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Energy Support for Farms

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 21 March 2023

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered energy support for farms.

As a matter of openness and transparency, I declare an interest: I come from a small, family-run farm. Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Robertson; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for being here and for his prior engagement on the topic. I thank hon. Members from across the House for giving their time to attend this debate on this important issue.

In the constituency that I represent, the agriculture sector is vital to our economic wellbeing. In the wise words of my grandfather, if the farmer is not doing well, no other industry is or will; such is the importance of our agrifood industry. Across the wider Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon area, we have 3,431 farms. They contribute approximately £376 million in goods value and farm support payments into the local economy. They provide employment in the agriculture sector and in the 265 local agrifood sector businesses that the industry supports. In Northern Ireland, we have 26,000 farming families. The agrifood sector is worth more than £5 billion to the economy, and we feed more than 10 million people with our top-quality produce.

As has been the case for all households and businesses, energy costs on these farms have spiralled since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Many farms are unavoidably energy intensive. Take dairy, for instance. Farmers who needed to renew their energy contract last autumn experienced increases of more than 400%. With an electricity price of 37p per kWh, the annual cost to an average-size dairy farm is now approximately £105 per cow. For a 250 cow herd, that adds up to £46,000 a year, which is up by £26,000.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I absolutely agree with her and want to give my own example. I represent a local seed potato farmer whose costs have increased from £10,000 to £30,000. He has a generator and thinks he may have to come off the grid entirely. He faces an increase not only in energy costs, but in standing charges. Does the hon. Lady agree that farmers face a cliff edge at the end of this month and are disappointed that the Government did not do more to support them through the Budget?

I think the hon. Member has been reading my speech. A cliff edge certainly is coming for this important industry, which is the backbone of our economy.

Another example is poultry. There has been an increase of approximately £87 a day, which equates to about £32,000 a year. That is a phenomenal amount, and only so much of that can be passed on.

Ahead of the Chancellor’s spring statement last week, our farming unions, alongside Members from across the House, had been lobbying to bring about a change in mindset from the Government in relation to support for farmers with energy costs. The Government must recognise the key role of the agriculture sector in feeding the nation. The industry needs support in the face of energy price pressures.

The current support from the energy bill relief scheme is due to expire at the end of March. It will be replaced by the energy bills discount scheme, which will run for 12 months. That scheme offers far less protection and support to businesses, with the removal of the price cap and its being replaced by a token discount. A pre-defined selection of industries has been identified for additional support under the energy and trade-intensive industries scheme. However, farming sectors have been left off this scheme, leaving them literally out in the cold without support. In the face of that cliff edge, the ask of the Government was straightforward. Our farming unions, on behalf of their members, sought the extension of the energy and trade-intensive industry scheme to include energy-intensive sectors, such as horticulture, poultry and pig production. That was a reasonable ask that the Government should have listened to.

Poultry businesses are reliant on gas and electricity to rear poultry and store fresh produce safely. Without sufficient support, there is no doubt that those farmers will struggle to absorb the huge hikes in energy prices that they will face. The same can be said for pig producers.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As I am sure is the case across the UK, small farm holdings in Northern Ireland have shown great adaptability and diversification over recent years, as times and legislation have changed. Does she agree that the campaign and the pressure she is applying to the Government, to which I hope they will respond positively, needs to get them over the hump of the next 12 months, after which we hope things will improve regarding prices and the war in Ukraine, so that a more normalised structure can return?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The point is well made that there needs to be a short-term injection for those farmers, so that they can continue to produce at the same levels. We will see farming families and farms going out of business, which will not help the overall industry or the nation’s requirement for food produced locally.

Horticulture’s exposure is significantly greater not just for gas for glasshouse heating but for electricity used for lighting, chilling and storage. Without sufficient support, that sector will be under huge strain to remain viable. Yet the evidence-based appeal was ignored by the Chancellor. That reasonable ask of the farming community to extend the ETII scheme was ignored. There was no extension of ETII to support energy-intensive farms. A range of other industries continue to receive support. High-level energy relief continues to several sectors, including food processing and manufacturing, but the primary producer is forgotten. The Government once more ask the farmer to do more with less, and that is simply not possible.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Wholesale energy prices are already falling. The Government have not spent the amount of money that they had expected to spend on their energy-relief schemes. Does she agree that the Government have the headroom to go over and above what they announced in the Budget and to date? They could use those additional funds to support our farmers.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. There is the headroom and available money. I encourage the Government to do the right thing by the industry and to support those farmers at this time of need. This decision will have consequences; the cliff edge will be too much for some farmers. They will exit the industry and others will reduce output, unable to absorb the cost of maintaining their current output. Consequently, UK food production will fall, processors and manufacturers in the supply chain will be impacted, food inflation may well increase, and consumers ultimately will end up paying more.

