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23 May 2007 : Column 448WH—continued

10.50 am

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O’Hara. We had a debate on 25 April—my birthday, so there was at least one thing to cheer me that day—when much of the ground was covered, but today’s debate has been more extensive and Members have been better able to make their points. I welcome this debate.

I want to put on the record the apologies of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who would have taken this debate if his return from discussions in Pakistan and Afghanistan had not been delayed. As I always do with debates, whether on this or other issues, I shall carefully read Hansard tomorrow, and if there is a need to give further explanation or to take up a point that I do not deal with or do not deal with as adequately as I should, I shall write to all Members in attendance through you, Mr. O’Hara, and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I know that he has a great interest in the subject—it is not something that he dips in and out of—and although we may not agree on some issues or use the same language, I fully accept where he is coming from and the genuineness of his case.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), and my good friend—if I may say that—the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who is the Conservative spokesman. I am not sure what will happen in six weeks’ time, other than that there will still be a Labour Government and a Labour Prime Minister. As to my going to the Department for Work and Pensions, I have been there and done that. However, one never knows one’s luck in politics. All people know is that they never know how long they will be a Minister. It is the only profession in Britain in which one does not have to be qualified to get a job. All they have to do is be on the same side as the Prime Minister on the day of the reshuffle, so who knows? We will have to wait and see.

Hon. Members may be aware from the previous debate, from parliamentary questions and from comments by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary, that the Government constantly review their overall bilateral policy towards Iran in the light of the recent detention of Royal Navy personnel, the continued concerns that the international community has over the behaviour of the Iranian regime and the comments of hon. Members on each occasion, whatever the language used. In the
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end, we come to the same conclusion: there is a need for dialogue and for finding ways to continue the dialogue bilaterally and multilaterally, and for taking the international community with us at each stage of that dialogue. It was dialogue and the support of the international community that led to the personnel whom Iran had illegally seized being given back, with no deal and no apology from us. That happened because the international community stood four-square with us in the dialogue that took place. That is the way forward.

The hon. Member for Cheadle was right on that issue. I have heard him speak in other debates—he takes part in most debates on human rights issues. I am not known always to defend Liberal Democrats, but, in making his case this morning, he did not excuse the Iranians. He made an important intellectual point: there must be dialogue in the region’s forums. He did not put that case in support of me as the Minister but took a common-sense approach. As he said, with international relations as complex and difficult as they are, there are no easy answers, but if we are to get the right answers, we will do it only through persistent bilateral dialogue with the regime itself and with those around it, and through multilateral dialogue.

Two things underpin our policy: first, our commitment to engagement, through diplomacy and dialogue, in encouraging Iran to play a constructive role on the international stage; and secondly, our work with international partners to maintain a strong line against unacceptable Iranian behaviour, including its support for terrorism and violence in the region. Those elements are important and complementary.

Engagement is not the same as appeasement. We will continue to put pressure on Iran to modify its behaviour. Colleagues who use the word “appeasement” are wrong to do so. We must co-operate on the matter, both internally in the United Kingdom and bilaterally and multilaterally with the international community. We must continue to put pressure on Iran to modify its behaviour, and we must continue to work with international partners to ensure that we send a clear and consistent message about the costs to Iran of its continuing poor behaviour.

A couple of days ago, the Leader of the Opposition called for the Government to take robust action on Iran because of its nuclear ambitions. Indeed, in his speech, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) exactly described our policy of a twin-track approach that holds out the possibility of greater engagement but also includes co-ordinated international pressure to encourage Iran to modify its behaviour, and international action if it does not. That is precisely the description of what we continue to do. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition made such a speech.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary argued the case for incrementally increasing the pressure on Iran and giving it a clear choice between complying with the international community and facing further consequences. We would like Iran to play a positive role in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, and it could take that path if it chose to do so. That path would lead to Iran’s greater engagement with the international community, which would benefit its people.

