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10 Feb 2009 : Column 399WH—continued

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that we have announced a moratorium on jobcentre closures, including a decision not to close 25 jobcentres
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as had been planned. It seemed perverse to continue with the rationalisation programme when we realised that we had to ramp up the support we offer. There will be 6,000 more front-line staff in Jobcentre Plus in 2009-10. Recruitment plans are on track to bring staffing numbers up to 69,000 by March this year. That will continue to increase as required. He asked how that work is going. We increased staff by 2,500 between November last year and this January. We are employing more than 1,000 people per month, so vacancies are certainly open at the Department for Work and Pensions. In Scotland, 1,400 posts are available. In the highlands, 18 new staff have been agreed, including five in Inverness and one in nearby Forres. That will be kept under review to ensure that we are providing the service that is required.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that prior to the adverse macro-economic events, the jobcentre offices in Nairn, Thurso and Alness were closed. I have reinvestigated the reasons for those closures and found that they would have been necessary, despite the change in the economic situation. I will go through the detail if he is interested. Some of the offices were unable to cope with the adaptations that were necessary. In some cases, the service being provided was unacceptable because of the constraints of the buildings. We cannot offer services from a building that is not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That was an issue with the Nairn jobcentre, as he knows. The fact that it was a very nice listed building did not help with access problems and limited its flexibility. The question now is what we can do to ensure that his constituents get the service that they need and deserve.

The hon. Gentleman proposed some interesting ideas. The message I want to send is that we are up for innovation. We must continue this dialogue in Parliament and locally. We have increased flexibility by using telephone contacts and e-channels through the internet. If those cannot be accessed in the home, facilities are available in the community in libraries and elsewhere. We understand that different people find different methods easiest to use. For some people the internet is brilliant, but for others it is a nightmare. We must know what is most appropriate for each person, so that we can ensure that they are contacted appropriately.

I am sorry if some people have felt that the costs of complying with the requirements set out in legislation are onerous. I would be interested to hear examples, because we reimburse costs. It would be wrong not to. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will write to me if there are issues that he considers should be looked at. We are always clear that when customers who do not live near an office are required to attend it at our request outside their normal signing cycle—perhaps because there is an anomaly or they are not being as co-operative as we would like—the interview time is arranged to best fit their travel requirements and, as I said, expenses are reimbursed at the normal rates. We try to be flexible and not to disrupt people’s normal lives.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that a community group that operates a food bank has seen unnecessary poverty among his constituents because of delays in the processing of benefits. Obviously, that is not desirable. However, benefit applications must be scrutinised properly to ensure that they are valid. He may know that the Welfare Reform Bill, which has just entered its
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parliamentary stages in this House, proposes a power to pay benefit up front outside the social fund system when people have no other resources. In some instances, people who apply for income-based benefit will be able to receive it up front, prior to the application being processed in the normal way. His constituents are also eligible for crisis loans from the social fund. Those are usually processed within 24 hours and the national average is less than two days. I advise him to look into that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned GP services. I have seen some great examples of those in my constituency. We are keen to explore ways in which collocation can make life easier for people. The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform was in Glasgow yesterday and spoke at a forum hosted by the Scottish Government on enhancing joint agency responses to redundancies and ensuring that we intervene at an early stage. He visited one of a number of pilots that started across Scotland yesterday which aim to integrate employment and skills services. Jobcentre Plus and Career Scotland staff will work together to ensure that people are not just signing on, but that they have access to the support that they need to enhance their employment prospects. There are preliminary discussions on opening a one-stop shop to build on the work that is being done. We will evaluate that and, if it works, it may have national implications.

A number of other innovative projects are operating in the highlands. It is not in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but perhaps there are some supporters of Ross County near him. There is a great project called “Get a Goal” that uses football to engage people and encourage them to get closer to the labour market. There are other projects further north, such as in Wick.

The message I have for the hon. Gentleman is that if somebody comes to us with an idea, we are up for it. I commend his enthusiasm and initiative in requesting this debate and in suggesting ideas that will be good for his constituents and could have a wider impact throughout the United Kingdom.

