HC Deb 28 June 2001 vol 370 cc771-3
8. Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

What plans she has to review the supply of food within the UK. [577]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

The supply of food within the UK is kept under continual review by my Department as sponsors of the food industry.

Mr. Lloyd

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there has been growing disquiet, certainly on the part of consumers, about the way in which we produce food. With the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, the Labour Government have gone a long way towards responding to concerns about food safety, but will my right hon. Friend take on board concerns about the cost of production methods? Is she aware of the comments of the former chief economist of the National Farmers Union, Sean Ricard, who argued recently: After 50 years of subsidies, farming is the most hopelessly inefficient and uncommercial sector of the whole economy"?

Even though this is a time of difficulty for farming businesses, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless examine whether subsidies to farming, in the form in which they have been made available in the past, have been good either for the consumer or for farmers, or whether the same money would not have been better spent on producing different kinds of work in rural economies?

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I have seen some reference to the article to which he referred. He will be aware that there is wide-ranging discussion in the agriculture industry in the United Kingdom and across the European Union about whether, as we consider reform of the common agricultural policy, we should be looking to change the direction of funding from direct support for production to support for other areas—not least the second pillar, where we are considering rural development and so on. That is exactly the sort of issue that we hope the independent commission the Government have pledged to set up will consider in relatively short order. It is an important part of the future of the countryside and of the background to the way in which we decide to produce our food in future.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

The right hon. Lady rightly suggested that the supply of food in this country depends on farmers, both here and in the rest of the Community. How will she get the confidence of British farmers and her fellow Agriculture Ministers in the European Union. when she is the only member of that Council who is not an Agriculture Minister, and the only Minister looking after farming in the history of this country who is not a Minister of Agriculture?

Margaret Beckett

All the evidence suggests that, within both farming and the European Union—at the Agriculture Council—there is widespread understanding of the need to change the way in which we deal with agricultural support, which will mean seeing the farming industry as part of the wider food chain, which is quite proper. That may mean that people have different titles; I freely confess that I cannot recall the precise titles of all my colleagues in the Agriculture Council, but the right hon. Gentleman will find that Ministers there have a range of different responsibilities; they are not all simply Agriculture Ministers.

As for the attitude of the farming community, it has already expressed the view that it is pleased to see the farming industry's place in the food chain recognised in the title of my Department—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not believe that, but I assure him that I can direct him to the people who said so.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is growing public concern about food production, particularly in relation to meat, eggs and dairy produce? Will she join me in welcoming the "Freedom Food" initiative of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which ensures that animal welfare concerns are taken into account by farms, hauliers and abattoirs? Will she also consider looking at re-targeting financial incentives, initiatives and support for farms, abattoirs and hauliers that take those issues seriously?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly, when I do my shopping, mostly at my local Co-op, I look out for the "Freedom Food" label, which is an excellent RSPCA initiative. I know that it is not the only label geared to high standards, quality and a high standard of animal care, but I very much welcome it.

My hon. Friend raised a further important issue. Right across farming and the food industry, it is recognised that we want to aim for quality, and for labelling and information that will assure consumers of quality; we want to give them as much information as we can about where and in what circumstances the food that they eat is reared.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the Secretary of State agree with her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that the supermarkets are not playing fair? The right hon. Gentleman recently told farmers that the supermarkets have pretty much got an arm-lock on you people at the moment". Is it not perverse to break up Milk Marque but leave the supermarkets untouched? How much does the dairy industry in this country have to decline before the Government do something?

Margaret Beckett

I am interested to learn that it is Conservative policy to take on the supermarkets; I am sure that they will be even more interested to learn that. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Competition Commission looked at those matters recently. Although it concluded that the industry was broadly competitive, it identified a number of practices about which it had concerns and which it felt adversely affected some suppliers and smaller retailers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the commission recommended that the best way to deal with those issues was to have a binding code of practice for the larger supermarkets. Although that is a matter for the DTI rather than my Department, I anticipate that we shall see such a code of practice in the near future.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

When the Secretary of State takes on board the increasing consumer demands about food accountability, will she bear in mind the fact that more than 60 per cent. of the food currently imported into the United Kingdom could be grown here, and look at the way in which we subsidise and support food production to strengthen local markets and local accountability? If we do that, we will reduce pollution and congestion in towns, strengthen the links between producer and consumer, shorten food miles and give a boost to the organic food market, which desperately needs support for agriculture rather than agri-business.

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend will know that the Government have increased substantially the amount of support that we give to producers who move into organic production, and that there is widespread interest in promoting local markets and in encouraging local supply that is specifically geared and identified. That is all part of the direction of the current debate on these matters, and the Government certainly welcome it.