Thursday, 28 May 2020

Pick for Britain

As our country has faced massive challenges in recent months, it’s been inspiring to see the people of Britain come together. From supporting neighbours with their food shop to volunteering for the NHS – our fighting spirit makes me proud to be British.
And we’re once again calling on everyone to play their part by helping our farmers to feed the nation.I spent ten years working in the farming industry, and at the peak of the strawberry season we used to employ 300 people from over a dozen different countries.
I know it can be a challenge to recruit, train, and retain people to pick fruit and veg and stay with the work over the harvest months. Over the past twenty years most of our summer fruit pickers have travelled over from places like Romania and Bulgaria for the spring and summer months. But this year, the unique challenge of the coronavirus means we need to think differently about how our homegrown produce gets to our plates.
That’s why there is an opportunity for people who are already here in the UK to play their part and lend our farmers a helping hand. We’ve already seen people signing up in their thousands to take on seasonal agricultural work this spring and summer.
In April, we launched our ‘Pick for Britain’ website to bring all the jobs in one place and confirmed furloughed workers could take up seasonal work to top up their incomes. But the growing season is only just getting started. From June through to September, bringing in the harvest requires a mammoth effort from farmers and growers across the country.
We’ve been working with industry, from the National Farmers Union’ to Waitrose, to make sure our farmers and growers have support they need in the months ahead. The Prince of Wales has also issued a message today calling on people to pick for Britain, with workers who can really stick at the job needed in the months ahead.
For university students with the summer months stretching ahead of them, this is also an opportunity to gain work experience while earning money and meeting new people. Those who are able and willing to pitch in this year can help to feed the nation in these tough times and do an invaluable service to their country.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Delivering a new Agriculture Policy fit for the 21st Century

Whilst COVID-19 continues to dominate our politics, many government departments have also been working on different bills and legislation as we continue to fulfil the Government’s promises that were made in our manifesto to the country late December last year. In my own department of DEFRA we have been working hard on two of the most important bills to come before Parliament for over half a century, the Agriculture Bill, and the Fisheries Bill.
Last week Parliament reached an important milestone in the progression of the Agriculture Bill with its passing of the Third Reading Stage meaning that it has now gone to the House of Lords for its consideration before a final vote is held. Leaving the EU on 31st December 2019 gave us the freedom to press ahead with our plans to develop this new policy creating one that was fit fir purpose in the 21st century and delivering British farmers and the environment.
Rather than arbitrary area-based payments, where land ownership and tenure is subsidised, we will instead direct future funding to support activities and interventions that deliver for our environment and enhance animal welfare.
We want a package of incentives to support sustainable farming practices and the bill creates the powers to do this. We recognise that Basic Payment Scheme payments currently make up a significant proportion of net farm income. However, rather than maintain a system that just masks poor profitability, the ambition behind our Agriculture Bill is to tackle the causes of that poor profitability.
So, the bill creates the power to make grants available to deliver a prosperous future for farming by helping farmers invest in new technology and equipment to reduce costs. There is a section in the bill to improve transparency and fairness in the supply chain, so that farmers stop being price takers and start getting a fairer share of the cake. Also, we want to make it easier for farmers to retire with dignity and simultaneously help new entrants get access to land.
I grew up on a farm and spent a decade working in the industry. Domestic food production is crucial and plays a vital role in contributing to our nation’s food security. The Coronavirus Pandemic has reinforced this message, and the government takes this very seriously. The revised bill therefore creates a duty to review food security every five years and a duty to consider the production of food when devising policy.
I also know that farming is a risky business and there will always be circumstances where the government must act and intervene in a crisis to support farmers or stabilise markets. The bill makes provisions for that too.
Whilst any change want take place over night, a decade from now, I want the rest of the world to be coming to the UK to see how it is done, and I know we have some of the best farmers in the world.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives

On Sunday evening, the Prime Minister delivered a televised broadcast to the country as we move towards the next stage of our response to the virus. Whilst the messaging has changed to Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives the guidance for now remains similar with a loosening in some areas and a provisional plan to chart a course out of this lockdown.
People should continue to work from home where possible, however if this is not possible then they should return to work and socially distance in a responsible manner. Workplaces will be required to follow Public Health guidelines on social distancing and work together with their employees to help those who cannot return to work due to childcare commitments. Where people are returning to work, they should use public transport as sparingly as possible and either drive to work by car or even better cycle or walk.
We are now also in a position whereby there is not a limit to the number of times that individuals can leave their homes. Therefore, people can go to the park with members of their households and even sit in the park or play tennis with each other whilst respecting social distancing rules. When we do leave our homes and social distancing is not possible then it is advisable that people wear cloth made face masks that will help try and slow the spread of the virus.
In the weeks and months ahead, there may yet be further loosening to the lockdown that we have all have experienced for the last 7 weeks, but the Government’s approach will remain cautious as we seek to control the rate of infection. This is important because a spike in the rate of infection will see the measures once more tightened and lockdown re-imposed on individual regions and the country. The Government’s guidance on the plan for the months ahead can be found on the www.gov.uk website.
Despite the Coronavirus Pandemic continuing to dominate our politics, the Government is also working hard on other legislation. One of the bills that was debated this week was the Agriculture Bill which I have been working on for some time now. The bill is a crucial part of the country’s framework now that we leave the EU as we continue to press ahead with plans to develop a new policy to replace the bureaucratic shambles that was the Common Agricultural Policy.
Whilst much attention has been fixed to the amendments relating to future trade deals, the ambition of the Bill remains that we should use our new-found freedom to embark on a journey to a better future for farming, innovating and developing the policies of the future. Improving transparency and fairness in the supply chain and providing a more prosperous future for farming are key principles and I look forward to work with colleagues to deliver a coherent future policy for our agricultural sector.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

VE Day

This Friday marks the 75th anniversary of VE day. It was the moment that started the end of the Second World War when fighting against Nazi Germany finally came to an end in Europe. There were more battles to come in Asia and the Pacific against Japan but the surrender of Germany was a crucial milestone bringing to an end a terrible struggle.
The conflict had claimed the lives of millions worldwide and change internal and international politics for decades to come. VE day marked the point in which people came together and celebrated the end of the fighting with street parties, and all manner of festivities. It was the point in time that many had longed for.
This year, it is the first year that the traditional May Day Bank Holiday Monday has been moved to the Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. Of course, the rather unusual circumstances we are under means that the scope to properly mark this occasion is more constrained than it might have been but it is important that we take this moment to pause and remember all those who sacrificed so much in that great struggle.
Of course, in this current epidemic it is also not unusual for there to be military analogies made, although the context is very different. However, in recent months many have made sacrifices, some have lost loved ones, and many more have played their part in the national effort to beat this virus.
At times like this it remains important that we all look out for one another. Cornwall has always had a great ability to pull together as a community so play your part. Remember to pick up the phone to family and friends and offer to help elderly neighbours who may want you to assist with their shopping. Whilst as a country we may have passed the peak, there is still a long way to go, we can be inspired by what has come before and know that we will beat this virus and return to the lives that we once led. 
This Sunday the Prime Minister will set out the plan for the next phase of our response to the Coronavirus. The emergence from the lockdown conditions we have all been under will no doubt be gradual since we need to follow the science and guard against a resurgence of the virus, but I hope that we can soon see a route to gradually return life to something closer to normality in the months ahead.