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5.28 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is highly regarded for his knowledge of and commitment to farming, as well as for his courtesy as a senior Member of this House. He spoke, as ever, with great authority and summarised many of the excellent contributions that we have heard; I agree with him wholeheartedly in that regard. I assure him that the Secretary of State will not miss any of the issues that were raised, which will be picked up from his officials, from Hansard, or from meetings that he and I have planned in the days ahead.

We know that English farmers are doing an essential job for us all. I am honoured to have been appointed to this job by the Prime Minister. I know that there have been many raised eyebrows given the view of some that, as an inner-city MP, I may have a credibility gap to overcome. I was a child of the ’50s and ’60s, like the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). I was brought
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up in a more respectful age, and I was brought up to admire and revere the countryside, even from the Gorbals, Pollokshaws and Pollokshields in Glasgow. I know that in my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), I have a hard act to follow. I hope that I will be able to live up to the standards that she set and the expectations of those who are watching us all.

This morning, I was fortunate to be able to visit the farm of Mr. Peter Kendall and his brother Richard in east Bedfordshire. We enjoyed the hospitality of Peter’s wife Mrs. Emma Kendall, who provided tea, toast and coffee to me and my officials, which was most welcome. We went to hear at first hand about the issues facing the farming industry today. They are proud of what they are doing, and rightly so. Listening to them and to others whom I have met in my first week or so in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I have become more aware of the challenges that we need to address. Set-aside, which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned, was high on the agenda this morning. As I am sure he is aware, the Secretary of State is scheduled to announce his conclusions on that before the summer recess.

Notwithstanding the challenges, at the same time there are real opportunities to ensure that we meet our agreed long-term vision for the farming sector—a thriving industry that is resilient and focused on sustainability. There are challenges facing the industry, however, and we are taking steps to address them. For example, I was pleased last week to be able to chair the pig meat supply chain taskforce, which was established earlier this year. It is looking to address some of the challenges that right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. The long-term sustainability of the pig industry must be safeguarded, as it has a significant contribution to make to a thriving farming sector and a sustainable, secure and healthy food supply that offers consumer choice.

I know that many farmers are concerned about the need for proportionate, sensible legislation. We share their concerns about the implementation of the electronic identification of sheep, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned at great length. He said that although there are benefits, such as enhancing disease control and providing management benefits for the keeper, the costs of EID outweigh the benefits for the industry as a whole. We are working with the industry to find a way to implement EID, as he outlined, while minimising the burden.

Climate change is another key issue for agriculture. The agricultural, forestry and land management sector is a significant emitter of greenhouse gases, being responsible for 14 per cent. of total global emissions and 7 per cent. in the UK. I have taken to heart the warning on Monday from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire not to hide behind a barrage of statistics, but one has to refer to some statistics in any contribution. The Government are currently developing a policy framework to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector.

Further, we are committed to making the most of the potential of anaerobic digestion to contribute to climate change policies and wider environmental objectives. The aim is to publish by July an implementation plan on practical measures identified by the task group on the matter, chaired by Mr. Steve Lee.

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English farming has an important part to play in ensuring our food security, which many colleagues have mentioned this afternoon. The types of food that we eat, the cost of food and ensuring the supply of food have become hot topics. It is not simply a matter of domestic self-sufficiency. In response to questions asked by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said on a number of occasions, including today, that he wants British agriculture to produce as much as possible, provided that consumers want what is produced and that the way in which our food is grown both sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.

Food labelling has a part to play in that, so we are pressing the food industry to provide clear and accurate origin information. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, met representatives of the food industry, including retailers, to stamp out inaccurate labelling practice. The pig taskforce has started to consider solutions to help halt such practices, including developing a voluntary agreement for the whole pig meat supply chain. In parallel, the Food Standards Agency is carrying out more detailed research into consumer behaviour in relation to origin labelling and the uptake of the origin labelling guidance that it issued last November.

We are also pushing forward in Europe with supporting the European Commission’s proposal to tighten up origin labelling and claims such as “British bacon”. No options have been ruled in or out of our consideration of what more can be done to improve origin labelling for meat.

Nick Herbert: We are pleased to hear that no options have been ruled out. I hope that the Government will consider a compulsory scheme, should it prove necessary. Will the Minister clarify the status of the negotiations with the supermarkets? As I said earlier, the Secretary of State talked about the matter months ago and I wonder what progress has been made towards a voluntary agreement. We would all prefer a voluntary labelling scheme, if possible.

Jim Fitzpatrick: All I can say at this point is that the matter was raised at the taskforce meeting last week. Progress is being made. Final conclusions have not yet been reached, but we hope that the work stream will be concluded as quickly as possible. Further on in my notes, I noted the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of introducing a domestic scheme if European measures fail. My understanding from advice that I received is that that may not legally be possible. However, the hon. Gentleman said that it is, so we would be happy to receive his legal advice, which we can share with our advisers. Perhaps they can then decide whether we have a case.

