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Volume 530: debated on Thursday 30 June 2011

9. What progress she has made in reducing the burden of regulation on farmers; and if she will make a statement. (62884)

In May I welcomed the report of the independent farming regulation taskforce, which has made more than 200 recommendations to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers without lowering our standards. The Government are now carefully considering those recommendations.

Farmers in my constituency and nationwide would welcome the efforts that the Government are taking to reduce regulation. Can the Minister give the House an idea of the time scale for implementing those recommendations, and say whether any might be taken forward immediately?

Perhaps my hon. Friend will accept tomorrow as being close enough to immediately. I can tell him that as of tomorrow, dairy farmers who are covered as members of the assured dairy scheme will find their state inspections going down to once every 10 years, as they are regularly inspected as part of the scheme to which they belong.

In two weeks’ time this House will debate the Public Bodies Bill, which abolishes the Agricultural Wages Board, which sets pay and conditions for 150,000 farm workers in England and Wales. If the AWB is abolished, every farmer in the country will become responsible for negotiating pay and conditions with their workers. Can the Minister tell the House what estimate he has made of the extra time and money this new regulatory burden will place on farm businesses?

I have rarely heard such nonsense. The whole purpose of abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board is to reduce regulation, not to increase it. The change has been sought by the industry, which does not see it as regulatory, so what the hon. Lady has to come and tell us that it will increase regulation I really do not know.

The Agricultural Wages Board guarantees farm workers other benefits, such as bereavement pay and sick pay. Without it, their sick pay will fall from roughly £180 a week for a grade 1 worker to the statutory minimum of £81.60 a week. The AWB also guarantees children under 16 who work on farms £2.98 an hour. The minimum wage does not cover children under 16, so when the AWB is abolished children on farms will have no wage protection. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has considered the impact of the change on the under-16s. Can he tell the House what protections he will put in place to protect child workers from exploitation?

There are many other regulations that deal with young people in employment across the whole of industry. The reality is that the board has been in existence for 60 years and it is now well past its sell-by date. The industry has asked for its abolition and, as the Public Bodies Bill stands, we will have to consult on that. The hon. Lady will be able to make her views known at that point—but I must emphasise that the contracts of employment of everyone currently employed in the industry will remain in existence.

Looking to future regulation, if badger control is going to be part of DEFRA’s bovine TB eradication programme, will the Minister confirm that any regulations attached to licences will be proportionate and practical?

I think my hon. Friend knows that we have not made any announcement about badger control yet. I hope that the conclusions of our consultation will be announced fairly soon, along with a wider package of measures to combat TB. Whatever steps we take will clearly need to balance the regulations that have to be in place for disease control with minimising their burden and using risk assessment as the basis for applying them.