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Farming in Wales and the UK

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 5 March 2024

I will call Jonathan Edwards to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up—as he knows; he is an experienced Member—as is the convention for 30-minute debates. I suspect, however, that he will get a number of interventions.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered farming in Wales and the UK.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to have the opportunity to raise the concerns expressed in rural Wales in particular, but seeing that there is an honourable turnout from Members from all constituent parts of the UK, I suspect we will hear about the concerns of other farmers across the UK.

Feelings are running at fever pitch in Wales, and last week a mass protest converged on the capital city of Cardiff. For those in the rural heartlands of Wales, Cardiff is not the easiest place to get to. My hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) will attest that it is easier to get to London than to Cardiff from Caernarfon.

Yes, it is even easier to get to Dublin. The turnout was extraordinary and showed the strength of feeling that has erupted over recent weeks. I was listening to the Wales podcast on the BBC on the train down over the weekend, and it said it was the largest demonstration that the Senedd has ever seen. That is testament to the strength of feeling in rural Wales.

Although I do not come from farming stock directly, my father and his brother were raised on Ffos y Ffin farm in Capel Dewi following the death of their father from tuberculosis. He got involved in the local young farmers movement, and his best friend was David Woods, who farmed Waunyryddod in Cwmfelin Mynach in the west of Carmarthenshire, near Whitland. Some of my fondest memories as a child include visiting the Woods family at their farm on weekends, watching my father and Mr Woods milk the herd, and helping out as I got a bit older. I witnessed at first hand the unwavering dedication of our farmers and grew a huge appreciation for their work and for the pride they feel in being food producers for the general population.

The pressures farmers work under are considerable. They are open to hugely fluctuating costs and prices while their payments largely flatline, and they work on extremely small margins. One of my first meetings after being elected was with a dairy farmer, who explained the huge financial difference that a 1p increase or decrease in the price of milk would cause his business. The inflationary pressures squeezing our economy are hitting farmers particularly hard, with skyrocketing input costs severely impacting their income. Last year, I received a justifiably angry message from a constituent complaining that fertiliser costs had doubled in less than 12 months. He was talking about having to drastically cut back on production. The inflationary pressures have driven up costs across the industry, yet farmers have not had the option of passing those costs on to consumers due to their position in the supply chain.

Mental health has become a major issue in the agricultural community. Suicide rates are far higher than those of the general population. Economic pressures undoubtably play a role, as do the insular nature of the job, the relentless hours and the demanding schedules. A recent survey revealed that over a third of farmers experience clinical depression and nearly half struggle with anxiety. I have been there myself on many occasions, and it is absolutely no joke. Being in that state of mind while working in an extremely dangerous workplace obviously makes matters even more serious. I know of a farmer who has had his struggles over the years. Recently he walked into a slurry pit before snapping out and phoning the emergency services, which thankfully got there in time. Mental health in farming should be a priority for policymakers, and I pay tribute to charities such as the DPJ Foundation, based in Carmarthen, for their work in providing advocacy and raising the profile of those issues.

From an economic perspective, agriculture is comparatively more important to the Welsh economy than that of the UK as a whole. Take out farming and other sectors will be severely hit. To further make the point, National Farmers Union Cymru recently hosted a meeting with over 100 stakeholders who are worried about the new sustainable farming scheme of the Welsh Government. A wide range of organisations and companies were represented, including agricultural contractors, vets, academic institutions, farming charities, legal firms and trade associations, as well as major meat, milk and food service companies based in and operating in Wales.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate forward. He is absolutely right to highlight the issues for Wales, and indeed for the whole of the United Kingdom. Does he agree that there are many issues facing farmers UK-wide, and that the farming community needs support to ensure that we are providing opportunities to not only those from farming backgrounds but those outside, so that they can realise that there is potential for a fulfilling career in the countryside? Perhaps we need to push for this vocation as passionately as we do for the NHS or even engineering.

I am extremely grateful for that very valuable contribution. Later in my speech I will talk about how the agricultural community needs to perceive us as wanting to work with them, as opposed to being unsympathetic towards them, which, unfortunately, is especially the case in Wales at the moment.

Returning to my point about the NFU gathering, following the meeting, NFU Cymru president Aled Jones said:

“The food and farming supply chain is an £8 billion industry in Wales that employs some 233,000 people, Wales’ biggest employer. As a sector we are completely interlinked with each part of the supply chain relying on the other for their viability.

