Theo Clarke MP for Stafford was delighted to host a Westminster Hall Debate in Parliament on ‘Back British Farming Day and the future of domestic agriculture’. In her speech, Ms Clarke raised directly with the Farming Minister, Victoria Prentis MP, the importance of seasonal agricultural workers, the impact of HS2 on local constituents and the role of farmers in protecting the environment and tackling flooding. During her speech Ms Clarke also highlighted her campaign for every supermarket to have “an aisle for the British Isles” which would make it more convenient for consumers to purchase fresh locally produced food. Ms Clarke will always stand up for farmers across Staffordshire and will continue to back British Farming.
Victoria Prentis MP, Minister for Farming:
“I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and congratulate her on becoming co-chair of the excellent all-party group on fruit, vegetable and horticulture. She has briefed me on the recent meeting she had with her local NFU. I know she enjoyed her local county show, and she is already encouraging me to go to the English Winter Fair in her constituency. I loved my hon. Friend’s idea of aisles for the British Isles, and we will certainly continue to work closely with supermarkets, as we always do, to ensure that buying local and buying sustainable become the watchwords of the future.”
To watch the video of Theo Clarke MP delivering her speech please click here.
Please see the full text of Theo Clarke MP’s speech and her closing speech below.
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford
“I beg to move,
That this House has considered Back British Farming Day and the future of domestic agriculture.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture, I am delighted to have secured this debate. I met my Staffordshire farmers last Friday, and having spoken to the National Farmers Union at the Staffordshire County Show last month, I am very conscious of the circumstances that farmers currently face while trying to feed our nation.
The debate could not be more timely. It should be clear from the sea of wheatsheaf pin badges, displayed on many colleagues’ lapels, that today is Back British Farming Day—a day to celebrate all that our farmers do to produce high-quality, nutritious and delicious food while also caring for our environment and maintaining our iconic British landscapes.
Fruit and vegetables are the staple of our diets, and we all know how important it is for our health and wellbeing to eat our five a day, so I read to my dismay that as a country we are only 16% self-sufficient in fruit and 54% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of good, sustainable, local food supply chains. My constituents in Stafford have definitely become more interested in buying products close to home. It goes without saying that there are always going to be some types of fruit and vegetables that we will not be able to grow in this country, simply because we do not have the right climate. Of course, we can all enjoy bananas and citrus fruits from other countries, but we should aim to produce much more of the fruit and vegetables that are good at growing here.
Last year, I sat on the Agriculture Bill Committee, where we scrutinised that very important legislation line by line. The Bill advocated the importance of food security, which is why I backed that landmark Government legislation.”
Neil Parish MP for Tiverton and Honiton
"Will my hon. Friend give way?"
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford
“Yes, I am delighted to give way to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.”
Neil Parish MP for Tiverton and Honiton
“I thank my hon. Friend very much for securing the debate. She talks about the Agriculture Bill. It is really important that, as we move to make sure Toggle showing location that we sustainably produce food in an environmentally friendly way, we also produce enough food, really good-quality food, more vegetables, more meat and more milk. As we experience climate change—we are a country that has a climate that can produce food—we must make sure that we can produce enough food in future.”
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford
“I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was going on to say that I was very pleased that, in the Agriculture Act 2020, the Government commit to producing a food security report at the end of this year and for three years after that.”
Sally-Ann Hart MP for Hastings and Rye
“Does my hon. Friend agree that the Agriculture Act works in tandem with the Environment Bill, and that that will help my local farmers in Hastings and Rye not only to thrive but to increase productivity and thereby food security in the UK?”
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford
“I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was about to say that we are an island nation, so it is extremely important that we are self-sufficient as a country. That is why British fruit and vegetables are so important.
Let me take two examples, of apples and pears, which are two traditional fruit trees that have been found in our country for centuries. In domestic production, total apple demand accounts for only about 38% and the figure is 18% for pears. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs data shows that there has been a significant fall over the last 30 years, so I urge the Minister to work with farmers to reverse this declining trend.