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Instead, Iran is doing its best to reduce security, prevent reconciliation and undermine democracy not just in Iraq, but throughout the whole region. Many countries in the middle east already feel threatened by its increasingly malign role in Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Member for Newark set that out in detail in his introduction, and I agreed with what he said. Continuation of such behaviour will lead only to increased isolation for the regime and greater economic difficulty for the Iranian people.

Iran is arming, funding and training extremists who are undermining security and stability in Iraq. That is totally unacceptable in all circumstances. There is evidence to show that armed groups in the south are using sophisticated weaponry and technology of Iranian origin, including in attacks on British servicemen in and around Basra. Iran is backing some of the groups that are conducting those attacks. We condemn such interference. There can be no justification, under any circumstances, for any country to encourage violence against our forces in Iraq, as they are there under a UN mandate. I cannot underline that any more than the hon. Gentleman did in his introduction to the debate. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which Iran should carry out such activities.

Furthermore, in addition to causing casualties among the multinational force and international security forces, Iranian support fuels sectarian violence in Iraq, which undermines attempts by the Iraqis and the international community to build the stable, representative and democratic Iraq that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want.

Support for sectarian violence in Iraq is also against the interests of the Iranian people. After all, Iran has more to gain than most from the establishment of a stable, secure Iraq and a stable, secure region. It is vital that Iraq’s neighbours support the Iraqi Government in their efforts to improve security and the economy, and to promote reconciliation. Prime Minister Maliki has made it clear that the Iranian region must stop its support for terrorists and armed groups.

We are committed to supporting the Government of Iraq, and we will continue to take steps to tackle anyone who undermines or attacks the legitimate Iraqi authorities. Furthermore, we are working to build the capacity of Iraqi authorities to tackle such groups themselves. I repeat that Iran could choose to play an important and constructive role in Iraq, but, instead, it chooses to carry on supporting terrorism and destabilising the region.

I shall write to hon. Members in detail. I will keep hon. Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock informed about the matter that he raised. There is a court case pending. As soon as that is concluded, I shall write in detail about the issue. I shall ensure that, in the next day or two, hon. Members get a full reply to their questions and the general points that have been raised today. I apologise once again that I am unable to give the time necessary to cover each separate point, but I hope that what I have said provides clarity on what our relationship should be with Iran and on why Iran should desist from supporting terrorism in the region, particularly in Iraq.

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Farming (East Sussex)

11 am

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a matter of considerable interest to my constituents. Although I represent a south-east constituency, it is quite a rural area and the farming community is important not just to employment—in fact employment in farming has actually decreased, as it has across the country—but for other reasons that I am sure the Minister will be pleased to endorse. For example, farming makes an important contribution to the rural environment and to the landscape. What would the landscape in Lewes and elsewhere be like if there were no farmers to maintain it? That is often taken for granted by those of us not directly involved in farming; nevertheless, it is an important factor that should be considered. It should also be emphasised that farmers provide the glue for the rural area and economy. In recent years there has been a decline in the number of people involved in farming and consequently a reduction in the attention given by the Government to farming—the Ministry of Agriculture was, of course, abolished.

Farming is important and I will ask the Minister some questions that I hope he can answer. I welcome him to the debate and congratulate him on the way in which he has settled into his role as Minister for Climate Change and the Environment. We have had three successively good Environment Ministers and my only regret is that the role does not have more influence in Government. I hope that he might be able to correct that while he is in office.

The first issue that I wish to raise is food security, which might seem a rather old-fashioned subject. The Government have emphasised the need to make the farming community more economically viable. I agree with that and with many of the related issues that the Government have pursued. However, we should have a concept of what percentage of food we want to be able to grow ourselves in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. An energy White Paper is being published today that, among other issues, will rightly consider energy self-sufficiency. Food self-sufficiency is not being addressed in the same way, but it is an important issue. I made that point the last time that I initiated a debate on farming in my constituency. I said then that

That is still my view.

