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English Horticultural Sector (Horticultural Sector Committee Report)

Volume 837: debated on Friday 19 April 2024

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the Report from the Horticultural Sector Committee Sowing the seeds: A blooming English horticultural sector (Session 2022–23, HL Paper 268).

My Lords, I start my speech introducing Sowing the Seeds: A Blooming English Horticultural Sector by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, because, without her persistence in lobbying for a horticultural committee, it would never have been formed in the first place. Although by rights she should have gone on to chair the committee, I am grateful that she graciously allowed me to assume the role.

The report covers myriad issues. Although there are 93 recommendations and the report is 180 pages long, its length and number of recommendations correspond to the breadth of the sector and the complicated landscape of interconnected issues. The overarching conclusion of the report is that horticulture is a successful sector that is vital to the British economy, providing food security and environmental benefits, and is integral to the way in which we interact with green spaces and the landscape in the UK.

The report engendered an enormous amount of work. I thank our clerk, Dr Jillian Luke; Francesca Crossley, our policy analyst; and Abdullah Ahmad, the committee’s operations officer. Unusually, I would also like to pay special tribute to Dervish Mertcan from the House of Lords Press Office. The committee got a great deal of press coverage, which is not unusual for a House of Lords Select Committee, but I would argue that it shone above all others in achieving a rare accolade: being able to host “Gardeners’ Question Time” in the Robing Room.

The horticulture sector is worth more than £5 billion a year and employs more than 50,000 people, although different measures put the value far higher. However, its importance as part of the economy has had little recognition by the wider public; it also seems to be politically undervalued. That is not the case in other countries. The committee’s trip to the Netherlands showed how the Dutch place far more importance on this sector—a position that we believe should be mirrored in the UK. The horticultural sector is vital in helping the country meet its food requirements with high-quality, low-cost produce and with world-leading innovation in areas such as the development of the vertical farming sector. However, there are real challenges, not least of which is that profit margins are low and risk factors such as energy prices and climate change threaten the viability of producers.

The perception that the sector is undervalued was expressed by many in our evidence sessions. If we are to secure food security and environmental goals, horticulture should have more proactive support from the Government. Therefore, the Government’s response to the report was profoundly disappointing. Although the response showed in general an agreement with much of the sentiment of the report, there was little commitment to policy change. The Government highlighted future publications and consultations that will report at some point in the future, but there seemed to be little appetite for urgent action.

The written and oral evidence to the committee painted a picture of a sector that is struggling to meet its full potential. The sector faces multiple challenges, including post-Brexit trade problems. In the supply chain, the rising cost of labour, linked to shortages, and energy price rises have led to an increase in the cost of fertiliser. There are also water supply concerns and certainty that water shortages will increase in future as a result of climate change—as will flooding, as shown last winter. While, on the demand side, low margins are linked to extreme price competition among the supermarkets, all these issues will need to be addressed if farms are to remain competitive and viable.

The most obvious recommendation of the committee, in order to bring direct oversight of the sector, was the creation of a dedicated Horticultural Minister. The proposal did not suggest that Defra Ministers are failing, but a Horticultural Minister could focus more clearly on the many issues highlighted by the report’s recommendations. As a recommendation, it was always going to be a long shot—I am sure that the Minister will argue that the sector is covered adequately by Defra; obviously, that is not a personal jibe at the Minister—but submissions from the industry showed a belief that the fragmented nature of responsibilities between different departments is a real impediment to the sector’s ability to operate and grow.

The one consistent ask by those giving evidence at almost all the sessions was for a comprehensive horticultural strategy. The Government’s response confirmed that despite past assurances that a strategy would be produced, they will not now be publishing a horticultural strategy for England. This has caused a great deal of frustration and the belief among many in the industry that this shows a lack of commitment from the Government. One bright spot is that the committee’s report clearly highlights what should be addressed in any future strategy. I am sure there will be much lobbying of the next Government, whoever they might be—almost certainly Liberal Democrat—to make the formulation of a horticultural strategy a priority after the next election, whenever that may be.

Horticulture in the UK is a very broad topic for a report. At the first meeting of the committee, when the parameters of the report were discussed, it was agreed, after a firm intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, that a central component of the report should be the ornamental sector. The size of that sector would surprise many people. The Horticultural Trades Association stated that:

“The UK ornamental plant and tree production sector directly contributed £880 million to the UK economy in 2019, employing around 17,800 people. By 2030 … this could grow to £1.3 billion in direct GDP contributions with the direct employment of almost 21,000”.

However, as the report points out, there are serious constraints on growth in the sector due to a lack of confidence in the procurement processes that has acted as a disincentive to investment, which has hindered growth.

The sector is not just about the sale of plants but has a role in protecting the environment. Climate change will all but banish the English country garden in the coming decades in the south of England, so the ornamental sector has a role in helping gardeners move to more resilient and less thirsty plants for gardens, at the same time making sure that the plants grown foster biodiversity. The committee was keen to look at green spaces, and it is impossible not to see how arboriculture—the propagation of trees—and tree nurseries are essential for the country’s parks and public spaces. I hope the Minister can say whether Defra is looking at funding commitments for tree nurseries beyond the grants made available by the Nature for Climate Fund, because the fund finishes in 2025 and at present there seems to be no replacement.

One of the most pressing issues faced by the ornamental and tree sector is the new border control systems necessitated by the hard Brexit that the Government adopted. At the time of the publication of the report, there had been a delay in the implementation of the new border controls through to April this year. They come into effect a week on Tuesday, when the current “place of destination” system of plant health import inspections will end. From then, checks will take place at border control posts. Using BCPs to conduct import checks on plants imported in volume from the EU is a unique and untested system. There has been a distinct lack of detail about how they will operate when handling plants and how much they will increase costs and delays for businesses forced to use them.

A few weeks ago, the Government finally announced the awaited common user charge for goods entering via the short straits, but charges do not apply to commercially run BCPs such as those at Harwich or Immingham, which will apply a different set of methods for charging when it comes to handling plants being presented to the Animal and Plant Health Agency for inspection.

A major concern is that businesses cannot forecast their costs because it is a lottery as to who gets charged and how much, and it is difficult to compare costs for using different ports of entry into Great Britain. The Horticultural Trades Association has expressed a concern that there is a lack of experience or training in handling precious plants and trees, and the way that border control posts are designed is not conducive to treating sensitive and perishable plants in the best way possible. This will almost certainly lead to losses and costs to businesses.

