HL Deb 30 April 2003 vol 647 cc694-6

2.51 p.m.

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

What action they will take as a result of the report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Local Food—A Snapshot of a Sector.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, this report was produced by a cross-departmental working group on local food and published three weeks ago, on 9th April. The group's aims were to consider the evidence relating to the impact of local food initiatives and the wider issues relating to local food so that government policy in this area could be developed. A number of government departments and agencies are considering what action they need to take in the light of the report. DEFRA will produce a policy paper on local food by the end of June.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am glad that, as a special birthday treat, the noble Lord's colleagues at DEFRA have given him an opportunity to answer my Question. I urge the Government to address this issue. Will the policies to be developed and subsequent actions taken be those that favour the small producers identified in the report as extremely important to the local food sector? Over the past five years, small producers have been disadvantaged by the implementation of almost every government policy covering issues concerning both food and farming.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am glad to be able to answer the Question, not least because during the briefing session officials were able to tell me where my nearest farmers' markets are here in London. As a devotee of such markets, I shall be taking advantage of that information.

As regards small producers, while of course I cannot anticipate what we shall say in June, I could not conceive that any policies we may choose to adopt would not be in favour of small producers. That is the essence of the entire local food movement. I am sorry to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, thinks that government policies have discriminated against local food. That certainly is not the lesson I draw from the recently published report.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I declare an interest as a small producer of goats' cheese. I can reassure the Minister that despite all the regulations, provided that one works carefully with the environmental health officer, the trading standards office and the dairy inspection unit, one can get on very well. Provided that one obeys the rules, there are no problems. It is those who sail a little close to the wind who are suffering. They are in need of extra care from the regulating authorities.

Given that we are considering food safety, does the noble Lord agree that very few small food producers in the farming sector are responsible for causing outbreaks of food poisoning and that these are much more likely to emanate from the catering sector?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am greatly reassured by the comments of the noble Countess with regard to small food producers, based on her own experience. I do not have evidence on where outbreaks of food poisoning originate as between producers and later stages in the food chain. However, my gut feeling—perhaps I should not use that expression—is that it is much more likely that such outbreaks would occur at later stages of the food chain rather than at the level of small producers.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, does the report take account of the astonishing fact that a higher tax is paid on a lorry-load of tomatoes being transported from Suffolk to London than is paid for an entire jumbo jet full of tomatoes flown in from South Africa?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, airport taxes are a little wide of this Question. The issue of food miles, to which I believe the noble Lord is referring, is an important element considered in the report. A number of examples are given. This is a very practical report, citing real case histories of what has been successful. A reduction in food miles is good not only in terms of freshness of the produce, but also from a transport point of view.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, how many small abattoirs have been closed down over the past five years? Given that they are enormously important to small producers trying to market their produce, what are the Government's plans for reversing the process of closure?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have not seen any reference to small abattoirs in the report, although I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, is right to make the point that if meat products are to be sold as local food, then the availability of local abattoirs is important. However, since no reference was made to local abattoirs, I do not have the statistics the noble Lord asks for. I shall have to write to him.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, can I help the Minister by saying that references to local abattoirs are made in the report and their importance is certainly emphasised.

The potential for growth in the sale of local food and the need for infrastructure support are important points identified in the report. Also considered is the uncertainty in the minds of many consumers as regards exactly what constitutes a local product. Does "local" mean produce from a nearby farm, from the county or from within the UK? That question is exemplified in the quotation from Sir Peter Davis on page 12 of the report. Would the Government be prepared to consider the implementation of this report alongside the excellent recent report from the Commercial Farmers' Group, The Case for a UK Agriculture Industry and a National Food Security Policy? That is not a snappy title, but it is a good report. If that were done, the future of local food would be seen to form part of a renewed commitment to national food security, something which so many of us would welcome.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that will teach me to read reports more carefully. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, and to the House.

There is an issue reflected both in the report and in government thinking about whether we should seek to define what is meant by "local food". From what I have been reading, the first conclusion I draw is that it is not particularly helpful to enforce a definition. What is the difference between food that comes either 29 or 31 miles away from the place of sale? The second conclusion I draw, which fits in with the remarks of the right reverend Prelate, is that government policies must be supportive rather than prescriptive. That is because so much of what is successful in local food projects is due to the entrepreneurship of individuals and groups of people rather than government encouragement. We must avoid putting obstacles in the way, but it is people themselves who benefit from local food projects and they must constitute the driving force.