|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The sort of long-term vision and strategic perspective on agriculture that the Secretary of State describes has been continually called for by the Select Committee on Agriculture, virtually ever since the Government came to power. When I was a member of that Select Committee--the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), who will also remember this, is present--it asked the previous Minister and the current Minister to provide exactly such a vision. What does the Minister envisage with regard to the number of farmers who will work in the sector, and to production levels over five or 10 years? Those are the questions that need to be answered. Will he answer them today?
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Now that the European Commission has published a damning report on the French Government's failure to take effective measures to stop the spread of BSE, is there not an unanswerable case that the Commission should impose an embargo on French meat? If it will not take such action, does not the Minister owe it to consumers and farmers
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Before the Secretary of State completes his self-congratulatory list of all the things that he claims to have done to redress problems in agriculture--problems that are at least partly of his own making--will he tell the House whether he will add in the tax income forgone by his Government? The collapse in farm profits means that the Treasury has had no profits to tax.
Mr. Brown: The list is not intended to be self-congratulatory. Nobody has yet explained how the problems that I have outlined, including BSE, flat world commodity prices and the weakness of the euro, are my personal fault. I shall wait to hear the hon. Gentleman's thesis on that point. We should not be quarrelling over forgone tax or the need to return farm businesses to profitability and to ensure a decent return on the work and capital that are put in.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): There is one issue with which the Minister has not wholly dealt. According to the National Farmers Union, £202 million in agrimonetary compensation can be claimed by the end of April. Is he going to get that money?
Mr. Brown: We have just had that discussion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman came in a bit late. I confirm that the figure to which he referred is approximately correct, although we will not know the final figures until later in the month.
Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): The Conservatives would do two things. First, we would insist on radical reform of the common agricultural policy. Secondly, we would exclude sugar from the everything but arms talks that are currently under way.
Mr. Brown: I knew that if I tried hard enough, we would get there. The hon. Gentleman makes two strong points. Reform of the common agricultural policy has to be at the heart of any strategy that the British Government adopt. Moreover, that should not divide us; the previous Conservative Government pursued a reform agenda. I gently point out that pursuing it by quarrelling with all the partners whose support one hopes to gain is not the best way to proceed. At least they pursued such an agenda, however.
The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) is right. We have an essentially protectionist regime for the sugar sector. Sugar is produced in the European Union at approximately three times the world market price. We produce 40 per cent. more than we consume and we get rid of the surplus with export refunds on the international market, much to the distress of our major trading partners, who would also like to sell to those markets at real rather than supported prices. In those circumstances, it is not sensible to open the market to large amounts of the product at a lower price. It would simply cause more disruption.
The hon. Gentleman is right; reform of the sugar regime and the everything but arms initiative must be considered together. It would not be consistent to retain one policy without reforming the other.
Mr. Evans: The Minister is courteous, as ever. I have asked him several times about farming in the Ribble valley, but I shall change tack a little. On Friday, I was with Mr. Eddie Topping of Barton Grange, a horticulturist in my constituency. He employs 35 people in winter and 70 people in summer. He says that the introduction of the climate change levy will have an enormous knock-on effect on horticulture in this country. We will scrap that levy. Will the Minister campaign to persuade the Chancellor to abolish the climate change levy?
Mr. Brown: The levy is supposed to be neutral, as was pointed out earlier. If it is Opposition policy to scrap the levy, they will not be able to spend the fruits of it. Their policy must also be to adjust national insurance accordingly.
Mr. Evans: Will the Minister direct his remarks to horticulture, which will be hit by the climate change levy? He knows that the introduction of that stealth tax will affect employment in the industry. What will he do about it?
Mr. Brown: It is inevitable that the hon. Gentleman wants to stress the part of the debate that he believes will tell for the Conservative party, but he is not willing to face the consequences. That characterises Conservative policy generally. The Opposition urge me to spend more money, and they say that they will cut taxes and reduce public expenditure. I presume that they will not cut expenditure on agriculture.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the horticulture sector. We were engaged in discussions with the Chancellor before the climate change levy was introduced. We secured concessionary arrangements for horticulture, and I am in continuing dialogue with those in the sector to ascertain what more can be done to achieve the Government's objectives, as well as those of the industry.
Let me discuss what needs to be done to help British agriculture in the medium term. Reform of the common agricultural policy is needed. It is an expensive instrument, which costs the British approximately £8 billion a year. Agricultural protectionism is unsustainable in the face of remorseless trends towards further trade liberalisation. There was a time, although perhaps this does not apply now, when such a remark would not have been exceptional coming from Conservative Members. Now, they look at me as though it were a terrible thing to say.
Most importantly, as I think we can all agree, the common agricultural policy is failing to deliver its objectives of ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers and reasonably priced food for consumers. It encourages over production, leading to food surpluses and widespread degradation of the rural environment. In 1999, the Agenda 2000 reforms signalled the beginnings of a new common agricultural policy based around the instruments of the rural development regulation.
The Government are strongly committed to what is known as the second pillar of the CAP. We have committed an extra £472 million over seven years--that is extra money--for rural development programmes across the United Kingdom, of which £300 million is extra money--the match funding for modulation--for England.
The England rural development programme is an ambitious combination of environmental and economic development measures. It will cost £1.6 billion over seven years. That represents a 60 per cent. increase in the baseline expenditure. Spending on the countryside stewardship scheme will increase more than fourfold. Spending on organic farming will be tripled. Spending on farm woodlands will double, and we are reintroducing the processing and marketing grants scrapped under the previous Government. There will be new measures, such as a £152 million rural enterprise scheme, and new money for training and for the development of energy crops.
The rural White Paper contains further measures to help farmers. The Government are revising planning guidance so that it will be easier for farmers to make successful applications for diversification projects. We plan to grant time-limited rate relief for farm diversification projects.