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Pig Farming

7. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent representations he has received on the state of pig farming; and if he will make a statement. [113374]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Ministers have received a number of representations. I am pleased to see a strengthening of the producer price for pigs over recent weeks, although I realise that it is not yet at the level that many producers

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require. I attribute the rise, at least in part, to measures taken by the Government and the Meat and Livestock Commission. Nevertheless, we continue to examine possible ways of helping the sector.

Miss McIntosh: When will the Government stop telling porkies to the pig farmers? Will the Minister tell us what progress, if any, the Government have made in regard to an application for state aid for those farmers? Does he accept that there is a BSE-equivalent tax of £5.26 per pig on each pig farm, and will he make good the promise given by the Prime Minister both at the NFU conference and on his west country tour that compensation for the tax would be paid?

Mr. Brown: As I have said, the Government are exploring what more we can do to help the industry. I have been as up-front and candid as any Minister has ever been in tackling the problems. Every suggestion that has been made to me--by Members in all parts of the House--has been considered and, where we have been able to help, we have helped. We have taken a number of steps, such as writing to public sector purchasing bodies, writing to local authorities, and reviewing the labelling regime--a subject that Conservative Members raised earlier. If it was deficient, they had 18 years in which to remedy it, but they did absolutely nothing.

The Opposition are calling for a state aid that they know cannot be paid. We are exploring what can be done, but the request for the European Union to buy out the offal disposal costs that were imposed on the industry by the last Conservative Government in 1996 is not a runner.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): When I met farmers from Cumbria yesterday, they were discussing the problems in the pig, meat and milk industries in the county. I told them that my view was that, when we join the euro, many of the problems will be resolved. If my right hon. Friend had been sitting at the meeting with me, would he have been shaking his head or nodding in agreement?

Mr. Brown: It is true that the current exchange rate between sterling and the euro exacerbates the problem of supply and demand in the single market.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Has the Minister had the opportunity to study the report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on the livestock industry in Northern Ireland, which highlights the tremendous problems that farmers have there, especially pig farmers? More than half of them have gone out of business and the rest are up to their ears in debt. Will he consider not only that report, but the fact that the pig breeding herd has gone down by more than 40 per cent? Will he examine the document carefully, take it to heart and, above all, expeditiously accept and act on its recommendations?

Mr. Brown: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his efforts in this place to raise the problems of pig farmers in Northern Ireland with UK Ministers. There is a crisis in the sector throughout the European Union. It is particularly severe in the UK. Within the UK, it is particularly severe in Northern Ireland. He is right to

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remind us of that. I will study the report and see what more I can do to help farmers in the UK and especially in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Why does Labour care so little about Britain's pig farmers that it talked out the Bill that would have let consumers know whether the bacon that they were buying was British or not? Why does Labour care so little that it took the Minister four months and much Conservative prompting even to send letters to public authorities asking them to buy from suppliers who meet British standards? Why does Labour care so little that it will not even ask the European Commission about helping Britain's pig farmers to pay for public health measures, as Belgian farmers were helped last summer? Commissioner Fischler has confirmed to many Conservatives that that could be done for Britain.

Mr. Brown: You have had to listen to that offensive nonsense from Conservative Front Benchers at a number of Agriculture questions, Madam Speaker. Each and every one of the hon. Gentleman's questions has been answered before. If he cared so much about the labelling regime, he would have done something about it in the 18 years that he was in government. The present Government care so much that we have addressed the issue by issuing new guidelines to trading standards officers, who enforce the law. It is not a polite request from the Government. It is a requirement. That law is to be enforced.

Mr. Yeo: If the Minister were a little more honest about his analysis of what has happened--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that remark. We cannot have that.

Mr. Yeo: I withdraw the implication that the Minister has not been honest.

Madam Speaker: Order. I asked the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the remark.

Mr. Yeo: I withdraw my remark about the Minister's honesty.

Madam Speaker: Good, now begin again.

