[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
There is scope for the future. The new dairy code could do much to resolve the issue of cost among farmers, processors and retailers. The code will be voluntary, and I hope that the £5 million in additional funding announced by the Prime Minister for a rural economic grant, for which farmers can apply in the autumn to increase their competitiveness, will be another element of solving this long-term problem for our farmers.
I will cut down enormously what I wanted to say, as it is important that colleagues from around the country should be allowed to have their say. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on the industry as a whole and his recommendations on what steps my farmers in South Derbyshire can take to ensure that they get a fair price for a pint of British milk.
Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I will be brief. If we are not a nation of farmers, what are we? The way of life that we enjoy derives its origin from the countryside, and this Government, if they are about anything, must be about supporting the rural economy.
Northumberland used to have one of the biggest collections of dairy farms in the United Kingdom; we now have very few. On
I underline everything said by colleagues in support of farmers. I welcome the Government’s efforts to promote fair competition and support dairy farmers. I also suggest that there is scope for a call to action, which must come from the other end of the spectrum. Many have talked about what Government and individual local organisations can do, but the harsh reality is that the large supermarkets are controlled by shareholders and pension funds, which can be shamed into what is now termed corporate social responsibility: in other words, acting fairly. Pressure must be applied not just at the bottom end of the scale by farmers, the NFU, Members of Parliament and county councils but at the top end, so that supermarkets know that if they continue to price British dairy farmers out of existence, their business will not be welcome and they will suffer the consequences of the campaigns waged over the summer, which I suggest will get a great deal worse for them.
I support entirely the actions taken by the NFU and individual farmers, and I welcome boycotts of individual supermarkets that fail to play ball and support the farmers whom they assiduously say they support but to whom they do not provide the prices deserved. I will happily lead a boycott of my local supermarkets in Northumberland that fail to do so for any particular farm.
This debate is also about how we treat the rural way of life. As my hon. Friend Simon Hart made clear, it touches on everything from bank lending to rural broadband to how we treat the uplands and what the local community’s role is in supporting organisations. I note, for example, that Tesco makes hundreds of millions of pounds a year from dairy products. Although we would all love a return to the Milk Marketing Board—my farmers would certainly welcome it back with open arms—I urge the Minister to consider the Government’s ability to sanction and support the coming together of large regional collectives of producers, so that they can have some collective clout when negotiating.
I am conscious of the time. I apologise, Mr Betts, that I was unable to be here for the start of the debate. In those circumstances, I will draw my remarks to a close.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am absolutely delighted that so many Members have chosen to take part in this debate. I am a new Member—I was elected just two and a half years ago—and during the time that I have been here, I have never seen such a well-attended Westminster Hall debate. It speaks volumes about how important the plight of the dairy industry is to Parliament. The supermarkets and processors must be left in no doubt how seriously we intend to take the issue. The phrase was used at one point that journalists were drinking in the last chance saloon. I suggest that the supermarkets and processors are drinking in the last chance milk bar, because I think that we all recognise how serious the issue is. I pay tribute to Thomas Docherty and my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing the debate.
I speak today to represent my farmers in Burton and Uttoxeter, who played a little part in getting us where we are today. Many Members will know that the SOS dairy campaign kicked off with a meeting in Staffordshire. The brainwave for that meeting came around a farmer’s kitchen table in my constituency with Mr David Brookes, Mr Philip Smith and Mr Trevor Beech from the NFU. They came up with the idea of being more vocal and taking the campaign forward. When they rang me with their original idea, I had to tell them that I did not think that it would work. They said that they wanted to milk a cow in Downing street to make their case. I had to dissuade them from doing so, but I think that we all recognise how important the SOS dairy campaign has been in uniting farmers.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham, Conservative)
One of the best campaigns over the past few years has been from the Women’s Institute, whose work I acknowledge. WI members came from all over the country, and one of them sat in a bathtub in a bikini and had milk poured all over her. That got a lot of publicity for the campaign.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton, Conservative)
I thank my hon. Friend. I am left with a marvellous image of him up to the navel in milk. I know that he has done his best to support dairy farmers in his constituency.
We got to this point because dairy farmers felt that they had no choice. They were faced with a further 2p cut in their prices, and that was a cut too far. They would not have been able to survive. Dairy farming would not have been sustainable at that level. It is almost unique that having had the 2.5p reinstated in many cases, many dairy farmers are still only meeting the cost of production. In what other industry do we expect producers to sell their product at the cost of production? We do not say to Toyota that we want to buy a Prius at the cost of production or to Apple that we want to buy the iPhone 5 at the cost of production, yet we expect our dairy farmers to survive by selling their product at the cost of production. That is absolutely unsustainable, which is why it is so important that we, as Parliament and as a society, get behind our dairy farmers. If we do not, we will lose the industry for ever.
We need to be aware of why we got ourselves in this situation: it was a case of supermarkets using milk to tempt people in, just as they have with my other beloved product, beer. They have driven down the price, and milk processors, to chase supermarket contracts, have put pressure downwards on to our farmers to the point at which the pips are beginning to squeak.
I shall make a few quick points to close. First, we all recognise that more than 90% of the milk for the liquid market is produced here in the UK, but just a third of the butter and half the cheese products on our supermarket shelves are produced from British milk. We must do more to get into that very lucrative market, which could save our dairy industry. Secondly, we have heard a lot about the groceries code adjudicator and the idea that it must have teeth. The industry is setting so much store by what the groceries code adjudicator can deliver in future, and we must make sure that we arm it with the tools that it needs to do its job. Thirdly, some £5 million has been made available to dairy farmers under the rural economy grant. There are rumours and concerns among farmers in my constituency that, although that money would help them to survive, not all of it will reach dairy farmers, so I would be grateful for clarification on how the scheme will operate.
We recognise that the land that we live in is green and pleasant because it is farmed and because our farmers make such a massive contribution. [ Interruption. ] The phrase “for whom the bell tolls” comes to mind. It tolls now not only for me, but for our dairy industry, and it is imperative that we, as Parliament and as a society, offer a lifeline and support to the great British dairy industry.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall, Conservative)
Thank you, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, and I will try to beat the bell, like any true Cornish girl.
I would like to say a big thank you to Thomas Docherty and my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing the debate, as well as to the Backbench Business Committee. I would also like to make colleagues aware that because of the
actions of my hon. Friend before the summer recess, there was a tremendously well-attended meeting of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I do not think I have been to such a well-attended meeting, and it shows how committed my hon. Friend is to the well-being of our dairy farmers.
