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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:59 pm ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Douglas-Miller Lord Douglas-Miller The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:59, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, for the very enjoyable dinner that we had with the HTA a month or so ago. It was a very interesting and pleasurable experience and introduced me to the subject in no short order.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Redesdale, on securing today’s debate. I start by addressing a common theme: the disappointment in the Government’s response. The noble Lord, Lord Curry, predicted that this was not the intention. It certainly was not, and if any member of your Lordships’ committee felt that was the case, I assure them that it most certainly was not. I applaud the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that the Liberal Democrats will be leading the charge later this year, and I wish him very good luck.

I also welcome the opportunity to speak about the Horticultural Sector Committee’s report and the Government’s response, which, as noble Lords know, was published in February. I hope that, in the comments I am about to make, I can address some of the issues that have been raised today. I also thank committee members for all that they have done, and continue to do, to champion the vibrant and vital English horticultural sector, and to those who have contributed to today’s very interesting and informative debate. I also thank those who contributed to the public evidence sessions, provided written evidence and attended visits made by the committee, which contributed greatly to its inquiry.

As many noble Lords have commented, the importance of the horticultural sector to the economy, the nation’s health and well-being, and the environment should not be underestimated. This is a country that has a unique agricultural heritage, with a fruit and vegetables sector that we can be rightly proud of. It is a hugely diverse and vital industry, and one with great potential to grow, which has been highlighted on a number of occasions today. However, it is not just the fruit and vegetables sector. As the report and the debate have shown, we also have a vibrant ornamental sector. Our reputation as a nation of gardeners is beyond dispute, as is the tremendous value of those green spaces, which we should rightly champion.

As I have just mentioned, horticulture, allotments and their associated benefits have an incredibly important role in promoting well-being—although this is now being questioned, with the noble Lord’s example of digging his allotment. They also add enormously to the nation’s mental health benefits and reduce social isolation. However, it is perhaps the sector’s economic contribution that is most significant. In the latest study from June 2022, there were 3,398 horticultural farms in England, employing over 36,000 people. In the same year, UK horticultural sector production was worth approximately £5 billion to the UK economy. By any measure, this is very significant and worthy of the Government’s full attention.

The committee’s report is split into six chapters, containing 93 recommendations covering a broad range of areas. Many of today’s questions fall into six main categories: cross-government working and a horticultural strategy for England; government support; environmental land management schemes; biosecurity and the border target operating model; the common user charge; and peat. I will start by talking about these six areas and addressing some of the questions that were raised in them.

Recommendations put forward include requests that the Government

“consider establishing a cross-departmental horticultural sector working group”,

publish a horticulture strategy for England, and have a Minister responsible for horticulture. The noble Lords, Lord Redesdale and Lord Colgrain, and many others, raised the issue of ministerial responsibility. Recognising the broad scope of the sector, ministerial responsibilities are shared in Defra between the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, covering edible horticulture, and the Minister for Nature, covering ornamental horticulture. We work closely together, and across government, to ensure that the sector is fully represented.

On a horticultural strategy, we already take a strategic approach by working across government to ensure that resources are focused on major issues, such as labour, science and innovation, climate resilience, food security and plant health. However, I take the points made in today’s debate and will keep under review the need for a formal strategy.

I turn to the level of government support on offer. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, alluded to, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, made a very inspiring speech about his family’s business and its growth over the last three or four generations. The subject was also raised by the noble Lords, Lord Redesdale, Lord Carter and Lord Colgrain, and many others. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting the horticultural sector and fully recognise its significance. We have shown this in several ways. A range of funding offers is open to our horticulture sector, including the sustainable farming incentive, the farming investment fund and the farming innovation programme, all of which help our growers to deliver improved environmental sustainability and to increase productivity and innovation.

Earlier this year, we announced a range of measures to boost resilience and innovation in the sector, including the largest-ever grant offer, expected to total £427 million. This includes doubling investment in productivity schemes, bolstering schemes such as the improving farm productivity grant, and solar installations to build on-farm energy security. As an element of that grant offer, we are offering £70 million for productivity equipment as part of the successful farming equipment and technology fund, and increasing the improving farm productivity grant from £30 million to £50 million, which covers robotics, automation and rooftop solar, to build and support on-farm energy security. Many of those new initiatives were the result of the committee’s report, and I will continue to work closely with the horticultural industry to ensure that growers understand the full range of grants available to them. We remain open to future suggestions, including looking at any potential underspend in Defra—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

Environmental land management schemes were also a focus of the report and questions today. Many horticulture growers and farmers are already benefiting from our schemes, helping to meet our food security commitments to produce at least 60% of the food that we consume in the UK and to grow their businesses sustainably. We have a strong existing offer for the sector across our environmental land management schemes, which we are further enhancing by improving existing actions and adding new ones as money flows from the common agricultural policy into ELMS over the transition period.

