The collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain was one of the main topics discussed by MPs during a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday (18 June).

It was the first time that food and farming has been debated in government time in the House of Commons since 2002.

DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn also updated members on the latest position with the electronic identification of sheep (see below).

Opening the debate Mr Benn said there were about 190 farmers who had been unable to find an alternative milk buyer.

“They are scattered around England and Wales, but the majority are in the north-east and the north-west,” he said. “The job now is for all of us to find buyers for the milk produced by those remaining farmers.”

Shadow DEFRA secretary Nick Herbert said the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain had sent tremors through the farming community.

“Only today I received an e-mail from a constituent who tells me that as a Dairy Farmers of Britain supplier, he has 34 days of unpaid milk, amounting to £17,500. He is concerned about the attitude that his bank is taking and whether, even if he can find an alternative purchaser, it will supply.

“He wants to know what can be done to put pressure on the bank to honour its milk cheques. It is important that we recognise the fragility of the industry and the continuing need to ensure that a viable dairy industry remains in existence in this country.”

Several MPs called for DEFRA to directly intervene to help dairy farmers caught up in the crisis.

Labour MP Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) said: “I understand that attempts are being made to try to get contracts for the farmers who are left, but might these companies, who are picking up milk now and who have already placed new contracts for farmers who are not far away, be encouraged to go that bit further?”

Even people who had found a new milk buyer had suffered the loss of their May milk cheque, pointed out Lib Dem MP David Heath (Somerset and Frome).

“For the average producer, that means £10,000 to £15,000 of lost income, and possibly more. The average bank manager is not just going to ignore that, so we need to ensure that producers are able to see themselves through the next few difficult months until they have a stable income stream again—without some computer somewhere telling them that they can no longer cash their cheques because the bank says no.”

Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, said he did not expect the minister to be able to wave a magic wand.

“But will he inform the House what discussions he is having with his colleagues and the industry about how they can support farmers affected by the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain?

“I appreciate the financial constraints that he and his colleagues are under, and I do not think that anybody expects him to start writing cheques to bail out farmers who have been hit, but farmers want to see that the Minister is alive to the issue and is taking it seriously.”

What did Hilary Benn say about EID?

“I am on record as saying that the costs outweigh the benefits, which is why we pushed for, and succeeded in getting, a delay in implementation and why we were able to get the slaughter derogation. It is why we are currently trying in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health to get agreement that recording can be done by third parties—in other words, at the market, not on the farm. That would significantly reduce the burden on farmers.

“I have just written to all my fellow Agriculture Ministers in Europe to say that if we get that change, there will be a pretty strong case for saying that an electronic tag needs to be put on a sheep’s ear only when it is about to leave the farm holding. That would require the European Commission to come forward with a change to regulation, and for that to happen we need other member states to come forward and support the UK and other countries such as Ireland, Hungary and one or two others that have been expressing concern about sheep EID.

“That change would save farmers from having to scour the hills and tops from the date of implementation to find their sheep and attach ear tags. As we know, in any given year 10 to 15 per cent of the tags may fall out, so they would have to be found and replaced. The change would be a practical step.”

Read the debate in full here.