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Mr. Paice: This is an Opposition debate.

Mr. Brown: Yes. However, the hon. Member for South Suffolk was speaking confidently of winning the general election. Although I am not sure that much of the public think that that is a real possibility, if he does think that, surely he should say what he will spend money on.

Mr. Gill rose--

Mr. Brown: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can help me.

Mr. Gill: The Minister is obviously running out of material. May I ask him a question that relates to tax? Who will pay for the continental purchase for slaughter and destruction scheme? Will it be the taxpayers of the countries in which the cattle are slaughtered or the European taxpayer--which of course would include the British taxpayer? Would that not be in stark contrast to what the British taxpayer had to do on our own BSE initiatives?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The purchase-for-destruction scheme puts enormous pressure on the budget for the common agricultural policy, which has a ceiling. He is also right about Ministers having to discuss a range of ways in which to move forward. That includes national contributions, which I would not rule out. Clearly, much depends on how much pressure is put on the scheme. If that pressure is as substantial as some of the estimates now being discussed in the public domain suggest, the implication is that the costs will go well beyond the budget ceiling for the regime that has to deal with it. The hon. Gentleman is right: this is a very big question indeed.

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We have had the political knockabout, and I regret that there has been no real response from Opposition Front-Bench Members.

Mr. Yeo: The Minister has taken a long time.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman says that I have taken a long time, but in debates such as this there is a straight choice to be made when it comes to interventions. I am always generous in that regard, as I know that hon. Members like to intervene on the Minister, but the quid pro quo is that interventions take time out of the debate. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways: he cannot complain about the time and then also want to intervene.

I accept that there are difficulties facing agriculture, and that it is right to debate the way forward. I have made it clear that we are listening. I have set out what we have worked hard to provide in the short term, and I have addressed the longer-term considerations. We have an action plan, and we are delivering on that vision.

I call upon the House to support the amendment in the names of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and myself, and to reject the motion.

5.31 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I am extremely grateful to be called to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) on the way in which he introduced it.

I am glad that the Minister, at the end of his speech, finally found it in himself to agree that agriculture was in crisis. A survey compiled by a firm of accountants based in Norwich and published in the Eastern Daily Press last September showed that farm incomes in Norfolk have fallen by 50 per cent. over the past four years. That is before losses due to fuel tax and swine fever are taken into account.

The Government's own figures, reproduced by the National Farmers Union, show that total income from farming fell by 29 per cent. in real terms in the year 2000, compared with 1999. In other words, in one year there has been a fall of more than 70 per cent., and farm incomes are at their lowest for three generations. Bank borrowings now amount to some £10 billion, and investment levels are at their lowest since 1970.

In England and Wales, more people have left the land over the past two years than in living memory. It behoves the Minister to admit that he is presiding over a crisis. He has repeated today that he is sympathetic and concerned. That, of course, is what we get from Ministers.

The Minister has said--correctly--that some funds are being invested in agriculture and in rural areas. It is true that some of the schemes are useful and that some can help. However, I wonder whether the Minister has any idea of the time, effort and frustration involved in applying for the multiplicity of schemes that he is putting in place, and on which he is relying to be able to say that he is responding to the crisis. Does he realise that the difficulty involved in applying for the aid that he says he is spreading about, and the amount of regulation that he is loading on the industry, are combining to cause the industry to sink slowly from view?

I wrote to the Minister nearly a month ago about the plight of my constituent, Mr. James Nelstrop of Roudham. I have not, of course received a reply--I do not expect one from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food any more so the matter is absolutely academic.

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Last May, Mr. Nelstrop submitted an application under the stewardship scheme. He took considerable trouble preparing the application, and engaged in full discussion with MAFF and regional officials. He was given to understand that the work was in order. However, at the last minute MAFF told him that he was ineligible, as his farm was eight miles from an airfield.

In fact, Mr. Nelstrop had not moved his farm, and the airfield was where it had been for 50 years. It was merely that after he had spent nearly £10,000 to do the work required to prepare the application, his farm's location became evident to the Ministry.

Mr. Nelstrop has written to me about the other efforts that he has made. He says that immediately post-Budget, in March, he applied to the regional development office for details of the redundant farm buildings scheme--one of the schemes mentioned by the Minister. Mr. Nelstrop says that after making several telephone calls, he received the forms in late July. Having compiled a draft application, he was informed that the money available had to be spent by the end of January 2001 but that the application could not be considered until formal planning permission had been received. The earliest planning decision had to be taken by 21 September last year, the earliest scheme application decision by 21 October last year. Clearly it was impossible for this farmer to carry out the work in the three months of the worst weather period, including Christmas and the new year, because it would take six months to do. The scheme was abandoned, at an additional cost to his business of £500.

Mr. Nelstrop then decided to use a new Government scheme to help fund restoration and conversion of redundant buildings. He had three meetings with the Forest Heath development officer and was advised that he should consider conversion to small offices. Following discussions with MAFF in Cambridge, he decided to proceed. He applied to the Forest Heath district council for change of use and has now been told that it is Suffolk county council's policy to oppose rural development on the basis that it is not sustainable, owing to lack of public transport.

What I have recounted is the cumulative experience of one farmer who is trying to make a living and trying to use the schemes that the Minister is congratulating himself on putting in place. Mr. Nelstrop adds:

Mr. Hayes: Is it not also the case that those most vulnerable and hard hit--such as tenant farmers--those in very isolated areas, and smaller farmers find it harder to take advantage of these schemes? Diversification, in particular, does not mean a lot to someone who farms poor land, lives in an isolated community or is a tenant farmer.

Mrs. Shephard: That is one of the points that I want to get home to the Minister this afternoon. I want him to understand that before he congratulates himself on these schemes, he should do an audit on the amount of

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paperwork, frustration and abortive effort that he and his schemes mean for the agriculture industry. He seems to believe that they are the solution to the problems in the industry, but he needs first to understand and remove the reefs and hurdles he has put in place because, believe me, they are making everything much worse.

Of course, along with the Minister and most people in the Chamber, I support greater diversity in British agriculture and the production of non-food crops. However, I question the kind of thinking that means that my constituents can tell me that there are plenty of funds available for camomile co-operatives, for example, while at the same time I hear of redundancies at the Wissington sugar factory.

It must also be evident to the Minister that there is a certain irony in the Government's trumpeting of special funds to help the economy of Great Yarmouth, while they also pursue policies that could result in the closure of the Cantley sugar factory a few miles from Yarmouth, and which will also deal a hammer blow to trade in the Great Yarmouth docks. There again, perhaps not--after all, a Minister who, in the week in which he and his colleagues vote to ban hunting, can announce the appointment of a Minister for the horse may not possess a highly developed sense of irony.

The Government say that they sympathise with the current crisis in agriculture, but they have provided little effective help. Although there have been a lot of words and efforts, they have sometimes made things worse. The technical aspects of the outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia were dealt with very professionally by MAFF officials, and I took the trouble to write to the Minister to tell him so. However, my constituents continue to be nerve-racked, not only because many of them have lost thousands of pounds--some of them hundreds of thousands of pounds--but because, six months on from the original outbreak, they still face uncertainty about the eventual compensation.

On sugar beet, do the Government support the everything but arms initiative, which would threaten 23,000 jobs in the British economy, or do they support the on-going EU review of the sugar regime? As the Minister has said, they are not compatible either they must be made compatible, or the Minister must say which side he is on. We have not heard much from any Minister on that matter.

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