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Agriculture (West Country)

1.30 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): In a way, I apologise to the Minister, because she and her predecessors have been assailed annually by debates on agriculture in West Dorset. However, I make no apology for the fact that I intend to continue the practice in future years; it is a useful way of enabling the Minister to get a snapshot of admittedly only one location where farming is a crucial part of the local economy and society.

As the Minister will be well aware, dairy farming is the preponderant form of farming in West Dorset. Last year, until about November, was the first time that I can remember when my dairy farmers began to think that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel for farm-gate prices, because for most of the past 13 years, milk has sold at below 20p a litre at the farm gate and for a brief moment, it did not look like that, somewhat offset by what were then sharply increased input costs of various kinds—both for fuel and raw materials, such as feedstock, fertilizer and so on. Unfortunately, however, since November, most of the prices experienced by most of my farmers have fallen by about 2p or 3p a litre, and dairy farmers have now returned to the very difficult position of being unable to cover costs, including capital costs, or to bring in a reasonable income or wage for themselves and those they employ, given the price levels they are able to obtain. It took some years for that to happen but it is now feeding through to a significant and, all the indications are, pretty sustained, reduction in output and capacity in West Dorset’s dairy farms.

For some years the innate, long-term optimism of the farming community—that things would get better at some uncertain date—combined with deep love of a way of life, led people to remain in the industry beyond the point when rational calculation of rates of return would have kept them there. Over the past 10 years, for every farmer—there were many—who sold all or some of their livestock, there were others willing to absorb them. That led to an increase in the average scale of dairy farms and, probably, in average efficiency, which is to be welcomed, although it came with significant social effects, because the driving out of smaller farmers has been another nail in what I hope will never be the coffin of the local village—often the local farmer is the main, or an important, component of the local society.

For a while, from a sheer economic point of view, it looked as though concentrations were rising and productivity increasing, which one could celebrate. However, unfortunately the economics eventually came home to roost and people have been moving out of the industry without finding people willing to buy the livestock and maintain capacity.

Nationally, we reached a 30-year production low in 2007-08, which is paralleled in West Dorset, and as far as I can see the figures are still falling. Eventually, one might expect supply and demand in the liquid milk market to push prices back up, but clearly there is a great deal of resistance to that among hard-pressed consumers in times of economic difficulties. All in all, on the fundamental economics, the position of my dairy farmers is not good.

In addition, dairy farmers now face the very severe crisis of bovine TB, of which the Minister will be acutely conscious. Briefly, it once looked as though
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pre-movement testing might have had an effect, and the hot-spot concentrations were stabilising or perhaps even diminishing. Unfortunately, however, that is no longer the case. The number of bovine TB reactors is increasing again, and there are some very severe hot spots in West Dorset. Pretty much every week, a farmer tells me another terrible tale of the discovery, or now in most cases the rediscovery, of reactors and probables. That is another pressure pushing farmers out of dairying and out of farming.

The animal welfare consequences for the badger and cattle populations are also unfortunate. Nationally, that is causing considerable strain on resources, because of the fiscal cost of purchasing animals that have to be slaughtered. I fear that West Dorset is a large, and likely to be an increasing, contributor to that fiscal pressure. I know that the Minister, her colleagues and previous colleagues whom I and colleagues from other parts of the country have belaboured about this over the years, have expressed a desire to develop the gold standard—a proper vaccine for the badger population. We would all welcome such a vaccine. However, for the past 10 years, I have been hearing that it was about five years off, so I have no more confidence than my farmers that it will arrive five years from now. Even on the optimistic assumption that in five or six years there is some method of vaccination, there is no substitute for an interim cull, although that is not the Government’s current position, which I maintain is not responsible in terms of animal welfare, fiscal costs or the costs to my farmers, emotionally and economically.

Alas, this is not just a question of milk prices and bovine TB: there is also the unnecessary fact of continuing bureaucratic problems. To exaggerate is no part of my purpose, and I pay tribute to the work of Lord Rooker, who in my experience was the first person in a long time to enter the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who really tried to get to grips with the single farm payment system. I have exchanged so much correspondence with him that I feel that I know him extraordinarily well. He had an effect, and to some degree payments caught up—I pass over in silence the whole saga of the ghastly mapping exercises and the computers that still do not speak to one another properly.

