On the 21st July 2016 Baroness McIntosh of Pickering held a debate about “the impact on British farmers of the decision to leave the European Union.” Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans asked the Government to help to cultivate a culture of appreciation among the British public towards British farming. Lord Gardiner of Kimble responded for the Government and his comments can be found below.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for this debate. I share the delight of other Members of this House that in the recent reshuffle it was neither an exit nor a Brexit but a clear remain vote for the Minister, and not only that but a promotion, so we are delighted and thank him.
Whatever our opinions on Brexit, it is undeniable that British farming faces a period of uncertainty and insecurity. While it is true that the decision to leave the EU will bring some new opportunities for British agriculture in the long term, it is clear that there are substantial challenges ahead. Agriculture is more intimately connected to the European Union than any other UK sector, and the process of unpicking that relationship must be done with utmost care.
British farming is of course at the heart of not just the rural economy but the wider national economy. It is integral to the security and health of our nation through food production but it brings wider public benefits: preserving the beauty of our natural environment, maintaining biodiversity and as we just heard, helping to manage rural landscapes for the benefit of all. It goes without saying that we need to maintain a healthy, sustainable agricultural sector post-Brexit, and this will inevitably require a degree of government support and protection.
That need for protection must be reflected first and foremost in whatever trade agreements are eventually reached with Europe and beyond. British food is produced to some of the highest environmental and welfare standards anywhere in the world, which is something the British people are rightly proud of. However, these standards would be undermined and undercut were Britain to open its shores to cheap imports produced at much lower standards. While it is important that post-Brexit Britain is open to trade and exports, a policy of trade liberalisation across the board cannot be the answer. As the president of the National Farmers’ Union recently put it,
“government must not allow an open door policy to imports produced to lower standards”.
On a domestic level, it is important that the Government help to cultivate a culture of appreciation among the British public towards British farming, and to further encourage the procurement of British farm produce by schools, the NHS and catering companies, for example. Improving our reliance on domestic supply is not just good for farmers but good for us all. When only 60% of the food we consume is domestic produce, we leave ourselves open to trade disruption and food insecurity. We know that there is growing public willingness to support British farming, and I hope that the Government will support initiatives to more clearly promote food that has been produced using British farm produce.
Besides domestic and international trade, support for British farming will mean a continuation of some forms of financial support post-CAP. This is only right given the non-agricultural benefits that farming provides to the wider public. Although we probably need a degree of continuation in policy if we are to avoid the sort of problems that have afflicted payment of the basic payment scheme this time around, I hope that any future UK policy might be better integrated with the provision of these wider benefits—particularly the environmental benefits—than is perhaps currently the case under CAP. We need a UK policy that continues to promote biodiversity, the preservation of landscapes and sustainable farming; which encourages landowners to slow the flow of water in upland areas to reduce flooding further down; and which encourages the use of renewable enery while helping farmers to take steps to tackle climate change.
Of course many more challenges than these face British farmers. There are serious questions about future funding for agricultural research, future recruitment of seasonal labour and the future of small farms that may find it even harder to sustain themselves in a post-Brexit environment of farm consolidation and more intensive production. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will continue to work across rural stakeholders as they seek to find answers to these difficult problems.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Con) [extract]: …Farming is at the heart of the UK’s identity. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans vividly described what the countryside means. The woodlands and forests of our country mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, are a clear part of our identity, and the British countryside is important to so many of us for domestic or international tourism. These are all jewels in the crown. Some 70% of UK land is agricultural. We have a world-class food and farming industry that generates over £100 billion a year for our economy.
…Our Great British Food Unit is promoting great British produce at home and abroad, boosting the £18 billion in food and drink that we sold across the world in 2015, and cementing Britain’s reputation as a global food nation…. I am very conscious of what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said about the importance of high standards and, indeed, what was said about procurement.