The current processes and plans have been developed in a vacuum of reliable and robust data. Systems have not been capturing the information needed to develop appropriate processes and infrastructure to cope. After 30 April, importers will be operating in a period known as the “pragmatic approach”, which means that if it does not work, solutions will have to be developed on the hoof, potentially harming the businesses involved and possibly costing much more, with the risk of compromising biosecurity. Checks are currently being conducted at nurseries, with plants unloaded only once by the experts and checked by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Businesses will now lose control of their supply chain’s integrity and are anxious about accidental damages, destruction of healthy stock, delays of perishable plants and cross-contamination at border control points. There has been a call for the point-of-delivery system to continue in a dual system, with border control points operating as well as PODs so that learnings and improvements are made.

Considering the delays and concerns from industry about the lack of clarity of the system, is the Minister now confident that the scheme will run smoothly? Which Minister will be responsible for the implementation of a pragmatic approach if the system crashes? Can the Minister confirm that the Minister responsible will be from Defra, not another department? The Horticultural Trades Association has said that more than 90% of its tree and plant-growing members in the UK, the vast majority of which are SMEs, import plant products. There is a real risk to the viability of many companies if the new system fails. One element that is coming into play with the import of plant material and being exacerbated by climate change is the spread of disease and viruses. Biosecurity is essential, but funding by government for the research base was a real concern for the committee. We hope that the Government will review grant funding to put the research community on a more secure financial footing.

I would like to list all the areas covered by the report but that would take considerably more time than the 12 minutes I have been allocated, so I will leave them to other speakers. I am tempted to stop at this point, but I have a couple of points to raise. The first is water. There is little understanding of just how much climate change will affect the water supply in the UK. It has been predicted that we might have a 75% reduction in water supply by 2050. It is quite likely that demand will exceed supply in many areas in the next 10 years. Abstraction is a short-term answer that the Government are looking at, but do they believe that the £20 million set aside for water catchment at farm levels will be enough? This area will need to be funded at a far greater level if we are to carry on with water security.

Peat was a major concern for the sector. The Government’s report emphasised how healthy peat should be left in the ground. Nobody can argue with that, and the industry is on course to almost eliminate commercially available peat. However, there are still major issues for the professional sector in its use of peat for propagation. Defra has moved the timescale for removing peat from 2030 to 2026. While 2030 was always going to be difficult, 2026 will be impossible for some. What resources will the Government provide to cover this?

I must cut short at this point, leaving out issues such as the national curriculum, but I know that members of the committee will cover those areas. My final point, which I could not get away without raising, is allotments. My wife is a zealous user of allotments, which are incredibly important to the countryside. Their health benefits cannot be overestimated, and mental health is a real issue that came out of the report, although I got a double hernia from digging potatoes on my wife’s allotment so I am not absolutely convinced of this. One of the things that I hope the Government take from the report is that there should be increased protection for green spaces. I beg to move.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his admirable chairmanship of the committee. We were able to make far-ranging inquiries followed by some very good practical recommendations. The attitude of the Government to all these recommendations was variable; the main point is that we had a lot of Civil Service language full of good intentions and not enough action.

I turn now to that failure of action, to which the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has also referred—the absence of a national horticulture strategy for England. I stress this point about making long-term plans and putting their money where their mouth is, because people involved in horticulture need to know and have some degree of certainty about what the Government’s attitude will be.

I was particularly unimpressed by the reference in the government reply to this being but a snapshot in time. The inference is that everything will change and, therefore, a strategy is of very little purpose. I do not buy that, because it is perfectly possible to revise it at intervals. If that is the Government’s philosophy, I ask my noble friend the Minister if they are about to jettison the grand 25-year environment plan, which could be subject to precisely the same fault.

I turn now to another topic—two, if I can squeeze them in—that relates to research. Unfortunately, since 2003, there has been a notable decrease in the amount of research funding. At one time, Britain was noted as a world leader in ground-breaking research. Frankly, as we have been told by experts, who should know, we are in grave danger of losing this. A lot of the trouble stems from the absence of long-term funding, which again harks back to the horticultural strategy. That has been lost. There is what I call an obsessive reliance on short-term, competitive projects. This does not lend itself to the short term because everything to do with horticulture, whether edible or ornamental—I stress “ornamental”—needs long-term funding. I do not understand why we have this reliance on short-term funding. It is quite clear that it is having an impact on research institutes, some of which have disappeared altogether. The one at East Malling now has between a third and a half fewer staff than it used to, which bodes ill for what we are trying to do.

I urge the Government to think again about this research funding. It also has an impact on the chances of future generations enjoying high-level careers. For example, I believe Reading is now the only university that offers graduate and postgraduate horticulture courses of world renown. The RHS and Kew Gardens offer specialist ones of their own but, frankly, that is not enough if we want to encourage and give an opportunity to younger people to go in at a high level.

I turn now to the slightly lower level, which makes me get hot under the collar. It is quite clear that very little is done in schools to encourage knowledge of horticulture. There is certainly no encouragement whatever for young people to take it up as a career, at whatever level is suitable to them. The whole point about horticulture is that it can offer jobs from a fairly low level, although all of them need some special talent, right up to the postgraduate level.

We have the new T-levels, which are supposed to give a qualification at the end of two years equivalent to A-levels, but they are not widely known about. I am not at all sure that they have been set out in the most useful form. I hope that the Government, or whoever will be responsible for this, will look at the early stages of the various T-level qualifications clearly to make sure that they meet both the aspirations of the students and the needs of the industry where they will be employed. I fear that this has got off to a rather shaky start, as our committee indicated. I am therefore concerned that we have a really good go at making a good job of this, providing young people with really good, interesting careers.

We do not seem to have anything up to indicate the time, but I am pretty sure that I have reached my limit. Ever willing and, I hope, able to keep to the rules, I now end my contribution.

I am most grateful to my noble friend, who is quite right. We have notified the House authorities about the clock, but we still have the other monitor so, as the Whip at the moment, I will keep the time and, when it comes to five minutes, I will gesticulate appropriately. We still have a record of the time, but the debate has been excellent so far, so I suggest that we carry on.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his dedicated—the size of the report indicates that—and skilled chairing of the committee. It was a pleasure to work on this, not least because it brought to fruition the lifetime’s work of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who has been a fundamental driver of change in the sector, which, as I hope we demonstrate, is of great significance.

What was interesting about the committee was that it took us into a wide range of issues and showed how difficult it is for modern government to touch every base. The first thing we hit was the elusive reality of joined-up government. It is practically impossible. If I had a pound for every committee meeting I have been to where people banged on about how one department does not talk to another, I would have a bit more money.

There were a large range of issues, some of which have been touched on—innovation, investment, cheap food versus food security, the environment and all those things. But with the time limit today, I will focus on a very narrow range of things.

