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My noble Friend Lord Rooker has submitted evidence to the Competition Commission. He was concerned about the power of supermarkets to force prices down, about the viability of wholesale distribution and its effect on independent stores, and about the effectiveness of the code of practice. We have put forward those points for the Competition Commission
to consider. It is at liberty to conduct the inquiry as it sees fit, and I am sure that it has heard my hon. Friends comments.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Minister is entirely right to want to keep the Government out of this matter. I can think of no bog in which one would descend more rapidly than that of trying to get price controls between farmers and supermarkets. Will he beware of sweeping generalisations, such as statements about how much it costs a farmer to produce a litre of milk? Given the huge variety in the prices the farmers receive, depending on their circumstances, would he note that dedicated supply chains are being put together by supermarkets, which will integrate the chain much more effectively? Will the Government confine themselves to encouraging all sides of the supply industry to co-operate more closely so that it can deliver what the consumer wants at a price the producer can afford, and so that supermarkets can make a reasonable return?
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): There is a law in other countries to ban retailers from selling products at a price below the cost to them. That issue has been raised most recently in this House in relation to cheap alcohol, but it applies equally to direct farm produce such as milk. Will my hon. Friend at least consider such a change to the law on prices to prevent predatory pricing practices?
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Consumers visiting their local shop or supermarket who wish to shop ethically, on environmental or animal welfare grounds, or simply because they want to back British farmers, will want to buy British. Is the Minister aware that it is currently entirely permissible for animal carcases to be imported into this country, processed and then packaged as British. Does he agree that that is an outrageous deception, and will he take steps to ensure that the only meat that can be packaged and presented in this country as British comes from British animals?
Jonathan Shaw: There is a European Union ruling that makes what the hon. Gentleman suggests impossible, but increasingly we see packaging that promotes local produce. The situation is changing, and people are looking to see where food is grown, where it is reared and, more specifically, which of the different counties of our country it comes from. When I was in the hon. Gentlemans constituency last year, I went to the food hall, which was full of businesses from his community providing fantastic produce, which all came from Cumbria. On talking to those businesses, I heard that they were finding access to markets. The Competition Commission has not found any impediment preventing local producers from accessing markets. The message from this House to the consumer must be, Be discerning. Buy local and buy British.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab):
I am sure that the Minister is aware that there is a double rip-off in that not only the farmers but the consumersthe
families who buy the milkare being ripped off by the supermarkets. What can we do to stop that double rip-off? Farm-gate prices are not fair and families pay too much.
Jonathan Shaw: In response to several hon. Members, I referred to the undesirability of the Government getting involved in price controls. We are not going to do that. However, the Competition Commission is thoroughly examining the matter and a range of issues to do with the relationship between farmers and supermarkets. We expect its report to be published in the early part of this year. If it makes recommendations to the Government, we will, of course, consider them and follow them up.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): During 2007, all species of cetaceans in UK waters underwent an assessment of their favourable conservation status under article 17 of the habitats directive. We plan to publish the findings soon. The latest EU-funded studies of cetacean populations show that levels have remained steady in UK waters over the past decade.
Andrew George: Although I am grateful for that reply, the Under-Secretary will be aware of the growing concern about the health of cetacean populations, especially on the Cornish and south-west coast, and particularly that of the inshore bottle-nosed dolphin population, which the Cornwall Wildlife Trust recently estimated to have fallen to seven. What contribution is the Department making to understanding better the health and the cause of the decline of those stocks?
Jonathan Shaw: We spent around £1.6 million between 2000 and 2005 on research on cetaceans and especially on by-catch. We are expecting research from the sea mammal unit at St. Andrews university to provide information about the effectiveness of attaching pingers to fishing vessels. We expect the results of that research by April, and we will consider it and look to working in partnership with the fishing industry to ascertain whether pingers can be introduced effectively.
I know that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about the issue, as do many hon. Members. We are investing, and we want to ensure that we keep by-catches and all fatalities of these beautiful creatures to an absolute minimum. I will ensure that he is updated as we receive the results of the research and move forward on dealing with the matter.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Dolphins are beautiful, intelligent and wonderful creatures. Why should they be threatened by DEFRAs systemic incompetence? Bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth are threatened by oil spill and seismic testing. Pingers on gill nets either do not work or are not being used. Pair trawling drowns and smashes more dolphins than any other method of fishing and it is carried out only 6 nautical miles from our coast by French boats with historical rights. There is further rumour of a delay to the marine Bill.
