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11.44 am

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I want to be brief because other hon. Members wish to speak.

I emphasise the fact that the horticulture industry is big. It employs many people. If the threats to employment in horticulture arose in some other industries, there would be a huge furore in the press and so on.

The minimum wage issue is important, not because anyone is trying to run out on his or her obligations, but because of the difficulty that, if employers pay piece rates, one person may decide that he or she wants to earn as much as possible and spend 10 minutes eating a sandwich, and someone else may decide that it is a lovely afternoon and spend two hours eating one. It is difficult to police.

If the minimum wage is to be calculated on so many hours a day, it gives a terrific bonus to those people who do not want to do any work and may be below the minimum wage level because they have not done any work--not because the money is not there for the taking. Ministers need to look at that carefully.

I should like to raise again an issue that I have often raised. When he was the Minister responsible forsocial security, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead

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(Mr. Field) came to my constituency and had a look at the problems. There is an absurd difficulty that it sometimes takes up to six weeks for people to get back into the social security system if they have left work because they think that there will be the opportunity for picking.

If there is no picking because it rains all the time, those people have a problem. They are not the ones with savings; they do not have any savings to rely on. Many people in my constituency who would like to go picking are saying that it is not worth the candle. We need to look at that matter because they want to work, and they would be happy to work, but the meshing with the social security system makes it extraordinarily difficult for them to do so.

The quotas on foreign pickers--foreign students coming in to pick--need to be re-examined. I share the Government's general view that work permits should not be given for jobs that could easily be filled in Britain. That is wholly appropriate, but, again and again, pickers cannot be found among the local population; they simply are not there.

Many of my farmers, some of whom have a wages bill of £1 million a year, are finding themselves wholly dependent on the reliable work that is done by foreign students and others who have come in because they have a vested interest in getting as much pay as they can and taking it home. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at that issue.

The issue of distribution costs is important. The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) painted a graphic picture of the pilgrimage of a carrot across the United Kingdom. If the Government continue to push up the price of fuel, the costs of distribution will mount rapidly--much more rapidly than the industry can possibly support.

I should like the Minister to have a careful look at planning regulations. I understand--the point has been made by one of the growers in my constituency--that the waist-high troughs in which, for example, strawberries are grown and which make picking and disease control much easier and so on, may be subject to formal planning regulation that is out of date. Apparently, if a crop is grown whose roots are not in the soil, growers face the full rigour of planning regulation. That must be negotiable, but we perhaps need some help from the Government on it.

I should like to reiterate that very big growers in my constituency and neighbouring areas are frightened of making any form of recognisable complaint about the way in which they are treated by supermarkets. There should be some mechanism to enable people to blow the whistle on supermarkets which, from time to time, abuse their market power and treat growers badly. That does not happen all the time; many of my growers are dependent, and happy to be dependent, on the efforts by supermarkets to drive up quality and all the rest of it. However, when things go wrong, supermarkets can rely on the fact that growers are not prepared to complain because the market to which they can go is tiny. That really does matter.

Finally, I have an entirely constituency point. Brogdale, the site of the national apple and pear collection, has made and is making bold attempts to break out of a debt incurred when the estate was bought, when the market was at its highest conceivable point. Even by the time the negotiations had been finally completed, the estate's value had fallen by about 25 per cent., and it then fell well below that. The debt was colossal.

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An element in the debt, over which the Minister has control, is the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, under its regulations, is fully entitled to claim back part of any planning gain that may be negotiated on a part of the estate. If Ministers felt able to assist Brogdale in that way, a valuable national asset--not just in historical and tourist terms, but in terms of genetic development--would be much assisted. After all, MAFF received a huge price for the estate in the first place--an unrealistically high price. I would be grateful if the Minister would look carefully at that matter.

11.51 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I welcome a debate on horticulture, which is important to Cornwall and my constituency. Horticulture has clearly faced a difficult year, for a variety of reasons, such as the strength of the pound and the weather, to which reference has been made, which resulted in a lack of demand for items such as salad crops and garden plants. Little can be done about climatic disadvantages which visit us from time to time, but the main difficulty lies with the fact that we are increasingly trading in a global market.

Everywhere in Britain, we are subjected to the rigours of a global marketplace, and that manifests itself in two ways. One is the change in consumer habits. The fact that so many more people now go on holiday abroad has promoted their desire for more exotic fruits and vegetables. Secondly, supermarkets have increasingly responded to the opportunities of global marketing. They can purchase fruit and vegetables all year round, regardless of the season, and that has undermined domestic production.

