When feed prices peaked in 2008, it took six months for prices to fall back to a sustainable level, during which time many pig farmers had left the industry. Today, three quarters of the remaining farmers say that they too will get out of the pig business if things do not improve within the next 12 months. That would be a tragedy for not only pig farmers, but processors, retailers and consumers. British consumers want to buy British produce because they want to support British farmers and they believe that it is the best. I have not wavered in

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my belief that a mandatory country of origin labelling regime, combined with the widest possible support for the red tractor and quality standard marks, will give shoppers the information they need.

The Minister acknowledged in the House last week that the pig industry receives no subsidies. That is quite correct and I am certainly not calling for that to change. However, if the Government value having a British pig industry that sets the highest standards for quality and animal welfare, they cannot simply shrug and believe themselves to be powerless in the face of global food prices and grocery behemoths. The Government must encourage the pigmeat supply chain to work as it should, so that pig farmers can make a living, not a loss. Pigs were worth it in 2008. They are still worth it today.

2.59 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing the debate. I hope he will not mind if I take his name in vain. Pigmeat is really important to this country and, dare I say it, there is never a better way to start the day than with a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. I can hear people salivating around me as I mention that. The state of the industry has already been well described, and there have been numerous interventions from hon. Members about some of the points that I will try to present in a slightly different way in my speech. There is no doubt, however, that the industry needs some action from the Government. I will ask for clarity on actions that are already under way, and make some suggestions about the future.

In 1998, this country was 80% self-sufficient in producing enough pigmeat for our needs. This year we are at 48%, for reasons that have already been referred to: aspects of the animal welfare standards; the stall and tether and castration bans; and the dumping of cheap meat on our market, especially when we had the German dioxin feed scare. The current value chain has been well documented. I received my figures from one of my local farmers, Jimmy Butler of Blythburgh Pork, who has approximately 18,000 pigs at any one time, all of which are free range and very tasty. I had better not promote any more producers. He told me that farmers effectively end up losing £20 per pig. From the figures he gave me, the farming industry loses £4 million per week, while processors make £8 million, and retailers make £16 million, profit per week. There are various causes. We have already heard that the pricing that cannot be agreed with supermarkets, but there is also an issue about the price of feedstock. I appreciate that the Government cannot control that particular aspect of the input, but they can do something about the output prices in their proposed legislation for groceries and the inclusion of a draft adjudicator code for supermarkets. There is also the issue of welfare standards.

Mr Knight: My hon. Friend has introduced an important issue to the debate—the dioxin scare in Germany, which has caused a fall-off in demand for pork in that country. Is there a sign of hope in the fact that the lack of demand for pork in Germany is likely to be a very

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short-lived phenomenon, and will hopefully lead to prices being a little more buoyant in future than they have been this year?

Dr Coffey: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I hope that that will be the case and, going even further, that our British farmers will be able to exploit an export opportunity. It would be interesting to see Germans eating British sausages, rather than their own bratwurst, but why not? We have won on other fronts in Germany in the last century and I am sure that our pig farmers would be proud to go in and make sure that an English wurst—

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): 1966.

Dr Coffey: Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was not referring to anything else.

We should be proud of the welfare standards that we enjoy in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk is right that some of the regulations have been partly changed, and the task of bringing welfare standards up to those enjoyed in the United Kingdom will be completed by 2013. I call on the Government to ensure that they use all possible influence to make sure that that date is not delayed in any way. We have already heard other examples of derogations that have been extended. It is critical for our industry, and just as important for the welfare of the animals that are farmed, that we do not delay.

What can we do? The industry is innovative. We have heard about Ladies in Pigs, with its lip-smacking recipes and demonstrations around the country. The industry is good at talking about consumer choice and education. We can continue to advertise the fact that 45% of pig herds in this country are reared outdoors, whereas in the rest of Europe it barely reaches 5%. Such things are important, and they are one reason why British pork is rightly a premium product. I wonder whether it is appropriate to bring in the following point, and I do not know if the pig industry has ever done this. I have received a number of letters from constituents who are concerned about halal labelling on other forms of meat. Regularly, meat is presented—one might buy chicken or something similar—as having been prepared to halal standards. I think I am right in saying that halal is irrelevant when it comes to pork, bacon and so on. Therefore, if people want to be confident that they are not eating meat that has been prepared in a halal way—or indeed in a kosher way—then eating a pigmeat product would be one particular avenue for them to pursue.

We should also make sure that the industry of butchers continues to recommend itself to consumers. I think that we all regret the loss of any high street butcher from our constituencies, and I am proud that we have so many—do not worry, Mr Bayley, I will not be naming them all, or any. Butchers provide a professional insight for consumers and help with choice. I hope that they will be encouraged by the information in the Budget today on small business rate relief. There will be significant reductions for properties with rateable values of less than £12,000—an example of the Government supporting high street shops, including butchers, to ensure that they can continue to sell good British pork and other pig products.

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My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said that we are not calling for a subsidy. I completely agree with that, and I do not believe that the industry is calling for it either. However, the Government could make sure that they take advantage of my hon. Friend’s excellent Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) Bill. We were very strong on that issue before the election and I am very keen to see that we make good progress. That would not cost money, it is free to do, and it would have a dramatic effect on consumer education, as the consumer would know that the products that they buy that sport the British flag were raised and reared here and conform to UK welfare standards. It might also be worth trying to pull together all the different legislation on UK food labelling and having a more simplified process. My hon. Friend’s Bill might be a good avenue for doing so.

It would be helpful if the Minister clarified the position on Government buying standards for food, which were due to come into effect this month. I understand that that is not a buy-British campaign, but it is supposed to ensure that a high quality standard of food is purchased by Government. I look forward to clarification on that.

Another slightly controversial question concerns feedstock. Pigswill was banned as a source of food for animals, which was understandable at the time. I am not suggesting that all pig farmers want pigswill to return, especially those at the premium end, but have the Government considered reviewing that policy as a way of trying to reduce the input costs for our farmers? Will the Minister also clarify what the UK pigmeat supply chain task force is doing, as well as the EU advisory group on pigmeat? I only learned about that group yesterday through a response to a question about pigs in the House of Lords. It is good to see that the other place takes an interest in this issue too. I appreciate that the Government cannot just go out and tell people to buy pigmeat, but there is a lot that they can do to ensure that the product that we are proud to see on our shelves, when carrying a British label, is deemed to have been produced to the same welfare standards anywhere in this country. I look forward to the action of a great friend of farming—the Minister.

Finally, I must apologise for forgetting to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk on securing this debate. I hope that it will not be groundhog day, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) suggested, but all I can say is that, with the friends of the farming industry who are present in the Chamber today, the Minister will know that we will not give up.

3.9 pm

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing the debate, which is very important not just for us in East Anglia, but for many rural communities all over the country. Pig farming and farming in general have suffered in the past few years. Although it is important that we have a comprehensive debate about pig farming, it also helps us to raise a number of issues that are important to the wider farming sector.

One of my first engagements as a new MP last year was a visit to Stuston farm in my constituency, where I was introduced to a new breed of pig—the mangalitsa

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pig— which has just come into the United Kingdom; that was a great pleasure. Today’s debate is about the future of pig farming, which is one of the most important parts of agriculture in East Anglia, particularly in Suffolk and Norfolk. I am therefore delighted that we have replying to today’s debate a great friend of East Anglia, Suffolk and my constituency. The Minister knows the issues better than many and I am sure that he will do all he can to help us resolve them.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk talked about a number of important issues, including the fact that the pig industry slid back into loss making in 2010, its problems exacerbated by the rise in wheat prices and the fact that retailers are not passing on their profits to pig producers. According to the National Farmers Union, over the past three years pig producers have been losing £20 a pig, whereas retailers have continued to make a profit of £100 a pig. That is unacceptable. Retailers should show more corporate responsibility in supporting British food producers.

Of course, the increasing cost of fuel will further exacerbate the problems in the pig industry, so we were pleased to hear in today’s Budget statement about the fuel stabiliser, which will help many farmers. Another important problem is the difficulties in many parts of the country with getting planning permission for local abattoirs, so that we can reduce food miles. I am delighted that we finally have in East Anglia, in my constituency, an abattoir. Local pigs can now be slaughtered locally, which is a very good thing.

We have talked about broader questions of Britain’s food sustainability and the importance of supporting a profitable and sustainable agricultural sector to improve that. In the past decade or so, the amount of food consumed in Britain that is produced here has fallen quite dramatically: we now produce only about 40% of the food that we eat. With climate change already affecting many major agricultural producers such as Australia, where extreme temperatures could undermine a major world supplier of wheat, it is all the more important that we promote food sustainability and support British pig farmers as a means of doing that. I am pleased that that matter has already been raised: the Minister talked about it in response to parliamentary questions from my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), who touched on it in the context of supporting our armed forces. It is important that we make sure that Britain can feed itself and that we have proper food security and food sustainability for the future.

