HL Deb 05 July 2000 vol 614 cc1478-81

2.50 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

What initiatives they have taken to help British farmers and growers to obtain a local market and a fair return for their produce.

Lord Carter

My Lords, British farmers and growers produce a tremendous variety of products. Individual farm businesses are best placed to know their own products and markets, but the Government can and do help by providing a wide range of financial and other assistance to help farmers and growers become more competitive and develop their marketing skills. Anyone who was at the Royal Show this week could not fail to be impressed by the number of marketing initiatives, both government-backed and from individual farmers or groups of farmers, which are now being introduced.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I agree that a number of initiatives are being introduced. The NFU farm assurance scheme and the National Dairy Council white stuff campaign are much to be welcomed. However, does the noble Lord accept that there is a long way to go in terms of joined-up government in this area? I have in mind the Food Standards Agency report National Diet and Nutrition Survey which shows our children on a diet of fizzy drinks, sweets and biscuits. Very low in their diet is milk, cheese and fruit. Could not all government departments, starting with the Department for Education and the Department of Health, do far more to forge a link between local producers and local consumers so that healthy habits in terms of eating and an appreciation of the true quality of food produced in Britain are encouraged throughout our society?

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Baroness is entirely right. The nutritional value of the food we eat is extremely important and should be a part of our education system. The noble Baroness referred to the local situation. Farmers' markets are an interesting initiative. There was one in Bath in 1997. There are now 200, compared with 2,500 in the USA. In addition, the ministry and the Countryside Agency have assisted in the setting up of the National Association of Farmers' Markets. Those are local initiatives which relate the production of local produce to the consumer. It is to be hoped that the Department of Health and other departments will have their part to play in educating children and adults about the value of healthy eating.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, I welcome the Government's encouragement of local farmers' markets. But is the noble Lord aware that the markets of hill farmers in the Pennines in northern England have a minimal impact in terms of the total economy? Is he further aware of the desperate plight of the farmers of the Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland dales? Have the Government any plans other than farmers' markets which might offer a way out of the desperate plight in which many hill farmers find themselves at the moment?

Lord Carter

My Lords, we are entirely aware of the problem. It is as much a problem of the commodity market as it is of the system. We have done a good deal since the action plan was introduced under the initiative of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. We have removed the weight limit on the over-30 months scheme for cattle; we have scrapped the dairy hygiene inspection charges, which will help the small dairy farmer; we have put an additional £4 million into the redundant building grant scheme, which will help the small upland farmer; and we have introduced a number of other initiatives. But at the end of the day there is no avoiding the fact that farming is facing a major change. We have put in a good deal of money through the various schemes introduced by my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham, when he was Minister, and Nick Brown. They have introduced money into the uplands. It is not enough—I agree with that—but we have made a start. We are aware of the problem.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, what progress has been made on reducing misleading labelling on food, an issue which is of great concern to many families?

Lord Carter

My Lords, like every other member of the European Union, we are constrained by the European regulations and by the rules of the WTO. Labelling must not be misleading. But there is nothing to prevent the voluntary labelling of the country of origin so long as the information does not mislead the consumer. The Food Standards Agency is reviewing the whole situation with regard to labelling. It has taken that forward at EU level. That is the response to the better food labelling initiative launched in January by my noble friend Lady Hayman. It is worth pointing out to those who believe that this all comes from Europe that the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 states that the place of origin is the place in which a product last underwent a substantial change. So the problems of labelling are not all down to Europe.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the noble Lord's comments about the growth in farmers' markets. But can he confirm or deny that there is great concern among those taking part in the farmers' markets that EC regulations are likely to stop that development in terms of demanding that there should be refrigeration equipment in the streets when farmers are trying to sell local produce?

Lord Carter

My Lords, the ministry is at present discussing the problem with Europe. Our understanding is that we should be able to produce a system which will allow the farmers' markets to produce. One can see farmers' markets all over Europe. We want a system that allows these local initiatives to flourish.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the theme of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—healthy eating. I try to purchase organic food whenever possible. Can my noble friend say what is the uptake of the organic farming scheme?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I have extremely good news. In 1998–99, £1 million was allocated in grants. That was following on from the previous government's scheme. In 1999–2000, £11 million was allocated; £12 million has been allocated for 2000ߝ2001; and £140 million is allocated in the rural development plan for 2001–2007. In April 1999, there were 60,000 hectares in the organic farming scheme. There are now 160,000 hectares. That is a threefold growth in one season. We have reacted to the demand for organic farming; and it is working.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the noble Lord will have noted the word "growers" in the Question. Does that include horticulture? Is the noble Lord aware that horticulture receives no grants? What do the Government intend to do to help that hard-pressed side of agriculture?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I always think that the horticultural industry is an excellent example of the free market working without subsidy, which I am sure noble Lords on the Benches opposite would support. There is the assured produce scheme. It is producing standards which will improve the saleability and the marketing of horticultural produce. That is the best way to go. The Government will not be introducing a subsidy. The horticultural industry has to relate to the market.

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