We encourage horticulture farmers and growers to join the 16,000-plus farmers who have already applied for the sustainable farming incentive. They can pick and choose from a range of actions for soils, integrated pest management, nutrient management and farm wildlife, and be paid for taking these actions. In addition, we will make up to 50 new actions available this year, including those to support the uptake of precision farming. This will enable horticulture farmers to reduce their use of costly pesticides and fertilisers, improve yields, productivity, and air and water quality, and benefit biodiversity and soil health—an issue raised by my noble friend Lord Caithness. To give him some reassurance: as part of the SFI, farmers are being awarded for actions that protect soil from erosion, increase soil organic matter, and enable plants and organisms that live in the soil to function correctly.

We will also continue to update farmers and growers on our current and emerging offers through our tailored communications to the sector, helping them to find a package that works for their business. As we continue the agricultural transition, we are keeping the eligibility and payment rates of our schemes under review, and we continue to work with farmers and growers to develop those offers. That includes tests and trials to shape the development and delivery of our schemes, showing that we are committed to working with farmers to identify issues and develop solutions.

Biosecurity and the border target operating model are key themes in the report in respect of trade. The Government are aware of concerns from the horticultural sector about the introduction of the border target operating model, especially as May is a particularly busy month for that sector. In all the very many meetings I have had with the HTA, I have been clear that the implementation of the border target operating model should be a gradual process and avoid any delays or interruptions to trade. I have written to this effect to all border control posts.

The pragmatic approach is not, as it was described by the noble Lord, a fudge or a disaster. It is simply that at the request of the industry we approach this with a degree of caution and work slowly into it as we all settle in. In response to his question as to who the responsible Minister will be and whether they will be from Defra, the answer is that it will be me, and I am a Defra Minister.

The Government are also keen to continue engaging with the sector in the run-up to 30 April, when import checks will move to border control posts and control points, and we will implement daily calls with key stakeholders such as the NFU and the HTA to provide further support. I have made that commitment and spoken to them. The hotline is available, and they are all connected to it.

The introduction of robust controls on EU imports will result in new costs to fund the operation of planned government-run border control facilities. These controls are vital to ensure that physical inspections on sanitary and phytosanitary imports can be undertaken safely and securely and improve our wider biosecurity regime.

I turn now to the issue of the common user charge, which was raised by many noble Lords. First, I quite accept that the communication around the charge itself was delayed, and I apologise for that. Consignments of medium-risk and high-risk plants and plant products will attract a charge of £29 but, as the noble Lord will know, we have capped this at a maximum of £145 per common health entry document to avoid a disproportionate cost to traders, particularly SMEs. I appreciate that any new costs are unwelcome, but we have endeavoured to make these costs as low and as fair as possible. We believe that this approach will bring a critical biosecurity control to goods coming in from the EU, and it uses global risk-based models, data and technology to reduce the burden on businesses wherever possible.

The place of destination scheme will not be carried forward beyond 30 April 2024. It was only ever intended to be a temporary solution, and moving controls to border control posts and control points is vital in achieving the biosecurity aims of the border target operating model, by increasing the percentage of consignments that we are able to inspect.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, raised the issue of peat. The report also outlines how horticultural practices can contribute directly to climate change through reducing unsustainable practices such as peat extraction and use. The Government remain committed to our proposal to ban the sale of peat for use in amateur gardening, and plan to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows. As noble Lords will be aware, we propose no restrictions on peat use by the professional sector until after 2026, followed by exemptions that will allow peat use to continue for those areas where no ready alternative currently exists.

I am conscious of the time and the wide range of questions raised. A number of noble Lords asked about labour, in particular seasonal workers and their conditions. I might respond in writing to those questions rather than go through all that detail here today. I am also aware that questions were asked about education, water, long-term funding, research and development and apprenticeships. There were quite a few other detailed questions, in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Again, rather than getting into all that detail this afternoon, I might write to noble Lords.

Once again, I thank those who contributed to this interesting, informative debate. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his admirable work in chairing the committee and securing this debate in the Chamber.