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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:49 pm ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:49, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his introduction and all committee members, who produced such a thorough and impressive report. We have heard from a number of them today: the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, my noble friend Lord Carter, and the noble Lords, Lord Colgrain and Lord Curry. We thank them for their work on the report.

We know that growth in productivity, innovation and sustainability is an ambition that the horticultural sector has held for some time. The Government initially amplified that in their own food strategy and talked about the need for

“a world leading horticulture strategy for England”,

aiming to boost production in the UK, create skilled jobs and future-proof the sector in the face of climate change. I thank at this point the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for sharing his industry experience, because it is important that we look at things in the context of industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said that, despite those government promises in the report, we badly need a horticultural strategy; I am sure that we are all looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. We also heard about health. Any strategic plan to increase fruit and vegetable production, for example, needs to be coupled with efforts to increase fruit and vegetable consumption for the future health of our young people.

A recent report commissioned by the NFU talked about the increases in production costs over the past two years; it put the figure at 39%, with the main drivers being energy, labour and fertiliser. Although some producers have secured some increases from their customers, this often has not been at the rate required to keep pace with costs of production, clearly putting pressures on the industry.

We have also heard about how fragile our supply chain is, due partly to ongoing global instability—the noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, talked about that. Retailers and government should not rely on imports, however, to plug our self-sufficiency gap to feed the nation. The Government should match their own ambition to grow the horticultural sector, as they outlined in their Farm to Fork summit and their food strategy. The noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, talked about the strategy and the importance of the Government acting on what they know to be the right direction for the horticultural sector. However, the recent EFRA Select Committee report expressed disappointment in the strategy for not having food security as part of its focus. Can the Minister explain why that was and just how high up the agenda food security is?

Defra has also had its fairness in the supply chain consultation. The consultation did not include ornamentals. I wondered why that was. It closed in February, so when are we going to hear? The Government said that the consultation did not include ornamentals because they were going to be part of a different consultation in the future. Again, I wonder when we are likely to see that.

Public procurement has also been mentioned during the debate. We know that dynamic procurement practices could support smaller growers. As part of that, the Government’s response said that they would update the government buying standards for food and catering services

“to showcase the use of sustainable, high welfare, quality produce in the public sector”.

As far as I can see, that has not happened yet; neither has there been a publication of a formal response to that consultation. Perhaps the Minister could update us.

We have also heard quite a bit about trade. There are concerns about border control posts posing severe biosecurity risks for the horticultural sector, particularly for the protected salad sector, which imports young plants. The risk is that BCPs become a point of infection and not inspection. The proposed authorised operator scheme being piloted excludes many horticultural businesses due to the narrow eligibility criteria. Perhaps the noble Lord could expand on how the industry is being supported in relation to that.

Many noble Lords have talked about skills. There have been unprecedented challenges, including labour shortages, from the many changes internationally: the EU exit, the European conflict and the Covid pandemic. The report highlights that the horticultural sector faces a persistent deficiency in both workforce and skills—although it clearly highlights, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the T-level qualification in land management which has been launched recently.

However, there does not seem to be sufficient encouragement for young people to engage in horticultural careers; the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, particularly talked about this. In terms of apprenticeships, the report notes that there are several barriers, both for apprentices and industry, preventing apprenticeship schemes reaching full potential. I noted in the Government’s response that there is not anything new on apprenticeships. Again, I wonder if the Minister could elaborate on the Government’s thinking around that.

A number of noble Lords talked about seasonal workers. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle talked about workers’ conditions, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in her remarks. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referenced the recommendation that the Government should publish their review of the seasonal worker route but also respond to the Migration Advisory Committee’s latest report on the shortage occupation list. We heard that the first is going to come in due course in the Government’s response, and that the second is being carefully considered. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I would really welcome any chance of a clarification from the Minister.

On climate change and biodiversity, the committee had noted that the

“utilisation of green spaces in urban environments … can help to support the reduction of urban heating and surface water flooding”.

We have had a number of questions from noble Lords around water supply and storage, so I will not go into that, but I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

Also, I am afraid that I am going to mention the land use framework again to the Minister. I am aware that he has made it quite clear that we should see it before the summer but, about a month ago, there was a story that there were comments from Defra suggesting that it would have the status only of guidance—I just wondered if that was the noble Lord’s understanding.

On research and development, the committee emphasises that the landscape needs to improve. My noble friend Lord Carter talked about the importance of technology, as did the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. On that note, I wonder if the Minister is able to give an update on the automation review. I could not find anything on that, but perhaps I have missed it.

We have heard a lot about peat. The Minister is aware that everyone is waiting to find out what will happen regarding the proposed ban of peat use in amateur gardening. Again, it would be interesting to know whether the Government are likely to support Theresa Villiers’s 10-minute rule Bill, which has been brought forward in the other place.

Finally, I will just say a bit on horticulture and health. The report explains the significance of horticulture for better health and well-being, including alleviating mental and physical health difficulties. The noble Lord, Lord Colgrain, talked about the importance of health and getting out into nature and the importance of outdoor activities. The report also talks about the benefits of community gardening and allotment spaces, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, talked about the importance of this in his introduction. The committee also acknowledges, however, that:

“Not all green spaces are equally accessible, and there is also a correlation around ethnicity and income regarding deprivation of access. As the noble Lord, Lord Curry, mentioned, in the context of rising obesity, pressures on the NHS and a greater shift towards plant-based diets, growers and horticulture can play a really vital role in supporting the nation’s health while also boosting the sector as we go forward.

I also mention, as was mentioned in the report, the Community Eatwell scheme. There were pilots promised around this; I think that there might be a local scheme in Manchester, but I do not know if that is on the part of the Government or a separate thing. It would be interesting to know more about how that is moving forward.

On green social prescribing, the Government have done an evaluation report, which will apparently be published as soon as possible. Sheffield Hallam University seems to be doing something on it, but I cannot see anything from the Government. Again, it would be useful to know.

I should have said that I am a member of the APPG on horticulture, thanks to the strong encouragement of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. It is disappointing that the Government’s response did not adequately address all the concerns. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, said, there has not been enough action.