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4.34 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I endorse many of the reservations raised by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). There are legitimate concerns. I also take the view, however, that the directive requires action by the United Kingdom Government and the question should be about how to achieve the best balance between farmers being able to do their job, as the hon. Member for East Surrey pointed out, and the need adequately to protect the environment.

The nature of farming is that it consists of small and medium-sized businesses. It is difficult for an individual farmer to see the cumulative effect of his actions, and those of many others, on the environment. The genuine debate about the way that farming is changing, in which the public are engaged, involves the extent to which it

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has, in some areas, had a detrimental effect on the landscape. That is not necessarily because the farmers were bad managers, but because practices that were accepted in the past have subsequently been found to be detrimental. For example, nitrate use has severe implications in some parts of the country. I know of farmers' concerns. I have a 55 hectare nitrate vulnerable zone in my constituency. I understand farmers who fear the regulations, but I equally care about the environment that the nitrates are destroying. We must do something about it.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): The hon. Gentleman will know that the number of nitrate vulnerable zones is about to be increased across vast amounts of arable land. Does he accept that farmers have been driven by whatever is the thinking at the time? Is not this a question of re-educating people, particularly the next generation of farmers in agricultural colleges, away from the practice of maximum production, which has grown up throughout our lifetime? That has been driven by market forces that should perhaps be tempered, but not with heavy regulations like these.

Malcolm Bruce: That is what the debate is about. It is a fair, reasonable and constructive point. I can make the copper-bottomed statement that farmers are perfectly capable of change and adaptation. They have proved that over many years. However, right now, most of them are not making a living. Whatever the Government do, whether it is implementing the Curry report or these regulations, they must accept that the exchange rate, the fact that they did not receive the agrimoney compensation in full and the market effects mean that most farmers cannot make a living. Unless they make a living, there will be no one to manage the environment or produce the food in the quantities that we need. That is the difficulty facing the Government. The hon. Member for East Surrey was right to say that the timing is unfortunate, but because of infraction proceedings we must do something about it.

I am concerned that the regulations could be bureaucratic. The language in the guidelines is gentle, but it effectively means that every farmer in the country could be in negotiation with the Department. That is perfectly possible. We know that the Department has difficulty negotiating with itself at the moment, never mind negotiating with farmers. The Department's ability to handle this is not reassuring—I am sure that it will not be able to handle the vast amount of work. Paragraph 3 of the guidelines says:

The guidelines go on to make suggestions about agri-environment schemes.

Most farmers will want to know how the regulations will apply in practice, whether there will be a genuine partnership and whether it will be over-bureaucratic. I welcome the fact that the Government have said that there will be a review after 18 months and that there will be an opportunity to see whether the operation should be lightened, tightened or clarified. I give the Government

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credit for acknowledging that we are not quite there yet and that we need to apply the regulations in law and see how they work.

The Minister must understand that gentle words, which are, nevertheless, legally enforceable, give cause for concern because people do not know when they will be in breach or the costs and the detail in which they will be engaged. It will cost some money to put up schemes for consideration. The time scale is specific. Thirty-five days is not a long time to get advice and, sadly, there is no longer the free or low-cost advice that was available when the agricultural development and advisory scheme was at is height. That is a matter for concern, because it will impose significant costs. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Department will take an approach that does not require farmers to employ expensive consultants to qualify, or to avoid refusal if they are trying to make some changes to their farm or its management.

The hon. Member for East Surrey mentioned a reduction in the value of farms—a point that has also been made by the NFU—and I noticed that the Minister shook his head. I find it hard to believe the NFU's claim that land values will be affected across the board. However, individual farms could be affected, which would be a legitimate concern for them, and I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that.

I agree with the point that it is less than satisfactory that the right of appeals should be from the Department to the Department. The Department is unlikely to change its mind on appeal if the same people are considering the issue. The right of appeal to an arm's-length, independent body is normal and what people expect. In Scotland, that was an issue in disputes over payments under the IACS scheme and an appeals process has now been established. The Minister is at arm's length and is engaged in the process only as a participant, rather than as the determinant of the appeal. Such a process would be appropriate in this instance.

We have all received representations from the NFU and the Country Landowners Association, but we have also received representations supporting the regulations from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which—as we should remember—is one of the biggest public membership organisations in the country. It far outweighs the membership of all the political parties combined and carries much clout and muscle as a result.

One farmer in my constituency has long worked with the RSPB. He will admit that he has a personal obsession with the issue and that he is not typical, but his farm provides a fantastic array of habitats and reserves for birds and other wildlife. That has significantly affected the whole area, because he provides—in some cases—the only feeding or resting places for the birds, alongside a successful arable farm. He makes the point that relatively small changes on the margins have substantial positive implications for wildlife.

Farmers ask, "Why should anyone interfere with me when I want to reorganise my fields and change the boundaries?" However, we know that although the removal of one hedge does not make much difference, the removal of all the hedges makes a huge difference. Similarly, ploughing up to the hedge leaves one habitat, but ploughing 3 ft short of the hedge has a significant impact on insects and wildlife. In that case, farmers need uniform guidelines, so that they do not have to go through

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an individual process. The hon. Member for East Surrey suggests that the helpline is undeveloped, but it could provide the answers. We need clear answers to straight questions, and that would greatly simplify the bureaucracy.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: The issue of hedgerows is now covered by regulations, and the example that the hon. Gentleman has just given of minor changes to field boundaries would not fall within the scope of these regulations. The real question is what the regulations would achieve other than an increase in red tape.

Malcolm Bruce: As a Liberal Democrat, I am—not surprisingly—proposing a third way. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about excessive regulations and, on the basis of what we know at the moment, so are farmers. I congratulate him on instigating the debate, because the questions need to be answered, both today and in the practice and the review in the next 18 months. The Conservatives claim that the regulations are excessive and will not achieve enough. In 18 months, they or the Government will be proved right, and then we may get the balance right.

The Minister is enacting legislation because of the threat of infraction proceedings by the EU, but his proposals are not clear. The industry does not understand them fully and nor do the environmentalists. To be honest, I am not convinced that the Department understand them fully either. However, that is not meant as a devastating criticism. If, during the next 18 months, the Government make an honest attempt to get the balance right and, at the end of that time, the review systematically deals with the issues, we may produce legislation that will work.

The Minister should listen to the concerns about excessive bureaucracy and the consequent costs. He should also make the case for the environmental benefits. He also needs to reassure farmers that he is trying to offer a simple, clear and comprehensible system that they can live with, and which is not too bureaucratic, costly or confusing. Farmers certainly should not face penalties when they did not know that their practices would incur them. I hope that the Minister will address those legitimate concerns now and during the next 18 months.

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