In South East Cornwall, a number of small dairy farms are vital to the local economy and to the livelihoods of their owners and the people who are employed there. I know that we, as a Government, have a will to support those farms. In the past, there has been a trend of supermarkets driving milk prices down to a level that is unviable for our farmers. The dairy industry has proposed positive action to resolve the problem, and I hope that the Government will support that.
Last Saturday, when I visited my local agricultural show in Liskeard, I learnt first hand how our dairy farmers are suffering economically. How on earth can anyone expect dairy farmers to be paid a price for their end product that falls below the production cost? It is just not common sense. I also know exactly how it feels to get up at stupid o’clock in the morning and work such long hours for a product on which there is no viable return, because dairy farming can be likened to the fishing industry, which I have extreme knowledge of. In recent days, it was encouraging to hear that Arla Foods and other processors are increasing the price to 29.5p a litre, but that is not really enough. As my hon. Friend Heather Wheeler said, that is not sufficient to provide a genuinely sustainable dairy farming industry.
I want to mention the Clarke family and Trewithen dairy in my constituency. The Clarke family were dairy farmers who diversified into processing. They source their product from the local dairy farms around them and work together to ensure that everybody secures a fair share economically of the end result. It would be encouraging if other co-operatives could be formulated to secure similar deals.
It is encouraging that the dairy coalition has produced a voluntary code of practice, but will the Minister say when he will endorse it? If the code does not work, what action will he propose to ensure that we do not see any more dairy farmers going out of business? Will the Minister also say more about the timetable for the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, as it does not currently seem to be published?
I would like to endorse all the points that my colleagues have made today. I shall not repeat those arguments, as they have been made on many occasions, but I would like to tell the Minister that last week, I heard even his local farmers on Radio Cornwall, my local radio station, saying that they know he is a man of the land and that he has promised to support the farming industry. I hope that now he holds the position of Minister of State, he will continue the good work that his predecessor was renowned for. We want to see strong decisions and firm help from him for our farming industry.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer, Conservative)
As ever, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Like many hon. Members here, I represent a constituency with strong rural links and I have had regular meetings with local dairy farmers. I want to voice their concerns
and discuss the wider conflicts in the industry today, but I must also put on record my declaration of interest, Mr Betts, as I am a farmer, albeit not a dairy farmer.
As has been outlined powerfully this afternoon, for some time, our dairy farmers have found their backs to the wall. To be honest, that is putting it quite politely. It is fair to say that farmers have been unfairly penalised through contracts that, frankly, have sought to take advantage of the product’s perishable nature. As such, I was delighted to learn last week that UK dairy farmers and processing firms had agreed a new voluntary code of practice for future milk supply contracts. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Paice for all his work in getting the code of practice set up. That agreement was the result of significant negotiation, and the new voluntary code will require plenty of scrutiny from both the industry and Government.
Before discussing the path forward, it is important to understand the context of farmers’ concerns. The dispute has centred on frequent reductions in the price paid by processors to milk producers. Combined with the rising cost of feed and distribution, the pressure on dairy farmers is taking a sad toll. To give a local example, Arla, based in Leeds, reversed its planned 1p price cut for August. It actually went further, raising its price to 29.5p a litre, as has been mentioned. However, in the same month, production costs for dairy farmers jumped by 1.5p, so the costs of production were still not being covered, which is the crux of the problem facing those farmers.
The dangers of failing to act now and in favour of milk farmers are stark. Quite simply, if dairy farming does not pay, we will witness an increasing decline in the number of UK-based dairy farmers and an increasing dependence on dairy imports. The farmers with dairy in their blood may continue to champion the industry out of love—I know many who would do that—but, more worryingly, what are the incentives for the next generation to do likewise? The danger, therefore, is not just the immediate threat of dairy farmers going bust, but the threat to the viability of UK-based dairy farmers in the long term.
At this stage, I praise the work, research and general lobbying provided to farmers by the NFU. I agree with the NFU’s dairy board chairman, Mr Raymond, who said only last week that dairy farmers require
“equitable and trusting relationships with their milk buyers and this can only be achieved by putting in place fair and transparent milk supply contracts.”
The recently agreed code certainly seems to address the problem of trust, with the document set to include a range of positive measures. However, I believe that dairy farmers are entitled to be cautious as well as optimistic. As with all such codes and agreements, words on paper must be translated into practical action. I put it to the Minister that the Government must ensure that the situation is kept under constant review, with an understanding that further work and perhaps even legislation might be required—and that is not something that I would often say.
Finally, I want to focus on the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. Like many other hon. Members, I have been calling for some form of supermarket ombudsman since my election to the House. I know that supermarkets play an important role in local economies
and communities throughout the country. However, in such a competitive market, squeezing prices in the back office to the detriment of standards and of producers, such as dairy farmers, is a constant risk, requiring some manner of independent monitoring. Like many, I look forward to the Bill’s Second Reading. I believe that a strong groceries code adjudicator—I emphasise the word “strong because it must have teeth—will build on the new code to offer dairy farmers a bit of light at the end of what has been a very long and pretty dark tunnel.
Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight, Conservative)
I welcome the new Minister to his post and wish him well in his efforts to save the UK’s dairy industry. His predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Paice, fought hard for farmers and has our thanks and respect.
People pick up milk from the supermarket or village shop without really thinking about it. If they consider it at all, many assume that it comes from cows in local fields cared for by local farmers, but that is usually wrong. Let us take the Isle of Wight as an example: 80% of island milk is ferried across the Solent to the mainland; meanwhile, milk from the mainland is being ferried across the Solent to the island. That is the economics of the madhouse.
It is well known by all islanders that separation from the mainland costs. Andy Turney, who owns farms on both sides of the Solent, calculates that milk produced on the island costs an extra 1.5p a litre, and he is a larger producer; for smaller farms it is more like tuppence a litre. Island farmers are not on a level playing field. Processing giants, such as Robert Wiseman, part of the German multinational Müller group, bring milk to the island, but it is believed that they bring more than their contracts allow in order to sell some milk below cost. I am writing to large processors, asking whether that is true. If it is, it may be a form of market distortion, which should be referred to the Office of Fair Trading, but even if it is not, the island’s dairy farmers are in crisis.
