The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The British Retail Consortium represents one of the key sectors in the UK food chain. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met it yesterday and they discussed a wide range of issues.
Mr. Pickthall: I am pleased about the coincidence of that meeting's timing. Does my hon. Friend agree that the British Retail Consortium has an enormously important role to play in encouraging local sourcing of agricultural produce? Does he also agree that the practice by some of the big retailers of arbitrarily ending contracts with local growers, especially in Lancashire, creates serious business problems for growers and increases the environmental damage by multiplying lorry miles as they haul heavy produce back and forth across the country? Will he continue to place pressure on the British Retail Consortium to strengthen local sourcing of produce and fully shoulder its environmental responsibilities?
Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend makes a serious point about food miles, regional foods, regional distribution and regional marketing, and we raise those issues with the British Retail Consortium and large retailers. He will be aware that following on from the Competition Commission report, a statutory code of practice has been recommended to cover some of those matters. That is being prepared by the Department of Trade and Industry and will be completed in due course.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Minister will know about the great number of distortions in the food chain. Of particular concern for dairy farmers is the failure to achieve a sustainable increase in the farmgate price of milk for both liquid milk and cheese production. There was a hint in the previous Parliament that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was producing a study on the food chain as it applies to milk producers and the
Mr. Morley: One change that will improve the lot of dairy farmers is to act on the Competition Commission's former recommendations to split up the former Milk Marque into regional co-operatives. That will help with prices and competition. We consider the issues carefully, but most are market driven. That is why it is important for the agricultural sector to ally itself more closely with the market and consumers. The Department is, of course, providing help and support, both financially in terms of market advice and in discussions with end users.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): If my hon. Friend has such discussions, will he consider how the quality of pigmeat from animals raised on swill differs from that of pigmeat produced by other forms of pig-rearing methods? I understand that the taste is different. Will he consider whether it is appropriate to lift the ban on properly prepared pigswill so that that market can be more fully exploited?
Mr. Morley: The ban on pigswill was introduced as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak, in the light of concerns about applying the regulations on heat treatment, and that was the appropriate course to take. There are one or two exemptions for pig feed that has a low risk of disease spread. We will give those matters careful consideration.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): In the light of the claim this week by the major bakeries, justifying the 9p rise in the price of a loaf of bread on the basis of an increase in wheat prices--whereas, in fact, as I am sure the Minister knows, the total cost of the wheat content of bread is less than 8p a loaf and the increase probably 1p--will the Government now adopt the Opposition's policy to introduce a quarterly survey of comparisons between trends in retail prices and in farmgate prices, so that both consumers and farmers know who is being taken for a ride by manufacturers?
Mr. Morley: There is nothing new about those trends. Indeed, the information is collected and made available. If the hon. Gentleman has ideas about how that can be disseminated more widely, we will of course be willing to consider them. Again, these are market issues, a fact which emphasises the need for the agriculture industry to take into account market changes and be involved in some of the added value and downstream distribution of products. That is the way in which agriculture should go. Many of our policies are designed to assist producers in having more of a stake in such matters.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): More and more small rural businesses are benefiting from the measures that we have introduced. More than 11,000 affected businesses have had cash benefits, either through deferral of tax payments or approval of hardship rate relief or in grant awards from the regional development agency business recovery fund. We are continuing to keep the operation of each scheme under review.
Mr. Webb: I am grateful for that reply, but draw to the Minister's attention the situation in my constituency, which has more than 400 farms, several cases of foot and mouth and many businesses affected by the knock-on effects of the disease. My constituents were shocked to learn that they are not rural because other parts of the authority area have higher population densities, and "rural" is defined on the basis of the whole authority. In reviewing the schemes that she has described, will she include businesses that have suffered from foot and mouth, regardless of whether other parts of the authority have higher population densities?