One important point that has been teased out in the debate is that British pig producers have much higher standards of traceability and animal welfare than many of their overseas competitors, but they are not competing on a level playing field in the supermarkets where they sell their goods. An important related point is that 30% of imported pork does not meet UK standards of animal welfare, but it is still sold in our supermarkets.

Mr Bacon: Actually, BPEX estimates that 70% of imported pork does not meet the British standard, and that only 30% does.

Dr Poulter: I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification, which makes the point even more forcefully. As he says, only 30% of imported pork in our supermarkets meets

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UK standards, according to BPEX. We need action from the Government to put the onus on supermarkets to show greater corporate responsibility and to provide a more level playing field for British food producers and the goods they sell.

Simon Hart: The Minister might be able to comment on the appropriateness and legality of using the planning system to impose such conditions on supermarkets.

Dr Poulter: I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I look forward to the Minister covering that that in his concluding remarks.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the need for a level playing field. Pig farmers in my constituency are not asking to be given any artificial support; they are asking to compete on a level basis. They go to other countries and see farmers putting in new sow stalls when they themselves spent hundreds of thousands of pounds per unit replacing their stalls 10 years ago, and they are rightly upset. Does my hon. Friend agree that other countries should not be allowed a derogation in due course? If our farmers have had to make that investment, so should farmers elsewhere and they should not be allowed to import their meat into this country unless they follow the same rules.

Dr Poulter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes the point very powerfully. The fact is that there is not a level playing field, particularly in the European Union. Stricter EU animal welfare laws for pigs have been agreed, but they will come fully into force only in 2013. As he forcefully argues, we need those standards to be applied in Europe. However, it is not just a question of standards being applied universally; our supermarkets must also show corporate responsibility. If overseas food producers do not produce food to the same high standards of animal welfare and traceability as British farmers, our supermarkets should not buy food from them. We need to see that corporate responsibility from the industry.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I represent an area in Northern Ireland where almost everyone used to keep pigs, sometimes in large numbers. We are now down to only one producer, albeit a big one, which indicates that we are hearing the death knell of the pig industry. In some parts of Europe, regulation is non-existent, so does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Minister needs to convey to European Ministers and to Brussels the fact that whereas regulation is enforced with almost evangelical zeal in parts of the United Kingdom, the same is not true in other parts of Europe?

Dr Poulter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that forceful intervention, and I absolutely agree with him. British pig farmers have struggled a great deal over the past few years, and it is a great pity that the number of people farming pigs has consistently declined throughout the UK. We would like that to be put right and we would like to see greater support for pig farmers. He is right to mention the EU, because over the past decade or so Whitehall has been fond of gold-plating and

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platinum-plating European legislation, whereas countries that do not like the legislation tend to ignore it. He is absolutely right to say that we need to seek consistency across the EU, and that needs to be taken up at a European level. We want a level playing field so that our farmers can have a thriving and prosperous future.

I do not want to detain colleagues much longer, because we want to hear from the Minister. We have talked much about honest food labelling, which applies across the farming sector, but particularly to British pork. At the moment, bacon only has to be sliced in the UK to be labelled British, which is unacceptable. UK law requires that labelling should not be misleading, which is a good thing, but it does not define how much British involvement is required before produce can be counted as British. Traditionally, slaughtering animals in this country would count, so calling something British lamb or British pork could mean that although the meat was imported, slaughter and packaging took place in the UK, but now meat need only be sliced here to be labelled British. That can be misleading in supermarkets. We want stronger action on labelling, and I am sure that the Bill to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk will go a good way towards countering that great problem, which would also help to support British pig farmers.

We have talked a lot about getting greater corporate responsibility from our retailers. I mentioned the fact that while pig farmers have been losing £20 per pig over the past three years, our retailers have been making profits of £100 to £120 per pig. Surely there must be an onus on those retailers not only to support honest food labelling and promote the fact that British farmers produce pork to higher animal welfare standards and with greater traceability, but to want to support local and British produce. That has to be a good thing. As we know from the example of Morrisons, cited by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, consumers want to buy British and support local food producers. Consumers in East Anglia, Suffolk and Norfolk want to support our local food producers. That would be a good thing for supermarkets to do.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I could not resist attending the debate, if only for a few minutes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one consequence of the pricing system used by supermarkets is that pig production in this country is driven down and more pigs are produced in sub-standard conditions in other countries? That is a serious problem.

Dr Poulter: My hon. Friend is right. The key point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) raised, is the need for a level playing field. We are proud that Britain has high animal welfare and traceability standards, but if our farmers are not competing on a level playing field with farmers in Europe and overseas, with 70% of overseas pork not being produced to the same high animal welfare standards, that is wrong. There is an onus on our supermarkets to show greater corporate responsibility and to make a stand by supporting local food producers and ensuring that they help their customers to understand the issues. I hope that we will hear strong words of support on that from the Minister.

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We have talked today about the importance of backing British pig farmers, because we believe in backing British food sustainability and security. We have talked about the fact that there should be a level playing field for British farmers and pork producers, with their high animal welfare and traceability standards compared with the standards of their European competitors. We have talked about the need for honest food labelling, which we will discuss further in the main Chamber in the near future. The Minister is a great friend of farming and we look forward to his reply to the debate and to him telling us how he and the Government will support the British pig industry.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I want to call the Front-Bench spokesmen to start the winding-up speeches at half-past 3, which leaves us time for one further speech.

3.23 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr Bayley, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) for securing this opportune debate.

I want to concentrate first on the profitability of the pig sector. It is obvious that pig farmers cannot go on losing £20 per pig—something needs to be done. At other times when pig farmers lost money due to high cereal prices, cereal prices subsequently fell, so pig farmers could bridge the gap and the profitability of pigs returned. This time, we cannot guarantee that the peak in cereal prices will be here for only a short while; it may be here for quite a lot longer. It is always difficult to predict a market while thinking on your feet.

We must say clearly to the supermarkets that it does no good to drive pig farmers out of business, which is what they are doing. It is very short-sighted and has a knock-on effect on the cereal producer, because we produce a lot of barley and wheat for feed that goes to the pig and poultry sectors.

As many hon. Members have said, the pig industry is unsubsidised. It does not get any single farm payments, and pig farmers have to make their money back from the marketplace. We have to help them to do so through the grocery adjudicator and others. Hon. Members also talked about labelling, and although the “British” label is not always easy to get, there are regional labels, which have legal standing and are easier to maintain. When I was in the European Parliament, the French, and particularly the Italians, seemed to manage to label everything with a region and, largely, get away with it. We have to be keen on this.

Back in the ’90s, we introduced extra welfare standards for pig farming. Why did we bring those in? Because our people are very keen on animal welfare, but, to put it bluntly, if they are keen on animal welfare, they should put their money where their mouth is. Clearly, higher standards make costs higher, so we must ensure that produce is properly labelled in supermarkets so that consumers know what they are buying and are able to buy a British product.

Our main competitors in the pig industry are the Danes, probably closely followed by the Germans, and they are using sow stalls and tethers to this day. I remember trying to table an amendment to get them banned in Denmark by 2004, but the Danes are getting

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away with it until 2012. The Minister is a friend to farming, and I know that he will fight our corner very hard to ensure that there is no extension. This has gone on for far too many years and driven far too many pig farmers out of business.

Pig farmers do not want to join the subsidy junket. One or two might, but generally they want a fair price for their pigmeat. I have been to many local producers in my constituency to see the farrowing and the outdoor pig systems. We have some of the best, if not the best, pig systems in the world, but that costs more money. We have all made this plea to the Minister: let us look at this matter every way we can. Let us help pig farmers to brand their produce with a local label—Devon meat, of course, is better than any, but perhaps Norfolk meat is nearly as good—and to market it so we can get an increase in price. We give Morrisons top marks, but other supermarkets have lower grades, so let us say to the supermarkets that they cannot go on making pig farmers produce pork at a loss, because the pork will not be there. Once pork in the rest of Europe has decreased—the German situation—and production has fallen, there will not be this vast amount of pork sloshing about in the European market. What the supermarkets are doing is all very short-sighted.

We should look at ways that Government can help, but this is also about the power of the consumer. We must get the message over to consumers that they must go into the supermarkets, look at the label and ensure that the Union Jack is not just for processing, but that the pork was reared, slaughtered and processed in the UK. That someone can still put a Union Jack on a label just for processing is a problem. Often, people will pick that product up as though it is a genuine British product.

I welcome the debate. The number of Members present this afternoon, even with the Budget debate going on, shows how important we feel the topic is. I also welcome the presence of the Minister and the shadow Minister.

3.28 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once more, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing this important debate, which is also timely, given the number of pig farmers who recently attended the House and put their points on the future of the British pig industry very forcefully.

I commend the contributions made by the hon. Members for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who expressed their concerns, but also their hopes for the expansion of the industry. They were united in their call for reform of the supply chain, which I shall address later.

The number of pigs in the UK declined from 7.9 million in 1996-98 to around 4.7 million in 2009, although numbers have stabilised since, and world pork production has increased in recent years after pauses in growth earlier in the decade. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that global production reached 106.5 million tonnes in 2009, and 108.5 million tonnes in 2010. Pork accounted for 37.8% of global meat production in 2010, and pork production is rising in the Asia-Pacific region, but falling in Latin America.

