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Although I obviously accept the apologies that the Secretary of State has given, I am sorry that he could not arrange his affairs so that he could be here, because he has missed a good debate. He has missed some very sensible, wise contributions from both sides of the House, without exception, from colleagues who have described issues in their constituencies from a heartfelt position. It is a great shame that the Secretary of State was not here for that.
The Secretary of State started his speech by referring to the general recession and suggesting that agriculture was the one industry that was doing quite nicely and was not in recession. Many farmers would say that that is because they have been in recession for the past 10 years. Indeed, many of the statistics would support that. Other Members spoke about the decline in production overall and in livestock numbers; they referred to the 500,000 fewer dairy cows, and the fact that beef production is down from 110 per cent. of consumption to 80 per cent., as well all the other statistics.
One statistic that has not been mentioned but that needs to be mentioned is the Governments figure for total income from farming when considered per capita. Hon. Members should remember that that is the total income from farmingit includes diversification such as holiday lets, adding value by turning milk into ice cream and so on. Yes, that figure went up last year. That is good news. The bad news is that it went up only as far as £18,000 a year. That is the figure across the whole work force, from the tractor driver to the cowman to the farmer and their investment. I do not think that there are many sectors of our economy where the average income per person employed in it is just £18,000. When we add in the capital investment to which so many hon. Members have referred, that puts it into context.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) referred to housing, which we discussed at length in Mondays debate. He said a lot of wise things. He also referred to composting, to pig farmers and to a number of other issues, most of which I agreed with. In particular, I agree with him about the smell in Winterton, because I have been there myself.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly reminded us of the importance of the industry, and he quoted some statistics. I am assured by my office that his office was informed that I was going to the Royal Bath and West showI have checked that since we spoke about it.
Mr. Paice: Indeed, my hon. Friend says the same, but whatever. We had a good timethat is the important thing. The cider was excellent. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome also referred to the importance of public understanding and knowledge of the industry.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) made a heartfelt, moving speech. He spoke about the red kite, and I share his joy at the success of its reintroduction; it has been reintroduced all over the country, and not just in his part of the world. It is a great joy to drive up the M40 through the Chilterns and see them in the air, by the dozen sometimes. I was also touched by his reference to the debt that we all owe to farmers. If I may say so, it was all the more heartfelt and appreciated for coming from a Member on the Labour Benches. Many years
ago, in the days when everybody had car stickers, there was one that said, Dont criticise farmers with your mouth full. That sums it up, in some wayswe should not forget that most of our food comes from them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) raised the level of the debate to take in global issues, the international aspects of policy, trade and the development of agriculture. I want to come back to his comments about the common agricultural policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) referred to the harsh, difficult and personal aspects of bovine TB, and to Dairy Farmers of Britain; I wish to refer to both those subjects, as virtually every other Member has done.
I said in the debate on Monday that I hope that those who are less enthusiastic about co-operatives than I am do not use the failure of Dairy Farmers of Britain as a stick with which to beat the concept of co-operation. I fear that the management of DFOB will have some pretty testing questions to answer in coming weeks. That is not an issue for us politicians; it is a matter for the former shareholders, and perhaps for DFOBs creditors and others. It seems quite clear that there have been some odd management decisions. Frankly, it has been an open secret for months that it was in serious trouble. I was told by the dairy industry back in September or October that DFOB would go down this summer; that was widely expected, and there are questions to answer.
In the short term, the issue is the state of the supplying farmers. Obviously, it is extremely good news that such a huge proportion of them have found other outletsthat is greatand that the receiver has managed to sell some of the factories, despite the failure to find a buyer or a management buy-out for the Blaydon plant. However, we should not run away with the assumption that for the vast majority of the dairy industry everything will be all right. Apart from other issues, which I will come to, there is the fact that milk prices are falling, generally. The farmers who contract directly with supermarkets to supply liquid milk are paid a reasonable pricenobody would say that it was excessivebut those who are selling to the manufacturing side, which is half the marketplace for British milk, face much lower prices, with worse in prospect. Global prices for cheddar, skimmed milk powder and other products are low and falling.
