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11 Mar 2003 : Column 61WH—continued

Farming and Food (Staffordshire)

4 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister in his place.

I am genuinely thrilled to have this opportunity to tell the House about the positive attitude developing in Staffordshire towards the farming and food sectors and to say a little about a conference held on that subject in Staffordshire last month. I shall put to the Minister some of the issues that came across very strongly during that conference and describe the aftermath witnessed in Staffordshire.

By way of introduction, I shall say something about my approach to the subject. It is important to examine the farming and food sectors in the broader context of the rural economy as a whole. Agriculture is without doubt the foundation of the rural economy, but clearly if the foundations are weak, the buildings on them are at risk. It is therefore important to examine agriculture in particular.

Recent years have seen falling employment and declining wealth-creation in farming. There are several reasons for that, not least a run of food scares, BSE, classical swine fever, and the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Another factor has been the launch of the single European currency and the weakness of the euro against the pound—although as far as I can tell from current movements in the exchange rate, that is beginning to turn the other way around—and the fact that for several years, British farmers and British manufacturers have struggled with competition from people who have an edge in terms of the value of the currency in which they are dealing. A further factor has been international over-production of food in some key sectors, leading to incredibly low commodity prices. Milk is a good example. Farmers struggle to fetch a price for their milk that is greater than their production costs.

Against that background, it is not surprising that farmers in Staffordshire have asked their Members of Parliament whether there is a future for farming. I am sure that that question is echoing round the whole country. I am happy to say that I think that the answer is yes, there is a future. Last year at national level we began to see why that is so. First, we had the impressive report on the future of farming and food from Sir Don Curry and his colleagues on the policy commission on that subject. That gave an acute analysis of the problems and possible solutions. Secondly, at the end of last year, the Government issued a response to that Curry report and their own strategy for sustainable farming and food. That, too, answers the question resoundingly: yes, there is a future for farming in the UK.

If we lift our eyes beyond the boundaries of our country for a moment, there are big international pressures that must also be responded to if there is to be a healthy future for the industry. Perhaps the most important is the reform of the common agricultural policy, but not far behind are the talks on trade in the World Trade Organisation. If our Government's ambitions are to be realised, we must see European and international recognition of the validity of agri-environmental schemes to support farming rather than old-fashioned production support.

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I shall say a little on the conference that we held in Staffordshire last month on the future of farming and food in our county. It was a staggeringly successful event and there were three very good elements. The first was that it was a genuine partnership arrangement, the second was all that went into it, and the third was all that came out of it. I shall elaborate on those three elements.

The partnership was a genuine one between the National Farmers Union at county and regional levels, the Country Land and Business Association—the CLA—at regional level, and all the county's Members of Parliament, irrespective of political party. It was understandable that I took the lead for the Members of Parliament because the venue was the county showground in Stafford, which I have the honour to represent in Parliament. All the Members of Parliament expressed their support for the event, which was helpful in preparing for the day.

When we arrived, we found that we had drawn all the relevant people together into the same room at the same time, including farmers, food processors, food retailers, other rural interest groups, environmental interest groups, Government agencies and non-governmental organisations. We had a superb range of speakers and presenters to assist us in our deliberations and, not surprisingly, there was a combination of successful presentations, workshops and question and answer sessions that helped us to examine the future of farming and food in Staffordshire.

Before moving on to what came out of the event, I shall pause to speak about Staffordshire's position, as it were, on the ground. Eighty per cent. of Staffordshire's land area and 20 per cent. of its population are rural. We have 190,000 hectares of agricultural land in 5,000 holdings. One fifth of the agricultural land and one quarter of the farm holdings in the west midlands are in Staffordshire. The farming is mainly livestock and dairy, but if we add the farming sector to the food and drink, leisure and tourism sectors, together they account for 13 per cent. of employment in the county. We are discussing a substantial and significant countywide and regionwide presence.

What came out of the conference? To start with the most obvious negative, there were too few examples of co-operation within the same sector, for example, between farmers. There were also too few examples of co-operation between sectors, for example, between farmers and food processors. That was disappointing, but we recognised that there was a gap. More encouraging was the evidence of local interest from producers and consumers in farmers' markets, organic farming, reducing food miles and so on. Also encouraging was a desire for more co-operation between the sectors, stronger food links, shorter food chains and more emphasis on local and locally produced food. We recognised that we need more business advice, training and support from external sources.