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From 2005 until 2010, the European Union exported more pork than any other region or trading bloc, but the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute has established that EU exports fell by 19% in 2009, and it forecasts a progressive loss in EU global market share, which is partly accounted for by the differentials in animal welfare treatment. It identifies Brazil and the United States as areas with a quickly expanding global pork market share.

That raises the question whether the EU, in negotiating to complete the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation trade talks, ought to consider trying to level up environmental and animal welfare commitments and guarantees across the world, given the competition that the European pig industry faces from Brazil, the US and other regions. That is an important point.

In this country, the pig industry has made real efforts on reform—for example, greater use of anaerobic digestion to cut down on food waste—and has operated to the highest level of animal welfare, but, as hon. Members have pointed out, food labelling and supply chain problems are placing our farmers in increasing financial difficulties. The previous Government set up a taskforce on the pigmeat supply chain, which produced a code of practice on labelling pork and pork products. It was based on the best practice available from the Food Standards Agency and had the support of the industry.

On research and development, the taskforce sought to extend new systems for surveillance and epidemiology, IT systems for integrating health schemes, slaughterhouse surveillance and quality assurance schemes, and schemes for reducing waste and emissions to the environment from the supply chain. There may be many measures in the Budget that I will not be able to support— [ Interruption. ] I am sure that hon. Members will not be too surprised by that.

Daniel Kawczynski: Shocked.

Mr Bain: Shocked, even—dismayed, perhaps. However, I hope that pig producers, and indeed BPEX, will take up one of the welcome measures in today’s Budget: the expansion of small business relief for research and development. That has the potential to improve the competitiveness of the British pig industry.

The Opposition call on the Government to act in three areas. The first is ensuring that the cross-EU enforcement of directives 2001/88/EC and 2001/93/EC on banning close confinement sow stalls takes effect on 1 January 2013, as scheduled. I am aware that the Government are supporting an intra-EU ban on the sale of eggs from countries that do not introduce the new provisions on egg-laying hens from 1 January 2012. Will they adopt the same position in respect of any breach of the directives on pig welfare standards by any member state? I hope that the Minister addresses that point in his winding-up speech.

Secondly, on food labelling, we call on the Government vigorously to support country of origin labelling in their discussions at the Council of the European Union, as alluded to in the coalition Government agreement.

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Mr Graham Stuart: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman, from the rural idyll that is his seat, will be able to answer this question. He said that he wants the Government vigorously to act on food labelling. Why was so little done during the 13 years of the previous Administration, although I know he was here for only a little while during that time?

Mr Bain: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I remind him, as I did the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) during a debate on the Sustainable Livestock Bill some months ago, that there are three arable farms at the very top of my constituency. I am hoping to visit them during the Easter recess. Indeed, I have had a good discussion with the National Farmers Union Scotland on a range of issues in the past few weeks.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) raises an interesting point. We can bat around what did or did not happen during the past 13 years, but what will certainly be most effective is cross-EU standards in this area. He knows that the food labelling directive is before the European Parliament, and that it may have a Second Reading by early summer. We should focus our efforts and show unity across the House on getting decent standards that will protect the pig industry and other parts of our arable and livestock farming industries.

I want to address the anomaly that the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich pointed out—that is, food that is processed in the UK can be labelled as produced in this country. We need reform and clarity across the EU through regulations to deal with that issue.

The third area in which we seek Government action is in respect of a plan for the food industry. The previous Government commissioned the report “Food Matters”, under the auspices of the Cabinet Office, and the study “Food 2030”, under the auspices of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but circumstances have moved on. The Foresight report sets out new challenges for better use of water and soil. It also sets the global challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, but with potentially fewer resources—increasing food production by 50%, but in a sustainable way.

To meet the challenges of sustainable food production, which the pig industry will be involved with, and to show that we can meet our climate change reduction commitments, the Opposition and the NFU call on the Government to adopt a proper plan for food, which should include the pig industry. If there is to be a plan for growth arising from today’s Budget, the UK’s largest manufacturing industry—namely, agriculture—cannot be left out. The plan should contain strong proposals for a groceries code adjudicator with the statutory power to tackle unfairness and inequity wherever they are found throughout food supply chains. As hon. Members have pointed out, such an ironing out and levelling of the market would be enormously beneficial to our pigmeat producers.

Jim Shannon: One of the subjects that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned—perhaps he is about to do so—is the supermarket ombudsman, for whom I think there is a role. There is a margin between the £16 million per week profit made by shops and the

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£8 million per week that the pig producer gets. Is there a method whereby the supermarket ombudsman could bring those figures closer together, thereby keeping pig farmers in production?

Mr Bain: It is precisely that ability to take steps to iron out market inequalities that we are calling for. The previous Government called the institution a supermarket ombudsman; the new Government call it the groceries code adjudicator. What matters is the powers that it will have, and we look forward to the draft Bill that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills promised to publish by Easter to see how rigorous it will be in helping the sector and the dairy sector as well.

Hon. Members have alluded to the fact that the British pig industry needs not a handout, but a hand up. With the combination of an increase in research and development, a strong groceries code adjudicator, better and stronger EU food labelling rules, fairer supply chains and reform of the WTO animal welfare rules, we can collectively ensure a brighter future for our pig farmers, which is what they want and deserve.

3.39 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr Bayley. I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon). During his time here, he has been a stalwart supporter of the pig industry, and I am sure that that is not because of his name. His Bill, to which I shall return, is being presented to the House for the fourth time, which shows his determination. I have attended innumerable breakfast and other meetings that he has hosted on the pig industry, and it is fortunate to have someone who is so determined to support it and the pig producers in his constituency.

On one occasion, most of the Suffolk and Norfolk MPs were in the Chamber, which demonstrated not just the importance of the concentration of the pig industry in those two counties—[ Interruption. ] My colleagues from east Yorkshire also joined us. Those are the main pig producing parts of the UK, and the fact that so many hon. Members decided to attend demonstrates the importance of the pig industry to them, and it reflects the lobbying that has taken place. As a former pig producer in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), I entirely understand its importance.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk rightly said, the industry is vital. He said that its total value is £8.7 billion, which is a significant sum in the retail sector. Others hon. Members have referred to the collapse of the pig herd since the mid-1990s. It is impossible to say precisely how much of that is attributable to the unilateral ban on stalls and tethers that we introduced, but it is obviously a significant part.

One of the changes over 20, 30 or 40 years has been rationalisation into specialist pig units. Years ago, pigs were one unit on a generalised farm, and a rise in grain prices had less impact, because farmers were feeding their own grain to their pigs, so they lost on one side and gained on the other. Now, more and more farmers are specialist pig producers, and must buy all their feed, so they can only lose from rising grain prices.

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I shall try to address some of the issues that have arisen during the debate. My hon. Friends will be aware that there has always been pig a cycle. Pigs have a relatively short gestation and growth period, so the rise or fall in supply is a reasonably short-term phenomenon. They were always muck or money as supply and demand fluctuated slightly, but the level of fluctuation has become much worse, and the £20 a pig loss to which several of my hon. Friends referred reveals a dramatic downside of the cycle. It is unfortunate that the cycle was already beginning to drop off when feed prices were hiked up because of the grain price. That exacerbated the problem, but we are there, and the situation is horrendous.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk referred to some of the costs that our producers incur. Stalls and tethers were first phased out in the early 1990s, and were banned completely by 1999. Tethers were banned in the rest of Europe in 2006, and stalls will be banned by 2013, although, as my hon. Friend correctly pointed out, it will be permissible to keep sows in stalls for up to four weeks after service, and that brings me to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). I assure him that the Government are absolutely opposed to any extension or derogation. As with battery cages for chickens, countries have known for a long time that the change was coming, and farmers have no excuse for not making the transition.

The hon. Gentleman asked me quite rightly about enforcement, and the fact that farmers will be allowed to have stalls on their farm in which to keep sows for four weeks will create a big challenge. Responsibility for enforcement will rest with the competent authority—usually the Department of Agriculture in member states—and I recognise the issue. We must keep pressing the Commission to ensure proper enforcement, because that is a worrying loophole.

Mr Graham Stuart: Will my right hon. Friend say whether the Government have consistently made the case that there should be no derogation after 2013, and whether he has any idea of when the Commission might publish details on enforcement? The earlier we see the proposed enforcement mechanisms, the more we will be able to influence them before they are introduced, when they will be harder to change.

Mr Paice: The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question is that we constantly tell the Commission that when a rule is introduced, every country should comply with it, and that there should be no derogations. He is right in saying that we have not seen any proposals for enforcement, and I am not aware that we have seen any assessment of what stage other countries are at. There were efforts to do that with conventional battery cages, but there were difficulties. The matter is important, and I will chase it up to see whether there has been any assessment of what other countries have done. To be fair, we know that many countries with a significant number of pig farmers, such as Denmark, which is a major pig producing country, have converted, but I cannot tell my hon. Friend precisely what the proportions are and how many remain to convert.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East challenged me on whether we would support an intra-EU ban on those countries that have not introduced the measure. I shall be completely honest, as I always try to be. We

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have not considered that yet, but he makes a valid point. I made the point about eggs, and there is no logical reason why we should not do the same for pigmeat. However, we want everyone to convert, and until we see some sort of assessment, we cannot speculate too much, but I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point.

