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House of Commons

Thursday 16 February 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Associated British Ports Hull Bill

(By Order)

Birmingham City Council (No. 2) Bill

(By Order)

British Railways Bill

(By Order)

Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill

(By Order)

Hythe Marina Village (Southampton) Wavescreen Bill

(By Order)

International Westminster Bank Bill

(By Order)

Isle of Wight Bill

(By Order)

London Underground Victoria Bill

(By Order)

Wentworth Estate Bill

(By Order)

British Film Institute Southbank Bill

(By Order)

Bromley London Borough Council

(Crystal Palace) Bill-- (By Order)

City of London (Various Powers) Bill

(By Order)

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill

(By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 23 February.

Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill

(By Order) Read a Second time and committeed.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Contaminated Food

1. Mr. Wray : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the contamination of food supplies in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : Expert and comprehensive monitoring work is undertaken by a large range of scientists, academics and others. This surveillance work ensures that, if action is needed to ensure or enhance safety margins, it is taken swiftly and on a firm basis of scientific study and assessment.

Mr. Wray : Is the Minister aware that the London Food Commission considers that the Government have acted deplorably by their cover-up of food poisoning? According to its statistics, one in 12,000 eggs is contaminated and since 30 million eggs are distributed every day in Britain, 2,500 eggs per day must be contaminated. Will the Minister take into consideration that the average person eats 151 eggs a year, so one in 79 people in Britain will eat a contaminated egg and the average person will eat two infected eggs in a year-- [Interruption.] Does the Minister agree that the Government have failed to face up to the problem and that he should resign?

Mr. Ryder : There has been no cover-up. Clearly we take this matter very seriously, but it must be seen in perspective. The hon. Gentleman fails to do that.

Sir Hal Miller : Will my hon. Friend confirm the stand taken by the Foreign Office and by the Minister for Trade during last night's debate on the EEC position on hormones in beef, that the Government act only on the basis of scientific evidence, unlike the Labour party spokesman who claimed that we should act without evidence? In that context, how does he rate the evidence from the London Food Commission about a multiplier of 12,000, as we have just heard?

Mr. Ryder : Yes, Sir.

Mr. Beggs : Speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom, will the Minister make it absolutely clear, and not leave it to the Minister responsible for Northern Ireland, that food products from Northern Ireland have an excellent health record?

Mr. Ryder : Yes, Sir.

Mr. Robert Hicks : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the obligation of any responsible Government to inform and not to alarm, and that the recent allegations about the desirability of eating certain foodstuffs are misplaced and in many cases irresponsible? Will he respond to those allegations, made without scientific evidence, in a very robust manner?

Mr. Ryder : The Government will continue to answer those charges in a clear and robust manner. The problems must be put into perspective but the Government take their responsibilities for food safety extremely seriously.

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Mr. Martlew : Does the Minister agree that, in 1983, the Government failed to ban the sale of so-called green top milk--untreated milk--whereas they banned it in Scotland? Does he accept that, as a result of that inaction, eight people, including a baby, died in the Calder Valley area of west Yorkshire? Is it not a fact that the Government have waited six years to ban such milk because of pressure from the farming lobby?

Mr. Ryder : On 3 February, my right hon. Friend the Minister announced that, under the Food Act 1984, we will consult to see whether a ban should be imposed. The consultation document will be made available early next week.

Mr. Charles Wardle : As well as ensuring the highest standards of hygiene in animal husbandry and food processing, has it not become essential to emphasise the importance of hygiene in the preparation of food in the home, in case the normal commonsense standards of preparation do not always prevail?

Mr. Ryder : It is precisely because of that matter that, next month, the Department of Health and my Department will launch a joint food hygiene in the home campaign to ram home the points that have been set out by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Geraint Howells : Does the Minister agree that too many contradictory statements about food poisoning have been made by various Government Departments over the past month? Does he further agree that it is time for the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House to allay the fears of consumers and producers alike?

Mr. Ryder : In his speech on Tuesday my right hon. Friend the Minister stated that there is no complacency and no conspiracy. The Prime Minister, in answering questions later that same day, set out in precise detail the Government's view on pasteurised and unpasteurised milk.

Mr. Paice : Does my hon. Friend take comfort from the fact that nearly a week has passed since the last scare story about British food? Does he agree that much of the furore has been blown out of all proportion by the press, which has sensationalised a genuine but tiny problem?

Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend makes his point effectively.

Dr. David Clark : If there is no cover-up or complacency about food contamination, will the Minister confirm that the application by the Monsanto drug company for a product licence for bovine

somatotropin-produced milk has been rejected on safety grounds, not once, but twice by his own scientifically composed veterinary products committee?