I had a detailed response to many issues raised in that debate from the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), but he did not address that particular point. What is the Government’s view on self-sufficiency in agriculture and how it can benefit the country in 20 years’ time? What is the overall plan? Is there a target? I suppose that there is not, but what is the general view on that issue? [Interruption.] Well, such matters affect my East Sussex constituents in the same way as they affect the rest of the country. I hope that the Minister will accept the issues that I am raising, as farmers in my constituency have asked me to draw them to his attention.

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Bovine tuberculosis is a national issue that particularly affects my constituency. The Minister will be aware of the serious concern in the farming community about incidents of bovine TB. There are hot spots in my constituency and herds are going down in the Cuckmere and Ouse valleys, which is a serious matter indeed in an area where livestock farming is predominant. The Government were edging towards taking some form of definitive action, but they appear to have moved back from that. In the meantime, the number of herds—and of badgers—affected by TB is rising and the rural economy is suffering. The situation cannot be allowed to drift for much longer; the Government need a clear policy to tackle the disease.

For nine or 10 years, I was the Liberal Democrats’ animal welfare spokesman. Bovine TB is indeed an animal welfare issue. TB is not a pleasant disease for cattle, badgers or, indeed, humans and it is irresponsible to allow it to continue to spread without trying to take action to deal with it. Does the Minister agree with the National Farmers Union that it is necessary for steps to be taken in relation to wildlife control to remove badgers from particular areas? If he does not, are the Government considering a possible vaccination against TB? If not, what is the strategy for dealing with this most insidious disease, which, as I say, is an animal welfare matter? It is also an economic issue for farmers, and in some parts of my constituency there is a sense of despair at apparent Government drift on this most important issue.

I mentioned self-sufficiency and as the Minister will know, there is a strong movement across the country, including in Lewes, to support local farmers and to ensure that wherever possible, local produce is bought. That is of course an environmental aim as well as an economic matter. A farmers market has been set up in Lewes, which has been successful. Transition Town Lewes has also been created, the aim of which is to promote local produce and to ensure that communities are as self-sufficient as possible. I would be surprised if the Government did not support that. Part of such developments is to ensure that a fair balance operates in the market between the producer and supplier. The Minister will know that there are strong concerns among the farming community and others about the imbalance between the supermarkets and the farmers who supply produce. That is a big issue.

An answer to a written question that I received on 6 June 2005 said that the price paid to farmers for a litre of milk was 25p in 1996 and that it dropped to 18.46p in 2004. Over the same period, the price of milk in supermarkets has remained roughly the same, at 63p to 64p. Although the price paid to farmers has dropped, supermarket profits have increased, which is an unsatisfactory situation. The Minister will know that the supermarkets make gigantic profits. Tesco will make about £150,000 profit during the half hour in which we are speaking, yet most farmers live on less than that throughout the whole year. Tesco has launched an initiative to increase the prices paid to farmers in a selective way, and the Office of Fair Trading is also considering the matter, which is not before time. However, it would be useful if the Minister said something about that subject, and particularly about what he is doing to promote local markets. We do not want an environmentally wasteful arrangement
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whereby food is produced somewhere, taken miles away to a depot by the supermarkets, a big mark-up is then added and the food is then sent back to where it came from. We need a better way of organising ourselves, and the Government have a role in promoting that.

On self-sufficiency, the Minister needs to recognise that there is a shortage of abattoirs in some areas, including in my constituency. That means that animals are transported further, which is bad for animal welfare and bad for farmers because of the cost of doing so. It is also bad for the environment because of emissions from lorry movements. We have lost many local abattoirs and it is important to reinstate some of them. I would welcome the Minister’s saying something about that matter and whether the Government have a strategy on abattoirs.

Bluetongue is also of concern to farmers in my constituency. The Minister may have seen South East Farmermagazine, which has focused on that issue. The May 2007 edition has the headline:

The magazine states that bluetongue is already found across the channel and “with a fair wind” could cross to Kent and East Sussex.

