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House of Commons

Thursday 21 May 2009

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—

Agricultural Labour

1. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): What recent discussions he has had on the availability of agricultural labour; and if he will make a statement. [276574]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): May I say on behalf of those who come to Prayers that it is a little disconcerting to have the blinds run up and down during them, particularly as we need all the help we can get these days and Prayers are quite important?

At the end of last year, in response to concerns expressed by the industry about shortages of seasonal labour, the Government announced a 5,000 increase in the seasonal agricultural workers scheme quota for 2009. I am pleased that we were also recently able to address swiftly some practical problems that could have arisen affecting the availability of sheep shearers. I am grateful for the assistance of my Home Office colleagues, and the hon. Gentleman will know that we meet representatives of farmers regularly on all sorts of subjects.

Mr. Whittingdale: I welcome the measures that the Minister refers to, but she will be aware that many people, particularly in the horticultural and fruit growing industries, depend heavily on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme and are concerned about what will happen when Bulgaria and Romania become full members of the European Union. Will she consider extending the scheme to other countries to ensure that there remains a flow of seasonal workers for those very important industries?

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. We are being advised that there is more confidence among farmers and growers this year that they will have sufficient labour for seasonal fruit and vegetable harvesting, largely due to the economic climate in which they are operating. However, I can assure him that we keep the situation under close review. Indeed, all being well, my noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath will meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration in the week after the recess.

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Common Agricultural Policy

2. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of progress in reforming the common agricultural policy. [276575]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The CAP health check was a useful step forward. It removed about half the remaining production-coupled payments, doubled the amount of EU funding transferred to rural and environmental support, reduced levels of intervention, cut prices for consumers and gave farmers greater freedom. We will continue to press for further reform in the forthcoming EU budget review.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response, but in December 2005 Tony Blair said that our EU contributions were linked to reforming the CAP. Last year, our contribution to the EU was £3 billion, and next year it will be £6.5 billion—an incredible increase of 117 per cent. We have seen no reform in the CAP and a massive increase in our contributions. Is not the EU again fleecing the British people to prop up French farmers?

Hilary Benn: I do not agree that there has been no reform of the CAP. If the hon. Gentleman cares to go back 30 years or so, he will see that 80-plus per cent. of the EU budget went on the CAP, and it is currently about 41 or 42 per cent. That has happened only because of the process of reform, for which successive British Governments have pressed very strongly. As he will be only too well aware, the process of change requires agreement across a range of member states, not all of which share our views about the need to press for further reform.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As a regular critic of the CAP, I have to say that if we did not have it, we would now have to invent it. The simple fact is that we need to produce more food in this country and western Europe. We are facing a crisis, and we cannot pretend otherwise. Having spent all this time trying to remove production subsidies, are the Government willing at least to consider ways in which we can reform the CAP to encourage not just the big farmers but all manner of farmers and food producers, so that food is a high priority in our economy and that of the rest of Europe?

Hilary Benn: I agree that the task of feeding the world’s growing population is very important for us. That is why I have said that it is important that we have a strong, thriving British agricultural sector producing as much food as it can. However, one has to recognise that one consequence of the CAP has been that it has undermined the incentive for farmers in other parts of the world, particularly in developing countries, to produce their own food, because the big surpluses that were produced in the past were then dumped on their markets. That is why getting rid of export subsidies remains a really important task, not least through the Doha negotiations, so that farmers in those countries have an incentive to get production up. It is a big task for the global agricultural industry, and UK farming will need to play its part.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) mentioned the particular figure for our contribution to the European agricultural policy. I will mention a bigger figure. In the past 10 years, we have contributed more than £120 billion to the European Union. Following the question from the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), is it not time that the common agricultural policy and the UK Government’s endeavours were directed more at helping United Kingdom farmers, rather than allowing a still substantial sum of money to go to relatively inefficient farmers in other countries in the European Union, not least France?

Hilary Benn: We put a substantial amount of money into the British agricultural industry through the common agricultural policy. One of the changes that we have made is to shift the balance from production support to supporting farmers for environmentally sustainable farming. The success of agri-environment schemes in the past 21 years, partly in fixing some of the damage that the common agricultural policy at its height created, not least grubbing up hedgerows, is a step in the right direction. In future, we will have to balance the need to grow much more food with the need to do so in a much more environmentally sustainable way because, in the end, soil and water are the raw materials on which food production depends.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Like many hon. Members here, I recently signed an early-day motion that celebrated the 10th anniversary of the national minimum wage, but 15,000 farmers in this country earn less than £10,000 a year—less than the national minimum wage. Yet we have a farm payments system underneath the common agricultural policy that rewards many wealthy estates that do not need the money and wastes £7 million a year on making small payments of sometimes as little as 70p to people who, with all due respect, are not farmers. Does the Secretary of State agree that the CAP needs to be reformed to ensure that farm payments go to the farmers who need it and are often critically underpaid?