No one wins from this decision. I believe it is still in the interests of the Treasury and the Government as whole, the agrifood industry and consumers that this decision is revisited. I ask the Minister to undertake to explore this comprehensive case once more, and to step up with the support these farms need to face the challenge and conditions they find themselves in. I also invite him to visit my constituency in his ministerial capacity to witness at first hand the value that these farms add to our economy and the pressure that they are currently feeling.

We need to back British farming. The Government demand the highest standards of our farmers and must repay their endeavours to produce world-class produce to the best animal welfare, environmental and sustainability standards with sufficient levels of support to enable them to do just that.

It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and an even greater pleasure to support my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). She has outlined very clearly the problems that her constituents in Upper Bann are having, and I want to reflect on those problems as well.

It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. He reminded me at 11 o’clock that this debate was on— I was already going to come, by the way. It is a real pleasure to be here. I think that he has already told me that whatever I ask for, he will respond in a positive fashion. I am not quite sure how that will work out, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann could give me a list of things to ask for. I say that in jest, by the way, but I know that the Minister will reply in a very positive fashion and I appreciate that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann is truly an advocate, in every sense of the word, for her constituents. She is also—I say this respectfully—a credit to her constituency and to us as her colleagues. We are very pleased to have her here alongside us today and we are equally pleased to support her.

I declare an interest as a landowner and a farmer, and a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. As my hon. Friend and I both hail from rural constituencies, we are often of one mind and one voice. Everyone else present is also of that one voice because the issue raised by my hon. Friend affects many constituencies across this whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is hard to know what more can be added to the comprehensive case that my hon. Friend has made today, but I will certainly do my best to contribute to this debate in a positive fashion. Farmers and farm businesses are heading towards crisis, which will not be a matter of a few “Closed” signs and a closed door; instead, it is a matter of food security, which is of the utmost importance to this House.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on eggs, pigs and poultry. There is no better APPG to chair, by the way; I love telling people about it. Everybody says, “Well, you’ll have a good breakfast every morning”, and I probably do. I always have two eggs every morning; I do not always have bacon or sausages, but I always have my eggs.

In my constituency of Strangford, the eggs, pigs and poultry sectors have intensive businesses with high energy usage. They have been encouraged to produce more food over the years, and to invest to do so. They have done that. The old saying, “You need to speculate to accumulate”, only really works if someone can speculate in a way whereby they know they will get a return. The problem is that with energy costs being so high, that speculation is now looking rather doubtful for many farmers, which is why we worry.

In my constituency of Strangford, we have the world-famous Comber spud. There is no spud like it; there are no potatoes like it in the whole world. By the way, Europe recognised that and I have to say that I had a small role to play in getting the Comber spud recognised by Europe. My colleague at that time was Simon Hamilton. He and I pursued that objective and the Comber potato is now highly recognised and valued, not only right across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but as far away as Europe.

The very famous Comber potato is produced by farmers in my area. They are immensely proud of that product, as they rightly should be. In my constituency of Strangford, we are blessed with precisely the right climate to be able to produce three crops of potatoes per year instead of the standard two. As I say, that is due to the climate, but it is also down to the soil. I would say, without fear of being contradicted, that there is no better soil in Northern Ireland to do that. And what a joy it is to represent that constituency, which has, as I say, the best soil there is.

The difficulty for the businesses in my constituency is that the cost of production has risen but the cost to the agrifood industry of converting potatoes into mash pots—which is where nearly all potatoes seem to go now—or whatever form they take, means that they cannot provide as much food as they potentially could. That is due to the rising energy costs.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. He touches on the most important part of the debate. The issue is not just that farmers face increased energy costs, but that that is part of the overall package. They have labour shortages and are under the cosh in just about every way imaginable. Consequently, if they are not able to meet the demand, other food sources will come through trade deals, and once they fill that gap in the market, we will never get them out.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will refer to that shortly and give an example. There are many issues with workforce and the supply of products as well. We have had problems over the last year, before and after Christmas, and I wish to refer to them as well.

