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11.28 am

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): I welcome the opportunity to discuss horticulture. As a new Member, in the past 20 months, I have been struck by the extent to which the agriculture debate in the House has been dominated by areas of agriculture that are directly dependent on support either from the Government or through the common agricultural policy. I suppose that that is understandable, but horticulture is an important sector. The Government's involvement may not be as direct as it is in livestock or dairy farming or in the grain sector, but they could play a more proactive role in leading horticulture forward.

My constituency is mainly suburban, but parts of it that were previously represented by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) are dominated by a growing horticultural sector. The villages of Banks, Tarleton and Hesketh Bank have, for many generations, been market gardening. They have produced vegetable and salad crops, and there are many glasshouses.

It is interesting to note the way in which the industry has changed over the past 20 or 30 years, and the reasons for the problems that have arisen. When I first went to live in Preston in the mid-1970s, it was said that the cheapest fresh produce in the country could be found

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there, because of the town's wholesale market and its proximity to market gardening in west Lancashire and Fylde. During the past 20 or 30 years, however, there has been a change in the way in which the horticulture sector sells its products. Little of the produce of market gardeners and salad crop growers is now sold through the wholesale market; the vast majority is sold directly to the supermarket chains, a handful of which effectively control the salad and vegetable market.

Another effect has been the consolidation of the sector. Many of the small family enterprises--such as small family farms--that existed 20 or 30 years ago have disappeared. Smallholdings that existed in my constituency then have since been sold. Some are operating as part of a larger company, while others have had houses built on them, and are not producing anything. Although there are still many small growers in my constituency, the industry there is dominated by five larger growers, the biggest of which--a company called Huntapak--employs some 300 people. Many small growers are therefore at a disadvantage in negotiations with supermarkets.

Only last weekend, I talked to a couple of growers in Hesketh Bank about lettuce growing in Lancashire, and the relationship with supermarkets. Many growers are not big enough to have direct contracts with supermarkets; a lorry comes round, each of them puts a certain number of boxes on to it, and it goes to the supermarket. If the first box from the first grower is opened and its contents are not considered to be up to scratch, it is not uncommon for not just that grower's boxes but the whole consignment to be returned, and to end up being ploughed into the ground and wasted.

I regularly hear of growers in my area being paid 8p or 9p per cauliflower, and then seeing them priced at 60p in the supermarket. They would like a better relationship between the two amounts, but they are reluctant to put their criticisms on record, because they depend on contracts with the supermarkets.

I have been investigating supply chain networks in my constituency. Huntapak has land in East Anglia where it grows carrots, which are sent to Lancashire to be processed at its plant in Tarleton. They are then sent, in little boxes, to supermarket warehouses in Birmingham or London, ending up--probably--on supermarket shelves in Norwich or Southport. One wonders how much of the shelf price reflects the cost of moving fresh produce around the country. In many supermarkets--certainly in my part of Lancashire--it is virtually impossible to buy salad crops and vegetables that were grown within 20 miles of Preston, although some of the best in the country are. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to know where the produce that is available has come from. Serious questions must be asked about the role of supermarkets, and the way in which the industry is to develop.

As I know from speaking to growers, the situation is difficult. Farmers, by their nature, are very independent, and, unlike farmers in the rest of Europe, have no tradition of co-operation. Given that the retail sector is now dominated by a handful of major retailers, the producing sector must try to find a mechanism to remove the imbalance between producer and retailer. The classic market forces mechanism has led to an unfair market consisting of a multiplicity of small growers and a handful of major purchasers. I do not know how much of a role

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the Government can have, but the industry must consider how it can become competitive vis-a-vis the supermarket chains. As there are pressures on the supermarkets to sell food as cheaply as possible, they exert downward pressures on their suppliers, who are in a weak negotiating position.

Let me mention some minor issues, some of which have already been referred to. One is training in horticulture. Lancashire Growers, an employer-supported organisation based in Banks, in my constituency, but with members in several Lancashire constituencies, has operated a training agency for many years. Unfortunately, pressure is being exerted through the training and enterprise councils to reduce not the number of places, but the amount that is available per trainee. That makes it difficult for small training organisations to carry out first-class training.

The number of horticulture trainees is not vast. We are talking not about establishing engineering training courses in the middle of towns and cities but about agricultural communities, and the need to ensure that training is available in young people's localities, where they live and work. I fear that, if the pressure continues, Lancashire will lose local training opportunities provided through local agencies. I shall not go into more detail, as I shall pursue the issue elsewhere, but I wanted to flag it up.

Others have mentioned planning conflicts. During the short time in which I have been an MP, I have been involved in a number of planning disputes, many of which have arisen in the villages of Tarleton, Banks and Hesketh Bank. Villages which, a generation or two ago, were essentially farming villages--albeit with a reasonable population and fairly high employment in the growing industry--are now becoming both agricultural and suburban. People who work in Preston, Manchester or Liverpool but live in those villages expect to find what they would find in a suburb of a major city, rather than hearing enormous trailers delivering produce, or returning empty, in the middle of the night. There will always be nuisance, conflict and difficulty when an agricultural industry co-exists with domestic, suburban-style village life.

One of my concerns is that a number of companies in my constituency have grown out of the agricultural sector and are now involved in packaging or such industries. They were set up usually in a shed on a farm to supply a product that was needed by the horticultural sector. They have been successful and developed, but they face planning constraints as to whether they continue to exist, even in those villages where they grew. If they do not continue, what happens to the people who live in those villages and work in those industries? The conflicts in relation to that matter are interesting. Perhaps guidance in those sectors would be useful.

One of the remarkable things that arose in the meetings that I had with growers is that wage levels are above the minimum wage. That is not an issue. In my constituency, the unemployment rate is about 1.8 per cent., so we are not talking about a vast number of unemployed people, but I know of growers who have struggled to fill their vacancies. They have worked through jobcentres and many of the people whom they have recruited have been from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire--from Skelmersdale and such areas. The

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difficulty has been getting people who have been out of work and have no tradition of working in the agricultural industry to do what is expected of them in the agricultural industry.

Few people in my constituency would want to work in agriculture who do not already do so. Therefore, the industry recruits from urban areas. In doing so, it recruits people with no tradition of working in the industry. The Employment Service needs to recognise that in terms of the support that it gives. In addition, when people, particularly youngsters, are recruited into the industry, there needs to be follow-up support from the service, recognising the difficulty when people get involved in a work culture that is different from what they would normally expect in an urban area.

There is the difficulty of finding accommodation for people in the agricultural sector on relatively low wages. I am sure that Conservative Members will have similar problems to those which I have experienced. Many people who work in agriculture and were brought up in the industry have to move out of the area and commute 20 miles each day because no property is available in the agricultural villages where they were born within the price range that they can afford.

I make a general point that follows from many of the discussions that I have had with the sector. I recognise that the Government's role is not one of giving big subsidies. The sector expects to compete and to compete fairly, but there are concerns that the regime throughout Europe is not all together fair.

On issues such as pesticides and fuel taxation, there is concern that the climate on this side of the English channel should also exist on the other side. It is difficult when imports of salad goods or vegetables from Spain or Holland can come to the UK and undercut those of our producers. They can do that because of conditions that have been influenced by Government decisions in those countries, which make it difficult for UK producers to compete. The onus is on the Government to seek a level playing field across Europe, so that our growers can compete with growers in the rest of Europe.

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