The first thing that struck me is that this industry can grow substantially, and this country needs growth industries. One need only look 40 or 50 miles across the sea to the Netherlands to see a country about 17% of the size of the UK that has a horticultural sector that is five times greater. It can be done. The challenge we face is how to do it.

That leads me to the question of government. The Government’s strategy is non-existent. How can they not be enthusiastic about something that has such potential to grow? To add to that disappointment, I would be complimenting the Government if I said that their response to our report was anything other than totally anaemic. It does not help with anything that we want to achieve.

Why should we be doing this? What is the opportunity? It is best if I quote Sir James Dyson. His credentials enabling him to speak on this are that he has a large greenhouse, 760 metres long, in Lincolnshire, in which he has 1.25 million strawberry plants. He does all of that with heating from solar panels and anaerobic digestion. What he says is this:

“Sustainable food production and food security are vital to the nation’s health and the nation’s economy, whilst there is also a real opportunity for agriculture—

he says agriculture but I say horticulture—

“to drive a revolution in technology and vice versa… efficient, high-technology agriculture holds many of the keys to our future”.

That is what it is. We have the opportunity, so we need to look at technology. We cannot forever be competing with warm countries with long hours of sunshine and low labour costs. We need to get the technology right if we are to compete and deal with these key issues.

The committee was lucky enough to spend a day in Kent, on the Isle of Thanet, said to be the sunniest part of England. We saw two great exemplars. The first was an Anglo-Dutch joint venture growing tomatoes. It was brilliantly organised. It is, I think, the leading supplier of tomatoes to the UK and is world-class and competitive. Equally entrancing was a visit to a site a few miles away where a vertical farm had been built. It focused on producing leaves—that is, lettuces and things for supermarkets—in a really controlled environment which was pesticide-free, with minimal water and labour. It was absolutely fantastic. It did it on an amount of land which, to get the same output with conventional methods, would have to be 20 times greater. What is there not to like? Why are we not pushing and investing, and getting the Government to help in taking this forward?

So we know what to do and we have seen others do it. This sector has great innovative ability. People such as Sir James Dyson and the people on the Isle of Thanet are not in this because they want to be charities. We know how to do it. In response to the supermarkets’ continued pressure on margin, it will be only technology and innovation that get the right margin to supply the job.

We do need better training—the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, touched on this—and the Government should be in that place. Frankly, I have never believed in the Government picking winners, but in this case I make an exception. The Government need to get behind this, but with a light touch: we do not want another bureaucracy, and we do not want another load of civil servants writing endless reasons why not. We just need to get on with it. So perhaps in conclusion the Minister might tell us whether he believes that some small part of the Defra underspend will be directed to this, as the Government have committed to the total amount of money going in during the lifetime of this Parliament.

My Lords, it was a pleasure and a privilege to serve as a member of this Horticultural Sector Committee, which was so ably chaired by my noble friend Lord Redesdale. I thank my committee colleagues for making our meetings enjoyable and informative, and I wish to add my thanks to those already given to the clerks and expert witnesses, all of whom managed to enable the committee to cover considerable ground effectively in a short period of time. The visits we made, within London and without, were particularly useful.

Of the issues raised in the report, there are three I wish to revisit. The first is education, referred to in recommendations 22 to 30 in the report. We were constantly reminded by many witnesses of the value of contact for young people with nature, in the classroom and outdoors—“Green time, not screen time”, as one witness put it. Beneficial effects through the outside world for the purposes of general well-being are appreciated by educationalists and the medical profession alike, but the long shadow of Covid means that there will now be a generation that needs exposure to and education about nature more than any previous one. So it is particularly frustrating that the Government say there is no room on the national curriculum for the subject of horticulture as a stand-alone topic, as highlighted by my noble friend Lady Fookes. I wonder whether the Government might reconsider this point.

The second issue I wish to revisit is that of food security and our recommendation 13. At the time the committee was sitting, the unseasonably cold and wet weather in Spain and Morocco had curtailed the availability of salads and tomatoes, with empty shelves in shops. The evidence given highlighted the small percentage of such crops grown in the UK in a normal year, thus adding to the susceptibility of annual shortages. As a consequence of the war in Ukraine and attendant energy cost increases, and with uncertainty attached to the availability of seasonal labour, many growers were cutting back. At the time, these seemed like exceptional headwinds, but the particularly wet weather this winter has brought about further jeopardy to the domestic supply chain, with crops unharvested from last autumn and crops not yet planted this spring. Can the Government give further thought to helping domestic horticultural producers wherever possible, particularly on the vexed issue of water storage—on which I hope that the Minister might comment—so that our percentage of self-sufficiency in horticultural products is not reduced further?

The third issue relates to research, development and innovation support from the Government in our recommendations 55 and 56. My noble friend Lord Carter of Coles has already slightly stolen my thunder on this point, because I too was going to refer to the site visit that we made to the vertical farming enterprise in Kent. This addressed positively many of the factors that the committee had heard negatively about, such as seasonal labour, energy and water consumption costs, and the detrimental effects of poor weather, which of course are not relevant to vertical farming at all. The disappointing note in our visit was that the funding for this enterprise and its planned follow-up site was coming from a US pension fund. Given that it is government policy to look for more inward investment from UK pension funds and insurance companies to infrastructure and businesses that might develop a public listing in due course, can the Minister give assurances that all possible financial help is given to similar horticultural enterprises in the future, along the lines of R&D tax alliances and preferential access to domestic capital markets?

My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain. Let me also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his very competent leadership in chairing this committee, and to fellow members for their friendship and camaraderie throughout the process, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who sponsored the study. I also thank the staff team, who were brilliant and worked incredibly hard.

I hope that the Minister does not take these comments personally, but the response from his department was very disappointing. There is a common theme here. In my view, it fails to acknowledge the huge amount of work involved in the research and drafting of the report and therefore the importance of the horticultural sector. I am sure the Minister will try to reassure us that this is not the case. As has been referred to earlier, the Government announced in the 2022 food strategy that it would produce a horticultural strategy, then changed their mind and so rejected our recommendation, too. This means that the sector feels undervalued and let down. This is a big mistake and Defra should urgently review this decision.

As we have heard, horticulture is one of the most exciting sectors there is, with huge potential. It is exciting in terms of innovation, with new technologies, robotics and automation, and exciting in terms of career opportunities. I was very pleased that the Government recognised the role of TIAH in their response to some of our recommendations.

The Government’s commitment to try to maintain 60% self-sufficiency in domestic food production will never be achieved or maintained without a thriving horticultural sector. There is massive scope to increase production and reduce our heavy dependence on imports, particularly from water-deficient parts of the world that are severely impacted by climate change. As we state in the report, horticulture can also contribute much more to impact on the nation’s health challenges, including obesity, than any other sector. More fruit and vegetable consumption is essential if we are to improve the nation’s health. I am sorry to say that none of that comes across in the Government’s response.

