21 Jun 2007 : Column 1497

21 Jun 2007 : Column 1497

House of Commons

Thursday 21 June 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—

Single Payment Scheme (Inspections)

1. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): If he will make a statement on the regulatory burden on farming businesses of inspections associated with the single payment scheme. [144182]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and before I answer, I have to say that the Secretary of State has asked me to thank you for your indulgence in allowing him to join our proceedings somewhat late this morning. As you are aware, he intends no discourtesy to the House but is delayed by his attendance at Cabinet, which, being the Prime Minister’s last, is scheduled to run a little longer today.

The single payment scheme requires two types of inspection: first, on whether the land is eligible; and secondly, on whether farmers comply with cross-compliance. Five per cent. of applicants are subject to a land eligibility inspection, and the four competent control authorities each inspect 1 per cent. of applicants under the cross-compliance requirements or standards for which they are responsible. The Rural Payments Agency is working to implement the Hunter review recommendations to reduce the burden of such inspections.

Mr. Williams: I thank the Minister for that answer and accept entirely the importance of compliance when disbursing public money. However, some inspections are duplicated. I give the example of a farm having a TB test, whereby all the cattle have to be brought in twice within four days, and then a month later being told that there must be a bovine inspection and all the numbers have to be taken again, although the processes could be done at a single time. Will the Minister impress on the Environment Agency, DEFRA officials and the State Veterinary Service the importance of co-ordinating programmes to eliminate duplication and so reduce the burden on farming businesses?

Barry Gardiner: I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This is something that we have impressed on officials. The RPA is considering it and looking to co-ordinate inspections wherever possible. It is absolutely essential that we try to reduce the burden on farmers in the way that he suggests.

21 Jun 2007 : Column 1498

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I acknowledge the Minister’s interest in reducing bureaucracy, but would he admit that for farmers such as myself—I declare my interest—the real problem with the scheme is that they are now faced with their third year of disfunction in terms of the delivery of payments, while at the same time any minor mistakes that they make in good faith in compliance with the scheme are disproportionately punished? [ Interruption . ]

An hon. Member: It’s Gordon Brown. [ Laughter . ]

Barry Gardiner: Once hon. Gentlemen have recovered from the paroxysms of mirth that have overtaken them, I can say that I appreciate the point that has been made. I know that there is a perception that sometimes farmers are penalised for very minor infractions, but I think that it is a mistaken impression, and there are a number of statistics that would show that it is. In 2006, of the 5,500 inspections that were carried out under the SPS to determine eligibility of land, 1,370 minor breaches that fell below the penalty threshold were reported, and only 62 cases actually triggered penalties. I am aware that there is an impression out there that minor infractions are always punished, but a lot of them fall below the threshold. Comparatively speaking, the record of inspectors on getting it right is quite good.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the Minister accept that the number of inspections, with various agencies’ inspectors parading around farms, creates the danger of disease being carried from farm to farm? Surely there should be proper co-ordination. Farmers want to farm instead of having this endless bureaucracy and red tape.

Barry Gardiner: I accept that we should minimise the number of inspections to which farms are subjected. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the Hunter review, which reported in March this year, specifically recommended that Government should keep the number of inspections to a minimum and reduce the target time that each inspection takes. In 2005-06, the failure rate on inspection under the EU regulations was high, and an additional 800 inspections were therefore required, but in 2006-07 those additional inspections were not required. That is very positive because it shows that farmers are finding the way to compliance a lot easier than previously, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the number of inspections that are required under the rules.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The burden of regulations from DEFRA to business is £527.8 million a year, and 154 new regulations were introduced last year despite the Department’s claim that it was reducing the regulatory burden. There is now a perfect opportunity for the Government to lift that burden. At the moment, sheep farmers are required to put only one tag in a sheep’s ear. Are the Government going to continue the derogation allowing single tagging in sheep? It will save shepherds and farmers £15 million a year if they do not have to put a second, identical tag in a sheep’s ear.

21 Jun 2007 : Column 1499

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions are being held with the European Union on that subject. He also knows that derogations are usually allowed by the EU for only a limited period. He mentioned the specific issue of sheep identification and tags. Let me shatter the myth about burdens. Of approximately 1,500 cross-compliance inspections carried out in 2006, only 71 breaches were reported, of which three attracted warning letters, 44 received a low 1 per cent. penalty, and 21 got a 3 per cent. penalty. Again, the burden is low.

Household Recycling

2. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What plans he has to increase levels of household recycling. [144184]

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Our new waste strategy sets new and challenging targets to increase household recycling and composting, which has quadrupled since 1997. We expect further big improvements as part of the new strategy.

