English Horticultural Sector (Horticultural Sector Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:17 pm ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 12:17, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, it is a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain. Let me also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his very competent leadership in chairing this committee, and to fellow members for their friendship and camaraderie throughout the process, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who sponsored the study. I also thank the staff team, who were brilliant and worked incredibly hard.

I hope that the Minister does not take these comments personally, but the response from his department was very disappointing. There is a common theme here. In my view, it fails to acknowledge the huge amount of work involved in the research and drafting of the report and therefore the importance of the horticultural sector. I am sure the Minister will try to reassure us that this is not the case. As has been referred to earlier, the Government announced in the 2022 food strategy that it would produce a horticultural strategy, then changed their mind and so rejected our recommendation, too. This means that the sector feels undervalued and let down. This is a big mistake and Defra should urgently review this decision.

As we have heard, horticulture is one of the most exciting sectors there is, with huge potential. It is exciting in terms of innovation, with new technologies, robotics and automation, and exciting in terms of career opportunities. I was very pleased that the Government recognised the role of TIAH in their response to some of our recommendations.

The Government’s commitment to try to maintain 60% self-sufficiency in domestic food production will never be achieved or maintained without a thriving horticultural sector. There is massive scope to increase production and reduce our heavy dependence on imports, particularly from water-deficient parts of the world that are severely impacted by climate change. As we state in the report, horticulture can also contribute much more to impact on the nation’s health challenges, including obesity, than any other sector. More fruit and vegetable consumption is essential if we are to improve the nation’s health. I am sorry to say that none of that comes across in the Government’s response.

I have a few specific topics that I would like to address. The Government’s response defers numerous times to the labour market review carried out by John Shropshire. When are we likely to get a response to that review?

Secondly, the Government have already committed to and are in the process of establishing an adjudicator for the dairy sector to address fair dealings in the milk supply chain. The Minister led the process in the Chamber very recently. In view of the extremely challenging trading conditions in the horticultural sector over the past couple of years or so, and very slim margins, a similar approach to horticulture is urgently needed; it is recommendation 11 in our report. Can the Minister confirm when this might take place?

Thirdly, an area of real concern, referenced in recommendation 56, is the inability of smaller businesses—SMEs—to access grants to improve productivity and invest in robotics, for example, due to a lack of capital to provide the matched funding required. The consequence is that the larger businesses will get larger and the SMEs will fail. All large businesses started life as an SME. It is vital that the Government look again at this issue, so that innovative small businesses have a chance.

Finally, an area of deep concern during our consultation, and which has been referred to already, was the funding of science. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned this. The bidding process for research projects needs to be reviewed. This is covered in recommendations 78 and 79. Despite an attempt by Defra in its response to reassure us that all is well, that is not the message we received loud and clear on our travels. We no longer have sufficient scientific capacity to pitch one scientist against another in a bidding process. When asked what he did for a living, a scientist friend of mine replied, “I delete emails and I write failed bids”. Too much valuable scientific resource is being spent writing failed bids. We need a much more collaborative process, which encourages institutions to work together where there are great centres of excellence. Short-term funding is discouraging to the scientific community and is impacting our productivity. Will the department please review this?

I could say much more, but time does not allow. I hope the Minister can reassure us this afternoon that he has taken these issues seriously.