The UK needs to become a leader in sustainable food production, developing solutions that reduce the use of natural resources and reduce pollution, as well as having leading and competitive businesses.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs accused us of obstructing British farming. I fully accept that I have been in the Department for less than two weeks but my brief experience of chairing the dairy forum and the pig meat taskforce and of meetings
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inside and outside the Department suggest to me that there is optimism in British farming. Earlier, I said that we accept that there are challenges, difficulties and some issues about which we will disagree, but there is an underlying optimism throughout British agriculture and I believe that we need to continue to engage with and support the industry.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the increase in imports and the decline in domestic production. The positive messages are that 2008 produced a record cereals harvest and that beef and veal exports were also higher. The UK is currently 73 per cent. self-sufficient in all indigenous food—a higher proportion than at any time since the 1950s. Again, we can exchange statistics. I am not saying that we cannot improve the situation or that we should not assist more, but it is not all doom and gloom. I do not suggest that the hon. Gentleman implied that, but we want to ensure that we convey the positive message that I am getting from British farming as part of the wider debate. Most colleagues have also communicated that message.

The hon. Gentleman raised the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree about her support for a badger cull. Of course, she is fully entitled to her opinion and she has clearly examined the matter inside and outside the Department, and we respect her view. However, we all know that the decision is not simple. The factors that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discussed earlier are clear. The decision not to cull badgers was based on careful consideration of all the evidence, including the conclusions of the Select Committee’s report, and we are still working closely with the industry on that.

Mr. Paice: Not only the Minister’s immediate predecessor, but the one before supports a badger cull. Lord Rooker has made it clear that he thinks that the Government’s policy is wrong, and he was in the job for several years.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information, about which I was not aware. I have not read any of Lord Rooker’s comments in recent days.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) asked about DEFRA funding farms to exit the milk business. I can only repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said: we have been engaging with farmers, the receiver and banks to try to get the best deal we can. However, I will provide a little more information to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about Blaydon.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) expressed apologies on behalf of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his absence, the reason for which we appreciate. I know that Labour and Conservative Front Benchers have communicated our best wishes to him for dealing with the problem at home this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised a number of issues, most of which, if he will forgive me, were either covered by the Secretary of State or raised by others.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole expressed his concern about the smells and the health risks associated with composting and landfill. The Environment Agency provides a clear steer about the minimum distances between composting and farms and rural housing, although I am happy to explore the issues that he raised and the additional information that he supplied, in my capacity as the sponsoring Minister for the Environment Agency, and will write to him in due course.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the issue of housing, which, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, was covered extensively in our debate on Monday afternoon, in which there were statistical exchanges. The Government have a commitment to build 10,000 homes over three years, in communities of fewer than 3,000. We were given some credit from comrades— [ Interruption ]—from colleagues. Sorry, they were indeed comrades. We were given credit by comrades and colleagues on our Back Benches, but notwithstanding that welcome, there was also criticism from those who said that our commitment was not enough. However, that commitment has been made and we need to ensure that we deliver on it.

Mr. Drew: May I just say, in a comradely manner, that it would be helpful for smaller communities if there was a clear steer on providing affordable housing through community land trusts? I know that the Department for Communities and Local Government takes a lead on that, but DEFRA could be an important vehicle for encouraging that form of housing.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hear my hon. Friend’s point. As he said, DCLG takes a lead on that, but our officials and Ministers obviously have an interest in such matters too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also asked whether we should or could include an animal welfare criterion in our public procurement. I can inform him that one of the sub-groups of the pig meat supply chain taskforce, which I mentioned I chaired last week, is looking at precisely that issue and exploring how we can step up the public procurement of products made with higher welfare standards. We agree entirely that the criterion that he outlined should be a consideration.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that no Minister had attended the Royal Bath and West show for several years. I can only apologise on my predecessors’ behalf, although I am pleased to be attending the royal show on 7 July and the Royal Norfolk show next week. I give as strong as a commitment as I can now to attend the Royal Bath and West show next year, but it may be immediately before the general election or immediately after—I am not quite sure which month it is in. I believe that purdah got in the way of an attendance this year; otherwise I understand that a Minister was committed to attend.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his concern at the decline of the dairy sector. However, as we have mentioned previously, the long-term prospects are encouraging. To put that in context, dairy farmer numbers have been reducing at a fairly steady rate in the UK for many years, as they have across the EU. On the other hand, milk production stayed relatively steady from the end of the milk marketing board in the early 1990s until 2003.
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Since then, there has been a steady decline, from a little over 14 billion litres a year to somewhere under 13 billion litres a year. The latest quarterly figures show a decline of just over 1 per cent. That is against a backdrop of extreme volatility in prices in the global market, with record prices in 2007-08, followed by a steep decline in 2008-09, which was driven by the global economic downturn and increased supply. However, as I heard yesterday at the dairy forum, UK dairy farms are among the most competitive in Europe and, in the medium term, are well placed to take advantage of continuing deregulation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon raised a number of issues. I am delighted to hear of the success of the red kites locally, and I acknowledge his invitation to visit one of his local establishments to enjoy the fare. He talked in his speech about the banks and the Dairy Farmers of Britain, as he did when he intervened on our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I assure him that all that can be done is being done, and I am sorry that I can add little to what my right hon. Friend said earlier, other than to say that One NorthEast called DEFRA officials this morning. It has worked closely with the National Farmers Union, using a funded project within the English food and farming partnership, to help to put small farms together with local dairies, now that the dairy at Blaydon has closed. That has been quite successful, and the increased work for the small dairies has enabled them to take on 10 ex-Blaydon employees, so there has been some take-up of the unfortunate individuals who lost their jobs through the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain.

