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23 May 2007 : Column 454WH—continued

11.14 pm

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate. He raises some important issues about the challenging period
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that farmers have been through, and if I do not have time to cover all of them, I shall write to him, as he suggested.

UK farming contributed £5.6 billion to our economy in 2006. It uses 75 per cent. of the country’s land area, and employs more than half a million people. One of the Government’s major tasks is to help this vital industry operate as efficiently as possible, and our strategy reflects our key economic, social and environmental goals. Our economic goals are to support farmers in building a profitable, innovative and competitive industry that meets consumers’ needs; to develop strong connections between farmers and their markets; to reform further the CAP; to strengthen links in the food chain; and to increase efficiency and competitiveness.

Social goals are focused on working to support farming’s wider contribution to the long-term sustainability of rural economies and communities, and to public health. Then there is the crucial environmental dimension of seeing farming fulfil its unique role in the countryside, and of making a net positive contribution to the environment, while also meeting high environmental and animal health and welfare standards. Farming is on the front line of the environmental challenges that we face, including climate change. The net environmental cost of agriculture is around £400 million a year. Yet nothing can be more fundamental to the long-term success of farm businesses than the sustainable management of the land and the resources on which they depend.

There are big opportunities and big challenges here, and the industry, with our support, needs to think hard about its future direction, about diversifying and innovating, and about making money from a wide variety of new products, notably in the environmental field as it farms energy, water and carbon, as well as food. However, it also needs to think hard about diversifying within traditional sectors and using new technology to best effect.

Market drivers are also changing. Customers are much more interested in sustainable consumption and production. The market in local, seasonal and organic produce is set to grow, and there is a chance to show that modern innovative farming is really delivering for the environment and animal welfare.

We also need to see climate change as an opportunity, not just a threat. If UK farming prepares now for this future, it can get ahead. The UK can become a leader in green farming and in developing solutions to reduce the use of natural resources and to reduce pollution. For example, anaerobic digestion has significant potential as a renewable energy and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We will publish today the UK biomass strategy along with the energy White Paper, which will explain how we propose to work with stakeholders to facilitate the uptake of anaerobic digestion. That is an important way forward and will provide new opportunities for farmers in East Sussex and the rest of the country.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of food security. I can reassure him that the Government take that issue very seriously. In December 2006, we published a wide-ranging study of food security, which concluded that the UK, being a rich, open economy,
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has a very robust and diverse food supply. We want British consumption of British food to come from the skills, innovation, investment, branding and quality assurance of the farming industry, rather than from a policy that aims simply to maximise the level of self-sufficiency. Clearly, as I have said, British consumers are increasingly interested in local, seasonal produce, and we hope to see that pattern continue.

At the end of March, we announced a new £3.9 billion budget for the 2007-13 England rural development programme. Most of that funding will be allocated to agri-environment and other land management schemes to help farmers to manage the land more sustainably and to deliver important environmental outcomes on biodiversity, landscape and access, water quality and climate change.

In 2007-08, there will be a further health check on the common agricultural policy. The European Commission has already said that it will make proposals aimed at a further shift in emphasis from direct farm payments to rural development with more compulsory modulation. The Government will encourage the Commission to be ambitious—to provide more freedom to farm, less bureaucracy and less market distortion. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of CAP reform on tenant farmers. The Government are committed to maintaining a prosperous tenanted farming sector, and it is important that tenant farmers can take full advantage of the opportunities of CAP reform. The latest research is encouraging, in that 70 per cent. of tenant farmers surveyed are already diversifying. One of the great strengths of farming in the United Kingdom has been the ability and willingness to diversify in recent years. Diversification can make good business sense for many farmers, potentially increasing their incomes and providing stability for their farm businesses. In fact, 50 per cent. of farm businesses have diversified activities. In many cases, diversified income now accounts for one quarter or more of the total farm income.

We want to make the diversification process as easy as possible for farmers by tackling the barriers that stand in its way. The Government’s barriers to diversification working group recently reported to Ministers. Planning issues and business skills are identified as key barriers for farmers who want to diversify. We are examining closely the recommendations made to us.

The aim is to create an environment in which our food and farming industries can flourish, and there are real areas of growth potential, in particular for non-food crops. Those can form the basis of renewable energy and fuels, and the feedstock for an increasing range of industrial materials that can make a positive contribution to sustainable development and deliver benefits for the rural economy, the environment, scientific innovation and industrial competitiveness. There are win-win-wins all around.

