Agriculture (West Dorset)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 7th March 2001.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 1:30 pm, 7th March 2001

I am grateful to the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for coming to the debate, especially as she has probably realised that my main aim is to lobby her.

I shall begin by explaining the current situation in relation to foot and mouth in West Dorset. For the record, I want to say that I have spent much of the morning, in between commentaries on the Budget, receiving calls from constituents enraged by the decision of the Jockey Club. It might have been insensitive to raise that, and I know that it is not the Minister's responsibility or fault, but I want the Jockey Club's authorities to register that if they had wanted to earn the disfavour of the agricultural and rural communities, they could hardly have taken a better step.

In a sense, foot and mouth is non-existent in West Dorset. We are--or, at lunchtime, we were--among the privileged agricultural areas that do not have any cases. Some are very close, and my own house lies within the 8 km range around some cases near Chard. However, it is not foot and mouth itself that is affecting West Dorset. That makes the situation all the more important and interesting from a national perspective. We have seen the extent to which, even where foot and mouth itself has not struck, its effects have struck deeply.

I am profoundly grateful for the short-term relief provided by the licensing scheme. I was involved in trying to enable one of my local abattoirs to receive licensed stock, and that has now happened. I pay tribute to the officials in the veterinary service in Taunton for enabling that. I would not want any of my remarks to be construed as an attack either on officials of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or on the Minister herself. However, the effects of foot and mouth on agriculture in West Dorset can be described, without hyperbole, as disastrous.

The examples that I could give of the disaster number hundreds, rather than dozens. One example is a constituent from Monkton Wyld, near Bridport, who is a lowland sheep farmer. In a letter to me, he said:

"Due to the export ban, which normally accounts for 30 per cent. of our lamb sold, market prices have crashed by more than 25 per cent. . . . We have now lost a huge export market . . . The loss of this export market and consumer confidence is a huge"-- and possibly terminal--

"hit to our industry."

That is purely symptomatic of a range of correspondence that I have received.

We have seen serious effects in both the sheep and beef sectors. As the Minister will be aware, there is a heavy concentration of dairy production in my constituency. The long-term effects of the previous beef export ban meant that there was not a huge amount of beef exporting, but such as there was has now ceased again. The long-range effects of the current crisis, added to the previous difficulties, will be severe for the beef sector.

My constituency also has some of the most efficient pig producers in the UK, including advanced process industries that combine dairy production with pigs in processes that run in cycles. The pig industry in West Dorset suffers from exactly the same problems as the beef and sheep industries. There is a near disaster in all those sectors, and in the last week or two it has been for some of my farmers not just a disaster, but the end.

There will also be the cost of restocking, which one can expect will be greater than the original cost of stocking, because of the effects of this crisis. There are also ricochet effects on a much wider range of businesses outside agriculture. I have received a letter from a constituent in Poyntington near Sherborne who is a livestock and general haulier. He writes:

"We are a small family run livestock haulier. Five years ago we ran a flourishing business with 6 lorries and 8 staff. Due to the BSE crisis, the pig industry on its knees a few years later, the fuel cost rising 42 per cent., we had no choice but to sell 4 lorries and make all our staff redundant, many of whom were very experienced livestock handlers."

That business now faces a further attack on its profits. My constituent writes:

"We feel that with all the knocks and bumps we have had, especially this week"-- that was last week--

"where we will not even earn a single penny due to the livestock movement ban . . . we are now surely entitled to compensation."

I have heard that call from many quarters.

Everything that I have said so far, not necessarily with particular reference to West Dorset, but as part of a general national phenomenon, will be well known to the Minister. West Dorset is no different from many parts of the UK in the current crisis: farmers face catastrophic or near catastrophic demise. Why has this single, and as yet not too prolonged, crisis had this effect? The answer lies in the background.

I was lucky enough to have an Adjournment debate on agriculture in West Dorset in April 1998. The Minister's predecessor, the current Minister of State, Department of Social Security, Mr. Rooker, said:

"It is expected that the situation in agriculture will be temporary . . . I accept that there are difficulties in all sectors of agriculture, but we expect them to be temporary."--[Official Report, 20 April 1988; Vol. 310, c. 569-70.]