During the past 10 years there has been a succession of major body blows to the livestock industry, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth disease. Other health issues have also affected the economic viability of farming; I hope that bluetongue will not be the next problem. What assessment has the Minister made of the threat of bluetongue to farmers in my constituency and more widely? What plans are in place to prevent bluetongue, if that is possible, or to deal with it if it does occur? What will be the arrangements for—I hope that it does not come to this—livestock restrictions, culling or compensation if bluetongue does arrive?

I am conscious that I am asking the Minister lots of questions, and if he has to write to me subsequently, I will understand. However, it is important that my questions be answered for the benefit of those in my constituency who have asked me to pursue them with him today.

Another issue that concerns local farmers is environmental stewardship. Again, I welcome the direction of travel of the Minister and his colleagues—toward payments for environmental outputs—which I have supported strongly for many years. Indeed, we need further reform of the common agricultural policy to incentivise such actions. However, the Minister will be aware that East Sussex and my constituency in particular contain a large chunk of the south downs and, therefore, a large environmentally sensitive area. As ESA agreements come to the end of their term, there is no guarantee that the farmland will make it into the higher-level scheme replacing it, which means that good environmental work could be lost for ever.

Marginal livestock production is unlikely to survive when ESA or countryside stewardship schemes come to an end. Natural England, with its limited budget, will not be in a position to pick up the whole funding gap, which means that farmers will consider alternative cropping for that land. That could mean that some of the good work done to maintain the landscape to which I referred at the beginning of my contribution
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could be lost, which would be completely counter-productive and against the wishes of the local population. That would be a shame, given the good work that has been done with the ESA scheme.

What is the Minister doing to ensure that sufficient funds are available for environmental stewardship? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that there is a 20 per cent. shortfall in England in the budget to deliver agri-environmental objectives. It says that the higher-level scheme is particularly affected by that shortfall. Does the Minister agree and if so, what is he doing about it?

As I said, livestock is important to my constituency. The Minister will be aware that farming is subject to regulation, as indeed is every other industry in the country. However, the livestock sector is particularly affected by the Government’s proposals for animal disease cost-sharing and for funding the cattle traceability system, and by the compliance costs that are likely to follow the anticipated review of legislation on nitrogen-vulnerable zones in July. There is also the lack of fallen stock collection in the region. It is easy to see why livestock numbers are falling locally.

The Minister might like to know that in 1996 there were 383 dairy herds in Sussex, but that 10 years later, we are down to just 149—a 61 per cent. reduction. That is a pretty catastrophic reduction, and there is no suggestion that we have hit rock bottom. There will be further losses, undoubtedly partly owing to the added costs and regulations affecting the livestock industry in particular. Although I am sure that each of those burdens will have been assessed individually before being introduced, have the Government assessed the overall impact and collective consequence of imposing those burdens on a single industry at roughly the same time?

Field teaching and getting children out into rural areas are important issues in my constituency and elsewhere. The Minister will be aware that each year, more than 60,000 children enjoy out-of-classroom learning on RSPB nature reserves through its “living classrooms” scheme. It is important that we have a connection between those who live in towns, and practices that operate in the countryside. My constituency is a semi-rural area, and I find it shocking on visiting some of its schools that some children appear to be uncertain about the connection, if any, between a piece of meat on a tray in a supermarket wrapped in polythene, and where it comes from. We need a greater connection, through the education system, between those who live in urban areas and what happens in the countryside. That reinforces my earlier point about the need for localism and for communities to be as self-sufficient as possible. It is all one and the same thing. I very much hope that the Minister has something positive to say about that.

Finally, I thank you, Mr. O’Hara, for giving me the opportunity to make those points. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. As I said, if he cannot answer all my questions in detail—I hope that he will have a good go—I hope that he will write to me with the answers.

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