I have recently joined the Public Bill Committee for the Agriculture Bill. Public Bill Committees are tasked with scrutinising proposed Acts of Parliament and members sit for lengthy sessions during which they question expert witnesses and discuss the Bill line by line.
The Agriculture Bill establishes a new framework for agriculture following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy. The legislation was drafted following an extensive consultation exercise and one of its key initiatives is to transform the system so that public money is given to farmers who provide a public good, rather than providing payments to farmers based on their land holdings as under the current system.
During one of the evidence sessions for the Bill I raised the lack of diversity in British farming as a key issue facing the sector and suggested that the nature of the problem was evident from the demographics of the Committees’ witnesses that day – all 14 of whom were white middle-aged men. The average age of a British farmer - at 59 - is higher than that of the average MP, while just 3% of farmers are under the age of 35, and I asked the witnesses what more they thought could be done to make farming a more attractive proposition to a younger and more diverse population. The Committee heard testimony that the Bill’s intent of shifting away from basic payments to a more market-facing approach could create some churn in the sector as older farmers may decide it is time to move on but some witnesses expressed concern about whether or not there is sufficient investment to ensure young people can develop the skills they will need for this new sort of farming. The Committee also heard that while those with the landholdings and who fill in the paperwork for the farm might tend to be of an older and white demographic, it tends to be spouses or younger family members who do a lot of the active farming. Witnesses testified there has been a discernible increase in the number of young people coming out of agricultural colleges which suggests there is a clear desire among a bigger number of young people to go into the farming sector. The Committee heard that there has also been increasing demand for tenancies from younger farmers.
In another evidence session I asked Jack Ward, Chief Executive of the British Growers Association, how the Bill could improve the food supply chain and change the balance of power in favour of growers and away from large distributors and retailers. As I represent the Vale of Evesham I have a particular interest in the horticultural sector and I pointed out that many producers in my constituency are members of the BGA. In response, Mr Ward spoke of the benefits of the match funding principle and suggested fairness in the supply chain could be improved if there was a better meeting of minds between retailers and producers.
The Committee also discussed pay levels in the agricultural sector. I pointed out that workers on farms and in food production firms in my constituency tend to be on relatively low wages and queried whether the value chain was the root cause of this, with supermarket prices for farming produce perhaps slightly too low.
The agricultural sector is crucial to rural constituencies like mine and, naturally, my constituents have a considerable interest in this Bill. I have a valuable opportunity as a member of the Bill Committee to ensure that this piece of legislation has a positive, transformative impact on farming and as this Bill intends to create a new agricultural framework, we should ensure it creates a system that is more attractive to younger and more diverse generation of farmers. Sustainability of the sector is another key issue and in creating this new framework we should also ensure that prices in the shops are reasonable enough that farming remains a financially attractive living and career choice. Other key issues we have discussed in the Committee sessions so far include improving transparency in the agri-food supply chain, particularly through data sharing and I look forward to scrutinising other aspects of the Bill over the coming weeks.