He was entirely honest. That was the genuine expectation at that time. As the Minister knows well, however, the difficulties have not been temporary. They have not been permanent, but, as Keynes famously remarked, in the long run we are all dead, and this has been a very long run. We have seen persistent drops in farm incomes from levels that, two or three years ago, we thought would be the nadir. They now look close to a zenith.

Throughout West Dorset an increasing number of young people are deciding either to leave the industry or not to enter it. We have seen problems in every sector of farming simultaneously. That is the worst feature of what is now a prolonged crisis. It is not the case that one thing has gone badly and another well so that farmers can switch from one mode of production to another. My farmers are not whingers. I have never met a group of people more inclined to be upstanding, entrepreneurial and effective, and to look after themselves without complaint. I do not mean that they do not complain about the weather or whatever, but those complaints are is not serious. They get on with the job. They intend to look after themselves and to provide for their families. They work hard. They have been working uphill these past three or four years and many are now crawling uphill, as an emperor once had to do to see the pope.

Against that background, what would have been a severe disruption to the industry, or a serious inconvenience, has become a disaster. I am grateful that some steps have been taken. I am grateful that the efforts that some of us made to ban people walking across fields have resulted, in my own area, in action by Dorset county council over the past 48 hours to stop such people.

I am grateful for the agrimonetary compensation; my farmers will welcome it with open arms. I am also happy that efforts have been made to relieve some constraints on movement across roads from one field to another. Although it is a pity that it was not pre-planned, I am also grateful that so much work was put in so quickly and effectively to the construction of the licensing scheme, which is a lifeline for some of my farmers.

I want to take this opportunity to offer a laundry list--perhaps I should rephrase that. I beseech the Minister to consider a series of moves that I believe are necessary. Some of them are short-term, some medium-term and others long-term. All would have a significant impact on the disaster in the agriculture industry in West Dorset.

I believe that there is an overwhelming case for using some of the contingency reserve to meet precisely the kind of civil emergency that contingency reserves are designed to deal with. I accept that the agrimonetary compensation is helpful, but considerable additional compensation will be necessary in the light of what is happening in export markets. Without that support, many of my pig or sheep farmers will not survive.

The Minister might have made a start on this, but we need to address urgently the question of a fair market price under the licensing scheme. It is a problem about which I have received many calls and correspondence in recent days. I make no accusations against the abattoirs or supermarkets; it would be irresponsible to do so, and I am sure that they are doing their best. However, our farmers believe that they will be subject to serious pricing problems, unless a market price is established. I understand that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is already considering mechanisms by which some kind of proxy market could be established by next week, and I urge that to be done at full speed. I offer my co-operation, and I am sure that hon. Members from nearby rural seats would offer their help, in getting those mechanisms agreed and established.

We also need to widen the relaxation of the restrictions on animal movements on welfare grounds, and I will give the Minister some examples that have come to my attention in recent weeks. There is still an urgent need for sheep to get back to the main holding for lambing, which is not permitted under today's loosening of cross-road restrictions, and for calved heifers to get back to dairies for milking. Of course, my farmers accept that it will be necessary for movements to be carefully controlled in those areas. In the pig industry, the transport of weaners to fattening units presents exactly the same problems. Such problems are an inconvenience for a few days, but they are becoming a crisis. Action must be taken now.

I will now turn to the medium term and to problems that have been raised with me over the past few months and years by farmers. Action was needed anyway, but the need has increased as a result of the present crisis. Almost all my farmers in the dairy sector are extremely worried by the continued increase in the prevalence of bovine tuberculosis. There is no doubt that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is the good guy in that debate, but I fear that its hand is not yet sufficiently strong in Whitehall. The BSE inquiry referred to compelling evidence of a connection between badgers and bovine TB. We understand that the Krebs experiments are not yet complete, but the fact is that bovine TB is, in effect, putting farms out of business in West Dorset. I would be happy to take the Minister around some farms if she wanted to see for herself. If action is not taken, we could see a crisis that is parallel in parallel in dimension to the current and BSE crises.

