Easter Adjournment

Part of Deferred Division No. 85 – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:52 pm, 29th March 2007

The right hon. and learned Gentleman shows admirable attention to detail.

Listening to Mr. McLoughlin speak earlier, I felt that there must be some sort of spiritual affinity between his constituency and mine. My contribution could easily repeat all the issues that he covered. I intervened on him to refer to the resurfacing of the A303, which is a serious issue in my constituency because of the effect of that road on the environment of many villages and on the people who live there. He also mentioned quarrying, and I represent the biggest quarrying area in the country—the east Mendips. I wondered whether he would refer to our concerns about the aggregates levy, and the use of funds raised by it. The levy was set up to alleviate the disbenefits of the quarrying industry, but those funds will now apparently be distributed across the country to areas that do not suffer from such disbenefits, which is entirely contrary to the original intention of the levy.

We have an opportunity today, however, to discuss a matter that hardly ever gets properly debated—the point on which the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire started—which is agriculture. Agriculture has been airbrushed out of parliamentary debate. Ever since the foot and mouth disaster, we have not had the opportunity to debate in Government time the difficulties faced by agriculture, which is a significant industry in West Derbyshire.

Agriculture is also a significant industry in my constituency, but that will come as a surprise to the Home Office, because in a written answer that I received from it last week, in reply to a question about passport interview centres, I was told that Somerset is not a rural county. I invite the Minister responsible to put on her wellies and stand in a field in Isle Brewers, Kingsbury Episcopi, Leigh-on-Mendip or Rudge, among the cows, and then say that Somerset is not a rural county. Because of our settlement pattern, however, with lots of small villages only about two or three miles apart, and without big empty spaces, we are not deemed to be a rural county. I reassure the House, however, that we are very much a rural county, and that agriculture, particularly dairy farming, is still very important to both the environment in which we live and the enterprises that underpin our way of life. Although agriculture employs far fewer people than it used to do, nevertheless, as we saw during the foot and mouth restrictions, it is fundamental to a lot of downstream industry.

I start off with dairying because it is the predominant mode of agriculture in my county. The dairy industry is still in desperate trouble, as the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire said. Farmers are still only getting about 18p a litre for milk, and that farm-gate price does not allow for any sort of profitability—quite the reverse. It means that farmers are making a loss on the raw material that they produce. If primary producers are making a loss, that is not sustainable. Dairy farmers are going out of business every week because they conclude, rightly, that there is little point in continuing a business that is very hard work—when they can otherwise realise their often substantial capital assets—if they are making a loss.

Effectively, there is a classic oligopoly on the buying side: the big supermarkets take 50 per cent. of the liquid milk in the country, apply a limit to the amount that they are prepared to pay, maintain high profitability in the supermarket through the retail price of milk, but do not pass that on to the primary producers, who are in a much weaker bargaining position. I hate to be apocalyptic, but until we address that, it will be hard for dairy farming in this country to have a future. We are exporting the industry abroad. Once dairy farms are lost, they will not be reconstituted.

That does not just mean the loss of liquid milk production, but of all the higher-value dairy products. I am proud that my constituency makes some of the finest cheese in the world—I do not dispute that other good cheeses are made around the country, but that is a fact. Why would this country want to run down one of our most effective, efficient and best industries and export it abroad? That, however, is happening.