I wish to mention one of the issues that must be at the heart of the problems of our industry. I cannot fully understand why, with the major exception of Dairy Crest, British investors do not invest in British manufacturing. Other investors do. MÃ1/4ller, a German company, invested a large sum in the yoghurt plant in Shropshire, which is doing quite well, as are the producers involved. Arla, a Danish co-operative, came to this country and invested massively in our milk production. Yoplait has done the same. There are many other such examples, but where is the domestic investment? If we are to fight back against the imported dairy product market, we have to make that investment.
The Secretary of State and others referred to food security. I am concerned that, in some quarters, the attitude still seems to be that the issue is just the flavour of the month, and that we can forget about it. Some of the conservation bodies are saying such things, which is a great shame, and is counter-productive. For all the
reasons that the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde mentioned, food security is hugely important. No country can say, Its up to everybody else. Just as with climate change, we cannot say, Well do our own thing and leave the matter to somebody else. Every single country on this planet has a responsibility to improve its food productionour country, too.
I want to address something that has not been mentioned at all in the debate: set-aside and the question mark over whether the Government should allow the industry to address the issues raised by an abolition of the voluntary scheme or, as some would have it, a further move to a compulsory scheme. A consideration of where we go with set-aside gives us the opportunity to take a quantum leap forward. Over the past few years, set-aside has provided environmental gains, although that was not the intention behind it. The Government and most of the farming industry, as well as the conservation groups, wanted to retain that benefit, even though it had been achieved by accident, so the first idea was, Lets keep setting land aside. However, when we look at what else has happened, we find that although there has been considerable take-up of the entry level stewardship scheme, many farmers are saying that they will not continue with it and are fed up with the bureaucracy involved for relatively little money, so I fear for the schemes long-term future.
Whether we are talking about set-aside or the ELS, we know that we will miss most of our biodiversity action plan targets for 2010. The farmland bird index continues to decline, despite 16 years of set-aside, which we are told is important for such birds. We are missing the whole point. We need to be thinking about managing, maintaining and enhancing biodiversity on a whole-landscape basis, rather than having a situation in which some farmers opt in and others opt out, or taking bits of land out of production. We need to farm and manage our landscape in the way that has the best effect, but I am worried that the response to the consultation on set-aside showed that some, including Natural England, still say that there need to be targets on taking X thousand hectares of land out of production. We should be thinking not about such targets, but about genuine biodiversity targets. We should be looking at indicator species of birds, wild flowers and insects, and all other aspects of biodiversity and our wildlife. If we can start by getting the real targets that we want, we can then devise schemes and involve the whole industry so that rather than some farmers doing a bit and their neighbour doing nothing, they can work together. They are worth far more together than the sum of their parts because that can lead to such things as the creation of wildlife corridors between natural habitats. Everyone needs to engage to make a voluntary system work and to recognise the huge step forward that can be achieved if we can get that right.
I do not believe that the future for farming lies in a choice between producing food or looking after wildlifewe must have both. However, if farming is to have a role in producing our food, we must make the marketplace work. I will not rehearse again the arguments that have been made about the importance of food labelling, and we have heard about public procurement. Although the Secretary of State was anxious to advance the improvementsno one can deny that any step forward
is welcomethere is still a long way to go, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) clearly pointed out. To hark back to the milk market, although we have heard the Secretary of State refer to the fact that all the milk that we publicly procure is British, we must ask an interesting question: what price are our Government paying for liquid milk and how transparent is the supply chain?
If we are to make the marketplace work, we need to consider the quality of imports. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole that public procurement can be dealt with through proper specifications, which is why we say that the specification should be the little red tractor standard. It cannot be the little red tractor itself, because that means that the product is British, which an import cannot be; however, we could lay down such a standard, and it would at least create a more level playing field for our producers.