Mr. Ryder : This question is about the contamination of food. The veterinary products committee has said that there is no evidence that milk from BST-treated cows is dangerous.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the standard of hygiene in food factories in this country is second to none? Does he agree that it is high time for those who speak on this matter to show a sense of responsibility rather than to create hysteria?

Mr. Ryder : It is precisely because we are not complacent about this issue that the Government have

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been preparing a major food Bill since October 1987, when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary issued a press release on the matter. More than 500 organisations have been consulted about what should go into that new food Bill. The new food Bill will be set before Parliament as soon as is practicable. There is no doubt that there are no grounds for complacency, and the Government are showing that to be the case.

Farming Diversification

2. Mr. Kennedy : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment he has made of the knock-on effects of farming diversification on the sheep sector.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : The aim of the farm diversification grant scheme is to encourage the creation of new businesses rather than the displacement of existing farming activities, so the answer is none.

Mr. Kennedy : Is the Minister aware that that answer will only confirm increasing worry, not least among hill and upland farmers, about the knock-on effect of diversification? As the Minister will appreciate, if more producers opt for sheep production, the increase in the number of sheep will lead to a corresponding decrease in the level of support. Therefore, will he make sure that any new sheepmeat regime will take account of the need for generous headage payments, not least in areas such as the north of Scotland, where agricultural activity is already stretched to the margins, if not beyond?

Mr. Thompson : It is important that when, in a few years' time, my right hon. Friend renegotiates the sheep meat regime, he takes careful note of those areas of Great Britain which have traditionally, and so well, bred sheep and improved the quality by 77 per cent. since 1980. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will do just that.

Mr. John Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that the Government are continuing to pay farmers in the less-favoured areas through the hill livestock compensatory allowance scheme is a major factor in supporting sheep farmers in the less-favoured areas? May we have an assurance that when the Government negotiate the new sheepmeat regime-- unlike in the case of the beef regime which was announced recently--we shall have a regime which reflects the different requirements for sheep farming in northern Europe as opposed to southern Europe?

Mr. Thompson : We already have a scheme which reflects the differences in Great Britain compared with the rest of Europe, although that does not seem to please all farmers. We must, of course, do what we can to ensure that the high quality that exists in this branch of farming is not disadvantaged in the whole of Europe.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my hon. Friend agree that the higher up the hill we go the harder it becomes to diversify? Will he therefore give every encouragement possible to increasing the hill compensatory allowance, to the suckler cow subsidy and to maintaining the sheep premium? That is essential if we are to keep a viable rural economy.

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Mr. Thompson : The very basis of the rural economy is a strong farming economy, especially in areas such as that which my hon. Friend represents.

Nitrate Pollution

3. Mr. Pike : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he proposes to take to designate areas vulnerable to nitrate pollution following the European Community directive on nitrates in water.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor) : The European Community directive is only a proposal at this stage. It will have to be examined carefully and agreed by the Council of Ministers before the question of implementation, including the designation of vulnerable areas, arises.

Mr. Pike : I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he recognise the widespread and justifiable public concern that exists about the levels of nitrates in water? May we have an assurance that when the matter comes before the Council of Ministers, the British Government will not seek to undermine any proposals or seek derogation but will take a positive attitude to any steps to control nitrates?

Mr. MacGregor : As for the proposals which come within my sphere of agriculture, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Water Bill already provides for the National Rivers Authority to make proposals to the Secretary of State for the Environment who, after consultation with my Ministry and any necessary public inquiry, could make an order, subject to parliamentary approval, to introduce protection zones. We have already said that we would be prepared to do that if we cannot get voluntary agreements with farmers within those zones, and to take compulsory powers as a fallback. So already we are making it clear that we will take a series of actions to deal with the nitrates question. Of course, we must also take into account the progress of negotiations on the directive in the European Community.

Sir Anthony Grant : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is almost as much nonsense being talked about nitrates in water as there is about food at the present time? Is he further aware that in areas where there is the lowest level of nitrates, such as north Wales, there is the highest level of stomach cancer, whereas in areas where there is the highest level of nitrates, such as East Anglia, stomach cancer is at the lowest level? The message should be "Come to East Anglia if you want to avoid getting stomach cancer." In any event, does my right hon. Friend agree that the excellent provisions of the Water Bill will improve the standard and quality of water and that the sooner it is on the statute book the better?