Over the years, Government have encouraged farms to diversify and modernise, providing grants for new equipment and technology. However, Government have not taken into account the fact that costs have quadrupled in the space of a year for many farmers, and grants and subsidies certainly do not meet those rising costs. When I speak to farmers in my constituency about the possibilities for renewable energy—there are quite a few who are trying to do it—I learn that, unfortunately, they have heard too many stories of fields being used for solar energy with only £100 being saved on the electricity bill. They would be better off renting out their field for a birthday party bouncy castle, which would bring in more revenue than £100. The numbers do not seem to add up for many and that is why we must now step in and sow solutions into the problem. Hopefully, the Minister will give us some ideas about what can be done to assist and help.

The lifeblood of this nation lies in self-sustainability. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) referred to that. The UK does not produce enough fruit and vegetables for its population to get the recommended five portions a day. Even without taking waste into account, the United Kingdom would need to produce or import 9% more fruit and veg for everyone to be able to eat the recommended amount. That is not possible while farmers do not have the ability to produce and process in profit.

The recent debacle with the fruit and vegetable shortage highlighted a pertinent point: the UK depends on Morocco and Spain for vegetables during the winter. It does not have the workforce to sustain and gather all the fruit and veg in the summer. There are opportunities to do that better and to work ahead. Because of heavy rains and floods, suppliers have been hit by the problem of ferry cancellations, which has, in turn, affected lorry transport. At one stage, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had to reply in the House as to why food was so scarce. To be fair, it was not the Secretary of State’s fault, but ultimately the need to find a solution fell at her feet.

Supermarkets have also had shortages of broccoli and citrus fruits and we were left with rationing. I am not an avocado man, but my wife mentioned that they were in short supply as well. We never eat them, by the way, so I do not know why she told me that. I could not figure it out because it did not really make that much difference. However, farmers know they could fill the breach with other seasonable vegetables if they had the capacity to do so in a profit-making venture. If it comes to speculating, to accumulate we need to encourage the farmers to do just that.

Generations of farmers are prepared to carry on with the family farm and the back-breaking, morale-destroying and socially isolating nature of their work. We may not give farmers enough credit for all they do. They work away. I have always lived in the countryside, so I am aware of that from friends I went to school with and others I know quite well. Also, I live on a farm and my neighbours are all intensive farmers. But they cannot do this without support and the recent payment does not even make a dent in what is needed.

I back my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann in her calls for meaningful support. This is not only a matter of saving a job; this is about saving the nation’s ability to survive alone, and that is worth any investment in my eyes and hopefully in those of the Minister.

I too congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) for securing this debate, in which I am pleased to be participating. It is important that the challenges facing our farming sector are properly aired, and it is a little disappointing that the debate has not attracted more interest from across the House.

Farming that uses more energy—for example, the horticultural and poultry sectors—is not included in the UK Government’s definition of energy and trade intensive industries. There will therefore be a reduction in the energy cost support for farms, which has caused understandable and great disquiet.

The omission of horticulture is particularly frustrating. The question posed by the National Farmers Union, to which we would all like an answer, is: why are botanical gardens included in the scheme, but not food grown in greenhouses? That is not to take anything away from botanical gardens, but it seems quite out of kilter and bewildering. European farmers have been supported with a €500 million package to help with production costs, but farmers in Scotland and across the UK feel that the support they have been asking for has not been forthcoming.

As the Minister is aware, it was very much hoped that the Chancellor, in his Budget last week, would extend the definition of energy and trade intensive industries. It is extremely frustrating that that did not happen. As production costs soar, many farmers and food producers face a cliff edge of support. “Cliff edge” is an expression that every speaker in the debate has used. Many producers simply do not know how they will be able to keep going. Where in the Government’s priorities does domestic food production come? Unless the definition is extended, there may well be a reduction in production, which will risk longer-running food price inflation for consumers and could negatively impact the thousands of supply chain companies sustained by the farming sector.