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about very small payments. As he knows, we are currently consulting on how we might change the system in the light of the CAP health check to make some changes that make it easier for farmers—for example, giving farmers in future the right to decide when they go on to waterlogged soil as opposed to Secretary of States’ having to sign a bit of paper to say that they can do it. Farmers know best how to deal with their soil.

On minimum payments, the consultation is asking what should be the hectarage threshold. I encourage everyone who has a view to respond because very small payments clearly add to the Rural Payments Agency’s work load, and it is right that we support that body. I will be able to tell the House later about progress in getting this year’s payments out.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): What confidence can we have in the Government’s ability to fight Britain’s corner on CAP reform? Why did Britain not fight harder against the absurd and costly proposals for electronic sheep tagging? The Secretary of State left it to Hungary to put the issue on the agenda at a recent Agriculture Council. He says that the current labelling rules on food are nonsense and need to
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change, but he will not introduce a compulsory scheme to stop British consumers being misled and our farmers being let down. When will the Government stand up for Britain’s interests in Europe?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman should look back at what has happened on the electronic identification of sheep. We were the first country to raise the matter in the Council—I did it. He refers to the subsequent discussion in the Agriculture Council, at which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was present. I am glad to say that we showed leadership in arguing that the cost of what was agreed in 2003 outweighs the benefits, which now flow. The UK has led the way in trying to get changes in the scheme’s implementation because I recognise the burden that it will place on sheep farmers. If it had not been for our efforts, we would be in an even more difficult position. As the hon. Gentlemen knows only too well, to change the regulation, we need sufficient member states to share the view that the British Government have expressed for some time.

Nick Herbert: Frankly, Britain’s farmers will be dismayed that the Secretary of State thinks that he got a good deal for them on sheep tagging. The proposal is absurd, costly and unnecessary. He said earlier that the CAP health check was a useful step forward, but at the time he said that it was a missed opportunity. He certainly missed an opportunity by failing to send a Minister to a crucial summit when the proposals were first discussed. French and German Ministers were there, but not ours. He complains about the pesticides directive now, but when it was voted through Britain abstained. Ministerial hand wringing does nothing to help British farmers. If he cannot do better to defend British interests, is it not time to stand aside and make way for a Government who will?

Hilary Benn: That has been a rather familiar theme this week. The hon. Gentleman raises the pesticides directive, but no European Union country has done more to argue against it than the United Kingdom. We did the impact assessment, through the pesticides safety directorate. We have been leading the fight against the pesticides directive. In the end, it went to the European Parliament, because although there are bits of the directive that we agree with, the bit that we do not agree with is the total uncertainty about what pesticides will be available to treat, for example, diseases that affect wheat. There are bits that represent progress and bits that do not. The Government’s view on the bits that do not represent progress has been clear: we will not vote for that part of the directive, because we should not be asked to sign up to proposals in Europe when, frankly, nobody can say what they will mean in practice for farmers who are using pesticides to try to grow more food.


3. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect on animal health of zero-grazing. [276576]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): The permanent housing of cattle is an emerging farming system in the UK. We are funding a three-year research project with the Scottish Agricultural College to investigate the
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management and welfare of continuously housed dairy cows. The study will include a comparison of the health of cows in continuously housed systems with that of those in summer grazing systems.

Robert Key: That is good news, but does the Minister agree that the fiercer the supermarket wars and the lower the price of milk to farmers and consumers, the greater the pressure on the dairy industry to reduce costs by going for zero-grazing? Does she also agree that fears about the animal welfare implications of zero-grazing are not misplaced when herd sizes can be up to 1,000 cattle at a time, which makes zero-grazing the only option for feeding? That remains a matter of great concern. Meanwhile, the British dairy herd continues to decline.