In the 1950s, there were more than 600 dairy farms on the island. Today, there are fewer than 20, and we cannot afford to lose any more. The whole of the island’s economy depends heavily on tourism. After the national dairy summit on
In August, we launched a public awareness campaign. Justin Birch, chairman of the dairy farmers group, took it on with Louise Hart and Jeremy Fisk—all youngsters. Many local shops on the island already sell local milk, but Tesco is the only supermarket that currently sells
island milk. I thank it for that. I have written to the other island supermarkets, asking them to do the same and give their customers the choice to support local farmers. So far we have had interest from Waitrose, Southern Co-operative, Morrisons and Bookers. I am still waiting to hear from others. I am glad to say that last weekend Waitrose told me of its intention to sell Isle of Wight milk very soon. There is a way through this.
We have had generous support from processors David and Jenny Harvey of Rew Valley Dairies—so much so that we plan to introduce within a matter of weeks a new line of milk produced and processed on the island. It will be marketed and sold by the Isle of Wight dairy farmers. The aim will be to pay local farmers a fair and sustainable price for the milk that they produce.
We have had great support, so I would like to say a few thanks. Caroline Knox and John Heather of the island’s branch of the NFU, Liam Thom of Island Webservices and Judi Griffin of Briddlesford Lodge farm—the island’s milk queen—have given advice and support. I also thank Rachel Dangerfield, Brian Marriott and David Holmes. Genus, C & O Tractors and David Coombes, a local vet, have provided some sponsorship. Rapanui produced stylish T-shirts, which are bound to be a collector’s item. Very importantly, the island’s NHS has asked us to tender when its milk contract is to be renewed.
“If this doesn’t succeed, I don’t see any realistic future for dairy farming on the island.”
Once we have achieved our aim of getting more milk into island shops, hotels and restaurants, I would like the Minister to visit, enjoy the holiday atmosphere, taste our delicious Isle of Wight milk and, importantly, see whether there are any lessons that can be taken and used elsewhere in his work to support our nation’s dairy farmers.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate. I should perhaps declare an interest, in that I am still involved in farming—though not in dairy farming for the last 50 years, and even then not on a scale that would have caused any over-production.
I thank Thomas Docherty and all the other members of the EFRA Committee for their contributions today and their work on this matter. I look back fondly at the time that I spent on that Committee, but if I remember correctly, we were also doing then the work that is being done at the moment.
I welcome the Minister to his place; as an MP, he has always had an interest in agricultural matters, and he comes from Somerset, which is right at the heart of the west country milk-producing region.
I pay tribute to the previous Minister, Mr Paice, who has now moved away from his post. He had a long apprenticeship in Opposition and perhaps too short a time in power. He delivered for British agriculture and I know that farmers think the world of him. I was at the Methodist central hall meeting, which was probably
one of angriest farmers meetings I have ever attended. I am a veteran of farmers’ demonstrations, but that one was exceptional. On that occasion, the right hon. Gentleman handled it very well. Only so much can be done at a political level, but politicians can work with the industry to change public perception and public opinion on such matters, which has certainly happened.
It was a year of unrest for those in the dairy sector. They are feeling the effects of the increase in the cost of inputs—fuel, fertiliser and other oil-based products—but unlike other agricultural sectors, such as red meat and cereals, they have seen the price of their commodity decreasing, whereas other sectors have seen some compensation in the form of increasing prices.
In terms of price, the supermarket industry looks on milk as one of those staple foods that consumers judge supermarkets on, and as such, it has always been the focus of price wars. Even this morning in Tesco, eight pints were still selling for £2. In some ways, I do not criticise the supermarkets selling the milk—they can sell it for what they want—but they should not penalise farmers in their competition with other supermarkets. We have very high animal welfare standards. The public demand it. If that is to continue, farmers have to get a decent price.
Naming and shaming has made a difference—some of the processors have certainly increased their prices. The former Minister told us in July that the voluntary code of practice was coming and was only “days away,” and I am pleased to say that it was announced at the Royal Welsh show. It was a great fillip to not only Welsh, but UK dairy producers. I have looked at the voluntary code:
“It offers a number of benefits and protection to farmers, including: 30 days’ notice of cut to a farmer’s price or other significant change to contractual terms”.
When we compare that with the investment that farmers have made in their farms and milk producing businesses, what are we talking about? Thirty days. Farmers have invested for years and years, and the profitability of their business can be changed just like that. I welcome the voluntary code—it is a good start—but both the milk-processing sector and the supermarkets need to be committed to the total food chain. If people are going to invest in and produce milk and other products of the quality that they have produced in the past, they need confidence that the milk chain will be there and will give them a fair return.
Certain milk processers have told me that a reason for the reduction in milk prices was that the wholesale price of cream dropped from £1,800 a tonne to £1,200 a tonne. The last time I went to buy skimmed milk, they charged the same for the skimmed as they did for the full-cream. Some of the arguments that the milk processing companies have presented should be looked at again.
The milk industry has been the basis of British farming. We need to ensure that the supply chain is made firm and secure, so that people can continue to invest in it and consumers can benefit from it.
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood, Conservative)
I congratulate Thomas Docherty. He made some important points, which I would like to come back to, without repeating
Probably two-thirds of my constituency, Lancaster and Fleetwood, is rural—upland and lowland. I will not repeat the points that my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh made extremely well about the particular issues for upland farmers. The dairy farms in my area are not very big, probably mixed, with about 40 head of cattle maximum—that kind of scale. To be honest, in the middle of all the erudition today, I am extremely new to the topic—a new MP and new to farming, particularly dairying.
I would like to promote Lancashire cheese—my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce mentioned Cheshire cheese. I thank the individual farmers in Lancashire who educated me. They have small-scale, family-run farms that have gone on for generations. The Hewitts from Poplar Grove farm in Cockerham, the Joneses from Sand Villa farm in Cockerham, and the Whitakers from Park Lane farm in Winmarleigh, all educated me in this process.
My father ran a small business that was so small it was sometimes a one-man business, or a two-man business if my grandfather was working. My father was an asphalter by trade. When the farmers showed me some of the contracts that milk producers sign, I could not believe it. My father would never have been in a position to run a business based on deals with such exclusivity, with the inability to transfer what is produced, and the person being supplied able to vary the price on a whim. On that point, I want to return to what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said. He made an important point that others have made before and farmers have made to me: it is about not only the retail end, but the milk buyer in the middle, who is becoming the issue. The farmers are grateful, as others have said, for all that the previous Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Paice has done—the adjudicator and so on—but they now want that middle bit policed and to see how it is going to be policed. They have raised specific issues.
The previous Minister, in a written statement earlier this month, stated that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would consult on the arrangements needed to implement dairy producer organisations. Is the Minister able to tell us now when the consultation is likely to be under way? In reference to my hon. Friend Sheryll Murray, whom I call my fishing guru for South East Cornwall, will we learn from the history of the fishing industry and the producers, both the good and the bad?
