing that to 50%.
Leyland has an above-average five-year success rate for small businesses, and a diverse and growing business base. What is the Minister doing to help and support smaller businesses to start to trade with the world and to identify export opportunities?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and welcome her to her place. I know she has a particular interest in this area, with her experience before coming to the House. The Government are committed to helping small businesses become exporters. Over 580,000 trade internationally already. The Department for International Trade supports that via a range of projects. We want all SMEs who are able to, to take that plunge. My Department will continue to work across Government and with SMEs to identify barriers to ensure we can address them and make it easier for all SMEs to trade internationally.
Small businesses are the backbone of the Cumbria tourism economy. They are appalled, as am I, by the Government’s plan to make sure that there is a £30,000 salary floor for any overseas worker coming to work in the tourism economies of the Lake district or the Yorkshire dales. Does the Minister understand how much damage that will do to an economy in which 20,000 non-UK staff are working now? Will she meet me and people from the hospitality industry to make sure that we have a salary floor that does not cripple Cumbria’s tourism economy?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the tourism economy is particularly important for the UK. While I am happy to meet him, we hear representations from the sector regularly. Despite the earlier comment to the Secretary of State about a reduction in our engagement with businesses, we are actually stepping that up. He will know that we will bring forward plans on immigration and the floor that he mentioned, but I am more than happy to hear his particular point.
One thing that all businesses—large and small—depend on is having a skilled workforce. What is the Department doing to improve skills overall, and particularly engineering skills, on which more and more companies are now dependent?
I welcome my hon. Friend back to the Chamber and thank him for his interest in this area. He knows that, as we leave the European Union, we want to ensure that we have a good distribution of engineering skills—not just in the south-east, but across the country—and help people to increase their skills. I am a great lover of apprenticeships, of what some small businesses are doing with apprenticeships, and especially of our degree-led apprenticeships involving organisations such as BAE Systems—which, I should say, operates in my constituency.
We are working with the Photonics Leadership Group to support the success of the UK photonics industry. The Government have invested £81 million in the establishment of a new national extreme photonics application centre. The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics is involved in 17 Innovate UK-funded products. In addition, UK Research and Innovation has invested £7.2 million in partnerships with St Andrews and Strathclyde Universities, working on fundamental biophotonics research programmes.
The Minister has rightly detailed some of the great expertise that exists in photonics and quantum across the UK, and particularly across the central belt of Scotland. When these SMEs are looking to expand, they often attract foreign investment from countries such as China, so what oversight is there of the potential technological transfer, in terms of both our expertise and threats to our security? What work are the Government doing with the Treasury to ensure that the expansion of such SMEs can be funded from UK sources?
I thank the hon. Lady for her work as the chair of the all-party group on photonics. She is absolutely right: the central belt across Scotland—centred on Glasgow, in particular, and the new Clyde waterfront innovation district—is absolutely critical for our national success in photonics. As part of our national quantum technologies programme, which the Secretary of State alluded to, some £50 million will be invested in a hub for quantum imaging at Glasgow University by 2024. On business involvement, I am determined, as the Science and Innovation Minister, that we not only look at how we protect future intellectual property in this area and attract foreign investment through our international research and innovation strategy but, at the same time, look at new forms of protection through our innovation and regulation White Paper.
Small-scale Modular Nuclear Reactors
It is delightful to see you in your place, Mr Speaker; this is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate you.
Small modular reactors have significant potential to reduce our carbon emissions, and help to achieve net zero by using advanced manufacturing techniques to unlock what is referred to as “fleet economics” and drive down costs in nuclear.
It is clearly very good news that Rolls-Royce, a world-renowned company, has taken up the challenge of developing small modular nuclear reactors for clean energy not only for the UK, but for export across the world. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the opportunity for new jobs in the UK and for exports across the world?
The Rolls-Royce consortium has proposed a significant public-private joint innovation programme worth more than £500 million to design a first-of-its-kind SMR. The consortium expects a working model to be up and running in the early 2030s, that the SMR programme would create high-value export opportunities and, at its peak, 40,000 jobs, and that each SMR would be capable of producing enough clean electricity to power 750,000 homes.
In the last Parliament, the Defence Committee and Science and Technology Committee received evidence clearly indicating that there are threats from unmanned aerial vehicles in relation to nuclear reactors. If the Minister supports these small-scale nuclear reactors, will he advise the House on what discussions his Department is having with the Ministry of Defence about their impact on the security of national infrastructure?
I am grateful for the hon. Member’s pertinent question. He is absolutely right; we do have discussions with the Ministry of Defence. The Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth and I are visiting Hinkley Point tomorrow, but the hon. Member raises an important issue that the nuclear constabulary is taking very seriously.
Clean Growth: New Jobs
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we are determined to seize the economic opportunities of the net zero transition. We hope to create 2 million green jobs across the UK by 2030. He will also know that just last week the Office for National Statistics announced that, under this Government, 466,000 people in this country are employed in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains.
The electrification of vehicles is an important area of clean growth, and the London Electric Vehicle Company, which is based in my constituency, is manufacturing the new electric taxi. It has created 500 new jobs, with 3,000 taxis now on London roads. The Prime Minister visited very recently and managed to drive one of the taxis without knocking down a wall. Does the Minister agree that if we are to make the switch to electric affordable for taxi drivers, thereby making a major contribution to reducing CO2 emissions and improving air quality, the current plug-in taxi grant is a vital incentive?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister drove the car without any incident or untoward events happening. The fact that more than 3,000 of LEVC’s Coventry-made electric taxis are in London is a fantastic milestone. I also agree that the Government’s plug-in taxi grant is vital to the uptake and roll-out of these vehicles.
The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that we have a strategy, and she is right. Decarbonising industry in general is vital, but we remain committed to UK steel and steel production in this country, and that is something the Department is very concerned with.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on this important issue. Does he agree that this country has an amazing potential to continue to grow our economy dramatically by supporting new green industries?
My right hon. Friend is right. As I have mentioned before at the Dispatch Box, it is remarkable that we have managed to reduce our carbon emissions by 40% in the past 30 years while growing our economy by two thirds. That is living proof of the remarkable fact that that we can decarbonise, grow and promote economic expansion at the same time. This is something in which we in this country are world leaders.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that there is a wealth of skills and transferrable jobs in existing energy industries that may well be supplanted by low-carbon energy industries in the not too distant future. What steps is he taking to capture those skills and transfer those jobs to low-carbon industries in the future?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we have sector deals handling exactly that problem, for example in the oil and gas sector. We are making a successful transition from old industries to the new low-carbon-emitting, greener industries of the future. Offshore wind, of which there are a number of examples—I believe that there is a supply chain near the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—is a great success: we have 35% of global capacity. That is part of the transformation of the economy that we are talking about.
The UK space sector employs 42,000 highly skilled people, generating more than £300 billion for the wider economy. We recently committed ourselves to investing £374 million a year—a record 15% increase—with the European Space Agency over the next five years, and our national space council and space strategy will help us to lead the way in the evolution of this high-technology sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as vice-chairman of a newly formed all-party parliamentary group, the parliamentary space committee. I know that he plans to fly to the United States next month to attend the launch of the European Space Agency’s solar orbiter, which was built in Stevenage. It is a fantastic piece of UK science engineering and was funded by the Government to the tune of £216 million.
I understand that the space industry has proposed a space innovation fund, and I am interested in working with the industry on that. The national space council will consider how we can build on existing commitments through a comprehensive UK space strategy, which will help to create thousands of jobs across the country.
It is good to hear what the Minister says about the space sector, but may I ask him specifically how all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will benefit from that potential, and, in particular, how Northern Ireland will benefit?
Last year, during a fantastic trip to the Belfast region, I had an opportunity to meet representatives of Thales Alenia Space, which is working on some of the capsules that encase satellite technology. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to ask that question. Our national space strategy constitutes a one nation approach that will involve every part of the UK, from a horizontal launch site down in Newquay in Cornwall to a vertical launch site up in Sutherland in Scotland—we are also thinking about establishing a spaceport in Wales. Every part of the UK will be involved in space, and rightly so.
We have a growing share of one of the fastest-growing markets in the world—the market for satellites—but no country in Europe has the ability to launch satellites into space, and there is a race to be the first to do so. Will my hon. Friend update the House on when we expect the Sutherland site to be ready for the launch of the first UK satellite?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his hard work on space when he was Business Secretary. He was responsible for working on the Satellite Applications Catapult increase, and for the £99 million satellite testing facility at Harwell, which will mean that satellites can be tested here rather than our having to go abroad. He also set out our mission to be the first country in Europe to have both horizontal and vertical launch. As for Sutherland, I am working closely with the highlands and islands authorities to ensure that we can achieve our vertical launch, and that we work with Lockheed and other partners to do so as soon as possible.
National Living Wage
The vast majority of jobs that are eligible to receive the national living wage are in compliance with the law, with only 1.5% of eligible jobs paid below in April 2019. Anyone entitled to be paid the national minimum wage should receive it. Last year, we ordered employers to pay a record £24.4 million in arrears and issued £17 million in penalties to non-compliant employers.
I thank the Minister for her answer but, as she is aware, the enforcement system is not working effectively at the moment, and hundreds of well-known companies are still getting away with not paying their workers the national living wage. I welcome the steps that the Government have already taken, but I hope that the Minister will respond by setting out additional actions that the Government will take to ensure that nobody gets away with paying their workers less than they are owed.
I want to make it clear to the hon. Lady that this Government will enforce the national minimum wage and make sure that employers that are meant to be paying it do so. I think that is shown by the penalties and arrears that were recovered last year. We have doubled the enforcement budget. I remain committed to making sure that employers are able to easily comply with the law, but where there is any sign of breach, we are enforcing and making sure that people get the pay they are entitled to.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject; yes, I would be very happy to meet him. The sector has been the subject of focus. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which is responsible for enforcing the national living wage, and cross-border agencies have been doing extensive work, but any details that my hon. Friend may supply would be helpful.
I note the hon. Lady’s interest in this area, but I would just correct her: there have actually been 14 prosecutions for non-payment of the national minimum wage. I would also make it clear to the House that there are ways other than just bringing prosecutions to ensure that employers pay. Ultimately, we should focus on ensuring that businesses understand their obligations to their employees, that they pay the minimum wage, and that when they do not, we enforce correctly. I am determined to make sure that that continues to happen.
Pembrokeshire is one of those parts of the country where the substantial increases to the minimum wage have had a transformative impact on people with low incomes. Will the Minister join me in saluting the great many small businesses and microbusinesses across the county of Pembrokeshire that choose to do the right thing, because they support the aim of the policy, by implementing and enforcing the minimum wage?
Absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and I very much recognise the role of the SME market in ensuring that some of the lowest paid workers get the minimum wage, and in happily sometimes paying higher than that. As the small business Minister, my priority is to ensure not only that we enforce the national minimum wage, but that we create the right environment in which SMEs can thrive so that they continue to meet pay requirements.