I have a few specific topics that I would like to address. The Government’s response defers numerous times to the labour market review carried out by John Shropshire. When are we likely to get a response to that review?

Secondly, the Government have already committed to and are in the process of establishing an adjudicator for the dairy sector to address fair dealings in the milk supply chain. The Minister led the process in the Chamber very recently. In view of the extremely challenging trading conditions in the horticultural sector over the past couple of years or so, and very slim margins, a similar approach to horticulture is urgently needed; it is recommendation 11 in our report. Can the Minister confirm when this might take place?

Thirdly, an area of real concern, referenced in recommendation 56, is the inability of smaller businesses—SMEs—to access grants to improve productivity and invest in robotics, for example, due to a lack of capital to provide the matched funding required. The consequence is that the larger businesses will get larger and the SMEs will fail. All large businesses started life as an SME. It is vital that the Government look again at this issue, so that innovative small businesses have a chance.

Finally, an area of deep concern during our consultation, and which has been referred to already, was the funding of science. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned this. The bidding process for research projects needs to be reviewed. This is covered in recommendations 78 and 79. Despite an attempt by Defra in its response to reassure us that all is well, that is not the message we received loud and clear on our travels. We no longer have sufficient scientific capacity to pitch one scientist against another in a bidding process. When asked what he did for a living, a scientist friend of mine replied, “I delete emails and I write failed bids”. Too much valuable scientific resource is being spent writing failed bids. We need a much more collaborative process, which encourages institutions to work together where there are great centres of excellence. Short-term funding is discouraging to the scientific community and is impacting our productivity. Will the department please review this?

I could say much more, but time does not allow. I hope the Minister can reassure us this afternoon that he has taken these issues seriously.

My Lords, what a pity it is that a subject so important, and which has had such an input from the House of Lords, has such little time to be debated. I hope there will be other occasions on which we can talk about this.

I speak as a professional horticulturalist—I am less so nowadays, because I spend too much time here, and you cannot actually work in the fields and sit on these Benches. I must declare some interests. I am president of the Institute of Agricultural Management, and in that there might lie a key as to how I approach this job. I am also president of the Anglo-Netherlands Society, and that also probably is a key to how I view this job.

We were talking earlier about how we start in these things. Taylors Bulbs, the horticultural firm of which I am the third generation, was started by a man from London—an ex-soldier in the First World War who managed to get 10 acres of land in Holbeach and rented it as a Crown colony holding. From that, he grew the business. His two sons were born in London but became naturalised Holbeachians in time; I still say “flowers” in the way that I was taught to when I was younger—I cannot help it. From that beginning, we grew to a business of 200 acres, which we owned by the time I joined. We now own 2,000 acres, and the business is in the hands of my younger son and a nephew. They are running it very well, and many of your Lordships will know the products that the company offers.

That lesson shows you something about the way in which horticulture thinks of itself. It is an entrepreneurial business. It is not a form-filling and bureaucratic business—it cannot be so. It has to work with the grain; it cannot fight against it. It works with the climate and the seasons, and has a great deal going for it because of that. It is really important that the Government, in interacting with the industry, understand that basic tenet; it means they should regulate lightly in an area where enterprise and initiative may well lead to great solutions.

That is certainly the way in which the Dutch have worked. Having left school at 17—I should have gone to university but I did not, and I do not mind that I did not because I went somewhere that was vital for me—I went to work in Holland. As a result, I learned how the Dutch dealt with their business: how they worked and prioritised horticulture, and how all sections of the Dutch Government used natural gas and various attributes which came to the Netherlands to build an industry. It was very much the enterprise and focus of the Dutch Government, and the Dutch as a nation, that led to the huge development of horticulture in that country. We can still learn from that; we have very close relations. Spalding was built by Anglo-Dutch co-operation—it is still the area supplying most of the fruit and vegetables to the whole of this country. Even strawberries growing in Kent and melons from Brazil get distributed from Spalding. This is an important feature of the potential that we have.

We have a lot going for us. We should back our horticultural institutes—the National Institute of Agricultural Botany is superb in its East Malling venture, and should be invested in and encouraged. We have Kew, and we have the Royal Horticultural Society. We have so much going for us in this country. We also supply the nation’s greatest hobby industry—gardening. Are we not lucky? Are we not gifted? This is a superb report. I am so grateful to all those who have spoken and participated, and I am really grateful to my noble friend Lady Fookes for all that she has done in proclaiming the virtues of our industry.

I hope the Minister will understand why there is disappointment with the Government’s response, not for any other reason than that they have failed to realise the potential that lies in this report and this industry. We should be optimistic, back it, and make it work for the interests of Britain.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that rousing speech, and to compliment the committee on its report, as others have widely and rightly done. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his clear introduction, and join the almost universal tributes to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for her long-term contribution to horticulture. I declare that I have an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with the Horticultural Trades Association.

I start, as pretty well every noble Lord has, by reflecting on the extreme disappointment there has been in the Government’s response to the committee’s report. The HTA, the National Farmers’ Union and the Worker Interest Group are severely disappointed by the Government’s failure to properly engage with this report, in particular their failure to acknowledge the need for a horticultural strategy. The Worker Interest Group is a coalition of nine not-for-profit groups representing and engaging with seasonal horticultural workers. It has written to Defra, pointing out many of the failures relevant to it in the Government’s response to the committee’s report. They represent a failure of basic functions and responsibilities of government, and for any noble Lord who is interested, I would be happy to share a copy.

I will take just one example from that. The committee’s recommendation 59 says:

“The Government must publish its review of the seasonal worker route, as promised in response to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’s December 2022 report.”

I note that the chief inspector said in that report that

“the Home Office should significantly raise its game”.

One might say that in regard to a lot of things, but we are talking at the moment about the seasonal worker scheme. The Government’s response is that they will “in due course” publish a review of the scheme’s operation from 2020 to 2022. The only published full review of the scheme is of the 2019 pilot, which involved 2,500 visas. We now have 55,000 visas. It is entirely different in scale and nature.

Before I get back to that, I want first to address the overall failure of the Government’s response. It reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of the horticultural sector and the need for it to expand. We have just come out of a debate on housing and the environment. If the sterile, bleak housing estates that we are now building are to be enhanced and public health is to be improved, we need a much expanded, upskilled and valued environmental horticulture sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, has powerfully covered the point about food. We need about 20 times more fruit and vegetables to be grown in the UK than we have now to be self-reliant and for a healthy diet.