There was a DEFRA written statement from Lord Taylor in July about marketing, which other hon. Members have mentioned. Lord Taylor said that there would be discussions between the Department and the industry about greater sourcing and promotion of British dairy products, which we have all been on about. Has there been any progress? Has the Minister considered, or is he willing to consider, what others have said about common sense? We all campaign for fair trade, which many others have mentioned, and it is common sense to have fair trade milk, as I think my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths said.
I am new to the subject, but I recognise that generations are involved. I remember a particular farmer who, when I wandered over and asked how long she had been there, said, thinking me a townie, “Oh, only 300 years.” As other hon. Members have said, some farmers are now considering whether it is worth passing the farm on any more. That tragedy seems to be happening. Next Tuesday, I will speak to the Wyreside young farmers’ dinner, which can apparently be quite an event. I want to be able to say to them—and, as a result of what hon. Friends and hon. Members have said, I hope to say—that there is concern and there is support for getting the industry moving, so that they will have a future, because they are considering whether it is worth while.
My hon. Friend Mr Cash mentioned 1984, and I, too, am a little older than some here. To me, it seems that dairying continually goes through these spasms, to the extent that it is has got to the point where farmers are considering whether dairying is worth while.
As others have mentioned, if we get to such a point, the greenery that is Lancashire will be no more and the nature of this country will be no more. I hope that the Minister will reassure both me and other Members, and particularly my Wyreside young farmers, so that I can tell them next Tuesday that there is a future in dairying that this Government will protect.
Sarah Wollaston (Totnes, Conservative)
I will not repeat the powerful arguments that have been made by Thomas Docherty and my hon. Friend Neil Parish. I just want to ask the question: who cares for the people who actually feed the nation and care for our countryside?
In this House, we know that farming families are suffering. I used to be a GP in a very rural area, and I know that farmers work the longest hours and never seem to take a day off or take holidays. All of us are prone to depression—one in four of us will have it at some time in our lives—but it is particularly difficult and risky in farmers. Members may know that farmers are two and a half times more likely than the general population to die as a result of suicide. In the week that the Government have launched their suicide strategy, I am very pleased that that has highlighted the especially high risk to farmers. We all have a responsibility to call on everyone to make it as easy as possible for farmers to come forward and talk about being in distress. Many people will be aware that farmers are particularly stoical—they have a fine tradition of just getting on with it—and we must make it clear that when they seek help, there will be people who are ready to take them seriously.
I draw the House’s attention to the fact that help is out there. I ask the House to join me in paying tribute to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, the Farm Crisis Network and the Addington Fund for the work that they do to support our farmers. I particularly draw attention to the report published in 2009 by the Farm Crisis Network entitled, “Stress and Loss”. It highlighted the number of farmers who presented to the Farm
Crisis Network with financial difficulties, depression and even family breakdown, for whom bovine TB was at the heart of those problems.
Other Members have mentioned the impact of TB on farming families, but over the next few months, we will see many people—particularly celebrities—queuing up to protect the badger. I would like them to be very careful about how they talk about farmers and farming families. We know that farmers and their families are at great risk from vandalism and direct action, and what people say can inflame such situations. I hope that all Members will join me in calling for them to act responsibly and to consider that there is another aspect to this debate.
We do not have enough time to go into a detailed critique of the problems of the randomised badger culling trial, but I want to make a few points relating to that debate. We cannot cure an infected badger through vaccination. We can no more cure an infected badger with vaccination than we can cure an infected person with vaccination. Treatment takes months of complex antibiotic regimes, and everyone would agree that that is just not feasible in wildlife. Another point is that, in regard to protecting badgers themselves, TB is spreading remorselessly across the countryside to previously TB-free areas. In 1998, 599 cattle were slaughtered in Devon as a result of TB; by 2010, that had risen to 5,761. Perhaps an even more valid marker for spread is the number of new herd breakdowns, which rose from 191 in 1998 to 797 in 2010. That remorseless spread will continue across the countryside, so it is wholly appropriate for the Government at least to look at some of the issues raised by the randomised badger culling trial in relation to geographical areas, edge effects and the length of time of the cull.
I actually support the move to have further field trials of vaccination, but we must be realistic. An oral live bait vaccine will not be available for some time, and it is not reasonable to extrapolate from the results of an injectable vaccine trial to an oral bait trial; they are not equivalent. In my view, it is perfectly reasonable to have a further trial that will consider such issues. Farmers themselves, and certainly I, will be the first to say, “Let’s not carry on with it, if it isn’t shown to be effective.” Nobody is suggesting that vaccination should have a wide roll-out until we know whether it is starting to work.
I call on members of the wider community at least to consider the other side of this debate and the effect on farming families, and to join me in paying tribute to the people who, as I said at the start, actually feed the nation and care for our countryside.
David Rutley (Macclesfield, Conservative)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, although I must confess that, with the new technology here, this debate has sometimes felt as though we were participating in “Just a Minute”.
I thank Thomas Docherty and my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing this debate. The enthusiasm of so many Members shows how important the issue is to so many of us and, most importantly, to the farmers in our communities. I welcome
the new Minister, who has probably had to spend a lot of time absorbing all this new information. Hearing us today will, I hope, reinforce how important the issue is to our farmers. I want to put on the record my tribute to my hon. Friend—now my right hon. Friend—Mr Paice for his tireless work in opposition before he became a Minister, and also as a Minister. He helped many of us and he helped many farmers.
In preparing for this debate, I took a look at that well-known agricultural journal—“Lonely Planet”. Its guide to Cheshire states, obviously authoritatively, that the
“largely agricultural Cheshire is a very black-and-white kind of place—if you focus on the genuine half-timbered Tudor farmhouses and the Friesian cows that graze in the fields around them.”
Cheshire is great dairy country. We have heard about other counties, but Cheshire is supreme as far as I am concerned. [ Interruption. ] Did my hon. Friend say Cheshire?
David Rutley (Macclesfield, Conservative)
From speaking to my local farmers’ forum, our local NFU branch, it is clear that farmers are facing extremely challenging times. It is worth while pausing on the degree of consolidation that they have gone through. According to DairyCo figures, there are 609 farmers in dairying in Cheshire, but just 10 years ago there were nearly double that number—1,007. That amazing change is because of the extreme challenges that they are going through. Of course, that is due to the power of the supermarkets, as we have heard, and to the fact that the cost of production is going up, while others have mentioned broadband—many of us are campaigning for improved broadband services in rural areas—and my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston has made an important point about TB. Those are all huge challenges for our farmers and for our rural communities that depend on farmers’ well-being, so we of course want to support them.