It is simply not good enough: a decade—a decade, Mr Speaker—of workers being exploited under this Government’s watch. So why has the Minister let the 87% of firms that break the law and fail to pay the minimum wage get away with it? What is she going to do about it and by when? One thing is clear: we, the Labour party, are the only party that will ever stand up for working people.
I would thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I wonder whether she is living in a land of fiction. It is the Conservative party that is standing up for workers. It is this party that has given the largest increase in the national minimum wage, rising to £8.72—an increase of 6.2%. As I have already outlined, our enforcement has doubled. We remain committed to enforcement, and it is a complete misrepresentation to say that in the past 10 years this Government have not enforced the national minimum wage. We remain committed to doing so, and for all the time that I am responsible, we will continue to do so.
Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk: Business Support
The Government are committed to spreading prosperity to all parts of the United Kingdom. We are investing £565 million through the borderlands growth deal and the Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal, demonstrating our commitment to supporting growth and prosperity in the Scottish borders.
The Minister will know about the borders’ fine, famous tradition of producing Scottish textiles, but this industry is being hammered by the US-EU trade war, whereby many businesses face a 25% tariff on their exports to the United States. What are the Government doing to support those businesses and, in particular, compensate them for these tariff charges?
Scottish textiles are, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, an important part of the Scottish economy, our overall economy and our heritage. We will do everything we can to protect this micro-economy. The Government are working closely with the EU and the United States to support a negotiated settlement to the Airbus-Boeing dispute, and the Secretary of State continues to raise this personally with the United States Administration and is meeting the Trade Secretary later today.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will first talk about my departmental priorities.
As we enter an exciting new decade, we are building a stronger, greener United Kingdom. To achieve that, my Department is focusing on three priorities. First, we are leading the world on tackling climate change, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will create millions of new jobs and skills right across the UK. Secondly, we are solving the grand challenges facing our society—from life sciences to space, artificial intelligence and robotics—and improving lives across the world. Thirdly, we are quite simply making the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business.
Social enterprises are a thriving part of the UK’s economy. When I was a Back-Bench MP, and before I went into politics, I was closely involved in setting up and running a number of charities. She is absolutely right that we need to continue focusing on them as a key part of the economy.
I am always happy to hear lobbying from colleagues on both sides of the House about machinery of government changes, and perhaps we can meet another time to talk about that.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. The Government encourage businesses to be a force for good in our society. I warmly welcome the commitment from firms in her constituency to offer placements that connect these young people with the world of work, helping to identify their future roles.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend for all the hard work he is putting in as the Government’s envoy for the “Engineering: Take a Closer Look” campaign, which is encouraging young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths as a future career.
Our new fast-track immigration scheme, including a global talent visa and the removal of the cap on tier 1 visas, will enable a wider pool of scientific and research talent to come to the United Kingdom. We are also investing in the number of researchers we need for the future, including £170 million for bioscience doctoral students and £100 million for artificial intelligence doctoral training centres.
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss these crucial matters. She is right to raise this question, and we should be having a cross-party dialogue to pursue this agenda.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Government recognise the importance of postal offices in rural communities, both throughout the UK and in his constituency. There are more than 11,600 post offices nationwide. Access to branches exceeds the national standard that the Government set, with 99% of rural populations living within 3 miles of a post office. The Post Office is currently delivering further investment in rural branches, through the community branch development scheme, to underpin the long-term viability of our post offices, and I am keen to work with it to continue to support that.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I note her interest, her role and the work she has done on this issue, and I will be more than happy to meet her. It is important that everyone in the United Kingdom, no matter who they are, is able to access support from government. We want all entrepreneurs to thrive and I will be happy to work with her to be able to achieve that.
I thank my hon .Friend for his question and very much welcome him back to this place, as an extremely valued member of the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, on which he served with me—I am pleased to have him back. He raises an interesting idea. The UK has a highly competitive tax environment, and we need to do more to support our small businesses with the cost of doing business. That is why the Government have committed to launching a fundamental review of business rates, and Treasury colleagues will be giving more details on that in due course.
Sub-postmasters across the country offer valuable services to many of our communities. The case they brought against the Post Office has now concluded and the courts have found that the Post Office was at fault for its aggressive prosecutions of sub-postmasters for errors in the Horizon IT system. These prosecutions saw some sub-postmasters unlawfully jailed, and many losing their homes, livelihoods and reputations. What support are the Government giving to those affected? What has been done to ensure that a scandal such as this is never allowed to happen again? Will the Government launch a full inquiry into the circumstances that led to this tragedy, and a full review of the governance and management of the Post Office—the judge was highly critical of that—and of the impact this will have on the post office network?
The hon. Lady is correct; on 11 December, Post Office Ltd reached a settlement in the group litigation claim brought by 555 postmasters or former postmasters. This has culminated in a successful mediation, and a settlement of £57.7 million was reached, funded by the Post Office. The Government welcome the agreement by the parties to settle this long-running litigation. It is true to say that many have suffered through litigation, and Post Office Ltd has apologised for that. One key point is that this mediation occurred under the new chief executive officer, who is making sure that the recommendations made by the judge, and culture change and changes within the Post Office, happen.
Ceramic Valley enterprise zone has transformed a number of brownfield sites and created thousands of jobs in Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State support our proposals to extend the zone, and its continuation in Stoke-on-Trent?
Since it launched in April 2016, Ceramic Valley enterprise zone has been a fantastic success: it has attracted private sector investment and has already secured 1,000 new jobs in Stoke. The Government are prioritising levelling up, as the Prime Minister continuously reminds us. We will want to reflect on those things, such as Ceramic Valley enterprise zone, that have worked and see how we can support them further.
One interesting statistic in the figures released today by the Office for National Statistics figures is that for the first time more than 5 million people in the UK are self-employed. Will the Minister responsible for small business undertake urgently to push forward the work she has been doing on shared parental leave for freelancers and the self-employed? That will be particularly helpful to women in the workforce.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the self-employment market. We committed in our manifesto not only to look at self-employment but to make sure that the UK is the best place to work, and we will make sure that that includes flexibility. He will know that we are bringing forward an employment Bill. We are determined to make the UK the best place to work, and that includes shared parental leave and working with families to make it easier for women to get back into work.
As the new Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, I am supporting the town centre by opening a shop there. I welcome what the Minister said about business rates, but will she also look into the taper on small business rates relief? If someone has a property worth £12,000, they pay no business rates, but if it is valued at £15,000 they pay £7,500 a year, which has made it difficult for the council to let units at the top end of that scale. Will the Department look into the issue?
There will be a fundamental review of business rates, which many retailers will welcome. It will be a wide review and I am sure the issue my hon. Friend highlights will be looked into. I should highlight that we have managed to take a number of small retailers—I believe it is more than 685,000—out of paying any rates at all.
This week, thousands of climate hypocrites will zoom into Davos in hundreds of private jets to lecture the world about stopping the consumption of fossil fuels, oblivious to their own hypocritical behaviour. Will the Secretary of State assure us that she will not heed any of the calls for policies that would cost jobs in our energy-intensive industries, add costs to the fuel prices of the millions in fuel poverty, or add green burdens to consumers, farmers and motorists?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. It is not enough that we just look at our own behaviour here in the United Kingdom, where we are determined to meet our net-zero ambitions; we should also do all we can to lead the world in tackling the climate emergency. In our plans in the run-up to COP26, we have set out some really ambitious ideas for how we can not only work at home to decarbonise but help the rest of the world in their efforts to solve their own problems and behave better in the way they travel.
Hard-working Harlow binmen and women have been harassed and bullied in a pretty shocking way by Veolia management over many months. Will my hon. Friend launch an inquiry into what has been going on and ensure that guidance is given to local councils throughout the country to stop any new contracts with Veolia until it stops bullying and harassing its workforce?
Westfield is set to open a fabulous new shopping centre in Croydon, but the French owner of Westfield, Unibail-Rodamco, is worried about business rates, the state of retail and the impact of Brexit. Will the Secretary of State please meet representatives of Westfield and Unibail-Rodamco to talk about some of those concerns?
My constituency of South Cambridgeshire is no less than the life sciences capital of the world. We have the global headquarters of AstraZeneca, 20,000 people working in the biomedical campus around Addenbrooke’s Hospital and dozens of industrial parks and small businesses developing new therapies, helping people to live longer and healthier. Many of those companies are dependent on research grants, some of which come from the EU. Will my hon. Friend tell me what work the Government are doing to ensure that South Cambridge remains the biomedical and life sciences capital of the world, and that companies have continuity of funding once we leave the EU?
I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He represents an area that is the life sciences crucible of Europe and, as science Minister, I am determined to ensure that that continues. I will meet the vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, shortly to talk about Cambridge’s own plans for investment for the future.
On European investment, I want to make it perfectly clear to the House that when it comes to Horizon 2020, including European Research Council grants and Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, the withdrawal agreement ensures that we can continue within that framework. When it comes to looking at Horizon Europe, its successor scheme, we want to explore an association that is as full as possible. We may be leaving the EU, but we will not be leaving our European research partnerships.
Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a Government who are backing Britain’s farmers. We will always recognise the importance of the work that they do to care for our countryside and our natural environment and, of course, to put food on our plates. We know that, if we are to level up the rural economy in the way we want to for our whole country, we must support the agriculture that is at the heart of our rural communities.
The Bill is a short technical piece of legislation with a simple purpose: to empower the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to pay basic payments to farmers for the 2020 scheme year. It therefore maintains the status quo for pillar 1 for this final period before we start to leave the common agricultural policy behind completely.
The core purpose of the Bill is enacted by clause 1, which puts direct payment legislation for 2020 on the domestic statute book. That provides a legal basis to make such payments for the 2020 scheme year. As hon. Members will be aware, almost all EU legislation was imported on to the domestic statute book by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, but funding for the 2020 basic payment scheme will come out of the 2021 EU budget. That would therefore have involved the UK in the next EU multi-annual budget cycle. In the negotiations, the EU and the UK agreed that they did not want that to happen, so the CAP provisions providing the basis to issue basic payments in the UK for 2020 were disapplied by the terms of the withdrawal agreement reached last year.
That policy decision has left a legal gap, which we are now proposing to fill. This legislation will provide clarity to farmers on funding support this year. If Parliament were to reject the Bill, no direct payments could be made by the UK Government or by the Administrations in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That would have serious consequences for farmers across the nation who have planned their businesses on the basis of continuity of direct payments for this scheme year.
The next European multi-annual financial framework will run from 2021 to 2027, but this Bill will allocate funds for one year only. What is the British Government’s intention: will there be a multi-annual framework for farming support, or will the decision be made annually?
In our manifesto, the Government set out our commitment to retain 2019 levels of support for farmers throughout the current Parliament. The exact basis of the allocation and division of those funds remains to be determined, but we will work closely with the devolved Administrations in taking decisions.
