HC Deb 27 October 1999 vol 336 cc980-8 12.58 pm
Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

I am delighted to introduce this debate on the crisis facing the pig industry. Many producers have left the industry, and many more are staring ruin in the face. Desperate farmers have remortgaged their houses, borrowed from their pension funds and built up unsustainable levels of overdraft.

Pig farmers are not subsidised; they do not receive one penny from Westminster or from Brussels. They tend to be small, specialist family concerns. They work 365 days and nights a year, often in conditions that many would find unacceptable. Above all, perhaps, farmers experience intense loneliness, and it is probably for that reason that suicide is so prevalent.

Robert Steven, one of my constituents, is the chairman of the Norfolk section of the National Farmers Union. He said recently: the position has been getting quite diabolical. While the countryside looks fresh and green, it hides an awful lot of troubles in the industry.

My constituent, Mr. Taylor from Ludham, writes that he has kept pigs since 1944. He says: I am sorry and sad that my son now has only 20 sows left and these will be gone in a few weeks. Janet Mutimer—who is down here from Norfolk today—lives close to me in Norfolk. She writes: Thousands of breeding stock are being slaughtered, jobs on farms and in allied industries lost, our industry is being exported by the Government. Ian Campbell, the regional chairman of the British Pig Industry Support Group, says that

the industry is dying on its feet with the industry facing melt down. My local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, is leading a campaign to rescue an industry which is bleeding to death. The paper says that if Nick Brown persists in the policy of delay and quietly doing nothing, there will be no trace left of the pig industry. It is that serious.

Between 1998 and 1999, pig farmers' incomes have fallen by 174 per cent. and they will be in loss for 1999. The UK pig herd has contracted by 12 per cent., and the weekly kill rate has fallen from 330,000 to 260,000, which is the lowest level for 33 years, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. The average all pig price is stuck at 75p per kilogram, which is 15p below break-even point for most farmers. Imports of pigmeat from the EU increased by nearly a third in the first half of 1999.

What more evidence do the Government need before they decide to take some action? One gets the impression that their policies are more informed by "The Archers" and "Cold Comfort Farm" than by real life, and that they have no concern about, knowledge of or interest in the British pig industry. It is almost as if the Government regard it as a virtual crisis, not a real one. At the MLC breakfast yesterday at which pig awards were given out, there was not a single Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food present.

The Government must and can take the following actions. First, they must stipulate that all local authorities and public bodies must buy meat that complies with the British standard. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food promised to do that a year ago, but a survey to be published next week shows that more than half of all local authorities have made no change to their purchasing policies. It would seem that the Minister and MAFF do not even have the energy to ensure that bodies under their direct control support British farmers.

The chairman of the British Pig Association wrote to me in the following terms: The Minister should take a much more vigorous line with retailers and caterers in the private and public sector who undermine the UK pig industry by importing substandard foreign pigmeat and who do not specify the UK's high welfare and food production standards. I hope today that the Minister will state categorically what she has done in that respect.

Secondly, labelling must be honest. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran), for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) have taken an especial interest in that point. Every consumer must know the origin of the meat that they purchase and the regime under which that meat is reared, fed, slaughtered and processed. Currently, under EU regulations, foreign-reared pigmeat that does not comply with UK welfare and safety standards can be imported, processed and then labelled as British bacon or ham. That is an outrageous situation.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the tragedies for the British pig industry is that it has met the highest standards, but ironically it is now being penalised for doing so? As far as its members can see, nothing has been done to address the situation for the past year, since the present Minister of Agriculture took office.

Mr. Prior

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and it is one of the tragedies of the situation that this country has led the world in animal welfare. The British farmer, at a capital cost of more than £200 million and on-going operating costs of £2 per finished pig, has rightly abolished sow stalls and tethers. In Europe, sows are still tethered and still spend 275 days a year in a sow stall measuring less than 8 ft long and 2 ft wide. Some are even smaller. Those pigs cannot move or turn around. We have rightly outlawed that barbarous practice in this country.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said: The sharp rise in pigmeat imports into the UK this year is very bad news for animal welfare, since most of it will have been produced under conditions which are illegal in the UK. If retailers, caterers and the public fail to consider production methods and buy on price alone, they will undermine the advances in farm animal welfare the UK has achieved. The campaign director of Compassion in World Farming has written to the Minister to say: I am concerned to learn that, according to recent Eurostat figures, the volume of pigmeat imports into the UK from the EU rose by 34 per cent. in the first five months of this year. Much of this imported pigmeat may have been produced using stall or tether systems in which sows cannot exercise or even turn round throughout their 16-week pregnancies. The consumer must be given the opportunity to make an informed choice to support high welfare standards by buying home-grown and reared production. Many consumers are buying pigmeat unwittingly, unaware that it has been produced in conditions rightly banned in this country.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

How is that pigmeat coming into this country? I thought that the European Union set certain standards and if the meat is coming in from outside the EU, should not the Commission do something about that?

