Parliament 5th February 2016

Flooding and milk prices have provoked questions to the DEFRA secretary of state, Catherine Paice reports

In a written question, Richard Arkless (SNP, Dumfries and Galloway) wanted to know what the Government was doing to support milk producers in ensuring milk prices in supermarkets were maintained. Farm minister George Eustice (Con, Camborne & Redruth) first exercised the current stock response: “We support the farming industry by reducing red tape, funding research to foster innovation, extending the tax averaging period for self-employed farmers and working to open up new export markets.”

He then reminded MPs of the £26.6m aid package from the European Commission last autumn for hard-pressed UK farmers – the third biggest in the EU – before saying the Government was working with the food industry, including supermarkets, retailers, manufacturers and caterers, on more consistent labelling and branding of British dairy products, improving transparency across the supply chain and allocating more space on shop shelves. “This will make it easier for consumers and food businesses to know when they’re buying British dairy products,” he said.

Some supermarkets have pledged, Mr Eustice noted, to pay a premium above the current market price, though he conceded that wouldn’t solve the problem but would “give some respite”.

Whether or not supermarkets would maintain milk prices was not ultimately addressed, perhaps because they are rarely linked to the farmgate price except in the case of relatively few producers who have direct supply contracts with the major retailers and are still getting over 30 pence per litre.

Pay farmers to flood farmland? Proposals by the Government to pay farmers to let their most susceptible land flood have been met with incredulity by the wider population. Craig Whittaker (Con, Calder Valley) wondered how DEFRA was working with farmers and landowners in areas susceptible to flooding to encourage them to do this to avoid flooding elsewhere.

In a written reply, Rory Stewart (Con, Penrith and The Border and joint DEFRA under-secretary of state) noted that “temporarily storing” flood water on agricultural land can be a cost-effective way of reducing risks elsewhere in a catchment. Where such schemes are planned, he explained, farmers and landowners are paid to store flood water on their land “in a managed way”, with payments made to offset the damage caused by additional deliberate flooding that forms part of the flood management scheme.

Mr Whittaker challenged the secretary of state about the use of upland management schemes in areas susceptible to flooding as a method of flood prevention. “We will encourage any measures that could help manage flood risk,” Mr Stewart responded, citing management of peat uplands and planting trees to slow the flow while providing wider environmental benefits within catchments.

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