Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 591: debated on Thursday 29 January 2015

DEFRA’s priorities are leading the world in food and farming; protecting our country from floods and animal and plant diseases; improving the environment; championing the countryside; and rural services. The British dairy industry is world leading, and we are doing all we can to make sure that our hard-working farmers are able to get through this tough period. That is why we are working with the banks and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to help farmers with any cash-flow problems and ensuring that payments to dairy farmers are prioritised by the Rural Payments Agency. We want to see more British dairy products being sold here and overseas and that is why I have been pushing for better country of origin labelling, why we launched the Bonfield report to get the public sector buying British and why we continue to promote exports, which are now at record levels.

Northamptonshire Action with Communities in Rural England does a fantastic job in support of local parish councils and other village communities in the borough of Kettering and across the county. What confidence can the Secretary of State give Northamptonshire ACRE and parish councils that the future funding for ACRE will be secure?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the vital work ACRE does and that is why, despite the fact that we live in tough economic times, we have been able to confirm the budget for 2015-16, so that it can carry on doing that valuable work.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), said on Monday in the House that the severely redacted report on the impacts of shale gas on the rural economy was prepared by a junior member in another Department

“and it was not appropriate for them to have done so”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2015; Vol. 591, c. 594.]

In view of those comments, will the Secretary of State tell us why it was done and which one of her Ministers was responsible for overseeing the production of the report? Or is that information to be redacted too?

The paper in question was not analytically robust and it was not signed off by Ministers. The responsibility for the economic impacts of fracking is a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and it is looking at the issue. I am clear that fracking has a huge potential to provide jobs and growth and lower our energy costs. That is why it is so important that we proceed with this vital technology.

Ministers have responsibility for what is done in their Department. The report has been so heavily redacted that even the name of its author has been removed. Given that the Government have now caved in to Labour’s demand for extensive and robust regulation, without which there can be no fracking for shale gas, why does the Secretary of State not now publish the report, unredacted, in the interests of full transparency? Does she understand that refusing to publish it merely fuels suspicion that the Government have something more to hide than her junior Minister’s embarrassment at being asleep on the job?

The majority of the proposals the Government accepted were already Government policy and were being carried out voluntarily by the industry, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. We have agreed to accept the proposals to provide reassurance in law to give the industry the best chance of success in this important technology.

T3. Many of my constituents are concerned about the levels of sea bass stocks and measures taken to support them. Will the Minister indicate what action the Government are taking to tackle this important problem? (907310)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In December Council, the UK pressed hard for a commitment to protect bass stocks. We got a statement from the Commission and subsequently wrote to it. I can confirm that it has now implemented emergency measures to protect bass during the spawning season and ban the very damaging practice of pair trawling, which is a major step forward.

T2. My constituents who run rural businesses were very disappointed that the north Pennines LEADER bid for support was turned down. They think mistakes were made in the assessment. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the bid is re-examined? (907308)

There is an appeals process and a number of bids were not successful. This was a competitive process. The LEADER group to which the hon. Lady refers is welcome to submit an appeal for consideration.

T4. The Secretary of State is already the toast of the people of Southwell after she gave them the flood grants they had so dearly asked for, but she could cement her reputation in this part of Nottinghamshire by helping us to export our greatest gift to the world’s tables: the bramley apple. As everyone knows, the bramley apple was created by Miss Brailsford of Southwell, although the name was ruthlessly taken by the local butcher, Mr Bramley. The bramley apple is of course ubiquitous in this country, but is virtually unexportable because it is not known in the rest of the world. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that, with the staff and expertise she is building in new markets, she is developing expertise in branding so that we can create great British brands, which is the key to export? (907311)

I am a huge fan of the bramley apple and I eat them on a regular basis. As well as exporting more bramleys abroad, I would like more to be sold here in Britain. Currently, we import two thirds of our apples, so there is a huge opportunity here in the UK. I completely agree with my hon. Friend on branding, which is why we are working with the GREAT Britain campaign to ensure we have clear British branding on our products, and that all our small and other suppliers across the UK have access to those opportunities.