Mr. Prior

My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Thirdly, the Minister should invoke article 36 of the treaty of Rome to ban meat imports that do not comply with our public health specifications. As long ago as April 1999—nearly six months—a French Government report, which has only just been released in public in the UK, stated: Residues from toilets, septic tanks and sludge from waste treatment factories are routinely used in the making of European animal feed. It also reported cases in which meat and bonemeal had not been heated to the obligatory temperature for long enough and in which engine oil and heavy metal residues had been added to feedstuffs.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

My hon. Friend mentioned the use of meat and bonemeal in feedstuff production, which is prohibited in British meat production. In my capacity as president of the British Pig Association, I remind the House that the Government were called upon 15 months ago to investigate the possibility of putting some value back into pig offals, but no progress has yet been made. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows a cavalier approach to the practical suggestions that have been made by the industry?

Mr. Prior

I agree that the Government have taken a wholly complacent and cavalier approach. If the recent revelations about EU feedstuffs are not a major public health issue, I do not know what is. Even the Minister of Agriculture has described the practice as horrible, revolting, unacceptable and illegal". If the French can ban British beef, surely we have every right to protect our industry when faced with a flood of imports that pose a risk to public health and consumer confidence.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

My hon. Friend has mentioned the recent revelations, but does he have any information about how long the Minister and MAFF have known about the addition of sludge to French animal feed? My investigations tell me that they knew as long ago as May last year, yet it was only last week that the British public were told.

Mr. Prior

I have seen in Reuters copies of the French Government report which was published as long ago as April this year. I was also horrified to hear on "Today" that the Minister of Agriculture has not been in touch with his French counterpart at all in the past week. One wonders whether the Minister realises that there is a crisis in public health in this country.

The Government have still not learned that it is possible to be pro-British without being anti-European and that respect is won by being tough, not by being weak.

This country is increasingly regarded as a bunch of patsies. It is time that we stopped being embarrassed about standing up for British interests. It is time that the Minister of Agriculture stood up for British farmers, not French farmers. It is ludicrous to say that it is safe to eat foreign meat fed on sewage sludge and engine oil, but not safe to eat British beef on the bone.

Fourthly, as the Eastern Daily Press put it, Mr Brown must remove the shackles of BSE controls from the pig sector. The Meat and Livestock Commission, which is a statutory body, estimates that the cost of the controls amounts to some £5.26 per pig. That is mainly the direct result of not feeding meat and bonemeal to pigs and the ban on offal disposal, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). The fact is that in single-species, dedicated pig abattoirs, porcine meat and bonemeal can be kept separate and its market value could be realised. The risk of cross-contamination can be eliminated, but the Minister has made no determined effort with the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee to achieve a exemption for dedicated abattoirs. The Minister does not seem to recognise the importance of getting value back into pig by-products.

More importantly, the Minister should note that as a result of the dioxin contamination in Belgium, Belgian pig farmers have received 80 per cent. grants from their Government as compensation towards their costs of production. That was agreed by the European Commission on the grounds that dioxin contamination was an extraordinary occurrence. Ironically, the Belgian Government cited BSE as an example of an extraordinary occurrence.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unfair that the costs of dealing with a public health problem should fall entirely on the producers? I hope that the Minister agrees that it is. A public health problem is a matter of public interest, and the Government should take account of that.

Mr. Prior

I agree completely with my hon. Friend, and that was the approach adopted in connection with beef and, to some extent, with lamb. For some reason, the pig industry has not received similar treatment.

There is a compelling case for compensating pig farmers for the consequences of BSE. That disease was not of their making, but the Government continue to sit on their hands. It is hard not to agree with the chairman of the British Pig Association who has stated: The industry cannot understand why it has taken so long for the Minister to act more decisively to protect pig producers and pig industry jobs and to stop consumers from being misled by supermarkets and caterers about the production methods of the imported pork that they are eating … It is immoral for the Government to do so little to promote high welfare and food safety standards in the retail and catering sectors.

This is a story of complacency, incompetence, ignorance, misunderstanding and inaction. The Minister of Agriculture has shown himself to be a poodle with two masters—the Treasury and the European Commission. All he offers to British pig farmers is snake oil, sympathy and promises. The export of the British pig industry to countries with inferior husbandry, welfare, hygiene, health and traceability standards is a national disgrace, and a personal tragedy for many pig farmers.