I welcome the certainty given to farmers and food producers for 2020. What advice would the Secretary of State give to an estate agent in my constituency on how it should value a significant estate currently in receipt of quite a lot of common agricultural payments?
It will be important for the estate agent in question to follow developments relating to the transition to a new system of farm support in England. I will outline that later in my remarks, but we view leaving the common agricultural policy as a vital opportunity to create a better system that more effectively supports our farmers and enables them to deliver crucial public goods, including for the environment and animal welfare.
Further to the points raised by other Members, long-term planning is very important for farmers. They might, for example, plan to build a hay shed two years hence. Moreover, any lowering of the value of the pound would have an impact on farmers, because the price of fertiliser would go up and any machinery not made in the UK has to be imported. May I appeal to the Government, therefore, that the value of the pound be calculated into any sums as they are worked out for our farmers?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about farmers’ need for certainty and continuity, which is one of the reasons why we have brought forward this Bill today. That is also why we propose a seven-year transition period to move away from the basic payments of the common agricultural policy and towards the new approach of environmental land management for England, which this House will have the chance to debate within the next few weeks.
The Bill is a vital stepping stone to getting us to the transition period in 2021, when we will start to introduce our national pilot for the environmental land management schemes, which will replace the common agricultural policy in the United Kingdom. We have every expectation that those schemes will enable farmers to do even more than they presently do to protect habitat and valuable biodiversity.
I am the former Chairman at the moment. I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. It is great to have continuity. I want to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) about the value of the payment. At present, the payment is made in euros; the rate used is the average rate in September. Does my right hon. Friend expect this year’s payment to be virtually the same as that for last year? In the past it was based on the value of the euro at the time of the payment, but I imagine that that will not be the case this time.
My hon. Friend is correct to say that taking over domestic responsibility for the payments means that the currency fluctuation, which has had such a significant impact in past years, is not likely to affect payment levels in the same way. None the less, we have yet to decide the exact levels of basic payments, although the Chancellor has set out the overall spending envelope with which to fund such payments.
As we move towards the transition period—more will be appearing in the Agriculture Bill—we obviously welcome the environmental sustainability measures. One thing that is not mentioned here is the fact that many farmers look after places of archaeological interests—scheduled monuments that have access for the public and need to be maintained. Does the Secretary of State envisage that the payment system will recognise that farmers are not just there to enhance agriculture and produce food; they are also stewards of historical and archaeological monuments, for which they need to be compensated?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that clause 1 of the Agriculture Bill, which Parliament will have the chance to consider very soon, does recognise the importance of access to the countryside, and to our culture and heritage, by listing that as one of the public goods that we can potentially support through our new farm support scheme. He makes an important point.
I am pleased to say that the Chancellor confirmed on 30 December that overall levels of funding available for direct payments for 2020 will be the same as those for 2019, so the Government will provide £2.852 billion of support, topping up remaining EU funding. That announcement from the Chancellor, combined with this Bill, provides reassurance to the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that they will be able to issue basic payments to their farmers in 2020. All four Administrations have said that these payments will be made, and that is in addition to the £216.6 million of further funding secured in the summer for farmers in Scotland and Wales.
I welcome the £3 billion announcement from the Treasury supporting our farmers, showing again that the Conservative Government support our rural communities. In the transition period from the current system to the new one, could this be done on a multi-annualised basis, so that some of our farmers can invest in some of their infrastructure to prepare themselves for the challenges that lie ahead?
In setting out the seven-year transition period, we have recognised the concerns that my hon. Friend raises about the need for a multi-annual period. We will be providing further information on how the transition to environmental land management will work in due course. No doubt the debates on the Bill will give us a further opportunity to discuss and develop how the transition period will operate in practice.
I thank the Secretary of State; she is being very generous. One of the concerns that my constituents will have is around the payments from the Rural Payments Agency, which has received huge cuts since 2010. The civil servants who are working to deliver payments to farmers obviously work very hard, and I have some very positive stories in casework that I could show her. However, a huge proportion of farmers in Lancaster and Fleetwood are concerned about the delays in payments. She talks about maintaining the status quo. Will she change the status quo in terms of reforming and re-staffing the Rural Payments Agency to ensure that farmers can actually receive the money in a timely manner?
I hear what the hon. Lady says. Clearly, there have been difficulties in the past, but I would say that the RPA’s performance in recent months has been better than for many years, with, last year, 93% of farmers receiving payments by the end of December. But there is always scope to improve, and I will certainly follow this matter very closely, not just in terms of the 2020 scheme year but in relation to the role of the RPA as we move forward with the reformed system.
The additional funding that the Government have allocated consists of £160 million for Scottish farmers to correct a perceived historical injustice in relation to past years’ allocations. The remainder was awarded following the recommendations of the Bew report. Neither commitment would have been secured without the strong campaign led by Scottish Conservative MPs to get a fairer share of agricultural support for their farmers. I pay tribute to all of them, including those who sadly did not retain their seats at the election: Colin Clark, Stephen Kerr, Kirstene Hair and Paul Masterton.
Provision for the uplift in funding resulting from the Bew report and the campaign by Scottish Conservatives is made in clause 5. What is more, as I have said, the Government have a manifesto commitment to match the current overall budget for farmers in every year of this Parliament, so the Bill is an essential mechanism to provide continuity and stability for our agriculture sector as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
The Bill is narrow in scope in terms of subject matter and duration. Its provisions are consistent with the approach agreed by Parliament in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Clause 2 sets out the approach to be taken by the courts regarding the interpretation of EU law. Clause 3 will enable secondary legislation to make operability amendments and to allow us to keep pace with post-exit regulatory change concerning 2020 direct payments, should the UK choose to do so. For England, the Bill bridges the gap between the common agricultural policy and the start of the agricultural transition in 2021. It does not change our policy, nor does it alter our ambitious vision for the future of food and farming in England.
The next steps in our radical reform of farm support in England will be debated in this House on Second Reading of the Agriculture Bill. That legislation will finally enable us to break free from the common agricultural policy. It will ensure that we take back control of our farming policy and our farm support payments. That will enable us to replace the perversities and constraints of the deeply flawed CAP with a new system that pays public money for public goods. We will reward farmers for environmental stewardship and high standards of animal welfare. Our farmers have always played a crucial role in safeguarding our countryside and our environment. As we deliver this far-reaching transformation, that role for farmers will become even more pivotal in delivering goals such as cleaner air and water, healthier soil and better access to the countryside.
This will be one of the most important environmental reforms in this country for decades, and it is a major benefit delivered by Brexit. It needs to play a central role in tackling the two great environmental challenges of our time: reversing the disastrous decline of nature and biodiversity and protecting our climate.
I come from the rural constituency of North Norfolk, where farmers form one of the most important sectors. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Agriculture Bill brings an excellent opportunity to tackle climate change head-on and that, as an industry, the farming community has an important part to play in helping with our environment?
My right hon. Friend must surely agree that the purpose of subsidy is to ensure that British agriculture can compete with agriculture in the European Union and, indeed, the rest of the world. Will she therefore ensure that her Department does the necessary research, so that when we move from direct payments for acreage to public money for public goods, the money does arrive on the farm? We cannot afford for our farmers to be poorer because of these excellent intentions.
We will be looking carefully at all aspects of the scheme. This is a hugely challenging thing to deliver, which is why we will phase it in over seven years. Of course, it is essential to get the funds to the farmers who are delivering the public goods that we want to secure. Because change always brings its challenges, to ease the introduction of the new system, we will adopt a seven-year transition period, and the Bill is a vital step in smoothing the path towards the start of that period.
This legislation may be less radical than the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, but it is still vital for the livelihood of farmers across our United Kingdom. I hope that Members will give their backing to this short but crucial legislation, so that we can give our farmers continuity, certainty and support as we move towards exit day and our departure from the European Union. The Bill provides a stepping stone to a more profitable, more productive, more resilient and more sustainable future for farming in this country, so that our hard-working farmers can continue to produce high-quality, high-welfare, iconic British food that is prized around the world and appreciated so much by all of us here at home. I commend the Bill to the House.
I feel immensely honoured and privileged to speak at the Dispatch Box in my first outing as the shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I would like to begin by paying tribute to my predecessor, Sue Hayman, and my former shadow DEFRA team colleagues Dr David Drew, Jenny Chapman, Dani Rowley and Sandy Martin. Each was formidable in their own right and worked tirelessly to scrutinise the Government and get the very best for our farmers, our wildlife and our environment. I was proud to work with Sue when we first proposed that Parliament should declare a climate emergency, and myself, my party and the planet will be grateful for her work.
Mr Speaker, you would expect me to have a link to our incredible countryside, as a proud west country lad, and I do. I declare an interest, because I am very proud to be the brother of a sheep farmer and of someone who works in wool marketing, one of whom receives CAP payments.
There is an irony that the first piece of legislation we are considering now that the Government’s Brexit Bill has nearly passed is one that extends the EU’s farm payments system for a further 12 months. Labour will not oppose this Bill, because we think it is important that our farmers are paid, but there are still issues that I would like to raise with the Secretary of State. These are just the first rumblings of a stampede of Bills to come out of DEFRA. We still have the Agriculture Bill, the fisheries Bill and the environment Bill to follow.
I am pleased that the Government have accepted that Labour was right to argue repeatedly during our previous debate on the Agriculture Bill that we need long-term funding for direct payments, which has now materialised in the Bills that have been published. These Bills form the legislative framework for fishing, farming and the environment for the next 30 years. They come as our planet is on fire and our nation is plunging deeper into climate crisis. Every one of these Bills is an opportunity to protect our planet for the future, to cut carbon in bolder and faster ways, and to ensure that climate justice walks hand in hand with social justice, so that no one is left behind, whether in towns and cities or coastal and rural communities—and every one of these Bills falls short.
My hon. Friend is making a good speech, and I join him in paying tribute to colleagues who are no longer in this place but have done so much work in this area, including Sue Hayman and others. Does he agree that it is incredibly important, as we debate these Bills, to ensure that there is an assessment of when the UK agricultural sector will achieve net zero?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I was proud that our party went into the general election with a commitment to have a path to net zero by 2030, and thanks to some of the amazing work being done by farmers up and down the country, the National Farmers Union has a plan to get to net zero by 2040. But 2040 is too late. I want to send a message loudly and clearly to the Secretary of State that we need bolder and swifter action. The Bills that she is proposing fall short in ambition, planning and detail, and I hope that she will take our criticism as a friendly gesture to try to improve these Bills, because they need to be improved if we are to tackle the climate emergency fully.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. We need to talk about food miles much more. We need to be buying local. That does not only mean buying from the region we live in, buying British and looking out for the Red Tractor symbol on the food we buy. It also means calculating the food miles of the trade deals that will be done in the future. It is a nonsense to have trade deals that will encourage consumers to buy food from the other side of the planet, at huge carbon cost, when there is perfectly good, nutritious, healthy food grown and reared to a high standard in our own country. I will return to that point time and again in this Parliament.