T5. Super- markets are putting huge financial pressures on suppliers in the food industry. That is not benefiting the consumer, and it is driving wages and terms and conditions down for people who work in the industry. Is it not high time the Government considered regulating supermarkets? (907312)

As I mentioned earlier, last night we laid regulations to enable the Groceries Code Adjudicator to have the power to fine supermarkets. I have regular meetings with supermarkets. [Interruption.] It will be able to fine up to 1%, which is a significant sum.

T6. I very much welcome the Government laying the statutory instrument to enable the Groceries Code Adjudicator to issue fines. Dairy farmers in my constituency across the Blackdown hills and Exmoor are now producing milk well below the cost of production. Many big retailers are paying a good price for milk, but are keeping cheese prices artificially low, especially processed cheese. Will Ministers and the Secretary of State put real pressure on retailers to be fair to farmers? At the moment, they are using dairy products as loss leaders and driving the price down. (907313)

I understand that dairy farmers are in a very difficult position. We have very low prices. We expect prices to improve, but clearly there are severe issues for our dairy industry. We are doing all we can, working with HMRC and the RPA on cash-flow issues, to help in the short term. He is absolutely right: there is a big opportunity with our supermarkets. We meet the supermarkets regularly to discuss these issues and to ensure that we have proper British labelling. It is really important that, when consumers go into supermarkets, they can see whether a product is from Britain and is sourced from British milk.

T7. I am sure that, like me, the Secretary of State raised a toast this week to Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, with Scotland’s national drink. Exports of Scotch whisky are rising, with 1.3 billion bottles exported around the world in 2013, but will she talk to her colleagues in the Treasury ahead of the Budget about excise duty to ensure that the Scotch whisky industry is not penalised at home compared with other UK alcohol products? (907314)

I completely agree with the hon. Lady on whisky, and I was also pleased to celebrate Burns night with a Macsween haggis. We have seen fantastic exports of haggis, which are up; we exported £5 million-worth to 28 countries. It is a fantastic night to celebrate, and we are working with the whisky industry, and all other industries, to promote Scottish products.

T9. I thank the Secretary of State for her response on dairy farmers, but may I impress on her the damage that fluctuating and falling prices are doing to the industry and farmers in my constituency? Can she absolutely reassure us that she is treating this problem with the seriousness it deserves? (907316)

We are taking this issue very seriously and are working hard on it. We have just made the announcement about the groceries code adjudicator; we are working closely with HMRC and the Rural Payments Agency; and we are also working on our new countryside productivity scheme, which will be open to dairy farmers to help improve productivity and bring in the capital investment these farms need. We are working hard on this issue, because we know how difficult it is. I have met dairy farmers in Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and Norfolk to discuss it.

T8. Between April and September last year, nearly 500,000 people were referred to a Trussell Trust food bank—a rise of 38% on the year before. When will the Secretary of State, as the Minister responsible for food poverty, say to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor that it is targets for benefits sanctions and the failure properly to raise the minimum wage that are responsible for this dreadful situation? (907315)

The evidence does not bear out what the hon. Gentleman says. On delays to payments, benefit payments are now made more quickly—93% are paid on time—and hardship payments are now available alongside sanctions.

What percentage reduction in badger numbers did the two pilot culls achieve, and would it be inaccurate to say it was far more likely than not that both culls failed to meet the target of a 70% reduction?

The chief veterinary officer was clear that the cull in Somerset showed that culling helped to reduce disease. There were issues in Gloucestershire with criminal activity and sabotage.

On a successful trade mission recently, the Secretary of State saw at first hand the needs of the Northern Ireland agricultural industry in terms of export licensing. I invite her to visit Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity, meet those businesses and recognise that, in order to grow our most successful industry, we need more exports.

I was pleased to take a delegation to China that included Northern Ireland representatives, and we should shortly see inspections of Northern Irish plants taking place. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. I recognise that Northern Ireland has been a huge exports success story, and we need to support that.