It is also important to say that farmers have responded to such conditions. They have not sat back; they have faced into these headwinds. Yields are up; farmers have adopted innovative farming methods; they have added value to their milk; and they have diversified. Just look at Blaze farm in Wildboarclough, with its world famous Hilly Billy ice cream—it has an extraordinary taste. Blaze farm now also has ceramic pottery painting and even hosts wedding receptions. That is diversification: farmers are facing into these headwinds and responding to market pressures. They do not want to defy the laws of gravity or the laws of the market. When I speak to farmers in Gawsworth and Siddington, and such great places, they want to be able to compete on a level playing field, in a fair market with fair prices.
Many of us attended the protest at Westminster and, with 2,000 farmers there, it was clear that they need action. I shall summarise my words quickly, because I want the Minister to be able to reply. It is good that processors and retailers have responded—keep the pressure on. The voluntary code is incredibly important, and the fact that farmers can now give 30 days’ notice and terminate contracts with three months’ notice is vital. It is amazing that that has not been the case before. Let us
ensure that, like the groceries adjudicator, the code has teeth. I pay tribute to colleagues and to the NFU for their hard-fought campaigns. I have said enough. We need to hear from the Minister. Again, I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for securing this debate.
Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire, Conservative)
I have waited two and a half years for this moment. It is really sad that, as a nation of tea drinkers, we cannot organise a fair price for the milk that goes into it. Even more sad is the fact that in 2003 and 2004, we compiled a Select Committee report on milk pricing, and very little has changed. As my hon. Friend Neil Parish rightly said, it is wrong that the middle men take the lion’s share of the profit from the milk market.
I am not sure whether it is on the record, but I own and breed Hereford cattle, and one big problem for dairy farmers is knowing that the product that they work so hard to produce is grossly undervalued by their customers. There is also another problem. Imagine how Robert Wiseman would feel if one of his beautiful black and white lorries was crushed every time it failed its MOT, or Sainsbury’s or Tesco had their building bulldozed if it failed a health and safety inspection. That is what happens when a farmer fails a TB test.
Probably no hon. Member has taken a TB test, so I will explain what it is like. It is quite easy on day one when a farmer puts his cattle through the crush because the cattle do not know what is going to happen. The vet comes along and very carefully and professionally gives the cattle two injections, one for avian TB and the other for bovine TB. The cows do not think much of that. Three days later, the vet comes back to feel whether the bovine bump is larger than the avian one and whether the cows have been exposed to tuberculosis. The cows do not know that they are not going to get jabbed, so they do not want to go through the crush and will fight to dodge it, and that, I am afraid, makes the whole process extremely dangerous.
My little boy, Jack, who is only seven, got kicked. My cows weigh 900 kilos, which is quite a lot more than me, and when they want to go somewhere, they will go. It is tough for farmers, and they get hurt. At least two of them have been killed in the time that I have been a Member of Parliament. It is extremely difficult for people who do not see this sort of activity to understand why the milk price has to reflect the risk that these people take, why it is so important that the Government continue with their agenda to fight this disease and to beat it, and why the Minister should go further than we are at the moment and allow the badger culls to go ahead and be trialled. I support the culls, because I have heard the misery of the farmers. They used to ring me up and cry down the phone when they started shooting their bull calves and I completely sympathised with them.
I have worked with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Compassion in World Farming and all sorts of other people in the efforts to stop the export of live calves. Blade farming has now done a great deal of good in providing a market for those dairy bull calves. When I was elected in 2001, we had the smell
of burning flesh from the foot and mouth outbreak. Farmers have been through absolute hell. I urge the Minister to use all his charm, skill and wit to persuade the European Commission to allow vaccination for cattle as soon as possible. Even if badger culling succeeds, we can do more both for the people and for the cattle.
At the moment, farmers who live in a four-year testing area do not have to test for pre-movement. That is good, because the process is dangerous and unpleasant for both the farmer and his cattle. We need to recognise, too, the economic disadvantages of the process. It costs about £100 to do a pre-movement test for a cow. If the cow leaves a farmer’s property, it must be done and it lasts only for up to 60 days. A farmer may also wish to bring in a bull to see his cows. There is a lot more to this than just producing milk.
I have some fantastic dairy farmers, although they are smaller in number now. They are buying their cows from France because they are scared stiff of having TB on their farms. If they are shut down, their cattle will continue to produce calves and their sheds will become full. Calves need proper ventilation otherwise they get pneumonia. They have to be looked after properly. If a farmer is shut down they cannot do that, so their sheds fill up and they have more and more cattle on their property. The chance of a respiratory infection being passed through is increased and they are in a real mess. Again, that is more risk for the dairy farmer that is not reflected in the price.
Worse, farmers will be given the DEFRA compensation table, which has two sides—pedigree and non-pedigree. Hon. Members must urge their constituents to buy pedigree cattle because the compensation and the way in which it is calculated are significantly better. Moreover, it is taken over a six-month period instead of a one-month period. A pedigree heifer is worth £1,798 and a non-pedigree only £895, so a farmer will lose a great deal of money if they do not have pedigree stock. If they do not buy their pedigree stock from the UK, there is no market for those heifer calves that are being reared. Again, the vicious circle goes on. It is even worse than that because if the Government are paying more compensation, the price to the taxpayer goes up—we are heading now towards £100 million.
The dairy industry is racked not only by the price that we receive for milk but by the disproportionate risk that these people are taking, which is why the speech of my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston on the risk to the families was so important. I urge the Government to do everything they can to support this vulnerable group of people.
Clive Betts (Sheffield South East, Labour)
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore, Labour)
This has been a tremendous debate. If my arithmetic is correct and I include the Front-Bench speakers, we will have had 26 contributions, plus interventions. That is quite something. We have heard from all parts of the Chamber, and there
has been a large degree of consensus on the way forward, on how to learn the lessons not only from this summer but from where we have been before, especially at the producer end, and on how to reach a long-term solution. I thank all Members for that, especially my hon. Friend Thomas Docherty and Neil Parish who introduced this debate.