That conference took place three or four weeks ago, and during the brief time since, my response to what happened that day has been as follows. Last week in Staffordshire, by great good fortune, a conference was organised by Rural United, a rural economic forum that was created in response to and in the aftermath of the dreadful foot and mouth disease outbreak. It was led initially by the county council but is now widely based in our rural economy as a whole. At the conference I saw

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the launch of a new website with the address That was helpful for making contacts, which I now want to discuss.

First, we considered a "Taste of Staffordshire" brand for local marketing and local foods in Staffordshire. We have a "Taste of Staffordshire" awards evening once a year, which is about the service of food in restaurants and other eating places. It is promoted more widely in the region by Heart of England Fine Foods, which is replicated in each of the counties involved. My suggestion was to take that one step further and brand locally produced food in Staffordshire as "Taste of Staffordshire" food. My vision is to have shelving in all the local supermarkets carrying the label "Taste of Staffordshire" so that people know that that food has been produced in their own locality.

I have also had discussions with the local business link, which has been our adviser to businesses, and Rodbaston further education college—a college with particular expertise in land-based sectors—on whether we could have some unified support for businesses in food and farming relating to business management skills, lifelong learning, and the acquisition of the skills necessary for the jobs that they want to do. I have also had talks with those involved with the local health economy, such as health trusts and local agenda 21 organisations, about health links, such as healthy diet, exercise, and environment. Finally, I have been incredibly lucky in the ballot to secure this debate so soon after the conference.

With that wealth of information and research behind me, I come to the debate on behalf of Staffordshire to put three issues to the Minister. They come under three loose headings: joined-up businesses, a stronger rural business economy, and specific help for farmers in particular. On joined-up businesses, all sectors would like to feel that they can co-operate with others in the same sector and between sectors—I include farmers in that. I want to ask more widely about the help that is available for any sector connected with farming and food that wants to build co-operation between its members. We want stronger links in Staffordshire between farming, the food and drink sector and the leisure and tourism sector. I would like the Minister to say something about the support that is given to people who appreciate what they want to do, but are not sure how to go about achieving it.

On the same subject, it is important to establish stronger links between town and country—after all, most of the food that farmers and others produce and process will be consumed in towns and cities by people who might never have seen a farm, or food production in process. It is very important that people understand the provenance of food. They should know whether it is wholesome, how, in the case of livestock, it was raised, and how, in the case of other foods, it was produced. They need to know where food is coming from and how safe it is. We see the importance of that in the health scares. Farmers' markets carry out a good, educative job by enabling producers to understand the needs and wishes of consumers, and consumers to understand what goes on in the production of food. More education

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of that sort can be provided. Labelling is part of that process because it gives people the information that they need.

There is a big role for local sourcing of local foodstuffs. I would like many Staffordshire businesses to source their food requirements locally, but I want the public sector to do the same. In Stafford, we have the headquarters of the county council, the local education authority, the police, the ambulance trust, several health trusts and the fire service. They are all big buyers locally. I would be interested to know if the Minister has a view on what public procurement policy ought to be on buying food locally. Will the Minister offer help to those who want to brand locally the food that they produce? I would like "Taste of Staffordshire" to be more than my vision, but a reality on the shelves of the supermarkets in Staffordshire.

The whole of the rural business economy is important, and a number of issues are relevant to all rural businesses. I shall start with new technology and access to broadband, which is the foremost issue that business people raise with me. I was frequently harassed about that when I recently attended the fourth annual Women in Rural Enterprise conference at Harper Adams university college in Shropshire. Many admirable female entrepreneurs from rural businesses accosted me about their inability to access broadband.

Although about two thirds of the country has access to broadband, the third that does not is the most remote—usually the most rural. Does the Minister have a view on how his colleagues in other Departments could more actively promote the take-up of broadband throughout the country? All businesses want help with managing change. We have done a marvellous job in establishing the small business service through business link, which is already having some success. How do we help all businesses, large or small, when they want to make change but need guidance, help and reassurance? Broadband is also important—farming is a good example of this—in helping to drive up efficiency and productivity. Again, those are things that people in Staffordshire want but sometimes need outside help to achieve.

Similarly, I want to ask the Minister about his support for new types of businesses as well as the diversification of existing businesses. I am particularly interested in non-food crops, which apply to not only agricultural processes but most parts of the economy such as cosmetics and toiletries, energy and fuels, pharmaceutical products and textiles, which are all areas in which non-food crops can be developed.

I have mentioned people's desire to access business advice, training and support. People say to me that there are many schemes for getting advice and access to grants, loans or venture capital, but there seems to be a multiplicity of suppliers of those services, even when the initial source is the Government. Some help with simplifying access to funding and advice would be useful.