On the other hand, strawberry production is a very positive story. Last Friday, I was lucky to visit Littywood Farm in Staffordshire, where they grow thousands of strawberries, raspberries and cherries every year. I was very interested to hear that they are using modern farming techniques to significantly increase their yield of soft fruit and that they have invested in state-of-the-art polytunnels to make the harvesting process more efficient. That means they have been able to extend the strawberry season from two months to seven months this year, so this is a fantastic, positive story that is being replicated across the country, and I note that since 2010, figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that domestic strawberry production has grown by almost 50%. In 2019, UK production reached a new record of 143,500 tonnes; Members will be pleased to know that that is about 350 million punnets of strawberries, so we will definitely have enough to feed the crowds at Wimbledon and our tennis matches next year, and more. This is a very good example of a model for fresh fruit produce items, which shows that it requires people and real investment.
I will now talk about some of the challenges that farming has faced. We are all aware of the role that weather and mother nature have in determining a crop’s success year on year. Does it rain at the right time? Is the sun shining when wheat is being harvested? Of course, this is very much out of our farmers’ hands, but so much of farming does fall within the Government’s remit, and I hope the Minister will agree that it is very important that decisions made in Westminster have a positive impact in our constituencies in the countryside. I would like to share a story that I heard last week from one of my Staffordshire strawberry growers, which is really quite devastating. They told me that 3,000 tonnes of strawberries were thrown away this year due to not having enough labour to pick the fruit. That equates to approximately £1 million of turnover loss by this farm in just one year. I know we all talk about statistics, but let us remind ourselves that this is fresh food that could have been eaten on British dinner tables this year, but is being thrown away and wasted. Those are not just destroyed strawberries: that represents lost jobs for fruit pickers, and lost income for our farmers.”
Kerry McCarthy MP for Bristol East
“I was vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farmers for quite some time, and we had the then Farming Minister, who is now Secretary of State, come along to us some years ago. He was warned quite firmly by the fruit farmers there that this crisis was coming. Does the hon. Lady not agree that it should have been foreseen, and that steps should have been in place to make sure there was an adequate supply of agriculture workers so that we do not have food rotting in the fields?”
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford
“The Government have taken steps to ensure there are seasonal workers, and if I make progress in my speech, I will come on to that topic shortly.
I was interested to read an industry-funded report last year that revealed that during the pandemic alone, labour costs have increased by 15%, which follows a 34% increase in wages over the past five years. I have heard from my farmers in Staffordshire that they are very concerned about the cost for growers: they have been told that they may have to pay for workers’ visas, travel, and covid tests in future. To put that in context, one of my local farmers told me that this could cost his business an extra £1,000 per seasonal worker, and on the basis that a farmer might employ 200 or 300 workers on their farm, that is hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional investment. A lot of my constituents will be asking, “Should fruit and vegetable farming remain? Is it economically viable?” That is why I urge the Minister to look into this issue.
It is very clear from the conversations I have had with local growers and businesses that it has been very difficult to recruit domestically. Very admirably, they worked hard to try to recruit domestic workers, but I was told that unfortunately, the manpower just is not there. I will give the Minister a particular example from my constituency, which I heard about at my meeting last week. One farm received 7,500 applications to be a seasonal worker. One hundred and fifty people were shortlisted, and 85 were offered jobs, of whom only 48 turned up. Thirty-two of those left after one week, 24 after two weeks and five after three weeks, so we can see that that farm put a huge amount of effort into recruiting workers, but the labour was simply not there.”
John Nicolson MP for Ochil and South Perthshire
“Will the hon. Lady give way?”
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford
“I would like to make some progress in my speech, if that is okay, because I know that many colleagues are waiting to speak.
That story, I am afraid, was replicated for growers from across the country, including Dearnsdale Fruit in Staffordshire, which I heard from as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture when we hosted a roundtable on seasonal workers earlier this year. Access to labour is absolutely critical for ensuring the sector has the labour it needs. When it comes to perishable crops, such as strawberries, it is right that we have the workers that are needed at that moment. I commend the Government on the seasonal workers pilot scheme, which they expanded last year to 30,000 visas. It was a lifeline for many businesses and I thank the Minister for the role she played in getting the scheme set up.
Many colleagues would agree with me that there is uncertainty about the scheme. We need to know what it will look like in the future, so that farms can plan ahead. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues at the Home Office to come up with a solution.
I move on to the environmental schemes in Stafford. I am a member of the Conservative environment network and am very supportive of the Government’s environmental agenda, particularly ahead of COP26 in Glasgow this year. Flooding is an all-too-frequent phenomenon in my Stafford constituency. I welcome that the new legislation works to incentivise farms and landowners to implement measures that will improve our environment and reduce the incidence of floodwaters entering people’s homes.