The Government are supporting that embryo industry with a package of measures to plant energy crops, develop supply lines and create end-use markets, but to reap the full benefits, farmers and industry will need to work together, and there are encouraging signs that more and more people are doing so. That is just one example of a range of work that is being done to deliver a more customer-focused, competitive and sustainable farming and food industry.

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Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provided approximately £12 million to support industry-led initiatives, such as those involving English Farming and Food Partnerships, the Food Chain Centre, the Red Meat Industry Forum and the Cereals Industry Forum, which aim to improve the efficiency of the food chain and to contribute to the spread of best practice. Food from Britain is working hard to implement the Government’s regional food strategy, which is aimed at helping to establish a flourishing quality regional food sector in England and to encourage more applications under the EU protected food name scheme.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the dairy industry. The ongoing work of the dairy supply chain forum is another great example of what can be achieved. As we all know, the milk industry has experienced a particularly challenging period. The shape and structure of the forum has been revised to help it to focus on real priorities for the industry. It now has separate taskforces to work on sustainable consumption and production issues, and CAP reform. The forum is an important vehicle for the dairy industry and crucial players such as the supermarkets to come together and discuss collaborative approaches to challenges.

The hon. Gentleman referred to supermarket power, and I understand the concerns in the farming industry about the concentration of the buying power of supermarkets and about the effectiveness of the code of practice. Competition matters are, as he knows, the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Office of Fair Trading. I am sure that he is also aware that, at the request of the OFT, the Competition Commission is carrying out an extensive investigation of the groceries market. I encourage people with views on that subject to make them known to the Competition Commission, but it would be wrong of me to speculate on any of its potential findings.

The hon. Gentleman did not refer to the single farm payment, but let me say something about it, because it has been a hugely controversial issue.

Norman Baker: I do not want to stop the Minister talking about the single farm payment, but could he also say something on bovine TB and bluetongue, which are major disease issues in my constituency?

Ian Pearson: I will endeavour to say a little about that. I might write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail.

The single farm payment is clearly an area in which further improvements are needed. As is well known, there have been big problems with the implementation of the single payment scheme, which has clearly had a major impact on farmers and the wider farming industry. A great deal of work is being done to improve performance, and I think it right to put on the record the fact that we are working on that very hard indeed. We are working to improve the timing and accuracy of payments, and the results are starting to come through, but more needs to be done. There are challenges, but there is also determination to ensure that we deliver a stable and reliable payment system for the future.

Of course, we face many other complex challenges, including the need to improve access to affordable housing for people who live and work in rural areas.
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That is a particular issue in East Sussex, given the high property prices there. The recent publication of a new planning policy statement on housing is a big step forward on that important issue, encouraging local authorities and regional planning bodies to take greater account of affordability pressures and the need to sustain village life by promoting and providing additional housing that is sensitive to the area and its environment. I hope that that goal will be boosted by initiatives such as the fresh start scheme. That is about bringing new entrants into farming, identifying new business opportunities for potential young farmers and giving rural communities a boost. The Sussex fresh start academy and the East Sussex young farmers club are vigorously supporting that approach.

Clearly, there is a strong business dimension to the better regulation agenda, which is an issue that many people feel passionately about. Regulation should be effective, transparent, proportionate and cost-effective, and we should try to use alternatives to regulation wherever possible.

The hon. Gentleman referred to animal disease and, in particular, bovine TB and the possibility of the introduction of bluetongue into the United Kingdom. I am particularly concerned about the latter. As a result of climate change, we are potentially likely to see new diseases in the UK, and we need to take into account the issue that has been raised. On the specifics of bluetongue and where we are in terms of preparedness, it is probably best that I write to the hon. Gentleman to set out some of the detail.

As for bovine TB, it is localised in its effects, but its level overall remains unacceptably high, imposing significant costs on the dairy and beef food supply chains, with real consequences for individual farmers and their families. Despite a 15 per cent. increase in testing in 2006, the overall numbers are down, which is positive, but it is not clear at the moment whether that is a cyclical development or there is something more behind it. However, we do know that more than 93 per cent. of British herds were officially bovine TB-free at the end of 2006.

That does raise, however, issues about vaccination. The Government have invested £10.5 million in the past seven years in vaccine development and associated research, and progress has been made. I understand that candidate vaccines have started to be tested in naturally infected cattle and badgers, and novel vaccine delivery systems are being developed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned badger culling. As he will be aware, that has not been ruled in or out, and there is no current timetable for a decision. The Government believe that it is important to make the right decision, not a quick decision.