Recent weeks have demonstrated how important domestic food production is, but it is energy intensive. We only have to think back to the recent tomato shortage as a prime example of what can go wrong if the farming sector is not supported. The vast majority of UK tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, which is clearly energy intensive. That, alongside the soaring cost of fertiliser, has given farmers cause to review what food they can actually afford to grown. Indeed, many have opted not to grow vegetables this winter, since there is a genuine lack of confidence that they would be able to cover the costs associated with energy-intensive crops. Cucumbers, which are also energy intensive, are expected to be another casualty. More generally, a shortage of domestic produce right across the board is now expected next year. Farmers cannot be expected to grow produce when they cannot even cover their costs. The reality is that it is simply not viable to grow under glass unless farming is recognised to be an energy-intensive business.

The only way to ensure that we have fresh domestic produce on our shelves is for the UK Government to understand what everyone else understands: that food production is energy intensive. It is bewildering that that argument has to be made. If that is not recognised, a shortage of fresh domestic produce on supermarkets shelves will become a familiar sight. The disruption of international supply chains means that we cannot even have imported fresh produce, as we saw recently with tomatoes. It will not be because of rain in Spain or Moroccan weather changes, as we were told recently when tomatoes became like hens’ teeth; it will be because of inaction from this Government.

There can be no doubt that Brexit has posed huge challenges for domestic food production. Farmers were promised a Brexit bonanza, but the reality is that they have been left paying the price for the damage caused by the Brexit adventure. Some people may think, “Well she would say that, wouldn’t she?” but the chair of Save British Food has also observed:

“I keep hearing that Spain is being blamed for the food shortages in Britain and this is absolute nonsense. The reason we have food shortages in Britain—and they don’t have food shortages in Spain or anywhere else in the EU—is because of Brexit and because of this disastrous Conservative government that have no interest in food production or farming or even food supply. That’s why we are in this mess. The Conservatives with their Brexit have messed up our trade and made that very difficult. This has also impacted the labour supply as it ended freedom of movement. It has also removed the cap and food subsidies, then add on top of that the Ukraine war and Covid and all of the inflation. All of this was predicted and predictable.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of the chair of Save British Food, who I suspect knows a thing or two about British food. She is now part of a growing chorus of people who have concluded that the only way to fix the problem is to

“get back into the single market and customs union”.

The woes are not hard to find; they are piling up for farmers at an alarming rate. The Public Accounts Committee criticised the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for its “blind optimism” over the implementation of the UK Government’s alternative to the EU’s common agricultural policy funds, with a lack of detail as to how alternative funding will provide the help needed.

Order. I gently remind the hon. Member that the debate is on energy support for farms. It is quite a narrow title.

Mr Robertson, you intervened at the right moment. I was setting out the general context for farmers. I have talked about energy support, but I am putting it in the context of the bigger challenges our farming sector faces. I take your point about the title of the debate.

We can barely imagine the sense of betrayal and abandonment that farmers feel when they look at their EU counterparts, who have a £500 million support package to help with production costs. That is a lump sum to farmers and agrifood businesses affected by the significant increase in input costs, such as energy, fertiliser and animal feed. All that UK farmers are asking for is similar support. Energy costs are the obstacle that is going to hit domestic food production across the UK—there is no debate about that. On top of energy costs, farmers have to deal with chronic labour shortages, with £22 million of fruit having rotted in the fields because of the labour shortage caused by the end of freedom of movement.

The Scottish Government are doing what they can with their limited powers to support farmers. The Minister does not need me to tell him that energy support is reserved to the UK Government. It is to the UK Government that our farmers are looking and hoping; they are asking and lobbying them to take note of the devastating impact that we will see on the farming sector and domestic food production if farming is not rightly recognised as an energy-intensive business—that should be no surprise to anybody.

When we get down to it, this debate is really about whether domestic food production matters. If it does not matter, then the Government can tell us about that position. I believe, as do many others, that it does matter, and that it requires the support that has been called for today. I hope the Minister will listen, and then go back to his colleagues to make the strong, robust case to include horticulture and poultry in the energy and trade intensive industries scheme. Otherwise, the damage to our farming sector and to domestic food production will be nothing short of catastrophic.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) on securing the debate. It is on an important and usually forgotten part of our current energy debates. We talk generally about domestic customers and industry and commerce and what they get in the various energy bill support schemes and discount schemes and so on, but we very rarely talk about farming or agriculture.

