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27 Jan 2010 : Column 262WH—continued

In answer to parliamentary questions over the past year, the Secretary of State has reiterated his opinion that the UK dairy industry is in a much better position than most of its European competitors. However, the Farmers Union of Wales has suggested to me that if it were not for the current exchange rate, farm-gate prices would be likely to be about 30 per cent. lower. Does the Minister therefore accept that the industry's saving grace this year has been the weakness of sterling, rather than a fundamental strengthening of the sector? I would also welcome his comments on what needs to be done to
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ensure that UK dairy farmers can weather the storms created by volatile milk prices but still plan and undertake long-term capital investments so that they can stay competitive.

Bovine tuberculosis is another area on which there has been a frustrating lack of progress in recent years. I have met farmers in my constituency whose cattle herds have been decimated by the disease. Indeed, two years ago I spent a Sunday with one of Pembrokeshire's leading dairy farmers, whose farm had just been hit by it. It was moving to see a strong man brought almost to tears by the decimation of his stock. It is not like losing a faulty batch of widgets on a production line. Farmers invest their lives in raising those animals, and they love them. When they must see a herd go off to be slaughtered, it is a moving and difficult thing. I recognise that that area of agriculture policy is devolved in Wales, and I take my hat off to the Welsh Assembly for taking some bold decisions in moving ahead with an eradication programme that includes a careful element of active wildlife management.

I have put the question before to Ministers, and ask it again today: why, given that the scientific evidence base on which Welsh Assembly Ministers operate is identical to the one available to DEFRA, do English Ministers still refuse to recognise a role for a targeted cull as part of the plan? The Welsh Assembly has the same evidence and is moving ahead. There is a pilot programme in my constituency.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I apologise, Dr. McCrea, for my late arrival. This is an important debate and my hon. Friend touches on a vital point, particularly for border counties such as Shropshire. Many farmers in the county are landowners on both English and Welsh sides of the border. It is puzzling and frustrating when there are advancements on the Welsh side of the border on the vital issue of TB, and not on the English side. We need progress quickly.

Mr. Crabb: I give way to the Minister.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): I shall say more about TB and do not want to take up the hon. Gentleman's time, but in response to that point I must say that the science is not conclusive that culling will eradicate TB. The Secretary of State made his decision on the basis of the scientific evidence. The eradication group that he has set up does not dismiss culling as a tool in the box, which might be used, but the evidence suggests that just culling creates a vacuum and draws the infection in, and does not eliminate it.

Mr. Crabb: I am grateful for that and look forward with interest to the Minister's reply to the debate; but the Welsh Assembly does not believe that it is all about culling. No one argues that. Culling is part of a comprehensive strategy and the Assembly is proceeding in a careful and targeted way. I am not known for often praising the Assembly, but I salute it in this instance.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for his work on behalf of the dairy industry. The evidence to which he has referred is evolving, and is it not true
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that the so-called perturbation effect that was predicted has not been demonstrated, as areas where the experiments were carried out have continued to be monitored? The effect has not materialised as was envisaged.

Mr. Crabb: That is a useful and helpful intervention.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): To back up my hon. Friend, with reference to what the Minister said, the Ministry of Agriculture in France recently issued a statement that the reason bovine TB has practically been eradicated in France is the part culling of badgers.

Mr. Crabb: That is also a useful intervention.

Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, was quoted in the Farmers Guardianlast week as saying that DEFRA's refusal to tackle the badger population was a "source of great exasperation". He went on to suggest that the TB epidemic could put an end to dairy farming unless the Government considered a cull of infected badgers. As I said, the Welsh Assembly is at last moving ahead with a programme that includes an element of active wildlife management. It is being piloted in the north part of my constituency and is a brave move.

One of the new emerging challenges for the Secretary of State is unquestionably what I regard as the unbalanced and distorted healthy food agenda being promoted from some quarters, which seeks to demonise dairy products. I am thinking principally of that increasingly powerful arm of Government, the Food Standards Agency. There was a time when I thought that the job of the FSA was to help to ensure that the hygiene and safety practices in the production and sale of food were of a sufficient standard to avoid the risk of illness or worse, but I see from its recent press releases, and from its website this morning, that it sees one of its main jobs as warning people away from dairy products, as part of its campaign against saturated fat. The website names those products: cheese, cream and ice cream. I see from a press release of the past few days that it wants us to abandon full fat milk. Frankly, many of my constituents do not want their taxes to be used to fund that kind of nonsense. Obesity in Britain is not caused by eating dairy products. In Westminster Hall this morning you can see, Dr. McCrea, a group of some of the healthiest parliamentarians. I see marathon runners, rugby players and fell runners: an incredibly healthy group. It is no accident that they are also some of the proudest and fiercest advocates and defenders of dairy products, the eating of which is part of a healthy lifestyle.

