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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:29 am, 20th January 2009

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Not every dairy producer likes the comment that I am about to make, but I have made it before: the industry is still paying the price for the immense security that it achieved under the milk marketing boards, which stultified both innovation and any need for the industry to become competitive. We are also paying the price for falling behind Europe in innovation and the development of new products. So many of the high-value dairy products on supermarket shelves are imported because we are years behind in innovation and highly efficient modern production techniques, although the situation is improving.

On the power of producers, it seems odd that although the EU is constantly striving to put its fingers into all sorts of areas of national life, we have completely uncommon approaches to competition law. This is not a debate about the future of Europe, but the Minister and I will be debating another issue this afternoon where it is ridiculous that the EU is getting involved. Not everybody is aware that Arla, the big Danish milk co-operative, commands in excess of 80 per cent. of production in Denmark. Nothing of the sort would be allowed in this country. Even New Zealand, which is held up as the epitome of the free market, has co-operatives with huge market shares that would be prevented by the Office of Fair Trading in this country. Much more work must be done in that area.

I will mention quickly a couple of issues before giving the Minister plenty of time to respond. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the important issue of food labelling. I am relieved and pleased that the Minister and the Secretary of State have come round to recognising the strength of the argument. I was astonished at the Secretary of State's speech on the subject at the Oxford farming conference because for years DEFRA has resisted any effort by the Opposition and individual hon. Members to address the issue. I hope that the conversion of DEFRA Ministers will lead to action.

As has been said, my hon. Friend Mr. Bacon is reintroducing the Food Labelling Bill that has already been blocked four times by this Government. I hope that they will give it a fair wind and that we can have the legislation on honest labelling about the country of origin that we need. If the Government block the Bill again, it will demonstrate the vacuousness of the Secretary of State's remarks last week in Oxford.

The issue of set-aside has been raised. I strongly support environmental measures in agriculture, but we have become too committed to the regulatory approach. I fear that that is down to the attitude of Natural England. Set-aside produced environmental gains by accident. It was not the intention. It is important that those gains are retained. However, it would be far better to do so through encouragement and stimulus such as the entry-level stewardship, than through the threat of a stick if a certain percentage of land is not set aside, as the Government are suggesting.

Nitrate vulnerable zones make a nonsense of the concept of regulation. Four national muck-spreading days are laid down in statute. Regardless of the weather, the land, the slope and so no, muck-spreading must be done on the allotted day and not on the day before, even if the weather is more propitious. That is absurd. The Government should have done a far better job of getting derogations in Europe. I accept that the measure is based on the nitrates directive, but in my view that is obsolete and should be updated as soon as possible and the changes backed up with modern science.

Finally, I endorse what has been said on pesticides legislation. I credit the Secretary of State, who has been robust in his comments on the subject in this country. We are not privy to his comments in Europe. However, I exhort the Minister to ensure that DEFRA seeks every opportunity to mitigate the impact of that legislation on British agriculture. The impact would be devastating for all specialist crops, such as field-scale vegetables and salads, and for mainstream arable crops. That would be bad for the south-west, for British farming and for the British consumer. The biggest absurdity is that it would still be legal to import products produced using those chemicals from outside the EU. That drives a coach and horses through the whole enterprise. I urge the Secretary of State and the Minister to maintain their robust approach.

This has been a useful debate and I share the view that we should have more debates on the subject. It would be beneficial to debate regional or national agriculture in the Chamber for a whole day.