The right hon. Member for Fylde is highly regarded as the Select Committee Chair; more significantly, he now serves as the president of the Shepherd Road allotment society. We acknowledge the challenge that he faces from caterpillars, and wish him success in dealing with it. He mentioned his memories of the 1950s, and I have already mentioned mine. However, I do not remember seeing avocados in Glasgow. I am sure they were probably there, but I have no memory of my mum taking me to see the price of them.

The right hon. Gentleman made some significant points about food security, food production and food neo-colonialism. His warnings were telling, and serve only to reinforce the fundamental importance of this debate to what is happening in the real world outside.
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He raised the question of the common agricultural policy and my need to work hard to get up to speed on that subject, as my predecessor did. I can assure him that I have a lot of homework to do before the Agriculture Council next Monday and Tuesday in Luxembourg. I have already spoken today to the outgoing Czech presidency and the incoming Swedish ministerial presidency in advance of those events next week, and I shall be receiving quite a lot of briefing tomorrow and over the weekend.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) talked about bovine tuberculosis and about Dairy Farmers of Britain. I think that I have covered those points as best I can, but in answer to his question about the different policy of the Welsh Assembly Government, he will know that that is a result of devolution. Policies differ between Cardiff, London and Scotland as different conclusions are arrived at, but, as the Secretary of State said, the matter is under close consideration and will continue to be so.

The hon. Gentleman said that this was only the second debate on these matters in six years, and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said that when I get my feet under the table I will be able to study the issues a lot more. I have to say that if every other week is going to begin with a farming debate on the Monday and finish with another on the Thursday, I am not going to have time to get my feet under the table or to do any further study. I am sure, however, that the pace will not be quite as hectic as it has been in the past few weeks.

I hope that I have provided some additional clarity on what the Government are doing, but we cannot and should not do it alone. We will continue to work in a strong partnership with farmers and the representative bodies, and I look forward to helping to continue to build that partnership over the coming months. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am proud to be the Minister of State at DEFRA with responsibility for food, farms and the environment. Without guaranteeing agreement on anything, I hope to be an effective champion in the Government for farming, but I suspect that that is a judgment that others will have to make.

Question put and agreed to.


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Stourbridge Glass Collection

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Kerry McCarthy.)

5.49 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): Stourbridge glass is synonymous with quality, craftsmanship and excellence, and it is one of the greatest names in world glass-making. Since the 16th century, glass workshops and factories in the Stourbridge area have created some of the finest glass ever made, and the industry is a fundamental part of Stourbridge’s history and heritage and those of the wider black country.

The Stourbridge glass collection is currently housed at the Broadfield House glass museum, an internationally renowned museum that is ranked in the top five worldwide. Local people are rightly proud of the collection and of Broadfield House itself, as are local councillors and my Dudley parliamentary colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson) and for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Sylvia Heal)—and, apparently, as I see him in his place, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). I am indebted to them for their support on this issue.

However, the same cannot be said of Dudley council, which, in its wisdom, appears to have identified the museum as a possible candidate for closure in an attempt to balance the books. I hope that the Minister will bear with me on some of the details, which I think will demonstrate the haphazard and confused way in which Dudley council is handling this important issue, as well as, I am afraid, the disdain it appears to show to its ratepayers, local glass enthusiasts and international experts.

In a series of meetings at the museum on 4 and 5 January this year, Dudley council officers, Duncan Lowndes, assistant director of culture, and Sally Orton, head of museums and green spaces, met Broadfield House staff and told them that the museum would close by the end of March 2010; that the only secure job to remain would be that of the curator; and that all other staff would be offered sideways moves into the borough. In addition, they were told that the collections and the research resources would be moved to the Red House Glass Cone, which is a local heritage site. Since then, the councillors and the executive have publicly denied that those meetings ever took place and have not informed staff about their job security—either way—to this day.

On 7 January, a council meeting agreed to a “review of museum services”, which identified £120,000 to be saved in the sector. Sadly, only Broadfield House was mentioned, which has led many to believe that that was nothing more than a cost-cutting exercise by Dudley council. Indeed, only this week, senior Tory Councillor Malcolm Knowles said at the Stourbridge area committee that he

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