A new problem, which I hope that the Minister will address, is coming over the horizon and beginning to affect my farming constituents quite significantly. As the Department or the Rural Payments Agency have caught up with the past, they have begun to discover that the past was not as accurate as they once thought that it was. They have started to ask farmers for repayments of overpayments, of which neither they nor farmers had previously been conscious. Farmers of mine are being asked for money from 2005, 2006 and 2007. Some of the cases are not meritorious; at a certain point, when the farmer has done everything in his power to provide accurate information and the RPA has made a series of errors, it becomes unreasonable, as with tax credits, to try to claim back the money. I warn the Minister that there is likely to be much pressure from me and, I suspect, other similarly disposed Members of Parliament, about that issue, although I accept that in some cases the RPA was misled or that farmers made mistakes. However, where farmers have tried to do
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everything in apple-pie order, and there has been an error on the other side, it is a bit tough on the farmers to try to claim back the money.

However, the bureaucratic problems are not restricted to the single farm payment. Another such problem relates to field records, with some 23 now having to be kept for each field. None the less, that issue pales into insignificance compared with the nitrate-vulnerable zones saga. I have said publicly on various occasions—I recently made a speech about it in the context of wider issues on regulation—that the whole NVZ apparatus is manifestly barmy. It constrains farmers from distributing slurry in the so-called wet months, including on the dry days of wet months, and allows them to distribute it during the so-called dry months, including wet days in dry months. That is not a rational process. When evaluation is carried out some years from now, I am sure that we shall discover that the NVZ direction has been translated in England in a way that has increased rather than reduced the nitrates in our rivers. Therefore, the system is crazy.

Let me park that issue because I know that the Minister only inherited the system and did not invent it herself. I pity her because she will go down in history as a Minister who presided over a barmy system. None the less, as the system is in place, there is at least one set of people who should not suffer from it, and that is the farmers who did not want it, who hired people such as myself—not that they paid me extra but they pushed me into action—to campaign against it. They also organised the National Farmers Union to campaign against it, and they themselves made powerful arguments against it. They are the last people who should suffer.

Putting up a serious slurry store on a significant-sized farm costs about £50,000. The whole apparatus of pillar 2—as I have just heard from the Secretary of State—is not contributing a single penny to that cost. Therefore, we have a totally non-productive investment in a wildly underinvested industry, on which the Government have repeatedly commented, as has the Chatham House report. The unproductive investment is compelled in regulation and exists because of a barmy system that did not need to be there in the first place and that costs the farmer £50,000 to comply with. Moreover, neither the Minister nor I can give the farmer the slightest advice on how to raise the money because there is not a bank in Britain that will give £50,000 for unproductive investment in a farm that is strapped for cash. That is a really serious problem that will come home to roost for the Minister in a very straightforward way—more of my constituents will leave the industry.

Recently, a constituent who has farmed for years told me that he is now on the way out. The straw that broke the camel’s back was slurry. The same thing will happen all over West Dorset, and in many other places. The south-west of England is very wet, and there are real problems with NVZs. I have campaigned for years about the need to deal with nitrates, but forcing farmers to keep slurry stores so that they can dump the stuff on wet days in dry months at great cost is not the way to do it. That is barmy. Something must change. The very least that needs to be done is to find money from pillar 2 to pay for the slurry stores. It is not the right answer because that is to change the framework, but given that the framework is already there, the slurry stores must be subsidised.

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In conclusion, I want to raise two issues to which I hope the Minister and her colleagues will attend. The first is bluetongue. The Government did well on bluetongue last time round, although neither they nor Conservative Administrations have had such a happy history with other diseases. The bluetongue vaccinations were ordered on time and were well distributed and the disease was controlled, but I fear that there is not sufficient protection against the new strains. I have corresponded with the Secretary of State about that. I am conscious that unless we have multi-strain protection pretty early on, we will hardly be able to surround the Channel ports and the patches of our coastline between the ports with large nets to catch the vectors. We will be under attack from minute objects and we must deal with them in any way we can, which means proper vaccination. I hope that the Minister is pressing forward with ordering to ensure that there is not a lag when we discover that the vectors carrying new strains are heading our way.

