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Farming (Vale of Aylesbury)

1 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Interest in agriculture and farming has been reflected in the House since May 1997 in 2,100 oral and written parliamentary questions, 30 Adjournment debates and seven early-day motions. I am especially grateful to Mrs. Virginia Crick and Mr. Tim Whitlock, secretaries of the Aylesbury and Buckingham branches of the National Farmers Union, and to farmers to whom I have spoken recently: Mr. Antony Aston, Mr. Robin Culley, Mr. Mike Duckworth and Mr. James King.

A deep-rooted crisis is afflicting British agriculture. The recent Deloitte & Touche report showed that for a typical, 500-acre, often family farm, incomes have been slashed to the desperate level of £8,000 a year. As the Minister knows, that is a cut of well over 70 per cent. in the past five years. In addition, the albatross of a £10,000-million debt is hanging around the industry's neck. It is salutary to remind ourselves that about 450 people a week leave farming; no fewer than 24,000 have done so in the past 12 months. I know from personal experience in my constituency that there are two continuing problems, the first of which is that some farmers earn as little as £4,000 a year, showing beyond peradventure that they earn less than the national minimum wage for the amount of work that they do. That is by no means uncommon. Secondly, many farmers in my constituency no longer farm for 12 months a year as farming simply will not sustain them. They usually work for four or five months a year on their farms and undertake contract work to keep themselves and their families for the remainder of the year.

That is an appalling situation. What is to be done about plummeting incomes, declining numbers and severely depleted morale? The answer is that we must construct a fair deal for farmers, which should be characterised by three principal themes. First, there is an urgent and compelling case for slashing--I use the word advisedly--red tape. Lord Haskins, chairman of the better regulation taskforce conceded that this country is too eager to implement European Union directives and regulations that have an impact on British agriculture. Eighty per cent. of rules relating to environmental matters originate in the European Union, and we are too prescriptive about the means of implementation. Typically, we take "insufficient account" of British interests, which gravely damages British agriculture and that must be changed as a matter of determined public policy without delay.

Secondly, there must be honesty in labelling, so that consumers can see at a glance the country of origin and the method of production of the food that they are invited to buy. Thirdly, we need to ensure that British agriculture is protected from unfair competition--competition from countries that do not produce food to our standards, in terms of either animal welfare or protection of public health, on which Britain has traditionally prided itself. Those three themes should inform the gamut of public policy in relation to agriculture.

I shall address some of the agricultural sectors which are represented in significant numbers in my

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constituency and which I have had the pleasure and experience of seeing at first hand in the past three and a half years. We need a fair deal for the arable sector. Arable farmers need to be protected urgently. Government action is required to protect them from the threat of contamination of crops. We need to ensure, as I hear again and again as I visit farms in my constituency, that the regulations relating to the washing of arable farmers' equipment are not overly burdensome or interpreted with excessive zeal. We must also do what we can to cut the price of diesel for those farmers: I am sure that the Minister is well aware that the continuing high price of diesel adds about £10,000 a year to some cereal farmers' bills.

We also need a fair deal for beef farmers. We need to ensure that the remaining conditions, and, therefore, restrictions on the export of British beef are removed. We need to promote actively, as has not hitherto been done, our own produce. We need to slash again Meat Hygiene Service charges, which remain exorbitant and a significant blight on a struggling sector that needs the hand of Government assistance and impartiality on that front. Honesty in labelling must be established, and, as beef farmers continually remind me, we need to stop unfair competition. The best and most efficacious way in which the Government can do that is to invoke article 36 of the revised treaty of Rome to prevent the import of substandard beef, the most recent examples of which come from France, although there have been many others over the years. We must ensure that we bat for our agriculture as, typically, continental Governments do for theirs.

We also need a fair deal for dairy farmers. The quota settlement under the common agricultural policy of Britain's dairy farmers is pitiful and risible. Even the Prime Minister has said that the deal so far secured was "not satisfactory" and "disappointing".

