I am grateful and delighted to have secured this debate, which is important for Somerset. Let me say at the outset that the other Members of Parliament from Somerset would all have liked to be here. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) is in his place, and I am told that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) might turn up, but the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) would also have liked to be here to discuss what is an incredibly important issue to us.
Local food is the lifeblood of Somerset and its economy, because we have hundreds of small producers. To paraphrase the famous sayings uttered by the well known Thomas Cranmer in 1549—even you might not remember that, Mr. Atkinson—“You are what you eat.” That was sensible advice at the time, and hon. Members can see that I am living testament to the excellent Somerset produce.
Our county has only two significant industries—tourism and agriculture. The first is subject to the whims of the weather and how many euros one can get to the pound. The second is forced to dance to the tune of Whitehall, Brussels and, I am afraid, major supermarkets. Both those industries are firmly and at all levels tied up with local food. Many of the visitors who pick Somerset for their summer holidays come deliberately to sample our local fare. We have cheeses like no others in Britain, fruit and veg that are the envy of everyone and, dare I say it, cider to die for; indeed, if one drinks too much, one might actually die of it, of course. The excellence of local produce is infectious. I have been known to queue for more than an hour just to buy my favourite local bread. I am afraid that that might be a testimony to my tummy. Merely mentioning it brings back a slightly warm aroma.
Somerset farmers have fine-tuned their production to meet the growing market. I had little idea how extensive the market was until my wife Jill started making jam and selling it. She started by selling just a few pots in farmers’ markets. Then she sold a few dozen, and now she sells a few hundred. Even in our little village, whose population is tiny, there is a lucrative jam industry, but it does not hit one in the eye and people do not know about it because there are no ugly industrial units. From the humblest domestic kitchens across the county, mouth-watering goodies are being produced. Many other small organisations are producing ceramics and all sorts of other things.
I intended to offer the Minister a jar of Jill’s latest recipe—I think that I might have to declare her jam as an interest—but temptation got the better of me. However, as the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells, who is just coming to his place, can see, I have brought a jar of mincemeat made by one of my constituents. Unfortunately, it is half-empty because my son and I got the better of it and removed half the pot.
It is important to say that the local food industry is vital. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that jam making is one of the highest turnover, high-profit elements of a huge, hidden economic power house. We are talking about millions of pounds in Somerset and hundreds of millions in the country’s economy. The industry is a giant money-making machine, but it does not roar like a giant, because its integral parts are mostly tiny, starting with one-woman or one-man businesses.
I am full of admiration for the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Following his mention of cider and his point about the economic importance of local produce, I want to draw attention to some of the producers in my constituency. Cumulatively, Sheppy’s cider, Exmoor Ales and Cotleigh Brewery employ 25 or 30 people, so they not only make first-class products but are an important part of the local economy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will expand on that point.
The hon. Gentleman gives me a reminder. The produce of that phenomenal brewery has been tasted in the House of Commons and was very well received by hon. Members.
However, I did not initiate this debate just to sing the praises of the producers or to urge fellow hon. Members to get stuck into Jill’s jam or anything else. There is a serious issue. The more I see of local food production, the more concerned I become about the haphazard manner in which such a vulnerable industry is nurtured. The other day, for example, the nice people from Business Link—and I mean that—got hold of my wife, metaphorically speaking. Business Link is indirectly funded by the Government, and it is in business to help business flourish—that might sound obvious, but I shall come on to that point.
That objective is fine if it works, but Business Link had called to help Jill with setting up a website for her jam. She was stuck up to the midriff in simmering marmalade at the time. No offence to the guy—he was very nice—but the idea was not practical to her, because she did not have time to concentrate on it. It is impossible to navigate the worldwide web with a wooden spoon dripping with jam, but the real-life Business Link angel was there to see her through the red tape. If he had done that and that alone, that would have been much better. I have talked to people since then and they have all said the same thing. Why can Business Link not help with the red tape?
The point that I am making is not a criticism—please do not think that. It is a practical observation of the situation. I get the distinct impression that—I say this advisedly—many organisations that are established to help small businesses have no concept of how many small business there are. Perhaps we as hon. Members are guilty of using the phrase “small is beautiful”, but not recognising the value of “tiny”, because they are not mutually exclusive.