A productive, progressive and profitable Welsh farming sector is essential to the wider supply chain, farmers spend around £1.4bn annually on products such as feed, fertiliser, veterinary and medicines, farm machinery and contract work. The produce from our farms is processed and sold in retail and food service markets in Wales, across the UK and globally.”

To return to the issue of intervention, we get the impression that policymakers at a Welsh level in particular view our farmers as some sort of economic burden. Their mindset needs to be turned around, and a key part of that is accepting the anchor status of farming for the whole rural economy.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, and I very much agree with all the points that he has made. He will be aware that in much of East Anglia, just as in Wales, one in eight jobs in rural communities are linked to agriculture, food and drink, and the wider supply chain. I wonder whether more can be done to support the agricultural sector through public sector procurement, such as the UK Government and the devolved Governments introducing minimum requirements for food in our hospitals and our schools to be purchased from local farmers.

I am extremely grateful for that intervention. I think that such a policy would give the added bonus of providing high-quality food in hospitals and schools, which we should be aspiring to achieve as policymakers.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is going on in Wales—the real disappointment faced by Welsh farmers under the Labour Government provided by the Welsh Assembly—is the gypsy’s warning for farming across the whole of the UK? If we were unlucky enough to get a Labour Government, what is happening in Wales would happen in the rest of the UK, and there is not even a Labour MP present to defend the Welsh Government. It’s a shocker!

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his passion and his support of the farming industry. I do not want to write his election leaflet for him, but I will certainly be concentrating on Welsh Government policy further on in my speech.

Earlier this month, 3,000 farmers converged on Carmarthen market under the protest banner “Digon yw Digon”, which translates to “Enough is Enough”. I pay tribute to my constituents Gary Howells and Aled Rees for mobilising so many farmers in my home county. Indeed, protests have been erupting across Wales and England. As an aspiring historian in a past life, I have to mention that those massive protest meetings have parallels with the Rebecca rioters’ mass gathering at Mynydd Sylen, near Pontyberem, in the summer of 1843—I had to get that in. What we are witnessing today, however, is colossal discontent in the agricultural community. Thankfully, organisers and the unions have done a great job in ensuring that matters have remained peaceful and within the law.

Much of that anger has been growing since the EU referendum, as farmers have witnessed the destructive approach taken by policymakers to the development of post-Brexit agricultural policy. There is no doubt that leaving the European Union has been a disaster for Welsh farming. They were promised sunlit uplands by the leave campaign but have been let down, and in the post-Brexit trade deals that have been signed, the interests of our farmers have been sold down the river by the UK Government. I acknowledge that there seems to have been a slight change of approach with the current deals, such as the one with Canada. However, that is too little, too late in relation to some of the previous deals.

The Welsh Government calculate that, for the period 2021-25, rural support funding will be £243 million less than had we been under EU farming support policy, and that figure does not account for inflation. The difficulty faced by the Welsh Government in managing an overall budget declining in real terms perhaps explains some of the unfavourable policy approaches that we have seen towards agriculture over the last few years. If the UK Government have left themselves open to accusations that they have neglected agriculture, the Welsh Government are open to accusations of hostility.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; he is making a fine speech. He points to the double whammy facing Welsh farming. It is not only Brexit and the subsequent disaster—of course, the Canada deal is far from settled; a cruel pantomime is going on at the moment, as we shall see later in the main Chamber—but there is also the incompetence and lack of understanding and listening from the Welsh Labour Government, as witnessed at the very large protests last week. Clearly, we need a change.

My hon. Friend’s point about the Welsh Government is well made. I do not know of any farmer who votes for the Labour party, and I suppose one can understand why the Labour party takes the approach it does. But it is disastrous for agriculture to have a Government who are open to the accusation of being hostile to farmers.

One of the most emotionally difficult meetings I have had as an MP was on the case of the farm that was struck down with bovine TB. It is difficult to explain the mental health impact on those affected. Earlier this month, “Ffermio”, an agricultural programme on S4C, unmasked those horrors graphically on the Castell Howell farm of Mr and Mrs Davies in Capel Isaac in my constituency. The family had to witness their cattle herd shot in front of them, one by one. It was absolutely harrowing for the viewer and utterly despairing for the family. It has become a tipping point for the emotional outpouring we are witnessing in rural Wales at the moment. It was an incredible piece of filmmaking by the “Ffermio” programme team, led by my constituents Ellen Llewellyn and Meinir Howells.