Finally, I turn to research and development. I have mentioned that the agriculture industry is probably the most severely underinvested industrial sector in Britain—not that there are no problems of underinvestment in many other sectors, but agriculture is peculiarly ill affected by it. Farmers do not have the capacity to carry out fundamental research. Research must be undertaken at the level of DEFRA and the other agencies.

One area of concern is beekeeping, which is of immense horticultural and ecological significance in West Dorset and many other parts of the country. Over the years, I have corresponded with Ministers about it. I do not think that there is any doubt in Ministers’ minds that colony collapse is an increasing problem. Leave aside the economic and biodiversity effects, the sheer fiscal cost of widespread colony collapse, and the serious effect on horticulture and agriculture as a result, will beggar the tiny amounts of money that are currently invested. I know that an extra £400,000 has been invested, but that is not enough. I understand the causes. When DEFRA found itself fined by the Commission because of the RPA’s delays on the single farm payment, it had to cut down somewhere, and research looked like an easy target. However, it is not a cost-effective place to be reducing investment. For tiny numbers of millions of pounds, huge additions to our knowledge could be gained, and there would be a real chance of preventing colony collapse. Now is the time to address the problem. I know that times are tough; we are in recession and I understand the pressures, but I believe that we are storing up for ourselves a considerable liability if we do not act.

1.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon and to respond to the second of what I anticipate will be a series of debates. It is obviously an annual occurrence, and one that I welcome. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on winning this opportunity to discuss agriculture in his constituency. I participated in a very interesting debate on agriculture in the south-west on 20 January, but I welcome the opportunity today to put on the record my appreciation of all the hard work that our farmers do to put food on our tables.

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The right hon. Gentleman opened his debate by talking about the trials and tribulations of dairy farmers, and I recognise the description he gave. The debate gives me an opportunity to express my disappointment with the tone of the recommendations of the Food Standards Agency, released in the past 24 hours, on our diet and how to deal with obesity. The FSA recommended that we should produce far less full-fat food, that dairy products should be consumed less and that we should remove all the fat, and that we should stop drinking full-fat milk and drink only skimmed milk. I do not know whether your experience is like mine, Mr. Illsley, but surely eating less is a better way to deal with obesity.

The more we remove fat from meat and milk, the less tasty food is. Am I the only one who thinks that? We should take a sensible approach and promote a balanced diet. I say that not only because I am regularly involved in debating such issues with farmers, but because I am a sensible representative of the public. The idea that we should eat as much as ever but consume fewer fatty foods is not such a good way forward. We should consider the amounts that we eat, as well. If we cook fatty meat properly, we remove a lot of the fat; it is also sensible to eat less of it. As a bit of a salad dodger myself, I am aware that I am on thin ice, but I was a little disappointed by the tone of the agency’s campaign. I know, however, that the FSA is independent from the Government and an important commentator.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the difficulties faced by farmers in his constituency. I know that last week’s snowfalls will have made their job even more difficult. I hope that their experience of working with the weather meant that they were reasonably well prepared. The present conditions follow the high rainfall in the autumn that made gathering the harvest particularly difficult.

I will come to prices in a moment, but I will first talk about disease. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s description of bovine TB as a severe crisis. I take the disease seriously and I am committed to tackling it. A package of measures is in place to reduce the spread and incidence of the disease, including regular testing, zero tolerance of overdue tests and pre-movement testing. However, I accept, as he rightly mentioned, that there is a great deal of concern that the incidence of the disease is increasing and that the measures that we have in place do not appear to be sufficient to hold it back. We need to understand why that is happening.

We are making significant investments in TB vaccines. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we plan to spend £20 million on vaccines in the next three years. When I joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in October, I was told that it would take five years to create a vaccine for badgers, but I am encouraged by the progress that is being made by DEFRA scientists on advancing that. I hope that the eradication group will also bring forward some good ideas.

I accept that many farmers are unhappy with the decision not to cull badgers. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the decision was based on a wide range of factors, including scientific evidence; the practicalities of delivering a successful cull; discussions with farming, veterinary, wildlife and conservation groups; the conclusions of the independent scientific group on bovine TB; and, not least, the contribution of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

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