Spelman’s speech to the NFU AGM: ‘A New Partnership’

Spelman’s speech to the NFU AGM: ‘A New Partnership’.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Caroline Spelman

It’s a very special pleasure to be here.

As I chained my bike up outside Agriculture House all those years ago, readying myself for a job interview, never would have believed that one day I’d be addressing you - in my constituency! - as Secretary of State.

I got told off for chaining my bike to those railings, but I did land the job of sugar beet secretary - a job that taught me so much about the energy, dedication and fortitude of our farmers. So it does mean an awful lot to be speaking to you today.

It’s been nine months now, since Defra’s new ministerial team took over - a team with strong agricultural credentials, as we hope you’ll have spotted.

You have our backing. And you have it in writing. Our business plan shows exactly how much we understand and value the work you do. Not just because we have farming friends, farming relatives, farming offspring, but because of the urgency of the challenge you face - to grow more food at less cost to the environment. And because people’s well-being, now and in the future, hangs on your response to this challenge.

The Foresight report, which was sponsored by Defra, laid this out in no uncertain terms. The world’s farmers must feed a growing population, using less water, less fuel and less land - all while adapting to climate change.

I was very glad to hear Peter’s welcome of the report, and the opportunities this challenge brings to British farmers, because I want the UK to take the lead.

Peter asked about a food plan. Don’t forget we have Food 2030. Would there be any point in tearing it up and writing a new one?

But our Natural Environment White Paper - the first in 20 years - will set out how we see UK farmers showing the way. Showing how to merge food production and environmental protection into one task, how to value and protect our natural resources, and how to provide for ourselves without compromising the needs of future generations.

You’ve already made good progress on sustainable intensification (if I can use that new buzzword).  In the last 20 years you’ve increased yields using less fertilizer, and with less greenhouse gas emissions. You’ve set a good trajectory. You’ll need Government’s backing to continue along it.

You have that backing. It’s a new relationship, and from this side it’s one of deep respect, and great expectations. In my years at the NFU, I saw firsthand how hard you strive to deliver.

Food prices are again in the headlines, and it’s energy and water shortages that are driving them up - Foresight’s “perfect storm” has already arrived. Here, many households are feeling the pinch. But in poor countries we’ve seen the cost of bread can spark riots. 

Peter asked for agriculture to go to the top of the global agenda, so I’m glad to report that agriculture is on G20’s agenda for the first time. The UK must get world leaders to open up markets, allowing you to export more, and freeing up world trade.

We must push for transparency and good governance, to tackle the volatility that hits the poorest the hardest. But it’s you, the farmers, who hold the key to global food security, and it’s essential that CAP reform reflects this.

I applaud Commissioner Ciolos for picking out the challenges of climate change and food security, but what is proposed lacks ambition and falls far short of an answer to the Foresight challenge.

The previous Government’s 2005 “Vision” called for the elimination of Pillar 1 payments in less than a decade. It was an approach which was both naive and impractical, showing indifference to the problems facing many farm businesses and ignorance of the problems facing other Member States.

And it resulted in us being ignored - even by the friends who agree the CAP needs modernising.

This government’s position - the UK’s new position - is both more credible and more deliverable. We say “No” to a dogmatic scrapping of subsidies tomorrow. But we say “Yes” to genuine and enduring reform. Reform that is evolutionary, in step with the global picture, reform that helps farmers become more market-orientated, reform that opens up markets to farmers, reform that rewards farmers for the environmental benefits they deliver.

This shift in position means we can now become a major player in the negotiations.

The NFU and its equivalent in Germany are in broad agreement on a number of reform measures. So too are the UK and German governments. Add Germany to our traditional allies in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and to the more progressive of the new Member States, and we have a powerful alliance for change. As our coalition agreement stated, we are now a “positive participant in Europe”.

I’ll be working hard for a deal that is fair to farmers, the food industry, taxpayers and the environment. But let’s be realistic. You are well aware of the pressure on finances, and with finance ministers trying to balance the books there is bound to be a downward pressure on the CAP budget.

Change such as this must be met with energy and resourcefulness - resourcefulness such as yours. And with Government behind you, you will not fail.

I want this new relationship to be one of true collaboration - a partnership of equals. We’re not going to tell you how to run your businesses, but we are going to create the conditions in which your businesses can succeed. We’re not going to ignore your dedication, or dismiss your expertise, but we are going to help you use that dedication and expertise to full advantage.