The environmental impact has been seen in so-called food miles. Transporting large quantities of fruit and vegetables in order to comply with supermarkets' desire for a distribution network that provides them with the means of supplying their stores in the most competitive way has an environmental impact.

All that has meant that, recently, the United Kingdom has become a net importer of fruit and vegetables. There is now a huge gap between the value of imported fruit and vegetables and home-grown fruit and vegetables. In 1996-97, the value of imported fruit was estimated at £1.5 billion, and that of home-grown fruit at about £240 million.

The major multiples are taking a larger share of the retail market, perhaps up to as much as 75 per cent. Their central purchasing and distribution systems give importers easy access to outlets capable of handling large volumes of produce. Such volumes are necessary to provide the competitive edge for the importer from abroad and the supermarkets. The supermarkets are now the main force in the marketplace. They give consumers a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. We can now eat strawberries all year round.

Strawberries form an important part of the soft fruit growing in my constituency, and some of the contracts that have been drawn up between strawberry growers and supermarkets have been alarming, forward purchasing vast quantities of strawberries and tying up huge acreages so that strawberry growers really have only one marketplace. Strangely enough, written into those contracts is a sale-or-return clause. If strawberries are not

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going well, or if there is a bit of a glut, a supermarket can telephone its grower saying that, unless the grower prefers them to go in the bin, it intends to return them.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am concerned not just about the sale-or-return clause, but about the way in which supermarkets are dictating a specific type of strawberry. The small sweet English strawberry has virtually died out, not because it is not a better product and people do not like to eat it, but because supermarkets prefer the large strawberry with a longer shelf life which is typically grown in California or Spain. Therefore, they dictate the product as well as the terms that the hon. Gentleman points out.

Mr. Breed: I entirely agree. A longer shelf life is often coupled with the fact that the strawberry tastes like wet blotting paper--no taste at all.

Often, strawberries are not returned to the growers but are consigned to waste, and the grower has to bear the cost because, if he does not want to operate on those terms, or if he kicks up a fuss, he is unlikely to get a contract next time. His opportunities to sell elsewhere are extremely limited.

Growers are squeezed by supermarkets' demands in a variety of ways. Not only do they require products of a certain size, shape and colour, with a particular packaging, but they use the domination of their purchasing departments. In the Tamar valley, one of the premier soft fruit-growing areas in the country, the decline of small shops in Devon and Cornwall diminished growers' opportunities to market their crops. Their ability to sell into the large supermarkets has also diminished because of the amount and type of strawberry that they produce and its seasonality.

The idea that the UK is now a net importer of fruit and vegetables does not lie happily with the concept of a food standards agency. Food producers in other EU countries are not subject to the stringent health and safety regulations imposed on UK producers, particularly with regard to fertilisers and pesticides. Therefore, major retailers are often better off importing fruit and vegetables from other EU countries. That will cause some headaches for the way in which a food standards agency will police some of the products that are increasingly being sold in our multiples.

In addition, climatic conditions in other EU countries, such as the Mediterranean, mean that producers in Spain, Portugal and Italy have an inherent advantage. The UK horticulture industry can survive in an increasingly global marketplace only through innovation. That is where the Government may be able to help. There are opportunities to market specific crops in an innovative way and to produce specific crops for specific markets. I highlight the success of the flower growing industry on the isles of Scilly. It has recognised that it has large competitors in Europe and on the mainland, but it has marketed itself. Scilly flowers, a definable and developing product, are now sold directly, rather than through the multiples or the marketplace.

There is a clear opportunity for those involved in organic produce. That is a growing market in which huge amounts are imported, but, if we get our act together, innovation should allow Britain to produce more.

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The Horticultural Development Council is an important element in ensuring that the necessary research and development goes into creating an innovative approach to the challenges that face the industry. Some improvements may be necessary. Added impetus is needed for organisations that will help the industry to innovate and compete properly.

Many residents complain to me about the difference between use and scale in planning applications. Many operations had their planning use agreed many years ago, but the scale of such operations, particularly to meet the demands of the large multiples, means that increasing quantities are being produced on the same amounts of land. That means heavier traffic and increased disruption to the site. The planning authorities need to consider not just the use of land, but the scale of use, because that important aspect of the process is not taken into account.

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