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin ) indicated dissent.

Mr. Bercow : The Minister chunters and shakes her head, but the position is deeply unsatisfactory. Dairy farmers in my constituency holler at me about it all the time, and I make no bones about the fact that it is the Government's fault. Farmers expect Ministers to do something about it, and not simply to wait until 2005 in the hope of crumbs descending from the table. We cannot afford to wait that long without the risk--nay, the certainty--of large numbers of dairy farmers going out of business in my constituency and across the United Kingdom.

Secondly, as a matter of public policy for the dairy sector, we need to encourage farmers co-operatives to produce, process and sell their milk, along the lines undertaken by the great continental conglomerates. I do not want to revisit the argument about the neutering of Milk Marque, but I hope that the Minister accepts that the tendency towards agri-businesses and the development of conglomerates is commonplace and growing on the continent. Measures to encourage a similar process here are necessary if a decent dairy sector is to be sustained in the future.

We also need a fair deal for pig farmers. The National Pig Association has calculated that the sector--

Mr. George Stevenson (in the Chair ): Order. It is

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difficult to have a debate on farming in the vale of Aylesbury by talking about general farming policy. I am sure that all the factors that the hon. Gentleman is discussing are relevant to the vale of Aylesbury, and that he will refer to that.

Mr. Bercow : I most certainly shall, Mr. Stevenson, and I am sorry if I have somehow fallen foul of your exhortations. However, I emphasise the fact that the individuals whom I consulted in my preparations for this debate were conscious that each of the sectors to which I have referred are affected.

I am glad that I have been given the opportunity to remind hon. Members that I met Mr. James King of Cowley farm in Preston Bissett, which is near Buckingham in the northern area of my constituency. He is a decent, hard-working, effective and talented pig farmer--I congratulate him on his imminent wedding--who suffers under the depredations of the Government. He is concerned that he faces a big loss--for reasons of confidentiality, hon. Members would not expect me to disclose precisely what his balance sheet is; suffice it to say that Mr. King has been severely hit.

There has been an exodus of people--about 25,000--from the sector in the past two years, with the prospect of a similar exodus unless efficacious action is taken in the next two years. Mr. King told me that there must be honesty in labelling and that, if his farm is to have the chance of survival, we must be prepared to restrict or prevent the import of pigmeat that does not satisfy our standards. He appealed for the review of integrated pollution prevention controls to ensure that they do not adversely discriminate against our pig sector relative to those of our continental counterparts. Those are issues of pressing concern in the south, north, east and west of my constituency.

It is commonly held that some restructuring of agriculture is required, including in my constituency, but we need to think afresh. There is a requirement for diversification. The Minister will know from her visits that many farmers across the country are willing to entertain the prospect of diversification. However, they need some guidance, encouragement and the prospect of their hopes being fulfilled.

From visits around my constituency, especially during the past 12 months, I have learned that there is an interest in and a desire to preserve the business rate concession on the letting of accommodation of up to six lets. Farmers who are struggling to make a decent income should be encouraged, if they are willing, to let a property commercially, which is to the advantage of many people who cannot afford to purchase property in the vale of Aylesbury. I hope that the Minister can assure me that the concession will remain.

I cheekily invite the Minister to consider another proposal, which is that we should relax the planning controls on the conversion of farm buildings. A threshold could be set; I have seen many such developments in my constituency, typically of around 1,500 sq ft. Let people have the chance to convert to different types of businesses, so that farmers who want to leave the sector can do so, and farmers who want to share their time between farming and other activities and so prop up their incomes can do so. Diversification is important.

When I address Young Farmers meetings in my

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constituency, and especially when I listen to what those who attend them have to say, an issue that arises again and again is the attraction of young people into farming and the prevention of the exodus of those currently in it. We need a fair deal for young farmers. I put it to the Minister that it would be good if there could be some sort of pension arrangement for tenant farmers in this country, perhaps funded from the rural development regulation. That would give people an incentive to leave the sector and create an opening for youngsters to enter the industry. That subject came up at a recent question-and-answer session in Buckingham. The Minister will be aware that the average age of farmers is 58 and rising. I would like that to be changed. That is not an ageist observation; it is true in my patch, as I am simply citing the evidence. The Minister and I have nothing against farmers of mature years, but we would like to think that young people will come into the sector. The proposal that I outlined would be one way to give them their chance.

