HL Deb 22 February 2005 vol 669 cc1096-8

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Byford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What effect the decline in self-sufficiency of United Kingdom food production is having on the long-term sustainability of United Kingdom agriculture.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is no direct relationship between self-sufficiency levels and sustainability. The Government's Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food has been promulgated and one key issue is to bring farmers closer to the market. By removing the link between subsidy and production through the CAP reforms, we have made a huge step in that direction. It will enable British farmers to produce what the market wants, rather than what subsidy dictates or what any artificial target for self-sufficiency might dictate.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, the Minister will know that Defra released figures in January, which showed that the UK's self-sufficiency of indigenous food has fallen by 9 per cent since 1997. Given that situation, what assessment have the Government made of the likely further decline of UK food production following the introduction of the single farm payment?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that depends on how farmers react to the freedom that is given to them by the change in the single fann payment to move away from subsidy-induced patterns of production to those in which they can meet the highest demand and make the highest level of profitability. Although the noble Baroness is correct to say that the self-sufficiency figures have gone down, the volume and the value of production in the UK have gone up—or, rather, down and then up again—in approximately the same period, certainly since 1999. So there is no direct correlation between the two. I would hope that the change in the CAP would allow us to compete in export markets as well as our internal market.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister address the fact that the dairy farming industry has been seriously affected, because it cannot, at present, produce milk at a profit? It is not subsidised. Given that self-sufficiency rates have decreased by more than 10 per cent in the past 10 years, what impact has that made on the balance of payments and how many billions of pounds is that worth?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, before I answer the noble Lord, perhaps the House will allow me to apologise to him because, in the reply I gave him on self-sufficiency on 9 February, I said that the figure was 72 per cent for self-sufficiency, when it was actually 74 per cent. That is a level of self-sufficiency of which no other industry could conceive. Therefore, agriculture is still doing pretty well in an increasingly liberalised market. The dairy sector is the wrong example to give in relation to self-sufficiency. While there are other problems there, we are virtually 100 per cent self-sufficient in the liquid milk market.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his original Answer smacked very much of the old days of MAFF, with a detachment and failure to recognise that a healthy agriculture industry in this country is essential in the long term—I repeat, the long term?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hesitate to defend my predecessor department, MAFF, because it had a bad reputation in certain respects. However misguided some of the policies that it and the European Union were occasionally engaged in, its concern for agricultural production was pretty clear. Yes, we, in this Government, want a healthy, competitive and profitable agriculture sector, which will benefit the whole economy as well as rural areas. Our policies are directed to that end.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, a large element of demand for UK produce is in the hands of public sector bodies. What measures are being taken to help source local supplies under the Government's public procurement policy?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend is correct to say that public procurement is a significant part of the market. One disturbing matter that we discovered in our analysis of the market was that the level of UK procurement in the public sector was lower than that which is obtained in the average supermarket. Therefore, we have taken steps, through the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative, to ensure that departments ranging from prisons to the education service focus more on local and sustainable food. The effects of that are beginning to be seen through the system.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, has the Minister seen the Farming Industry Marketing Strategy published by the Tenant Farmers Association and the National Beef Association, which is a clear critique of the fact that far too much purchasing by supermarkets and large retailers takes no account of whether or not the food is produced in Britain? There is space for a marketing organisation that deals with food for Britain and not food from Britain, which is what the Government only seem to be supporting at present.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness is well aware that there are restrictions on what government can do under the European rules on state aid for promotion of British products within Britain. That constrains our action, although I fundamentally agree with her. There are indirect ways in which the Government and the industry promote British produce. But I would repeat that over 70 per cent of produce in the supermarkets is British—particularly in the areas with which the organisations to which she referred are concerned—and in the fresh meat market we are doing remarkably well. The publication she mentioned is a good analytical document, but I do not necessarily agree with all the conclusions.