I have just been passed a note saying that no official information is available about how far EU countries have moved towards complying with the directive. Denmark and the Netherlands have said that they will comply, but the situation in some other countries is different and vaguer. There are different rules on castration and tail-docking in different countries, and there is a competitiveness issue. Some hon. Members referred to supermarket specifications and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said, claims by Tesco and others about their supply sources. It is reasonable and acceptable, of course, for retailers to ensure that their supply chains comply with British standards, and it is not in the Government’s gift to check whether they do. There is no doubt that tail-docking and castration rules are different in other countries, and it is only right and proper that they should insist on the same standards. I shall return to the supermarket issue.

That leads me to my last point on welfare. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) referred to pigs being kept outdoors. Anyone who drives through Suffolk and South Norfolk will see that tens of thousands of sows are kept outdoors, even through the recent winter and the snow before Christmas. There is no doubt that keeping pigs outdoors is more expensive in production costs. Productivity is lower, there are not so many pigs a year from the sows, and growth rates are slightly affected. Those systems are being adopted because the drive for better welfare from retailers has pushed them that way, but higher management standards are required and farmers do not receive the price for their pigs that that higher standard demands.

I was with a group of Agriculture Ministers in Belgium before Christmas, and we were taken to a modern, highly efficient Belgian pig farm operated in totally enclosed buildings, where the hygiene must have been incredible, as there was no disease. Nevertheless, there were just spartan, bare shelves with a few rubber balls hanging on chains for the pigs to play with. Those pigs compete with our pigs, which are reared outdoors. Apparently, British consumers prefer pigs that have been reared outdoors, but they are not always told about it.

My hon. Friends referred to the overall issue of supply, and to dioxins, which was a problem from Germany that we had in January. The Commission introduced a private purchase scheme for a short space of time, and some pigmeat was taken off the market, which helped for a while. What concerned me was the allegation—I say only that—that certain supermarkets were dropping their British suppliers because the European mainland market was awash with cheap pigmeat as a result of the dioxin scare. To me, that undermines the claims made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk about supermarkets looking after our sector.

Mr Bacon: As the Minister said, it is not in the Government’s gift to check whether claims made by supermarkets about animal welfare standards are adhered

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to by overseas producers whose products the supermarkets import. Even if the Government cannot do that, however, does the Minister agree that there is an interest on the part of consumers and of Government in knowing whether such claims are true?

Mr Paice: My hon. Friend is right and we stand four-square behind the assertion that it is important that the consumer be properly informed about what is available for sale. There should be an effective traceability chain that can verify the claims made on the label.

At this point, I should probably discuss the issue of labelling. I welcome my hon. Friend’s Bill, but he knows as well as I do that there are question marks—to say the least—about the legality of the UK legislating alone on food labelling. There is good news, however, and since we came to office, two things have happened. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East made a point about the pigmeat supply chain taskforce and the code agreed with the industry. That happened before we took office, and I am the first to recognise that. Since we took office, a bigger agreement on all meat has taken place between the supermarkets, the meat trade, the catering and hospitality trades and the producers, resulting in a much broader voluntary code of practice concerning country of origin labelling. That is the key issue. That code is now in place, and we are currently doing an evaluation exercise to baseline it so that we can measure progress in the future.

Alongside that, there are negotiations on the EU food information regulation. Since taking office, we have toughened up the UK’s approach to support the idea of mandatory labelling for meat and meat products, and that is what the regulation currently requires. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk says, there is a long way to go and I do not want to forecast the outcome. At the moment, however, the food information regulation would achieve what he seeks with his Bill, except that it would apply not only in the UK but across the EU. That is the best way forward, and potentially that is encouraging news.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) asked about regional labels. There is nothing to stop anybody from marketing and using regional labels, and we strongly support protected name indicators—PNIs—in principle. The two examples I give will not make or break the pig industry, but Gloucester Old Spot pigmeat, and more recently Cumberland sausages, both in the pigmeat world, have been approved for that status. PNIs are a marketing tool, but like any other form of marketing they are effective only if the labelling is honest about the country of origin where the pig was born, reared and slaughtered. That is the point about labelling espoused by my hon. Friend.

Mr Bacon: Does the Minister agree that the most important thing about labelling, including mandatory labelling, is to stamp on the canard that giving full, accurate information to consumers somehow distorts the market, because consumers might act on that information? The only possible consequence of accurate food labelling is to assist the clear operation of market preferences.

Mr Paice: I entirely agree. We are constantly told by retailers, “We are doing what the consumer demands.” Well, let the consumer demand, but make sure that they are properly informed so that we know that the demand

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is genuine. There is no reason for anybody, whether producer or retailer, to be afraid of the consumer, and we should not be afraid of consumers being properly informed.

I will touch on the two final issues raised by hon. Members. First, the coalition Government are committed to introducing Government buying standards, and we are on schedule to do so. Some parts of that relate to food but concern health, rather than the DEFRA rules on food, so I will concentrate on pigmeat. Our clear objective is that we should spend taxpayers’ money only on food that has been produced to British standards, as long as it does not cost any more—there are plenty of examples and pieces of casework to demonstrate that it will not cost more. That is only right and fair, and it means using farm assurance schemes as benchmarks to ensure that it takes place. That objective is on schedule.

My final point, on which I have been challenged, concerns the adjudicator. That is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and it is clear that the Department is determined to go forward with it. I was asked about its role, and the adjudicator will investigate complaints from anyone in the supply chain who has been affected, either directly or indirectly, by what they believe to be a breach of the code. Furthermore, the issue can be dealt with anonymously. Those are the two big issues that we will see when the legislation is published.

Finally, let me turn to the wider issue of supermarkets. I must resist the temptation to identify individual supermarkets and say what each is doing, because I do not have full knowledge of that. Morrisons is distinct, because it has its own abattoirs, unlike any other supermarket. That is why it buys pigs from the farmer

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as opposed to from a processer, as other supermarkets do. Usually, however, supermarkets are closely involved in sourcing their meat.

I entirely share the general thrust of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, and those of everybody else who has spoken. If supermarkets and retailers believe that future consumers will want to buy British pigmeat, they have a responsibility to ensure the supply of British pigmeat for the future, and that lies behind the adjudicator and the code. The Competition Commission’s conclusions were not about farmers but about consumers. It was concerned that retailers were shifting too much risk on to the supply side, and that in future the consumer might lose because the supply side was constrained. Therefore, it is in the interests of the consumer to ensure a supply of British pigmeat for the future. I share the view held by my hon. Friends that although no one pretends that there is a single solution to the challenges we face, supermarkets have a big role to play. To be fair, it is not only Morrisons that takes the more responsible line to which my hon. Friend referred.

I am grateful for the compliments that I have received from hon. Friends about my feelings on this matter, but that is not really important. What matters is what the Government do, and we have made a pledge on the adjudicator and are making dramatic progress on the labelling front and on Government buying standards. We have dealt with the issue of potential GM contamination of imports, and we are determined to do everything we can in an industry that, as others have said, is unsubsidised and vitally important. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate.

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Rural Broadband

3.59 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): This is a very oversubscribed subject, and we have only a short time. I am keen for all hon. Members present to intervene. Some 15 hon. Members have been in touch with me about that. I ask them to give me three or four minutes to get under way and then I will try to bring everyone in.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Minister very much. He came up to Nenthead in my constituency on what was a hairy day over the top of the Alston fell. He saw us install the new broadband network and launched our conference. In general, this is a very positive story. It is the beginning of a new story, but a very positive one. I thank also all the MPs here today. Incredible work is being done constituency by constituency. If there is a broader constitutional lesson from all this, it is about the role of Members of Parliament in driving forward superfast broadband.

I say a huge thank you also to the officials. We have had incredible support from Anton Draper in the Department for Communities and Local Government, from Mike Kiely and Robert Sullivan in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, from Alan Cook at Cumbria county council and from communities themselves. This is above all a story about community pressure and Government responding to it. Within the confines of Cumbria, there has been huge pressure from a diverse range of communities. The people and places include Libby Bateman from Kirkby Stephen, Miles Mandelson, who has constructed one of the most exciting superfast networks imaginable in Great Asby, Leith-Lyvennet Broadband and Northern Fells Broadband. They have all been pushing ahead on this issue.

There is a huge need, which I am sure all hon. Members will speak to, particularly for rural areas—for our economies above all. Isolation cripples our economies. As a group of MPs, we tend to have in our constituencies far more self-employed people than any other constituencies in Britain and far more people working from home. Broadband is essential for that, but also for public services such as health and education. It allows my neighbour with Parkinson’s disease, instead of making a four and a half hour round trip to Newcastle general hospital, to have a live video link to the consultant without leaving home. The same is true of distance education and learning.