Local food producers in Somerset can collectively punch way above their weight, but they are almost invisible to everybody otherwise. They have had to rely on their own networks and outlets, and most importantly their own efforts, largely because some of those who might be able to help them have unfortunately not learned to think outside the box in which they are placed.
I entirely agree with the sentiments that my hon. Friend has expressed. Would he support a parallel initiative to try to persuade the public sector to buy locally? I am thinking of local authorities, schools and local hospitals in Somerset which ought to be buying Somerset produce. I am aware of EU directives for fairness in procurement, but I understand that there is latitude to allow local authorities to buy locally—to secure taste, freshness and other qualities—that would circumvent any legal restrictions. The people for whom those bodies would be buying produce would also be getting the best food in the world at competitive prices.
I thank my right hon. Friend and agree with him absolutely. There are two parts to the question. The first, which I am sure the Minister has heard about, is about the ability of such bodies to do what they want or otherwise in Europe. There are little local schools in all our constituencies in Somerset, and little organisations up to the county and district level; yet it has always struck me as bizarre that when one asks them, as I have, where they source their food from, they do not know. One of the problems—this comes back to the word “tiny”—is that we are good at being able to buy bulk for schools, but we are unable to buy locally. The purchase managers of schools and other organisations are not able to think outside the famous box. I hope that the Minister will take on board the comments about Europe, because we need guidance on that. With the right wind, I am sure that the county councils and district councils can take the idea on board. I shall of course come on to Somerset county, as my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Taunton would both expect me to do.
Others are beginning to learn. When this Adjournment debate was announced towards the end of last week, my phone got red hot. First, there was the Minister, clamouring to know which Government agency I was likely to attack in my speech—I am sorry to disappoint him, but there is nobody. Then came the lobbyists, and to date I have had every major supermarket chain bending my ear. Food pressure groups have done so, too. I have been quite surprised at the amount of lobbying, and the Minister knows that. Many people provided enormously useful information, some of which I shall include in my speech. It proved to me how slick and capable the food industry is at getting its message over, and how slack some agencies that should be helping food producers have become.
Nobody called me from Somerset Food and Drink. It is supposed to be the local, premier focal point for anybody who wants to know anything about food production in the county of Somerset. Somerset Food and Drink is run by the county council, but I am afraid that it was a totally silent advocate. I did not get anything from the council, and it was well aware that the debate was taking place.
On the other hand, Somerset Food Links, a non-profit-making company set up by South Somerset district council in the seat of the hon. Member for Yeovil, was incredibly helpful; it had a very good website with up-to-date information, and it could not have been better at supplying the information that I required. I guess that that is not surprising: Somerset county council is ruled—dare I say it—by a bunch of Daleks who want to exterminate all five district councils and turn the county into a faceless unitary authority. It does not grasp the importance of local government, which has come to my aid, so how on earth can we expect it to understand the importance of local food or of saying “buy locally”? Daleks, after all, are constructed from upturned dustbins with sink plungers for arms. They cannot climb stairs, and nouvelle cuisine is somewhere beyond Gallifrey.
Come to think of it, I also did not hear a squeak from the funded South West of England Development Agency. I am disappointed about that, considering that I had a meeting with its representatives recently. Its motto is to encourage enterprise and improve communications. It did not communicate with me and it did not seem desperately anxious to encourage anybody’s enterprise. Even a little e-mail would have been nice, and welcome. I would have used it.
The Minister will have come across Taste of the West. It is a limited company, but it has received funding from Europe, the Countryside Agency, which is now called English Nature, and Food from Britain. One way or the other, the Government have contributed. I am sad to report that apart from an approach by one of my own side, Taste of the West has not been in touch either, although I believe that the chairman or chief executive is ill, so that is understandable.
Towards Devon and Cornwall, there is a bizarre bias that all producers in Somerset have suffered at one time or another. When I trawled through the published information, I found that the mentions of Somerset were limited and small. That is a grave pity, and it suggests that Somerset is not worthy of serious mention. All five Somerset Members of Parliament resent it, and we have taken on Avon as well as everyone else.