We’ve made a good start. We know you often feel strangled by red tape, so in June we set up the Farm Regulation Task Force. And, rather than an academic, we chose your own Richard McDonald to lead this work. But as we move from a culture of control to one of trust it’s for you to ensure it’s also a culture of high standards.

We know your work to protect nature is vital. We know there’s not much point in rebuilding our economy unless it’s with green bricks - and we know that farmers are the bricklayers. We can’t build a green economy without you.

So, despite huge financial pressure, we have protected the Rural Development Programme for England, and our Natural Environment White Paper casts you in your central role.

But, without set-aside, we need you to get behind the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. You asked for a voluntary not a regulatory approach. So - over to you.

We know that you need science and expertise to help you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, so we’re putting up £12.6m for research to get you the very best advice. This new industry partnership is taking shape, through the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan.

We know you need UK standards of production recognised and rewarded. The Government is committed to buying food that meets your high standards. We are a major customer and our impact will be felt. And on food labelling, we’ve brought retailers, manufacturers and caterers together to ensure that if it’s labelled ‘British’, it means it. Because we want to help you raise standards even higher. Shoppers want to know where food comes from - and the customer is always right!   

We know and value your animal health expertise - the expertise that showed through in the handling of Bluetongue. We share the goal of reducing the risk and costs of animal disease. So we should share the responsibility. The Advisory Group on Responsibility and Cost Sharing published its valuable report in December, and we’ll be making an announcement very soon.

We know the UK needs a dynamic and professional farming industry, so we’ve increased our funding for apprenticeships - even in these hard times. Please make the most of this money because, for farming to become more competitive, it must be a career, not just a job. It must raise its profile, attract young people, and invest in their future.

It’s great to see the NFU’s commitment to this, through the Agri-Skills Forum. We know you have a good story to tell, a story that goes beyond the gloss of PR. I’m thinking about the dairy farmer in Northumberland who transported midwives through the snow to do their job at Hexham hospital. I’m thinking about the farmers in Cumbria who laid broadband cables, saving their community £100 for every metre laid. I’m thinking about the farmers in Suffolk who’ve been working together to raise money to maintain coastal flood defences. And I’m thinking about initiatives such as Highfield Happy Hens: turning around the lives of troubled teenagers.

You guessed it. I’m talking about the Big Society.

It’s a story that needs to be told, and we want to hear you tell it, loud and clear.

But there are also, in farming, some really tough tales. It’s our job to try and make things fairer. Peter highlighted the plight of the dairy industry. The dairy sector has shown determination in their creation of a sustainable supply chain - building on the success of the Milk Road Map - although the fact is that parts of the industry are struggling.

But there are some very real opportunities, both at home and in emerging global markets, and we want to help dairy farmers to seize them. We want to see more British businesses demanding British dairy products - demand usually raises prices - and we’re helping through country of origin labeling, and government buying standards, as I’ve already mentioned.

And we’ve given the Dairy Supply Chain Forum new life. What used to be a talking shop is now an engine room for change.

The Commission’s dairy proposal will allow producers to band together to negotiate contracts. This is a great opportunity to increase your bargaining power.

That job I got at the NFU - involved a lot of negotiating with British Sugar. I understand your bargaining power. I know there have been bad experiences in the past, but I’m convinced there’s scope for this sector to get a better deal - there are positive examples all over Europe of producers banding together to achieve success.

On the other side of the equation is the power of the supermarkets.

To ensure fairness here, the Government is creating the Groceries Code Adjudicator. We’re anxiously awaiting the Bill that’s being drawn up by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. 

We also know that you are anxious for the decision on Bovine TB. It’s a devastating disease, which must be eradicated. We are determined to get this right, so we need to follow the process very carefully. Thank you for your patience.

I can never do justice to size and complexity of the challenges this industry faces in a twenty minute speech.

I’m certainly not saying it’s going to be easy. But I can offer you a new relationship - a new partnership - with Government. In us you have a partner that wants you to succeed - and believes you can. A partner that will fight your corner in the CAP negotiations.  A partner that knows your livelihoods are in its hands. A partner who will do everything in its power to help you thrive, and make the future bright for farming.

Published 15 February 2011