An NFU officer from Haddenham in my constituency suggested to me that there should be a siphon of milk, sheep and suckler disposals to provide finance to attract young people into the sector--young people, I emphasise--who are industrious, able and ambitious for a career in farming, but who happen not to possess money. We all know that, traditionally, a person's chances of entering and remaining in the sector have been dependent on money--on having the backing of capital, buildings and land. I would like to think that the sector could be opened to people who lack such assets, but who can help to maintain British agriculture as a thriving part of British industry.

The Minister is an agreeable individual, but the record of the Government is deeply disagreeable from the point of view of farmers in my locality. The verdicts of some of them on the Administration's record for the past 43 months are unprintable. That record is characterised by indifference, disdain and contempt, but, even now, it is not too late for the Minister to repent, admit error and seek clemency from rural Britain. Above all, she should go back to the drawing board and come up with a package of robust, credible and attractive policies to help all sectors of British agriculture. In my humble and modest way, I have tried to offer the Minister the key to the survival of British farming and her own personal redemption. I shall now sit in eager anticipation, with bated breath and beads of sweat on my brow, to hear her reply.

1.16 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin ): First, as is traditional, I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) on securing the debate and on introducing a topic of great interest to him and, as I hope he appreciates, to me. He began by referring to the many questions that have been tabled on agricultural issues and the large number of Adjournment debates on such subjects. I concur in that observation, since I seem to have responded to many of the questions and a considerable number of Adjournment debates.

The hon. Gentleman's concerns are wide ranging. I appreciate that he has spoken from his constituency experience and with reference to the vale of Aylesbury, but he will appreciate that, given the number of issues that he raised, many of which have been debated in the wider agricultural context, it will be impossible in 15

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minutes to discuss every aspect of what he said about the future of farming. However, I am sure that he and his hon. Friends will, as in the past, detect all the parliamentary opportunities to pursue those issues.

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I do not accept some of his strictures against the Government. Certainly with respect to CAP reform and, indeed, tackling red tape, the Government have done more in the past three years than Conservative Governments did in 20. Also, I reject any charge of indifference, or of lack of concern or of policy with respect to the future of such an important sector of our economy. That is far from the case. Ministers have both a short-term and a long-term strategy for agriculture, and they take great personal interest in what is happening, in their regional and constituency visits.

We are very aware of the extent of the crisis in agriculture. I do not dispute the statistics with which the hon. Gentleman began his speech, about the reduction in farming incomes and the personal and financial difficulties that farmers have experienced as a result. Indeed, I recently met representatives of the Arthur Rank Centre, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is involved in the establishment of the rural stress network throughout the country, to provide support to farmers. That is in addition to the various financial support measures that I want to mention.

The hon. Gentleman will certainly not disagree when I say that agriculture is highly supported by public expenditure, whatever else one might say about it. There may be common ground between the present and the previous Governments on the issue of whether that money--most of which relates to expenditure under Europe's common agriculture policy--is wisely spent. The sector is highly supported and there is no question of there not being a public commitment to help it. In addition to some £3 billion that comes in direct support from the common agricultural policy each year, the Government have given not far from an extra £1 billion to ensure that farming is in a better state to face the future and the long term.

The hon. Gentleman raised several issues. I will refer to both the short-term strategy for agriculture pursued by the Government and some of the longer term measures--especially diversification and forward-looking measures for the future--relating to issues that he mentioned towards the end of his speech.

