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Farming (East Sussex)

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2007

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable interest to my constituents. Although I represent a south-east constituency, it is quite a rural area and the farming community is important not just to employment—in fact employment in farming has actually decreased, as it has across the country—but for other reasons that I am sure the Minister will be pleased to endorse. For example, farming makes an important contribution to the rural environment and to the landscape. What would the landscape in Lewes and elsewhere be like if there were no farmers to maintain it? That is often taken for granted by those of us not directly involved in farming; nevertheless, it is an important factor that should be considered. It should also be emphasised that farmers provide the glue for the rural area and economy. In recent years there has been a decline in the number of people involved in farming and consequently a reduction in the attention given by the Government to farming—the Ministry of Agriculture was, of course, abolished.

Farming is important and I will ask the Minister some questions that I hope he can answer. I welcome him to the debate and congratulate him on the way in which he has settled into his role as Minister for Climate Change and the Environment. We have had three successively good Environment Ministers and my only regret is that the role does not have more influence in Government. I hope that he might be able to correct that while he is in office.

The first issue that I wish to raise is food security, which might seem a rather old-fashioned subject. The Government have emphasised the need to make the farming community more economically viable. I agree with that and with many of the related issues that the Government have pursued. However, we should have a concept of what percentage of food we want to be able to grow ourselves in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. An energy White Paper is being published today that, among other issues, will rightly consider energy self-sufficiency. Food self-sufficiency is not being addressed in the same way, but it is an important issue. I made that point the last time that I initiated a debate on farming in my constituency. I said then that

“my view is that, in this uncertain world, we do not know where we will be in 20, let alone in 50, years' time. It would therefore be prudent for us to be more self-sufficient in food and energy than we currently are, in order to ensure that we are able to cope with potentially unstable geopolitical situations in the longer term.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 9 March 2005; Vol. 431, c. 501WH.]

That is still my view.

I had a detailed response to many issues raised in that debate from the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), but he did not address that particular point. What is the Government’s view on self-sufficiency in agriculture and how it can benefit the country in 20 years’ time? What is the overall plan? Is there a target? I suppose that there is not, but what is the general view on that issue? [Interruption.] Well, such matters affect my East Sussex constituents in the same way as they affect the rest of the country. I hope that the Minister will accept the issues that I am raising, as farmers in my constituency have asked me to draw them to his attention.

Bovine tuberculosis is a national issue that particularly affects my constituency. The Minister will be aware of the serious concern in the farming community about incidents of bovine TB. There are hot spots in my constituency and herds are going down in the Cuckmere and Ouse valleys, which is a serious matter indeed in an area where livestock farming is predominant. The Government were edging towards taking some form of definitive action, but they appear to have moved back from that. In the meantime, the number of herds—and of badgers—affected by TB is rising and the rural economy is suffering. The situation cannot be allowed to drift for much longer; the Government need a clear policy to tackle the disease.

For nine or 10 years, I was the Liberal Democrats’ animal welfare spokesman. Bovine TB is indeed an animal welfare issue. TB is not a pleasant disease for cattle, badgers or, indeed, humans and it is irresponsible to allow it to continue to spread without trying to take action to deal with it. Does the Minister agree with the National Farmers Union that it is necessary for steps to be taken in relation to wildlife control to remove badgers from particular areas? If he does not, are the Government considering a possible vaccination against TB? If not, what is the strategy for dealing with this most insidious disease, which, as I say, is an animal welfare matter? It is also an economic issue for farmers, and in some parts of my constituency there is a sense of despair at apparent Government drift on this most important issue.

I mentioned self-sufficiency and as the Minister will know, there is a strong movement across the country, including in Lewes, to support local farmers and to ensure that wherever possible, local produce is bought. That is of course an environmental aim as well as an economic matter. A farmers market has been set up in Lewes, which has been successful. Transition Town Lewes has also been created, the aim of which is to promote local produce and to ensure that communities are as self-sufficient as possible. I would be surprised if the Government did not support that. Part of such developments is to ensure that a fair balance operates in the market between the producer and supplier. The Minister will know that there are strong concerns among the farming community and others about the imbalance between the supermarkets and the farmers who supply produce. That is a big issue.

An answer to a written question that I received on 6 June 2005 said that the price paid to farmers for a litre of milk was 25p in 1996 and that it dropped to 18.46p in 2004. Over the same period, the price of milk in supermarkets has remained roughly the same, at 63p to 64p. Although the price paid to farmers has dropped, supermarket profits have increased, which is an unsatisfactory situation. The Minister will know that the supermarkets make gigantic profits. Tesco will make about £150,000 profit during the half hour in which we are speaking, yet most farmers live on less than that throughout the whole year. Tesco has launched an initiative to increase the prices paid to farmers in a selective way, and the Office of Fair Trading is also considering the matter, which is not before time. However, it would be useful if the Minister said something about that subject, and particularly about what he is doing to promote local markets. We do not want an environmentally wasteful arrangement whereby food is produced somewhere, taken miles away to a depot by the supermarkets, a big mark-up is then added and the food is then sent back to where it came from. We need a better way of organising ourselves, and the Government have a role in promoting that.

