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1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): The situation facing the pig industry is a matter of concern for the Government. I think that that concern is demonstrated by the fact that I have been joined by my right hon. Friend the recently appointed Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. We discussed the situation this morning. As I have said, we are concerned about the situation that is facing the industry.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) put the case for the pig industry well and knowledgeably. As he will know, it goes through periodic cycles. It is now in a down cycle, but there is no doubt that, in terms of the down cycles that it goes through, this is a particularly bad one. There is certainly major concern about prices.

The issue is not one for the United Kingdom pig industry alone. It is a European situation. Pigmeat prices have fallen by 25 per cent. on the continent as well as in the United Kingdom.

I whole-heartedly endorse the points made by the hon. Member about the UK pig industry. As he rightly says, it is an unsupported sector of agriculture. It has always operated within its own markets. It has not asked for financial support. It is a very successful industry, which has increased market share within the UK in all sectors of pigmeat. It has been very successful in relation to welfare standards.

We need to pay tribute to what has been done in the industry. The improvement in welfare standards--the phasing out of sow stalls and tethers--is being brought about by UK legislation. I know from my contacts with the industry--I have a constituency interest in the matter--that it wants to go for the highest welfare standards. It has invested at its own cost in high welfare standards, and that deserves to be recognised.

Much attention is focused on the quality of the product. It is a fact that we do not feed meat and bonemeal to pigs in the UK, while it is still legal to do so on the continent. That is something that not many people know about. It is not only an issue of high quality standards but one of high welfare standards. That needs to be recognised.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I entirely endorse the point that the Minister is making, but surely the point is that, in relation to both feed and welfare standards, the improvements that we are seeing in this country, of which the industry is rightly proud--although concerned about costs--are not only not being matched by our continental partners: they are not even moving in the same direction. Does the Minister accept that the speech by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) could have been made

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about two years ago in that respect? The sad thing is that the previous Government never tackled the problem of the uneven playing field.

Mr. Morley: There is a great deal of truth in that. However, some continental producers have voluntarily introduced the same welfare standards that apply in the UK. They have been concerned about losing market share in the UK because of the growth of quality assurance and welfare schemes here. I shall touch on that in a moment, because I think that it is important.

I emphasise that support, and reassure the hon. Member for Ludlow--I think that he knows this--that all of us as a ministerial team, at every opportunity in recent weeks, have taken the opportunity publicly to emphasise the high standards of the UK pig industry and the fact that British consumers want those high standards. We know that. They can have those standards and support the investment that has been made by supporting the UK industry through their pockets and their buying policies at the supermarket shelves.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my hon. Friend therefore lead a campaign to involve supermarkets in country-of-origin marking, which they could do, which would transform the situation and get rid of the surplus of pork?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend is right. I shall come to that point, because it is something which I want to address.

The issue is what we can do in supporting the industry. As I was saying, as a ministerial team we emphasise that. I recently held a press conference at the East of England show, in which I concentrated on supporting the UK industry. I drew the public's attention to the points that have been made. I spoke at a seminar on freedom food, which was attended by most of the main retailers in this country. Again, I emphasised that the standards we want to see, and the public want to see, are being maintained by the United Kingdom pig industry, but that they can be undermined by cheaper imports from countries with lower standards. Those retailers have the power to do something about that through their buying policies.

I emphasise that my colleague, Lord Donoughue, recently hosted a successful seminar with the catering industry, which is a big outlet for pigmeat in this country. We want to ensure that the seminar is not the end of our contacts with the industry, or of our efforts to promote them, but the start of efforts to encourage caterers and processors to source more pigmeat from the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Given that the industry writes so much on menus--everything is "morning picked" and the like--will the Minister ask whether it would be sensible to make clear the ways in which British pigmeat is welfare-friendly? One in four meals are eaten outside the home, so putting that on every menu would remind diners of the advantage of eating British-produced pork.

Mr. Morley: I agree, and hope that the industry notes those comments. They also apply to British veal, which is also produced to high welfare standards.

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I note the particular problem in Northern Ireland, to which the hon. Member for Ludlow referred. The fire at the Lovell and Christmas bacon factory at Ballymoney has caused extra problems for the Northern Ireland pig industry. My colleague, Lord Dubs, rang me this morning to express his concern. He is holding discussions with the industry in Northern Ireland, and is trying to assist it with that problem.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): May I emphasise the critical situation in Northern Ireland? Many farmers cannot get their pigs away; the backlog is building up, and the pigs are getting heavier and heavier. Those farmers who can get their pigs away are getting a bad price.