The Minister of Agriculture is supposed to be the Minister of British agriculture, not foreign agriculture. If he wishes to hand over to his successor any pig industry in this country, he has days—not weeks, or months—in which to act.

1.12 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) for the way in which he has introduced this debate. He has a clear passion for pigs, and I thank him for allowing me to say a few words, as I too want to stick up for the British pig industry.

The Government and public authorities could play a major part in helping our pig industry when it draws up food procurement contracts. I am advised that they could insert in those contracts an animal welfare clause that would mean that they were not legally obliged to accept the lowest tender. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could deal with that when she replies to the debate. Such a provision would mean that whenever local authorities and the Government take out food procurement contracts they could insist on high welfare standards and therefore specify the expected and required standard of animal welfare.

Inevitably, therefore, the lowest-priced contract would not include that higher welfare standard. Such an approach would ensure that the food contracted for would reach the required standard and would come from animals reared to the necessary welfare standards. Local authorities could implement such a clause in their contracts for school food and other food, and as a direct result ensure that British pork—and other British meat—was favoured. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk said, the standard of our pigs is the highest in Europe, if not in the world. It is wrong that our farmers should be penalised and discriminated against for setting that standard.

Public authorities in Britain could ensure that we support our own industry, because the welfare clause in food contracts would enable them to select British meat, rather than go on importing meat from other countries, let alone from mainland Europe. They could therefore help people to enjoy the delights of the pork, bacon and ham produced in this country.

I shall turn briefly to the matter of labelling. This afternoon and over the next few days, trading standards officers could be directed by the Minister to go out in force and visit supermarkets throughout the country. They could check that the pork labelled as British was indeed produced in Britain, rather than merely packed here.

The supermarkets could play a major part in putting the fun back into British pork. Misrepresentation through inaccurate labelling is widespread, and supermarkets should be marketing the higher welfare standards of the British pig industry. I am sure that the vast majority of people in my constituency would wish to buy British pork, especially if they knew that it came from happy pigs that had been reared properly and safely.

We can distinguish between battery range eggs and free range eggs, and that distinction is widely made throughout the country. Supermarkets could do the same for pork.

British consumers should be able to differentiate between foreign pigs—fed on heaven knows what and kept tethered to stalls in mainland Europe—and British pigs that enjoy a healthy diet and good living accommodation.

1.15 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) on securing this debate. The current crisis in the pig sector is an extremely important issue. He introduced the debate with much feeling, with which I totally associate myself. I have recently had discussions with some of the people to whom he referred. For example, I met Ian Campbell only a week or so ago to talk about those matters.

I also welcome the brief contribution from the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who made some constructive comments in a short time.

I reject the claim by the hon. Member for North Norfolk that the Government have been complacent and cavalier in their approach to the problem. I have been in my post for only a little time, but even my short experience of the great energy that the Ministry has devoted to this issue tells me that the hon. Gentleman gave a false caricature of the Government's attitude to this important industry.

Mr. Gill

I appreciate that the Minister is new to her job, but I assure her that the problems of the British pig industry have been flagged up in this House for a long time now. In my intervention earlier, I referred to a debate that took place 15 months ago, when various problems associated with the British pig industry—with which the Government could have dealt were they so minded—were raised. The fact is that those problems have not been dealt with. The Minister must understand that by the time she gets around to doing something about them, it will be too late for lots of pig farmers. They are going out of business as we speak. I have listened this morning—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. That is rather a long intervention.

Ms Quin

Given the length of that intervention, it is perhaps worth pointing out that, although this debate is important, there will be another opportunity to raise these and other matters in the House tomorrow, when there will be a debate on agriculture. I am sure that many of the points raised so far today will be picked up then.

It is true that I am new to the role of Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I assure the House that I have read the report on the pig industry prepared by the Select Committee on Agriculture. I am also aware of the Government's response and the action taken in various sectors at that time. Therefore, I maintain my strongly held view that charges of complacency and indifference are completely misplaced. It does no service to the hard-pressed people in the sector to distort the Government's attitude, or to misrepresent the action taken in the past and in hand at present.

Mr. Keith Simpson


Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)


Ms Quin

Given that this is a short debate, I simply cannot take many interventions.

Mr. Steen

The Minister should give way.

Ms Quin

The hon. Gentleman has had the chance to speak, so he should allow me to choose which interventions to take. I give way to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the Minister, who referred to the Select Committee report. She will recall that that report suggested that complacency was also evident in the previous Conservative Government. I have spent much time in this House trying to persuade Conservative Members to make the points that they are making now.