My abiding concern is the same as my observations about Business Link. Nobody is able to think outside the box and laterally to increase the production and purchase of local food. Taste of the West always boasts about organising seminars. That is fantastic; no problem, it is great. However, if one struggles single-handedly to stack crates, make fresh medlar jam, cider, beer or anything else, one does not have time to go to Exeter, where the events are mainly held, to listen to a day’s seminar. One is physically unable to do so.
Taste of the West also gives awards. That is great—why not? It is good for morale. However, to qualify that point, if one looks at its website, one sees that the winners are predominantly paid-up members of Taste of the West. It is difficult to understand why one must pay a fee to enter a category to be presented with an award. Why cannot the organisation be made more open? The Minister has a say. Will he please ask it to make itself more accessible to all local producers? I am sure that his officials will have looked at the website and seen how many producers are on it. There are only 20 from Somerset, and they are concerned with meat and fish. That cannot be right. I know that there are more, and there are certainly more in my constituency.
If the Minister says, “Fine, what has this got to do with me?”, the answer is that he has a considerable interest in the matter. Recently in Downing street, Taste of the West showed off its wares marvellously with David Fursdon from the Country Land and Business Association. Taste of the West is on good terms with the highest levels of the Government. It also seems to have psychic powers. As the Minister and I have discussed, I was told that it wanted to get in touch with me about my speech. My speech was sent to the Minister on the understanding that he could consider it and reply; I was concerned that it had appeared elsewhere and that I was being pursued. I suppose that I could call that a very locally and organically grown “leek”, and leave it at that.
Local food in Somerset needs a huge dose of joined-up government. Most of the time, the spirit of free enterprise means that small producers tick over very nicely, thank you, because they make produce that people are prepared to go out of their way to buy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time.
Before the hon. Gentleman brings his remarks to a close, will he touch on the huge environmental benefits that flow from people buying locally produced food? For example, such food involves a reduction in food miles compared to food imported from elsewhere in the country or abroad. Furthermore, supermarkets use a huge amount of packaging; food from farmers’ markets and local sources is sold in a preferential way to the customer to reduce the environmental impact.
I could not agree more. All Somerset Members have been vocal in supporting our farmers’ markets; I certainly know that the hon. Gentleman has supported them in Taunton. He is absolutely right: why send Brussels sprouts from Kent to Scotland to be packed, only for them to come back down again?
Unless we grasp the importance of helping these little tiddlers flourish, their growth and prosperity will be limited. Let me give a couple of live examples of why the excellent markets in Somerset, run by the likes of the women’s institutes, have faithful followers. The good Somerset ladies lean on their culinary reputations; hon. Members may be glad to hear that as yet they have found no need to get their kit off for calendars. The fashion of farmers’ markets is growing too. In Minehead, at the western end of my constituency, there is now an excellent weekly one; there never was before. However, at the other end, in Bridgwater, there are problems and the farmers’ market is teetering. There is room for 60 pitches, but a couple of Fridays ago only six stallholders turned up. The local authority is beholden to provide extra cash so that the market can survive.
I ask the Government where Business Link is when we need it. Where is Somerset Food and Drink? Even Taste of the West could provide a little funding, although I know that that would be more difficult. Instead, the buck seems to stop at the door of the district council, which is threatened with extermination for helping local food. That cannot be joined-up government, and I hope that the Minister realises that we can do a lot better.
Another factor faces Bridgwater market. Bridgwater is well served by supermarkets—actually, to be honest, it is crawling with them. However, I remain to be convinced that supermarkets are offering locally produced Somerset goods. Asda, for example, was kind enough to furnish me with a glowing testimonial to their interest in local produce. This is what it said:
“ ‘Local’ to us means a locally produced, local taste delicacy or brand, recognised as local with customer demand locally.”
It went on to say:
“Suppliers normally start by supplying one store in their locality”.
Right. It also said:
“We encourage direct local store input into the product range—store managers are empowered to find local suppliers. We have close to 400 local suppliers currently active”.
I bet other hon. Members with constituencies in Somerset could not find them; I know that I cannot.