Mr. Morley: I understand. The hon. Gentleman draws attention to the problem that is being faced in Northern Ireland; Lord Dubs is talking with the industry, and exploring ways in which it can deal with it.

The hon. Member for Ludlow asked me to consider a list of issues, and I shall deal with them in some detail. First, on buying policy, central and local government can have a significant impact, but they are restricted on sourcing, price and value for money by certain rules, some of which were introduced by the Conservative Government in 1988. That can make it difficult when cheaper imports are available. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that we have already made representations to the Ministry of Defence, which is a major buyer of beef.

I am glad to report that considerable progress has been made in getting Departments to source more from United Kingdom producers. Local authorities want to do the same, within the restrictions they face. I am sure that the issue will be considered.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned applying similar standards to imported pigmeat. We want welfare, quality and traceability standards to be raised in the European and international contexts, and are pursuing those issues through the European Union. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was arguing that we should allow imports produced at lower welfare standards to drag us down to the lowest common denominator. He would not want that, and nor would the industry, but imports are a concern in respect of competitiveness, and we take that into account.

Mr. Gill: So that there is no misunderstanding, it is far more important that we drag others up to our standards, so that we can compete on the so-called level playing field.

Mr. Morley: Absolutely--there is nothing between us on this issue. We are pursuing improved standards in the European and international contexts as well as in the United Kingdom context.

On the hon. Gentleman's third point--dedicated offal rendering--I can give him an assurance that I will take his suggestion away for discussion with officials, and within the industry, to discover whether there is any scope for pursuing it.

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Fourthly, the Government have to take into account the impact of cost overheads on all agricultural sectors, and all sectors of industry. We do that in the context of our national priorities and decisions. We also support industry: we doubled capital allowances to help all producers who are making capital investments.

We take seriously the hon. Gentleman's fifth point, on urging United Kingdom-sourced meat from retailers. We meet the heads of the retail chains regularly, and I can assure him that we will raise the matter with them. We also want to ensure that there is adequate labelling in that respect. We are pursuing through the EU a new directive on labelling to achieve stronger powers on common standards, which would give consumers more information, especially about the source of meat, when they are making consumer choices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred to labelling. At present, supermarkets can voluntarily introduce such standards and labelling. They have introduced quality assurance standards, and some have introduced freedom food labelling. I strongly support that approach, because it benefits United Kingdom producers. Although our producers can meet the high standards that consumers and retailers want, that would be undermined if cheaper, lower-quality and lower-standard pigmeat were imported after we had encouraged them to meet those standards and introduce their own quality assurance schemes through farm-assured British pigs.

That decision is obviously for supermarkets and retailers to make, but I hope that they listen to what has been said in the debate. The Government are saying that our industry has the highest standards in Europe, if not the world, and that should be recognised in terms of sourcing. Consumers need information so that they can make an informed choice and support the industry.

Promotion is an important area. The comprehensive spending review settlement will be announced today, and more money for promotion will be made available to Food From Britain. Its budget was frozen by the previous Administration, but we believe that marketing is important, and we intend to give it increased support wherever we can.

One of the most important things we can do in the short term to assist the industry is to discuss market support with the European Commission. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have already asked it to take urgent emergency action because of the crisis facing the United Kingdom industry--and, indeed, the European industry.

I am informed that a decision on what the Commission can do to improve market support is likely to be taken tomorrow. I hope that the announcement will bring some comfort to the pig industry, given the particular problems that it faces, and that the hon. Gentleman realises that we are taking what action we can, within the restrains under which we operate and the limits of our own powers, to support the industry.

I come back to my original point: when the industry has gone through its periodic down cycles, it has never come to the Government with its hand out. It has always invested and planned, identified its own customer base, and been successful. It has also recognised the concerns about welfare standards, and is working with us to improve welfare across the board. We recognise that it is

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ahead of European producers in the abolition of sow stalls and tethers; although that is a cost disadvantage, it will not be a marketing disadvantage, as long as retailers keep their side of the bargain and keep faith with the industry, which has invested and constructed itself in the way that I have described.

The attendance today of hon. Members from all parts of the House shows the concern about the problems being faced by the industry. Earlier today, I met a pig industry delegation led by Ben Gill and John Godfrey, and gave assurances similar to those that I have given to the hon. Member for Ludlow. I hope that the industry will survive this down cycle; it certainly deserves to, given its

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efficiency, its record and the way in which it has succeeded in the past. The people of this country can be proud of its product.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

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