There are some excellent agricultural community groups in my constituency. I have visited one called Cae Tan, and I am so impressed. We talk about farm to fork, which is key. What can we do to encourage these brilliant organisations that are working so hard to make sure that we can eat local?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will make some remarks on what the Government could do. We need to lead by example. It is fine sampling delicacies from around the world, but we need to understand that the seasonality of our food is important. Britain produces some of the finest seasonal food all year round, but sometimes it is produced at carbon costs that should not be absorbed into our carbon budgets in the future. Let us celebrate the food we grow in the seasons when we grow it, and let us encourage all our constituents to eat local and lead by example.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. At the weekend, I was talking about the fish that goes into pet food. As the Secretary of State will have seen from her press cuttings, I am concerned that there is not enough labelling on tins at the moment for people to understand what is in them, including the risk that there could be vulnerable and endangered species of fish in pet food. I hope she will take that seriously. Whether it is being fed to our children or our pets, we need to ensure that what is in the tin is what is on the tin, and that is not always the case at the moment.
I will make some progress before taking further interventions. The Bills presented by DEFRA reflect a new form of managerialism that has permeated the Department ever since the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), left. I disagreed with him on a great many things, but there is no doubt that under him, DEFRA was at the heart of government and at the forefront of media attention, with consultations aplenty and a whirlwind of ambition, cunning, drive and the cold wind of change. That contrasts unfavourably with where we are now.
Brexit should mean that DEFRA is at the beating heart of a new vision for governance after we leave the EU. With so much change expected for farming, fishing, food and environmental standards, every journalist in town and every Government Back Bencher should be beating a path to the Secretary of State’s door. But they are not, and this is a challenge for the Secretary of State to show the bold leadership and the courage of her predecessor. These Bills do not do enough to cut carbon, and they do not do enough to protect vulnerable habitats. There is an opportunity in the process of revision to look on a cross-party basis at how we can do more, because our planet needs us to, and I hope that that opportunity will not be missed.
The Bill that we are considering today should be unnecessary. If the Government had made progress with the Agriculture Bill in the last Parliament, we would not need it now. The last Committee sitting of the Agriculture Bill was in November 2018. Instead of bringing the Bill back to the House of Commons to be reviewed and passed, the Government sat on their hands. That Bill would already be on the statute book, and we would already be moving on with “public money for public goods”, if the Government had not been so cautious and timid about bringing it forward. We need bold vision in agriculture, similar to the vision in the Agriculture Act 1947 introduced by the groundbreaking Labour Government. Ministers need to show a greater degree of courage.
Labour supports the public money for public goods approach, with the addition of food as a public good. It was omitted from the last Agriculture Bill, and I am glad that Ministers have rectified that between the two drafts being published. If that Bill had been passed instead of the Government long-grassing it, there would be no need to extend the CAP for 12 months, because we could have moved on to a new system by this point.
The Bill also implements the recommendations of the Bew review, which set out the right steps to correct the historical wrongs for farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is long overdue. I would like the Minister of State, in his concluding remarks, to place on record a statement to confirm that this will not be paid for by English farmers. I believe that is what the Secretary of State hinted at in her opening remarks, but there is concern among farmers that extra money for farming is something that rarely appears from Governments, and I would like the Minister to make it clear that this is extra money and that English farmers will not have their funding cut to correct that historical injustice. I think that is what the Secretary of State was saying, but I would be grateful if that could be set out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for mentioning the Rural Payments Agency, because in a Bill about direct payments to farmers, the omission of the Government agency that is responsible for them seems to be an oversight. Improvements in the past year have helped to speed up payments, but there is nothing in the Bill that guarantees a better service for farmers from the Rural Payments Agency. There are no service commitments or guarantees of swift payments during a period of payment turbulence, and there is no certainty of support in the future. There is nothing in the Bill that provides adequate resources for the civil servants in the Rural Payments Agency, which has seen its budget cut from £237 million in 2010 to just £95 million in 2018. That is showing in the service that many farmers have received, including delayed payments. When we are subject to so much potential change in the payment system, it is important that the civil servants in that agency have the resources they need. In DEFRA questions over many years, I have heard hon. Members across the House raise legitimate concerns about the speed of payments and about ensuring that delays in payment do not adversely affect the sometimes fragile financial situations of our farmers. I think that is worth picking up on.
With this Bill, it looks as though Ministers are legislating for a new cliff edge. It provides for only another 12 months of certainty for farmers before the Agriculture Bill comes in. Introducing such a complex scheme as public money for public goods—for which we have seen no consultations or further details—means that it could be necessary for the Government to extend these provisions for another 12 months afterwards, but there is nothing in the Bill that allows them to do that. I know that the Prime Minister is no fan of extensions, but when it comes the details of this proposal, I do not want to see the Secretary of State back here in six months’ time needing to pass another piece of legislation because the systems are not in place as she intends today. Labour will table amendments to enable the Government to extend systems such as this with an affirmative vote of the House, to ensure that our farmers have the certainty they need. After the long-grassing of the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, I am sure that the Minister will forgive us for not having confidence that Ministers will precisely deliver what they have set out in grand speeches. Labour does not stand in the way of a new system for payments, it is just that the Government’s record in sitting on those Bills does not inspire confidence.
At the heart of what we are talking about today in fishing and farming is the climate emergency and the necessity to decarbonise everything that we do. The Conservative ambition to see net zero by 2050 is a long way away. I will be 70 in 2050, and as far as I am concerned, that is my entire lifetime away. That target is simply not ambitious enough. We need to be hitting net zero by 2030 to make any meaningful contribution to tackling the climate crisis. Minette Batters and the leadership of the NFU have provided a direction that shows that reducing carbon—to net zero by 2040 in their case, but earlier for some sectors in our agricultural sector—is not only possible but preferable. That can be done through supporting the livelihoods of small farmers in particular.
One area that was missing from the Agriculture Bill and is missing from this Bill is the protection of hill farmers and those who rear rare breeds. Those are two areas that we know will be under direct assault from the Government’s proposed changes to the farm funding system. Hill farming and rare breed farming do not get a huge amount of airtime in this place, but they need to. Hill farming in particular has created the landscape of many of our rural areas over many generations, and it needs to be protected.
The shadow Minister was talking about the public good. Given the beautiful countryside that we have, thanks to the many farmers in this country, and the millions of people who come here to enjoy it, I can think of no better cause than that the money should go to the hill farmers who make this country look so stunning.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that that was a remark directed more at his Front Benchers than mine, because there is an absence of such a provision in the Bill.
Lurking in the shadows of the Bill is the prospect of lower standards, lower environmental protections and lower animal welfare standards with a post-Brexit trade deal. There are many grand sentences and lofty ambitions, but the reality of a trade deal with Donald Trump’s America is that farm standards would be lower, and there is a risk that our farmers would be undercut by farming methods that do not have the same animal welfare or the same focus on quality as UK farmers have at the moment. Conservative Members may shake their heads, but this issue is being raised by the NFU and farmers’ groups right across the country. It is a valid and real concern in our rural communities, and this Bill and others still do nothing about it. Trade deals must not be allowed to lower standards. We do not want to be left with Donald Trump’s rat hair paprika, hormone-treated beef or chlorinated chicken. The show of hands at the Oxford farming conference about the confidence farmers have in the Secretary of State and the ability to protect farmers in trade deals showed that there is still work to be done by Ministers to win the confidence of farmers in that respect.
The hon. Gentleman is making a vital point. During the Secretary of State’s initial remarks, she had high praise for the Chancellor, but over the weekend the Chancellor said that the strategy of the British Government would be to disalign from Europe in all standard areas. We know that 90% of Welsh exports go into the single market. The British Government are about to cut the throats of Welsh farmers.
I am not really interested in Brexit soundbites, but I am interested in Brexit detail. It might be easy for the Chancellor to give a quote about divergence in the media, but divergence on farm standards means the potential for disruption at the border, difficulty in exporting our products and lower standards. It is important that Ministers come out and explain what divergence means in the context of agriculture, because divergence from high standards often means lower standards, and no matter what assurances are given, until it is written into a Bill that our standards will be protected and that there will be no divergence and no lowering of standards, there is every chance that people will doubt the motives of those who offer lofty soundbites but take different actions.
We talk about welfare standards and the standards of the food we are producing, but who decides those standards? Ultimately it is our farmers. It strikes me as slightly concerning when the Opposition continue to say that we are going to have lower standards after Brexit, because it is ultimately our farmers who decide what standards we have. I have full confidence that they want to continue to have the high welfare standards that we have at the moment. Our farmers have no interest in lowering standards. Does the hon. Member agree that this ultimately comes down to the farmers, and that they are not going to lower standards in any way?
I think the hon. Lady is agreeing with me, but from a different angle. I agree that our farmers want high standards. They pride themselves on the high standards of the food they produce and the animals they rear. The risk with a trade deal is that there will be access to the UK market for farmers producing food at lower standards and thus undercutting our markets. That is the concern of the NFU, and I would encourage her to speak to her local farmers about this, because I think there is a genuine risk of that happening.
The hon. Gentleman invites me down a cul-de-sac about water policy that I am not quite sure is worth going down, but I would advise him not to drink too much swimming pool water when he is next having a little dip.
The important thing here is that we want to maintain the high standards of British farming, as do British farmers, and we need to ensure that we have a farm support system that gives them certainty, so that they can invest and employ people to pick the crops and rear the animals. We know that up and down the country crops are rotting in the fields because there are not enough people working in the area. We also know that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is not delivering the number of places that we need to support our industry and that the Agriculture Bill, although lofty in its ambitions, is light on any detail that would enable farmers to invest. There is an opportunity here for Ministers to clarify and build on this.
Ministers have set out that public goods money will come in over a seven-year period, but they have also said that there will be no changes to the funding period over the next four years. That means that they will be loading in massive change over the final three years of the period, which come, interestingly, just after the next general election. We agree that public money for public goods is the right approach, but farmers will quite legitimately be asking, “How is that going to affect us? What is the financial formula that will affect our region? What will it incentivise us to invest in, and what will it disincentivise us to invest in, and how can we plan?” How do we ensure that types of farming that are sometimes less profitable, such as the rare breeds and hill farming that was mentioned earlier, are protected and encouraged, and how are we recognising the potential disruption that Brexit could bring to the communities affected?