The challenges, which again are not things I need to talk about at length today, are challenges of topography, scarce population and the amazing shifting sands of technology. Every time I talk to the Minister, a new person has emerged with a new and astonishing solution. I am thinking of point-to-point microwave links; the fact that one Minister is pushing satellite technology; cellular solutions; long-term evolution solutions; and, today, people talking about moving signals down electric wire.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I am sorry if I am a minute early according to his guidelines! If there is one message that we all want the Minister to take away from

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today’s debate, is it not this? Communities that are geographically isolated should not be allowed to become digitally isolated.

Rory Stewart: That is a fantastic point. Of course, the complexity of what the Government are dealing with is astonishing. It is not just topography or technology; it includes cost, legal issues such as European state aid regulations, and issues such as the spectrum auction, which I hope to come on to briefly.

May I make a little progress for another minute and a half before I take any more interventions? This project owes an enormous amount to ministerial leadership—not just that of the Minister, but of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and has seen enormous progress to date. However, it is a revolution in methodology and procurement. People are having to push boundaries on procurement and methodology that would have been unimaginable 11 months previously. People are having to be much more flexible. Instead of going for big, framework, county council solutions, they are having to respond, often parish by parish, to very different technological solutions within a single area of 100 square miles. That involves risk. It involves generous investment by the Government. It involves piloting measures.

What does this mean? For the new policy, it means three lessons. We need to share the lessons from all the pilots much more effectively around the country. I hope that this is the beginning of a series of Westminster Hall debates—if anyone has the patience—in which we can take the lessons further. We need to look much more seriously at finance. Of course, there is great inspiration from the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, when a dedicated bank was set up for communities to electrify rural areas. The green investment bank is a good beginning for our Government in that direction. The big society bank is another good beginning. I would like to see finance facilities available specifically for parishes and communities to be able to move ahead with their own broadband.

The final issue is the rural spectrum auction. We talk a lot about broadband. We must think about mobile coverage. An Ofcom consultation is taking place at the moment. Ofcom is pushing only for 95% coverage for this spectrum. We need to shove it up from that, because 95% coverage will mean that most of the areas represented in this Chamber will not be covered. On those grounds, I will take my second intervention.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that now is an excellent time to urge the Minister to address the twin problems of broadband and mobile phone coverage, not one or the other and not even sequentially, because in rural areas it would be impossible to deliver on the big society pledge without both those issues being addressed?

Rory Stewart: Absolutely.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I would like to reinforce a suggestion that has already been made twofold; I echo both suggestions that have been made so far. We have had a second summit in Herefordshire. We have been one of the very fortunate recipients of the first pilots, for which I am

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enormously grateful to the Minister and to officials. The overwhelming feedback that has come through has picked up both the mobile point and the point about 100% coverage in rural areas. That is regarded as the basic requirement. There is a sense of digital entitlement that will not be thwarted. That means an interesting mix of technologies, which takes us that final mile to the person who is living in the mountains.

Rory Stewart: Those were two very important and effective interventions. Mobile telephone coverage is better in Kabul than in Cumbria. Any of us who travels around Europe will find that the coverage is much better in the Norwegian fjords than it is in Cornwall or Wales. That really matters for us.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I endorse what my hon. Friend says about coverage. In Devon, my part of the world, 9% of people have either no coverage at all or less than 2 megabits per second, which is horrendous, and 22% of rural businesses say that without superfast broadband, they are going to move nowhere fast, so it is imperative that we take action on that.

Rory Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend very much. On the point about mobile coverage, the statistics on coverage are very dodgy. In the Ofcom consultation document, there is a shocking paragraph in which it says, “We do not have the methodology to work out exactly what the current coverage is in rural areas and therefore it is difficult for us to factor into the auction what the economic benefits will be of achieving 100% coverage in rural areas.” Therefore, Ofcom is saying that it is likely to push ahead with a lower coverage obligation, not on the basis of any research but on the basis of an assumption that research would be difficult and that the results would be unquantifiable. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber thinks that that would be acceptable.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): As another Devon MP, I would like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said. We have beautiful countryside in Devon, but we also have very poor roads. Therefore, if we had good, fast broadband, many of the businesses could remain in the area and could be built up, along with all the health and education needs being met. This is about delivering competitive broadband throughout rural areas. I urge the Minister to ensure that when bids are being considered from various areas, Devon is given a bite of the cherry.

Rory Stewart: To finish on mobile coverage, the rural spectrum auction will be essential. As people are aware, a big auction of 4G is being consulted on at the moment. That includes very exciting spectrum that comes from the digital switchover. That is spectrum that allows us to push signals a very long distance, but perhaps not so many data down those signals. That is the kind of spectrum that we would like to get for rural areas. Everyone in this Chamber who can join us in pushing the Government from 95% to perhaps 98% in the rural spectrum auction and pushing back against the Treasury, which will say that it will not receive as much money from the mobile phone providers if that kind of rural requirement is put in place—

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Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): On that point, I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There is a risk that the Treasury will demand a high price now, but it will cost a fortune later, when we are reliant on delivery of services, as he described, through the use of mobile broadband. The cost of putting in extra provision then will cost the country so much money that we will be told that we cannot afford to do it.

Rory Stewart: Does anyone else wish to intervene on mobiles?

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend reminds me that when I was in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, I noted that coverage was much better than in South Norfolk.

May I point out that six of the Members here for this debate were here for the previous debate on pig farming? They stayed because we all represent isolated rural areas, and many of the problems that we face apply not only to agriculture but to broadband. Does my hon. Friend agree that what was said about the Treasury is particularly important? Getting it right, and getting 100% coverage, will enable the kind of economic growth and the extra tax base, with more tax being paid by rural communities, that will do a great deal to get us out of the present economic hole in which we find ourselves.

Rory Stewart: That is a brilliant point, and a very good one to make about the Budget. The Budget focuses above all on two things—what we are doing with fuel and what we are doing for small and medium-sized enterprises in trying to support exactly the sort of businesses that exist in our areas. Without superfast broadband and mobile coverage, it is difficult to understand how they will flourish.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. As usual, he speaks powerfully and succinctly. He spoke of pushing the Government to go from 95% to 98% in the auction. Is there any reason why we should not aim for 100%—that we set it out as a universal service base?

We in the House should send a clear message to the Minister and others that unless there are overwhelming financial or technical arguments against it we should look for 100% coverage. We have long had universal post, but universal digital access is more important than the post ever was. Perhaps we need to send that signal, and ensure that Ministers cannot chivvy away at a few percentage points on the side.

Rory Stewart: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. The answer must distinguish between broadband coverage and mobile phone coverage. We have a universal commitment for broadband coverage, and we are pushing for a 2 megabits universal service commitment by 2015, but mobile phone coverage is not in place. Were we to push for 100%, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) suggested, instead of the mobile telephone companies paying the Treasury for that spectrum we would end up with the Treasury paying them to take it. It is perfectly possible, as was suggested, that we could make a powerful economic argument to the Treasury on

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why it might make sense for the Treasury to pay mobile telephone providers to take it, but to do so we would need some very robust figures.

One sad thing about the Ofcom debate is that we do not yet have a group powerful enough to put those figures in place. Such figures would prove that 92% of those businesses in Penrith and The Border that employ fewer than 10 people would benefit enormously. In addition—this applies in all our areas, because many retired people live there—applications for telemedicine and telehealth with mobile phone coverage are much more exciting than those that currently exist on broadband.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I want to say how important it is for businesses to get proper access to broadband and mobile coverage. I would add that in rural areas, it is good to facilitate independent living through good communications. That is another aspect to be considered.

Rory Stewart: I am aware that I should be coming to a conclusion, but at the end of my speech I shall draw together some of these interventions. The lessons show that it will be difficult.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—and for having his finger on the digital pulse, given the number of Members packed into the Chamber. I do not know why we are not having an hour-and-a-half debate, although I suspect that my hon. Friend tried for one.

We heard in the Budget that superfast broadband will be a big benefit for enterprise zones. I am in a rural community, and my businesses were badly hit in December because of the heavy snow. Andel, a firm that is based at the top of the valley in Marsden, wanted to Skype when doing business with eastern Europe, but it could not; the firm raised the matter with me a couple of weeks ago. Can we try to ensure that the money that is raised—something mentioned by my hon. Friend—is ring-fenced, and that some of the funds raised through the 4G auction are invested in the superfast broadband network?

Rory Stewart: I give way again.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): My hon. Friend may not be aware that below Lincoln are urban areas, within the constituency but outside the city boundary, and including Bracebridge heath, that still have problems with a lack of suitable broadband provision. All Conservative councils, particularly North Kesteven district council and local Conservative Councillor Mike Gallagher, have been active in seeking to resolve the matter, and have established a good connections group as part of the Lincolnshire sustainable community strategy. Indeed, they have applied to BDUK—Broadband Delivery UK—for pilot scheme funding to improve the provision of broadband in those areas. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to work together to improve our constituents’ access to suitable broadband connectivity and to enhance the competitiveness of businesses in our constituencies?