DEFRAs record on whales is even worse. It issued its much publicised recruiting document to 57 countries, 42 of which were already members of the International Whaling Commission. That is why the Department had to do it again this year. Surely that is incompetence. Is it not the case that everyone wants to save dolphins and whales except the Government?
Jonathan Shaw: We banned pair trawling in the western channel. We do not have the ability to ban French vessels [Interruption.] In case the hon. Gentleman does not know, we are in the common fisheries policy, to which the Conservative Government signed up. We presented our argument in Europe and we took unilateral action to ban pair trawlingthat constitutes taking an effective measure. We argued our case and we were unable to persuade others, but we are taking action ourselves.
The sea mammal research unit at St. Andrews has advised us that there is no danger to bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth from ship-to-ship oil transfer. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that I should have been here. I say that we must accept the advice of one of the most revered institutions in this country. If we are given contrary advice, we will, of course, act on it.
I regret the partisan position that the hon. Gentleman takes on whaling. When I met the Japanese deputy ambassador, I said that all hon. Members were united in their condemnation of Japan on whaling. Yet the hon. Gentleman tries to take a partisan position. He is isolated. I told the deputy ambassador that Conservative and Liberal Members shared our concern. Our record is one of the best in the world.
Jonathan Shaw: It is not appalling. We are one of the only countries to summon ambassadors to listen to our concerns. The International Fund for Animal WelfareIFAWand many other non-governmental organisations have congratulated the Government on our action.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): DEFRAS 2006 assessment of food security highlighted climate change as one of the many factors that may affect the UKs food supply. What matters to the safeguarding of our food supply is a strong farming industry, energy security, access to food from a variety of sources, a strong food chain and infrastructure, and having the capacity and contingency planning to deal with specific risks.
My right hon. Friend makes at least part of the point that, historically, the UK has often simply equated food security with market mechanisms. We know, however, that those market mechanisms are under pressure, partly because of the growth in demand from countries such as India and China and the growth in demand for biofuels. Climate change
could, of course, destroy the whole supply chain. In that context, is my right hon. Friend confident that we have the forward planning to provide sufficient agricultural land and the necessary diverse and adaptable skills in the agricultural population to ensure that we can guarantee food security in the future?
Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend raises a really important point about the impact of the changing climate on the farming industry. First, on our capacity as a world to feed ourselves, the Food and Agriculture Organisation has said that world food production is still rising more quickly than the global population. There will, however, be between 9 billion and 9.5 billion of us on this planet by 2050, compared with 6.2 billion now.
Secondly, although the UKs self-sufficiency has declined a bit in recent years, it is still higher than it was in the 1930s, before the second world war, and higher than it was after the second world war.
Thirdly, a change in climate might mean that some crops that are currently grown will be more difficult to grow, but it could also open up new possibilities. One of the practical steps that we are taking is to fund research at the Agriculture Development Advisory Service and at Warwick into the potential impact of more extreme weather events on the farming community. The truth is that this is an issue for all of us to think about. We need to try to anticipate what might be coming, so that the farming industry will be able to respond.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the UK livestock industry makes a huge contribution to not only the quality but the security of the food supply in this country? It is also true that cattle are a major generator of methane gas. Is it not important, however, to keep this matter in balance, and to say to anyone who criticises the farming industry that the value of the livestock industry far outweighs any contribution that it might make to climate change?
Hilary Benn: I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I agree with him, with one proviso. The livestock industry does all the things that he has described, as well as contributing to our landscape, as has been said. We are strong supporters of the industry and we want it to thrive. Like all parts of the economy, however, it is going to have to make a contribution to the fight against climate change. I am glad to be able to say that emissions of methane have declined, largely as a result of reducing livestock numbers, but that will remain an issue because all parts of the economy, including farming, are going to have to make a contribution. That is why I welcome the work that the Farming Futures Project is doing, and the response of the National Farmers Union and others in acknowledging that climate change is an issue for farming, just as it is for the rest of us.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I have received various representations on the former chief scientific advisers views on whether badger culling should form part of the bovine TB control strategy. Those have come in the form of questions from hon. Members and a lot of correspondence from concerned organisations and members of the public.