None the less, we would still have the absurd situation with the pesticides directive and thematic strategy, to which the Secretary of State referred, whereby our farmers will be prevented from using a range of active ingredients, yet we will still be able to import products on which overseas farmers have used them. That is ludicrous and patently daft. If there is a human health, animal health or animal welfare issue, the directive should apply wherever the food comes from and whoever grows it. Even if the risk is only to the operator, are we actually less concerned about an overseas spray operator than we are about a British operator? It is just crazy.
These problems are not all in the future, either. In my constituency, manufacturers from the fresh product sector, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde referred because of his experience, are already withdrawing products; next year, some existing lettuce crop products, for example, will not be available. The problem is here and now and the Government need to claim whatever derogations they can.
We also need to do more to make co-operatives work more effectively, and that is why I made my comment about DFOB. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs, in his opening speech, also referred to supermarkets, and we strongly support the Competition Commissions proposed code, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned. It is a very robust code, but it must be properly enforced. I am not too worried whether it is enforced by an independent, self-appointed ombudsman who is paid for by the supermarkets, by the Office of Fair Trading or by anybody else; what matters is that the code is properly enforced.
If the supermarkets genuinely care about long-term British food production, they have to think about their supply chain. When I speak to certain supermarkets, I find it quite galling when they say, Oh, we never buy any livestock in the market; it is all procured direct from farmers and we have a jolly good relationship with them. The directors may believe that, but it is not the case on the ground. I can take Members to livestock market after livestock market to talk to real auctioneers, who will say, That guy there is buying for Tesco. It is fair to say that those bullocks will not go straight from the market to the abattoir; they will go on to a farm for a weekand then they will go to the abattoir, together with dozens of other bullocks bought for Tesco from other markets to go to the same abattoir. Strictly, then, supermarkets are not buying directly from the market
but, if anything stretches credibility, it is that sort of practice. When everybody knows such practices occur, it makes people take all the supermarkets other protestations with a significantly large pinch of salt.
Mr. Drew: Surely the problem is now with the ombudsman. Some supermarkets are resistant and reluctant to agree to the idea, but if the Government are seen to roll over, given the time that the issue has taken up with the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission, the supermarkets will for ever think that, if they just hold out, the Government will give in. That cannot be right.
Mr. Paice: I am not quite sure that I follow the hon. Gentleman. If he is saying that the Government should impose the ombudsman quickly, I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view. We certainly cannot let the current arrangements go on ad nauseam.
Several Members referred to research and development, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde referred to the fact that DEFRA now spends less on R and D than Barcelona spent on Ronaldo. That puts the matter into some context. What is equally worrying is the fact that the amount has gone down dramatically. In one of DEFRAs own parliamentary answers, it said that its spend on agriculture R and D was down from £82 million in 2001-02 to £63 million last year. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has partly compensated for that, but the amount is certainly going in completely the wrong direction. Wherever I go, and wherever the Minister goes, as he will find as he gets into his job, he will find the industry saying that we have to invest more if we are to increase production from what, after all, is a limited and shrinking area of farmland in this country.
Several Members have referred to electronic identification. The Secretary of State said that he had written to other Ministers and that he is successful in persuading the European Commission to put the issue on the agenda. However, little has been said, except by the Secretary of State, on the issue of cost sharing. I agree with him that last years bluetongue exercise was a significant step forward in co-operation, but that does not have much to do with the Governments consultation on cost sharing, which does exactly what most of the industry feared it would doprovide justification for getting the industry to pay half the costs of the Governments current disease control system. That is the wrong way round, and it does not even take into account the possibility of delivering the strategy more cheaply. The industry must be involved in developing the strategy.
The nitrate vulnerable zone issue has also been raised by a number of hon. Members. I cannot think of a more ridiculous piece of legislation. Of course it is true that it goes back to a directive that is itself long outdated; some of the science is hugely dubious. The Government should have gone back to the European Commission and said, Come on, lets review the directive on which this thing is based. The Secretary of State will go down in history as the politician who put national muck-spreading day into statutefour national muck-spreading days, to be precise. Laid down in the statute of the United Kingdom are four specific days on which farmers can start spreading their muck. It does not matter what the weather is, whether the farms are on flat or hilly ground,
whether it is pouring with rain or there is bright sunshine or whether the county in Cambridgeshire, Cumbria or Cornwallthose days are laid down in statute. What a ridiculous situation!