I want to say something that no one has said so far—milk is a fantastic and delicious product. I know that from having three boys who are all mad keen on rugby and football. It is their after-training drink, so it is not only delicious but nutritious. Perhaps we should resurrect that old saying, “Drink a pint of milk a day.” We should also find an equivalent saying for yoghurt, cheese and all the manufactured products that we should be producing in the UK as well.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore, Labour)
Perhaps the Administration Committee will look at the rules and allow us to bring in good UK products. I thank, too, the Select Committee for its recent and long-standing work. The detail and forensic analysis that it has applied to the subject will be of help to us and to the Minister. I welcome the new Minister to his position and tell him that we want to work with the Government to strengthen future policies. I hope that he will be open to some of our suggestions.
This is a welcome opportunity to debate the industry, especially after our dairy farming sector—I apologise to hon. Members for saying this in the Chamber—took on a slightly French flavour. We had protests, blockades and threats of direct action that were not carried through. Roger Williams said that the former Agriculture Minister fronted up a very heated session within the Methodist hall, which he did. He did what a Farming Minister should do, which is to front up the debate and earn his salary. It was an immensely difficult and confrontational meeting, but he earned his stripes. Although not everything he said was welcome, he really earned his salary that day and, as a Minister, he did the right thing—he did not hide.
We now have a very good chance to examine not only what has been going wrong, but more importantly what can be done to resolve the situation. In fact, I returned this morning from a meeting with farmers just outside Corby. That is no coincidence; people will probably know that we have a tremendous Labour candidate there, Andy Sawford, who was with me today. We were out meeting people, but we discussed in detail some of the issues that arose from the dairy crisis and the long-term solutions that are needed for the future.
I have already welcomed the new Minister to his portfolio, but I also pay tribute to his predecessor, Mr Paice. He and I did not agree on everything. If we had, not only would he be a Conservative but I would be a Conservative, or perhaps a Liberal Democrat—I am not sure. I regard him as a very decent man who wanted to do the right thing for agriculture. Reshuffles are a brutal affair, and his successor, the new Minister,
will want to strive to avoid any dairy crisis in the future, as we all do, and we will try to work with him to prevent another crisis.
Let me put on the record some of Labour’s bottom lines. We want a fair deal for farmers, food manufacturers and retailers, but we should not forget consumers. We want a fair deal for them, too—a point made by Miss McIntosh, the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, in her contribution to the debate. We want a competitive and equitable supply chain that delivers not only profitability all along that supply chain, but affordability for the shopper. That is not a lot to ask, although sometimes this summer it seemed like a huge task to achieve. To that end, we welcome wholeheartedly the dairy coalition’s 10-point plan. We want the consultation on the EU dairy package to be carried out this autumn without fail, so that producer organisations can gain formal recognition.
It is perhaps not surprising for a party that was born from one parent within the co-operative movement that Labour wants to see more producer-based organisation within the dairy sector. However, that is not simply about strengthening bargaining power—bargaining power has been referred to repeatedly today—or seeing some new imbalance that might be to the detriment of the consumer. It is vital not only that farmers can balance power in the supply chain, which is not in equilibrium, but that dairy producers come together, transfer right up the value chain by investing in food production, as well as food processing, and develop higher-value products for both the domestic and export markets. We should not forget the export market, although it has not had much attention today.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman speaks about the proud tradition of his party and its relationship with the co-operative movement. Will he today speak out and condemn the Co-op supermarket’s inability to pay a fair price to their farmers?
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore, Labour)
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to make this debate party political; I am trying not to do so. Let me again put on record something that I have already said publicly and to the media repeatedly: I condemn all those retailers and milk processors that are squeezing the price down. I condemned them, and I have named them to shame them.
The retail sector and the milk processors have taken a heck of a kicking this summer, and they have taken a heck of a kicking today. The hon. Gentleman will have noted that I have already made the point—I am sure that the Minister will make the same one—that we do not want to turn this situation around completely, whereby the consumer loses out because we have strengthened so much another part of the supply chain and its bargaining power that the poor old shopper walks into shops and is fleeced for a different reason entirely. What we want is a fair and equitable supply chain. So, yes—in answer to the hon. Gentleman—I will speak out against anybody that is abusing the supply chain, because what we want is a healthy, thriving and open supply chain that is competitive but that has some form of co-operation, because it is in the interests of UK plc that we have a strong supply chain and not an imbalanced one, whereby somebody is badly hurt. At present, the farmers and producers are being hurt very badly.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South, Labour)
My hon. Friend has spoken a great deal about fairness and equity in this industry. Although I think that we would all welcome the voluntary code, I am reliably informed by certain farmers in the Ceiriog valley that there is a chance that it might not work and that if it does not work Her Majesty’s Government here in Westminster should carefully bear in mind the words of the relevant Minister in the Welsh Government, who said that we might have to take statutory action.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore, Labour)
Indeed. I will return to that important point shortly; Jonathan Edwards raised it earlier, too. It is absolutely right that the Welsh Government are already considering what will happen if the code does not work. I will raise the point with the Minister, too, because we need to ensure that a discussion takes place across the UK about having an approach that, if it is not universal, respects both devolution and the fact that we need to work on behalf of all our farmers—not only farmers in the Principality, but right across the nation.
I say to farmers who may be tempted to pause for breath because they think that the summer storm is now passing that they should not do so. I say to them, “Organise yourselves; invest in producer organisations and in the value of the raw product, and do it now. And keep the pressure on us as parliamentarians and on the Government to deliver, as the groceries code adjudicator comes to the House.”
One of the last acts of the former Minister was to sign off on a voluntary code for best practice between milk processors and suppliers. That was good, and the code has been broadly welcomed. However, as night follows day, or in this case—please excuse my pun—as knighthood followed that day, the announcement was welcomed but with some caution. The chairman of the National Farmers Union, Peter Kendall, said that although the announcement
“gave some hope for the long term, it did not solve the dairy farming issues of today”.
So we must keep up the pressure to ensure that those processors that are not paying a fair price announce—as we have heard today—that they are rescinding their former announcements. Peter Kendall went on to say:
“This agreement will give us the architecture we need to make sure that we don’t end up with the same dysfunctional markets that are responsible for the dairy crisis we have today”.
We now have the architecture there in front of us, as long as we can make it work.
Let me make it absolutely clear that Labour supports the voluntary agreement if it can be made to work and once the legal niceties have been ironed out, but we also seek assurances from the Minister that the Government do not rule out additional measures, including legislation, should they prove necessary.
We are not alone in seeking that assurance, as the Minister has already heard today. Conservative parliamentarians—including the hon. Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and for Tiverton and Honiton, who have spoken in this debate, and many others who have spoken elsewhere—have queued up to express caution. As I was saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline
and West Fife a moment ago, that does not sound like the party of regulatory bonfires. This must be one of those good bits of regulation that some people talk about, while others jeer at the very idea.