Margaret Beckett: Of course I will look at the precise issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but he will know that there is always some difficulty in defining terms in the context of such schemes. A very careful balance was struck on the proportion of authority areas that could be considered on anyone's definition to be rural, and that has been looked at several times. I am prepared to look at it again and to consider his point, but I am not undertaking that it will necessarily make all the difference as he is hoping.
Mr. Bellingham: Will the right hon. Lady join me in paying tribute to the hundreds of slaughtermen and women who gave up their time to ensure that the cull was professionally carried out? Will she particularly thank those hundreds of hunt staff who gave their time and commitment, which the Government accepted only grudgingly and belatedly? Does she agree that the best way of saying thank you to those hunt staff is for her to make a firm commitment not to vote to destroy their livelihoods?
Margaret Beckett: I will of course heartily join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to slaughtermen and women or anyone else involved in the handling of this terrible outbreak, all of whom have been and, unfortunately, still are, working very long hours at what is frequently a thankless and unpleasant task. I was particularly gratified recently when I met people in the area of the most recent outbreak in Yorkshire to be told what high regard they had for the work of the staff of my Department and local authorities and of all those who have been involved. That does not always come across in media coverage, so I was very pleased to hear that and to pass it on to those who continue to work so thoroughly. As for the hon. Gentleman's final remarks, we may of course have to agree to disagree.
Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): As well as considering support for rural businesses, will my right hon. Friend look at supporting charities such as the Treginnis farm for city children in my constituency? It has lost just under £100,000 as a result of foot and mouth
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting and slightly unusual point. I must admit that that case had not been brought to me before. I shall certainly make some inquiries and consider whether there are means whereby, through the overall operation of the various schemes, the charity can be assisted.
My hon. Friend will know, however, that many worthwhile organisations and small businesses are affected by the outbreak. For the vast majority, the most important thing is that we bring the outbreak under control to such an extent and come so much closer to achieving its end that their customers return to them. That will do more good than any compensation scheme.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Among the businesses losing out as a result of foot and mouth disease, the tourism industry has lost more than most. Will my right hon. Friend examine the sense of some of the biosecurity measures that have been used, especially those that affect the tourism industry? In April, I was banned from walking along stretches of the Pembrokeshire coastal path where there were no animals within miles, but shortly thereafter I found myself trapped behind a muck-spreader driving along the road. Clearly, the muck-spreader poses a far greater risk of passing on the disease, but the rules do not allow that to be banned.
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the impact of the difficulties on tourism and the way in which the early reaction, before we had a clear picture of where the disease had spread, resulted in the closure of some areas of the country and some footpaths which with the benefit of hindsight we can see might not have been justified by the degree of risk they presented. Now, what we are encouraging everyone to do and what we as a Department are trying to do is to ensure that the action taken is proportionate to the risk posed. My hon. Friend is right to say that the movement of vehicles and contact with and between animals are the key triggers in the spread of the disease.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Will the Secretary of State accept that many businesses, including farmers who have over-30-month-old cattle, have suffered irrecoverable losses as a direct result of foot and mouth disease for which no compensation has yet been offered? When will she complete the review of that problem which her predecessor promised in the House? When will she publish the proposals to rebuild the rural economy in the wake of foot and mouth disease to which she referred in the House last week? Does she realise that many businesses are engaged in a daily and desperate struggle for survival? They need more action, such as interest-free loans, now--not at some unspecified future date that happens to be convenient to the Government.
Margaret Beckett: Of course I admit that many people are suffering losses with which the Government are not in a position to assist, and that one particular category of those affected is made up of those who have cattle that would have gone into the over-30-months scheme but
In addition, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have committed themselves to set up an independent commission to examine the longer-term context of and future for the countryside and, within it, the agriculture industry. It is extremely important that we undertake that debate and that we try to ensure that our actions in the short term to overcome the short-term difficulties experienced as a result of the outbreak do not cut across the action necessary for long-term sustainable agriculture within a context of sustainable development.