I want briefly to look at the overall situation. There is a failure of labour policy, which I started with, but underlying that there is also a failure of policy to control and ensure a fair market for growers against the power of the big supermarkets and food manufacturers. They have been allowed and, indeed, encouraged by government policies over decades to entirely dominate our food system.

Behind that is a system of growing what vegetables and fruit we do grow here in outdoor factories, where there is huge pressure on the imported workers who come here for six months to pick rapidly and accurately. The worker advocates tell me that workers are subjected to significant bullying and abuse in the fields. If they are not seen to be picking fast enough and accurately enough, after a few hours they are sent back to their accommodation, which is likely to be a caravan. This might be housing six people, often speaking different languages. They go back every night, crying, to a caravan that is likely to be cold and mouldy. They see doors and accommodation without locks. They are not supposed to be charged for energy supplies, but they are. When you see your punnet of strawberries in the supermarket, it is worth thinking about what is potentially behind it. About 70% of the workers who come here take out debt to do so. Only 30% of them are confident that they will be able to pay that back.

For further information on this, I have to cross-reference the FLEX report, Bearing Fruit: Making Recruitment Fairer for Migrant Workers, which is out this month. It is worth saying that it does not have to be like this. Countries such as the US and Canada have far better models. They have bilateral arrangements with sending countries—workers come from a handful of countries. There are so many things to say, but I will finish on a reference to this FLEX report. Of the workers FLEX spoke to, 30% were from Kazakhstan, 18% from Kyrgyzstan, 10% from Indonesia and 18% from Uzbekistan, with others from Tajikistan and Moldova. We are bringing people to this country from around the world. They are going back to the rest of the world with a very negative impression of the UK and we are failing to provide ourselves with the horticultural sector that we need.

My Lords, before sowing seeds, one must have access to them and the right land on which to grow them. Of the report’s 167 conclusions and recommendations, only two relate to the seed from which all horticultural crops are produced and there is scant mention of our grade 1 land. These are serious omissions. Ironically, the remaining conclusions depend on them.

Post Brexit, the UK plant breeding sector seed suppliers are facing increased regulatory costs, delays and uncertainty. New plant health regulations have brought more bureaucracy, costs and problems in moving seed and breeding material to and from the EU; at least one breeding partnership between the UK and the continent has been cancelled.

The Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency is not fit for purpose. At least 200 new vegetable varieties are currently affected by its delays and are stalled in the registration process. In a sector that is so dependent on seasonality, such delays can have a devastating impact on individual businesses. Some breeders are not submitting new varieties for registration. These problems pose an existential threat to horticulture growers’ future access to improved varieties, which will be essential to help them to respond to a changing climate, changing pest and disease threats, demands for more sustainable farming practices and changing consumer preferences.

Most of our vegetables and salads are grown on grade 1 land. I understand that much of this land is let on one-year farm business tenancies and that the rotations being practised are accelerating its degradation and threatening our food security. On the question of whether to continue to farm or to rewet these agriculture peatlands, does the Minister agree that it is better to carry on cropping them, protect the remaining carbon and reduce the overall GHG footprint through dynamic water level management and limiting the extent of summer water table drawdown combined with regenerative farming? This would spread the environmental impact over a longer timeframe and more tonnes of produce. Total rewetting raises the question of reducing food production capacity here and the vexed issue of offshoring, possibly to where worse practices take place. Furthermore, soils that have been waterlogged that are drained and then rewetted behave differently in their emissions of nitrous oxide and methane from soils that have never been drained, so carbon emissions might be reduced at the expense of increased emissions of more potent greenhouse gases.

I will go further than some today: I would like to see a radical rethink of how we translate our world-leading position in agriculture-related academic science into farm-level innovation and sustainable farming activity growth. The UK’s applied research base in crop science is too fragmented and lacks focus on key policy objectives. We need to learn from and copy what other countries have done in creating national centres of excellence and attracting investment in public-private projects and international partnerships, such as Wageningen in the Netherlands, Embrapa in Brazil and New Zealand’s Plant & Food Research. In conclusion, I make a plea to this and future Governments: stop making promises to farmers such that made to the horticultural industry which was broken only one year later.

My Lords, I thank the members of the Horticultural Sector Committee for their work in producing a thorough report highlighting the challenges that this undervalued sector experiences. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his excellent summary when opening this debate. It is an honour to follow the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.

My understanding of this sector has been greatly helped by conversations with horticultural business owner Matt Naylor in south Lincolnshire, whom I met at the Oxford Farming Conference a few years ago. Listening to Matt has brought home to me the immense obstacles that the horticultural sector has faced in recent years. As other noble Lords have indicated, the sector is not in isolation from the totality of the farming and agricultural sector. To ensure food security for the future, of which horticultural activity is an integral part, we need joined-up, long-term thinking. I share the disappointment of noble Lords in this debate that the Government scrapped their plans last year to publish a horticultural strategy for England.

I want to focus my remarks on two issues. The reality of the seasonal work that the sector requires is not suited to most UK residents, resulting in a reliance on migrant seasonal workers. Without them, the industry could not function. However, their working arrangements often place them in positions of vulnerability. As evidence to the committee revealed, their protection under UK employment law is frequently not upheld. Seasonal workers often face abuse and poor pay and working conditions. I agree with the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on this matter.

I support the recommendation that the GLAA should ensure that welfare standards are upheld through compulsory welfare spot checks. I note the Government’s response that UKVI compliance staff already undertake some welfare checks, but the ICIBI’s inspection of the immigration system and the agriculture sector in 2022 showed the inadequacy of those visits. Issues raised at visits were not appropriately recorded, escalated or followed up, resulting in a lack of action. What use are they if no action is taken in cases where compliance issues are found? What steps will the Government take to ensure that seasonal migrant workers are not exploited and that employment laws are upheld on farms?

Secondly, I refer to the report’s final chapter highlighting the benefits that horticulture and interaction with nature have for us all, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, in comments about education. Newcastle GP Services’ social prescribing team has established projects allowing patients spaces to connect with nature, offering them community feeling, social inclusion and support for their mental and physical well-being. Benfield Park surgery has set up a community allotment as a space for patients experiencing loneliness or mental or physical health difficulties. Patients can access a garden and help as much or little as they wish. They have raised beds and greenhouses, and grow fruit and veg. The work is predominantly patient led, with the benefits being demonstrated by a patient being taken off medication because of positive changes to his mental health through tending the garden. I encourage the Government to continue to support these programmes.