Rory Stewart: Absolutely. I give way once more.

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Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I am a little concerned that my hon. Friend is about to finish his speech, because I would like briefly to pay tribute to his leadership on this matter, on which he is the most knowledgeable person in the House. I hope that Cumbria, together with north Yorkshire, will build the arc of superfast broadband across rural northern Britain.

Before he concludes, will my hon. Friend talk a little about the responsibility of communities in dealing with the matter? I am concerned that the debate has gone a little too far towards Government solutions and council solutions. He has played an exceptional role in getting communities motivated. How does he do it?

Rory Stewart: I give way to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah).

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Will he adequately distinguish between superfast broadband and the kind of broadband that small businesses need in order to make the economic difference that we all want them to make as quickly as possible? The Government do not always distinguish between broadband, which enables small businesses to offer their services to the entire world, and superfast broadband which may have economic benefits in future that have yet to be fully quantified.

Rory Stewart: I now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman).

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and pay tribute to his leadership in this important field. He mentioned the Treasury, and I wish to speak about the payback potential of such investment.

As with so many infrastructure matters, the payback is enormous, and I urge the Minister to make the case to the Treasury. The Chancellor gave a stunning Budget today, outlining investment in East Anglia—for science in Norwich and Cambridge and for the A11. It could herald a renaissance of small business and high technology, but it will not happen without good broadband. With it, we would be paid back in spades—it would pay huge dividends to the Treasury. Somehow, we must find a mechanism to anticipate that growth, using it now to fund the infrastructure that will feed it.

Rory Stewart: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman).

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I represent undoubtedly the most remote and hard-to-please area. The Minister must understand that there is a way forward, provided that we harness the efforts being made for existing communications. If we do so, there will be a great addition.

Rory Stewart: I give way once more.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. He started the debate, but he has not had time to speak. Does he concede that we are talking about rolling out broadband to rural businesses to help support them? If we do not do this, businesses will leave rural areas for urban areas and end up exacerbating rural deprivation.

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab) rose—

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Rory Stewart: I give way to the hon. Lady.

Pamela Nash: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have so far concentrated on fibre-optics as being the answer to the problems of all rural communities and broadband? Does he agree that we should diversify that money in the next spending round?

Rory Stewart: I thank all who have intervened. I shall try to conclude in 60 seconds, and I shall take no more interventions. I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) for what she said, and all who intervened on the subject of communities, because I wish to conclude by mentioning those two factors.

The Government are handling two complex issues. One is how to deal with a rapidly changing technological picture, where the fibre-optic investment that seems sensible this year may seem less sensible, than the 4G investment next year, or moving signal down an electric wire the year after.

The most important thing is not just the flexibility with technology or, indeed, the distinctions that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central drew between the 2 meg access many businesses want today and the superfast access they might want in future but the question of communities. Our procurement processes have tended to be very centralised and one size fits all, of which Cornwall was the absolute epitome, with more than £100 million being spent on an area of 1,000 square miles and delivered through the county council with a major telecoms provider.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) suggested, it is essential that we give parishes a voice. Parishes and communities will provide financing and labour, they will waive wayleaves, they will dig their own trenches and they will connect their own fibre-optic, allowing us to achieve much broader coverage and much faster speeds in a fraction of the time. That will be possible only if the Government hold their nerve, resist the temptation, often from county councils, to spread the money thinly across a large area and allow genuine pilots in response to communities. That requires the commercial sector to be more flexible, allowing communities to connect to their point of presences. Data charging rates must be reasonable, and if the community digs and installs the fibre it must not be charged as though the commercial provider had dug it.

The Government are absolutely on the right track with those huge challenges.

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I wish to reinforce my hon. Friend’s argument. I have a cautionary tale from my own patch, in the parishes of Over Wyresdale and Quernmore. The community, which is prepared to do the digging and where farmers are on board, made a bid, but it has been swept into a county-wide European regional funding bid involving a national internet provider. It will not get what it wants and will lose all the economic benefits of a community doing things for itself. The service will be far more costly and will deliver less than the community could do itself.

Rory Stewart: On that note, I will conclude by making four points: first, huge thanks to the Government; secondly, in the spectrum auction we must push for much broader coverage of rural mobile; thirdly, there must be much more flexibility for communities in procurement; and, fourthly, I wish everyone good luck.

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I thank you, Mr Bayley, for your patience during this rather eccentric debate.

4.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. May I say what a lovely time I spent in your constituency visiting the National Railway museum, which was placed in York by Margaret Thatcher, who pioneered the role of culture in urban regeneration? I know that you will want to acknowledge that.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for initiating the debate. With a one-line Whip on a Wednesday afternoon following the Budget statement, I had expected a quiet discussion between him and me, but I should have known that when he is involved in something it always becomes much bigger than it says on the paper.

I pay tribute to my 17 Conservative colleagues who have turned up and to the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is no longer here, but who is a former Ofcom employee and perhaps should be lobbied by hon. Members on rural mobile coverage. Having heard interventions from Carmarthen, Herefordshire, East Yorkshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Gloucestershire, Devon, Lincolnshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, no one can doubt rural communities’ desire to achieve broadband roll-out. Although it would be iniquitous to pick a single example, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) for the simple reason that my wife was born in Stroud. In fact, her birth appeared on the front page of the Stroud newspaper because she was born on new year’s day—but enough of that.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border, who praised me and the Secretary of State for the work we are doing on broadband roll-out. We have managed to purloin £530 million to help to fund broadband roll-out. It is important to make the point that that is specifically for places where the market will not deliver. The broadband for about 66% of the population will be delivered by the market—I understand the tone of the debate; that will broadly be BT and Virgin Media—but the rest of the money is set aside for mainly rural communities.

I also concur with my hon. Friend in his praise for key officials—Rob Sullivan, Mike Kiely and all the others who work so hard at Broadband Delivery UK, as well as officials now at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport supervising the process. They have worked intensively with local authorities. Four pilot areas, three of which are represented in the debate, are about to go out to tender. A second wave is on the stocks; 11 areas have already expressed an interest and there are two more days for a local authority or local community to express an interest in bidding for broadband delivery. Hon. Members are free to speak to any areas that have not yet expressed an interest in bidding, and we hope to announce the next wave towards the end of May. We are also working closely with the devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that this is a United Kingdom initiative.

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I am confident that we will soon make rapid progress. The pilots have been extremely important for Broadband Delivery UK in understanding and learning about the tendering process, and although people might feel that it has taken some time, the hard work of the four pilots—the vanguard—will ensure that future pilots are taken forward much more quickly in understanding the tendering process and in continuous learning following the tendering process, as we begin to dig holes in the ground to lay broadband.

A number of other key points were made. To a certain extent, the debate morphed into a discussion of mobile coverage. I want to make these points. I stress that the pilots and the future waves of broadband delivery are technology-neutral. The best broadband is probably delivered by fibre, but there will be other solutions in some rural areas, such as digital fibre points, whereby WiMax will take the broadband further, and mobile solutions. There will also be satellite technology solutions.

Rural mobile coverage is extremely important. Ofcom has begun its consultation on the auction of 4G spectrum. I ask hon. Members who bump into the chief executives of the four chief mobile operators to urge them not to turn to their learned friends and litigate with the Government over the rules. We are anxious to get the spectrum out there; it has been a protracted process. We are very aware of the needs of rural coverage, and I am discussing with Ofcom how we ensure that it is available under the spectrum allocation. Let us not forget that spectrum allocation is important to the whole UK and to the UK economy, especially with the rise of the smart phone.

I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border says about the possibility of broadband roll-out being a big government solution. He will know

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that I am extremely anxious to see community broadband solutions, but—perhaps this is pushing back on my hon. Friends—but they are in a position to sit down and discuss with their county councils the best way forward on the bidding process. It is easier for a county council, perhaps with its own money and additional money from Europe, to seek match funding from the Government, but its tender need not be a big company or big government solution and can include community broadband solutions.

The key is to ensure that community broadband solutions are technically joined up so that that network can be available for other users. Should, for any reason, a community broadband operator fall away, that network would still be available to be used and integrated into the county-wide network. I urge my hon. Friends who, on behalf of their constituents, have rightly expressed an interest in rural broadband to discuss with their county councils how they are bidding, urge them to put in place one or two people who will lead the process full time and ensure that community and parish voices are heard in proposing the solution.

The debate has shown that the broadband initiative is gaining real momentum. The Government have put in place the money. We are also putting in place deregulatory initiatives—for example, on deployment of broadband across telegraph poles for the first time and on wayleaves. We are anxious to work. Towards the end of the year, we will begin to see a process whereby counties, when they are ready, can simply come to us with a proposal and, I hope, some funding of their own, which we will be in a position to match.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I congratulate the Minister on getting so much of his speech into the time available.

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Disability Living Allowance

4.30 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): I will give colleagues leaving the previous debate an opportunity to sneak out—I am sorry that they cannot stay.