The failure of the Welsh Government to get to grips with bovine TB, and the continued faith in the policy of destroying cattle herds, has become a perfect metaphor for the unsympathetic environment farmers face from their own Government. I am glad that the Welsh Government committed to reviewing their policy on farm slaughter last week, but there should be a wholesale review of policy, including dealing with TB in wildlife.

To compound matters, the Welsh Government partnership parties have acted with blatant disregard on changes proposed to school terms and the potential impact on the Royal Welsh show, one of the marquee events in the Welsh national calendar. Proposed school term changes could see the show fall outside the traditional summer holidays, with the organisers warning that they will face a £1 million-plus shortfall, making the event unviable. Last week, the Minister hosted an event by the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society in the very room where the idea to form it came to fruition, Committee Room 12, to celebrate the 120 years since that initial meeting. England has lost its royal show, and we in Wales now have the most successful, and possibly the largest, agricultural event in Europe. Yet the event operates on small margins, and a £1 million operational loss could be fatal. The Welsh Government need to sit back and think this policy through, and make sure that the Royal Welsh show and the National Eisteddfod are protected.

The all-Wales blanket approach to nitrate pollution by the Welsh Government has irked farmers further due to its disproportionality and the estimated cost of £400 million to the industry. Everybody acknowledges the need to reduce agricultural pollution. However, why the Welsh Government feel the need for a sledgehammer approach is beyond me. Coleg Sir Gar’s Gelli Aur Agricultural College in my constituency has been pioneering slurry treatment technology that separates waste into two reusable products by separating the water. Water can then re-enter the environment safely or be reused on the farm, with the remnants being a dried product that can be used as fertiliser with little pollution risk.

Instead of coming down on farmers like a ton of bricks, why are the Welsh Government not providing grants for farming businesses to upgrade their waste systems? That could be done on a collaborative basis among farmers. One system could service a number of farming businesses and would potentially provide an income source from a waste product. It ticks all the boxes.

There is huge innovation in Wales. Aled Davies and his company, Pruex, also based in my constituency, is pioneering using natural bacteria to disinfect chicken and cattle sheds from ammonia pollution instead of chemicals. The results I have seen look very impressive. I was delighted to receive an email last week from Mr Davies saying that he had secured a research contract from the Welsh Government—I will give them a bit of credit for that. That shows what can be achieved if the Welsh Government work with the sector. Wales can pioneer change.

Unfortunately, that brings me to the new sustainable farming scheme for agricultural payments proposed by the Welsh Government. Their own assessments indicate that the scale of job losses in the agricultural sector would be around double the expected steel job losses in Port Talbot. Unamended, the new policy would also lead to a loss of £199 million to farm incomes and an 11% reduction in livestock numbers—that is the Welsh Government’s own figures. The knock-on effect on the wider rural economy would be catastrophic.

Page 6 of the partnership agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru endorses the SFS as a commitment in which both parties will develop the new agricultural support regime.

On support for farmers, yesterday I was speaking to a former president of the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society, a Mr Finlay Munro, a farmer in my constituency. He made the point, which I found quite thought provoking, that when we talk about carbon sequestration, we are not really giving grassland its full value, and that, if that could be worked into the equation, it might be a support mechanism for our farmers. Does the hon. Gentleman—who is making an excellent speech—agree that the Government should look at that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; indeed, that is the criticism of the SFS coming from farmers. The Welsh Government made a statement last week saying they were going to review it, which is a positive step forward in response to the protests. However, reviewing is one thing; what we want is policy implementation. The hon. Gentleman’s point is well made, and it is often made to me by my farmers in Carmarthenshire.

Returning to what I was saying, it is worth reading out the section on the SFS in the partnership agreement, so that it is on the record. It says that both parties will work together to:

“Introduce a transition period as we reform the system of farm payments so stability payments will continue to be a feature of the Sustainable Farming Scheme during and beyond this Senedd term. We will agree the longer-term arrangements for Welsh agriculture, recognising the particular needs of family farms and acknowledging ecologically sustainable local food production.”

It pains me to say this, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) will not be too happy with what I am about to say, but it seems to me that Plaid Cymru has been completely outmanoeuvred by the Labour party in the partnership agreement. They have effectively been lead down an endless 20 mph road to nowhere by Labour.

There is a clear case that the farming community has a vital role in helping the Welsh Government to reach their environmental targets, especially in terms of carbon sequestration—to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). The alternative is letting the speculators buy up Welsh agricultural holdings—as has been happening—and planting trees on productive Welsh farming land. As always, the Welsh Government would be better advised to take farmers with them on a journey, as opposed to dictating and imposing. Just to reiterate the point I made in response to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, there has been a Welsh Government statement saying that there will be a review, but what we really want to see is action.