There are some real opportunities to get this system right in the next three months with these Bills, but there is also a real risk that we will be creating framework legislation that does not deliver for our rural and coastal communities. On behalf of the Opposition, I make the Secretary of State an offer that we will work with the Minister and her Department to make sure that we are reflecting the concerns of farmers and fishers—those people who want high standards—and to make sure that we can support the legislation. We will not be opposing this Bill today, but I invite the Secretary of State to look again at the ambition and the drive of her Department, because if we are truly to tackle the climate emergency, we will need better than what she has achieved so far.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. May I welcome the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) to his new post as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? I want to pay tribute to Sue Hayman, David Drew and Sandy Martin, because I worked very well cross-party with them when dealing with the previous Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I would like to put that on record.
Naturally, I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement about the continuity of payments to farmers because I think this is very important. We stand at a great moment when we can create a much better policy than the common agricultural policy. This is a moment of truth, shall we say? We now have not only this Bill, which will allow for payments to be made for the next year in a very similar way to how they were made in the past, but then the transitional period of seven years from one type of payment to the other, which gives us a real opportunity to look at the way we deliver payments.
The Rural Payments Agency has finally got delivering the basic farm payment right. What does slightly worry me, however, is that the one payment it finds great difficulty with delivering is that for the stewardship schemes. Whether that is a combination of Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency, there does seem to be a problem there. We have time to iron it out, but we have to be absolutely certain, as we move to new policies that are going to be much more in line with the stewardship schemes, that we get the system right and get this paid on time.
The interesting point about the transitional period and new payments for farmers is that some farmers are perhaps under the slight illusion that they are going to be able to get exactly the same level of payment from the new system as they do from the basic farm payment. Of course, like it or not, probably over half the farmers in this country rely on the basic farm payment for part of their income. Historically, it has always been said that farmers should set aside those payments and should not put them into their budget, but, as a practical farmer for many years, I can assure Members that those payments have always gone into the farming budget. About the only time that the bank manager ever smiled at me was when that payment came in, because it was a good lump sum.
Not only am I grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but I smile at him too. Does he not agree with me that the purpose of subsidy is to keep those farm businesses competitive with our international competitors? Therefore, if he is right—I hope his Committee, when it is reconstituted, will investigate this—and this money does not go to those businesses, that competitive edge will be lost. From a food security point of view, if nothing else, it is vital that that money does arrive in the pockets of our farmers and then of their bank managers.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point, which I am leading on to. As we deal with farm payments in the future, we have to make sure that we build on our environment and that we do not forget food production, healthy food and delivering British food at high standards. I think it is the NFU that says:
“You can’t go green if you’re in the red!”
That is the issue. We have to make sure that there is enough money flowing into farming businesses to ensure that we have good healthy food.
The one little criticism I have of the new Agriculture Bill is that there is possibly not quite enough in it on farming and food production. It is better than it was, and I give great credit to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who have worked very hard to get that into the Bill, but I still want to ensure that an Agriculture Bill is actually about food production and about agriculture. It is also about the environment, but I would like those to be equal parts of it, and I think that is the great challenge.
My hon. Friend is making a really important point. Does he not agree that we have to make sure we secure fair trading arrangements for food producers in future trade deals? If we do not do this, we can talk about the vast environmental policies we want, but ultimately if we do not get those correct future trading relationships, that could destroy British agriculture.
My hon. Friend, who was on the previous Select Committee, raises an extremely good point. Again, not only does the income of farmers come naturally from the support payment, but much of it comes from what they sell. Of course, farmers would like to be able to make sure that they can sell their product at a good price so that they do not have to rely so much on public support, so these trade deals are going to be very important.
I do worry about the future trade deals, but provided we are sensible and put forward a trade agreement that maintains our high standards of environmental, crop and animal welfare protection, and that we make sure those products coming in from trade deal are meeting the same standards, then I have not got a problem. What I do not want to see is this being massively undermined by lower standards, because with lower standards come lower costs and, basically, that is what will put farmers out of business in the end.
I think there is a bright future for farming provided we get this right. I think we can, and I know that the agriculture Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is very keen on reducing bureaucracy and on delivering a more simple payment. I am looking forward to all this coming before us so that the Select Committee can look at it in great detail, because this is a great opportunity.
I made this point in a debate last week or the week before, but we now have the interesting idea that we must have a three crop rule. The three crop rule was introduced because eastern Germany has produced maize after maize for a generation, and to break that continuous maize production, the three crop rule has been brought in. However, in a country like our own—especially on the western side of this country in particular, from Scotland right down to Cornwall—we find that there is so much grass production, including a lot of permanent grass, that we really do not need a three crop rule. It is completely unnecessary.
We also do not need re-mapping every three years when we make payments, and there is an issue there. I think farmers should be considered innocent until they are proven guilty. At the moment, they are guilty until they can prove they are innocent. They are always being checked on, and then fined if there is a slight discrepancy between the maps and the areas of claim. If there are some rogues out there—dare I say it, and I speak as a farmer, but every community has one or two rogues—and they are really defrauding the system, we should come down on them like a ton of bricks. However, for a lot of farmers, what they do is very genuine and the way they make their claims is very genuine, and even if there is a small discrepancy, we should not have to be checking on them all the time, giving fines and all of these things. There really is a great deal we can do there to simplify this, and I look forward to my hon. Friend coming forward with those ideas. We can make farming the solution for the countryside, and ensure that we deal with the environment. The Opposition talk about having zero carbon emissions by 2030. We cannot get there by then, but much of farming could get there by 2040. When we take payment from direct support systems, perhaps we could put those payments into getting agricultural and other buildings to store slurry and the like.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there must be a balance between the environmental and productivity aspects of how our farmers produce in this country? We now have a new opportunity to produce in this land like never before, and that is what leaving the European Union on 31 January will give us.
My hon. Friend, the new MP for Totnes, makes a good point. When considering an agricultural policy that is, rightly, much more linked to the environment, we must ensure that we do not stop the means of production. We must look at new technologies. Some in this House will throw up their hands in horror when I talk about gene technology and other things, but there are ways to reduce the amount of crop protection we use, while still keeping a dynamic and productive agricultural industry.
Take oilseed rape, for instance. In this country we cannot use neonicotinoids, yet all the oilseed rape we import has largely been treated with a product that we cannot use here. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater—we want a productive agricultural industry and to produce food in this country, and that will be the great challenge for us. As we look for a new policy, plant trees and help our environment, let us ensure not only that we plant those trees, but that we are smart about where we plant them. At the same time we can help to stop soil erosion and flooding, and we can make a real difference. During the election there was a sort of bidding war over how many trees each party could plant, and it got to some ludicrous figure in the end. I am not sure where we will plant all those trees, but I think we can plant them and do so smartly.
I have made this point in the Chamber before, but as we plant trees we must ensure that there is an income from doing so. Let us return to my dear bank manager. If I bought some land, had a big mortgage and said, “I will plant some trees and come back to you in 50 years when there might be an income”, I think he would say, “It’s probably best not to buy it in the first place, and do not borrow the money from my bank if you do so.” To be serious, however, if we are to look at land and those who own it, we must ensure that there is a support system, so that the right trees are planted in the right places. We also need a support system that takes people through a period of time, and ensures a crop of trees. People should be able to replant trees where they need to, or take wood from those areas, because they are sustainable. I am putting on my hat as a farmer and landowner, but at the moment people might be cautious about planting too many trees on their best land, because they cannot be certain that they will get an income from it in future, or that they will ever be able to cut those trees down. This is about ensuring that we improve the environment, but also that we have enough land for really good food production.
We have spoken a lot about the Agriculture Bill, and that is for the future. I expect you want me to shut up in a minute, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] I am still waxing lyrical, because I am keen to ensure that we have good food and enough land to produce it. We also need affordable food. If I have any criticism of the Agriculture Bill, it is that it rightly focuses on high welfare and high standards, but also probably on quite highly priced food. This country has a highly competitive, productive poultry industry that delivers good poultry to good standards and at an affordable price. Dare I say that most of us in the House—I can talk about myself in particular—are fairly well fed, and we probably do not worry about buying food? To make a serious point, however, a lot of the population have to look at their budget and be careful about how much they spend. We can produce food in this country, even under intensive conditions, to a much better standard than the food we import. We must be careful that we do not exclude intensive production, but then import it from elsewhere in the world where there are much lower standards, including on welfare. That is key.
My hon. Friend must have read my mind because—you will be glad to hear this, Mr Speaker—my final point is that as we consider ways to improve the environment in this country, we must remember that part of that involves food production. If we reduce our food production but import food from Brazil, where they are ploughing up the savannah and cutting down the rain forest, that will not improve the world environment—it will make it much worse. When we import food from drier countries, we also import their water to grow that food. There is a great drive to have a good agriculture Bill that is linked to the environment, but we can also produce a great deal of good food in this country, and I think we have a moral duty to do so.
Happily, Mr Speaker, my contribution is confined to the content of the Bill, so it will be quite a lot shorter. [Interruption.] Revolutionary, indeed.
I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to his place, and congratulate him on taking on that important position. I look forward to working with him in future, and will he please pass on my best wishes to his colleagues, with whom I very much enjoyed working in the previous Parliament?
Here we are here again, just as I predicted back in the good old days when we discussed the old Agriculture Bill, which, as some Members will recall, we were told was “absolutely essential” before Brexit. It turns out, however, that it was essential only until the Prime Minister fancied an election, so here we are with emergency legislation that is being done in a rush to cover the Government’s failure to plan ahead.
Some former Scottish Tory MPs are no longer with us, and none of those left is in the Chamber to hear this debate, which rather surprises me. They said at the time that all Scotland needed was a schedule on the back of that essentially English Bill, because that would ensure continuity for Scotland without us Scots having to bother our pretty little heads about it. But here we are. The UK Agriculture Bill has been shelved and needs to restart, this panicked Bill is needed to allow payments to keep farms and crofts running, and UK agriculture policy is down the pan. Three and a half years of planning for Brexit, and the Government are still in chaos without a single clue about what is going on. In the Scottish Parliament, the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill is proceeding in a steady, measured and orderly fashion—the kind of thing that can only be dreamed of here. In the interests of keeping farmers and crofters in business, and seeking to ensure that some food continues to be produced—that being the point, I would argue, of most agriculture—Scotland’s Parliament has agreed to allow legislative consent for this Bill: sensible politics. The Bill needs to get through to safeguard livelihoods and food supplies, and that necessity should give the Government pause for thought as we trundle on towards the next attempt to get an agriculture Bill through. What is the purpose of agriculture support? Is it food production or is it something else?
We will not oppose the Bill, so I will keep my remarks short and confined to its substance, but I will lay down a marker or two. The convergence money that was swiped from Scottish farmers—I point out to the Secretary of State that that was not simply a matter of perception, but theft plain and simple—was to be returned under the Bew recommendations. It should still be paid to Scottish farmers and I will continue to pursue that. They should also be paid interest and compensation for the initial theft, but, frankly, I hold out no prospect of that happening.