On self-sufficiency, the Minister needs to recognise that there is a shortage of abattoirs in some areas, including in my constituency. That means that animals are transported further, which is bad for animal welfare and bad for farmers because of the cost of doing so. It is also bad for the environment because of emissions from lorry movements. We have lost many local abattoirs and it is important to reinstate some of them. I would welcome the Minister’s saying something about that matter and whether the Government have a strategy on abattoirs.

Bluetongue is also of concern to farmers in my constituency. The Minister may have seen South East Farmer magazine, which has focused on that issue. The May 2007 edition has the headline:

“Disease could strike this month”.

The magazine states that bluetongue is already found across the channel and “with a fair wind” could cross to Kent and East Sussex.

During the past 10 years there has been a succession of major body blows to the livestock industry, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth disease. Other health issues have also affected the economic viability of farming; I hope that bluetongue will not be the next problem. What assessment has the Minister made of the threat of bluetongue to farmers in my constituency and more widely? What plans are in place to prevent bluetongue, if that is possible, or to deal with it if it does occur? What will be the arrangements for—I hope that it does not come to this—livestock restrictions, culling or compensation if bluetongue does arrive?

I am conscious that I am asking the Minister lots of questions, and if he has to write to me subsequently, I will understand. However, it is important that my questions be answered for the benefit of those in my constituency who have asked me to pursue them with him today.

Another issue that concerns local farmers is environmental stewardship. Again, I welcome the direction of travel of the Minister and his colleagues—toward payments for environmental outputs—which I have supported strongly for many years. Indeed, we need further reform of the common agricultural policy to incentivise such actions. However, the Minister will be aware that East Sussex and my constituency in particular contain a large chunk of the south downs and, therefore, a large environmentally sensitive area. As ESA agreements come to the end of their term, there is no guarantee that the farmland will make it into the higher-level scheme replacing it, which means that good environmental work could be lost for ever.

Marginal livestock production is unlikely to survive when ESA or countryside stewardship schemes come to an end. Natural England, with its limited budget, will not be in a position to pick up the whole funding gap, which means that farmers will consider alternative cropping for that land. That could mean that some of the good work done to maintain the landscape to which I referred at the beginning of my contribution could be lost, which would be completely counter-productive and against the wishes of the local population. That would be a shame, given the good work that has been done with the ESA scheme.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that sufficient funds are available for environmental stewardship? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that there is a 20 per cent. shortfall in England in the budget to deliver agri-environmental objectives. It says that the higher-level scheme is particularly affected by that shortfall. Does the Minister agree and if so, what is he doing about it?

As I said, livestock is important to my constituency. The Minister will be aware that farming is subject to regulation, as indeed is every other industry in the country. However, the livestock sector is particularly affected by the Government’s proposals for animal disease cost-sharing and for funding the cattle traceability system, and by the compliance costs that are likely to follow the anticipated review of legislation on nitrogen-vulnerable zones in July. There is also the lack of fallen stock collection in the region. It is easy to see why livestock numbers are falling locally.

The Minister might like to know that in 1996 there were 383 dairy herds in Sussex, but that 10 years later, we are down to just 149—a 61 per cent. reduction. That is a pretty catastrophic reduction, and there is no suggestion that we have hit rock bottom. There will be further losses, undoubtedly partly owing to the added costs and regulations affecting the livestock industry in particular. Although I am sure that each of those burdens will have been assessed individually before being introduced, have the Government assessed the overall impact and collective consequence of imposing those burdens on a single industry at roughly the same time?

Field teaching and getting children out into rural areas are important issues in my constituency and elsewhere. The Minister will be aware that each year, more than 60,000 children enjoy out-of-classroom learning on RSPB nature reserves through its “living classrooms” scheme. It is important that we have a connection between those who live in towns, and practices that operate in the countryside. My constituency is a semi-rural area, and I find it shocking on visiting some of its schools that some children appear to be uncertain about the connection, if any, between a piece of meat on a tray in a supermarket wrapped in polythene, and where it comes from. We need a greater connection, through the education system, between those who live in urban areas and what happens in the countryside. That reinforces my earlier point about the need for localism and for communities to be as self-sufficient as possible. It is all one and the same thing. I very much hope that the Minister has something positive to say about that.

