'I have your back': Rishi Sunak praises farmers at NFU conference as he announces new £220m funding

20 February 2024, 13:49 | Updated: 20 February 2024, 13:50

The prime minister said that £220 million will be put into new food productivity schemes, farm technology and automation in the next financial year, to "reduce reliance on overseas workers."
The prime minister said that £220 million will be put into new food productivity schemes, farm technology and automation in the next financial year, to "reduce reliance on overseas workers.". Picture: Alamy
Jasmine Moody

By Jasmine Moody

The prime minister has announced another £220m package of funding for farmers in Birmingham - as he addressed the National Farming Union (NFU) conference for the first time.

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Rishi Sunak is the first prime minister to have attended since Gordon Brown in 2008 and comes after immense polls showed that the Tories are losing rural voters to Labour.

Critics have accused Mr Sunak of attending the NFU due to fear that the Conservatives were losing the rural vote, which the Environment Secretary denied on LBC.

Steve Barclay said: "No, I worked with the prime minister, I was obviously his deputy in the Treasury, and when he asked me to do this role I was very keen that he did come to the NFU conference.

"I think it is important to signal that the whole government is absolutely focused on food production and food security. I think the importance of food security has increased given the volatility around the world."

Responding to Labour criticism, he added: "We have a clear plan to back our farmers and that's in stark contrast to an urban Labour Party full of London MPs that don't understand our rural communities."

Critics have accused Mr Sunak of attending the NFU due to fear that the Conservatives were losing the rural vote, which the Environment Secretary denied on LBC.
Critics have accused Mr Sunak of attending the NFU due to fear that the Conservatives were losing the rural vote, which the Environment Secretary denied on LBC. . Picture: Alamy

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The Conservative Party currently hold 96 countryside seats out of the 100 most rural constituencies in the country

However, a new survey from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and Survation has predicted that 51 of those 100 seats will go to Labour.

Watch Again: Nick Ferrari speaks to Environment Secretary Steve Barclay | 20/02

The prime minister began his speech by praising farmers: "It's farmers who feed us, farmers who embody those British values of strength, resilience, warmth and independence."

He stressed his credentials as an MP in a rural constituency, jesting: "I even tried my hand at milking once, not very successfully, I must say."

Mr Sunak said farmers work "not for praise or high reward, but to put food on our tables, to maintain a tradition and a way of life, and to steward our landscape", adding: "On behalf of the nation, I just wanted to say thank you.

"I have your back", he told the farmers in attendance and promised to "change the culture in government around farming."

Mr Suank continued on the topic of food security, saying that it "was a vital part of our national security.

"As farming changes, how we work with you in government must change too.

Rishi Sunak speaks during a question and answer session with National Farmers' Union (NFU) President Minette Batters.
Rishi Sunak speaks during a question and answer session with National Farmers' Union (NFU) President Minette Batters. Picture: Alamy

The prime minister said that £220 million will be put into new food productivity schemes, farm technology and automation in the next financial year, to "reduce reliance on overseas workers."

Other announced plans include cutting bureaucracy around permitted development rights, so farmers can more easily diversify and develop new businesses, such as farm shops, commercial space and sporting venues.

Regulations are due to be laid out in Parliament on Wednesday to ensure reasonable contracts for the dairy sector - the pig and egg sector will have similar rules.

Regulations are due to be laid out in Parliament on Wednesday to ensure reasonable contracts for the dairy sector - the pig and egg sector will have similar rules.
Regulations are due to be laid out in Parliament on Wednesday to ensure reasonable contracts for the dairy sector - the pig and egg sector will have similar rules. Picture: Alamy

The Birmingham-based conference comes as farmers across the country are suffering from rising costs, low supermarket prices and new post-Brexit farm payment schemes.

Many have said that such schemes have prioritised environmental policy over food productivity.

Save British Farming co-founder Liz Webster, a mixed arable and beef farmer, said: "Successive governments have given too much control to the supermarkets, who've been in a price war with each other, and it's just been a drive to make everything cheap - as cheap as possible."

Rebecca Mayhew, a farmer from Norfolk, told LBC that the government is missing the point and investing in more tech does not mean that can buy its way out of trouble.

Instead, the government should invest in food infrastructure and help farmers sell food at a more local level rather than rely on commodity prices which are massively impacted by global events, according to Rebecca.

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