Clause 5 will allow an uplift in the moneys paid to farmers. Given the chaos that Brexit is bringing and the shutting off of the mainland EU markets by this Government’s actions, we will be looking for that money to get a substantial boost just to keep the farming lights on. Scottish farmers and crofters have seen a succession of Tory promises made and discarded in recent years. That will not be allowed to continue. For the short period before the forthcoming independence referendum, SNP MPs will stay on the Government’s case and we will continue to press for the needs of Scotland’s farmers and crofters to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) addressed one of those points—the need for seasonal workers—at Prime Minister’s questions last week, showing the benefits to Angus of electing an SNP MP who is willing to put in a full shift once again. We will be back over and over again.
There will be questions to be raised on farm payments as in the Bill, but also on the other issues on agriculture that Brexit threatens.
We need to bear in mind that for crofters and farmers the big uncertainty will be the autumn markets if there are tariff barriers and trade hurdles with the EU. That should really leave an open-ended cheque for the gamblers in the UK Government, who have given blithe assertions that all will be fine—if it is not fine, it should not be the crofters and farmers who pay.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The tariffs could have a shattering impact on many of our most important agriculture industries in Scotland and the Government should be fully aware of the recompense they should be making to farmers and crofters as a result of that possibility.
There are questions to be raised on farm payments in the Bill, but also on other agriculture issues that Brexit threatens: the import of fertilisers and other crop treatment products; the import of animal feed; the export of the high-quality produce we create in Scotland; the protection of the domestic market, which has been raised, from poor quality US produce; maintaining sanitary and phytosanitary standards; and protection from GM incursions.
Brexit’s Pandora’s box is open and the furies are taking flight. What hope remains for England is unclear, but Scotland has an option that we are likely to exercise soon. In the meantime, let us pass the Bill. Let us legislate in haste and amend at leisure. Let us get on with the business of keeping farmers and crofters in business, at least for the next wee while. Let us see if we can get to the other business in good time to avoid another round of disaster legislation.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make what is, in essence, my second maiden speech—or maiden speech 2.0, to coin a modern phrase—and for the indulgence of the Chair in according a freer than usual range. Having been asked by the great British public to find my happiness elsewhere for the past two and a half years, I am delighted and grateful to be given the opportunity by the good people of Eddisbury to have another go.
I would also like to acknowledge the contribution made by my predecessor Antoinette Sandbach during her own tenure in Eddisbury. As I discovered during the recent election, Antoinette is a passionate and committed campaigner, no more so than when speaking up on issues close to her heart. In particular, Members will recall her moving and powerful pleas to improve services for those who suffer baby loss. Our respective political paths may have diverged, but I want to take this opportunity to thank Antoinette for her service, and to wish her and her family well for the future.
My return to Parliament at this election has been rather less dramatic than my initial entry and exit. During the 2008 by-election, Fleet Street decamped to Crewe and Nantwich to dissect what became a national test for both Gordon Brown and David Cameron. In the end, Labour’s class war campaign was roundly rejected. Within days, I found myself at Westminster in the Opposition Chief Whip’s office being inducted by Patrick, now Lord, McLoughlin. The only other person present in the room was the then Member for Henley, now Prime Minister, who was there to head off to the Chiltern Hundreds, he having been recently elected as Mayor of London. Little did we both know that just over a decade later we would be back on the same Benches, both representing new constituencies with majorities the polar opposite of the ones we had when we first met.
Losing my seat in 2017 by all of 48 votes, after three recounts, was also a far from benign experience, and not one I am looking to repeat. While formatively humbling and professionally devastating, it did enable me to enjoy those precious early years with our fourth child, Nell, as well as opening up new roles for me to continue my mission to support struggling children and families, namely as chair of Cafcass—the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—and chair of the newly formed National Child Safeguarding Board.
Eddisbury is one of those mystery seats that many people, including Members of this House, would struggle to place on a map. But as someone who has lived in Eddisbury, home to me and my family for 35 years, I am confident that it is Britain’s best kept secret. Named after a pre-Norman conquest shire hundred and the hill up on the sandstone ridge that runs down its spine, Eddisbury occupies the bulk of the Cheshire plain, nestled between the Peak district to the east and the Welsh hills to the west. It has a proud history of dairy farming that to this day is the bedrock of the local economy; the source of about 3% of the UK’s dairy products, including the famous Cheshire cheese.
Eddisbury farmers have found it tough going in a climate of market volatility and uncertainty about their future. That is why this Bill, and the Agriculture Bill set out in the Queen’s Speech, are such crucial measures. They need to recognise and maintain the high food safety, farming and animal welfare standards we have worked hard to achieve, while ensuring we have greater control over farm practices in Eddisbury and right across the UK. We must use the year ahead to provide the dairy and wider agriculture industry with the longer term clarity, support and freedom they need to invest, grow and prosper. If we genuinely back British farming, whether it be reducing food miles or tackling climate change, our farmers can deliver.
In contrast to the patchwork of fields, interrupted by the criss-crossing of canal boats, is the town of Winsford. With a population of over 30,000, well-situated close to the M6 and connected to the west coast main line, Winsford has come a long way since a salt industry was established there along the River Weaver in the 1830s. Now a logistics and manufacturing base, Winsford has over 4,000 people employed on the Winsford industrial estate, including Tiger Trailers, Rolls-Royce and Compass Minerals to name but a few. Its town centre, like many, is in dire need of renewal, and I look forward to working with the Government, and Cheshire West and Chester Council, to help revitalise a much needed commercial and community space that local residents can be proud of.
Winsford is also home to some amazing charities run with the help of armies of volunteers, such as the NeuroMuscular Centre of Excellence—where I held my surgery last week—St Luke’s Cheshire Hospice and Home-Start Cheshire, of which I am a patron.
Eddisbury boasts a scattering of resplendent villages, from Farndon, Bunbury and Tattenhall to Audlem, Tarporley and Malpas, not forgetting Tarvin, Waverton, Wrenbury, Acton, Barrow, Tilston, Kelsall and Church Minshull— among many others. They thrive through the vibrancy and activity of local people, who care deeply about their community, yet they can become isolated without good connectivity with the world around them, whether that is through reliable and regular rural bus services, road networks in a decent, pothole-free condition, easy and timely access to GP services, or better—much better—broadband.
Eddisbury also has an enticing array of entertainment on offer, being home to Oulton Park racetrack, which hosts the British Superbike championship, Delamere forest, Cheshire’s largest area of woodland—where I confess I once watched Rick Astley in concert—the majestic English Heritage site of Beeston Castle, CarFest North at Bolesworth, and the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power. Eddisbury is no sleepy backwater and we have plans to play our part in the north-west in levelling up our nation, whether that is economically, socially or potentially even politically, with the now inevitable relocation of the House of Lords to Cheshire.
You will know too, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my time in Parliament has been very much shaped by my lifelong passion and determination to improve the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. I am reminded of the words I used during my first maiden speech to describe my motivation for speaking up for kids who need the most help:
“Having spent the past 25 years living with, and helping care for, many foster children, and the past decade working in the care system, I know only too well the fundamental importance of putting children first and giving them the childhood that they deserve.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 747.]
I see no reason to alter a single word. Indeed, my late mother, Alex, who opened up our home to over 90 foster children, instilled these virtues in me from an early age and helped to guide me through my nearly five years as Minister for Children and Families. It was therefore encouraging to see the commitments made in the Conservative manifesto, not just to our farmers but to children’s social care: the creation of family hubs; the prioritisation of loving, stable homes for children who find themselves in care; and a review of our care system more generally. I advise the Front Bench team that a blueprint already exists for delivering an excellent children’s social care system, entitled—you’ve guessed it, Madam Deputy Speaker—“Putting children first”, which the Government published during my time as children’s Minister in July 2016.
Since then, we have seen the number of good and outstanding children’s services rise markedly, albeit from a low base, and the number of inadequate judgments fall by nearly half. However, we all know that the pressure on the system remains, and with around 400,000 of the 12 million children in England in the children’s social care system at any one time, this is an area of public policy that we simply cannot ignore.
The good news is that the dedication, compassion and professionalism of those on the frontline of social work is there for all to see, but what they need, too, is the freedom and support that enables them to innovate in their practice, to use their professional judgment to make good decisions on behalf of children placed under their wing, and to grow trusted relationships with families in need of their help. Policy should promote such a culture, not stifle it. Only then can we have the confidence that every one of those 400,000 children will get the right level and quality of intervention, protection, placement and planning of their future when they need it, for as long as they need it. In doing so, we can continue to build the foundations that break down what all too often is a destructive cycle. Let us unleash every child’s potential.
In acknowledging that I have strayed a little from the subject matter of this debate, I end by saying to all the people of Eddisbury, however you voted, and to all those children who do not have a voice but need to be heard: I am here for you—after all, that is my duty.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson). I recall the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008—the weather was quite nice, and I congratulate him on his first victory. I spent some time in Eddisbury in, I think, ’99 for the by-election, when Stephen O’Brien, his predecessor but one, was first elected, so I know where it is—there is a good chippy in Winsford, if I remember correctly. I genuinely mean it when I say that the hon. Gentleman was an excellent children’s Minister. This will massively hamper any rise he may subsequently make, but if the Prime Minister should be thinking of a reshuffle, he could look no further than him. I also thank him for paying tribute to his excellent and very principled predecessor, Antoinette Sandbach, my former hon. Friend.
Let me make a little confession. Some years ago, before Brexit was even a thing—back in the day when the Prime Minister thought it was madness to even countenance leaving the European Union—I said that I could see one advantage in the United Kingdom departing the EU: I could see how we could spend the common agricultural policy money better than it is often spent through the current system. That does not mean that I predicted that a future Government would spend it better, but I could see how they could—that is an important caveat.
The Bill is necessary and provides a modicum of certainty for farmers as we leave the European Union in just a few days’ time. It permits a small island of temporary predictability in a sea of uncertainty. It kicks the can a few yards down the lane, but it will do nothing to disguise the chasm that is opening up for farmers as we leave the EU. The Government believe that they have a mandate to “get Brexit done”, but nowhere is the nonsense behind that statement laid bare more than in the case of our farming industry.
I will tell the House what Brexit has done: according to the Secretary of State last week at the Oxford farming conference, it has done for the basic payments scheme—which constitutes 85% of the income of the average livestock farmer—starting in less than 12 months. It has done for free access for British farmers to their most important export market—90% of Cumbria’s farm exports are to the European single market. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to be believed, it has also done for our alignment with the single market and will therefore usher in a new era of red tape, costs on farm businesses and non-tariff barriers to trade.
The idea that a 12-month stay of execution for farmers equates to certainty is, frankly, laughable. Even if the Government were to make a commitment for the whole Parliament, anyone who thinks that even five years constitutes the long term in farming cannot be taken seriously.