Unfortunately, that is the national, not the Somerset, picture. Apart from a hunk or two of local brie, there is very little evidence of the local in my local Asda. I do not hold it responsible; I understand its need to offer bargains to justify a bottom-smacking TV slogan such as “Always cutting prices”. However, that will not help little jam makers in my neck of the woods. If I may say so, the Minister is stunningly turned out this afternoon, but I very much doubt whether his suit came off the Asda shelves at twenty-five quid. Any retailer who can offer such prices is undercutting everybody else. I do not expect him to reply; he is giving me a look from a sedentary position, which may mean that I am in trouble.
If Asda can bring the £25 suit to Bridgwater, however, what can we suppose it will pay for somebody’s jam? The truth is that the jam made by people such as my wife cannot be churned out in sufficient volumes to satisfy supermarket demand, let alone meet those supermarkets’ margins. I am not anti-supermarket—nobody should be—but I want to encourage what is best in my county. I believe that the power of the supermarket chains could be exercised with much more of a social conscience. Again, in a sense that is not a ministerial responsibility, but perhaps there is a moral argument that we should all be looking at to try to address that point. Local producers in Somerset do not want to be mollycoddled. They know what they are doing, they have learnt the hard way and they are surviving. Most of them are glittering stars. They are growing bigger, and a few, such as Yeo Valley, the yoghurt company, in the Bridgwater area, have turned into big national operators. Most are doing the job that they were set up to do. On Exmoor during the foot and mouth crisis, if it had not been for local food we would have had a problem.
This is a little industry with a big heart and a little roar that is doing a good job. I hope the Minister would agree. If we can join it up, we will have a great future for all local producers in Somerset.
I am sure that the whole House would agree with the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) that locally produced food is of real importance. I strongly support the remarks made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) when he talked about the importance of reducing food miles and ensuring minimal packaging and the capacity of local food to deliver those environmental benefits.
At one point this afternoon, Mr. Atkinson, I thought that I might have to seek your guidance on how to decline tactfully the bribe of half a jam jar of mincemeat. Fortunately, that did not materialise although I believe that it is still in the possession of the hon. Member for Bridgwater. On a slightly more serious note, I wonder whether he might need to seek your guidance to declare his interest in Jill’s jam.
I shall focus on what the Government and others are doing to encourage the growth of the regional and local food sector both nationally and in the south-west, and particularly in Somerset. In doing so I hope to paint a less gloomy picture than the one described by the hon. Gentleman. If I want to set out the broader context in which our support is being delivered, I shall have to speak quickly, because only eight minutes of the debate remain.
There has never been a time when food and how it is produced has been so high on the public agenda. That is generally perceived to be the case. Yes, our vision for food and farming is driven by economic goals, but it is driven by social and environmental goals, as well. The industry needs to be profitable in the marketplace and be based on skills, innovation, investment, branding and quality, not on the generosity of the taxpayer. The taxpayer has a role in promoting responsible food consumption, taking account of social, economic and environmental sustainability. Consumers want information to help them to make informed decisions, but producers have a key role to play and they will flourish by providing what customers want. One way for farmers to achieve that is through differentiation and reconnection with their consumers.
Consumers continue to seek value for money, but that is no longer their only concern. They also want quality assurance and to buy products that reduce or minimise environmental impacts. Those are all opportunities that producers can now exploit. That is borne out by research conducted last year for a report commissioned by Food from Britain that showed that 65 per cent. of shoppers claim to buy local produce when purchasing food and drink. The top reason to buy local is freshness, which was chosen by 64 per cent. of consumers, with the next in the ranking being support for local producers, chosen by 31 per cent., and a concern for the environment, chosen by 25 per cent. Those are all pointers to why there has never been a better time to go into local food production, whether it is cheese making, cider brewing or jam making.
Our sustainable food and farming strategy sets out our comprehensive long-term plan for the future development of the industry. The strategy identifies how the Government will work with the whole food chain to ensure a sustainable future for English farming and food. A range of different measures under the strategy is already in place and is contributing to strengthening the food chain at national level.