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) rightly raised the issue of fallen stock and the fact that sheep and scrapie have been taken out of the whole BSE equation. Why do we still require sheep to be removed? Why can we not return to the on-farm burial of sheep?
Above all that hangs the whole issue of regulation. I do not suggest that the Secretary of State does not genuinely desire to lift the burden of regulation, but it is clear that it is not happening. One of the reasons is that the Government are still obsessed with processwith how one complies with a regulation, not with whether the necessary outcome has been achieved. That approach has to change; farmers have to be trusted. That is what we are trying to achieve, whether the issue is a lower nitrate level in ditches or higher standards of animal welfare. By all means, give farmers the target and tell them what they have to do; yes, jump on them if they do not achieve the objective. But do not lumber them with books and books of guidance, and inspectors to check whether the right boxes have been ticked. That is where the cost burden on business falls.
Several Members have referred to our uplands, and nowhere could the plight of agriculture be clearer. There has been a huge flight of stock from the uplands. I want to stress how important it is that we keep an adequate level of stock in such areas. We need to keep farmers in the uplands, for socio-economic reasonsthey are important, and often the main part of the rural community. Furthermore, if the stock is not on the hills, there will not be the right vegetation; if that happens, the wildlife will go. Incidentally, gamekeepers are also important for the preservation of wildlife. If the wildlife is not there, the tourists do not come and the cycle continues in decline. All those issues are interlinked. We need to put more resources, even if from elsewhere, into the rural development programme for England and into the uplands.
It would be lovely to a debate on forestry, which applies to the uplands but also to the whole of Britain. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome touched on that issue, which falls within the broad subject area for this debate: time, however, prevents me from addressing it.
Members referred to the Rural Payments Agency. I share the view of those who think that we are rapidly going back to the shambles that we faced at the beginning. Only this morning, I had a letter from a constituent who has still not received much money, and the payment window closes next week. In April I was promised a full reply from the RPA about what the problems areand there are many othersbut I still have not got it. All the indications are that it does not reply to letters from us, and it certainly does not deal with communications from our farmers; indeed, they regularly report that every time they phone up they get someone different. That was supposed to have been resolved years ago. There is also slowness of action in other spheres. As
regards speciality produce, where the Government recently lost a legal case, the RPA is digging its heels in about implementing the legal decision.
The rural development programme for England is hugely important. It involves a lot of money and, as I said on Monday, there are big question marks about how effectively it is being spentmost importantly, about how axis 1 is being spent. Axis 1 of the RDPE is about equipping our farmers for the future. It is about farm modernisation, improving their competitiveness, and enabling them to meet a future where there will be a declining single farm payment, which we would all see in our crystal balls as being inevitable. I hope that when the Minister has got his feet under the desk he will have a look at how ineffectively that money is being used in equipping farmers for a future where, as Mariann Fischer Boel has said, there will be a shift of resources from pillar 1 to pillar 2, and other major problems will need to be faced up to in the next couple of years.
Our farming industry has, in one way or another, provided the food for the population of this country for thousands of years, and it is only right and proper that we expect it to do so for the future. It is not just an industry of some ancient, quaint past, but one with a massive part to play in the long-term future of our country. It will not always be as it has beenit will change. Farmers are learning to look after their soils betterto conserve organic matter because of its water retention properties, and to reduce erosion. If we look back using todays standards and values, we see that some practices of the past have proved to be wrong. There are huge challenges about fertility, with the decline in the supply of phosphates as well as nitrogen from fossil fuels. These are all big challenges.
All the industry expects, if it is to play such a huge role in the food security of this country, is that wherever possible the Government get off its back and create a better environment with more research and a more understanding means of dealing with competition from abroad as regards regulation and cheaper, lower-standard imports. Given those opportunities, I am certain that our industry has a great and profitable futurebut, by goodness, things need to change to enable that to happen.
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