HC Deb 08 January 2004 vol 416 cc398-9
12. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

If she will take steps to increase the farm-gate price of milk for UK dairy farmers. [146380]

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

The reasons for low farm-gate prices over the past few years are complex, and cannot be reduced to a single factor. Many of them are for the industry to address. However, the Government can and have taken action in line with their strategy for sustainable farming and food to facilitate such developments.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

The Secretary of State will know of my long interest in the UK dairy industry. Does she admit that it is extremely important to many parts of the countryside throughout the UK? While there has indeed been a strengthening of support prices in recent times, for obvious reasons, the price increase is not percolating down to farm-gate prices. What meaningful action are the Government taking to ensure that the dairy industry supply chain operates correctly, thereby addressing the frustration of dairy farmers—not least in my constituency, where the industry is very important? They are justifiably concerned about farm-gate prices, and feel that producers should receive a bigger and fairer return for what they produce.

Margaret Beckett

I do recognise both the hon. Gentleman's long-term interest in this issue and the importance of the industry to the country as a whole. I am grateful to him for recognising that there has been a recent strengthening in the price, and I understand his concern as to whether that is reflected at the farm gate. However, there have been recent signs that cheese prices have improved, which may lead to a further increase in prices, at least in the short term.

The important point that the hon. Gentleman highlights concerns the action that should and can be taken to improve the supply chain. My noble Friend Lord Whitty has chaired meetings of the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which has looked at improving efficiency, collaborative solutions and other issues. The Milk Development Council has initiated an innovation workshop to look at the barriers in the sector, and we have given a grant to the Food Chain Centre so that it can look at precisely these issues. We have also established the English Food and Farming Partnerships in order to encourage collaboration. I fully recognise that great concern still exists in the dairy sector and that we would all like to see a lot more improvement, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, just as he has sought, the Government are taking steps to work on the supply chain.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op)

How many of the dairy farmers for whom more money is being sought were among those farmers and rural businesses who made false and exaggerated claims to the Government for compensation and repayment after the recent foot and mouth outbreak? Can my right hon. Friend tell us what steps she is taking to reduce the welfare dependency that is prevalent among so many of our farmers?

Margaret Beckett

Although we of course deplore, as the whole House doubtless deplores, any steps that were taken to make false claims on taxpayers' resources during the foot and mouth outbreak, I do not believe that there is any indication that a particular sector is more responsible than another. However, my hon. Friend is right in that there is a widespread wish, including within farming itself, for a change in the way that we support British agriculture, making it more related to the actions of the market. Indeed, that process underpins the common agricultural policy reforms that we negotiated recently, and we are in continuing discussion about how we implement those reforms in the near future.