We tend to think that there is not much energy going into these rural buildings. We completely overlook just how much energy is used by farms, particularly in intensive industries such as poultry farming and horticulture where an enormous amount of energy is used in many parts of the process. It is rather hidden behind the seemingly low-cost, low-energy appearance of the rural environment.

It is important to concentrate on the farming sector’s problems with energy costs and what they mean for the ability of such businesses to sustain themselves. We must also think about what that means for the on-costs for everybody else, such as effects on the cost of food production. Many farms are pushed between the prices they are going to get for their end products from further up the chain and their own costs coming in. We must consider how they are going to make a living between those two points.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann gave examples of just how much energy costs have gone up for relatively small farms in her area. Those costs are, of course, replicated across the United Kingdom. She made a strong case for the question of energy support for farms to be looked at with a far wider lens that encompasses not just the small contributions that have been made to farms through the energy bill support scheme and others—though I know Northern Ireland has a slightly different scheme from the rest of the UK, where the payments are lumped together. There has been a considerable debate in Northern Ireland about the extent to which farms that are both domestic properties and farms get the full amount of payment through the scheme. Indeed, I have discussed with Ministers in Delegated Legislation Committee proceedings the rather complicated nature of that process.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann put forward the case that, notwithstanding Northern Ireland’s scheme, farms ought to be treated as part of an energy-intensive industry. I am sure hon. Members will be interested to know what actually is classed as an energy-intensive industry. The starting point for being treated as an energy- intensive sector is to fall in the 80th percentile for energy intensity—meaning it must fall in the top 20% for energy intensity across the UK—and the 60th percentile for trade intensity. So there is a formula as to what gets on the list of energy-intensive industries and can then receive additional support from the EBRS and be substantially exempted from environmental levies on the whole industry. The exemption has been 85% for quite a while, and there are discussions about whether it should be increased to 100% in the not-too-distant future. Categorisation as an energy-intensive industry is important, in a number of ways, to getting support with energy.

It is curious that poultry processing, for example, is on the list of energy-intensive sectors, but poultry production is not, and that things relating to ornamental plants are on the list, but horticulture is not. I suspect that may be because of the NACE—nomenclature of economic activities—classes, which define sectors. It may be that what look to us like sectors—poultry and horticulture, for example—are lost in the wider definition of a class such as agriculture and farming.

The Government should review fairly urgently how sectors are defined for energy intensity purposes. Seventy-one sectors come under the definition of energy-intensive industries. Is farming simply losing out because, as the sector is defined, its relatively lower-carbon elements dilute the elements with greater energy intensity? Such a review is well overdue. If the sectors were drawn a bit more closely, I think farming—or at least substantial elements of it, in the way that the hon. Member for Upper Bann described—would come under the definition.

Curiously, coalmining is defined as an energy-intensive industry and therefore 85% exempt from environmental levies, when we might think that that activity has something to do with the raising of those levies in the first place. There may be a wider case for redefining what counts as an energy-intensive industry.

This is a very important issue, and the Government could do something about it, not simply by providing a larger cash amount to farms, but by defining much more clearly what it is to run a farm and how energy use affects such definitions. The Government can look again at those definitions, and I hope that the Minister will commit to doing just that.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank all hon. Members for joining us in Westminster Hall for this debate. All of us—especially those of us who represent rural constituencies—are aware of the challenges that farmers are facing at the minute. I wish to express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) for bringing forward this debate and for her dedicated campaign to back British farming.

The Government have implemented several comprehensive support schemes across the UK to assist farmers in coping with energy costs. In particular, I wish to address the support being provided in Northern Ireland, given the vital contribution of farming and agriculture to the economy there.

I understand how fundamental agriculture and the wider agrifood industry is to Northern Ireland, employing more than 50,000 people across 26,000 farms. Northern Ireland is renowned at home for the quality of its produce. Farms are at the heart of the agrifood industry, which contributes £4.5 billion in turnover every year, helping to deliver a stronger, more secure economy in Northern Ireland. Before I go any further, let me say that I would be delighted to take the hon. Lady up on her invitation to visit Upper Bann and see farms operating in her constituency.

