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Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): This is an extremely important point. In my constituency, there are a huge number of apple growers. The booklet on the regulations mentions that orchards come under the EIA. It is essential that farmers in my constituency find out when the Minister replies what the understanding is for orchards. Currently the crops are grubbed up about every 25 years. I wonder whether my hon. Friend could press the Minister for an answer on that point.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point, which has been raised by outside concerns. It would be helpful if the Minister expressly addressed the issue of orchards, which do need to be grubbed up. The regulations should not impair normal farming practice. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is not his intention and that it will not happen under the regulations as drafted.

There is concern about the way in which the regulations may affect existing agri-environmental agreements such as the countryside stewardship scheme. The Country Landowners Association has highlighted the fact that land managers entered voluntary agreements on the basis that their options would remain open at the end of agreement period. By potentially restricting the options open to land managers, the regulations change the basis on which the original agreements were made.

That problem could be mitigated if the Department stated that landowners will be offered the opportunity to renew their agreements on equivalent terms once they expire. Again, I would welcome the Minister's remarks on that issue. There is a danger that unless it is addressed, the regulations will act as a disincentive to farmers to

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enter into new agreements to protect the environment or, indeed, to engage in sensible diversification. I am sure that he would agree that that would be extremely regrettable.

I have received a letter from Mr. Michael Payne, a farmer and environmental consultant, who points out that the regulations could have a particular impact in the areas worst affected by foot and mouth disease. He says:

by the regulations.

I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance on that point. Clearly, it would be wrong for regulations, so soon after the ending of the foot and mouth outbreak and the calamity that that spelt for the countryside, to impact particularly harshly on the people who suffered most.

Mr. Payne raises the general point about the gold-plating of EU directives. That goes to the heart of many of the concerns that have been raised about the Government's proposals. On 30 March 2000, the Government published their action plan for farming. In it, they said:

They certainly have not implemented the regulations ahead of the EU deadline but what about the gold-plating? Will the Minister confirm that the Government have chosen to ignore the de minimis threshold allowed by the directive? Is not it the case that article 4 of the directive allows member states to set a cut-off point below which farming projects will be excluded?

Paragraph 20 of the guidelines that were issued recently says:

but is there not a need to ask whether minor ones need to be considered at all? Will not the regulations add substantially to the administrative costs for the Department, as well as adding to the tangle of red tape that is already tying farmers in knots? Does not the provision amount to gold-plating?

I have secured a copy of the original directive. Article 1 states clearly:

Setting aside the fact that many of the schemes caught by the regulations are unlikely to be considered "significant" to any normal observer, it is clear that the directive is aimed at major, large-scale projects such as construction projects.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that very small areas of land can have a significant impact on the landscape?

Mr. Ainsworth: We are dealing with semantics but I do not think that it was the intention of the directive—if

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the hon. Gentleman chooses to reason, I think that he will form the same conclusion—to catch some minor change in the method of cropping in the corner of someone's field.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): An important point has been raised. Farmers do not want to be over-regulated, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, but organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds say that even a 3 ft margin on a field can have significant implications for the wildlife. The cumulative effect of a lot of very small things has a significant environmental impact. Presumably that is part of what the directive had in mind.

Mr. Ainsworth: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the cumulative effects but I hope that he shares the concern about the cumulative effects of regulation on farmers' ability to go about their business at all. Piling regulations on the farming sector makes it less viable, less profitable and in the long run less able to look after the environment that we all care about so much.

It seems that the directive is primarily aimed at things such as gravel pits, motorways and large-scale factory developments. Article 1.2 of the directive makes that clear:

Notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), it must be doubtful whether the original intention of the directive was to embrace minor alterations to the corner of a field, or the recropping of a field with a higher percentage of rye grass.

The Government's efforts to make the pill slightly less bitter than it would otherwise be give a faintly laughable tone to the leaflet that they have circulated, and indeed to the guidelines. However they are dressed up, it is impossible to escape the fact that these are new regulations. They impose new burdens on farmers. They threaten fines of up to £5,000 for non-compliance.

It is true that the regulations set up an appeals process but appeals will be made to the Secretary of State, to officials in the Department or to people appointed by the Department, which is the enforcing agency. There is no right of appeal to an independent body. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on why that is.

There is no getting away from the fact that this is an increase in regulation. One would be hard pushed, however, to work all this out from reading the notes, pamphlets and leaflets published by the Department. I have a copy of a page from the leaflet. It says:

The idea that these regulations are primarily to help farmers is pure fiction. The Government might be wearing a double set of kid gloves, but the iron fist keeps poking through at the knuckles. There is no reference in the information supplied to farmers by the Government of the penalties applicable for non-compliance and there is no such reference in the leaflet.

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A casual glance at the information would lead one to think that the regulations were, in some way, the answer to farmers prayers; something that they have been asking for rather than something that has caused them considerable concern.

The guidelines state that the regulations

So says the Department.

Has the Minister thought to consider the implication of that statement? The implication is that land managers do not have a clear understanding of good agricultural practice. Many of us wonder why the Government believe that they understand good agricultural practice better than farmers do. The Minister should justify that belief in his remarks. It is time to challenge the assumption that has characterised the relationship between agriculture and Government for too long. It is the patronising assumption that politicians and civil servants know better than farmers what is good for them.

There is no other industry in the world in which the machinery of government is so intimately involved in people's daily lives and decisions. Of course there should be penalties for those who knowingly and deliberately set out to wreck important wildlife sites or landscape features. Of course there is a need to recognise in law the public value of a sustainable and diverse environment. Of course there is a need for regulation, particularly where human health is at stake. However, on 3 January, Lord Whitty, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place said that

If the Government believe that, why do they not let farmers get on with their job without the introduction of new heavy-handed, negative regulations that go beyond the original intentions of the directive?

I regret that these regulations will do nothing to foster the trust that will be central to economic recovery and vitality in the countryside and I doubt whether, in the real world, they will afford much protection to important natural sites, the majority of which are already protected under different legislation.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's answers to my questions and to those that other hon. Members will wish to put to him.

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