Don’t come the cowboy with me Sonny Jim!

Thursday saw the new administration’s first outing at Defra questions, and one Tory backbencher welcoming the new front bench team. (“May I also add my welcome to some fellow meat-eaters in the Front Bench team for this particular portfolio?” Pah!)

As if her first contribution wasn’t bad enough, she then kept bobbing up trying to get called again, so I at least had the pleasure of seeing her look a little bit silly. After questions were over I was approached by two Tory new “boys”, rather charming in that old-fashioned public school way some of them have, who asked me about the rules on when to bob up, e.g. do you have to stand during every single question to have a chance of being called, even if you only really want to ask something on question 10? That sort of thing. Not sure I will recognise either of them if I see them again – there are hundreds of new Tories, and apart from a few who are drawing attention to themselves  for all the wrong reasons, it’s difficult to tell them apart.

Anyway, although I was on the Order Paper for no.2 at topical questions (which run for 15 minutes at the end of the session) I also tried to get called during ordinary Defra Qs, to ask about CAP and Compassion in World Farming’s campaign to put the ‘Compassion’ into CAP (that’s my slogan: do you like it?!) Was also thinking of asking about badger culls, but Hilary Benn got there first.

I’d have loved to have been able to see the Minister’s prep notes for me at topicals. The civil servants are given the job of briefing on what  previous Qs, written and oral, have been asked by the MPs, as well as anything relevant about their background, so the Minister can try to second guess what’s likely to be asked. They’d probably have got me down to ask about badgers, as I’d put some written Qs in, and maybe something about my livestock/ environment debate last year, and then quite possibly “MAD VEGAN!” scrawled in big letters across the top. Only that can explain the wary looks Caroline Spelman was casting at me across the dispatch box.

As it happens I returned to another of my themes, about the industrialisation and intensification of farming in this country. I referred to the planning application by Nocton Dairies for a dairy farm (actually, strike ‘farm’, it’s a factory) to house 8,0000 cows in Lincs, and another application for a factory for 26,000 pigs in Derbyshire. These aren’t, despite what the Minister implied in his answer, just ordinary farms on a bigger scale. Oh wow… just clicked on the www.viva.org.uk website to get a link to more info, and it turns out the Indy went big on it on Friday – front page I think. No mention of course of little old me asking my little old question, but still, great that the topic is now getting this level of attention. And note the American phrase in the article, “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation”. Chilling.

Here’s my Q and the Minister’s answer: 

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):

Earlier this year, Nocton Dairies submitted an application for a factory farm for 8,000 cows in Lincolnshire, and said: 

    “Cows do not belong in fields.”

Now the pig farmer of the year 2009 has submitted an application for 26,000 pigs to be held in a factory farm in Derbyshire. Does the Minister agree that we should resist that increasing industrialisation of our food production?

Mr Paice: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for a question that tests many people, as she rightly identifies. I make two points. First, specific planning applications must, quite properly, fall to the local planning authority and are not for DEFRA Ministers to comment on. Secondly, on wider animal welfare issues, the coalition has made achieving the highest standards of animal welfare one of its absolute commitments. However, all the evidence is that management, rather than simple numbers, necessarily dictates the quality of animal welfare in any particular unit.”

So the Minister is basically saying ‘nothing to do with me guv, matter for the planning authorities’. But AFAIK the planning authorities won’t – in fact aren’t allowed to – take into account wider issues like animal welfare or the ethics of industrialised food production when deciding planning applications. It’s similar to the rules on environmental issues, which we came up against in the Bristol with the proposal for a big biofuels plant in Avonmouth. The council, as the planning authority, is of course allowed to take into account the impact on the local environment but can’t take a view on whether biofuels, deforestation in the Amazon, etc, etc are a good or bad thing. Ed Miliband was lobbied by me on this when he was Secretary of State, and I think plans were going through to change the rules, but I need to check up on where we got to with it. The planning process is semi-judicial, so I suppose it has to be administered in a fairly strict, going by the book way – but surely local democracy should mean that local people get to decide whether they want to encourage or discourage certain industries from acting in a certain way? If not them, who?

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