I have briefly mentioned the third issue of specific help for farmers, to whom many of the things that I have said apply. Perhaps it is a new desire, but they are particularly keen on co-operation. They want help with becoming co-ops, which is a worthwhile aim for the Government to encourage. They would like to know

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more about best practice and how to spread one farm's best practice to other farms that do similar work. There is a role for the Government in helping that to happen. Demonstration farms are a good way to provide a practical best practice guide on the ground.

Farmers are keen to promote the wholesomeness and safety of their food through food assurance schemes. The red tractor scheme, which was launched by the National Farmers Union a couple of years ago and relaunched last year, is perhaps the most eminent scheme, but it is not the only one. Last year, the Food Standards Agency carried out a review of all food assurance schemes, and the Government could help consumers to get the message that there is a strong and reliable assurance scheme.

Those are the three issues that everybody in Staffordshire wants me to put to the Minister. Along with the residents of Stafford, I have a particular and personal interest in the future of a scheme called "The Great British Kitchen", and I should like to know whether he has any information about it. For several years, it has been the dream of Prue Leith and the British Food Trust to create a visitor attraction following British kitchens through the years and covering the history of cooking and catering. That would be allied with a hotel and training college for this country's chefs of the future and a retail hall selling every kitchen item that people might want to buy. It is a superb idea, and a site has been identified in Stafford. The site is in public ownership and the public authorities are willing to use it for the scheme. A developer, St. Modwen Properties, has been identified, but there seems to be a delay for some reason in getting the last contract for the work. I wonder whether the Minister knows anything about the scheme, whether he would be willing to find out what the hold-up is and whether anything can be done to help.

One day, the kind of responses that the Government made to the Curry commission, such as the new food chain centre, could be located at "The Great British Kitchen" in Stafford. What a boost it would be for the farming and food industries of Staffordshire. I am sure that I have given the Minister more than enough food for thought and I should give him a little time in which to respond.

4.18 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate. I commend the leadership that he has offered not only by raising these issues in today's debate, but in the conference to which he referred. He has demonstrated his capacity to be both entrepreneurial and co-operative in the way in which he represents his constituency and farmers in the wider Staffordshire area. His approach is impressive because he has looked at farming's needs and the way in which those needs fit into the wider context of the future of rural communities. He has raised several key issues, and I am grateful to have a little time in which to reply, although it is doubtful that I shall be able to cover everything. I will follow up in writing on some of the detailed issues that he has raised.

I agreed when my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his speech that there is a future for farming, provided that a positive approach is taken and the agenda set out

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by the Curry commission is pursued with enthusiasm by the farming industry and by the Government. I also agree on the importance of and the interrelationship between CAP reform and the world trade round. Both are crucial for creating the right arrangements for trade and for the future prosperity of farming.

As this is fair trade fortnight, it is appropriate to point out that the importance of fair trade has been recognised by farmers in this country. In fact, later this week I shall speak at a conference organised jointly by the NFU, Oxfam, the co-operative movement and a variety of other partners. The future of farming must be viewed not in terms of protection or production-related subsidies but, as my hon. Friend rightly said, in terms of relating the needs of farming to the needs of the market and consumers and ensuring that we have a high-value farming industry in which added value brings the necessary added income.

My hon. Friend covered a variety of issues. He engaged directly with the issues that affect the farming industry in the wider economic and social context. I am pleased that last year the Labour party held a conference, which I believe was the first rural conference held by any political party, at Harper Adams university college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley). After some fairly horrendous times for the farming industry, such engagement across boundaries is a most exciting development.

I echo the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford about co-operation. There are some good examples. In December 2001, the Bishop of Hereford organised a conference deliberately to enable people to speak about their successes in breaking through the boundaries. It was a remarkable day, especially as we were only starting to lift our eyes from the impact of foot and mouth disease. It was an example of how one could be positive, given the right conditions and support and an understanding of what has worked elsewhere.

I will reflect on the accuracy of my hon. Friend's comment about the desire for co-operation, which is encouraging. I am delighted to hear that that is the case in Staffordshire, and I believe that it reflects a wider feeling. The Government certainly recognise the importance of co-operation. It forms a central strand of the strategy for sustainable farming and food, which was launched on 12 December.

To encourage co-operative activity, we are supporting an industry-led initiative to establish a new body, which will be called the English farming and food partnership. We have worked with industry to establish the new food chain centre and are partially funding its initial programme of work. We provide £5 million a year through the agriculture development scheme to strengthen collaboration, employ benchmarking and spread good practice. Grants to encourage collaboration are available under the processing and marketing grant scheme and the rural enterprise scheme.

