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29 Jul 1998 : Column 346

Pig Industry

1.30 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I preface my remarks by declaring my interests. My financial interests in the pig industry are recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, of course. I have initiated the debate in my capacity as president of the British Pig Association.

By common consent, the British pig industry is in a parlous state. I shall set out the industry's not inconsiderable achievements, summarise the main problems currently affecting the industry, and suggest how Ministers might help to ensure a viable future. I draw Ministers' attention to the high level of interest generated by the debate, as evidenced by the large number of pig industry representatives in the Public Gallery.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I would not want the hon. Gentleman to make any reference to anywhere outside the House.

Mr. Gill: I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am pleased that, notwithstanding the awkward time of the day, many of my hon. Friends are present, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who has brought to my attention the problems faced by his pig producers; my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran), who has a large pig population in his constituency; my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who is the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee and has brought to my attention the unfair competition that pig producers are experiencing as a result of the United Kingdom having higher welfare standards than other parts of the European Union; my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is on the Front Bench; my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer); my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior), who tells me that some of his constituents are contemplating, if not already carrying out, the gassing of in-pig sows because the situation is so serious and they see no future; my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who instances pig producers losing up to £25 per head on the pigs that they produce; and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who has sent me correspondence from one of his constituents, who says that he is not likely to survive the present crisis beyond September this year.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gill: No, I shall not give way, as I have much to say and little time to say it.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) has asked me to instance the acute problems of the Northern Ireland pig industry, which have been exacerbated by the destruction of 40 per cent. of Northern Ireland's pig slaughtering capacity as a result of the recent fire at the Ballymoney pig abattoir.

Mr. Hood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gill: No.

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The UK pig industry is not a subsidised industry; nor does it want to be. One of the industry's proudest boasts is that what it has achieved, it has achieved by its own efforts. It has responded magnificently to customer demand for a consistent, healthy, lean and nutritious product. It has adopted the highest animal welfare standards in the world. It has instituted farm assurance schemes to authenticate the welfare and quality standards that customers increasingly demand. The industry itself is auditing those schemes to demonstrate its total commitment to high standards and traceability.

The UK's genetic base makes it pre-eminent in the world as a source of breeding stock, which is exported to the four corners of the globe. In spite of all the difficulties, exports of pig meat this year are likely to be twice the tonnage exported in 1993, which was 100,000 tonnes.

Until now, the pig industry has been a success story, making no demands on the public purse; making the UK self-sufficient in fresh pork and 50 per cent. self-sufficient in bacon; contributing substantially to the balance of payments; and creating employment in the countryside, in the processing industry, in the ancillary industries and in manufacturing industry. Clearly, it is in Britain's national self-interest to keep the industry going, but it is in crisis, and it needs help.

Chief among the industry's problems are the weakness of continental currencies, which self-evidently makes imports highly competitive; the high cost of UK feedingstuffs, relative to other countries that continue to feed meat and bone meal; and the burden of additional costs incurred as a result of adopting the highest possible welfare standards. I remind the House that, from 1 January next year, sow stalls and tethers will be a thing of the past in the UK, but not in continental Europe, which will put us at an increasing competitive disadvantage.

Other difficulties facing the industry are the ever-increasing costs of meat inspection and offal disposal, and the escalating cost of road transport, to which there is no alternative for the meat and livestock industry.

There are various ways in which the Government could help. They could follow the commendable example set by the House of Commons Refreshment Department. I quote from a written answer that appeared in the Official Report on 20 July, when the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner), the Chairman of the Catering Committee, reported that

will be

    "only from sources approved under an accredited 'farm assurance' scheme".--[Official Report, 20 July 1998; Vol. 316, c. 406.]

That example should be made applicable to all Government and local authority contracts.

By making all imports subject to the same feed, health and welfare requirements as domestic production, Ministers would strike an important blow for the future well-being of the British pig industry.

The Government could help further by giving encouragement to the rendering of exclusively pig offal in plants dedicated to that purpose, with the end product being exported or sold to the poultry industry, where I understand that it would be welcome. That would create

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value in a part of the animal which, through no fault of the pig industry, has been made worthless by the offal ban. Offal is banned from being used in animal feedingstuffs because of the problems associated with BSE, but there is no evidence of BSE in the pig herd. It is unfair that the industry is penalised because that offal cannot be used.

The Government should adopt a self-denying ordinance that neither the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food nor any other Government Department, will impose any further cost burdens on the livestock industry, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that imports are bearing the same level of overheads.

As for transport, the new Labour Government have increased the rate of duty on diesel fuel by no less than 22 per cent. since coming into office on 1 May last year. Higher duty in this country combined with much higher vehicle licence fees than those in continental Europe mean that the cost of producing a kilogram of pork in Britain is about 2.6p higher than on the continent. That is purely on account of the higher cost of transport in the United Kingdom occasioned by higher road licence fees and the higher duty on diesel oil.

Equally important, the Government could help the industry by using their best offices to cajole and persuade caterers and retailers to sell only pork and pigmeat products that meet the high welfare and quality assurance standards of home-produced pigmeat. Given that Safeway, for example, has given an assurance that all its pork is United Kingdom-sourced, I trust that it will not prove too difficult to get other retailers to make the same commitment. I would not wish Ministers to underestimate the influence that they can have on caterers and retailers of British pork. I hope that, in responding to the debate, the Minister will undertake that responsibility.

The Government could help also by changing the legislation that prevents products being mandatorily labelled with the country of origin. Many pig producers feel strongly that it would be a great step in their best interests to see all British pork labelled clearly as British. By the same token, it would be helpful if the British public were able to see where pork was not British and from where it was imported. They could then exercise customer choice. As Ministers will appreciate, under the rules of the European Union there is no means by which that sort of labelling can be made mandatory, but it is an area that we need to revisit.

I ask the Government to leave no stone unturned in helping exporters to take advantage of whatever financial assistance the European Union provides in the way of export refunds, export restitution, export credits or whatever. That sort of help would be of positive assistance to the industry. Finally, the Government could help by initiating research into alternative uses for meat and bonemeal, and helping to regenerate the market for tallow.

With the spot price for pigs at its lowest this decade, pig producers are desperate for hope. Hope is an important thing to us all; we need to have hope for the future in whatever career we pursue. All things being equal, I have no doubt--I hope that the Minister has no doubt--that the British pig industry can compete with the best. However, if the industry is to survive, it urgently needs a signal of confidence. The alternative--I know that the message will not be lost on the Minister--is a high-welfare but decimated pig industry, and that would be in nobody's

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interests--not those of the country, the industry, the retailers or the consumers. I venture to suggest that it would not be in the Government's interests, either.

Pig farmers stopped producing fat years ago, but I trust that the Minister will recognise that such fat as they had on their own backs has long since gone. Previous years' profits have all been reinvested for a welfare-friendly future, in line with consumer preferences and legislation. The entire industry is now looking to see what Government are willing to do to help, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

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