Part of the Agriculture Act 2020 is the environmental land management scheme, which is currently going through various trials in Staffordshire. I was dismayed to hear last week that some of my local NFU members are considering dropping out of the scheme. My constituency is predominantly made up of small farms. The farmers have told me that they find the costs associated with being part of the scheme prohibitive.
At this point, having talked a lot about fruit and vegetables, I should also say I wholeheartedly support our dairy and red meat sector. From correspondence with constituents and talking to them at the Staffordshire county show in the summer, I appreciate that bovine TB remains a highly emotive topic. I urge the Minister to work with DEFRA to come up with a long-term solution that means the lives of many animals will be saved in years to come, and that ensures my farmers’ livestock will be protected.
Last week I heard some pretty distressing stories about mental health from my farmers—the mental health of those living in rural areas is a subject I feel very strongly about. As a new MP, I set up the Stafford mental health network and we hold regular mental health roundtables. I am very pleased that my farming community is represented on that by one of their NFU members.
My farmers are concerned about the devastating impact of High Speed 2 on their farms and our rural areas. I want to share one shocking story. I heard last week that two farmers have been so severely affected by dealing with HS2 that they have had their shotguns removed, for their own safety, due to a mental breakdown because of not receiving compensation. To be frank, my constituents have been treated with absolute contempt by HS2. No one asked for their farms and villages to be cut in half by the proposed line. They feel they are being treated like an inconvenience. They have had land taken away and have not yet even had payment for it. Others are stuck in protracted negotiations.
It is fair that constituents should be paid the market value for their land or business, and I do not think that is something they have yet received. If HS2 has lessons for any of us, it is that compensation and right of access laws must be tightened to ensure a level playing field. It is a very practical example of where more action is needed to back British farmers.
I want to talk about increasing the volume of British food in public sector food procurement, which is a major opportunity to showcase British food’s high standards and environmental credentials to everyone. I was very pleased to sponsor the Food Labelling (Environmental Sustainability) Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). It would have required food manufacturers to better label their products to indicate the environmental sustainability of their origins, which would help consumers make more informed choices about the sustainability of the products they buy.
Supermarkets play a vital role in our local food supply chain and they have a very important role in ensuring consumers have the ability to make informed choices about the food they purchase. I have a policy idea to suggest to the Minister. All supermarkets should have what I am calling “an aisle for the British Isles”. Britain has some of the highest food standards in the world. I think the public want to buy food from British farmers. A recent survey said that 80% of respondents supported the increased procurement of British food in schools, hospitals and Government agencies. I totally agree.
The main reason people shop in supermarkets is for convenience. Would it not be a great idea for the consumer to know there was a whole aisle where everything in it was from the British Isles? There could be a local section or shelf for products from Staffordshire. I hope colleagues will support my idea of an aisle for the British Isles and that the Minister will commit to backing this concept, which would improve the situation for British farmers.
To conclude, although today is Back British Farming Day, I believe it is essential to back British farmers 365 days a year. To do that we need to deliver policies, not just in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but across Government, that work for our farmers who go out in all weathers every single day to ensure that we are fed as a nation. Let us not take that for granted.”
Theo Clarke MP for Stafford’s closing speech
“I welcome the Minister’s announcement today. It is fantastic to have such support from across the House, particularly from my Conservative colleagues, backing Back British Farming Day.
It is important that we have policies that mean farmers can keep farming, feeding us, caring for the environment, helping to prevent natural disasters, such as flooding, and maintaining the varied and beautiful landscapes in Staffordshire and across the whole UK. Listening to colleagues today, it is clear that there is recognition of the vital role that farmers play in providing us with high-quality, healthy and nutritious food. That is certainly a message I will take back to my constituency.
It is important that we never take our food or the people who get it to our tables for granted. Farmers and our rural communities face unique challenges that the Government need to recognise. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of food security for our island nation. The British public support backing British farmers and we need to implement schemes such as the aisle for the British Isles, as I suggested today.
I hope the debate will provide a catalyst for some positive progress, particularly on seasonal agricultural workers. I am committed to working with my Staffordshire farmers and Ministers to back British farming.”