Mr. Flello: Given the wide variation between local authorities’ actions on household recycling, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that all local authorities are aware of best practice, implement it, are suitably encouraged to use it and empowered to do so?

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the unacceptable differences in performance between local authorities. Some are already performing at the levels of our best European counterparts, whereas others hover just above single figures for recycling. We have a programme of engagement with the poorest performers and I plan to meet some of those in the weeks to come. Of course, they are all subject not only to our targets but to the landfill tax. If they do not increase their recycling and reduce their landfill, their council tax payers will pay a heavy price.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Does the Minister intend to issue guidance about alternate and weekly collections?

Mr. Bradshaw: No, that is best left to local authorities as they know the circumstances of their area. It is not central Government’s job and I would have thought that Liberal Democrats agreed with that. We believe in devolution and allowing local authorities to determine the best way in which to collect their waste.

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I am not sure whether my hon. Friend knows that Hackney council introduced compulsory recycling at the beginning of March. Recycling from street properties has increased by 3 per cent. since then. However, one of the challenges that remains for boroughs such as Hackney is how best to recycle plastics. Can he give some guidance about the Government’s progress in ensuring that that is cost-effective for councils throughout the country?

21 Jun 2007 : Column 1500

Mr. Bradshaw: I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on that improvement. Like several other local authorities in London, it has not always had a good recycling record and it is good to know that that is improving. We are recycling more and more plastics, not least because of the high oil price, which makes it more financially sensible for local authorities to recycle. The vast majority of plastics in the waste stream are now recyclable, but again, we believe that it is up to local authorities, working with organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme, to devise the best schemes for their area, whether that means collecting plastics separately or together with other recyclables. I would encourage as many local authorities as possible to collect plastics. Indeed, the waste strategy includes new incentives to encourage the growth of plastics recycling by local authorities.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Havering branch of Freecycle, which is one of 412 branches in London? Freecycle is a website that facilitates the exchange of unwanted items—rather like eBay except that no money changes hands. The Havering branch saves 50 tonnes of household refuse from going into landfill every week.

Mr. Bradshaw: I do congratulate the hon. Lady’s local branch of Freecycle. Third sector organisations play an important role in waste management and that role will be much bigger under the new waste strategy. It includes new measures to encourage third sector organisations, which can provide an important social benefit in an area and also tend to have better contact at community level to encourage people into the recycling habit.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Minister will be well aware that household waste has gone up by something like 15 per cent. over the last decade. Should he not be tackling that and trying to reduce the amount of waste rather than increasing the amount of landfill tax that the Treasury raises?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am afraid that what the hon. Gentleman says is not strictly correct. In fact, we have managed to break the link between economic growth and waste growth. In 2004-05, I believe that we had the first ever fall in the overall amount of municipal waste created. In the two years since then, it has been 0.5 per cent. growth, which is really very small indeed and far smaller than it has been historically. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if we are to be tough with the waste hierarchy, the most important thing to do is to minimise waste. He will have noticed, I am sure, particularly if he has studied the strategy, that for the very first time we now have a waste minimisation or waste reduction target of 45 per cent. by 2020. That is quite a challenging target, but I am confident that we will meet it.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): According to an answer from the Department of Trade and Industry earlier this week, 28 per cent. of civil amenity sites will be unable to process all the forms of electronic waste when the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive comes into force a week this Saturday. Given that one of the UK’s largest recycling
21 Jun 2007 : Column 1501
firms has said that there will not be sufficient capacity to cope with the impact of the WEEE directive—a view echoed by the Local Government Association—what assurances can the Minister provide that the fridge mountain fiasco is not about to convert into a DVD, PC and TV fiasco? What assessment has he made of the possibility of increased fly-tipping over the summer months?

Mr. Bradshaw: The figures that the hon. Gentleman has just given show that 72 per cent. of municipal sites are in a position to deal with the WEEE directive. He will know that this is an extremely complex area and that we have been working very closely on it with the DTI. My DTI colleagues tell me that they are confident that the sort of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman fears may arise will not arise, and I am confident in their predictions.

Dairy Industry

3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on prospects for the dairy industry. [144185]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): The prospects for the dairy industry are good, thanks to the current positive world market situation. Although there are challenges to come in the short to medium term, the UK industry is well placed to tackle them.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I think that the Minister must be living in a different world. The situation facing the dairy industry in this country is critical. Dairying is vital to UK agriculture—mainly in the west of England, but particularly in my own constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire. Despite the increase in feed and energy prices and the effect of modulation on dairy farming, the farming industry of dairying is receiving less per litre now than it did some years ago. In the last two years, more than 6,000 dairy farms have gone out of business, so is it not time that the Government woke up and sought to help a vital part of British agriculture? I believe that the Government should be condemned for what has happened to dairying in the United Kingdom.