When considering horticulture, discussions on the economy, business and supermarket power are often prioritised. Of course those issues matter, but in debating them we must not neglect the human aspect of horticulture—the people whom the sector relies on and the benefits that horticulture can have for us all.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a non-farming retired member of the National Farmers’ Union. I have been involved in agriculture all my working life.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and his committee on their excellent report. It is a first-class, complex piece of work that addresses the horticultural sector in great detail and provides the Government with pragmatic and sensible conclusions and recommendations. I know the report is strongly supported by the National Farmers’ Union.

There are a couple of points to which I shall draw your Lordships’ attention. I was fascinated and enthused to learn about salad production from vertical farming technologies, and the considerable benefits that are achieved by growing in this manner: less use of water and nitrogen, less waste, no pesticides and an efficient use of energy. The list of benefits is wide-ranging. In addition, vertical growing frees up significant areas of agricultural land, as we have heard today, for growing other crops. It produces constant year-round production and employment, giving added security to the grower and their workforce.

Yet, as the report states,

“vertical farms struggle to access government support”.

Why? With current global instability, we cannot and should not continue to rely on imports of foodstuffs that we are perfectly capable of producing in this country. The Government appear to be supportive of horticulture and agriculture, as stated by them at the Farm to Fork summit and in their food strategy, but platitudes and fine ideas do not put food on people’s plates.

I fear I am somewhat cynical when I say that in my opinion, no political party seems to have the enthusiasm or determination to fully back the agricultural and horticultural sectors, and it has been like that for a long while. The fact is that it is simply not a headline-making industry, whereas currently, matters of a green nature attract constant column inches and opportunities. In that vein, much as I support rewilding, I believe it should be done only on land that is uneconomical or unviable in production terms. We need every acre of good productive land to be available for cropping.

In conclusion, the report is excellent. The Government and Defra should support its findings and take immediate action to support them in full, with both actions and financial support.

My Lords, I cannot claim to know anything about horticulture. I do know that it is important economically and because it helps to feed us, and for the sheer pleasure it gives. I know that you cannot pluck a cucumber off a tree already shrink-wrapped, but that is about the extent of it. It is not my subject, except that it is everybody’s subject, but I am a member of our House’s committee currently reviewing the Modern Slavery Act, so I have a particular interest in the section in the report on seasonal workers.

Exploitation is a continuum; it does not have to be modern slavery or trafficking to be a problem. My noble friend Lord Redesdale told me that Members were shocked at an early stage by the conditions to which some workers are subjected; the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to this. More recently we discussed recruitment practices, which my noble friend described as the biggest issue, since agencies recruiting overseas workers are outside the jurisdiction. I have not picked up whether the National Crime Agency is able to pursue organised criminality in the sector. I do not disagree with his identification of these two areas of concern, but I would like to take a step back.

Why are there problems in this part of the sector? In my view, it is in part because the Government look at so much through an immigration lens—or perhaps I should say, not immigration. The high-level policy is that we should grow our own skills and use the domestic workforce, but seasonal agriculture work is not a career path. As the report points out, local workers are not available for work that is not available year-round. Of course, the seasonal worker route is treated separately from shortage occupations by the Home Office.

The committee thoughtfully refers to more than low wages. I had not realised some of the aspects of tax and national insurance. I do not know whether to describe as defensive or unimaginative the Government’s response, for instance, to the recommendation on auto-enrolment: “Saving for retirement”, they say,

“is a crucial right … exemptions… would undermine the success of workplace pensions.”

I doubt whether that is a priority for many in this group. HMRC has responsibilities with regard to compliance with minimum wage requirements, so it should understand some of the realities. Simplified arrangements for claiming overpaid tax from overseas or, better, waiving tax deductions until the tax-free limit is reached, seem obvious and right.

There is an ad-hoc response to shortages of labour in different sectors, which has led to a clunky visa regime. Rolling out a scheme before reviewing the pilot is unhelpful. One aspect of workers needing visas is vulnerability to exploitation and poor working conditions. Workers who do not understand the system are vulnerable to exploitation by the person who holds the power in the relationship. Starkly, that is through illegal recruitment fees, loans taken to pay them from loan sharks and organised crime gangs, and resulting debt bondage. The report’s paragraph about the scams offering non-existent jobs is powerful.

The Government’s response that the GLAA has published guidance for employers recruiting overseas, coupled with the explanation that it has no relevant powers, and of course the cuts to its budget and those of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement and the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, are unhelpful. Employers want certainty; the only certainty seems to be that it is known that budgets to deal with modern slavery and human trafficking and exploitation are to be cut year on year.

Can the Minister be clear, and if necessary write to me, about what powers the GLAA has to inspect workplaces at which workers are based? In other words, what can it do, systematically and by way of spot checks, to address abuses? Similarly, can he provide a list of memoranda of understanding between the GLAA and Governments of the countries of origin of workers? What binding agreements are there in respect of fair recruitment? Time defeats me, as it has defeated all of us, but I congratulate my noble friend and the committee on its report.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his introduction and all committee members, who produced such a thorough and impressive report. We have heard from a number of them today: the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, my noble friend Lord Carter, and the noble Lords, Lord Colgrain and Lord Curry. We thank them for their work on the report.

We know that growth in productivity, innovation and sustainability is an ambition that the horticultural sector has held for some time. The Government initially amplified that in their own food strategy and talked about the need for

“a world leading horticulture strategy for England”,

aiming to boost production in the UK, create skilled jobs and future-proof the sector in the face of climate change. I thank at this point the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for sharing his industry experience, because it is important that we look at things in the context of industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said that, despite those government promises in the report, we badly need a horticultural strategy; I am sure that we are all looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. We also heard about health. Any strategic plan to increase fruit and vegetable production, for example, needs to be coupled with efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption for the future health of our young people.

A recent report commissioned by the NFU talked about the increases in production costs over the past two years; it put the figure at 39%, with the main drivers being energy, labour and fertiliser. Although some producers have secured some increases from their customers, this often has not been at the rate required to keep pace with costs of production, clearly putting pressures on the industry.

We have also heard about how fragile our supply chain is, due partly to ongoing global instability—the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, talked about that. Retailers and government should not rely on imports, however, to plug our self-sufficiency gap to feed the nation. The Government should match their own ambition to grow the horticultural sector, as they outlined in their Farm to Fork summit and their food strategy. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, talked about the strategy and the importance of the Government acting on what they know to be the right direction for the horticultural sector. However, the recent EFRA Select Committee report expressed disappointment in the strategy for not having food security as part of its focus. Can the Minister explain why that was and just how high up the agenda food security is?

Defra has also had its fairness in the supply chain consultation. The consultation did not include ornamentals. I wondered why that was. It closed in February, so when are we going to hear? The Government said that the consultation did not include ornamentals because they were going to be part of a different consultation in the future. Again, I wonder when we are likely to see that.

