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House of Commons

Thursday 1 February 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Thursday 8 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

Farm Diversification

1. Barbara Follett (Stevenage): What support he is giving to farm business diversification projects. [146775]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): The England rural development programme supports our diversification policies through the £152 million that is behind the rural enterprise scheme. That money will be made available over the next seven years. There are also processing and marketing grants, the vocational training scheme, the energy crops scheme and tree-planting schemes. In addition, the action plan for farming provides for new farm business advice services that offer business health checks for those farmers who want them. It significantly supports diversification opportunities. We are also producing a free guide to on-farm diversification and, on top of that, we aim to make available free planning advice to farmers pursuing diversification under the rural enterprise scheme.

The rural White Paper contains a number of extra innovations on planning that will help diversification, and we have consulted on providing time-limited rate reliefs for farmers who wish to diversify into non-farming activities.

Barbara Follett: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and, in particular, for his remarks on the planning process. Is he aware that many farmers, including Mr. Owen of Mansell farm, Codicote, in my constituency, find the planning process too long and too costly to make such diversification practical?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend makes a good point. When farmers consider diversification, they may not have the economic wherewithal to put behind a planning application, with all the professional costs that that entails.

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I hope that it will be possible to help my hon. Friend's constituent with the free planning advice that we now offer, but I would like the planning rules to be more compatible with our objectives for farm diversification. Discussions between my Department and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are taking place to pursue that objective.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Can the Minister tell us more about the way in which the proposals will affect people setting up riding stables on farms? Although we welcome the opportunities for farmers to be able to diversify, several people who are not farmers have contacted me. They run riding stables and they fear that they will be placed at a competitive disadvantage. Will the Minister ensure that whatever grants and help are available to farmers are equally available to those who specialise in running riding stables?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and that is why the issue of help for farmers who make use of diversification measures is out for consultation. He is right that diversifying into businesses that offer equestrian sports is one possible way forward. People considering diversification look to what public support is available, whereas those who are already in the sector worry about the competitive impact on their businesses. He is right to raise this point; it explains why the issue is out for consultation.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Would the free business service that the Government have set up for farmers also extend to issues such as farmers markets and farm box schemes? They have been profitable for many farmers, especially small hill farmers such as those in my constituency.

Mr. Brown: It is certainly possible for the farmers who make use of the free business advice--after all, the Government are paying for it--to explore whether it would be practical to go into farm box schemes or other on-farm enterprises. That is one way forward. It is not the answer to every farmer's current difficulties, but it is a useful way of getting more money through farm-based businesses, and one that it is perfectly proper to explore with business advisers.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister announced 10 months ago in his action plan that £6.5 million would be available for farm business advice services to help farmers to improve their businesses and planning, and to diversify. Yet by Christmas only 2 per cent.--£130,000--of that money had been spent. Can he tell us how much he expects will have been spent by the end of March? Will the underspend be rolled forward into the next financial year, or do we add that to the £26 million that he told us last time would probably be lost to the pig industry?

Mr. Brown: It is my intention that every penny of the £66 million that was allocated to the pig industry scheme over three years will be spent on the pig industry. Although I cannot announce the outcome now, discussions are taking place in Government that are designed to achieve that objective. I know, for what it is

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worth, that I have the hon. Gentleman's support in trying to achieve that objective. [Interruption.] Let me finish my answer.

Precisely the same point applies to the farm business advice scheme. If it is not possible to spend the budget in this financial year, I want to carry forward the allocated money into the next financial year and, possibly, following years.

Every Member who has been a Minister understands the nature of discussions about end-of-year flexibility and carrying budgets forward. There are issues to be discussed with the Treasury, but I make it absolutely clear to the House that I aim to ensure that the money that was made available at the Prime Minister's March summit is spent on the objectives for which it was allocated.

Organic Farming

2. Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): What the Government's budget is for research and development into organic farming; and what it was in 1997. [146777]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): The Government have progressively increased the budget for research into organic farming from £1.1 million in 1997-98 to the present figure of £2.1 million. In addition, as part of the action plan for farming, £2.3 million has been allocated to establish the European centre for organic fruit and nursery stock at Horticulture Research International, in Kent.

Mrs. Organ: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. If the development of organic farming is to be successful, Government budgets must be administered efficiently and effectively. What would he say to my constituent, Mrs. Ravenshill of Birdwood, an excellent cheese producer who missed the support scheme for conversion by a few days and was debarred because her certificate from the Organic Trade Association came two and a half months after her application?

Mr. Morley: We have increased the budget for organic conversion and reopened the scheme with an additional £18 million for this year. Following the review of the scheme's working, we have, as part of that increase, formally accepted into the scheme people who have started conversion up to three months before they apply. We have now doubled that window of application to six months, so if my hon. Friend's constituent applied within that six months, she can now apply for the conversion grant.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The Minister will be aware that when consumers buy organic food they often attribute certain characteristics to it. He will be aware also that often there is no scientific basis that would validate the claims that the consumer makes but which the producer knows cannot be made. Should it not be a purpose of the research to try to lay a sound scientific foundation for the qualities of organic food, so that there

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is no eventual disillusion and consumers do not think that they are being taken for a ride, going voluntarily for a ride, or simply buying expensive food?

Mr. Morley: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that no one has a right to make claims about any food which are not validated by science. The organic organisations know that very well, and I know that the question was addressed in the right hon. Gentleman's thorough and well researched report from the Select Committee on Agriculture. We assist in a variety of research into organic farming, and the Government recognise that there is clearly established research showing that organic farming offers certain environmental benefits. There is much less indication from research that it has benefits for the food itself. If organic bodies feel that there are such advantages, they can commission research to try to justify their claims.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Does my hon. Friend accept that my constituents want the choice of organic food? Will he join me in welcoming the twentyfold increase in funding for organic conversion since the Conservatives were in power? My constituents definitely want such funding because they want a choice of food.

Mr. Morley: I certainly accept what my hon. Friend says. In the five years leading up to our review of the organic scheme, about 400 farmers converted to organic production within five years; in the last year alone, 1,800 farmers have converted. The Government are committed to supporting consumer choice and those farmers who want to diversify their business by taking advantage of the organic market.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): In view of the concerns of many organic farmers about the threat to the integrity of their produce from neighbouring genetically modified crops, will the Government guarantee that the commercial planting of such crops will not be allowed until English Nature, the Government's statutory adviser on nature conservation, has confirmed that they are environmentally safe?

Mr. Morley: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is a three-year moratorium on the commercial planting of genetically modified crops. That is to evaluate the potential impact on the environment, along with other matters, which is being carefully and independently researched. The Government have made it clear that if there is evidence of problems, we will reconsider the length of the commercial moratorium.

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