In Parliament 6th May 2016

Parliamentary debates on the dairy sector are lively, far ranging and well-informed. Catherine Paice reports

Former dairy farmer and now MEP Richard Ashworth (Con, South-East England) held his nose and jumped at a recent European Dairy Association meeting in Brussels by proposing that dairy farmers should stop depending on political support or blaming others when things go wrong. To be sustainable, he said, a business has to be profitable. “But the tougher times get, it seems, the more milk [dairy farmers]produce – only if the industry is productive and profitable will it be sustainable.” A politician’s job, he said, was to feed 500 million “mouths”, of whom only 5m are farmers. “There are great opportunities [on the supply side], but only for those who change and adapt,” he added.

For whatever reason, the plight of the dairy sector is still to the fore in the House. Welsh MP Mark Williams (LD, Ceredigion), opened last week’s debate: “Everyone here will recognise and agree on the importance of the agricultural sector, especially the dairy sector, which is a vital part of our economy, our landscape and, in many parts of the country, our communities.”

So far, so good, and he went on to allude to the “harrowing” fact that almost half of all dairy farmers in Britain have stated their intention to quit the sector. “Although 23p [per litre]is difficult for many dairy farmers, and perhaps 26p or 27p would be sustainable, there’s simply no farmer in this country who could survive for long by selling milk as cheaply as 16p a litre.”

MPs have cottoned on to the huge gap between those on aligned contracts and those on non-aligned contracts, “and it is those on non-aligned contracts who are really suffering at the moment”, said Antoinette Sandbach (Con, Eddisbury).

Daniel Kawczynski (Con, Shrewsbury and Atcham) called for “more concrete steps that the Government are taking to support our dairy farmers,” and Rebecca Pow (Con, Taunton Deane), married to a livestock auctioneer, pointed to the knock-on effect on the rest of the industry.

“We cannot leave the milk pricing issue simply to market forces,” said Calum Kerr (SNP, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk). “Collaboration involving Government and the entire supply chain is needed, with urgent action across a range of areas. In the short term, it is critical that banks are involved and are prepared to extend credit to dairy farmers.”

And what of the GCA, for which there is an upcoming review? “Is that not the perfect opportunity to strengthen the adjudicator and its remit?” asked Julian Sturdy (Con, York Outer). “I think there is an emerging concensus,” Mr Williams replied, “but it cannot come quickly enough for many farmers. Only 4% of Welsh dairy farmers have a direct link with the supermarkets.”

(Note: this column is not sufficient in itself to support Brexit.)

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