Mr. MacGregor : More and more people go to East Anglia for all kinds of reasons, perhaps even including the one mentioned by my hon. Friend-- though we certainly do not want too many people going there. It is very often the case that the incidence of stomach cancer falls below average in areas with above-average levels of nitrate in the water supplies. Nevertheless, medical advice is that we should continue to keep nitrate levels below 50mg, to allow for a very good safety margin. That is what we seek to achieve. Where there are problems, we propose taking steps to deal with them.

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Mr. Dalyell : From whom is the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food getting its research advice about nitrates?

Mr. MacGregor : From a variety of sources, including

Rothamsted--which shows that it is a very complex issue. The measures that we take contain a variety of ingredients, usually depending on local circumstances.

Egg Producers

4. Mr. Adley : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many individual applications he received for compensation from egg producers ; and how many were accepted.

Mr. MacGregor : Of 48 applications confirmed by producers to cull hens under the slaughter of hens scheme, 44 were accepted. Under the egg industry scheme, initial applications were normally by telephone inquiry and were not logged, but a total of 1,434 applications were accepted as eligible. For both schemes, not all eligible applications were followed through.

Mr. Adley : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that, following the retraction of devastating and inaccurate remarks about egg producers, and contrary to the opinions expressed in some quarters, most of those affected were small egg farmers who had put a lifetime's effort into their businesses--and who, if the Government had not acted quickly, would have found their businesses destroyed? Will my hon. Friend accept my thanks, on behalf of my constituents, for the speed with which his Department acted?

Mr. MacGregor : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. We must recall the exceptional circumstances in which we took action, when egg sales dropped by 30 per cent. in one week and by 50 per cent. in another. My hon. Friend is right to say that many of the country's 45,000 flocks are owned by very small producers with modest incomes. They faced a serious situation, and the scheme that we introduced was well designed and achieved its objective of restoring stability to the market in a thoroughly cost- effective way.

Mr. Tony Banks : I am very reassured to know that the Prime Minister is now in charge of the campaign about poisoning the nation--for which she certainly seems to be eminently well qualified. Is it not time for an independent food and health executive, so that the public will know that it is hearing the truth? Frankly, nobody really believes the Government any more. I fully expect to read in the newspapers soon that another Minister recommends that we start boiling our Easter eggs.

Mr. MacGregor : I have no idea what that has to do with the question on the Order Paper, which concerns individual applications for compensation to egg producers. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are dealing with complex matters. We make all the relevant information that is known to us available to the public, and we give advice whenever we think that that is necessary. It is important that, when comments are made, the public considers carefully what has been said. It is important also that advice is kept in perspective and does not get out of proportion.

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Mr. Haselhurst : Is my right hon. Friend willing to consider compensation in cases where there is evidence that a farmer has suffered losses because of delays by departmental officials in handling samples that they have taken?

Mr. MacGregor : We have made clear what we are doing in respect of the compensation scheme, which was designed to put a floor in the market place. Payments made in response to applications went to egg packers, and in that way back to egg producers. I was not aware that applications were delayed. We certainly moved very speedily with the whole scheme.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Will the Minister confirm that the compensation scheme is the subject of inquiries by the National Audit Office, which will report to the Public Accounts Committee? The Minister said that there has been no cover-up, but was there not a cover-up in respect of the names of the 21 protein processing plants that were responsible for the whole disaster? Why cannot the names of those 21 companies be given? If the Minister does not give that information to the House there will be a cover-up.

Mr. MacGregor : Not at all : there are perfectly good reasons for that and it has nothing to do with the egg compensation scheme. I am perfectly content for the egg compensation scheme to be thoroughly examined. The whole point and the key aspect of the scheme was the prices : 30p per dozen offered to take eggs off the market and the price set for culling young hens. In both cases the prices were low but they were there to give some stability and assistance to the market by lifting the prices from the rock bottom that they had reached. In both cases this objective was achieved. With spending of, it appears, just over £3 million on the two schemes, they have proved a very cost-effective measure.

Mr. Marland : Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the totally unfounded remark by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours) underlines the very scurrilous way in which the Opposition have been trying to flog this matter up? The general public is very concerned about infection in food. Does he agree with me that, for reasons of their own, the Opposition are seeking to create the maximum possible misunderstanding over the whole matter?

Mr. MacGregor : I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that in all these matters we retain a sense of perspective. It is difficult always to get the information through directly to the public, but it is important for everyone to take a responsible attitude. Regarding the egg position, we have taken, over a period, some 17 measures to ensure that at the production end and right the way through the food chain everything possible is done to deal with the salmonella risk that we face. Indeed, ours are among the most comprehensive measures taken by any country in the world.

Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister accept that the only long-term solution to the problem of salmonella in eggs is the elimination of salmonella enteritidis from the poultry flock? Why will he not institute a phased inspection of the whole of the 45,000-strong poultry flock in this country,

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culling where necessary, instead of carrying out his half-hearted scheme, which he admitted in Monday's papers will apply to only four flocks?

Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Gentleman has got it entirely wrong ; let me take him through it. First, it is not possible to find, and no country in the world has yet found, a way to eradicate salmonella. Salmonella is in the environment ; it is carried by wild birds and rodents, and this includes salmonella enteritidis. We are taking every possible step to minimise the risk of salmonella, but it would be irresponsible to claim that we can eradicate it.

Secondly, we are introducing, as one of the 17 measures, a requirement for bacteriological monitoring. It is also necessary for producers and their vets who find traces of salmonella to report it to the Ministry under the zoonoses order. From those sources we are getting a clearer and more accurate picture of the exact state of infection.

Regarding the four flocks, the hon. Gentleman really must get this properly in context. These are the four flocks on which we currently have restriction notices as a result of monitoring and reporting. I have no doubt that there will be more, but four flocks out of 45,000 helps to put in perspective the extent of salmonella.

Rabbits and Game

5. Mr. Colvin : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the draft proposal for a Council regulation (EEC) on animal health and public health problems affecting production and distribution in the territory of the Community, and importation from Third world countries of rabbit meat and game meat.

Mr. Donald Thompson : In its present form the draft proposal which the Commission is developing would require game meat to be inspected and processed under veterinary supervision in premises meeting the requirements for slaughterhouses engaged in intra-Community trade. There would be some provision for member states to permit exceptions for personal sales by the producers or sportsmen and for local trade in small quantities of small wild game.

Mr. Colvin : Next time that my hon. Friend is in Brussels, will he ask our Commissioners if they can stop dotty directives such as this one ever being drafted? Will he acknowledge that, if guidelines for game meat production are to be introduced, they should be based on traditional national practices and not subject to European harmonisation?

Mr. Thompson : I will have a word with our Commissioners and people in Brussels along the lines that my hon. Friend suggests, as I have done very time I have been to Brussels. We have achieved some important improvements in the draft directive, but I still see difficulties where it attempts to apply rules similar to those applied in the slaughterhouse, in various different circumstances, to game that is shot and dealt with by the traditional methods.

Mr. Home Robertson : What is the Minister doing to ensure that Britain is not opened up to serious animal diseases, including rabies, as a result of the internal European market from 1992? I hope that the Minister is

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aware that the European Commission is seriously considering proposals to remove all national frontier controls and replace them with feeble, discretionary and voluntary controls for a group of diseases that specifically includes rabies. The Ministry of Agriculture's reputation for food and health protection in Britain is wearing a bit thin just now, so is it too much to hope that it will make a stand to protect Britain's shores against the introduction of rabies?

Mr. Thompson : I have seen the hon. Gentleman's written question this morning, which refers to a document that is about six months old. That is about the speed at which the Opposition keep up with these matters. The hon. Gentleman will get a full written reply. That document was circulated to all European countries suggesting a three-band scheme, which was initially our idea and which includes various diseases. We are determined that rabies will be in the first band of that scheme, and we intend to keep up all possible precautions to keep this country rabies-free.

Mr. Bill Walker : Is my hon. Friend aware that the proposals from Brussels are causing great concern in the Highlands of Scotland, where game is an essential part of the economy? Account must be taken of the fact that the traditional methods that have been in use in Scotland for centuries and have proved their worth should be continued. May I suggest that my hon. Friend, or anyone else who is looking for assistance and advice, will find no shortage of that in the other place?

Mr. Thompson : Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. I have already consulted his friends and our friends in the other place about the directive. We are concerned that our traditional methods of looking after game and of hunting game should be preserved. We are doing all that we can in Europe generally, as well as in the Parliament, to preserve our existing methods.

Mr. Cryer : Will the Minister assure the House that at no stage will the Government accept a rabies-free policy that is based on certificates of origin from exporting countries of the EEC which, as the Minister knows, the EEC has proposed? Will he assure the House that we will retain the right of control and inspection at our frontiers, whatever Delors and his cronies try to impose on us by 1992?

Mr. Thompson : I shall not chase the hare of Delors and the Opposition now. We are determined that our animal health status remains the highest in Europe, as it is now, including rabies control.

Countryside Commission

6. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the chairman of the Countryside Commission ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. MacGregor : The Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) met the chairman of the Countryside Commission on 7 November when he discussed many issues of concern to the countryside. I frequently meet the chairman of the Countryside Commission, and I am always ready to discuss matters of mutual concern with him.