Since 2000 we have awarded more than £14 million in grants given under the agriculture development schemes, including awards to the English Farming and Food Partnership, the Food Chain Centre and the red meat, dairy and cereals industry forums to improve competitiveness. Our food industry sustainability strategy has been drawn up to help the sector to contribute to the UK’s sustainability goal through its impact on producing healthy food and balanced diets, and on energy consumption, water use, waste generation and transportation. The larger-scale food processors and retailers have committed to the aims of the strategy. We are addressing the need to encourage greater efficiency in the UK food chain through our support for the Food Chain Centre; likewise, our support for English Farming and Food Partnerships seeks to increase co-operation between farmers and the rest of the food chain.
Under our regional food strategy, we are providing £1 million a year until 2008 to support the quality regional food sector in England. Our support under that strategy, which began in 2003, has given us the means to act decisively to support and encourage a flourishing regional food industry. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to take a strategic approach to the promotion of regional foods and to ensure greater co-ordination between bodies with an interest in that work, but I hope to persuade him that the assistance available to such businesses is not quite as haphazard as he fears.
In England, Food from Britain takes the lead in the delivery of a national programme of activities focused on trade development, raising consumer awareness and increasing business competitiveness. The type of activities included in the programme are: attendance at international and national food shows; meet-the-buyer activities involving multiple retailers; development of a guide to working with the food service sector for regional food producers; raising the profile of Britain as a food destination to tourists via a three-year marketing agreement between FFB and VisitBritain; producing a “How to Export” guide tailored to the needs of regional food and drink producers; working with the Institute of Grocery Distribution to produce a guide to distribution in order to help regional food producers overcome problems with supply chain logistics and learn about schemes throughout the country that have helped producers find new markets; and a pilot benchmarking programme with regional food producers in the south west.
In turn, FFB works closely at regional level with the various English regional food groups who support the national programme. In the south-west, the work is being carried out by Taste of the West, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I shall say more about its excellent work—but privately, afterwards, rather than rehearse it now.
We are now into the fourth year of our programme of support, and it is worth highlighting the key outputs to date. More than 4,000 producers have been supported by the national programme of activity. Total sales generated to date—a key indicator—are worth about £6 million, and they continue to grow. All that work is complemented at regional level by the regional development agencies, which encourage food hubs and shared distribution facilities and marketing. I am pleased to say that an independent economic evaluation of our regional food strategy carried out in 2005 concluded that Government intervention in the sector is justified and that the programme of support is tackling the market failures identified in the sector.
On all that work, I understand that there is regular contact between Somerset Food Links and Taste of the West so that each knows what the other is doing. However, I shall pursue that point with the hon. Gentleman another time—perhaps over some samples of his regional produce.
One of the first ports of call for a budding business is likely to be Business Link. I was sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman’s wife did not find the offer of assistance in setting up a website helpful. I understand that the offer was made by Connecting Somerset, whose role is to aid new and existing businesses in broadband, IT and web development. For small local food producers, many of which are based in rural areas, websites can offer a valuable and productive route to market. As the hon. Gentleman said, the role of Business Link is to help businesses flourish; it includes the provision of advice on regulatory requirements, sources of funding and marketing, as well as on e-commerce. Officials have spoken to Business Link Somerset, and I understand that its advisers would be pleased to speak to the hon. Gentleman’s wife about the business support that they can give. I believe that I may have won my half a jar of mincemeat.
One Business Link Somerset initiative of particular relevance to this debate is the specialist focus on helping female entrepreneurs, in response to research showing that women launching a business are not always given the same level of attention from banks and other more regular sources of support as their male counterparts. I understand that Business Link has organised a “Women in Enterprise” event on 27 February at Bridgwater’s Exchange, and I urge the hon. Gentleman’s wife to find out more.
I would also like to mention the rural enterprise gateway service provided through Business Link Somerset, which works on the basis of facilitated groups of land-based businesses working towards common aims. The service offers access to specialist advice, access to information from the knowledge base and access to training. Since 2005, 225 companies have been assisted through the gateway to improve their performance. Some of the Somerset groups benefiting from that initiative include the Somerset orchard group, Somerset farmers’ markets and the Somerset women’s rural enterprise splinter group.
Earlier, I highlighted the growing consumer interest in regional and local food, and I outlined how we are helping producers to adapt in order to meet that demand. However, I recognise the need for us and others to facilitate more local sourcing by providing funding to address issues such as distribution, marketing and the encouragement of new outlets.
It being Five o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.