Neil Parish highlights importance of agriculture to economic growth

Neil Parish uses the final debate before the Whitsun recess to highlight a number of issues of local concern in particular the importance of agriculture to the growth of the economy.Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on his comments and particularly endorse his remark that the way in which the Government are handling the economy is absolutely right. We have to reduce the huge deficit that we inherited from the Labour party to increase growth and stabilise the economy. The International Monetary Fund endorsed that only this week, and it is essential that we keep to that path.My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) has left the Chamber, but he was right that the Government need to consider very carefully their policy of levying VAT on static caravans. The number of caravans bought will probably fall by about a third, affecting not only those manufacturing the caravans in the north of England but the caravan sites down in my constituency. If the Chancellor is looking for growth, he needs to be very careful about that policy.The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has also left the Chamber; no, I see that he is next to the Chair. I agree entirely with him about the slaughter of animals. We need to target the practice of animals not being stunned before being killed. We need clear labelling stating, “This animal was not stunned.” That would in time reduce the amount of meat needing to be labelled in that way. I have always said that animals do not choose how they are brought into this world, reared and slaughtered, and it is up to us to ensure that their welfare is respected all the way through their lives. The House needs to revisit the matter, because we have probably got it wrong at the moment.I was not going to speak about the middle east and Israel today, but comments made in the House earlier were so one-sided that I feel I need to put the record straight. I believe that the state of Israel should exist. Its Iranian neighbours may be producing, or about to produce, nuclear weapons, and Iran’s President has previously said that he would like to wipe Israel off the face of the map. I suggest that we would take that seriously if we lived in Israel, because nuclear weapons can do precisely that. We need to be careful about taking one side of the argument in the middle east.I would go further on the subject of democracy in the middle east. I very much welcome what is going on in Egypt and Libya, and eventually we need to see some democracy brought to Syria. However, I suggest that in the past 40 or 50 years, the only beacon of democracy in the middle east has been Israel. That needs to be made abundantly clear.My main reason for speaking this afternoon is that my constituency is rural, with a lot of farming and food production. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud talked about manufacturing industry, which needs to be supported hugely and is of great benefit to this country, and the same is true of food production and processing, which have been a success story in the past few years.For perhaps 20 years, it was considered that farming was not really necessary, that we could import the food that we needed and that future food security was not an issue to consider. As food prices increase throughout the world and we reach the birth of the seven billionth person and more, we need to be absolutely certain about where our food will come from. We need to ensure that we have high-quality food produced to high welfare and food safety standards. This country’s farming and food processing industries are doing an extremely good job, and the UK can produce much more of its food. We are currently reduced to probably not much more than 60% self-sufficiency, and we can do much better on many products.Interestingly, agriculture’s contribution to the economy as measured by gross value added increased by some 77% to £8.8 billion between 2006 and 2011. The value of UK food and drink exports rose in 2011—for a seventh successive year—by 11% to more than £12 billion, making the sector Britain’s fourth largest. The farming and food sectors employ some 3.5 million people, and the total number employed directly in farming increased by 10,000 between 2010 and 2011.Farming also delivers for the British countryside and the environment. Seven million hectares of farmland in England and Wales are being managed under agri-environment schemes. The schemes are good for the environment and the countryside, but they are also good for tourism. What do tourists come to see when they travel through the Deputy Leader of the House’s constituency to get to Devon and Cornwall, which are much prettier? The west country has great countryside and is a great environment, which draws in tourism, which is of huge value. Were that countryside not managed as it is, we would not have as many tourists in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and the many parts of the country where farming and the countryside are important.The Government have introduced more apprenticeship schemes, and the farming and food sectors could be important in producing the extra jobs that we need. We need growth. Employment throughout the economy has increased, but there is much more to do, including on youth unemployment.On the future of food production, cattle and beef production in this country has declined by 30% in the past 20 years. In the US, cattle numbers are at their lowest for 60 years—the herd in America stands at 29.9 million head. Even the cattle herd in Argentina has contracted by nearly 20%. As the world’s increasing population eats more food, we will need more food to be produced.In China in 1960, people ate on average 5 kg of meat per year; this year, they will eat 50 kg. There are 1.2 billion people in China, so by my arithmetic, if they eat 1 kg more of meat, we need 1.2 million tonnes more tonnes of it. An increase in production throughout the world is therefore important. Global warming means that it is essential that northern Europe and Britain produce our fair share of food. I am delighted that the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who has responsibility for agriculture, is returning from China as we speak. He has done much to increase the trade to China of pigmeat and the fifth quarter—the meat we do not like to eat ourselves, but that the Chinese find amazingly tasty.There are green shoots in the economy in agriculture, food production and manufacturing. We must be more positive about what is happening in the economy. We have problems, but if we carry on talking ourselves into ever greater gloom, we will not pick this economy up. The Government have put in place the right policies. For example, we have ensured that lower-paid workers get more money in their pockets by reducing their rate of tax. We can also make it more cost effective for companies to provide employment. We need to consider the regulation of, and employment law regarding, small and micro-businesses, so that they can take on people. It is nonsense for there to be so many laws and rules in place that a small company or business finds it impossible to take on an extra worker. That needs to be dealt with.My final point is one that many Members have made this afternoon. I am unashamedly royalist, and in the 60th year of Her Majesty the Queen’s reign, I must say that she has been an example to us all. She has provided this country with a dedication to service that we have not seen in the past and which we are unlikely to see again. She is probably the greatest expert on the Commonwealth. We, as politicians, like to think we drive this world forward, but the number of Prime Ministers the Queen has seen come and go is an example to us all. I add my congratulations to her on her 60th year on the throne.4.56 pm