Debate on the implementation of the Common Agriculture Policy

Neil Parish MP, who is a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee made a speech during a debate in the House of Commons on the implementation of the Common Agriculture Policy.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who made a good case for Welsh farmers. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice). He referred to the Rural Payments Agency and how much it has improved, much of which was down to his stewardship when he was a Minister. He worked very hard, and payments are getting out on time. We inherited quite a mess, which leads me on neatly to my first point.

When the single farm payment was introduced in 2003-04, there was no doubt that the Beckett formula was complicated. It took years to sort that out, and we paid more than half a billion pounds in fines to the EU for the mistakes that were made. We do not want to repeat those mistakes, and I appeal to the Minister to ensure that we do not do so. I have been sold on the idea that the maps are best done digitally, especially because of the hedgerows and everything else, but if farmers do not have access to broadband, they either have to have somewhere to go—not just a library but somewhere where they can access broadband securely and privately—or they have to be able to use agents. Farmers do not expect to be given a fortune, but they need money to do that. We are working hard to deliver rural broadband, and I am certain that we will get there, but we are not there now. If we make a mess of introducing the reform in the first year, it will carry on year in and year out. That is precisely what happened with the previous system, and it took years to sort it out. In fact, there are some cases that have never been sorted out.

I hope that people who were not able to register under the old system for various reasons—some people pursued their registration for years—are able finally to register their land under the new system. I also pay tribute to the idea that young farmers should be helped, because the population of this country and the world is growing and we need to produce more food.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I share my hon. Friend’s views on the importance of supporting young farmers. On the question of broadband, does he share my view that there is scope for supporting wireless broadband to reach rural areas that are hard to reach by wired means, as it were?

Neil Parish: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Wireless broadband will reach parts of my constituency in the Blackdown hills that fibre optics will not, but wireless broadband will not necessarily get there in time to ensure that applications for the single farm payment can be made online. That is why we must take care to get the payment right in the first year.

Ensuring that it is the working farmer who receives the payment is a good idea, and I am interested in what the Minister has to say about that, but we do not want to create the biggest bureaucratic nightmare to prove whether someone is or is not the farmer. If we are not careful, we will make the system increasingly complicated.

I spent rather a long time—some might say too long—dealing with the CAP in another place, and I think that one of the overall problems is that across 28 countries, from Finland to Greece, from Poland to Germany and right through to Great Britain and Ireland, there are so many crops that can be grown, so many soil types, so many temperatures and so many amounts of rainfall, with some areas getting very little and others being flooded, that if we try to come forward with a common policy, we will end up with the biggest mess known to man and woman. There is no doubt about it. We cannot have a common policy unless there is much greater flexibility.

Are we to have a policy that demands three rotational crops, because Germany grows solidly maize, maize and maize? This country has very diverse farming and lands, with uplands and grasslands, but many countries have hardly any grassland. Somebody driving from Calais to Berlin will see hardly a single hedge the whole way there, because they have all been ripped up over the years as a result of a different policy on the way they farm. We have great hedges, and it is good that they have become ecological focus areas. In my view, the hedges are probably the most important part of a field, because they are home to wildlife and birds. That, above all, is what we need to concentrate on.

Mr Spencer: I wonder whether one of the unexpected outcomes of trying to apply that policy across the whole of Europe is that we will end up supporting the least efficient farmers and those that are economically challenged, perhaps because they farm in arid areas or small alpine villages, whereas we should actually be supporting the most efficient farmers, many of whom are in France or the UK.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is right to a degree, but is it right that the most productive land across the whole of Europe, including in East Anglia, should get the highest payments, given that farmers there can make the most from that land? We must have some balance in the process. We have talked about the uplands tonight, and there is no doubt that upland livestock farmers struggle. In my view, it could be argued—my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire will probably jump out of his seat—that some of those farmers in East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and elsewhere across the country who can grow very good arable crops, perhaps 10 tonnes of wheat per hectare, could see just a little bit of those payments move uphill. That is what we are trying to do, but I think that we probably need to do a little more. There is an argument there, but I think that we need to ensure that we support farming in those marginal areas, which is more difficult.

We must also ensure that in the end we deliver a policy that encourages food production. It is great to support the environment, but we must remember that in the uplands and on a lot of the permanent pasture on the hills it is the cattle and sheep that will keep farming as it is. It was not put there by God; it was put there by farmers. We must remember that it is the farmers who look after the countryside. We must remember that in order to support them, we must ensure that they have an income. We have to spread that as far and wide as we can.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): On this, my 65th birthday—

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Spencer: Retire!

Bob Stewart: Certainly. Will my hon. Friend enlighten me as to whether we have any control over how we allocate the CAP in England, or is that decided in Brussels?

Neil Parish: First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on reaching that great age. There are—dare I say it?—others in the House who have reached an even greater age. He asks a difficult question. We are limited by how much of it we can decide ourselves, as a lot is decided by the European Commission and, finally, the Council. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire said, it is very difficult to change things at that stage. We can tweak some of the environmental schemes a bit—there are the odd things we can do—but in the end we have to go along with much of what is in the policy.

Overall, the CAP overall should be moving towards a simpler system, but we are not getting that. We should be weaning farmers off more and more public support, but I want that to happen across the whole of Europe. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, there are many different types and levels of payment. Margaret Thatcher said, “Don’t buck the markets”, but that is exactly what we do. We have all sorts of different levels of payments across the whole of Europe and then expect farmers to compete in a single market, which is almost impossible. More and more of the subsidy should be phased out, and farmers should increasingly stand on their own two feet. We should make sure that we get a decent price for food and use biotechnology to produce even more food so that in the end we can feed the growing population.

Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 7 July 2014, c117)