Jane Kennedy: I agree that the dairy sector is under intense pressure at the moment. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman’s general comments about the concern that exists about the welfare of cattle in those systems, but I do not accept that the zero-grazing of cattle is inherently cruel or unacceptable. It is important to recognise that poor standards of animal health and welfare can exist in intensive farming and less intensive systems. The most significant influence on the health and welfare of livestock is the skills and experience of the stock keeper and the support that that individual gets, as I have seen for myself on a number of farms where livestock has been farmed extensively and intensively.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I greatly respect and have regular contact with the NFU, which has mounted a vigorous rebuttal of criticisms of zero-grazing. Nevertheless, is not a greater and greater proportion of the national herd being zero-grazed for a longer period of the year? As the years have gone by, has not further intensification of stock breeding and husbandry been associated with greater and more frequent outbreaks of disease?

Jane Kennedy: Before we categorise the dairy sector as predominantly continuously housed, let me point out that the industry estimates that about 5 per cent. of herds have some cattle that are housed all year round. Dairy cattle are already ordinarily kept indoors during the winter when conditions are unsuitable for them to go outside. My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern, as is the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). We are working with the industry, through the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, to ensure that we maximise the opportunities for the dairy sector and give whatever assistance we can, as it goes through this difficult period in pricing. I note that production increased marginally in April this year, compared with April last year. However, there is so much volatility that we cannot rely on one month’s figures.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I thank the Minister for her reasoned and moderate approach, but would she accept, first, that our dairy industry is of fundamental importance to our food economy and, secondly, that year-round zero-grazing is totally unnatural and really not acceptable?

Jane Kennedy: I accept the concerns that have been raised, but I am reluctant to pass judgment on farmers who are delivering high standards of animal health and welfare in some intensive farming systems, including
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those involving continuously housed dairy cows. We need to get the results of the study we are undertaking with our Scottish partners, so that we can understand the impact of the trend on the health of animals. Intuitively, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but we need some evidence before we perhaps bring about regulatory changes that might impact on an industry already wrestling with difficult challenges.

Biodiversity Duty

4. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): What recent progress has been made in his Department's review of the effect of the biodiversity duty provided for in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. [276578]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I am pleased to report progress to the hon. Gentleman and to the House on this matter. We have commissioned a study by Entec of how public authorities have responded to the biodiversity duty since it came into force. It will comprise a large-scale study of public bodies this summer, followed by interviews with a smaller sample of bodies, and views from other stakeholders. We expect it to report in November.

Mr. Williams: Up-to-date, accurate information on threatened species is required if we are to prioritise action, including information not only on threatened species such as the lady’s slipper orchid and the ghost orchid, but even on species such as the lapwing and cuckoo, which are not threatened but are reducing in number. I do not know whether the Minister has heard a cuckoo yet, but I certainly have not. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee has previously published and funded red data books, but it no longer seems to do that work, presumably because it does not have the resources. What plans do the Government have to ensure that those vital books are published and kept up to date?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will not respond directly to the cuckoo question, but I will look at this issue and will happily discuss it with the hon. Gentleman further. The review will provide useful information and evidence to help us understand how the duty is being implemented and how to inform further action. Having that report in November will allow us to give a proper response. The review will allow us not only to see what is happening, but to raise the profile of the importance of implementing action on biodiversity across the UK.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Will not the Government miss nine out of their 10 biodiversity targets to be achieved by next year? The Secretary of State has just said that the UK should not sign up to commitments from Europe before we know what impact that would have on the United Kingdom. Rather than reset these targets, as the Government have said in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), would it not be better to admit that the targets were misplaced in the first place?

Huw Irranca-Davies: No, no, no. I know that the hon. Lady has genuine concerns about this, but the wide variety of stakeholders engaged in this issue recognise that the targets we set were ambitious, possibly beyond
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our reach. As we head to 2010 and look at resetting them, it is important that they are not only stretching and ambitious, but realistic and achievable. It is right that we have driven towards achieving those targets and that the UK leads the way in tackling biodiversity issues. Far from there being nothing but gloom, we should not forget that 88 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are now in favourable or improving condition, compared with 57 per cent. in 2003, and that our UK biodiversity action plan is driving the way forward.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the importance of biodiversity for pollinators, particularly the honey bee, and the important role that increasing biodiversity will have in maintaining and increasing the health of the honey bee? Let me ask a rather more difficult question. Will the majority of the £10 million funding for pollinators be devoted to research on honey bees, rather than to the whole range of pollinators?

Huw Irranca-Davies: We expect a significant proportion to go towards honey bees. It depends on the analysis that is currently being done, as we need to make decisions on the best available evidence. We certainly share the feeling that the health of the honey bee population is a significant indicator of biodiversity and, by implication, of our own quality of life.

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