Given the industry’s importance, it is right that the Government’s energy schemes have offered much-needed support to farmers over the winter in the face of high and rising energy costs. On 1 October, we introduced the energy bill relief scheme, which will continue to run until the end of this month. It provides a discount on the wholesale component of gas and electricity bills and has provided protection to farmers from excessively high energy costs over the winter period. Support offered by this package is worth £7.3 billion and it is available across the entire United Kingdom.

Although energy prices are coming down, and it is right that we balance continued support with energy costs with our duty to the taxpayer, we also recognise that prices remain far above historical levels. For that reason, although the energy bill relief scheme is coming to an end, we have pledged to provide further support to non-domestic customers, including our farming industry, from April onwards through the energy bills discount scheme. The EBDS will continue to provide support to eligible non-domestic customers with their energy bills from April this year until the end of March 2024.

It is true that the EBDS baseline support is significantly reduced compared with that of the current energy bill relief scheme. That is to reflect the welcome reduction in wholesale energy prices. The Government make no apology for ensuring that the taxpayer is protected; we need to focus our support where it is most needed. Under the support package, energy and trade-intensive industries will receive a higher level of support than the baseline element. That is essential if those industries are to maintain their competitive edge against their international counterparts as they are less able to pass on increased costs to their consumers.

Before I move on, I wish to address the specific points that were raised. It is a great pleasure to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) back in the Chamber for the second time today. I am delighted to address his points, although I take issue with his assertion that the Comber spud is the greatest potato in the world. I think a tattie howked from the Howe o’ the Mearns is the far superior potato when it comes to international comparisons. None the less, I do take on board all of what he said. I know that, as a diligent Member of Parliament for an incredibly rural constituency, like me, he speaks from his heart when he talks about representing his farming constituents. I associate myself entirely with his comments on the socially isolated nature of farming in the 21st century. We must do all that we can to support farmers in the incredibly important work that they do to support this country and, indeed, to export great British produce around the world.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), raised eminently sensible and pertinent points. I commit to looking at the definition of an energy-intensive industry, and specifically at his point about how the less carbon-intensive elements of farming may reduce the overall burden of carbon intensity.

Let me turn to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), the spokesperson for the Scottish National party. I will not take any lectures from the SNP on supporting Scottish farmers. It is not the Conservative Government, but the SNP Government who have been accused by the National Farmers Union Scotland of leaving farmers to operate in an information void, given the lack of progress on the Scottish post-Brexit farming Bill.

If the hon. Lady really is as passionate as she says she is about supporting domestic food production in Scotland, perhaps she will make the case within the SNP Government that they should get on board and extend the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill to Scotland, just as the NFUS has asked them to. That could be a great fillip and a great boost for Scottish farming, given that so much of the technology in that field is being developed in Scotland. Other than that, the hon. Lady did make some important points regarding supporting Scottish farmers, which, of course, I take on board.

I thank the hon. Member for Upper Bann for raising the issue of farms not being eligible for the additional targeted support of the energy and trade-intensive industries scheme. I am aware that the National Farmers Union and the Ulster Farmers Union have raised similar concerns. I want to stress that the energy and trade-intensive industries eligible sectors list is targeted and comprehensive. It was developed to support sectors in the top 20th percentile for energy intensity and the top 40th percentile for trade intensity in the UK, notwithstanding what I said in reply to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test about the carbon intensity of some elements of farming.

Sadly, the farming sector does not meet the ETII eligibility criteria at the minute and is therefore not eligible to receive the targeted support. Although I recognise that the hon. Member for Upper Bann would wish us to go further, I hope she will understand that we have sought to be fair in applying the criteria rigorously and objectively. We do not have plans to extend the scope of eligible sectors to include farms, as confirmed by the Chancellor at the Budget. However, the non-domestic alternative fuel payment offers one-time support of £150 to approximately 76,000 customers in Northern Ireland and 315,000 non-domestic customers without access to mains gas, including some farms, throughout Great Britain. High users of heating oil can apply for a top-up payment based on their usage over the past year.