Finally, I thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for giving me the opportunity to make those points. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. As I said, if he cannot answer all my questions in detail—I hope that he will have a good go—I hope that he will write to me with the answers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate. He raises some important issues about the challenging period that farmers have been through, and if I do not have time to cover all of them, I shall write to him, as he suggested.

UK farming contributed £5.6 billion to our economy in 2006. It uses 75 per cent. of the country’s land area, and employs more than half a million people. One of the Government’s major tasks is to help this vital industry operate as efficiently as possible, and our strategy reflects our key economic, social and environmental goals. Our economic goals are to support farmers in building a profitable, innovative and competitive industry that meets consumers’ needs; to develop strong connections between farmers and their markets; to reform further the CAP; to strengthen links in the food chain; and to increase efficiency and competitiveness.

Social goals are focused on working to support farming’s wider contribution to the long-term sustainability of rural economies and communities, and to public health. Then there is the crucial environmental dimension of seeing farming fulfil its unique role in the countryside, and of making a net positive contribution to the environment, while also meeting high environmental and animal health and welfare standards. Farming is on the front line of the environmental challenges that we face, including climate change. The net environmental cost of agriculture is around £400 million a year. Yet nothing can be more fundamental to the long-term success of farm businesses than the sustainable management of the land and the resources on which they depend.

There are big opportunities and big challenges here, and the industry, with our support, needs to think hard about its future direction, about diversifying and innovating, and about making money from a wide variety of new products, notably in the environmental field as it farms energy, water and carbon, as well as food. However, it also needs to think hard about diversifying within traditional sectors and using new technology to best effect.

Market drivers are also changing. Customers are much more interested in sustainable consumption and production. The market in local, seasonal and organic produce is set to grow, and there is a chance to show that modern innovative farming is really delivering for the environment and animal welfare.

We also need to see climate change as an opportunity, not just a threat. If UK farming prepares now for this future, it can get ahead. The UK can become a leader in green farming and in developing solutions to reduce the use of natural resources and to reduce pollution. For example, anaerobic digestion has significant potential as a renewable energy and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We will publish today the UK biomass strategy along with the energy White Paper, which will explain how we propose to work with stakeholders to facilitate the uptake of anaerobic digestion. That is an important way forward and will provide new opportunities for farmers in East Sussex and the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of food security. I can reassure him that the Government take that issue very seriously. In December 2006, we published a wide-ranging study of food security, which concluded that the UK, being a rich, open economy, has a very robust and diverse food supply. We want British consumption of British food to come from the skills, innovation, investment, branding and quality assurance of the farming industry, rather than from a policy that aims simply to maximise the level of self-sufficiency. Clearly, as I have said, British consumers are increasingly interested in local, seasonal produce, and we hope to see that pattern continue.

At the end of March, we announced a new £3.9 billion budget for the 2007-13 England rural development programme. Most of that funding will be allocated to agri-environment and other land management schemes to help farmers to manage the land more sustainably and to deliver important environmental outcomes on biodiversity, landscape and access, water quality and climate change.

In 2007-08, there will be a further health check on the common agricultural policy. The European Commission has already said that it will make proposals aimed at a further shift in emphasis from direct farm payments to rural development with more compulsory modulation. The Government will encourage the Commission to be ambitious—to provide more freedom to farm, less bureaucracy and less market distortion. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of CAP reform on tenant farmers. The Government are committed to maintaining a prosperous tenanted farming sector, and it is important that tenant farmers can take full advantage of the opportunities of CAP reform. The latest research is encouraging, in that 70 per cent. of tenant farmers surveyed are already diversifying. One of the great strengths of farming in the United Kingdom has been the ability and willingness to diversify in recent years. Diversification can make good business sense for many farmers, potentially increasing their incomes and providing stability for their farm businesses. In fact, 50 per cent. of farm businesses have diversified activities. In many cases, diversified income now accounts for one quarter or more of the total farm income.

We want to make the diversification process as easy as possible for farmers by tackling the barriers that stand in its way. The Government’s barriers to diversification working group recently reported to Ministers. Planning issues and business skills are identified as key barriers for farmers who want to diversify. We are examining closely the recommendations made to us.

The aim is to create an environment in which our food and farming industries can flourish, and there are real areas of growth potential, in particular for non-food crops. Those can form the basis of renewable energy and fuels, and the feedstock for an increasing range of industrial materials that can make a positive contribution to sustainable development and deliver benefits for the rural economy, the environment, scientific innovation and industrial competitiveness. There are win-win-wins all around.