However, I have a practical point to make. At the meeting with representatives of the pig sector on 5 October, there was a real attempt to identify whether a new set of support systems, within the context of the EU, could be put in place to deal with the public health issue referred to by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior). Will the Minister give the House a specific assurance that that matter is being examined urgently?

Ms Quin

I shall refer later to that meeting and some of the initiatives agreed at it. It is, of course, true that the problems did not appear as if by magic on 2 May 1997. The previous Government presided over the BSE crisis, so they should not advise us on how to handle agricultural issues. Nor am I prepared to take the advice offered by the hon. Member for North Norfolk when he said that being pro-British does not mean being anti-European; I have understood that point throughout my political life, and it is a strange message from someone in today's Conservative party.

Several hon. Members


Ms Quin

I shall take only one more intervention.

Mr. Keith Simpson

Putting aside party politics, the Minister must appreciate the desperation of pig farmers all over the country. Whether or not she thinks that they are wrong, she must accept that farmers perceive deep complacency in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They do not want sympathy, but action.

Ms Quin

The hon. Gentleman should listen both to me today and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in tomorrow's agriculture debate. It is a little odd of him to suggest that we should put party politics to one side following the highly partisan approach that has been taken today. I accept that we have had accusations of many kinds levelled at us, including complacency, but Ministers have met many pig producers—our main concern today—who understand the complexities of the situation and who realise that, far from trying to run away from the issue, we are addressing it continuously and constantly. [Interruption.] May I be allowed to make my points? There are at least two former Agriculture Ministers in the Chamber and the right hon. Members for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) and for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) ought to know that some suggestions made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk are either impossible or illegal.

In 1995 and 1996, pig prices were exceptionally high, well above the costs of production. Prices were boosted by strong third-country demand and a shortage of pigmeat from the Netherlands because of an outbreak of classical swine fever. When BSE had its first impact, the initial effects on the pig sector were positive as people bought pork and pigmeat instead of beef. That stimulated a particularly big upswing in pigmeat production.

That was followed by a welcome return to confidence in the beef sector, but unfortunately there were also international events that had a negative impact on the pig industry. In particular, there was a sharp fall in third-country demand from Russia, south-east Asia and elsewhere. The result has been a sharp reduction in pigmeat prices in the UK, elsewhere in the European Union and in other countries. UK pig prices have been below the costs of production for more than 16 months. I do not disguise from the House the fact that there is a deep and sustained crisis. The pig cycle, with alternating high and low prices, is well known from the past, but the UK pig breeding herd continues to reduce because of the current serious crisis.

During the past two or three weeks my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has had at least three long meetings with representatives of the UK pig industry to discuss in detail how best to tackle the problem. On Monday, I walked the pig chain in Yorkshire, meeting and talking with pig farmers and processors and visiting supermarkets to discuss the labelling issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). I emphasised the importance that we attach to the industry and the ways in which we are considering issues of concern. I know that Conservative Members do not like the fact that there are no easy, instant solutions. If there were, we should wish to adopt them.

Pigmeat is covered by a relatively light regime under the common agricultural policy. Few market management measures can therefore be taken. It is not true to say that the package announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture a month ago contained nothing for pig producers. Areas of particular concern, such as red tape, the efficiency of the Meat Hygiene Service and the reduction of veterinary cover at low-throughput slaughterhouses, impact on all meat sectors, including the pig sector. However, money has been earmarked to improve marketing, collaboration and competitiveness, which we wish to direct in particular towards the pig sector.

The UK supported the European Commission over last year's major increase in export refunds and the introduction of a private storage aid scheme. We regretted the Commission's withdrawal in September of the private storage aid scheme and the special export refunds to Russia. Last week, as a result, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture wrote to Commissioner Fischler to press for reintroduction of the private storage aid scheme and for the restoration of the special export refunds to Russia.

Some points raised by Conservative Members—[Interruption.] They seem disinclined to listen to the response, but issues have been raised about the identity of British pigmeat and the high welfare and hygiene standards that it meets. Those standards—particularly on welfare—were introduced with substantial cross-party support. A private Member's initiative that had originated with the previous Government was supported strongly on both sides. A lengthy transition period was stipulated for the new regulations.

We want British consumers to understand those standards and benefit from the premium identity for British pork that they may create. The Meat and Livestock Commission's pork mark is an important unifying badge that offers assurances on methods of production and quality of product. We have been active on labelling, on which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture made some statements at Question Time only last week. We have checked on the accuracy of labels in our shops. I raised the point at the event I attended on Monday, and was told by producers and supermarket representatives that the accuracy of labels has improved. However, we will not be content until loopholes have been properly closed to prevent consumers from being misled—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must end the debate and turn to the next one.