Public procurement has also been mentioned during the debate. We know that dynamic procurement practices could support smaller growers. As part of that, the Government’s response said that they would update the government buying standards for food and catering services

“to showcase the use of sustainable, high welfare, quality produce in the public sector”.

As far as I can see, that has not happened yet; neither has there been a publication of a formal response to that consultation. Perhaps the Minister could update us.

We have also heard quite a bit about trade. There are concerns about border control posts posing severe biosecurity risks for the horticultural sector, particularly for the protected salad sector, which imports young plants. The risk is that BCPs become a point of infection and not inspection. The proposed authorised operator scheme being piloted excludes many horticultural businesses due to the narrow eligibility criteria. Perhaps the noble Lord could expand on how the industry is being supported in relation to that.

Many noble Lords have talked about skills. There have been unprecedented challenges, including labour shortages, from the many changes internationally: the EU exit, the European conflict and the Covid pandemic. The report highlights that the horticultural sector faces a persistent deficiency in both workforce and skills—although it clearly highlights, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the T-level qualification in land management which has been launched recently.

However, there does not seem to be sufficient encouragement for young people to engage in horticultural careers; the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, particularly talked about this. In terms of apprenticeships, the report notes that there are several barriers, both for apprentices and industry, preventing apprenticeship schemes reaching full potential. I noted in the Government’s response that there is not anything new on apprenticeships. Again, I wonder if the Minister could elaborate on the Government’s thinking around that.

A number of noble Lords talked about seasonal workers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle talked about workers’ conditions, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in her remarks. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referenced the recommendation that the Government should publish their review of the seasonal worker route but also respond to the Migration Advisory Committee’s latest report on the shortage occupation list. We heard that the first is going to come in due course in the Government’s response, and that the second is being carefully considered. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I would really welcome any chance of a clarification from the Minister.

On climate change and biodiversity, the committee had noted that the

“utilisation of green spaces in urban environments … can help to support the reduction of urban heating and surface water flooding”.

We have had a number of questions from noble Lords around water supply and storage, so I will not go into that, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

Also, I am afraid that I am going to mention the land use framework again to the Minister. I am aware that he has made it quite clear that we should see it before the summer but, about a month ago, there was a story that there were comments from Defra suggesting that it would have the status only of guidance—I just wondered if that was the noble Lord’s understanding.

On research and development, the committee emphasises that the landscape needs to improve. My noble friend Lord Carter talked about the importance of technology, as did the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. On that note, I wonder if the Minister is able to give an update on the automation review. I could not find anything on that, but perhaps I have missed it.

We have heard a lot about peat. The Minister is aware that everyone is waiting to find out what will happen regarding the proposed ban of peat use in amateur gardening. Again, it would be interesting to know whether the Government are likely to support Theresa Villiers’s 10-minute rule Bill, which has been brought forward in the other place.

Finally, I will just say a bit on horticulture and health. The report explains the significance of horticulture for better health and well-being, including alleviating mental and physical health difficulties. The noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, talked about the importance of health and getting out into nature and the importance of outdoor activities. The report also talks about the benefits of community gardening and allotment spaces, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, talked about the importance of this in his introduction. The committee also acknowledges, however, that:

“Not all green spaces are equally accessible,

and there is also a correlation around ethnicity and income regarding deprivation of access. As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, mentioned, in the context of rising obesity, pressures on the NHS and a greater shift towards plant-based diets, growers and horticulture can play a really vital role in supporting the nation’s health while also boosting the sector as we go forward.

I also mention, as was mentioned in the report, the Community Eatwell scheme. There were pilots promised around this; I think that there might be a local scheme in Manchester, but I do not know if that is on the part of the Government or a separate thing. It would be interesting to know more about how that is moving forward.

On green social prescribing, the Government have done an evaluation report, which will apparently be published as soon as possible. Sheffield Hallam University seems to be doing something on it, but I cannot see anything from the Government. Again, it would be useful to know.

I should have said that I am a member of the APPG on horticulture, thanks to the strong encouragement of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. It is disappointing that the Government’s response did not adequately address all the concerns. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, said, there has not been enough action.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for the very enjoyable dinner that we had with the HTA a month or so ago. It was a very interesting and pleasurable experience and introduced me to the subject in no short order.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Redesdale, on securing today’s debate. I start by addressing a common theme: the disappointment in the Government’s response. The noble Lord, Lord Curry, predicted that this was not the intention. It certainly was not, and if any member of your Lordships’ committee felt that was the case, I assure them that it most certainly was not. I applaud the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that the Liberal Democrats will be leading the charge later this year, and I wish him very good luck.

I also welcome the opportunity to speak about the Horticultural Sector Committee’s report and the Government’s response, which, as noble Lords know, was published in February. I hope that, in the comments I am about to make, I can address some of the issues that have been raised today. I also thank committee members for all that they have done, and continue to do, to champion the vibrant and vital English horticultural sector, and to those who have contributed to today’s very interesting and informative debate. I also thank those who contributed to the public evidence sessions, provided written evidence and attended visits made by the committee, which contributed greatly to its inquiry.

As many noble Lords have commented, the importance of the horticultural sector to the economy, the nation’s health and well-being, and the environment should not be underestimated. This is a country that has a unique agricultural heritage, with a fruit and vegetables sector that we can be rightly proud of. It is a hugely diverse and vital industry, and one with great potential to grow, which has been highlighted on a number of occasions today. However, it is not just the fruit and vegetables sector. As the report and the debate have shown, we also have a vibrant ornamental sector. Our reputation as a nation of gardeners is beyond dispute, as is the tremendous value of those green spaces, which we should rightly champion.

As I have just mentioned, horticulture, allotments and their associated benefits have an incredibly important role in promoting well-being—although this is now being questioned, with the noble Lord’s example of digging his allotment. They also add enormously to the nation’s mental health benefits and reduce social isolation. However, it is perhaps the sector’s economic contribution that is most significant. In the latest study from June 2022, there were 3,398 horticultural farms in England, employing over 36,000 people. In the same year, UK horticultural sector production was worth approximately £5 billion to the UK economy. By any measure, this is very significant and worthy of the Government’s full attention.

The committee’s report is split into six chapters, containing 93 recommendations covering a broad range of areas. Many of today’s questions fall into six main categories: cross-government working and a horticultural strategy for England; government support; environmental land management schemes; biosecurity and the border target operating model; the common user charge; and peat. I will start by talking about these six areas and addressing some of the questions that were raised in them.

