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Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): May I tell my right hon. Friend that this report will be widely welcomed in my Teesdale constituency, especially by hill farmers

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and those from less-favoured areas? As they strive to recover from the devastation caused by foot and mouth disease, they will want to know how quickly we can expect money to be diverted from subsidising food and invested in environmental and rural development projects.

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend, not for the first time, puts his finger on the nub of the question that a number of farmers in areas such as his will be asking. He will know that we have a certain amount of room for manoeuvre within existing structures, but it is limited. He will also know that, as I identified earlier, concerns have been expressed about the flexibility and attractiveness of some of the schemes under which we can use such resources. I assure him that we are mindful of the concerns of people in areas such as his. We are keen to ensure not only a prosperous and viable future for them, but to do so much more efficiently, and with less distortion of food prices and the food supply, than under the current structure.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The report refers to the problems with the over-30-months rule. The rule has significantly damaged our traditional beef industry. The best beef, in terms of taste, environment and welfare, is reared traditionally, and that takes more than 30 months. Will the Secretary of State consider extending the 30-month period as soon as possible? I appreciate that we must retain confidence in our beef industry, but I hope that she will consider extending the period.

Small tenant farmers have suffered dreadfully over the past few years? Is there any chance of an early retirement scheme, or a retirement scheme, for those people?

Margaret Beckett: I know that the hon. Gentleman fully understands and accepts that I entirely take his point about the over-30-months scheme, but the Food Standards Agency has made a strong recommendation and at present we clearly want to do what is right to restore confidence and to ensure that we take the right steps. I believe that the agency is keeping the issues under review—and so, in consequence, are we—but I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman at present that there is an early likelihood of the move that he seeks being made.

Equally, I know that he will be pleased that the report shows understanding of the concerns and problems of many tenant farmers. I fear, however, that the commission does not recommend an early retirement scheme, although it makes recommendations on how we might encourage more flexibility and more new entrants. I hope that people in the industry will look with interest at those schemes and proposals to see whether they can work within them.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): My right hon. Friend will be aware that under the present system of agricultural support—which we inherited—when there is a surplus of sheep on the market and a plummeting price at the farm gate, farmers improve their incomes by producing even more sheep. That is clearly unsustainable and I wish my right hon. Friend well in reforming that element of agricultural support.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if there is one lesson that we in the High Peak—like the rest of rural Britain—have learned during the past year it is that agriculture,

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tourism and other elements of the rural economy are completely interdependent? That knowledge must underscore all decisions that are made about planning for the future of the countryside.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He is right: that idea clearly underpins all the thinking in the commission's report. The report shows clearly the interdependence of the various interests in the countryside and the way in which those interests need to be addressed and kept in balance.

My hon. Friend also rightly identifies at least one of the perverse incentives that have been built into the present system of funding. I am sure that he is aware that the recent negotiations that we undertook on the sheepmeat regime gave us some freedom, as a result of which we set up a national envelope of funding. Member states have some discretion over the steps they take, and we are consulting on the use of that freedom at present.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): The Secretary of State has reasonably pointed out that she cannot respond in detail to everything in the report as it has only just been published, but may I draw her attention to page 85, where the report endorses the findings of the taskforce for the hills, issued last March? Does she intend to implement the report's findings? Will she give a message of hope to hill farmers in Cumbria and elsewhere who have suffered so badly because of foot and mouth by saying whether she supports the report's central recommendation, endorsed by Sir Donald, that measures need to be taken to raise hill farmer incomes?

Will the right hon. Lady also address herself to page 35 of the commission's report, which endorses the report of the milk taskforce? Will she talk to her colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that the competition authorities do not block necessary collaboration in the dairy sector?

Margaret Beckett: We will look at the reports in the context of the commission's comments and observations. The hon. Gentleman notes in particular the fact that the commission would like to see improvements in the financial circumstances of hill farmers. I understand why he does so, given the circumstances in his constituency. However, it is only fair to the rest of the farming community to point out that although the commission believes that improvement is necessary, it has concerns about income levels across farming, and wants farming to return to secure and viable profitability.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the commission's very welcome recommendations on the organic sector and the need to continue to support the sector? In framing her strategy for organic farming, will she consider the organic targets campaign, which is supported by 100 organisations, the majority of Back Benchers and seven major retailers, which seeks to get 30 per cent. of agricultural land under organic farming by 2010?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend will know that we are discussing what more we can do with a number of those groups. She will also know, because she is an assiduous attender at our Question Time, that we continually identify the fact that there is a market for

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organic produce in the United Kingdom that British farming is not able to satisfy at present. We believe that that is a clear example of a market opportunity.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I, too, hope that there will be cross-party agreement on many of the proposals, not least because many of them have been advocated by me and other colleagues on the Conservative Benches for some time. The Secretary of State is right to say that such change will take time and, obviously, she has to negotiate CAP reform with others, but there is one particular recommendation that she could act on today. It is not a new recommendation, but I urge her to consider it with some urgency—it is that on regulation.

The taskforce recommends that

should be calculated to underline what it costs British agriculture to comply with all the regulations imposed on it, ultimately by the House. However, the calculation should include not just a compliance cost, but a comparative cost to show what those regulations involve not just in developing countries, but elsewhere in Europe. One of British farmers' biggest concerns is that they have to compete with other farmers from elsewhere in the world who send their produce to market in this country, but who do not have to comply with the same burden of regulations. She could address that issue immediately, and I hope that she will.

Margaret Beckett: I am sorry that I must slightly take issue with the hon. Gentleman, although I agree with much of what he says and am grateful for his observations. I certainly agree with him that we have to do as much as we can to address the regulation issue. Obviously, in many circumstances—food safety, the environment and so on—we need such regulations and they must be observed, but we must try to find ways to minimise the burden, particularly on individual farms and businesses, and we are considering whether we can take steps to simplify that.

I believe that I am right to say from memory that the commission suggests, for example, that we might make more use of the information that is collected every year for the integrated administration and control system in order to fulfil some of those other needs. We shall have to consider whether that will work, whether it is sufficient and whether it is a practical way forward, which is why I said that I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman. I fear that that is not something that I can do tomorrow, but I certainly agree that we need to consider it very carefully.

I am not instinctively opposed to the idea of trying to assess the burden of regulation annually; I just have a horrible feeling that it would be probably a lot harder to do and a lot more time consuming—perhaps without as much return as one might hope—than it would appear at first sight. However, I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman's view that we have to minimise the burden of regulation as much as we can, that we must handle it better than we have under successive Governments and that we must ensure that our farmers operate on a level playing field. It is sometimes said that no one else observes such regulations, but that is perhaps a little

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over-done. I certainly accept that, although we want British farming to be of the highest quality and the highest standard, we want it to be competitive.

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