4th July 2014

In a written question, Jim Cunningham (Lab, Coventry South) pursued UK beef imports, Catherine Paice reports. Data provided by DEFRA put the Irish Republic under the spotlight as still by far the biggest supplier, at 168,000 tonnes worth £629 million in the year to April 2014. Way behind Ireland, the top six are the Netherlands, with 15,000t valued at £56m; Germany (9,000t: £29m); Poland (8,000t: £30m); Australia (8,000t: £49m); surprise contender Namibia (6,000t: £24m) and Brazil (5,000 tonnes: £20m).

The total volume, supplied by 24 countries, was 246,000t valued at £949m – an average £260/t, with Irish beef coming in (in increasing volumes, month-by-month) at an average £267/t. Others range from £163/t (Austria) to £333/t (Italy), with Brazilian beef at £250/t and New Zealand at £235/t.

The national outcry the last time the Government tried to put a For Sale sign over public forestry – a move that was widely misinterpreted but effectively cost the then-Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman her job – was almost four years ago. A review was promised at a later date.

It wasn’t the first time this issue has caused a rumpus. In 1992, John Major’s Conservative Government, also looking to save money in a recession and raise around £1 billion, drew up plans to privatise the archaic Forestry Commission’s giant estate. This too was abandoned amid widespread public opposition.

Ministers are starting to be pressed on the issue again. A fornight ago Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) asked why the Government did not announce in the Queen’s Speech “proposals to protect the public forest estate”. Dan Rogerson (Lib Dem, North Cornwall), the Under Secretary of State responsible for forestry, told him there simply hadn’t been room. “The Government stands by its commitment to establish a new public body to hold the Public Forest Estate in trust for the nation, as set out in its Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement of January 2013, as soon as parliamentary time allows,” he replied.

Last week, Christopher Chope (Con, Christchurch) and Shadow Secretary of State Maria Eagle (Lab, Garston and Halewood) repeated the question in connection with sustainability, but were simply referred to the earlier answer.

Zero-hours contracts – a growing phenomenon in farming and food as well as the domicilary care industries – were brought up in a House of Commons debate last week by Madeleine Moon (Lab, Bridgend), who wanted to know how the recent Office for National Statistics report, published on 30th April, was going to shape policy. Although these contracts can benefit employers and employees, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Vince Cable (Lib Dem, Twickenham), acknowledged the need to address abuse.

The study also showed workers on these contracts couldn’t access rented property (they can’t prove a work record), or even mobile phone contracts and hire purchase contracts.

As Anne McIntosh (Con, Thirsk and Malton) pointed out, employers are “trying to steer a course between being flexible and skirting around their legal obligations”.

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