Recommendations put forward include requests that the Government

“consider establishing a cross-departmental horticultural sector working group”,

publish a horticulture strategy for England, and have a Minister responsible for horticulture. The noble Lords, Lord Redesdale and Lord Colgrain, and many others, raised the issue of ministerial responsibility. Recognising the broad scope of the sector, ministerial responsibilities are shared in Defra between the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, covering edible horticulture, and the Minister for Nature, covering ornamental horticulture. We work closely together, and across government, to ensure that the sector is fully represented.

On a horticultural strategy, we already take a strategic approach by working across government to ensure that resources are focused on major issues, such as labour, science and innovation, climate resilience, food security and plant health. However, I take the points made in today’s debate and will keep under review the need for a formal strategy.

I turn to the level of government support on offer. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, alluded to, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, made a very inspiring speech about his family’s business and its growth over the last three or four generations. The subject was also raised by the noble Lords, Lord Redesdale, Lord Carter and Lord Colgrain, and many others. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting the horticultural sector and fully recognise its significance. We have shown this in several ways. A range of funding offers is open to our horticulture sector, including the sustainable farming incentive, the farming investment fund and the farming innovation programme, all of which help our growers to deliver improved environmental sustainability and to increase productivity and innovation.

Earlier this year, we announced a range of measures to boost resilience and innovation in the sector, including the largest-ever grant offer, expected to total £427 million. This includes doubling investment in productivity schemes, bolstering schemes such as the improving farm productivity grant, and solar installations to build on-farm energy security. As an element of that grant offer, we are offering £70 million for productivity equipment as part of the successful farming equipment and technology fund, and increasing the improving farm productivity grant from £30 million to £50 million, which covers robotics, automation and rooftop solar, to build and support on-farm energy security. Many of those new initiatives were the result of the committee’s report, and I will continue to work closely with the horticultural industry to ensure that growers understand the full range of grants available to them. We remain open to future suggestions, including looking at any potential underspend in Defra—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

Environmental land management schemes were also a focus of the report and questions today. Many horticulture growers and farmers are already benefiting from our schemes, helping to meet our food security commitments to produce at least 60% of the food that we consume in the UK and to grow their businesses sustainably. We have a strong existing offer for the sector across our environmental land management schemes, which we are further enhancing by improving existing actions and adding new ones as money flows from the common agricultural policy into ELMS over the transition period.

We encourage horticulture farmers and growers to join the 16,000-plus farmers who have already applied for the sustainable farming incentive. They can pick and choose from a range of actions for soils, integrated pest management, nutrient management and farm wildlife, and be paid for taking these actions. In addition, we will make up to 50 new actions available this year, including those to support the uptake of precision farming. This will enable horticulture farmers to reduce their use of costly pesticides and fertilisers, improve yields, productivity, and air and water quality, and benefit biodiversity and soil health—an issue raised by my noble friend Lord Caithness. To give him some reassurance: as part of the SFI, farmers are being awarded for actions that protect soil from erosion, increase soil organic matter, and enable plants and organisms that live in the soil to function correctly.

We will also continue to update farmers and growers on our current and emerging offers through our tailored communications to the sector, helping them to find a package that works for their business. As we continue the agricultural transition, we are keeping the eligibility and payment rates of our schemes under review, and we continue to work with farmers and growers to develop those offers. That includes tests and trials to shape the development and delivery of our schemes, showing that we are committed to working with farmers to identify issues and develop solutions.

Biosecurity and the border target operating model are key themes in the report in respect of trade. The Government are aware of concerns from the horticultural sector about the introduction of the border target operating model, especially as May is a particularly busy month for that sector. In all the very many meetings I have had with the HTA, I have been clear that the implementation of the border target operating model should be a gradual process and avoid any delays or interruptions to trade. I have written to this effect to all border control posts.

The pragmatic approach is not, as it was described by the noble Lord, a fudge or a disaster. It is simply that at the request of the industry we approach this with a degree of caution and work slowly into it as we all settle in. In response to his question as to who the responsible Minister will be and whether they will be from Defra, the answer is that it will be me, and I am a Defra Minister.

The Government are also keen to continue engaging with the sector in the run-up to 30 April, when import checks will move to border control posts and control points, and we will implement daily calls with key stakeholders such as the NFU and the HTA to provide further support. I have made that commitment and spoken to them. The hotline is available, and they are all connected to it.

The introduction of robust controls on EU imports will result in new costs to fund the operation of planned government-run border control facilities. These controls are vital to ensure that physical inspections on sanitary and phytosanitary imports can be undertaken safely and securely and improve our wider biosecurity regime.

I turn now to the issue of the common user charge, which was raised by many noble Lords. First, I quite accept that the communication around the charge itself was delayed, and I apologise for that. Consignments of medium-risk and high-risk plants and plant products will attract a charge of £29 but, as the noble Lord will know, we have capped this at a maximum of £145 per common health entry document to avoid a disproportionate cost to traders, particularly SMEs. I appreciate that any new costs are unwelcome, but we have endeavoured to make these costs as low and as fair as possible. We believe that this approach will bring a critical biosecurity control to goods coming in from the EU, and it uses global risk-based models, data and technology to reduce the burden on businesses wherever possible.

The place of destination scheme will not be carried forward beyond 30 April 2024. It was only ever intended to be a temporary solution, and moving controls to border control posts and control points is vital in achieving the biosecurity aims of the border target operating model, by increasing the percentage of consignments that we are able to inspect.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised the issue of peat. The report also outlines how horticultural practices can contribute directly to climate change through reducing unsustainable practices such as peat extraction and use. The Government remain committed to our proposal to ban the sale of peat for use in amateur gardening, and plan to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows. As noble Lords will be aware, we propose no restrictions on peat use by the professional sector until after 2026, followed by exemptions that will allow peat use to continue for those areas where no ready alternative currently exists.

I am conscious of the time and the wide range of questions raised. A number of noble Lords asked about labour, in particular seasonal workers and their conditions. I might respond in writing to those questions rather than go through all that detail here today. I am also aware that questions were asked about education, water, long-term funding, research and development and apprenticeships. There were quite a few other detailed questions, in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Again, rather than getting into all that detail this afternoon, I might write to noble Lords.

Once again, I thank those who contributed to this interesting, informative debate. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his admirable work in chairing the committee and securing this debate in the Chamber.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply; members of the committee still believe, I think, that more could be done with the response. However, now that I have the opportunity to make a second speech, I will not fall into that trap, as many noble Lords do.

I thank the members of the committee who are present, as well as the many committee members who could not be here today and apologise for that, for the work they undertook. This was my first experience of chairing a committee. It was a most enjoyable experience, mostly due to the incredible knowledge expressed by many of the committee’s members.

I have one point to make. I really would not want the Minister’s job in the next couple of months. I feel that it will be a very testing time with the introduction of the new border control point. I wish him all the best.

Motion agreed.