[John Cummings in the Chair] — Agriculture (South-West)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:30 am, 20th January 2009

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has done a lot of work on this matter and who has very much led the way—and I will give up waiting till later in my speech to say what I think about it. We had a Competition Commission inquiry before the one he mentioned, the 2001 voluntary code of conduct for supermarkets, and the new, tougher code of practice in 2008, which the Competition Commission supposed would have some statutory bite. However, the commission cannot create the post of ombudsman. We need to take the responsibility for setting up a regulator who will be able to regulate the whole supply chain effectively, and ensure that the relationships are fair and transparent, which they patently are not at the moment. Contracts are often very unfair to primary producers. I am not talking only about the producers whom I represent in the west country, but about those overseas—this is a domestic and international issue. The sooner the Government are prepared to accept and act on that recommendation and establish an ombudsman with teeth, who can deal with the iniquities of the food supply chain, the better.

There are some positive things. There is a great deal of innovation in farming and there has been a great deal of improvement in farming practice, which includes things that were not even thought of a few years ago, including direct supply and using the internet to create niche markets for fresh, quality produce. The question is whether some of those innovations will survive the general economic downturn. For example, evidence is already in of a downturn in the veggie box market—many of us happily receive those each week—partly because people have been encouraged to grow their own produce, which is a good thing, but predominantly because the downturn in disposable income means that people feel that they cannot afford to make such commitments, which is unfortunate.

I want to deal with a series of serious issues that are on the minds of farmers in the south-west, which relate mainly to a fundamental question. The south-west is one of the key agricultural areas in this country and, actually, in Europe. Do we want a sustainable, profitable and self-maintaining agricultural industry that is capable of feeding the people of this country in future, or are we prepared to see it chipped away, constantly under threat and, eventually—this is my great concern—exported overseas to those who will not have the same commitment and values, and who will not be able to produce to the same standards?

If my dairy farmers were here, the first thing that they would want to talk about is bovine tuberculosis—I say that at the risk of provoking an intervention from Mr. Drew, who I know has strong views on this matter. The position in the south-west is completely unacceptable. In the first nine months of 2008—these are the latest figures that I have—12,383 dairy cattle were culled, so perhaps 16,000 cattle were culled in 2008 because they tested positive for bovine TB. That is absolutely scandalous. In 10 years, 200,000 cattle, at a cost of £600 million, have been culled. Whether we are talking about animal welfare, the health of the industry, the awful effect that the problem has on farms where reactors appear, the consequences for farming families or the cost to the taxpayer, a quite extraordinary thing is being allowed to happen. We in the south-west feel the effects of the problem, because half of all the cattle culled are in our area. It is very serious. We are seeing the front of bovine TB advance 10 miles a year, which is significant.

I cannot believe that it is right simply to wait and hope that something will happen. I have heard all the arguments and looked at the scientific data, and I maintain that it is important to act, not only for the welfare of the cattle population, but for the welfare of the badger, if we consider wildlife vectors. I find it inexplicable that we allow this situation to continue, especially when I go to closed farms where there has been no movement of cattle on or off the premises, and reactors appear in a previously healthy herd. Some say, "It's all down to the farmers and how they move their cattle", but that is not so. We must get past that barrier and start to deal effectively with the problem.