I will express one word of caution to the Minister, to urge him not to rush headlong down the Stalinist end of the spectrum of views on this issue. Such views have been expressed by the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, who has stated:
“There is no way it”—
the voluntary code—
“is going to work—it is just another rather sad red herring—it has been tried I don’t know how many times and it is always a disaster”.
He says that the code, which the Government support, is “nowhere near sufficient” and that Parliament needs to set a minimum price for
“a strategic resource like milk.”
I urge the new Minister to avoid capitulating to the old, central, statist control-and-command tendency in the Conservative party—next thing he will be arguing for a price set at a European level. Give the voluntary agreement some time to work, but as those in the less red-in-tooth-and-claw tendency of the rural Conservative party argue, keep the legislation ready to hand in case it is needed. Alternatively, as the Minister’s own Liberal Democrat party president, Tim Farron, has said, although the voluntary code is fine for now, the Government must
“commit to back that up with legislation if needed.”
That point has been made consistently today by many MPs from all parties.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham, Conservative)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as he is running out of time, but I hope that he will not finish speaking without giving an up-to-date explanation of the Labour party’s views on a limited cull of badgers, following the decision of the courts.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore, Labour)
I will try, but I might well run out of time. We need another debate, and following that decision, I suspect that we will have one on that matter in the near future. I will try to get to the issue. I want to draw on some of the points that have already been raised.
I seek assurance from the Minister that he will keep the voluntary agreement under extremely close scrutiny, that he will report back to Parliament on its operation with genuine urgency and that legislation is being kept as an option. I assume that he will be open—more open, in fact, than his predecessor—to the suggestion that the groceries code adjudicator should be given a few more teeth than the Government seemed willing to countenance formerly. In fact, I am confident that he will want to do an about-turn, because he is rightly an openly professed friend to good sense, to farmers, to a healthy and prosperous supply chain and, by default, to the position that is being expanded upon today. There is cross-party consensus; let me explain.
The new Minister, not without some background or expertise in the farming and food sector, including in dairy production, is on record as saying that he favours
“an ombudsman with teeth, who can deal with the iniquities of the food supply chain”—[Hansard, 20 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 165WH.]
He said that the sooner that was established the better. We note the phrase “with teeth”, to which I will return in future debates.
Today, we particularly note the reference to the food supply chain. In 2009, the Minister said, with wisdom and foresight, that we need
“a sustainable price that allows our producers to get a return on their investment in milk”.—[Hansard, 18 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 501.]
He also talked about
“a regulator who will be able to regulate the whole supply chain effectively, and ensure that the relationships are fair and transparent”.—[Hansard, 20 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 165WH.]
That refers not to a limited part of the supply chain, such as a direct link between retailers and suppliers, but to the whole of it, which would include intermediaries such as milk processors. However, that is not what the Government propose in the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. Now that he is Minister in charge—the man with the levers of power who will stamp his own authority on the Department—I know that he will want to amend the Bill in line with the proposals.
I have run out of time. We will have to debate the matter again. I welcome the new Minister, and I hope that he can confirm that his imprint will now be on the proposals for the groceries code adjudicator.
David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
I am grateful to Huw Irranca-Davies for his welcome, and for the welcome from other Members here today. I am grateful also to the Backbench Business Committee and to Thomas Docherty and my hon. Friend Neil Parish for making this extremely timely debate happen.
Before I go any further, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr Paice, and, I hope, my personal friend. I have enormous respect for him. He did an excellent job for the agriculture industry during his tenure of this post, and I regret that I am able to take on the responsibilities only by his leaving them. Nevertheless, I thank him for everything he has achieved over the past two and a half years.
This is a very important debate, which is evidenced by the number of Members, from every corner of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who have wished to contribute and are here representing the interests of dairy farmers in their constituencies. I want to say straight away that the dairy sector is hugely important to the United Kingdom, and to me. It is important to me because there are, arguably, more dairy cattle in my constituency than in any other constituency in the country. We make some of the greatest and best cheeses in not just the United Kingdom but the world, and I am not afraid to say so.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
I am sure that now the Minister is in post he will be travelling right the way around the world. Will he commit to keeping a bit of Caerphilly in his briefcase, so that he can bring it out as an example of wonderful Welsh cheese?
David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
That will get me into some very interesting discussions with border officials in a lot of countries. I will take the concept of Caerphilly, Cheddar, Lancashire and Cheshire around the world with me, wherever I go.
The dairy sector is enormously important to the United Kingdom. It is the largest agricultural sector, and we should remember that it is worth £3.7 billion annually. It is iconic in our countryside, and is identifiably British. There are good things to say about the industry. We have some very advanced and efficient processing plants, particularly for fresh drinking milk, and in the past year there has been a lot of wider investment in processing, which shows real promise and confidence in the future. Yet, let us not get away from the fact that in the past two months we have seen rallies and protests. There was the meeting in Methodist Central hall, which I, too, was at, and there is genuine worry about the inequity between farm-gate prices and production costs. A significant proportion of farmers may struggle to make ends meet this year, particularly in the context of the price changes, but also because of the rising input costs and the monsoon conditions that many of us have had to survive this summer.
There is nothing new in much of that. I seem to have been dealing with the issue throughout my political career, and I have always been consistent regarding the matter. I am actually grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore for mentioning some of the things that I have said in the past, because I have consistently said that we must have arrangements in the dairy sector that are fair to the farmers, to processors, to retailers and to consumers. Those are not incompatible objectives; they are all on a par. To be fair to at least one processor and retailer, the Co-operative has been mentioned several times. No, it did not do terribly well over the summer, but it has today announced that it is increasing milk prices to 30p a litre from
Members have raised matters that are slightly away from the economic conditions of the dairy sector. They have talked about the improvements in the Rural Payments Agency, for which I am grateful, because it is absolutely right to say that the agency’s performance has improved. We have discussed TB eradication. Unfortunately, we are still none the wiser as to the position of the hon. Member for Ogmore and his party on that, but I am clear. I thought that my hon. Friend Dr Wollaston spoke more sense about TB eradication in her contribution than I have heard for a long time, and I am grateful to her for that. We also talked about the groceries code adjudicator, for which I certainly have argued for many years, and I am proud that we are now putting through the House the legislation that will make that a reality.
