Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.25 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate that we have just concluded was foreshortened by the very important statement made before it began. Nevertheless, in 111 minutes of debate, only 19 minutes were left for Back-Bench contributions, so that many hon. Members on both sides of the House who wanted to take part were unable to do so. I appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you cannot control the length of Front-Bench speeches, but in your role as guardian of the rights of Back Benchers, might you seek to use some influence in that matter so that it does not happen again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman says, but as he will appreciate, it is not a point of order for the Chair. In recent years, it has become a convention that Oppositions split Supply days; that in itself reduces the amount of time for Back Benchers. There were obvious reasons why the statement was made today. I know that it is usual for the Government of the day to try to avoid statements on Opposition Supply days, but there was a powerful reason for that particular statement. Perhaps I should waste no more time by adding to that.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 507

Crisis in Agriculture

4.27 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I should inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move,

I welcome the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Dispatch Box for what may be his last speech in the House in a general agricultural debate. I pay tribute to the almost unfailing courtesy that he has shown during the two and a half years that he and I have debated such matters. I also pay tribute to his genuine willingness to listen to farmers and their problems, which is in happy contrast to the attitude adopted by his immediate predecessor. Sadly, most of what the right hon. Gentleman has done stopped at that point--at listening rather than acting.

In the two and a half years since the right hon. Gentleman was appointed, he has spoken in seven major debates on agriculture--no fewer than six of which were called by the Opposition. This is the first agriculture debate in the House since July. It is six long months since we last discussed the subject--six months characterised by terrible weather and more pressure on farm incomes.

Labour's reluctance to discuss the worst crisis in agriculture for two generations is odd for a party that keeps claiming to represent the countryside.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): On the point about debates, it is my recollection that a Conservative Opposition day debate on agriculture--because of the pressing need for such a debate--was scheduled for 13 July, but was dropped at the last minute. It was rescheduled for today. Could not the hon. Gentleman have rescheduled his debate a little sooner?

Mr. Yeo: We actually held a debate in July. If that is the best that the Minister can offer to justify his refusal to come to the House and debate these issues in Government time, it will be regarded as pretty thin gruel by those people in the industry who are suffering the consequences of his policy.

It is not only in Parliament that the Minister is so reluctant to discuss agriculture; last autumn, at the Labour party conference, he made a speech in which he referred to shipbuilding and coal mining, but did not once mention dairy farmers or pig farmers. That is an appalling reflection of his priorities and those of his party. It makes it clear to Britain's rural communities that Labour simply does not care whether farming survives as an important industry.

Labour do not merely refuse to discuss the crisis; they refuse to do anything about it--or, on the rare occasions when they do, they make matters worse rather than better.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 508

Since 1997, farm incomes have fallen by three quarters. Even the Minister admits that they are at their lowest level in real terms since the 1930s, and yesterday's figures showed that average total incomes for farmers are down to just over £5,000 a year. In each of the last two years in Britain, some 20,000 jobs in farming have been lost and every day 60 people leave the industry. The arable, dairy, pig, beef and sheep sectors have all suffered--none has escaped. When farming struggles, the whole rural economy is damaged and the countryside environment starts to deteriorate.

While this human, social and economic tragedy is devastating rural communities throughout Britain, the only countryside issue that Labour wants to talk about in Parliament is hunting. Labour's attack on hunting is a bone thrown by a cynical Prime Minister to the class warriors on his Back Benches to keep them occupied until the election. It is a disgraceful attempt to divert attention away from the real problems facing the countryside. The past two weeks have exposed more clearly than ever before the deceit and dishonesty at the very top of this Labour Government--deceit and dishonesty with which farmers have been living for years.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): The Labour Government have provided £650 million in agrimonetary compensation. How much did the previous Tory Government provide to farmers?

Mr. Yeo: I am afraid that the hon. Lady has clearly relied on a Whips' handout. However, let us use it to nail a myth once and for all. The agrimonetary compensation regime started three months before the last election. The Government have had 10 months in the current year to decide whether to take up all the available agrimonetary compensation. They have to decide that against a background of farm incomes that are a quarter of the level they were in 1997. There is not a shred of evidence that the Minister, of all people, would have decided--in the space of only three months, when farm incomes were four times their current level--to take up any agrimonetary compensation at all. It is scandalous that farmers still do not know whether the compensation will be taken up in the current year.

The purpose of the two packages that the Minister announced in 1999 and again last year was not to help agriculture; it was to help the Government win headlines. In September 1999, the Minister announced what he claimed was £537 million of new aid for agriculture. All but £150 million of that was already due to British farmers under the common agricultural policy and, of the rest, £89 million was temporary exemption from charges that the Labour Government had introduced and £60 million maintained the previous level of support for hill farmers. That left just £1 million of actual new money from a package worth half a billion pounds.

In March last year, the Minister was at it again, and this time he was joined by the Prime Minister. The Downing street summit produced a new package called the "action plan for farming", which Labour claimed this time was £203 million of cash help for farmers--another claim that turned out to be bogus. Part of what Labour said was cash help for farmers turned out to be simply a promise not to raise meat hygiene inspection charges by more than the rate of inflation.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 509

That package included £66 million in agrimonetary compensation for the weak euro, which was not extra at all. It was actually a cut of £76 million compared with what had been spent in the previous year. It included again the £60 million of help for hill farmers, again simply maintaining the existing level of support. It included £26 million to help pig farmers restructure, and not a penny of that money has been spent. The best that the Minister can do about that is a bit of vague waffle this morning about trying to carry the money forward to next year. The package also included money under the Small Business Service and the redundant building grant programme, scarcely any of which has been taken up 10 months later.

Mr. Nick Brown: The hon. Gentleman is being a little bit mean-spirited in not giving us the credit for the increase in hill farm allowances--the £60 million year on year for three years. He said that it was money that was already there, but it was put there by the incoming Labour Government; it was not there under the previous Conservative Government. In any event, the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is clearly that more money should be spent on farming. How much more money should be spent, and how would that square with a policy of cutting taxation and reducing public expenditure?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I call for brief interventions in what is a short debate?

Mr. Yeo: The thrust of my remarks is that twice in the past two years, against a background of an industry facing its worst crisis for two generations, the Minister has made a great public relations and presentational triumph out of announcing hundreds of millions of pounds of what he calls new money. On examination, it turns out to be merely a continuation of the previous year's expenditure, or money that never sees the light of day.

Next Section

IndexHome Page