My understanding is that in Scotland the SNP aim to enable farmers to continue to access a level of basic payments, which seems to be a better approach. In Wales, we would do well to rethink the SFS, look at what Scotland is doing and meet the demands of the farming unions for a new universal baseline payment. As my constituent Ian Rickman, the president of the Farmers’ Union of Wales, has said:

“The reality is that if the scheme remains in its current form, and if the modelling report is correct, farmers uptake will be minimal and everyone will lose out—Welsh farmers, the environment, the public and ultimately the Welsh Government. There is a real worry that even under a scenario where scheme payments come nowhere near to compensating for the loss of the Basic Payment Scheme, there will be some farm businesses that will have no choice other than to participate in the SFS. This will, no doubt, place further pressure on farmers’ workload and mental health.”

He continued:

“The Sustainable Farming Scheme must be accessible by all, and provide long-term stability for farming businesses and the wider rural economy that relies upon agriculture. The SFS needs to provide a meaningful income stream which properly rewards farmers and underpins the importance of a high quality food supply chain, produced here in Wales.”

The deadline for the final stages of the Welsh Government’s consultation on the SFS is later this week, and I will be sending them a copy of this speech. As Ministers and negotiators on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the Government consider the responses, I urge them to tread very carefully before announcing their final plans. Conceding reviews is one thing; what matters is the policy environment that will be implemented, and unless concerns are addressed, the protests that we have witnessed to date will be magnified.

May I just say that the hon. Gentleman does a slight disservice to my party by lumping Plaid Cymru in with the Welsh Labour Government. We do have an agreement, as he knows full well, having been involved in discussions on this issue in past times, but that is far from being jointly responsible together as a coalition—as some parties have recently titled it.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because what he said is what a lot of the public discourse around the protests has been. However, I read out the actual partnership agreement—

Yes, there is a negotiation going on, and the hon. Gentleman is aware that his colleague in Arfon is the lead negotiator. I think she has been blindsided by the Labour Government.

He will like this bit now, though—

R. S. Thomas, one of our greatest national poets, would often portray in his work how farmers and the land of Wales are one and the same. I have to be honest: I find the culture war tactics used against farmers difficult to comprehend. As R. S. observed, nobody understands nature and the intrinsic link between the preservation of nature, industrial toil and food production better than our farmers. Everyone understands that practices will have to evolve, but the role of policymakers must be to lead industry on a journey that it can buy into, as well as one that safeguards farming, as opposed to one that industry considers to be undermining it.

It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley; I know that, given your constituency, this is a matter of interest to you as well. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing today’s debate. I thank the hon. Members who have contributed so far; I am pleased to see colleagues from right across the United Kingdom, because all too often farming in Wales does not get the attention it needs. I am delighted to see so many people contribute.

My hon. Friend, from a sedentary position, makes a good point about the startling lack of Labour Members in the debate. I will come back to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr drew attention to many of the key pressures facing farmers at the moment, and I particularly commend him for talking about mental health. I join him in praising the DPJ Foundation, which I know. My constituency adjoins his, and I have been to a farmer, in Hundred House in my constituency, who pointed out the beam at the top of the barn that he contemplated using when things got so desperately bad. I am grateful that with the support of the DPJ Foundation he is worlds away from that place now, and I credit it for all the work it has done to support farmers, because it is a very difficult time.

We know that farmers are used to working in incredibly difficult conditions, whether that is from the weather, a difficult lambing or poor global prices—whatever it might be. Farmers are often at the bottom of the chain, and it is right that we thank them for what they do, not only in producing our food but in stewarding our environment. We simply would not have the incredible rolling hills of mid-Wales without them. I am incredibly proud of them, and this is another opportunity for me to restate just how much we owe to farmers the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

There was much in speech by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr that I agreed with, and sadly I do not have time to talk through everything. I gently challenge his points on trade, which he brought up on the Floor of the House yesterday.

I was tempted to intervene because of the mention of farmers across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. It is of interest that there are no Scottish National party Members here. Again, when I talked to Mr Finlay Munro, we spoke about the lack of forward planning. We do not know where we are on what will be environmental, what will be wild and what will not. Is it hedgerows or is it feeding the nation? That is something that I think we need to be very wary of.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. It is not a political point to say that Members are not here, because all Members from all parties ought to be engaging and listening to farmers at the moment. It is absolutely right to point out that what farmers need is certainty. In my maiden speech, I talked about how farmers can withstand drought, flood and Government interference if they are able to plan and are given the certainty. Sadly, that is very much lacking for farmers in Wales, and I believe in Scotland we need to see a little bit more detail. I urge all Members to come to the table.

