The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Double)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) for securing this important debate. What better way to end our last moments of this term before we leave for the summer recess than talking about our amazing regional agricultural shows?
We have had a virtual tour of agricultural shows across the country during this debate, from the Wolsingham Show, which we were told is the oldest in the country, beginning in 1763, to the Ynys Môn Show—I am sure we all look forward to seeing pictures of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) shearing sheep in due course. We also heard about the Royal Welsh Show and the Pembrokeshire County Show, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), as well as the Cardigan County Show. In typically modest Yorkshire style, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) highlighted that the Great Yorkshire Show had 135,000—I think he said 140,000, but my figures say 135,000—visitors this year, which beat the Royal Cornwall Show, which had a mere 126,000 visitors. However, we did have the Prime Minister, so I trump him there. The Royal Highland Show—although a long way from Glasgow East—was mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). It would be remiss of me not to mention the Cockermouth Show. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), who is my Parliamentary Private Secretary, so is unable to speak in the debate, was telling me before the debate what a wonderful show it is and that he will have a stand there this year. I am sure everyone looks forward to that.
There are more than 400 show days per year around the country, put on by over 350 agricultural and county shows. They welcome over 7 million visitors and act as a vital link between rural and urban Britain. Shows of all sizes, big and small, connect our rural communities and play an important part in the tapestry of rural life. Agricultural shows bring people together to network and do business, and they give the public a glimpse into farming life. They play an important role in continuing to inform and education the population about where our food comes from and the vital connection we all need to have with the natural world.
Agricultural shows provide a chance for farmers to discuss emerging technologies and innovations with manufacturers. Several hon. Members made the point about the importance of farmers getting together at these shows and talking about their working practices. They are a fantastic showcase for the diversity and success of British agriculture, particularly for people who do not work in the countryside. They offer benefits to small businesses and the local area, and they are a great showcase for the amazing regional food and drink that is produced up and down our country.
A number of hon. Members said that virtually every show has had to stop for the past two years because of the pandemic, and it has been welcome seeing so many of them being held again this summer. The strong attendance at shows up and down the country shows how much they not only have been missed, but are valued by so many people. For the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, agricultural shows give us the chance to meet people from all kinds of farming backgrounds and rural lives across the country. They help us better understand the experiences and views of members of the farming community, who can help shape ideas, ask questions and offer challenge.
The future farming and countryside programme, which is leading the farming policy reforms in England, attended 28 events in June alone. These included the Royal Cornwall Show, the cereals show in Nottinghamshire, as well as shows in Norfolk, Hereford, Lincolnshire, Devon and Northumberland. I look forward to attending the North Devon Show next month and, as a proud Cornishman, I am sure I will get a warm welcome. Attending the agricultural shows is valuable to DEFRA. I know the Secretary of State and all Ministers have been working hard to attend as many shows as possible this summer and will continue to do so. I also know how important attending shows is to local Members of Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham mentioned. They give us that important connection and ability to discuss rural issues with so many people.
Agricultural shows are of great value to farmers. As well as the opportunity for networking and seeing examples of best practice, they allow farmers to give feedback to DEFRA Ministers and officials. For example, we have spent much of the summer so far talking about the new sustainable farming incentive, which opened at the end of June. These conversations have been extremely fruitful for talking about the benefits of the sustainable farming incentive and other environmental schemes and grants, and receiving feedback on what farmers want to see in the future from our work. Conversations with farmers at shows provide vital feedback that we will incorporate in our future communications about the scheme, helping many more farmers than just those we meet in person to understand the benefits.
Of course, agricultural shows afford broader benefits to the economy. For example, they provide income and employment for small businesses, such as exhibitors and marquee manufacturers that rely on agricultural shows, as well as local accommodation providers, caterers and equipment hire providers. The economic benefit of these shows goes beyond the agricultural sector in supporting the rural economy.
Agricultural shows also play an important role in connecting rural communities and educating the wider public. The Country Land and Business Association commented that agricultural shows are particularly important to the culture of rural areas. The shows act as a vital link between rural and urban Britain, and can be used as a major education tool in informing those who attend about the diversity of agriculture and land-based activities, and in promoting the importance of those who live and work in rural communities.
A further point can be made in relation to land management practices, given that the shows are seen as showcase events. Since the start of the century, we have seen the importance of the environment and the role that land managers play as custodians of the countryside. It is here that education is becoming so important; and, in a practical sense, shows provide a larger audience for the essential message of what agriculture is and does.
Let me respond to a number of the points raised during the debate. Several colleagues wanted to thank the many volunteers who make these shows possible; I would like to reinforce that point. From my own experience, I know the importance of the hundreds of volunteers who give their time to put on these shows. It is right that we all acknowledge their work and say thank you to them for all that they do.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire made a really important point about making sure that food production is at the heart of agricultural policy. That is something that we have demonstrated with the publication of the national food strategy; with the events of recent years, including the events in Ukraine, it will become even more important going forward to put food production and security at the heart of our policy making. He also said that farming is a unique part of our national heritage—a point that I am sure many of us can get behind and welcome.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) made the point that shows give a great opportunity to young people, which I have seen many times. One of my earliest memories was being given the day off school to attend the Royal Cornwall Show, which is something I would encourage. I am not here to make education policy, but it is important to teach our young people about where our food comes from, in order to help them better understand the importance of food production and our environment, and the central part that our famers play in that. The more we can give our young people the opportunity of engaging with these shows, the better, because they are a really great way of teaching them about those things.
One thing I was aware of before—but of which I have become particularly aware in the two weeks that I have had this role—is that sadly sometimes our farmers are presented as the villains when it comes to environmental protection and net zero. I think that is very unfair, because certainly all the farmers I know are really committed to sustainability and to doing everything they can to protect out natural environment. Again, our agricultural shows can play a vital role in getting that message out and helping people to engage with the farming sector, in order to understand all that the sector is doing to work with us to protect our environment, fight climate change and adapt to it. That is an important point to make.
In closing, this has been a great debate and a great way for most of us to end our time in Parliament before we head off to the recess. Agricultural and county shows are an essential part of the ongoing relationship between DEFRA, farmers, land managers and the wider public. They continue to be a fundamental element of our open dialogue with farmers, and we are committed to working in partnership with them. Like all Members who participated in the debate, I celebrate our agriculture and county shows, and I wish them the very best for the future.