Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Stewardship Agreements

3. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): What plans he has to increase the area of farmed land subject to countryside stewardship agreements. [146778]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced a substantial increase in the countryside stewardship budget in December 1999. As part of the England rural development programme, £500 million is allocated to the scheme over the

1 Feb 2001 : Column 427

seven-year period 2000-06. Each year, we will be accepting roughly double the number of applications that we did in 1999.

Joan Ruddock: May I tell my hon. Friend how important the countryside stewardship scheme is to those of us who live in cities and who greatly value the conservation of landscape and wildlife in rural areas? Will he confirm that spending under this Government on such schemes has trebled? Will he also confirm that, in terms of public support for farmers, it is further proof, if any were needed, that the Tory party can no longer claim to be the friend of the farmer?

Mr. Morley: I can certainly confirm my hon. Friend's point. The budget has increased by the amount that she claims. That demonstrates the Government's commitment to the countryside, to the people who live and work there and to the taxpayer, who pays for the schemes. The schemes are good news for all our objectives. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that, compared with 1996-97, when spending on countryside stewardship was £10.9 million, by 2006-07, under our projected budget, the Government will be spending £126 million. That will be more than a tenfold increase--a commitment to the countryside unlike that of the previous Administration.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): As the Minister who had the privilege of launching the countryside stewardship scheme, I am delighted that progress is being made. However, will the Minister tell us when the backlog of payments under existing schemes will be cleared?

Mr. Morley: I was discussing that very point --ensuring that payments are made to those who are part of the countryside stewardship and environmentally sensitive area schemes--in one of the regional service centres yesterday. There has been a computer problem. I understand that it has been largely resolved, and that the vast majority of payments are now being made.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): May I tell my hon. Friend that throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s I had the good fortune to live in a house that overlooked open countryside in which hedgerows were a prominent feature? However, they were steadily uprooted as a result of farm practices and the inducements of the then Governments. Is my hon. Friend confident that the countryside stewardship scheme, which I believe has restored about 6,000 miles of hedgerow, will continue even further to reverse the tragic losses of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s?

Mr. Morley: I am confident of that. Farmers have been taking advantage of the countryside stewardship scheme and have been restoring hedgerows. Many have been planted over recent years. As my hon. Friend rightly said, about 6,000 miles of hedgerow have been reinstated. The advantage of stewardship is that we can adapt it to changing circumstances. We have introduced the new arable stewardship pilot scheme. The increasing budget means that we can further extend various aspects of the scheme, to the advantage both of those who live in the countryside and of those who want to see it protected.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): What can the Minister say to the Hosking brothers of South Hams, who

1 Feb 2001 : Column 428

have been turned down once again for countryside stewardship funding, despite exemplary farming practices which they have pursued for many years? Does he agree that the focus on paying for improvements in standards rather than on standards themselves has real disadvantages for conscientious farmers who have taken it upon themselves to engage in best practice to meet environmental standards? Would not such farmers be better off if they had bulldozed their hedges, ploughed up pastures, filled in ponds, and then applied for funds to repair the damage?

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman has a point. It is true that the priority of the scheme is to reinstate lost habitats and introduce features that have been lost. It is right to have priorities, and I am sure that Members would accept that we need to get maximum gains from the budget in relation to the benefits that the scheme is paying for. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that conscientious farmers, many of whom have kept important environmental, wildlife and landscape features because they are committed to conservation, are at a disadvantage owing to the way in which the scheme works.

The priority can be justified, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, in 2003, we are having a mid-term review of such schemes and the way they operate. That is an opportunity to look at how we can address problems of that kind, bearing in mind the fact that, under this Government, there will be a continually rising spend on the budget for those schemes.

Dairy Supply Chain

4. Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What steps he is taking to improve co-operation in the dairy supply chain. [146779]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The Government encourage all involved in the dairy industry to work together to bring about an improvement in the dairy supply chain. Last November we set up the milk taskforce as part of the Government's action plan for the long-term development of agriculture. It is seeking to identify methods of beneficial collaboration along the supply chain, from the milk producer through to the retailer and consumer.

Mr. Martlew: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. When I visit the Nestle creamery in my constituency tomorrow, I am bound to be asked why there is still a ban on the export of dairy products to Saudi Arabia when there is no justification for it. I should be grateful if the Government informed us of progress on that. There is no doubt that farmers in my constituency and throughout the country are not getting a fair price for their milk at present. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government are doing to achieve co-operation between dairy farmers and retailers to ensure that the dairy farmers get a decent price and the retailers remain competitive?

Ms Quin: I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns about the position of dairy farmers in his area and the concerns that he raised about the unjustified Saudi ban on dairy

1 Feb 2001 : Column 429

products from this country, and, indeed, from other countries in the European Union. On the Saudi ban, we have made repeated representations to the Saudi Government: the ban has no basis in science and has certainly not been justified by the Saudis in relation to any risk analysis.

The most recent contact was made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, who discussed the issue on a visit to Riyadh in January. We will continue to press the issue. The fact that the Saudis have recently extended the ban in the wake of BSE concerns in the European Union is not helping, but we will continue to make the case, which, we believe, is extremely powerful. Encouraging co-operation and collaboration in the dairy supply chain is an important issue, and the taskforce that I mentioned is to report by the end of March.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): While the Minister talks about reviews and taskforces, is she aware that, over the last 12 months, the income of dairy farmers has dropped by 21 per cent.? Is she aware that 16 per cent. of all dairy farms have gone out of business since her Government came to power? Is she also aware that, from 1998 to June 1999, more than 5,000 dairy farm workers left the industry? Does she not realise that under her stewardship, the dairy chain has been broken?

Ms Quin: The dairy chain has certainly not been broken; I listed the number of measures that, by contrast with the previous Government, we have taken to encourage collaboration in that chain. I do not underestimate in any way the difficulties facing dairy farmers. None the less, Government have introduced a large number of measures, including the abolition of dairy hygiene inspection charges, agrimonetary compensation--which we gave in full to dairy producers--securing the retention of the school milk subsidy, and removing the weight limit on cattle over 30 months old. All those things were urged on us by dairy farmers, and we have responded positively to them.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend will know that the industry has faced major changes since the demise of the Milk Marketing Board, Milk Marque, and subsequently. Does she feel that the industry is now in a position to go for high value-added milk and dairy products to meet the needs of consumers in this country, thus ensuring that milk producers get the best value for their milk?

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend highlights an important issue. There are now encouraging signs regarding the organisation of the market and the response given by some of the companies to the challenges imposed on them by the findings of the Competition Commission. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that the companies could become involved in processing, as such involvement is an important means of adding value to products in the way that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): What will the Minister do to encourage co-operation in dairying? Dairy Crest has salami-sliced jobs in west Wales and Cardiff, where 550 jobs have been lost from the industry. A plant lies empty in Whitland, although it

1 Feb 2001 : Column 430

could perfectly well sustain the jobs. Will she please help the dairy industry to restore those jobs and to make organic and environmentally friendly products in Wales?

Ms Quin: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the initiative for some of those matters lies primarily with the Secretary for Agricultural and Rural Development in the Welsh Assembly. I assure him that the Government discuss the dairy sector in meetings with devolved Ministers, in order to share ideas and to encourage greater collaboration on the dairy supply chain throughout the United Kingdom. The rural development scheme contains a number of measures that are of interest to the dairy industry and which it should consider. Currently, however, price is the main issue. Despite some recent and welcome increases, prices remain depressed for dairy producers.

Next Section

IndexHome Page