HC Deb 01 February 2001 vol 362 cc428-30
4. Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

What steps he is taking to improve co-operation in the dairy supply chain. [146779]

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

The Government encourage all involved in the dairy industry to work together to bring about an improvement in the dairy supply chain. Last November we set up the milk taskforce as part of the Government's action plan for the long-term development of agriculture. It is seeking to identify methods of beneficial collaboration along the supply chain, from the milk producer through to the retailer and consumer.

Mr. Martlew

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. When I visit the Nestlé creamery in my constituency tomorrow, I am bound to be asked why there is still a ban on the export of dairy products to Saudi Arabia when there is no justification for it. I should be grateful if the Government informed us of progress on that. There is no doubt that farmers in my constituency and throughout the country are not getting a fair price for their milk at present. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government are doing to achieve co-operation between dairy farmers and retailers to ensure that the dairy fanners get a decent price and the retailers remain competitive?

Ms Quin

I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns about the position of dairy farmers in his area and the concerns that he raised about the unjustified Saudi ban on dairy products from this country, and, indeed, from other countries in the European Union. On the Saudi ban, we have made repeated representations to the Saudi Government: the ban has no basis in science and has certainly not been justified by the Saudis in relation to any risk analysis.

The most recent contact was made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who discussed the issue on a visit to Riyadh in January. We will continue to press the issue. The fact that the Saudis have recently extended the ban in the wake of BSE concerns in the European Union is not helping, but we will continue to make the case, which, we believe, is extremely powerful. Encouraging co-operation and collaboration in the dairy supply chain is an important issue, and the taskforce that I mentioned is to report by the end of March.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

While the Minister talks about reviews and taskforces, is she aware that, over the last 12 months, the income of dairy farmers has dropped by 21 per cent.? Is she aware that 16 per cent. of all dairy farms have gone out of business since her Government came to power? Is she also aware that, from 1998 to June 1999, more than 5,000 dairy farm workers left the industry? Does she not realise that under her stewardship, the dairy chain has been broken?

Ms Quin

The dairy chain has certainly not been broken; I listed the number of measures that, by contrast with the previous Government, we have taken to encourage collaboration in that chain. I do not underestimate in any way the difficulties facing dairy farmers. None the less, Government have introduced a large number of measures, including the abolition of dairy hygiene inspection charges, agrimonetary compensation—which we gave in full to dairy producers—securing the retention of the school milk subsidy, and removing the weight limit on cattle over 30 months old. All those things were urged on us by dairy farmers, and we have responded positively to them.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that the industry has faced major changes since the demise of the Milk Marketing Board, Milk Marque, and subsequently. Does she feel that the industry is now in a position to go for high value-added milk and dairy products to meet the needs of consumers in this country, thus ensuring that milk producers get the best value for their milk?

Ms Quin

My hon. Friend highlights an important issue. There are now encouraging signs regarding the organisation of the market and the response given by some of the companies to the challenges imposed on them by the findings of the Competition Commission. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that the companies could become involved in processing, as such involvement is an important means of adding value to products in the way that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

What will the Minister do to encourage co-operation in dairying? Dairy Crest has salami-sliced jobs in west Wales and Cardiff, where 550 jobs have been lost from the industry. A plant lies empty in Whitland, although it could perfectly well sustain the jobs. Will she please help the dairy industry to restore those jobs and to make organic and environmentally friendly products in Wales?

Ms Quin

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the initiative for some of those matters lies primarily with the Secretary for Agricultural and Rural Development in the Welsh Assembly. I assure him that the Government discuss the dairy sector in meetings with devolved Ministers, in order to share ideas and to encourage greater collaboration on the dairy supply chain throughout the United Kingdom. The rural development scheme contains a number of measures that are of interest to the dairy industry and which it should consider. Currently, however, price is the main issue. Despite some recent and welcome increases, prices remain depressed for dairy producers.