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House of Commons

Thursday 8 March 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Publicly Procured Food

1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What estimate he has made of the proportion of publicly procured food that was British in 2006. [125903]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): My Department does not hold that information, but I have commissioned work to determine the proportion of publicly procured food that is British. I am optimistic that it will be completed by the late autumn of this year, and I will place the information in the Library of the House.

Andrew Selous: How do the Government justify feeding hospital patients and service personnel so much food that does not meet British standards? In my area, the Bedfordshire food mark ensures that Bedfordshire schoolchildren eat the county’s food. Will the Government ensure that publicly procured food meets the red tractor assured food standard?

David Miliband rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must repeat that I do not expect hon. Members to read a supplementary question into the record. I say that in the nicest possible way, but they should hear what Ministers have to say in answer to a question, and respond orally.

David Miliband: I am sure that, by his reference to standards, the hon. Gentleman would not want to suggest that unsafe food was somehow being fed to hospital patients. I am concerned that, inadvertently, some people listening might have got that impression, and it is certainly not the case. Obviously, I believe that it is important that we give British producers the maximum opportunity to ensure that their food is supplied to public services such as hospitals, schools and the Prison Service. That is what the public sector food procurement initiative is designed to do, and it is helping local producers around the country to get their produce into
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the public sector. That is good and is consistent with the trade rules that ensure that our producers are able to export overseas as well as supply domestically.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): Given that we are in the middle of Fairtrade fortnight, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should use our purchasing power to support subsistence food farmers abroad, as well as home-grown produce? To that end, will he join my campaign to make Burnley a fair trade town?

David Miliband: I am sure that my hon. Friend’s passion for Burnley—

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Pity about the football team!

David Miliband: I cannot save the football team, but I have heard a rumour that Mr. Alastair Campbell is going to be its next manager, and perhaps that will be the source of its salvation. That will be in addition to his memoirs, rather than as an alternative to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) makes a good point. The best thing for fair trade around the world, and for a fair deal for British producers, is an open trading regime. I am sure that, like me, she will remember that there was a ban in the 1990s on British producers selling beef overseas. That was very dangerous. Now, 5,000 tonnes of beef are being exported every month, and that is a good thing. However, open trade is equally essential to people all around the world who have a right to develop in a way that means that they can support themselves. It is possible to achieve a balance. We are trying, rightly, to give every encouragement to British producers, but they will prosper best in an open and liberal trading environment.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I represent the constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire, which is heavily agricultural. Does the Secretary of State agree that the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is relevant? The best boost that he could give today’s hard-pressed farmers is to ensure that the food used in the public services, the Army and schools meets the red tractor standard and is purchased from British producers. Surely we should back our farmers, just as so many other countries in Europe and elsewhere back theirs.

David Miliband: We certainly should do that, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some happy tidings. Fresh from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs canteen, I can report that more than 80 per cent. of our fish is domestically sourced, as is more than 90 per cent. of our pork, nearly 100 per cent. of our dairy products and fully 100 per cent. of our eggs.

However, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) makes a serious point about backing British producers. There are two approaches, one of which is to say that we should have a protectionist regime and that we should force our public sector suppliers to buy British only. However, that would be damaging, because Governments around the world would retaliate against British producers. It is
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far better to say, alternatively, that British farmers will prosper best when theirs is the best produce available in an open and fair market, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

I urge the hon. Member for Macclesfield to back the public sector food procurement initiative, which tries to ensure that our farmers get into the retail and public sector chains that are so important. They can win on quality, and do not need special favours.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we want good local food chains and that there is no better way to provide them than by using county farm estates—smallholdings still owned by county councils and other authorities? Using those farmers to supply our schools and hospitals would be the best of all solutions.

David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I went to the Oxford farming conference in January I specifically pointed out that all our experience shows that the urge to buy local is growing fast. The red tractor has an important place as a mark of British standards, but, equally, local produce often has the provenance, quality and attachment that people look for, which is important. My hon. Friend’s point is important and I shall look into it.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I assure the Secretary of State that nobody seeks protectionism for British producers. The public sector procurement initiative was launched four years ago, yet in response to my questions to Departments, seven do not know how much of their food is British and three others, including Health and Education and Skills—two of the big ones—will not answer the question. Even the Prime Minister, who had the brass neck to front up the Country Land and Business Association’s “just ask” campaign a few weeks ago, does not know how much food served at No. 10 is British, so what sort of example is that? Is not it now clear that there is no way to judge whether the initiative is actually working and whether there has been any change after four years? There is no way of knowing how much of the £2 billion of taxpayers’ money is delivering the goods. The Secretary of State—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point—he is not happy about something.

David Miliband: I am sure you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is important that Opposition spokesmen actually listen to the answers given at the beginning. If the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) had bothered to listen he would know that in the course of this year we shall have the figures he seeks so zealously. I am sorry he seeks to run down projects that are helping British producers in every region of the country to supply the public sector. I am sorry he seeks to run down the English Farming and Food Partnership, which many people in the industry think has made an important contribution. I suggest that rather than bleating he should actually support some of those campaigns.

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Carbon Emissions

2. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What recent meetings he has had with representatives of UK commerce and industry to discuss the contribution of environmental management systems to reducing carbon emissions. [125904]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): My ministerial colleagues and I have regular discussions with UK industry representatives about a wide range of environmental issues, including the role that environmental management systems can play in helping to reduce carbon emissions.

Mr. Bailey: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What conversations has he had with the construction industry and developers to promote a regulatory framework that in turn will promote geothermal and other energy-saving devices in the residential and commercial property sectors?