I am delighted to have secured this debate and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply and her comments on the wider issues that I am about to raise. There is probably no better place to begin debating disability living allowance than with the mobility component for blind people. An amendment that I tabled to the Welfare Reform Act 2009 and that will come into force in April will enable blind people to claim the higher mobility rate component of DLA. However, if the Government go ahead with the proposals in the consultation on a new assessment for DLA to remove the amendment that I successfully tabled to the 2009 Act, about 20,000 blind people across the UK could lose out. That means that 20,000 blind people in the UK, including 2,000 blind people in Scotland and 300 in my own city of Glasgow alone, could lose access to the higher rate mobility component DLA. That means they would lose at least £1,500 a year. That is a considerable sum for anyone, but it is a vital lifeline for blind people, who generally come from poor backgrounds.

The public consultation by the Department for Work and Pensions on DLA reform, which was published in December last year, raised concerns about the issue. The specific threat to the DLA mobility component appears in point 6 on page 4 of the document, which says:

“Currently individuals on DLA with certain health conditions or impairments are automatically entitled to specific rates of the benefit without a full assessment. We propose that for Personal Independence Payment there are no automatic entitlements, other than the special rules for people who are terminally ill. Instead, each case will be looked at individually, considering the impact of the impairment or health condition, rather than basing the decision on the health condition or impairment itself.”

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend think of a way in which a blind person’s condition can improve? Why is there a need for a review?

John Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point and I will use a couple of cases as examples as I go through my speech.

On page 37 of the DWP consultation document, there is a list of automatic entitlements that the Government propose to remove, including one for blind people—the “severely visually impaired”. That entitlement was brought in as result of my amendment to the 2009 Act. The DWP consultation posed many more questions than it answered. We learned that the assessment for the new personal independence payment, which I will call “PIP”, will

“prioritise support on those individuals who face the greatest day-to-day challenges and who are therefore likely to experience higher costs.”

However, that wording was sufficiently vague that it could be overshadowed and interpreted in the light of other developments. Rules on eligibility would be restricted in such a way as to question the ongoing entitlement of disabled people in receipt of the lowest rates of the care

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and mobility components. PIP would consist of a mobility and daily living component, but unlike the existing care component, the new daily living component would comprise two rates, not three. An individual’s adaptation to their impairment would be taken into account in determining entitlement to PIP, presumably as a cost-cutting exercise.

I will not deal now with the plans to remove DLA mobility from individuals in residential care, as those plans were the subject of another Westminster Hall debate that was secured by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). I will simply add that it is reassuring that the Government will review mobility provisions for people living in care settings, but I still note the intention to remove DLA mobility for people in residential care in 2013, albeit one year later than originally proposed.

One of my most serious concerns relates to the Government’s plans to end automatic entitlement to DLA for people who clearly ought to have it, including the higher mobility component for people who have severe mental health problems, who are deafblind or are severely visually impaired. Individuals with those disabilities, along with people who are double amputees, automatically qualify for the higher rate, because they meet the strict criteria on the severity of their impairment.

That automatic entitlement is a clear and administratively efficient way of identifying disabled people with the highest level of mobility needs. In future, each case will be looked at individually, except the cases of people who are living with a terminal illness. Organisations for disabled people tell me that they do not believe that that is a sensible approach, as it will increase the costs of assessment while leading to the same outcome as the original system, and people with the most severe impairments will still receive the higher rate of benefit.

As I have mentioned, in three weeks’ time, more than 20,000 people in the UK with severe sight loss will be entitled, for the first time, to the higher rate mobility component of DLA and they will receive the extra £30 a week that they need in their pockets to maintain a decent quality of life. I tabled my amendment to the 2009 Act in the first place because of my strongly held belief that there is no good reason for discriminating between someone who faces physical barriers to mobility and someone who is unable to move around safely and independently as a result of blindness.

I want to tell the Minister about one of my constituents, as his case was the one that spurred me on to table the amendment to the 2009 Act in the first place. Alan McDonald has been blind from birth, has orientation problems and faces huge hurdles in getting around. He is unable to use public transport because of his difficulties in getting on and off buses and trains. Either he has to spend his other benefits on taxis, although they are meant to provide other support, or he is forced to rely on his sister to give him a lift to wherever he needs to go; otherwise, he has to stay at home.

Alan’s blindness is not the only barrier to his mobility. For example, when I tabled the amendment to the 2009 Act he was awaiting a second kidney transplant and was due to undergo surgery for hardening of the arteries. Despite all those difficulties, however, he was told on several occasions that he simply did not qualify for the higher-rate mobility component of DLA, because he was physically able to walk. Yes, he could walk—he

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could walk into wheelie bins, or into a set of traffic lights, or even into the middle of the road where he would be knocked down; but he could walk, so he did not get the money.

The barriers that Alan faces are just as great as those faced by someone who cannot walk, and the current situation is nonsensical. I believe that the Minister has to consider such things. It is unbelievable that somebody with such disabilities might not receive the higher rate of disability allowance in two years’ time, having finally received it after all these years.

Blind people such as Alan are justifiably angry about the discriminatory and unfair treatment that they receive, but they will feel even angrier and let down when the DLA mobility component, which comes into being in April, is taken away from them in just two years’ time. That will put them back to square one.

Many charities have contacted me because they are alarmed about the Government’s proposals. For example, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is concerned about the proposal that PIP should replace DLA. In particular, the association is concerned about the proposal in the DWP report on DLA reform proposals to

“take greater account of aids and adaptations”.

Taking into account the use of aids and adaptations when assessing eligibility could inadvertently penalise an individual who uses such equipment to try to reduce some of the difficulties that they face as a disabled person.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend’s campaign and the passion with which he is putting a very powerful case. Has he been contacted by the National Autistic Society? I ask that because there is enormous concern on the part of those who care for autistic people and those with family members who are autistic, as DLA is crucial for communication, travel and services for autistic people. It is crucial that access to DLA be retained for autistic people as well as for the other people whom my hon. Friend has mentioned.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend, who has more than a little reputation of looking after these people, both as a Minister and as a member of the previous Government. I congratulate him on the work that he has done. I have been contacted by so many groups that I could not possibly name them all in my speech today. If I miss any of them out, it is not because I want to do so, but because my speech is time-limited, but yes, I have received correspondence from the National Autistic Society and I thank my right hon. Friend for his input.

Any reduction in disability-related benefits simply because of someone’s access to equipment could significantly inhibit their efforts to lead a more independent life. Disability-related benefits enable people not only to live independently, but to participate in community activities. Such community engagement could include volunteering, which is a core component of the big society and could help someone to gain skills and experience that could enable them to go on to seek and obtain work.

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Several wrong assumptions could be made about the effectiveness of aids and adaptations. They might work for some individuals, but others might struggle with them. Issuing someone with a cane or a low-vision aid such as a monocular, does not necessarily mean that that person will continue to use it, or use it correctly. Even if the aids and adaptations are used appropriately, they are likely to have only limited uses. For example, a liquid level indicator might help someone safely to make a hot drink, but it will not make it any easier for them to make a meal to go with that drink. How will the Government help these people?

I know of another gentleman, David Griffith from Walthamstow in London, who receives the mobility component of DLA because he is deafblind, like Alan. He uses his DLA to pay for taxis, and for other support in getting out and about. He also tries to walk in his local area, and has recently applied for a guide dog because he has had a few near misses with cars of late. However, having heard a feature on the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Touch,” he is now worried that becoming a guide dog owner might result in the removal of his DLA. Under the proposals, a guide dog would enhance his life and make him safer in one element of his mobility, but he would never have the independence that sighted people have. He would not be able to jump out of the way of the car that was about to hit him, and he might travel on a bus that he did not mean to get on in the first place.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that something else that is hitting people is the proposed extension of the waiting period for DLA from three to six months? A constituent came to me who had been blinded in a road accident and was considering adaptations. He faced the cost of those straight away, and under the proposal he would have to wait even longer for the money.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. She is absolutely right, and perhaps the Minister could reflect on the impact of that increased period on people who do not have the extra time to wait. They need the money now, not in six months’ time. There is a danger that people like David will turn down help such as that provided through mobility training with a guide dog or a cane for fear of losing a benefit that they would still need, with or without the mobility aid. What does the Minister propose to do for Alan and David and people like them?

In conclusion, the Government state that 3 million people receive DLA and that the budget will reach £12 billion, and they draw the conclusion that the benefit is not fit for purpose. I wonder whether a better conclusion would be that the benefit rightly reaches the millions of people it is supposed to help. Reform might be necessary, and disabled people have expressed themselves on the changes they would like, not least shorter application forms in line with their disability and, of course, quicker receipt of the money. Are we not in danger, however, of going so far with the reforms that we lose sight of what DLA was originally set up for? DLA is there to assist people with disabilities that make life more expensive. It is there to help people stretch their incomes that little bit further, so that they can achieve the levels of independence and enjoy the opportunities that their

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non-disabled peers take for granted. Are we really saying that a fifth of today’s case load is no longer in need of that support? Have we really examined how the reforms will exacerbate disability poverty? Those questions are, in my view, central to this debate on the Government’s plans for DLA.