Mr. Yeo: If the Minister analysed what happened in the 18 years before he took office, he would know that at no stage were British pig farmers losing money by as much and going out of business as rapidly as they are now. I asked him three simple questions. The fact is that, unfortunately, we know the answer. Two Fridays ago, the Minister of State talked out the Food Labelling Bill. It took four months and a lot of prompting from me and my colleagues for the Minister even to send the letters, when he told the House that they were ready to go at the beginning of July last year. We have confirmation in writing from Commissioner Fischler that he would be willing to find a way in which to make payments to meet the public health costs that are crippling Britain's pig farmers, and the Minister will not even go to Brussels and discuss it.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman's remarks are both offensive and disingenuous. The Commission is not

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willing to support a subsidy scheme for offal disposal costs. It might be willing to consider a restructuring scheme similar to the one that it agreed for Belgium, but that would not keep the industry going. It would effectively downsize it.

Organic Farming

8. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): If he will make a statement on the rate of growth in organic production in the last three years. [113375]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Organic farming has undergone a rapid expansion in the past three years. The area of land in the United Kingdom, both in conversion and fully organic, has increased from just under 50,000 hectares in December 1996, just before the Government came to office, to an estimated 540,000 hectares in November 1999.

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer and for the action that the Government are taking to support organic farming. That action is in stark contrast to the gratuitous insults offered by Conservative Members to consumers of organic products--whose money is as good as anyone else's, particularly when it is going into the pockets of British farmers. I should have thought that point would not be lost on Conservative Members, but apparently it is.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that support is necessary for conversion to organic farming, as it is for new research into food products, for helping farmers to exercise greater control over the food-processing chain and for marketing? Does she agree that, if the Government's objectives are to be met, it is very important that when innovative projects arise, as they have in my constituency, the Government and their agencies, including the regional development agencies, should do all that they can to move as quickly as possible to ensure that ideas get off the drawing board and on to farms as quickly as possible, to offer the relief to farmers that we all want to get to them?

Ms Quin: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. We are very keen to work with farmers who wish to go organic. I certainly recognise the interest that my hon. Friend has taken in schemes launched in his own constituency. He also makes a good point when he speaks of the need to link our priorities for organic farming and those for the future of agriculture with regional development initiatives. We are very keen to ensure that regional development agencies, when they are examining the economic potential of their region, take full account of the agricultural and rural sector. That must include growth and expansion in organic farming.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I welcome the growth in organic production in the United Kingdom, especially in milk. However, does the right hon. Lady recognise that, although grant aid is extremely welcome, it is limited, and that many milk producers, particularly in Cheshire, who might like to convert to organic milk production to obtain the premium price, will not be able to do so? They cannot convert not least because the

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industry is in crisis--and to convert, farmers have to be sound financially. What advice can she give to those farmers?

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already spoken of the huge increase--a tenfold increase--in financial support to the organic sector that has occurred under this Government. I note that although Conservative Members keep calling for an increase in that money, there seems to be a lot of amnesia on their part, given the very small sums that they provided and the very little interest that they took in the organic sector when they were in office. I encourage the farmers in the hon. Lady's constituency and others who are interested in these schemes to consider aspects of the rural development plan. Although money is specifically earmarked for organics, farmers should also be considering other relevant schemes.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): People in my inner-city constituency want to eat organic foods because of its quality. She will be aware that in 1998, on the advice of the chief medical officer, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food gave advice to the public on peeling and cleaning fruit and vegetables that had been conventionally grown, because of variable levels of pesticide residue. Will she confirm that advice is still in force? Has she had any reason whatever to refer to the chief medical officer any consideration of problems with human health caused by the consumption of organic food, or to seek advice from him on any such problem?

Ms Quin: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in promoting the benefits of organic food. She has consistently drawn attention to the potential of the organic sector. There is increasing recognition of the health benefits of organic food. I am not aware of any substantial change in the advice, but I shall write to my hon. Friend about the current situation and place a copy of the letter in the Library. I assure her that the Government take her general concerns about the organic sector very much to heart.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What assessment has the right hon. Lady made of the impact of the backlog in applications for organic conversion grants on Britain's balance of trade in organic products, notwithstanding the important and worthwhile points that she has just made? Does she accept that one of the inevitable effects of the cessation of grants for 18 months is to enable foreign producers and competitors to strengthen their stranglehold on the British market?

Ms Quin: We allocated £10 million specifically to tackle the backlog that the hon. Gentleman mentions. We were motivated not just by the importance of expanding the organic sector for its own sake and its economic potential, but because we were aware of how much organic produce was imported and how beneficial it would be to UK agriculture if our producers were able to replace much of that imported produce. That is one of the factors behind the dramatic expansion of organics that has taken place under this Government.

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