Dr. Palmer: Does my right hon. Friend accept that the findings of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which were developed over such a long period and at such considerable expense, should not be cast aside in favour of the views of an individual scientist, backed by hon. Members whose solution to animal welfare issues is If in doubt, kill something?
Hilary Benn: I say to my hon. Friend and the House that, as we know, this is an exceptionally difficult issue. If it were not exceptionally difficult, we would have found a way of resolving it already. Secondly, I met Sir John Bourn just before Christmas and I am in the process of having a series of meetings with all those who have an interest in this matter, as I told the House I would.
The advice in the ISG report is very clear. The conclusion was that the group did not think that culling could meaningfully contribute to the control of TB. We have all seen what the former chief scientific adviser had to say about that. For me, the issues on which I have to make a decisionand I willare these: what does the science say; what is the practicality of any course of action; and, I have to say, what is the public acceptability of any course of action. The truth is that the person who holds my office must weigh those three issues in the balance in trying to help the industry and the livestock sector, which is finding it very difficult to deal with. I do not for one second deny the problems faced by the industry. It is a tough issue; I will reach a decision, but in doing that I am going to listen to all the views expressed.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Independent Scientific Group put great store by cattle testing and the use of the gamma interferon test. He will also be aware that there is considerable concern in farming circles that that test is now showing a much higher incidence of bovine TB in comparison with the skin test. What steps will he take to resolve that position, particularly taking into account the effect that a higher incidence of the disease could have on his Departments budget?
We are using both those approaches. The right hon. Gentleman, who is expert in these matters, is correct in saying that the gamma interferon test produces more positive results. My view is that we should use all the scientific tools at our disposal to try to identify the nature of the problem. I think I am right in saying that there are a couple of potential court cases relating to use of the gamma interferon test, which will be a matter for the courts to resolve. Both tests demonstrate that there is a problem and we have to deal with it. The question is finding the solution that is going to work. A number of different proposals have been made and I look forward with great interest to what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman so ably chairs, has to say when it produces its report.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I am sure that the Minister recognises the sense of utter despair and anger in the south-west among farmers who over the past 10 years have seen delay after delay at the same time as the slaughter of tens of thousands of their animals. At that rate of progress, we are soon going to see more badgers in the south-west than farm animals. When are the Government going to take some positive decision?
Hilary Benn: As I said in answer to the earlier question, I am going to reach a decision, but as I told the House I am in the process of meeting all the organisations, which have very strong views on this subject. I absolutely recognise the hon. Gentlemans point about the difficulties that those farmers face, but, with respect, we have to find a solution that is in line with what the science tells us. We have had a 10-year study and we have seen what the report said and the view expressed in itI do have regard to the science. We have to find a solution that is practical and we also have to weigh the factor of public acceptability in reaching the decision. People have very strong views on both sides of the argument. It is not easy, which is one of the reasons why it has taken so long to come to a decision, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do so.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): The views of the former chief scientist are a matter of public record, but will my right hon. Friend share with the House the views of the current chief scientist?
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The issue of the use of gamma interferon goes further than the Secretary of State suggests. The gamma interferon test has a sensitivity of about 97 per cent., yet we have found that in some herds up to 28 times the number of cattle are reacting to it as to the skin test. His officials are flatly refusing farmers the opportunity of re-testing and insisting on culling all those animals. That is the reason for the court hearings to which he referred.
Why will the Secretary of State not instruct his officials to allow a re-test, on the understanding that everybody accepts the outcome? All the evidence is that those results are statistically invalid. He should speak to experts: they are all saying that we could not get such a difference in sensitivity between the two tests. Something is wrong somewhere, and putting farmers to the expense of going to courtrisking the Secretary of States money on extra compensatory costs, as well as defending the caseis helping nobody at all.
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I do not quite agree with the analysis that he has put forward. I repeat what I said a moment ago: we should use all the means that we have to try to achieve identification. I understand the strength of feeling in some cases about the impact of this, but if we have an additional test that gives us information about the incidence of bovine TB, it is pretty hardlooking at it from the other point of viewto say that we will
not use it. Those tests have different sensitivities, but the question is whether it is right to use both. My view is that it is, but if the matter goes to the courts, they will decide whether the approach that we are taking is reasonable.
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