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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:16 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:16 am, 20th January 2009

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and perhaps we will have the opportunity to talk about such issues, and the Rural Payments Agency, later. However, in our area and in others in the UK, I have witnessed the practice of holdings selling small pieces of land, perhaps to recapitalise the main business, after which there are separate holdings on that land. That is a minor point, though, which I do not want to pursue.

My hon. Friend raised a number of important issues. The one that catches most directly the emotion of farmers across Britain, but particularly in the south-west, is bovine TB. There was disappointment that the Secretary of State, having taken account of the Select Committee report, decided not to pursue any further investigation into the possibility of using culling to contribute to the control of bovine TB. I have never believed that the slaughter of badgers would be the key issue that would eradicate bovine TB in this country. However, along with vaccination and better biosecurity on farms, it has a role to play. I have certainly not said that any such avenues of progress should be ignored. I think that Mr. Drew said that a badger vaccine might be available in the near future. I was interested to hear that, because it has been on the horizon a number of times but has never actually appeared. Will the Minister report on any advances in finding a vaccination and say whether she has found any way in which we can increase the speed of development, because such a vaccine has a part to play?

The available information increasingly indicates that the proactive culling of badgers leads to a reduction in breakouts on farms and, indeed, reduces the number of cattle that have to be slaughtered because they are reactors. Such studies are ongoing and follow the work of Professors Krebs and Bourne in looking at areas in which proactive culling has taken place. There have been real improvements in relation to that, and the Minister must take into account the information that is building up, because it shows that the slaughter of badgers could have a part to play.

The report that has been referred to advocated a further, larger-scale slaughter of badgers to test Professor King's hypothesis that that would make a difference. It is still within the Minister's compass to revisit that decision and see whether something can be done. I do not believe that any hon. Member would say that we should have a large-scale licensed cull of badgers throughout the UK, but we need to continue the work that has been done and build on that knowledge to see whether progress can be made. The geographical make-up of the south-west means that such a pilot scheme could take place there.

My hon. Friend paid due regard to dairying as an important part of agriculture in the south-west. There has been an increase in milk prices, but more recently there has also been a slight decrease. However, farmers are continuing to exit the dairy industry, and young people do not see the purpose of investing their finances, time and effort into dairying as a career, because there has been such a long and protracted downturn in the industry. There has not only been a reduction in the number of dairy farmers, but in milk production. That is particularly worrying for the future of agriculture and the future of young people in agriculture.

My hon. Friend also mentioned nitrate vulnerable zones, which is an issue that weighs heavily on dairy farmers. One can argue about whether the more recent proposals were proportionate in terms of how much they improve the quality of water, but the Minister could go to her Treasury friends now and see whether the tax allowance on agricultural buildings could be reintroduced. The great investment that people have to make in their holding could be mitigated to a certain extent, if they had tax allowances on the big capital investments that they are required to make. Indeed, in some European countries, capital grants are made available for farmers to invest in the infrastructure needed to deal with the effects of nitrate vulnerable zones.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the proposals by the Competition Commission to have an ombudsman for the grocery trade not only for farmers, but for other small producers who supply large retailers. That issue is much broader than agriculture but it is important none the less. The recommendation has been made and the Minister has a role to play in talking to her Government and Cabinet colleagues to see how it can be progressed. Recent research by an academic from Cardiff university indicated that the net cost of the proposal could be as little as £6 million. That is minute in terms of the total financial turnover of the supermarkets. It is interesting that some supermarkets seem to oppose the idea of having an ombudsman, but others, who we perceive as being more benign in their relationship to primary producers, welcome it, because they believe there would be fewer adverse referrals of their behaviour compared with some of the more aggressive supermarkets.

I shall quickly discuss one or two other topics. A number of hon. Members have raised the issue of pesticides and the European Union decision. Following the vote in the European Parliament, it appears that Ministers in this country have said that they will not pursue the matter as vigorously as some of us would wish. There is undoubtedly evidence that if the matter were pursued in detail, the end consequences would be a large-scale reduction in arable production in this country—particularly of crops such as carrots and parsnips, which depend upon specific chemicals. I urge the Minister to be active in ensuring that if the regulations have to be introduced, the needs of horticultural production in this country are taken into account. If the regulations have to be introduced, it should be done over a long period, so that alternative products can be brought in.

Agriculture is often almost inexplicably contra-cyclical to the economy at large. At a time when the economy is on the downturn, agriculture is relatively buoyant because commodity prices are higher, the exchange rate is advantageous to agricultural exports and interest rates are lower. We have already heard that the average dairy farmer probably has borrowings of about £200,000, so a reduction in interest rates—particularly if it is passed on by the banks—is of advantage to that and other agricultural sectors. I urge the Minister and other agriculture Ministers regularly to meet the major banks in this country to ensure that the interest rate cuts are passed on. Although agriculture is going through a relatively benign period, it does not mean that the Minister can sit back and relax. Indeed, there is a real opportunity to work with those in the agricultural industry to ensure that they can use the skills and resources available—particularly in the west country, where we know the industry is so productive—to produce food.

Mr. Gray mentioned the inquiry of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which we both sit. The terms of that inquiry relate to securing food supplies, not food security—there is a difference between those two approaches. World pressures—I will not stray too far down that line—mean that Britain has a duty and a role to play in not only supplying Britain but the greater world with food. We do not want some great five or 10-year plan from DEFRA, but we want encouragement and to ensure that regulation is kept to a minimum. That will allow farmers who have both the energy and the enterprise to produce food of a high standard and in an economical way to go forward and carry out that purpose. When sustainability became an in-topic, we were told to think globally and act locally, and that is what agriculture has the opportunity to do in the south-west, if it has the support of DEFRA Ministers.