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the potential for geothermal energy. If we are to move to zero carbon homes—as we must if we are to avoid dangerous climate change—we shall need a host of renewable technologies in our new housing stock. Geothermal energy, where appropriate, can work and provide a cost-effective solution. There are obviously other forms of renewable energy, such as ground source heat pumps, solar, voltaics, wind turbines and district heating systems, which also have a role to play. We are looking into how we can use regulation to encourage greater use of renewables through the planning system, as we think that is an important way forward.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I do not know how often the Minister goes shopping, but if he walked down the nation’s high streets he would notice that many shops leave their doors open to provide easy access for their customers, while keeping the heating at full blast to make customers comfortable inside the store. Does he agree that if we are to get the commercial sector to take climate change seriously, we urgently need a climate change Bill to provide a framework in which everyone has to make their contribution to dealing with the problem?

Ian Pearson: I certainly agree that we need a climate change Bill, which is why one was announced in the Queen’s Speech. The hon. Lady is probably aware that we are consulting on a proposal to introduce either a benchmarking system or an energy performance commitment, which would affect large energy-intensive users, including many supermarkets and other high street properties. This afternoon, I shall be visiting the Trade Association Forum, which covers 300 trade bodies and 500,000 companies that are signing a declaration on climate change, so I think our high streets are increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and want to do something about it.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When my hon. Friend talks to the private sector, will he take into account the fact that it has an enormous leadership role to play in meeting climate change? Does he agree that Government regulation and that sort of
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thing can go some way to putting ourselves in a position to meet the challenges, but that if we could harness and encourage some of the very innovative work going on in the private and the financial services sectors, we could do something serious about climate change?

Ian Pearson: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the private sector has a vital role in avoiding dangerous climate change. Through the EU emissions trading scheme, some of our biggest companies are already actively involved in a cap and trade scheme. I have already mentioned the energy performance commitment and the proposal on benchmarking. There are other ways in which the UK Government can help support the private sector to avoid climate change. We have funded Envirowise, for example, which has helped business save about £1 billion through increasing resource efficiency and avoiding waste. We also fund the Carbon Trust, which works with companies that want to avoid climate change, and I think that business increasingly recognises that there is value and importance in reducing CO2.

Dairy Industry

3. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): What recent discussions he has had on the state of the dairy industry. [125906]

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Sustainable Farming and Food, Lord Rooker, regularly discuss the dairy industry with industry representatives and other interested parties.

Mr. Williams: The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State recently visited the NFU conference and he will know that farmers are determined to play a part in producing a sustainable food chain, particularly in dairy products. However, Farmers Guardian, Country Living and Waitrose are launching a campaign, “fair trade for British farmers” so that agriculture can regain profitability and deliver those public goods that are so highly prized. What role does the Minister believe his Department and the Government can play in the campaign?

Mr. Bradshaw: We certainly welcome the initiative. He might have heard that Sainsbury’s has today announced an increased price for milk, and I believe that Tesco did so yesterday. Those are moves in the right direction, as we have always said that there should be a sustainable industry and a fair price. However, that is a matter to be determined between the industry and retailers—under the auspices, of course, of the competition rules and so on—and not a matter for the Government.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I was in agreement with what my hon. Friend said until the end of his answer, but he must surely realise that in a competitive market environment, supermarkets are going to force the price down, even though they are making gestures now. They have no responsibility to provide food for this country, whereas the Government
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do have responsibility to ensure a continuation of the supply of provisions. Surely we do have an interest and we must be a stakeholder at those talks.

Mr. Bradshaw: We are regularly involved in talks, as I have already pointed out. My hon. Friend is wrong to imply that the supermarkets do not have an interest in maintaining a sustainable dairy sector. I think that they do, and they have recognised that in the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Lord Rooker and I have had with them. We are pretty much self-sufficient in raw milk, which shows that they do have an interest. I would not be churlish about the recent price increases. I also think it important to remember that there is a massive gap of about 12p a litre in the difference between some of the most and some of the least efficient milk producers. We want to ensure that some of the least efficient get up to the standards of the most efficient.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Minister will understand that much of the future well-being of the dairy industry will depend on the resolution of problems connected with bovine TB and the EU dairy regime. May I raise with him the question I put to the Prime Minister yesterday? Will he have a word with the Secretary of State so that this House of Commons is given an opportunity to debate all these matters in a comprehensive discussion on agriculture, bearing in mind that we have not had such a debate since December 2002?

Mr. Bradshaw: These are matters for those who organise the business of the House, not for us. The right hon. Gentleman can always apply for a debate in Westminster Hall, or his Front-Bench colleagues might like to hold such a debate on one of their Opposition days.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend is well aware that farm prices for farmers’ households have dropped to about £13,000. That figure has dropped by more than 60 per cent. in four years. That is a tragedy and it is not sustainable for dairy farmers to receive such low incomes. What will the Minister do to be an honest broker and to try to ensure that all supermarkets give a fair price to farmers, at the same time as ensuring better value for customers? Farm-gate prices are dropping, but at the same time prices are increasing for customers in the shops. We need to ensure that farming can survive and be sustainable.

Mr. Bradshaw: I have already referred to some of the increases that have recently been announced. I do not think that my hon. Friend is right to say that farm incomes dropped again this year; I think that I am right in saying that average farm incomes increased this year, as they did last year. He is right about the dairy sector, which has been going through a particularly difficult time. As we are talking about farm incomes, it is worth pointing out that farm land prices rose again substantially last year and are now at record levels.

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