The Government have paid out a considerable amount of support in agrimonetary compensation to the agricultural sector. The hon. Gentleman--he seems to be having a conversation, but I am sure that he is listening to my reply--is concerned about the dairy industry. We have given that industry the maximum amount available to us under agrimonetary compensation and have introduced several measures specifically to help it, including the removal of the over-30-months scheme weight limit, on which many dairy farmers in his area and in others had lobbied Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the break-up of Milk Marque, which has caused much concern to farmers. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made a welcome statement on

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that subject, in which he said that the successors to Milk Marque would be able to get involved in processing and vertical integration. The hon. Gentleman, understandably, referred to some of the large conglomerates in the European Union, many of which are involved in processing. The successors to Milk Marque are considering some of the patterns of co-operation and collaboration that exist elsewhere in the European market.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to Meat Hygiene Service charges and the situation in respect of abattoirs. That area is mainly the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency, but I assure him that Ministers are concerned about the health of the agricultural sector. Important to that sector's health is the availability of a range of abattoirs and the costs of that system, which are broadly comparable to those elsewhere in Europe. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Government's acceptance of the recommendations made in the Maclean report on abattoirs, which is good news, especially for small and medium-sized abattoirs that serve several rural areas. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise, too, that the Government have taken a number of measures for the removal of existing charges or the deferral of proposed charges to help the abattoir sector and, through that, individual farmers, including those in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman made great mention of red tape. That does not surprise me, although I must point out to him that the spectacular growth in red tape occurred very much in the lifetime of the previous Government. Given that he was trying to blame the Government for agriculture's red tape problems, it is reasonable for me to respond by saying that that was not the case. Having been a member of the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament about 15 years ago, I was astonished when I became an Agriculture Minister at Westminster to discover the growth of red tape during the intervening period. It has been a real problem and I am not surprised that farmers have complained bitterly about it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not decry necessary rules to guarantee hygiene and health standards, but there has been a growth in farm bureaucracy, which we are determined to tackle.

Understandably, the hon. Gentleman referred to the report for which Lord Haskins was responsible. Its recommendations are welcome and the Government will be responding to them within the deadline. Lord Haskins' report is not the only initiative that has been taken up to combat red tape. My right hon. Friend the Minister set up several working groups to consider red tape as it affected farmers in particular sectors, including the integrated administration and control system, meat inspection and the intervention system with which farmers are much concerned. Several measures have already been introduced as a result of those red tape reviews. For example, of the 29 recommendations that required administrative action to be taken on intervention, 22 have already been implemented and progress is being made on a further three. Of the 29 recommendations concerning inspections of the integrated administration and control system, progress is being made on 26. As for the meat industry, 32 of the 35 recommendations were accepted.

I stress to the hon. Gentleman that the red tape initiative was very much the result of the Government acting together with the industry. There

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was industry representation on each of the review groups. While we have taken action on those recommendations that can be progressed domestically within the United Kingdom, the hon. Gentleman will understand that, because we are part of a common agriculture policy, it has been important to pursue some of the recommendations at EU level, and that we are doing.

I am also pleased to report that, whatever the shortcomings of the common agricultural policy--of which there are many--our desire for an attack to be made on red tape and for a greater simplification of the system is now widely shared in the European Union. At the Agriculture Council meeting in October, there was general agreement by the Commissioner, Franz Fischler, and the majority of delegations around the table that we needed a wide-ranging simplification of the CAP rules and regulations to help farmers throughout the European Union.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for honesty in labelling. Labelling is now the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency, but, before the agency was created, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had made significant progress. For example, the work of the verification officer in the Ministry led to the changing of labels in some of our leading supermarkets. Labels are now a good deal more accurate than they used to be, and that includes origin labelling, especially on meat. Evidence shows that consumers are looking increasingly for such labelling. Some misleading examples of origin labelling have been tackled successfully by our verification officer. The Minister also issued guidance to local trading standards officers, and we have monitored its implementation.

We have also worked with the industry and organisations such as the NFU and the Women's Food and Farming Union, all of which have actively pursued the labelling issue. As a result, there is much greater honesty in the labelling system.

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