The dairy sector is being made a scapegoat by the Government because of their rank failure to tackle the more profound drivers of obesity in this country: the British obsession with getting drunk; the collapse of sport in schools; the end of cookery in schools, driven by the health and safety madness that has affected a generation of young people; and the proliferation of poorly regulated low quality fast food outlets in many town centres. I do not mean McDonald's, which has been good news for farmers in recent years, but the proliferation of low quality cheap fast food. Will the Minister join me in condemning the Food Standards Agency's misguided approach to dairy products? Does he agree that the Government must not give mixed signals to the dairy sector, sending Ministers to farming
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conferences one day, to speak up the British dairy sector, and channelling money to anti-dairy campaigns the next? Will he join my call for more sense from the Food Standards Agency?

I could say more about lack of investment in the sector, driven by a lack of confidence and certainty about the future, but I want to bring my remarks to a close to enable other hon. Members to contribute. I am sure that some of them will talk in more detail about the ombudsman. I support the creation of an ombudsman. The supply chain has been characterised by accusations and mutual mistrust, and we need somehow to get beyond that. There needs to be recognition of a partnership between farmer, processor and retailer, with common sense in the relationship. My hope is that the ombudsman will have enough powers and clear guidance to make that happen. However, I want to say a word of caution about what the ombudsman can achieve. I have talked to some farmers who believe that the ombudsman can somehow radically change the price they get for milk, and I think that view may be naive. Unless the Minister can correct me, I do not understand that it would be the job of the ombudsman to fix prices. I should welcome the Minister's remarks on how he sees the ombudsman's role in the dairy sector and with respect to milk prices.

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to raise concerns affecting the dairy sector in the UK and in particular my constituency. I am conscious that perhaps I have not covered all the issues, and optimistic that other hon. Members will fill in the gaps. I look forward to the Minister's giving us good news and reasons to be optimistic about the dairy sector in the years ahead.

Dr. William McCrea (in the Chair): Several hon. Members want to speak in the debate and I shall try to allow as many as possible to do so, but discipline will be in the hands of hon. Members.

9.58 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be as brief as I can, Dr. McCrea, partly because so many hon. Members want to speak, and also because I must leave slightly before the end of the debate, as I have an important meeting about flooding to attend.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). I do not agree entirely with all that he said-I shall explain why-but it is right to discuss dairy farming. I have taken an interest in dairy farming and the dairy industry for a long time, not least because the Severnside processing plant chimney is at the bottom of my garden; I cannot but be influenced by that important industry.

I want to make four quick points. First, I make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister about what is happening in Gloucestershire at the moment, which is the epitome of some of the industry's problems. The county farm estate is actively debating the conflation of its dairy holdings from well over 20 to 11. In a previous life, I chaired the county farm estate's smallholdings group on the county council, and I have always been a great upholder of the belief that dairy farming is an important sector, as it allows people to start in agriculture who could not do so in any other way. It would be a tragedy to use the current problems as an opportunity to increase the size of holdings, as younger people would never be
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able to get into dairy farming. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look, as a matter of urgency, at what is happening in Gloucestershire.

I have had two debates on the subject, and I have always upheld the importance of the county estate nationally, but this is another side of the debate. I totally oppose selling off what I think of as the county's family silver, but I also worry that we might shut out dairy farming in what, after all, are the country's milk fields. That needs to be considered. I hope that the Government have a view on the matter. They may say that it is up to local government, but we need the Government to take a strategic view.

My second point is about something that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire-the common agricultural policy and how its reform might affect dairy farming. I have been a complete long-term critic of the CAP. I think that it has done more damage to the dairy industry than to any other sector of industry. Milk quotas should have been removed a long time ago. They are a huge disincentive in this country, and there is no excuse for them.

The problem with CAP is that a one-size-fits-all strategy does not work. We should be expanding our dairy industry rather than having to go cap in hand to Europe-forgive the pun-to try to maintain the current situation. The latter is not acceptable. It is about time that we were allowed to pull out of the CAP, if nothing else, because we need to rebuild our dairy industry.

My third point is about bovine TB-something on which we will disagree. The debate is so sterile. Yes, I have read the independent science group report, but to me the science is clear. Culling does not work. It is counter-productive. So I turn to what we are doing in my area and the vaccination strategy. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs debated the matter long and hard.

I congratulate the Government, but I wish they would move more quickly. In every other area of animal disease, we are trying to find a vaccination strategy, yet with bovine TB, we go back to the old argument that if we cull one species that carries bovine TB, even though many others carry it, it will be a magic bullet. There is no magic bullet. It is a dreadful disease. I met someone from the farmers' stress network yesterday, and I know what damage it does to people's lives. It is a really awful disease, and we must get hold of it.

Dan Rogerson: As a fellow member of the Select Committee, I remember those debates. I also recall that our report recommended that culling might be an effective tool. The evidential picture is evolving. I know that the hon. Gentleman cares a great deal about the industry, but does he agree that we ought to keep an open mind on these things, perhaps allowing culling to take place in some areas? It could make a huge contribution.