I hope that the Minister listens to and answers my questions. Let me reiterate some of them. Will the Government confirm that their intention is to revise this policy, which has been hard fought for and pursued over a number of years by parliamentarians on every side? Will the higher rate mobility component for individuals with severe visual impairments be awarded for just two years? Have the Government modelled the net loss of household income when individuals lose entitlement to DLA, and does their equality impact assessment acknowledge the lack of social care and other support for people with less complex needs? How much will that cost? What steps will the Government take to ensure that the assessment for PIP is not just a cost-cutting exercise but is fair and accurate, especially with regard to its suitability for people with fluctuating or mental health conditions, and those with lower-incidence conditions? At a time when the Government wish to tackle bureaucracy and simplify the benefits system, how can it make sense to insist that all disabled people, including individuals who evidently have severe needs, undergo regular reassessment?

I am calling for greater clarification on what impact the 20% cuts will have on determining who will be eligible for the new PIP and at what level. Will people who qualify for the lowest rate of DLA qualify for PIP under the new system? Will the Government ensure that those who qualify for the higher rate mobility component because they are deemed to have severe blindness can continue to receive PIP via that route? Finally, will a comprehensive training programme on blindness be made available for assessors for PIP? I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship of this very important debate, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing both the debate and the attendance of so many Members when the Budget debate is taking place in the Chamber. I welcome the opportunity to set out again some of the facts to counter some of the assumptions that have been made, not only by organisations but by some people who have been listening to the debate thus far. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s questions are answered in my comments, but if he feels that any of them need to be further investigated I will be very happy to do that with him separately.

I would first like to ensure that it is very clear to Members that the Government are not talking about a 20% cut in the current case load, but about ensuring that the budget for DLA is kept under control in the future, and that the rate of increase that we have seen—some 30% in the past eight years—does not continue as steeply. That is important, because the misunderstanding about how the budget works has caused great distress among my constituents, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and, I am sure, other Members’ constituents.

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John Robertson: Will the Minister accept that the impression is that it is the budget and not the people who have the disabilities that will determine how much people get? It is not possible to budget for people with disabilities, but if we do we have to say, “We’re going to let only so many people get disability allowance.”

Maria Miller: I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have to make difficult decisions in many areas, not only regarding how much we spend to support disabled people. At a time of financial crisis, as a result of the problems with controlling costs under the previous Administration, we have to make tough decisions, but the decision that we have made is that we want to support the most vulnerable people through DLA and its successor, and also through many of the other benefits that we have. The introduction of universal credit will do a great deal to support those people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and in mine, who are disabled.

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab) rose—

Maria Miller: Perhaps the hon. Lady could let me make a little progress.

Pamela Nash: It was on that point.

Maria Miller: I shall just make some progress.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West has long battled to change how blind and severely impaired people are treated under the old DLA regime, and that serves as an excellent example of the shortcomings evident in DLA because of its complexity, poor targeting and inflexibility. I certainly applaud his determination to get the support that disabled people need. The failure of his constituent to get the support that he needed through DLA is a great example of why we need reform.

If the hon. Gentleman had not had to deal with the faulty framework of the DLA in the first place, it might have taken him slightly less determination, and slightly less than two years—some people might say less than 10—to make the changes in primary legislation and then in regulations that were needed to get the present measure supporting severely visually impaired individuals on the statute book. That is why we are taking a fundamentally fresh approach to dealing with that area of benefits through the personal independence payment, so that we can adjust it and the assessments through regulations in the first instance and maintain the flexibility required to ensure that the benefit reflects people’s experiences and is adaptable enough to cope with the dynamic nature of society’s response to disability.

The personal independence payment has been designed with the support of disabled people and specialists to provide an objective assessment and ensure that we can help disabled people overcome the barriers that they face to living full and independent lives. That means looking past broad categories of impairment and labels and instead treating people as individuals. In doing so, we must consider the impact of all disabilities: not only physical disabilities—some criticise the DLA for favouring people with physical disabilities—but the mental, cognitive and sensory impairments that many of us know need more support. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) mentioned individuals dealing with autism.

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Some people deal with multiple disabilities as well. That is the only way for us to deliver targeted benefit that is fair to all those who need extra help and who face the biggest challenges leading independent lives.

The personal independence payment also addresses yet another of the many weaknesses of DLA. The DLA assessment for the higher rate of mobility component, on which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West focused, is framed in the rather simplistic medical context of whether the person can walk. In practice, that means that people facing broader issues involving mental health problems, learning disabilities or sensory impairments such as blindness could be left, as they have been, disadvantaged under that narrow definition. With the introduction of PIP, what we want to ask is not simply whether people can walk but whether they can get out and about, plan a route and navigate from A to B, because that is the challenge that disabled people face.

John Robertson: I understand what the Minister is trying to say, but just because I can plan a route does not mean that I can go that route. We are trying to help people who have been assessed as unable to work, but who might be able to work if we can get them to the right place. My constituent Alan can work at a computer, but first he must get there, and the only way for him to do so is for somebody to be with him. He must get a lift, and he must be accompanied. If people have no one to do that for them or cannot afford a taxi, it cannot happen. The money that Alan gets is vital, and he is not alone. There are lots of people like him all over the country. Why must they be reassessed all the time? They know what they are like. They have been through the system already.

Maria Miller: The hon. Gentleman raises several issues. DLA is not an out-of-work benefit. People in work can claim it, as they can claim access to work, which can also help them. However, I think his fundamental point is that we must recognise the true barriers that people face, not simply say that because they have a particular impairment they should receive a particular rate. We must understand the realities of their lives. He has made that point clearly on behalf of his constituent. I agree absolutely. That is how we are designing the personal independence payment. We are not saying that if somebody has a particular condition, their assessment should have a particular outcome; we are doing what he has done and considering the impact on people’s lives. I do not think that DLA does so.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned aids and adaptations. We must ensure, again, that we do not try to squeeze individuals into a one-size-fits-all box. That is doomed to fail, as he has pointed out. We need to consider how people can use aids and adaptations to improve how they live. We cannot simply ignore or discount aids and adaptations; the taxpayer pays £250 million a year for them. The main point is that if we do not consider how people actually live, we will never be able to provide more targeted support. What has happened is an extrapolation of what that might mean for the assessment process. I am not saying that we will include the imputed value of an aid or adaptation as a part of the assessment process. We are asking what day-to-day adaptations help improve people’s ability to live an

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independent life. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the example of guide dogs. I will explain why the issue is not being understood as well as it needs to be.

I assure hon. Members that we have absolutely no intention of penalising visually impaired people who can get out and about and live independently only with the help of a guide dog, largely because the activities that the assessment is likely to consider are not activities with which a guide dog can necessarily help. Guide dogs are extremely intelligent animals, but they do not help people eat, drink, manage their personal care, take treatments or communicate. Well, some of them help people communicate, but in a different way. Although guide dogs help people get out and about, they do not in themselves improve an individual’s physical ability to walk or to plan a journey. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman that there is little opportunity for someone who uses a guide dog to feel that they will be penalised for making that important adaptation.

Another aspect on which we have been asking for people’s thoughts in the consultation is whether we could use the new personal independence payment assessment as an opportunity to signpost people to additional support and help, or a touch point for getting people the help that they need. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we should not miss such an opportunity. Too often, disabled people do not get treatment for all the conditions with which they must cope. The assessment is an opportunity.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this important debate. Does the Minister agree that it is important, having heard some of the details in this debate, that we cut through the myths, worries and concerns about the changes and stress the point that personal independence payments will bring more targeted help to those who really need it? As a result, many people will get more help than they do at the moment.

Maria Miller: My hon. Friend could well be right. The assessment is being finalised. We want to ensure that support reaches people. I like to say that it is about getting help to the people who find it most difficult to live the independent lives that they would like. That is a positive way of thinking of it. Some of the evidence that the Public Bill Committee is hearing has applauded the positive nature of the personal independence payment. It is heartening to see it as a potential improvement.

Pamela Nash: I thank the Minister for giving way. She is being generous with her time, but I must say that her response so far has not filled me with confidence that my constituents who need the benefits to cope with their disabilities will still receive them, particularly as she referred immediately to deficit reduction when she responded to the earlier comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson). Can she make it clear whether a ceiling will be put on the benefits available, and therefore on the number of successful claimants of PIP?

Maria Miller: As the hon. Lady knows, any area of expenditure must work within a financial budget. We are putting the assessment first and foremost in order to

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get it right for disabled people and ensure that the funding available reaches people such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, who might have found it difficult to get support in the past because the DLA was invented some 20 years ago and perhaps does not reflect how we would like to think of disabilities today.

In conclusion, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that despite our differences in approach, we have a similar outcome in mind. We want to deliver a fair and affordable benefit system that serves the interests

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of disabled people and the communities in which they live. That is our starting point for DLA reform, and that is how we will ensure that disabled people have enough choice and control in their lives to live as independently as possible. I am determined that we will get it right and continue to provide the right support, targeted at the right people, in a way that is fair for everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.