Barry Gardiner: I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, who has always been a champion of his dairy farming constituents. He will know, I am sure, that the April farm-gate price for milk is the highest April price since April 2004. In fact, it reached the same level in 2004 and it has not been higher since before April 2001. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that there has been a significant surge in demand in the world commodities market because of the export controls imposed by Brazil and India and also, of course, because of the Australian drought. All those factors have contributed to the situation. Let me quote Barry Nicholls, the chief executive of Milk Link, who said it is

21 Jun 2007 : Column 1502

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend could do no better than to make a submission to the Competition Commission inquiry into supermarkets. The reality is that dairy farmers are paid so badly because this particular trade has had a history of strong conflict. The biggest problem has been the complete lack of honesty in respect of how supermarkets operate and how they organise their pricing. I hope that the Minister will make a submission to that inquiry and call for some transparency and fairness in this matter.

Barry Gardiner: I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of the recent move by a number of supermarkets, through various measures such as Localchoice suppliers of milk, to do deals with farmers to get local product into the supermarkets. That is giving farmers prices of up to 23p a litre for their milk. That is not as high as the historic levels of 10 or 15 years ago, but it is certainly a good deal higher than it has been over the past few years. Indeed, the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which is chaired by my noble Friend Lord Rooker, met yesterday and all the stakeholders involved expressed what they called “cautious optimism” about the improved global market position.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the prospects for the dairy industry, particularly in the western half of the country, would be greatly enhanced if there were a long-term solution to the problem of bovine tuberculosis? To that extent, may I seek his assurance that his Department will not be rushed into reaching a conclusion on future strategy in the light of the recently published report by the Independent Scientific Group? Will he assure me that due time will be given for all parties to meet and discuss those and other findings, and for the Select Committee to continue its own inquiry into the subject?

Barry Gardiner: The right hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority in the House as Chair of the relevant Select Committee, and I would wish to give him all the assurances that he seeks. It is absolutely appropriate that the Government take time to look at what is, after all, an extensive piece of research going back over 10 years. We will certainly look at its findings and conclusions and give it weighty consideration. We also look forward to the report of the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on the matter, and we shall obviously take that into account in relation to the Government’s thinking and policy formulation.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), has the Minister considered meeting representatives of the large supermarkets to determine exactly what their pricing structures are, and where he could intervene to persuade them to be fairer with milk producers? We are losing hundreds of milk producers each month and, at some point, there will be a shortage of supply. We could end up importing milk from France or elsewhere. That would be a ridiculous situation. I know that the Minister cannot enforce anything, but surely he can persuade the supermarkets to be a bit more honest, transparent and fair with producers.

Barry Gardiner: Let me simply say to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, Ministers meet representatives of the supermarkets on a regular basis. I cannot give
21 Jun 2007 : Column 1503
him an assurance that we will intervene in the price-setting mechanism as he requests, because we do not feel it is appropriate for the Government to intervene and set price controls in this area. I am sure he will also recognise that there has been an increasing dialogue between the supermarkets and representatives of the dairy industry, which has resulted in recent positive moves. I am sure he will accept that greater efficiency is still needed across the sector, and that the disparity in profitability within the sector is still far too high. The Government have invested some £130 million in this area to try to improve the productivity and efficiencies in the sector over the past few years.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the Minister aware that dairy farmers in general, and in South Staffordshire in particular, will be bewildered and distressed by the mind-boggling complacency of his answer? Will he think again about the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who asked not for intervention but for a commitment?

Barry Gardiner: I am distressed that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the highest regard, thinks that I am being complacent in my response to the House; that is certainly not the case. I recognise—as do this ministerial team, the Government and the whole House—that dairy farmers have been through a very difficult period, and that they are facing extremely strong challenges from all the new demands that will be placed on them in the years to come. None the less, those are things that we have quite properly sought to help with, in the way that I have just suggested to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I believe that that shows a commitment. The Government have tried to help the sector to become more efficient and to realise the benefits of value added and niche marketing.

We have a particular problem in the United Kingdom. Unlike our competitors, we consume 51 per cent. of our milk in liquid form. In France milk goes into cheese, yoghurt and other value-added products, which allows a better price to be obtained. However, there are signs that the world commodities market for skimmed milk and whole milk powder is improving. Indeed, there is now a shortage. I should have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome the fact that, for the first time, export support from the European Union has been set at zero.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): If the dairy industry is finding the situation so good at the moment, can the Minister explain why in this country we pay more for a bottle of mineral water than for a pint of milk?

Barry Gardiner: I would always recommend that the right hon. Gentleman should not buy mineral water, but should stick to tap water. It is very good, it is much cheaper, and it is a good deal less carbon-intensive.

Next Section Index Home Page