To return to the points made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr about trade, he referred to the Australia trade deal. I would push back gently against some of the language that he used there. There are safeguards within the Australia trade deal that protect farmers right across the United Kingdom from any kind of dumping. I wish that would get a little bit more attention.

I do not know whether the Minister has met the Australian and New Zealand ambassadors, but I have along, with the Plaid Cymru group. I can inform her that both ambassadors were delighted at the wonderful deal they achieved with the United Kingdom, and slightly puzzled as to what we were getting out of it.

I will carry on with the point about protections in the trade deals. I understand that Plaid Cymru is quick to talk down trade deals—in fact, I am not sure that it has ever supported a single one. However, there are a number of safeguards in both free trade agreements that protect agriculture, so there are huge reasons to be positive, not least about the fact that the Australia trade deal brings us access to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. That is a hugely promising market for Welsh agricultural products.

As I have not yet even started my speech, I will try to return to some of the points I was going to highlight. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is right to point out some of the issues with the sustainable farming scheme. He used the phrase “digon yw digon”, and we in Wales understand what farmers mean when they say that: they have had enough of feeling as though they are not being listened to.

I was really disappointed to hear a Labour Member in Prime Minister’s questions last week refer to some of the protesting farmers as extremists who are sharing conspiracy theories online. If Labour Members were willing to listen to them, they would understand that they are raising legitimate grievances about the future viability of their businesses, for example over bovine TB, which the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr raised incredibly well. That is an example of where the Welsh Government have set their face against farming. In England, we introduced a badger cull in 2013—I pay credit to the Liberal Democrats for their determination to see that through as part of the coalition Government. We have seen statistics that show that the rate of bovine TB is reducing, but in Wales we have no such support. In England, we are being led by the science; in Wales, I am afraid that it is being ignored.

I am afraid to say that the sustainable farming scheme is frankly unworkable. We had a long debate on the Floor of the House last night, when we talked about some of the challenging elements of that scheme. I am afraid to say that farmers will be required to carry out six online training courses each and every year. They will be required to submit data on the amount of medicines they use in their flock or herd, the rate of lamb loss, soil, worm numbers, and seed receipts. It is simply unworkable. That is before we even get on to the two headline items of the sustainable farming scheme: the condition that farmers must remove 10% of land for planting trees and a further 10% for habitat construction. Given the global uncertainty we face, it is madness that the Welsh Government want to reduce the amount of land available for food production. We should be boosting our food security, not reducing it.

I will try to wrap up my remarks in the last couple of minutes. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is right to point out that the sustainable farming scheme will, according to the Welsh Government’s own analysis, cost 5,500 jobs on farm, not to say anything about the impact on the wider supply chain. I have a huge amount of time and respect for the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), but he criticised me in his intervention on the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr for the fact that the Welsh Conservative party has pointed out Plaid Cymru’s support for Welsh Labour over the last few years. If it looks, sounds and smells like a coalition, I do not really know why the hon. Member for Arfon wants to call it a co-operation agreement.

However, the fact is that this is in Plaid Cymru’s hands. To make the sustainable farming scheme go away, all it needs to do is vote against the Welsh Government’s budget and force them to go back to the table, listen to farmers and make improvements to the scheme. Were it to withdraw from the co-operation agreement—or coalition, as I call it—it could get this off the table, which is what all farmers want. They want to deliver for the environment and food production, and they want their Government to listen to them,. Plaid Cymru has the power to make that happen. I urge the hon. Member for Arfon to hear the message coming from Westminster Hall and the main Chamber that his party has the power to do that, and I very much hope that it does.

In the final minute, I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr once again for bringing this debate to the House. The importance of food production and environmental delivery must go hand in hand. It is absolutely incumbent on all of us here to speak up for the important industries that power our nation, whether it is steel, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, or farming, which is a historic, dynamic and proud industry that powers rural Wales. In the few seconds I have left, I commend him for his comments about the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, which is the largest show in Europe.

I am sorry to contradict my hon. Friend. Farming is the beating heart of rural Wales. I am incredibly proud to represent so many farmers, and I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr for his work in doing the same.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.