The Government are supporting that embryo industry with a package of measures to plant energy crops, develop supply lines and create end-use markets, but to reap the full benefits, farmers and industry will need to work together, and there are encouraging signs that more and more people are doing so. That is just one example of a range of work that is being done to deliver a more customer-focused, competitive and sustainable farming and food industry.

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provided approximately £12 million to support industry-led initiatives, such as those involving English Farming and Food Partnerships, the Food Chain Centre, the Red Meat Industry Forum and the Cereals Industry Forum, which aim to improve the efficiency of the food chain and to contribute to the spread of best practice. Food from Britain is working hard to implement the Government’s regional food strategy, which is aimed at helping to establish a flourishing quality regional food sector in England and to encourage more applications under the EU protected food name scheme.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the dairy industry. The ongoing work of the dairy supply chain forum is another great example of what can be achieved. As we all know, the milk industry has experienced a particularly challenging period. The shape and structure of the forum has been revised to help it to focus on real priorities for the industry. It now has separate taskforces to work on sustainable consumption and production issues, and CAP reform. The forum is an important vehicle for the dairy industry and crucial players such as the supermarkets to come together and discuss collaborative approaches to challenges.

The hon. Gentleman referred to supermarket power, and I understand the concerns in the farming industry about the concentration of the buying power of supermarkets and about the effectiveness of the code of practice. Competition matters are, as he knows, the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Fair Trading. I am sure that he is also aware that, at the request of the OFT, the Competition Commission is carrying out an extensive investigation of the groceries market. I encourage people with views on that subject to make them known to the Competition Commission, but it would be wrong of me to speculate on any of its potential findings.

The hon. Gentleman did not refer to the single farm payment, but let me say something about it, because it has been a hugely controversial issue.

I do not want to stop the Minister talking about the single farm payment, but could he also say something on bovine TB and bluetongue, which are major disease issues in my constituency?

I will endeavour to say a little about that. I might write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail.

The single farm payment is clearly an area in which further improvements are needed. As is well known, there have been big problems with the implementation of the single payment scheme, which has clearly had a major impact on farmers and the wider farming industry. A great deal of work is being done to improve performance, and I think it right to put on the record the fact that we are working on that very hard indeed. We are working to improve the timing and accuracy of payments, and the results are starting to come through, but more needs to be done. There are challenges, but there is also determination to ensure that we deliver a stable and reliable payment system for the future.

Of course, we face many other complex challenges, including the need to improve access to affordable housing for people who live and work in rural areas. That is a particular issue in East Sussex, given the high property prices there. The recent publication of a new planning policy statement on housing is a big step forward on that important issue, encouraging local authorities and regional planning bodies to take greater account of affordability pressures and the need to sustain village life by promoting and providing additional housing that is sensitive to the area and its environment. I hope that that goal will be boosted by initiatives such as the fresh start scheme. That is about bringing new entrants into farming, identifying new business opportunities for potential young farmers and giving rural communities a boost. The Sussex fresh start academy and the East Sussex young farmers club are vigorously supporting that approach.

Clearly, there is a strong business dimension to the better regulation agenda, which is an issue that many people feel passionately about. Regulation should be effective, transparent, proportionate and cost-effective, and we should try to use alternatives to regulation wherever possible.

The hon. Gentleman referred to animal disease and, in particular, bovine TB and the possibility of the introduction of bluetongue into the United Kingdom. I am particularly concerned about the latter. As a result of climate change, we are potentially likely to see new diseases in the UK, and we need to take into account the issue that has been raised. On the specifics of bluetongue and where we are in terms of preparedness, it is probably best that I write to the hon. Gentleman to set out some of the detail.

As for bovine TB, it is localised in its effects, but its level overall remains unacceptably high, imposing significant costs on the dairy and beef food supply chains, with real consequences for individual farmers and their families. Despite a 15 per cent. increase in testing in 2006, the overall numbers are down, which is positive, but it is not clear at the moment whether that is a cyclical development or there is something more behind it. However, we do know that more than 93 per cent. of British herds were officially bovine TB-free at the end of 2006.

That does raise, however, issues about vaccination. The Government have invested £10.5 million in the past seven years in vaccine development and associated research, and progress has been made. I understand that candidate vaccines have started to be tested in naturally infected cattle and badgers, and novel vaccine delivery systems are being developed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned badger culling. As he will be aware, that has not been ruled in or out, and there is no current timetable for a decision. The Government believe that it is important to make the right decision, not a quick decision.

There are big challenges and shared challenges. The Government have a role and responsibilities, and farming has a role and responsibilities. To make the system work as a whole, we need to bring those together. I welcome the enthusiasm, engagement and co-operation that I increasingly see and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issues that he did. I agree to write to him about the comments that he made to which I have not been able to provide answers.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.