The Government’s stated position—reiterated again at the Oxford farming conference—is that the BPS will be phased out over a seven-year period from next January. I am privileged to chair the all-party group on hill farming and I was very pleased to hear the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), refer to the importance of hill farming to our country as a whole. In our view, it is a dangerous thing to start phasing out the basic payment when we have yet to clarify what will replace it: the ELMS—the environmental land management scheme—which will be available for some farmers in 2024, we are told, but not all farmers until 2028.
With all due respect, farmers lack confidence in Governments of all colours and their ability to deliver an as yet undefined new payment on time because they have consistently failed to deliver existing payments over the last two decades. Being told for certain that you will lose 85% of your income while being offered the dubious possibility that you might have something else in future is unlikely to get Britain’s farmers dancing in the street.
The Bill is a necessary one-year fulfilment of the obligations of the withdrawal agreement. It is not a real commitment to farmers. Even if the Government were to bodge together extensions of one year at a time for the inevitable slippage on the roll-out of ELMS, what does that do for the ability of farmers to plan for the medium term, let alone the long term?
Why does this matter? It matters because over the transition period of seven years, the Government’s plan will reduce Britain’s capacity to feed itself in the future. We think far too little about food security. Some 50% of the food that we consume is imported. Twenty years ago, the figure was more like 35%. It is an extremely worrying trend. If the ability of farmers in the UK to make a living and compete is further undermined, this situation will only get worse. That will be bad for the environment, for British farmers and for the security of our country, as we cut ourselves off from our most important trading partner.
We need to think of the bigger picture and the long-term impact. You can tick the boxes with legislation such as this and “get Brexit done”, but that is a slogan with a heavy price tag—a price tag that in the case of our farmers could be fatal. The production of food must be considered a public good, but it is certain that the loss of BPS with an as yet undefined replacement will see people leave the industry. Some will flee before it gets too bad, others will be forced out when they cannot make ends meet. To put it bluntly, if we are to deliver public goods through farming, we need to make sure there are some farmers left to deliver those public goods by 2028. Without those farmers, who will deliver biodiversity programmes? Who will deliver natural flood management schemes? Who will deliver growth and maintain the woodlands and peatland necessary to absorb CO2? In Cumbria, including the lakes and the Yorkshire dales, who will maintain our footpaths and our rare historic breeds? Who will beautifully keep and present the landscapes that inspired Wordsworth and inspire 16 million people to visit us every single year?
This morning, the National Trust held an event downstairs. It was keen to show what it was doing on the environment. It has plans across its 500 properties to plant more trees and thereby be the lungs of the United Kingdom. There are many groups and landowners doing lots of things to help to tackle climate change.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Farmers are at the forefront of tackling climate change—they see the climate changing before their eyes, they are the eyewitnesses to our changing planet and the damage being done. In the uplands, in Cumbria and elsewhere, it is they who have the ability to help to protect the towns and villages from flooding by planting more trees, managing the land and more generally ensuring the carbon sink that will help to protect our planet. Without them, who will maintain the backdrop to the tourism economy in Cumbria, which is worth £3 billion a year and employs 60,000 people? Indeed, 80% of the working-age population of the Lake district currently earn their living there.
How can farmers be expected to invest in the long term if they can only look ahead one year at a time? Like most farmers, I accept that in the long term BPS needs to be replaced by public payment for public goods— no argument there—but “public good” needs to be defined widely enough for farmers to make a living, especially farmers in the uplands of Cumbria. I am not saying, therefore, that we should scrap ELMS and keep BPS forever, but I am saying that the Government should not delude themselves into thinking they can make radical change as seamlessly as they appear to think.
The Bill is necessary and we will support it—not just not oppose it—but it does not answer the need to pave the way for a new system. The Government cannot be permitted to do the bare minimum to fulfil the obligations of the withdrawal agreement, with no thought to the impact in real terms. The Government must protect British farming and therefore the environment—and therefore food security, rare breeds, heritage, landscape, our tourism economy—so will the Government now commit to transition arrangements that allow farmers to survive that transition? In short, I say to the Government: do not remove a penny of BPS from anyone until ELMS is available for everyone.
I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to his place. It is nice to have a fellow west country MP there and I look forward to working with him on the Agriculture Bill and the fisheries Bill and, importantly, on putting provisions on angling into the latter.
I am pleased to have been called to speak on Second Reading of this very necessary Bill. The Government’s manifesto commitment to invest £3 billion in our farmers and farming communities over the lifetime of this Parliament is to be welcomed. Continuity is so important to our farmers now, with all the uncertainty in the marketplace, and the Government have proved again that they are committed to our farmers and our farming communities. We are moving from a rather ridiculous system where people are paid for land rather than public goods. Farmers in the UK receive £3.5 billion annually in farming support under the common agricultural policy. More than 80% of the support is paid directly to farmers, based broadly on land and land management. A lot of that is taken up by hedge funds and other financial organisations, which receive an annualised income. We have to move away from that system to something that supports our farmers and farming industry.
The previous CAP had nothing in place for soil erosion. We lose 2 billion tonnes of top soil into our rivers every year. We need a replacement to ensure that that does not happen. There is very little in there about habitats, save for the rather dysfunctional element of pillar 2 of the CAP funding; very little about production, other than silly things about people having to grow three crops; and nothing about catchment farming. I hope we are moving away from a system where our farmers have to map their land. I have dealt with countless constituents who have brought cases to me where their topographical land management has been done from an aerial viewpoint and where the numbers the RPA says they have they do not actually have. Moreover, many of my moorland farmers have been waiting three years for payments under pillar 2—the higher stewardship element. That is unacceptable. We need to move away from the historic system to a better system.
What do we want from a new agricultural scheme? I am no expert, but I tend to listen to people who are. I have regular meetings with farmers in my constituency of North Cornwall. They are the custodians of the countryside and understand what they want from a future agricultural system.
The National Farmers Union has a clear idea of what it wants from the changes, and its sister organisation back home, the Ulster Farmers Union, of which I am a member, has the same ideas on going forward. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the importance of touching base with our farmers and whose who own the land. How important is it that the Government listen to the NFU and the UFU?
It is vital. My hon. Friend speaks from a position of strength. He is always in the Chamber speaking up for his farmers and fishermen and he makes a relevant point about the Government listening to the NFU.
My farmers want a less bureaucratic system and one that is locally administered, has local support, supports younger people to get involved in farming, supports more tenant farms and recognises that local factors and local contributions can be submitted. They want a scheme that supports diversification in farming through the planning system to allow them to diversify into other projects. As the shadow Secretary of State said, they want to move away from having to supply around the country to more localised supply chains and localised control.
I want to explore what “public good” might mean. I am proud to have the Camel cycle trail running through my constituency, from Padstow to Bodmin. It gets 500,000 visitors a year. We could do much more in the “public good” element in the Agriculture Bill to expand cycleways across the country—I am hoping there might be Members on both sides of the House who want to create a cycleway all the way from John o’Groats to Land’s End in Cornwall.
There is much to consider. We have a footpath network, which is administered by the local authority currently, that is not fit for purpose. The Government have an opportunity to take some control over that and for farmers to be paid for upkeep and better access to the countryside, be that cycleways or footpaths.
When I first became a Member of Parliament, I had the pleasure of taking part in a soil inquiry in the House of Lords, and heard about all the good-quality topsoil that was being flushed into the rivers every year. It struck me that farmers were investing in their soil but receiving no benefit from that investment. It would be nice to see some benefit resulting from improved soil quality.
Absolutely. One of the issues that we discussed during the inquiry was how we could maintain better soil access. He is no longer in the Chamber, but the former Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—or hopefully the new Chairman; I know that he is standing for re-election—mentioned the importance of planting more trees around rivers and ensuring that some of that soil erosion does not happen.
When I had the pleasure of visiting a higher-level stewardship scheme in Tregirls, near Padstow, I learnt about the reintroduction of the grey partridge—its numbers had diminished over the years, but the populations were growing—and the work that was being done to provide nesting grounds for corn buntings. I also had the pleasure recently of meeting representatives of the Westcountry Rivers Trust, who showed me some of the work that they were doing with upper catchment farming. I believe that if we can take the slurry pits out of some of our rivers, we will be able to improve water quality as well as the environmental management of farms. Those were joint projects involving both the trust and South West Water, and I think that they will provide a good basis for a catchment-sensitive farming package.
I want to say something about the upper catchment in particular, and about the spawning grounds for salmon and sea trout. We have a big problem when our rivers are in spate and all the water goes into the river very quickly. The water then tends to flush out to sea very quickly as well, wiping out all the biodiversity in the river. I think that we should invest much more in our salmon and sea trout grounds so that their spawning beds are there for the future and the species are returned to the river as far as is as possible.
The Angling Trust said this about the Agriculture Bill:
“We believe this Bill presents a once in a generation opportunity to address the impact agriculture has on our freshwater environment and, therefore, on healthy fish populations. We welcome the emphasis on good soil management and restoration. We will be looking for a clear framework to effectively manage pollution from agriculture and from residential pollution and to ensure that any future…payments scheme incentivises good land management in relation to water and penalises poor practices. This must be supported by effective regulation and advice to farmers”.
I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether the amounts for future years can be paid in one go. I intervened on the Secretary of State about this. One of my local farmers said to me recently, “If we know that the payments will be made over a longer period, would it not be wise to give farmers the option to have them rolled up into one payment so that they can invest in their farms at an early stage?” I thought that that was quite a sensible idea, because it would allow farmers to invest in their businesses when they needed to do so.
May we also have a scheme that allows payments on day one? I have engaged in numerous discussions with the Rural Payments Agency about that. It would be nice if we wrapped up this discussion very early so that farmers can receive direct payments on day one of the new legislation.
What am I looking for as the Bill progresses? I am looking for a locally administered scheme, with payments agreed from the previous year and made on day one, to be run in conjunction with organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Environment Agency, the Soil Association, the Westcountry Rivers Trust and the Woodland Trust. We could bring in Sustrans to look into whether a cycleway is a possibility. I am passionate about cycling, and I think that we have a real opportunity to open up our countryside so that more people have access to it.
We could also work alongside local anglers. Yesterday, the Norwegian fisheries Minister and I discussed what was happening to fisheries and agriculture in Norway. The Norwegians impose an obligation in regard to boats and quotas—financial organisations cannot invest in them. We might well want to consider that in the context of agriculture.
I am getting the nod from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall wind up my speech. Our farmers are going through monumental change, and I am pleased that the Government are investing in and supporting them. We have the ability to improve drastically on the existing model of the common agricultural policy and I look forward to being involved in that. We should show the public exactly how good our farmers are. We know about higher animal welfare standards, but it would be good if farmers were given an incentive to invite schoolkids on to farms to show them some of the great practices in which they are engaged.
I am happy to support the Bill.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I, too, extend my welcome to the new shadow Secretary of State and wish him good luck in his post.