Let us return to the economic position. We import a quarter of our total dairy needs. We have a £1.2 billion trade deficit. There is a growing demand for food at the global level, and an opportunity to fulfil some of it. Milk quotas will be gone from 2015, but we are not restricted by them now. We have room to expand already, while other member states are held back until 2015 and
they desperately want quotas removed now. We have a chance to get in first—otherwise we might lose out. That is why some of the things that my hon. Friends have talked about are so crucial to the future of the dairy industry—promoting the industry around the world, promoting exports and import substitution, and increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of our industry. They are all opportunities for the British dairy industry.
It is not my business to tell people how to run their farms, but we need to look at the vast range of production costs on dairy farms and see if we can learn from best practice, helping farmers to recognise the difference that efficiency and profitability can make, and the improvements that can be achieved on the farm. There are things that dairy farmers can do on their own. For instance, I encourage them to sign up for Dairy Pro. Dairy Pro is the industry’s first integrated continual professional development scheme, which provides training and development to improve both standards of business performance and recruitment and retention within the industry.
There are things that dairy farmers can do together. Several hon. Members have mentioned the EU dairy package, which increases the already significant potential for collaboration through producer organisations. The timetable has not yet been agreed by the European Council and European Parliament, but we do not expect any problems. We expect to be able to start consulting in October, and we hope the legislation will bring the package into effect in spring 2013. I hope dairy farmers recognise the wider benefits that producer organisations may offer. Such organisations are not only about negotiating prices. A well organised producer organisation can make a significant difference to the success of its members by sharing best practice, increasing efficiency and competitiveness and opening up new markets.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall, Conservative)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, Europe-wide, only a certain percentage—30%, I think—of producers can become members of a producer organisation? Does he really think that the shortfall we will see between Europe and the UK will solve the problem?
David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
I think it can make a contribution. All of these things are cumulative, but we should encourage collaboration within our dairy industry because it would make a significant difference.
The biggest single factor, and many Members have talked about this, is the voluntary code of conduct. This is the dairy industry’s first code of practice on contracts and it is a significant step from the beginning of the chain. I congratulate the industry, and I congratulate my predecessor on bringing the industry together. The agreement on the code’s detail is potentially momentous and provides all parties with greater clarity on contractual terms and conditions, particularly on farm-gate prices. I hope the code will start to open trusting relationships between the parties, because they need each other. We cannot have war within a mutually dependent industry.
I have been asked many times what happens if the code does not work. That is the wrong question; I want to ask what happens when the code does work, because I am strongly optimistic that this is the best way forward for securing a sustainable arrangement. Under the EU dairy package, we have the option of legislating on contracts. I make it clear that I will seriously consider
making contracts compulsory if the code fails to deliver the necessary changes. I have already announced that we will be consulting so that, if such changes are necessary, we can make swift progress. Having said that, it is vital that the industry gives the code its full support and the time needed to take effect.
I confirm that additional funds are being made available to dairy farmers. We are opening the skills and knowledge transfer framework specifically to provide workshop events for dairy farmers from late autumn this year. That should help dairy farmers identify and access emerging market opportunities such as exports; strengthen their position in the supply chain through more effective co-operation and collaboration; develop new products and add value; and establish benchmarking.
The £5 million rural economy grant scheme for high-quality projects in the dairy industry should continue that focus and add, in the new year, the development of a capital investment programme to target infrastructure projects. That is a significant advance in Government support to the industry, which should reap dividends.
David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
I am responsible only for farming in England. However, I have already contacted the analogous post holders in the devolved Administrations. I am keen to work with them to establish, as far as possible, common practice across the nations of the United Kingdom to ensure we do the best for our farmers.
I will continue the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire in the dairy supply chain forum, which is a crucial element in keeping a secure domestic market as a strong base from which to innovate, explore and expand the horizons. There are opportunities for replacing imported goods with British dairy products. I am glad that Mr Turner has done such work in his constituency.
There are clear openings for sending out British dairy products for the world to enjoy. I have already started that process. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are committed to opening those markets, which I hope will expand the interests and reach of the British dairy industry to all parts of the world, including emerging markets.
David Heath (Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
Unfortunately, I do not think I can give way, although I would love to do so.
I will continue supporting the Dairy 2020 project and the dairy roadmap, which we want to continue producing positive change. I wish we had another hour so we could carry on talking about what the dairy industry means to the country and how we can support it, but I will summarise my support for the industry. I am committed to a dairy industry that delivers for the future. I want to
work strategically with the industry, with a clear focus, particularly in the dairy supply chain forum, on delivering the vision of an
I want to promote British dairy products overseas and remove barriers to trade through the joint Government-industry export action plan, under which DEFRA is researching markets and products that have the biggest potential for export.
I want to talk directly to businesses and to understand what they really think about their prospects, what barriers they struggle with and what they need to grow and take advantage of export opportunities. I want to encourage collaboration and new approaches and to make the best use of the £5 million boost to dairy businesses through the rural efficiency grant scheme. I want to push marketing, joint ventures and new facilities, which are central to enabling the industry to diversify and increase exports. I want better information and advice, and I want to work with experts to provide the information and advice that dairy businesses need, particularly on exports.
We need a sustainable dairy industry. I cannot do everything, but I am determined to do all I can to support that ambition. I simply do not believe that the consumer buys milk from the supermarket on price, a point that has been raised several times. There is an artificial market for milk and milk products in this country. If we can break free, and if we can unleash the British public’s enthusiasm for buying British products in British supermarkets, which this summer has shown, we will have done well by the industry.
I am grateful for the support of so many hon. Members.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton, Conservative)
In the short time I have left, I thank everyone for their contributions this afternoon. There have been more than 30 contributions, which shows the strength of feeling across the country. I will not enter into whose milk is the best, whose cream is the best or anything else, but this debate has shown that dairy farming is important to this country, and not only for dairy—the industry produces 70% of beef animals, too.
I am an optimist. I believe there is a future for agriculture, and I believe young farmers will go into agriculture. I was a young farmer many moons ago, and I have milked cows for 25 years. I have seen prices go up and down. We have marched up and down this hill before, so we have to ensure that this time we get the code in place and make it bite.
I welcome the Minister’s comment that he will legislate if the code does not bite. If there is such a threat to legislate, the code will work. There is enough money out there from what consumers are paying for milk, but the money is not getting back to the farmer.
I thank everyone for their contribution. This debate has shown the House at its best. Finally, I am looking forward to hearing the Labour party’s view on tuberculosis and the badger cull, because we have to be united to get rid of that disease.
Question put and agreed to.