There are big challenges and shared challenges. The Government have a role and responsibilities, and farming has a role and responsibilities. To make the system work as a whole, we need to bring those together. I welcome the enthusiasm, engagement and co-operation that I increasingly see and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issues that he did. I agree to write to him about the comments that he made to which I have not been able to provide answers.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

23 May 2007 : Column 459WH

Coal Health Claims

2.30 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured the debate, which is our third or fourth in Westminster Hall on coal health claims. I am proud of what Labour Governments have done to bring in those claims. The Prime Minister said today that more than £3 billion has already been paid out. I was astonished to find that there has been a £10 million increase in what has been paid out in my constituency since our last debate on this issue. Some £33 million has been paid out in North Durham to date. We should be proud of Labour for that record.

We cannot be proud, however, of the way in which solicitors, claims handlers and, sadly, some trade unions, have raided victims’ compensation. There has been a feeding frenzy as they have taken money for their own greed. As I have said before in this Chamber, if those events had taken place in the leafy suburbs of Surrey or in middle-class England, it would be a national scandal and would be in the headlines of every newspaper. I was pleased that the report of my noble Friend Lord Lofthouse got some national publicity when it was finally published a few weeks ago. We should congratulate him on highlighting the unscrupulous way in which certain solicitors firms have raided and plundered victims’ compensation.

I shall focus on two issues today, the first of which is the deductions that are still being taken even though this issue has been well publicised in this Chamber and elsewhere. The second issue is the poor standard of service that some solicitors are giving to miners and their families.

I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), on pressing hard for the introduction of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which is a move in the right direction. For the first time, there is independent control over the regulation of solicitors. I also congratulate the Legal Complaints Service on finally getting its act together and responding to the complaints that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and I have made in large quantities. It is dealing with those cases very effectively and with some gusto.

The good work of those two organisations is marred, however, by the culture of denial in the senior echelons of the Law Society. I had the privilege, or honour, of meeting Fiona Woolf, the chief executive of the Law Society, at the launch of the SRA a few months ago, and I must say that her attitude told me everything that is wrong with the Law Society. There is a culture of denial and a belief that this issue does not affect the society. It thinks that its members have done nothing wrong, but that culture of denial needs to end.

We are seeing some signs of that culture ending. Peter Williamson, the chair of the SRA, gave an encouraging response to Lord Lofthouse’s report last week, when he said that he was ashamed that solicitors whose costs were being met by the Government were doing such things. There are moves to clean up the legal profession’s act in this regard, but there is a long way to go. We must insist today that the Law Society and individual solicitors pay back the money that they deducted from people’s compensation.

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The scam—I have called it a scam before, because that is what it is: deluding people and taking payments from their compensation—could not have gone on without collusion between solicitors, claims handlers and some trade unions. I shall use as an example a firm that I have mentioned before: Thompsons Solicitors. I had a lot of dealings with Thompsons in my former life as a trade union official, and I greatly admire the work that it has done for asbestos victims and on behalf of trade unions, but its relationship with the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers does not cover it in a great deal of glory.

Durham NUM and Thompsons operate a system whereby 7.5 per cent. of people’s compensation is taken by Thompsons and passed on to Durham NUM, even though all their fees are paid by the Government. Durham NUM has reluctantly realised that the system is unsustainable and now says that it will be voluntary in future.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): The federated structure of the NUM still exists, and I am still a fully paid-up member of the Northumberland area NUM, which operated a system of purely voluntary contributions from day one. That system was very successful, and those contributions were used to continue the very good work that it does in fairly remote communities and to maintain a service that is greatly appreciated by many people.

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend pre-empts what I was going to say next. By way of contrast, I was about to compliment the Northumberland area NUM. It has been very good at ensuring that miners and their families get access to justice, but without taking a fixed fee. Instead, it asks for a voluntary donation, which is very defendable. Comparisons between those systems lead us to ask why Durham NUM has continued to deduct 7.5 per cent.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Is it not true that during the period that we are discussing, Northumberland NUM had a number of working miners paying subscriptions into the union, whereas that was not the case with the Durham miners?

Mr. Jones: That is an interesting point, but I ask my hon. Friend to wait while I expand on what Durham NUM is doing with the money.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): The amount that has been paid to the legal profession is obscene, as is the agreed sum of £1,800 per lawyer per case. The Department of Trade and Industry should have done much more to challenge those sums. Payments of £1,800 were also made in cases that were fast-tracked. I know that they went to court, but does my hon. Friend not agree that the DTI should have challenged those payments in instances where the recipients were doing nothing for that money? Is not that an obscenity?

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