It is the greatest honour for me to stand here representing the people of Angus and the Scottish National party. My greatest ambition is to do the very best that I can for the people who have placed their faith in me, and also to play my part in delivering our country from the United Kingdom and back into the international community of nations. I thank all those in Angus who voted to send me to this place, and assure all those who did not of my unconditional service to all. I am so grateful to my amazing SNP Angus team, who worked tirelessly and in all weathers to ensure that we got the job done.
I must also pay tribute to my predecessor, Kirstene Hair, who represented Angus for two and a half years. In that time she sought to advance a range of important issues, the principal one being the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. That is a cause of vital importance to the people in Angus and one that I have already taken up with the Prime Minister. Kirstene fought a hard campaign to be returned to this place, and I wish her—and, more important, her staff—every success in the future.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will of course recall with fondness my predecessor, and your former colleague, Mike Weir, who represented Angus with distinction from 2001 until 2017. I got to know Mike much better over the last three months as we canvassed the streets of Angus together. It is a measure of his sense of duty that after 16 years in this place, he still campaigns tirelessly for the people of Angus and the cause of Scottish independence.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) and to be making my maiden speech as we consider the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Bill, which relates directly to the challenges and opportunities facing many in my constituency. However, if the Secretary of State were still in the Chamber, I would suggest to her that the notion that the Bill affords any reassurance and continuity to farmers is for the birds.
My constituency of Angus showcases the best of Scotland’s landscapes, with some of the richest farmland anywhere on these islands to the east, and the wild uplands, glens and mountains to the west—a haven for wildlife and outdoor pursuits. Our prime farmland extends right up to our dramatic coastline. If, Madam Deputy Speaker, you should ever be lucky enough to find yourself in the picture-postcard hamlet of Auchmithie, you may well see farmers ploughing along the clifftops amid the breathtaking spectacle of our unique landscape.
It is, however, the people of Angus who give life to those landscapes. Angus has a thriving voluntary sector, and there are many outstanding examples of community capacity taking control of key local issues, often in support of our most vulnerable. A healthy rivalry also exists between the burghs but, heeding my strong sense of self-preservation, I will resist airing any views on which might be the best! So, in no particular order, I will highlight just some of Angus’s contribution to innovation, the arts, culinary excellence and Scottish history.
Brechin was the birthplace of Sir Robert Watson-Watt, whose discoveries led to the invention of radar, and the Davidson family, of Harley Davidson motorcycles, hailed from nearby hamlet of Aberlemno. Arbroath, the largest settlement and a much-visited coastal town, is the birthplace of Alexander Shanks, inventor of the lawnmower, and James Chalmers, who created the concept of the adhesive postage stamp. Arbroath, also a retail centre, is home to the famous Arbroath smokie—the delicious smoked haddock delicacy which enjoys the EU’s protected geographical status.
Forfar is the vibrant county town in the heart of the constituency. It is home to significant manufacturing and retail, and Angus Council’s headquarters. But the jewel in Forfar’s crown is the delicious, iconic meat-filled pastry crescent, the bridie. With all due respect to the six Cornish Tories—one is in the Chamber—your pasties are pleasant, but our bridies are brilliant!
Kirriemuir knocks it out of the park with its famous sons including Sir Hugh Munro, who recorded every one of the 283 Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet, 10 of which are in Angus; Bon Scott, the lead singer of AC/DC; and J.M. Barrie, whose works, including “Peter Pan”, the House needs no further introduction to. Montrose is the birthplace of the acclaimed Scots writer Violet Jacob and home to the amazing natural tidal basin—a haven for birds and marine life where, at the appropriate sunset, someone may just be lucky enough to witness the most beautiful array of colours. In addition to its retail centre, Montrose has long been home to state-of-the-art pharmaceutical manufacturing.
And of course it was in Angus—at Arbroath abbey—that, 700 years ago, the nobles of Scotland became signatories to the declaration of Arbroath that was sent to Pope John XXII, which asserted Scotland’s position in the world as an independent kingdom. While this work remains in progress, I believe a satisfactory conclusion to Scotland’s position in the world is close at hand.
I am touched to have been so enthusiastically welcomed by Angus SNP colleagues as their candidate in the first instance, and by the wider electorate thereafter.
Scotland is a country that has always looked outward and welcomed others. My late father was Irish—born in partition, into the grinding poverty of British maladministration. He came to Scotland, working as an agricultural contractor, with his business reaching across the rich farmlands of Fife, Clackmannanshire, Perthshire and Angus. My enduring memory of him was his equal comfort in speaking with the laird or with the labourer, showing each the same respect. I have always sought to emulate his humanity and humility.
Separately, my mother also fled Ireland’s poverty as a young adult. The refuge that she and her family found some 70 years ago was in Forfar, the county town of my constituency. Madam Deputy Speaker, my mother today is what you might call a big age, but the pride that she has in the fact that her youngest child is now the Member of Parliament for Forfar is not insubstantial. My family are indebted to, and a product of, Scotland’s hospitality.
Like many children of immigrant parents, I was brought up to appreciate that while no task is beneath me, no target is beyond me, and that though no one is more worthy than I am, I am no better than anyone else. As we say in Scotland, “We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.” And so it is with my country. Scotland is no better than any other nation but, let us be clear, we are not any worse either.
The people of Scotland are watching the events that happen in this place, and it is they who will be the final arbiters of Scotland’s constitutional future. I look forward to celebrating with them in their wisdom and their ambition.
I conclude on a personal note. My children and my family have been tremendously supportive to me in my long journey to this Parliament. I must, however, express my limitless thanks to my wife. It is by the gift of her strength and kindness that I was able to give up my job in the Ministry of Defence 13 years ago and then go to university, become a councillor, start my business and disappear for months on end campaigning. Over these long years, she has kept our family’s show on the road.
While I am here in this place, I must work within the system. I will do so in the service of my constituents and my country. I hope at all times to be collegiate and pragmatic, but do not confuse that with any acceptance of London rule. I will always seek to be constructive and courteous in transacting our business down here, but do not mistake that for submission or fondness for the status quo. I and my SNP colleagues are here to settle up, not settle down. We are here only to help to open the door to a progressive independent future for our country. And when Scotland walks through, into the progressive future of independence and the normality that that brings, the honour will fall to me and my SNP colleagues here gathered to firmly close the door of this place behind us and leave for the last time, taking Scotland’s brighter, independent future with us. [Applause.]
It is a pleasure to follow the new hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan). Making a maiden speech is terrifying; following one, particularly one as good as that, equally daunting. I commend the hon. Gentleman for saying that he will do his very best; that should apply to us all. He of course thanked voters and his predecessor, Kirstene Hair, who was a lovely and wonderful Member of this House. It is deeply important for all of us to heap praise on our predecessors, no matter how difficult it may be—it certainly was when I made my maiden speech—because we are all united here in doing the best we can for our constituents.
I liked listening to the hon. Member’s description of the landscape, and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle reference was particularly dear to my heart. When I look at Angus I think of the second-best breed of British cattle, the Aberdeen Angus, which from Herefordshire is not a difficult one for me to tease him about. I look forward to his maintaining the status quo for at least the next five years here, and I wish him every success with his career, which I suspect will go from strength to strength.
Colleagues should bear in mind that declaring one’s interests is very important in these debates—in fact, the most important thing. I am the lucky recipient of a very small cheque from the RPA once a year for my smallholding in Herefordshire.
I absolutely reject the purpose of subsidy in all fields except agriculture, because although our farmers produce the finest food in the world, they do so from a playing field that is anything but level, so we need to help them maintain the skills necessary to provide the food security that we may need at any time. It is easy to forget that epidemics such as foot and mouth, which hit our country in 2001, can happen anywhere in the world. We have also seen bluetongue and avian influenza, for example. Our food supply is always vulnerable. One cannot learn how to farm quickly; it takes years—generations—and great skill and appropriate qualifications. That is why, for the security of our country, we need to support our agricultural industry.
It is worth it. We put £3.5 billion into agriculture every year, but our food exports alone are worth £22 billion. We are 60% self-sufficient; 60% of the food we eat is produced here. I believe that the future for agriculture is that it will provide a healthier diet for our country. So as we will not only be providing the security that we need and a wonderful export market, but saving ourselves a fortune through the NHS, by ensuring that our population are healthier, better-fed and thriving. Of course, we can do that only if we control what comes into our country according to its quality and the production methods used.
That, if nothing else, is a good reason to support the Bill, but I am pleased to say that there is more. I, too, have had problems with the RPA—oh my goodness! I have also given it a fair few problems of my own, but it has always handled them extremely well and politely. However, the burden that the RPA lands on farmers, such as the one in my constituency who had to undertake the re-mapping of every hedge on his farm because the data had been lost, is horrendous. Having the power not to have to follow the EU’s rules will be tremendously positive for all those working for the RPA, and we should not be looking at spending more money on it, but making its job easier by demanding less from it. I look forward to that as one of the future steps to easing the burden on our constituents and on farmers, by ensuring that the RPA regulations are more straightforward.
In any change to agriculture, the biggest thing is that we take the public with us. Food labelling is therefore the most fundamental thing to get right. The problem with food labelling is that our eyesight is not necessarily good enough to read the small writing necessary to include all the information we need on small amounts of food. That is particularly true of restaurant menus, on which we cannot see where, say, the chicken has come from. That is just taken as the restaurant’s corporate responsibility.
The problem is that, until we conquer the challenge of industrial food production, we will not be able to protect standards, even if we want to, so I urge the Government to look carefully at how to ensure the public are properly informed. I suggest they pay particular attention to private Member’s Bill No. 17, which seeks to address this issue in great detail not only in the labelling of food but in how meat is graded.
One problem we have with meat is that we care about how fat the animal is and how much meat and muscle it has, but we do not care about what it tastes like. That is a fundamental mistake when we expect people to eat it. We should be doing a great deal more on eating quality, as the Canadians and the Australians do. There is a huge benefit to eating quality, because the calmer and more placid the animal, the better it tastes. A calm and placid animal is considerably safer to have on a farm, which means the risk to farmers of being killed by their cattle—that risk is particularly serious for older farmers—is considerably reduced.
Nearly all the people who die on farms in animal accidents are farmers aged over 60. They die, whereas younger farmers are able to recover. We lose about seven farmers a year to such deaths, and we could do a great deal more just by having better-tasting meat. What a great success that would be.
On the subject of saving lives, I come to chlorinated chicken. I have a huge number of poultry producers in my constituency, and the nightmare for them is campylobacter, which causes food poisoning that kills about six people a year. If we chlorinate our chicken, we should save those lives. Do not be fooled by the anti-chlorination argument. There are terrible problems with hormones in beef, which I will not touch on—I will leave it to those who wish to criticise American food production—but chlorinated chicken is not the monster it is made out to be.
The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) spoke about chlorinated chicken and how we put chlorine in our swimming pools, and so on. The main point to which people object is that chlorinating chicken disguises the poor welfare standards that lead to the amount of germs and bacteria in the meat that is presented to us.