My hon. Friend referred to local food sourcing. We have established a cross-departmental working group to develop Government policy. We have also set up workshops with the Institute of Grocery Distribution to bring supermarkets and small local producers together to explore how barriers to local sourcing can be

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overcome. Much is in the hands of the industry, but we need to encourage all parts of it, large and small, to engage in the process. I hope that my hon. Friend, through his co-operation with the Department, will ensure that Staffordshire is tied into the new initiatives.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Food from Britain, the regional development agencies and the Countryside Agency have prepared a new structure for supporting regional food initiatives. Emphasising what is special and local in the context of a region is the key to success. The west of England has done that particularly well by identifying food from Cornwall, Devon and other parts of the south-west, but doing so within a wider regional marketing plan. Many other localities and regions of England could learn from that.

A good example from the Food from Britain initiative is Heart of England Fine Foods, which was established in March 1998 and helps to deliver projects within the regional speciality foods and drinks sector of the west midlands. I have seen a number of good products that it has supported. In line with the Curry recommendations and our policy on a co-ordinated regional food strategy, we support that sort of joined-up approach.

On public policy on purchasing, there is a danger of distorting the market or contravening procurement rules. That would be unwise from the point of view of British agriculture, which wants to sell abroad. It is necessary that we consider competition in the supply chain. We want to support measures to enable the industry to operate on a level playing field and be successful.

I am fully aware of the importance of links between agriculture, tourism and the rural economy. I was interested to hear that some 13 per cent. of the work force in the county of Staffordshire are engaged in farming, tourism, leisure and the food and drinks industry. It is an interesting percentage because it demonstrates a considerable contribution to the economy, but when one breaks it down, one discovers that it comprises about 2 per cent. in agriculture, some 3 per cent. in food and drink and about 8 per cent. in tourism and leisure. The farming element is fairly small in terms of the numbers employed, but linked into the wider economic driver, it becomes immensely important. That is far more understood nowadays.

Reference was also made to access to new technology, which is a key priority for the Government. The Department of Trade and Industry has made £30 million available through the UK broadband fund to help the regional development agencies and devolved Administrations to develop schemes to extend broadband networks. Many people in rural communities pick up the theme. Some fully understand the potential of broadband, but others do not. We need to ask why connections need to be made and to ensure that there is a good business argument and that opportunities are being taken up properly.

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The strategy on broadband draws heavily on the recommendations of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, which was set up in February 2001 and which is now an independent body that brings together infrastructure, service and content companies with broadband users from the public and private sectors. The Government and the industry agree that there is no magic bullet that will deliver broadband roll-out in the UK, but there is a virtuous circle, which we need to stimulate, in which demand and supply grow in parallel. I am engaged with colleagues in other Departments in discussing the way in which broadband delivery, for instance in relation to schools and health, can help the wider community. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is a great personal supporter of ensuring that we take such opportunities.

"The Great British Kitchen" is an interesting project and I know that my ministerial colleague Lord Whitty has met with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford to discuss it. There have also been a number of meetings between my officials and the British Food Trust. We are happy to continue that dialogue and, from the Government's point of view, I am certainly not aware of anything that would obstruct it. The challenge is whether a real business case can be made, whether the figures stand up and whether the undoubted enthusiasm that my hon. Friend has for the project is reflected by potential investors and participants. None the less, I commend my hon. Friend for not letting go and for trying to ensure that the initiative is followed through.

It is true to say that the strategy for sustainable farming and food arising out of the Curry report is crucial to the future of farming and its context in the wider rural economy. The strategy will help farmers to manage change and reconnect with their customers and the rest of the food chain. I have already given the example of the creation of the food chain centre. The strategy will reward them for providing environmental goods—for instance, there is the new entry level or broad and shallow scheme. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of agri-environment schemes in future. The strategy will also help farmers to get the right training and advice to develop their businesses. I agree about the importance of the demonstration farms, and pilot demonstration farms are being established. The first event took place on 29 January, and there will be work for the next for 15 months or so, after which we will review the lessons that can be learned.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the engagement that is necessary if the farming industry is to have a successful future. We should build on the good examples, rather than in places in which people, perhaps understandably given the challenges of the past few years, have given in to being negative and depressed about the whole thing. If we can link the farming industry within the wider rural economy and food and drink industry, there is every reason to anticipate success. I commend my hon. Friend and others like him who take a full part in providing leadership and partnership to the industry in their constituencies.

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