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The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): On 30 March, we announced as part of the Government's strategy for agriculture an independent review of dispensing of prescription-only medicines by veterinary surgeons. Additionally, the Office of Fair Trading is conducting an investigation into certain aspects of the supply of veterinary medicines in the United Kingdom, including whether there is any evidence of anti-competitive practices that breach UK law.
I think that the House will also want to know, although the decision is not finally made, that I am considering commissioning a review of the costs and utilisation of all agricultural inputs, including veterinary products and interventions. I hope to have more to say about that next week.
Mr. Todd: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, particularly the latter part of it. Farmers in my constituency regularly draw to my attention the price discrepancies between the veterinary products that they themselves can purchase and those that their competitors and colleagues in France can purchase there. Is it not another example of how British regulatory environments fail to support the competitiveness of British agriculture? It is another example given by the better regulation taskforce, which published its report yesterday on the environmental regulation of farming.
Mr. Brown: I think that my hon. Friend is on to a very strong point--although not so much the regulatory framework as the trading framework is at the heart of it. That is why I am considering taking a longer look at it with others who represent the different interests in the industry, including the interests of farmers. I welcome what my hon. Friend has had to say on the better regulation taskforce's work, and I commend Lord Haskins on the job that he has done.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister will be aware of the onward march of the varroa jacobsini mite through the beehives of England. Is he aware that, under the veterinary medicines directorate rules, only the German-created drug Bayvarol may be used to fight varroa jacobsini--whereas, in the old days, we used to use good old-fashioned talcum power, which was more or less free. Bayvarol costs £10 per hive per year. That cost
Mr. Brown: In fact, we have a research programme designed to help beekeepers. There is some money in my Department's research budget for precisely that purpose. The use of an intervention in one part of the European Union and doubts about whether it can be used in this country are precisely the matters that I want to be thoroughly examined.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the cost of veterinary services can be crippling, particularly for the deer industry. The deer farm in my constituency--Round Green farm--told me this morning that the cost of a qualified vet being present at the abattoir when animals are dispatched is £43 an hour, while that of a meat inspector is £14 an hour. The time at the abattoir is split between the meat inspector and the qualified vet, but the industry is fearful that, as from next April, the regulations will change and a vet will be required to attend the abattoir all the time that animals are being dispatched. Will my right hon. Friend therefore look at that issue and ascertain whether it would be possible for a qualified meat inspector to be present at the abattoir, rather than a fully qualified vet?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right. I have already considered whether we could use meat hygiene inspectors, rather than qualified vets, under the EU directive, which is more than 30 years old. I have managed to convince my ministerial colleagues in the EU that we should review the directive, but of course that will take some time. In the meantime, the cost of the veterinary services represents a heavy burden on the small abattoir sectors. The Maclean report is now being considered in government and I hope to announce a response to that soon. I think that it is a response that my hon. Friend will welcome.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): We are all well aware that the high cost of veterinary products in Britain represents a heavy burden on British farmers. As has been said, those costs are higher than in the rest of Europe, but is not the real problem the over-zealous red tape of the kind highlighted by Lord Haskins in the better regulation taskforce report, published yesterday? That report paints a nightmarish scenario of farmers struggling against some of the strictest animal health and welfare controls in Europe, with hordes of pestering inspectors descending on them daily. When will the Government get off farmers' backs?
Mr. Brown: We have already had the red tape reviews, and the Government have accepted the overwhelming bulk of their recommendations, but we need to be careful because the culture of deregulation and the ferocious assault that was made on the Meat Hygiene Service in the late 1980s and early 1990s contributed to the BSE disaster that overwhelmed our country and had the most tragic implications for human health. So those who simply call for a bonfire of the regulations are wrong. Lord Haskins has adopted the right approach: he aims for better regulation, not no regulation.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): We drafted, and Parliament approved, the necessary legislation to enable dairy producers to fund their own promotional activities via a statutory levy. They are now doing so via "The White Stuff" campaign, in conjunction with processors.
I am also pleased to announce to the House today that we intend to make good the reduction in EU subsidy for the school milk scheme from 1 January. The Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment are joining MAFF in funding England's contribution to bridging the funding gap.
Mr. Kidney: That is excellent news about the scheme for school milk, especially about the free school milk for those children who might otherwise not get that nutrition and energy in school. I am glad that the label "milk snatcher" stays firmly attached only to the Conservative party. Does my right hon. Friend accept that some schools are still reluctant to take part in the scheme to deliver milk to their schoolchildren? Will she do her part in encouraging a better take-up of that excellent scheme around the country?
Ms Quin: My hon. Friend makes a good point and I thank him for welcoming my announcement. It is important to work with local authorities and schools around the country. Obviously, the scheme is voluntary, in the sense that local authorities and schools can choose to take it up. However, I am keen that they should look at the scheme and the variety of products that can be given to schoolchildren, including lower-fat milk, yoghurts and so on. I am keen to ensure that the take-up of the scheme is as good as possible.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I agree with the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and welcome the Minister's announcement. She knows that I have supported the generic marketing campaign. Does she agree that there is little point in increasing the volume of milk consumption unless we can also increase the profitability at the farm gate for dairy farmers? To that end, is she as disappointed as I am with the report on supermarkets by the Competition Commission, which, although it received evidence, seemingly had nothing to say? Will she institute a series of supply chain studies in the various sectors--starting with milk--publish those reports and allow us to see how we can maintain a sustainable increase in the price of milk to help dairy farmers?
Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman makes a number of interesting points. I welcome the support that was given by both sides of the House to the order that we proposed, which allowed the levy to be raised to promote milk consumption. I welcome the Competition Commission's commitment to developing a code of practice for the food supply industry, including the dairy sector. That built on the work that MAFF had undertaken in the food chain initiative. We are keen to take the work forward and we hope to make further announcements in due course.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): One issue that will help consumption is the continuation of the doorstep delivery. We are used to seeing a decline in such deliveries, but it is important for older people. In my constituency, three dairy rounds in Dursley were told, at less than a week's notice, that they had to pick up their milk from Stroud, an additional 13-mile journey. Is it not fair that we allow older people in particular to have their milk made available to them by making sure that the doorstep delivery continues into the future?
Ms Quin: My hon. Friend makes a good point: the doorstep delivery service has been much valued by consumers. We are keen that the dairy industry is able to supply consumer needs. Obviously, it has to evolve to changing consumer tastes, but the doorstep delivery system is a valued part of milk supply.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I hope that the Minister is able to support doorstep delivery. In certain villages where the local shop has closed, the delivery is the only regular supply of food. When I am in Ribble Valley, I get my pinta delivered to my home. It is a superb service. We are trying to encourage milk consumption, but I am concerned with the plight faced by dairy farmers. A farmer came to see me last week and said that the amounts he was getting for milk had halved in a couple of years, and he felt that he was unable to continue in the dairy industry. What encouragement can the Minister give to dairy farmers in Ribble Valley and throughout the country that they will have a future in dairy farming?
Ms Quin: There has been a recent firming of prices of milk. We welcome that trend, and feel that the previous low prices were not sustainable. In addition, we have taken a number of measures to help the dairy industry--not only our efforts to boost consumption, but the agrimonetary payments for dairy producers and a number of specific measures regarding the removal of charges that dairy farmers would otherwise have had to face. On dairy farming, we have responded effectively to the concerns of producers over the past year.