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Mr. Riddick : Did my right hon. Friend discuss the environmentally sensitive areas scheme with the chairman and can he confirm that the Government are still committed to it and would be prepared to extend it to take in the village of Marsden in my constituency? The local residents have a major problem with sheep wandering into their gardens and homes. The scheme would give incentives farmers to take some of their sheep off the moors during the winter. Can my right hon. Friend make some hopeful noises on this matter?

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend discussed the highly successful environmentally sensitive area scheme with the chairman of the Countryside Commission when he met him, although I do not believe that he considered the village to which my hon. Friend refers. We have moved very fast in creating ESAs in a considerable part of the most attractive areas of the country, and we must await the review before we decide whether to extend them further ; and if so, how and to where.

Mr. Knapman : When my hon. Friend met the chairman of the Countryside Commission, did he discuss the farm woodland scheme, and can my right hon. Friend say what progress has been made on that?

Mr. MacGregor : Yes, he did and that, too, had a warm welcome. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that in the first four months of the scheme up to January this year nearly 4,600 hectares have been included. That covers about 7 million trees to be planted after only four months' operation of the scheme, which shows that it has got off to a most encouraging start. Moreover, I am sure that the House will be pleased to know that it looks as though broadleaves will comprise about 75 per cent. of that 7 million.

Green Alliance

7. Mr. Summerson : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the Green Alliance ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Ryder : I met leading representatives of the Green Alliance on 9 November 1988 and had a useful exchange of ideas on a wide variety of environmental questions. Subsequently, I invited Mr. Tom Burke, the director of the Green Alliance, to talk to a group of my constituents in Norfolk on 27 January 1989.

Mr. Summerson : When my hon. Friend next meets the Green Alliance, will he make sure that he mentions the new farm and conservation grant scheme, which is something to which I react with the greatest enthusiasm, and then tell the House of the enthusiasm with which the Green Alliance reacts to it?

Mr. Ryder : When I met the leading representatives of the Green Alliance on 9 November 1988 my right hon. Friend had not announced the new scheme. However, the next time that I meet the Green Alliance I shall certainly raise that matter and explain that we had a useful debate in the House early yesterday morning when the Opposition supported that new scheme brought before the House by a Conservative Government.

Mr. Skinner : Did the Minister mention to the Green Alliance that now that the Prime Minister has adopted the environment strategy, she has promised to get aboard

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Greenpeace in a green anorak and sandals, and eating rice, but that while she may want to convey that impression, many Opposition Members will not buy that image?

Mr. Ryder : I find that so-called question of no interest at all.

Mr. Alexander : Was my hon. Friend able to elicit from his meeting the fact that the interests of the producers can easily be reconciled with those of the environmentalists?

Mr. Ryder : I discussed that with the Green Alliance on 9 November and subsequently with its director in January. It recognises, as do the Government, that those two interests are working closely together.

Dr. Godman : When the Minister met members of the Green Alliance, did they raise with him the issue of radioactive hot spots recently revealed in Cumbria and Scotland by aerial surveys conducted by his Ministry and scientists from the radiation centre at East Kilbride in Scotland? Surely, the time has now arrived for the Minister, along with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Northern Ireland, to commission a full aerial survey of radioactivity levels throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Ryder : I did not discuss that matter with the Green Alliance. It does not share the Opposition's view about the conspiracy theory of history. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no question but that all the material that we have on that matter is published and that all safety margins are properly explained to the public.

Farming Diversification

8. Mr. David Nicholson : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what he is doing to help farmers address the planning implications of diversification projects.

Mr. MacGregor : Last month we published a guide written especially for farmers, entitled "Planning Permission and the Farmer". This was prepared jointly by my Ministry, the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office. This guide explains how the planning system works ; describes how to find out whether or not a project is likely to need planning permission ; and gives advice on how to present a case to planning authorities. I hope that it will be helpful to farmers.

Mr. Nicholson : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that farmers seeking to establish farm shops and other businesses would benefit if clearer and more consistent guidance were available to planning authorities?

What advice does my right hon. Friend have for Mr. Tom Morris of East Lydeard farm in my constituency, who has established a cricket pitch and a pick-your-own-strawberries patch on his land--which will benefit families visiting the farm--but who is now facing difficulty from the county surveyor over signposting his new business?

Mr. MacGregor : I assure my hon. Friend that I am well aware that planning issues are becoming a major concern in connection with farm diversification. That is why I, my hon. Friends and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment have not only given guidance to

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