Neil Parish MP: 'I’m very keen on the practical aspects of how we get to net zero'
The chair of the Efra Committee talks about why he isn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions – including how to square the needs of agricultural land and food production with climate change targets
In Parliament, as in life, the best laid plans often don’t work out. I was due to talk to Neil Parish MP in his Parliamentary office, but the coronavirus outbreak put paid to that, forcing us to practice social distancing by speaking over the phone instead.
Now ending his fifth year as chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee, he tells me how important it is that Parliament has experienced voices at the table during times of political upheaval and fast-moving events such as a viral pandemic.
Parish is certainly experienced, both from a practical and political point of view. He left school at 16 to manage the family farm, which he did for three decades while getting involved in local politics.
He served as an MEP for 10 years, during which time he was a member and then chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. That was followed by election to Parliament in 2010 to represent Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, a seat he has held for the Conservatives since. He has sat on the Efra Committee for nearly all that time.
Parish believes that experience will serve him well as the UK disentangles itself from the EU. “As you unravel the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, the experience of actually being part of the previous regime – if you like, the set-up – is quite useful.
“I know the reasons behind some of the rules and regulations of the Common Agricultural Policy. They are linked to trade, to the type of food that we, that Europe, can import. How much of that would we be prepared to trade away in a future deal with other parts of the world – America for one?”
Examining the agricultural and environmental implications of future trade negotiations will be one of the committee’s key roles over the coming years. The farming industry has become increasingly concerned about the prospect of a deal that would allow the import of food which would be illegal to produce in the UK, in response to which Parish has scheduled an amendment to the Agriculture Bill committing the Government to ensuring that food imports meet domestic production standards. The amendment has the backing of several select committees and cross-party support.
He has also asked the prime minister if he would uphold the highest standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and food standards when negotiating future deals. “I’m looking for assurance that Government is committed,” he says.
Another major priority for Efra over the coming Parliamentary term is scrutinising the Government’s approach to flood management. It opened up a new inquiry in March, following widespread flooding across England and Wales over the winter.
This will build on a succession of previous investigations, picking up issues of coastal erosion and tidal surges from a report published last November, and harking back to 2016 where the committee investigated inland flooding.
I’m very keen on the practical aspects of how we get to net zero. Signing up to targets is almost the easy part
The new inquiry will closely examine Government spending on flood defences and put the Environment Agency under heavy scrutiny.
“We’ve had extra money from the Government. Is it enough? Is it targeted in the right way? And the Environment Agency needs to be absolutely clear for the future as to what parts of the country are going to be protected and what parts of the country they’re going to look at a so-called ‘managed retreat’.
“I can understand them not wanting necessarily to put this in the public arena, but I think we do need to be absolutely clear because some areas become almost impossible or uneconomic to protect.”
Parish points out that the flooding problem overlaps with farming, because it raises questions about the future of fertile farmland.
It also links in with the Agriculture Bill’s plans for a new environmental land management scheme, which will offer farmers and landowners payments for tangible environmental improvements such as improved water quality, increased biodiversity and reduced flood risk.
The floods inquiry will also take in areas that border the work of other Parliamentary committees, such as housebuilding and local government.
Parish says the committee has a “massive” remit which can be challenging but also allows it to consider all these interconnected issues together.
“It’s not just about flooding. It’s about agriculture and farming, land management and planning. How do you make sure that it really takes in all these wider issues? There’s an ideal position now to be able to change that as we look at environmental schemes or payments to farmers as we move forward.”
In addition to these inquiries, Efra will be responsible for scrutinising three weighty pieces of new legislation as they go through Parliament: the Environment Bill, the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill. “We’re very keen to follow the Environment Bill to see how much they have taken on board from our pre-scrutiny.”
Parish is pleased with Efra’s achievements over the past five years, particularly its work on plastics, food waste, air quality and animal welfare, but is aware that the workload will be particularly high over the next term.
“I think all select committee chairs will tell you this, but it is an incredibly busy time for Efra at the moment and will be for some time.”
Given that, how does his committee decide what to focus on? “You put forward your programme – your flooding, your food, your agriculture, your Environment Bill – you put all that into the mix, and you prioritise what you need to do, partly with the speed at which various bills are finished. But then something like the coronavirus comes along and you have to reprioritise.”
Efra had already launched an inquiry into labour in the food supply chain when the virus began to spread, leading to panic-buying and raising concerns about food security and supply.
“We’ll be looking at the availability of home-produced food, imported food, and also naturally how, if we are not going to shop as much, are the major retailers going to get to those people who most need it?
“We’ll probably look a little bit at the charities as well that are delivering food to those that have to use food banks and have real problems with their income.”
The inquiry will also look at the impact of a points-based migration system on seasonal food workers due to come into effect at the end of the year, which Parish is concerned about.
“I think it will reduce the number of workers we have. The issue is not only the picking of the crops in the fields, but also the processing. I can understand the points-based system wants to deal with very skilled labour, but … we also need some semi-skilled and skilled labour in our processing plants.”
While clearly disruptive, Parish says the coronavirus pandemic is likely to highlight some of these problems more clearly. “It’ll be a broad inquiry, but we will want to do it reasonably quickly. The thing with select committees is you need to spend enough time to make sure that you drill down properly and get the right witnesses and evidence. But you also want to make sure that you’re fairly timely, so that hopefully you can actually put some ideas to government, and government can take them on board.”
He says that the committee has experience of dealing with emergency situations, recalling such a situation several years ago when ash dieback became a serious problem. “With those issues you do have to react very quickly.”
In future, the committee is likely to zoom in more closely on how agriculture can contribute to domestic climate change targets. The farming industry has set its own target to achieve net zero by 2040, compared with the national goal of 2050.
“I’m very keen on the practical aspects of how we get to net zero, because signing up to targets is possibly almost the easy part. I think sometimes we don’t realise that although planting trees is very good for holding and capturing carbon, until those trees start to reach a reasonable maturity, permanent pasture and grassland actually holds and absorbs as much carbon and sometimes more carbon than trees themselves.
“Agricultural land and food production is important, as well as the environment, and it’s a balancing battle. I’m absolutely adamant we need to balance the two.”
As Parliamentarians, we need to maintain ourselves here until we’ve got enough legislation in place for the Government to be able to act
He thinks the committee is in a good position to look at both these issues together. “Hopefully we can come up with what I would consider a balanced view on how we go forward. Not all would necessarily agree with me that I would have a balanced view on it but that’s what I believe anyway.”
In the meantime, coronavirus takes precedence. The lobby system means MPs have to physically go into the House of Commons to vote on emergency legislation and, with a number of Parliamentarians testing positive for the virus, such gatherings have raised questions from the general public – who are being encouraged to avoid unnecessary contact.
“Yes, there is a risk of us all congregating together,” says Parish, “but I think the population does actually expect us to help them do something and balance these things. In my own office, I’ve said to our staff if they want to come in, fine; if they don’t want to come in, it’s up to them.
“We have got to be flexible. But I think as Parliamentarians, we need to maintain ourselves here until we’ve got enough legislation in place for the Government to be able to act.”
For now everything remains up in the air, including when Parliament will close and reconvene. “We’re still meeting next week – we’ve got the secretary of state coming and we will naturally be putting many questions on the coronavirus to him.”
After that, nobody knows. “Parliament is keeping going, but under pressure. We’ll have to see how long it takes for us to get back to what passes for normality.”