It is essential that we look at energy bills support for farms and farmers in the round. Although farms will benefit from the EBDS at its base support level, rather than at the enhanced level for energy and trade-intensive industries, they will also benefit from funding available to domestic customers. That includes the energy price guarantee, the alternative fuel payment and the energy bills support scheme. The energy price guarantee reduces electricity and gas costs for domestic customers, aiming to lower annual bills, combat fuel poverty and maintain supplier market stability. The scheme covers approximately 29 million households.

In Northern Ireland, all households are receiving a combined payment of £400 from the energy bills support scheme and a £200 alternative fuel payment, regardless of whether they use alternative fuels or mains gas to heat their homes. That payment has been provided by electricity suppliers to all households with a domestic meter and a contract. That will include farmhouses with a domestic meter. Farms in Northern Ireland with a combined meter are covered by the alternative funding, to which I will turn shortly. Suppliers began making payments on 16 January and have confirmed that all first attempts to reach all customers have been made. Efforts are now ongoing to reach those who encountered challenges in the first pass, such as vouchers addressed to the wrong individual or failed bank transfers. Those who have not yet received their vouchers or a payment into their bank account should immediately contact their electricity supplier.

In Great Britain, the energy bills support scheme is being delivered as a discount on energy bills and provided by suppliers in monthly instalments from October 2022 to March 2023. As we are now approaching the end of the scheme’s final month, I urge all hon. Members to join the Government in highlighting to their constituents who use traditional prepayment meters the importance of acting now to redeem their energy bills support scheme vouchers.

Over the weekend, it was indicated in a newspaper that 20,000 households in Northern Ireland have not received their benefit. Is there any way that the Minister can ascertain who those 20,000 households are? Are some of them farmers? We suspect that they are. There was certainly an issue early on, with some farmhouses not receiving the benefit. Would the Minister be so generous as to find out the answer to that question?

Across the entire United Kingdom, 1.9 million vouchers remain unused, which is why I ask all hon. Members to encourage people who have not received their vouchers, or who are not receiving the discount that they should be, to contact their electricity supplier, either directly or through their Member of Parliament. I will find out the fuller answer to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question on where those people are.

For those without a domestic energy supply, who were not eligible for automatic support, we have introduced the energy bills support scheme alternative funding in Great Britain and its Northern Ireland counterpart, the energy bills support scheme alternative funding for Northern Ireland. They offer one-off, non-repayable payments of £400 and £600 respectively. In Northern Ireland, applications are processed by our contracted delivery partner, with Government support. The £600 payment in Northern Ireland comprises £400 for energy bills, as in Great Britain, and £200 for alternative fuels, mirroring the payments under the main energy bills support scheme in Northern Ireland.

The Government are committed to providing assistance to farmers, households and businesses affected by high energy costs. The comprehensive schemes that I have outlined have been designed to offer support when it is most needed and alleviate the burden on our citizens and businesses during these challenging times.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upper Bann on securing this debate on a subject of great importance to many farms, businesses and households. I commit to taking away all that she and others have raised about the high intensity of those businesses. I would be delighted not just to visit her constituency but to work further with her if my Department can provide further assistance to ensure that support reaches all those who need it as swiftly as possible.

I thank everyone who participated in the debate. Farming is clearly the backbone of our economy, and it was important to highlight this issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for raising food security. His constituency always gets a mention. No one is in any doubt about the importance of Comber spuds.

I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for highlighting not just the energy issue, but labour shortages and the effect of the increase in production on feed and so on. That was an important point.

I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for highlighting the lack of support and raising the need to prioritise domestic food production. She digressed slightly with some of her views on Brexit, but her overall point about energy and the need for more support for our farming families was well made.

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), for his contribution. He made the important point that the Government need to look at the definition, and the Minister said he would do just that. The shadow Minister asked whether the definition is being diluted; we need to look at that important point.

I thank the Minister for his comments in this important debate. He highlighted that lots of support has been given out, but it really is a drop in the open. He will understand why I say that I do not believe it goes far enough. I encourage him to look again at the definition and include farming in the intensive industries list. It is intensive, and it needs more support or farming families will be diminished across the United Kingdom. We do not want to see that; we want more food to be produced in this United Kingdom. We want to serve our communities and produce high-class, quality produce for all to feed on.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered energy support for farms.

Sitting suspended.