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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Is the Secretary of State attracted to the idea of increasing modulation paymentsand I apologise for using that awful termto 10 per cent? Will she ensure that the payments are applied equally to all farmers, because at the moment the system discriminates against the larger, more efficient farm, which is exactly the kind that we want to encourage? Will she ensure that if more money is raised for the rural development programme, it is spent in the farming economy, possibly through agri-environment schemes, and not allowed to leach into the wider rural economy?
Margaret Beckett: I thought for a moment that I was going to be able to welcome everything that the hon. Gentleman said, but I cannot agree with the second part of his remarks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) made clear a few moments ago, we are more aware now than we have been for a long time of the interdependence of people in the rural economy. Part of the thinking that lies behind the commission's work is that if we help the wider rural economy, we may do more to help the farming community than we do simply by steering various forms of support directly to it.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the possibilities for modulation. We must approach the issue with great caution and sensitivity becauseI do not know whether the House is fully aware of thisthere are those in the European Union who not only support greater modulation but believe that it should be made compulsory. I have an instinctive anxiety about making such programmes compulsory, but I have an even greater anxiety about making programmes of the kind that we have now compulsory. That is why we are anxious to organise a body of support to insist that any possible modulation programmes are much less bureaucratic and much easier to access and that they offer much greater flexibility. Certainly, it will be a key negotiating goal of the Government to ensure that if such steps are taken, whether compulsorily or not, we deal fairly with farmers across the board. We are mindful of the difficulties that might otherwise ensue.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Will my right hon. Friend give a particular welcome to the report's idea that the marketing of locality foods should be made more mainstream? Will she acknowledge that in many places a great deal of work has already been done in that respect, supported by regional development agencies? Can she clear a space in her diary around June to support the launch of the "Made in Lancashire" food label?
Margaret Beckett: Obviously, as someone who was born in Lancashire, I have a weakness for my hon. Friend's suggestion. I certainly share his view that all the commission's recommendations about the marketing of local produce and the identification of locality foods represent an opportunity for the farming community to add a valuable string to its bow. However, on his specific proposal, all I can say is, "If only I had a space in my diary in June."
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Will the right hon. Lady proceed with caution following the answer that she gave to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock)? I was telephoned this morning by an organic farmer in my constituency, Mr. Graham Boffey of
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Lady correctly identifies a problem because, as I am sure she is aware, the only area of organic produce in which we have over-supply is milk production. With great respect to all those who seek developments in organic farming, I say to her that I am very mindful of the dangers that she identifies. I have said to several promoters of organic farming, with which I have no difficulty, that I am not in the business of encouraging the over-production of organic food any more than I am in the business of encouraging over-production of any other kind of food.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Is not the heart of the report on page 109, where the three major results of farming policy are identified as a degraded environment, huge, unaffordable farm taxes and subsidies and some of the highest food prices on the planet? Why is it, when the average British family paid £450 in farm subsidies in 2000, and probably £1,000 last year, that farm incomes are so low and that the price of food in the United Kingdom is twice that in New Zealand, where subsidies to farmers were abolished 16 years ago?
Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend will recall, I said that one part of the report with which few people would probably quarrel was the commission's analysis. Certainly, the commission and my hon. Friend correctly identified some of the problems that we face. How we got to be in that position is a matter of argument and dispute, but there is little doubt that the problems have run alongside the common agricultural policy, and are now part of it and its future.
On the comparison with New Zealand, I was most impressed by a recent lecture given by a New Zealand farmer, not because I believe that we have the same opportunities as people in New Zealandour circumstances are totally differentbut because he identified the dramatically changed and worsening marketing position of New Zealand agricultural produce. The people of New Zealand decided to look hard at fresh marketing opportunities; they took action to phase out subsidies and addressed those opportunities directly. The issues are not identical, and nor are the answers, but that is very much the course of action that the commission is urging British farming to take.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): On page 124, the report addresses an issue of concern to young Herefordshire farmers and me. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will follow the report's recommendations and sponsor the National Farmers Union
Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Clearly, the best long-term support for British farming is well-informed active consumers insisting on high-quality English food. Does the Secretary of State agree that consumers and farmers need clear labelling, including country of origin? What will she do to encourage retailers? Will she look at the proposal on page 45 that local shops stocking local foods get rate rebates, which would be of benefit to both farmers and consumers in my constituency, where there are many local shops?
Margaret Beckett: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, although he may not like to acknowledge it, the Government have already taken many steps to alleviate the impact of rates on small local shops, especially isolated shops in small communities. On labelling, I accept the commission's concern and accept that we need to do everything that we can to get clear labelling and clear rules on labelling. Without wishing to end on a sour note, I am glad that the Opposition have converted to clear labelling, which I fear they opposed in government.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): The Secretary of State will be aware of my registered interest in forestry. Does she agree that it is a pity that there is not more mention of woodland in the report, especially in the context of farmers taking up the farm woodland premium scheme? Is she aware that many farmers in my North-West Norfolk constituency reckon that the current scheme is much too bureaucratic and complicated? For example, there is a need for a full archaeological survey under the scheme, which is surely unnecessary. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is much better for farmers to plant trees than to set land aside?
Margaret Beckett: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Some things have been done in response to work set in hand by the previous Government, but he will know that we are more afforested now than we were 100 years ago, so we are going in the right direction. The particular issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, and his complaints, are obviously part of the review that is looking at all those areas. As someone who once thought of becoming an archaeologist, I have some sympathy with concerns that have been identified, but I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's view that there is much to be said for encouraging woodland. That involves looking at regulation and the burden that it imposesan issue which the Government are addressing.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, Members look to you as the guardian of the interests of the House, so I wonder whether I could draw to your attention a matter of considerable concern to me.
You will have heard the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions announce earlier this afternoon an additional £2.2 billion of spending on public transport. In fact, he did so in response to a written question that I tabled a couple of weeks ago, which revealed a technical error in the Department's accounting.
I have two concerns. One is that that written answer made it clear that the £2.2 billion was part of new money announced by the Secretary of State two weeks ago. Therefore, this afternoon's announcement of new money was no more than a repeat of what was said two weeks ago. Secondly, the way in which the Department responded to my question caused me great concern. The response was delivered in this morning's post, as opposed to last night's, which would have been the norm, and was given after the Department had briefed the media on the problems exposed. If I write to you with the details of the case, will you look into it on my behalf and suggest how I should respond?