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Food Industry

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

1. What steps his Department is taking to assist the food industry in the current economic climate. (324046)

12. What steps his Department is taking to assist the food industry in the current economic climate. (324060)

Mr. Speaker, it would not be right to let this moment pass without remembering our good friend and colleague, Ashok Kumar, who died so suddenly last week. He was my Parliamentary Private Secretary for seven years, so I find it hard to believe that when I turn my head I will not see him sitting behind me. He was a gentle man, a pioneer and extremely proud of his Indian heritage. He was a scientist and, above all, he was a magnificent fighter for his constituents. I know that the whole House will mourn his passing.

The Government are taking a number of steps to support the UK food industry, which is our biggest manufacturing sector, including the Food 2030 strategy; more investment in research and development; consulting on a supermarket ombudsman; the agri-skills plan; and the work of the task forces to assist the pig sector and to encourage more production and consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Like my right hon. Friend, I mourn and miss Ashok Kumar greatly. I knew him very well; he was a close personal friend and constituency neighbour.

I welcome the Food 2030 document that the Secretary of State has produced, but will the Government make additional funding available for research to enable food manufacturers and farmers to produce food with a lower carbon footprint and less impact on the environment?

We have responded to the call for even more investment in research in the food and farming sector, particularly with the additional funding of £50 million announced by the Technology Strategy Board last year. The board was set up to look at opportunities for the future for industry in the UK, so the fact that it has recognised the sector is warmly welcomed, and it will support a wide range of research. My hon. Friend is right: we will have to produce more food in a way that reduces our carbon emissions.

My right hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has introduced a Bill to establish a grocery ombudsman. Will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book, so that an ombudsman can be established?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government—having carefully considered the Competition Commission’s recommendation—have accepted the need for a means to enforce the new grocery supply code of practice. We are in the middle of a consultation on the most effective enforcement mechanism, and clearly a person or persons will need to undertake that job. I hope that everyone will contribute to that consultation so that we can get on with this as soon as possible.

According to the Food and Drink Federation, this sector is the only manufacturing sector to record an increase in production throughout January 2010. What lessons will the Minister take from that?

Well, it shows the resilience and strength of the sector despite the difficult economic circumstances that we have been going through. It is a tribute to the skill and professionalism of those who work in the sector and it is further evidence that over the months and years ahead we will see increased demand for food, food production and food products. We will need farmers and those working in the food sector to produce that food. The fact that it is our largest manufacturing sector, employing some 3.6 million people, is a sign of its strength and importance.

May I add my words of regret at the passing of Ashok Kumar, whom I first met in 1991 on the streets during the Langbaurgh by-election? It is always confounding to meet an opponent who turns out to be full of warmth, integrity and decency. He will be very sadly missed.

One way to assist the food industry would be to ensure that British food producers stay in business. My survey of food producers in Lancashire and Cumbria shows that more than 80 per cent. are still waiting for their single farm payment and face business collapse as a consequence. Will the Secretary of State intervene directly to ensure immediate interim payments to keep our farmers and food producers in business?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about Ashok Kumar.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, 93 per cent. of the payments have been made and the Rural Payments Agency has once again exceeded the targets that we set, so its recovery is continuing. As he will know, interim payments create some difficulties, but we have always made it very clear that if farmers are genuinely in dire circumstances they should contact the RPA and we will see what we can do.