The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) began by describing the debate as constructive and bipartisan, but he did not follow the tradition that he lauded.
It is a great pleasure to be winding up in our important debate. It is especially pleasurable to reply to a debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) made what he described as his maiden speech as the Labour Member of Parliament for Wantage. I should like to think that my hon. Friend was a friend of mine before he crossed the Floor, but he certainly is now. His speech was refreshingly unpartisan. It had historical perspective and drew on his experience as a former Member of the European Parliament.
My hon. Friend mentioned the issue that dare not speak its name in many debates on the state of the agricultural economy: the role of the exchange rate and the euro. He made an important point, and many of the most sensible commentators and, indeed, people involved in agriculture realise that the stability gained from joining the euro would mean enormous benefits. That is almost never debated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage also rightly reminded the House that issues such as CAP reform and trade liberalisation have traditionally been bipartisan issues that have been progressed by Governments of both political colours. He pointed out that, whether we like it or not, under successive Governments the size of the agricultural economy as a proportion of the overall economy has shrunk from 3 per cent. in the early 1970s to 0.8 per cent. now. Another bipartisan issue that he raised was the balance that always has to be struck
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between regulation and food safety and animal health. That is a difficult balance for any Government to strike. He warned me that he was an assiduous letter-writer on behalf of farmers, and I look forward to receiving letters from him.
If I do not have time in the few minutes that remain to address all the points raised in the debate, I promise to write to hon. Members on those subjects. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage mentioned the impact of the fallen stock scheme on his constituency, and I will certainly look into the suggestion that there might not be a collection service available in his area. I am assured by Michael Seals, the chairman of the fallen stock schemean industry-run schemethat there is a nationwide network that extends even to the Isle of Wight. I shall write to my hon. Friend with the details that he has requested.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) was right to say that there were particular challenges in his constituency. Following negotiations, the fallen stock scheme and the local hunt have agreed a collection price and the collection scheme will go ahead. As the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality said in his opening speech, there is no reason for the hunt on the Isle of Wight to disband. The Countryside Alliance has said that, as long as hunts stay within the law, many will be able to continue and to generate more income by taking part in the fallen stock scheme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage and the hon. Members for Taunton (Mr. Flook), for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) raised the serious issue of bovine TB, on which I do not intend to spend a great deal of time, but it is important to say that this has been our first opportunity to discuss the issue following the publication, finally, of the results from the four area trials in the Irish Republic. We will of course take seriously any lessons to be learned from those trials, but it is important that hon. Members recognise that the situation in Ireland is rather different from that in the United Kingdom.
The scientists who conducted the Irish trials have said that the proactive culling that achieved the reduction in TB breakdowns in cattle is not a viable policy for the Republic of Ireland, so whether it would be viable in the UK is also open to question. I have asked the Independent Science Group to examine the results of the Irish trials to see whether anything can be learned from them. I accept that those trials have changed the debate. They have taken us away from the debate on whether culling badgers can help to tackle TB. We must now ask whether culling badgers in the way that was done in the Irish trials would be viable, cost effective and politically acceptable. Those are questions that all parties in the House will have to grapple with over the next few weeks.
Several hon. Members talked about the general state of farming, and it is important to recognise that it has gone through a difficult time for a number of reasons,
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although incomes have, in fact, risen by 80 per cent. from the low that they reached in 2000. We recognise that there are particular pressures on the dairy industry. Those problems were raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) talked about them in some detail. My hon. Friend quoted an article from this week's farming press, saying that he felt that there was a new spirit of optimism in the industry. I think that he is right, although we should not overlook some of the serious challenges faced, especially by the dairy industry.
The hon. Member for St. Ives pointed out that we are awaiting the outcome of the latest Office of Fair Trading report into supermarkets. We will study that report with interest. The Government have certainly not ruled out the need for further action if the report shows that there are problems that need to be addressed, although previous reports of this kind have not done so. In fairness to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I should mention that he pointed out the positive role that supermarkets play in rural areas. They provide a service to rural people and offer them a much greater choice than previous generations ever had. I am as keen as he is, however, to make sure that they do not use their powerful position to the detriment of the farming industry.
One of the important statistics to remember when we debate the state of the dairy industry is the extremely big difference in profitability between some dairy producers and others. My constituency is urban, not rural, but I know farmers outside Exeter, and have friends who are farmers outside Exeter, and they tell me that there are huge differentials in the success of dairy farmers, both in terms of added value and costs. The differential that dairy farmers experience is 12p per litre, which does not indicate to me that this is just a problem of supermarkets and price. It is also a challenge to the industry to get to the level at which all are making those sorts of profits.
Several hon. Members talked about CAP reform. It is right to point out, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), that although there was a lot of talk in the Conservative party, over many years, about the importance of CAP reform, this Labour Government delivered that historic CAP reform back in the summer of 2003. It has been an incredibly complex issue, but we have discussed it with the farming community all along. One of my other hon. Friends pointed out that the farming industry was not united on how it wanted CAP reform to be implemented, but we have gone out of our way, all along, to take the farming industry with us, to listen to those voices and to try to devise a system that we thought was fair and that would deliver the public goods that were mentioned.
It was characteristically generous of the hon. Member for St. Ives to say that he thought that we had struck the right balance. His questions about the timing of the implementation of the single farm payment have been dealt with. We are confident that we can still do that early in the window that we have set out. I also note that, as was pointed out, in all the criticisms from the official Opposition on the single payment and the way in which it has been implemented, I did not hear a coherent alternative, and I never have done. We have heard such criticisms time and again in the House, but we are still waiting for a coherent alternative.
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A number of other issues were raised, to which I have not got time to respond in detail now, but I will write to the Members concerned. The hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned bees, and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred to reform of the sugar regime and the important area of biomass and the future of biofuels, to which the Government are committed.
In general terms, however, I was astonished that in a debate that was supposed to be about rural communities, the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for North Wiltshire said almost nothing about employment, the environment, biodiversity, the health service, crime, schools, housing, poverty, transport or the overall economy. Are not those issues important for people who live in rural areas, as they are for people who live in urban areas? My region, the south-west, is largely rural, and has been perhaps disproportionately dependent on agriculture historically. It has also been the fastest growing region in the whole of England in the last three years. Nothing was said about the success delivered by this Labour Government to the economy and public services in rural areas.
In the constituency of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, there are now 2,365 more nurses, and 849 more doctors, in his strategic health authority area. North Wiltshire has 290 more teachers than in 1997, and Wiltshire has 63 more police officers. Unemployment has fallen 63 per cent. since 1997. None of that was mentioned in the criticisms that he levelled.
That comes on top of announcements this week in the Conservative party's so-called James review, the Conservative Front-Bench's failure to stand up to their party leader and shadow Chancellor, unlike some other shadow Ministers, and to defend the savage cuts that the Conservative party now proposes to make in DEFRA's budget