I have repeatedly raised country-of-origin labelling with Ministers, and so have other Members who represent rural constituencies. It is a persistent, and justified, gripe among farmers in my constituency that there is no clarity about the genuine origin of meat processed in the United Kingdom, and many consumers believe that they are buying welfare-friendly animal products when they are not. I admit that the Meat and Livestock Commission is not blameless, and I will ask why it is not doing more about the red tractor arrangements.

The Farm Business Advice Service is widely welcomed in West Dorset, and is all the more needed in the current crisis. More farmers will be on the edge, and the advisory service may help them to get over the edge without descending down the abyss, if I may mix my metaphors horribly. Alas, it is not available: the experience of farmers in my constituency is that they cannot get any more help from the service; 81 farms in Dorset--3 per cent.--have received help, but many others have been told that funds are not available.

On the subject of cattle passports, despite my repeated efforts and those of others, the British Cattle Movement Service remains a serious bureaucratic difficulty for farmers. I shall not trouble the Minister by quoting from letters that I have received from farmers with problems because the BCMS does not work correctly. There is no ill intention; it simply does not work well.

A radical review of the operation of BCMS and urgent consideration of the system of inspections is required. It is a paradox that the current disaster was not prevented by a highly intrusive system of inspection, although I accept that not everything can be prevented. One pig farm in my constituency was completely disrupted for about a week recently while an inspection was carried out. I do not deny the need for careful inspection, but it is being done in a way that makes it extraordinarily difficult for many farmers to continue their ordinary business, and that must be looked at.

I welcome progress in the organic aid scheme, but it is still not right and there is not enough aid. I have had prolonged correspondence on behalf of constituents with various levels of its bureaucracy; it seems that the strictest interpretation is always applied, and people find themselves excluded from the scheme.

The disposal of fallen stock is a disaster waiting to happen. I will not enter into the hunting debate, but the Minister knows that the steps that her Government have taken mean that the problem of fallen stock will probably be exacerbated by a ban on hunting. It is already a serious problem. We are trying to gather the forces of the National Farmers Union and the county council and so on, but central assistance is needed. MAFF must make an effort to catalyse local discussions. It is difficult to imagine how we will resolve the problem of fallen stock without incineration, and, alternatively, of how to get incineration without the local population objecting to it. It is a conundrum, and we need help from Whitehall.

Crisis-ridden as they are, my farmers welcome the statement that there will be a long-term review of agriculture. They would not want it to start tomorrow, and nor would the Ministry, which, like the farmers, has plenty on its hands at present. Such a review is needed, however, and if it is to be effective, it needs to consider the deep causes of the current problems. It must also consider renegotiation of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy and asymmetric legislation between this and other countries on animal welfare, as, at present, animal cruelty and jobs are merely being exported. It must consider the failure of the milk market, which I know has been examined before, but not adequately. The long-term relationship between environmental protection and agricultural subsidy must also be assessed. I persist in believing that agricultural subsidy is not justified on industrial grounds. The correct industrial configuration is a free market. Agricultural subsidies are justified in terms of environmental protection. This country has yet to undertake a serious analysis of the costs of maintaining the rural environment without farming and of the extent to which farming is diminishing rather than increasing the need for subsidy. The subject must be analysed with great care; without that, we shall never reach a stable view of agricultural subsidy.

I apologise for speaking for longer than I had originally intended and hope that the Minister will forgive me for squeezing her time to reply. In a sense, it is more important that these messages reach her Ministry than that we hear her reply. Doubtless, similar messages will come from other parts of the country. Actions must be taken in the short, medium and long term. If they are not, what is presently a crisis, and what has been, alas, a crisis for the past four or more years will lead to the gradual evaporation of agriculture in West Dorset and similar places. A whole society and a way of life will be lost. Farmers, my whole population and I do not want that to happen.