Mr. Drew: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. However, I agreed to the report with gritted teeth; people know that I am a great compromiser, and I believed it important to have consensus.

The biggest problem is that we might give people the illusion that culling will work; if so, we will let them down. We must be honest. It is not going to work. There will be legal challenges in Wales, and it will take years to
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clear that out of the way. In any case, only a small part of Wales is experimenting with culling. We should not fool ourselves. The idea that it will be imposed on Shropshire, as the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire suggested, is an illusion. Let us be honest, and get on with finding a solution in the vaccination strategy. We should not go along cul-de-sacs that have been tried before and did not work.

I shall be careful how I phrase my last point, because the Select Committee is considering Dairy Farmers of Britain. It was wrong to see the failing of that organisation being attributed to its structure, its co-operative nature. Mistakes were made in its management, but its biggest mistake was to try to compete in the liquid market with the wrong production structure. If it had specialised, it would probably have had a greater chance of getting through its deep-seated capital problems.

I welcome the ombudsman, who was mentioned earlier. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), who has driven the idea relentlessly, with some help from my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), myself and others. I pay credit to that campaign. The dairy industry has done badly because supermarkets, in particular, have used milk as a loss leader, playing all sorts of games with processors and especially with farmers.

Mr. Hoyle: Because of my hon. Friend's knowledge, I invite him to comment on two quick points. The other thing that dairy farming needs is agricultural shows. What more can be done? Will the Government support them, to ensure that we get the Royal Lancs show back? It is a great way of ensuring that the public understand farming, particularly dairy farming.

My second query is about the spraying of nitrates and slurry. Should there be more flexibility to ensure that farmers have more time to do so?

Mr. Drew: On the second point, my hon. Friend is talking about another mad EU regulation, but no one takes a blind bit of notice of it. On the first point, I agree with him entirely. I am in favour of shows. It is important that farmers should have the opportunity to show off the good things that they do. The problem nowadays is that few farmers go to shows because they are too busy. They face too many constraints, not the least of which is that their income is insufficient for them to spend time there.

We should support the ombudsman. A previous report found that one problem was the poisonous atmosphere in the dairy industry. It is the most difficult industry, as everybody distrusts everyone else. The different levels distrust each other; it is not competition within the segments of the sector, but a real dislike of some of the things that are going on.

I say to the Government that this country needs a clear strategy for dairy farming. There is no excuse for avoiding that. I would like to see the industry completely outside Europe, because the CAP has done immense damage. A strategy has to be brought forward to rebuild some of the relationships. I would like to see more co-operation; indeed, it was wrong to say that its co-operative structure caused problems for Dairy Farmers of Britain. If we can get on with that, we will have
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served our purpose and done what we should be doing. Our purpose is not simply to maintain that important sector but to build it for the future. That is what we need to see.

10.7 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea. I pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for securing this debate. The hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and I have raised these issues on numerous occasions, and have ensured that, for the past five years, we have had an annual debate on agriculture in this Chamber.

As the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said, some aspects of dairy farming are devolved. I shall endeavour to delve into the devolved settlement, but I want to focus on producers, suppliers and retailers and the relationship between them. That is the fundamental problem that our dairy industry faces.

I hesitate to use the word "crisis" as it is emotive, but figures on the long-term position of dairy farming in Wales show that it is in serious decline. In 1994, there were 5,300 dairy farmers. The number had fallen to 3,600 by 2004, and figures for December 2009 show that it has now fallen to 2,059. Those figures show that 60 per cent. of Welsh dairy farmers have left farming over the past 15 years, something that I think is reflected in England.

There was an important geographic message from the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. He does not like the word "Dyfed". Neither do I; it is an old county term that describes our area. However, I will use it now because half of the dairy farmers of Wales are from Dyfed-from my constituency of Ceredigion, and from Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

We can wax lyrical about the social implications of the loss of the dairy sector, but it is a reality. We are talking not about isolated farms appended to big towns but about large areas of the rural economy being dependent on farmers and farming families. Losing those farms and those families has implications well beyond the production of milk. It affects village schools and the local economy more generally.

I concur with what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said about county starter farms and encouraging young entrants into the industry. We lost our farms in Ceredigion a long time ago. One of the dispiriting things about making farm visits and meeting the two farming unions in Wales is the constant repetition of questions. Five years ago, questions were asked about young farmers and how to attract people into the industry, and we are still facing the same problems. I have had some emotive discussions with farmers who want to pass on their farms to their children, but find that their children drift away and move into other areas, because there is perceived to be no future in the industry. At the end of the farming hustings in Ceridigion, we always ask the question, "If you had a child, would you encourage them to stay in the farming industry?" Many say, "In all honesty, with hand on heart, we could never make that recommendation given the state of the industry."

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