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16 Oct 2002 : Column 406—continued

8.56 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): This is an important debate, but it will be short and I fear that not many Members will be able to participate. Indeed, at one point, I thought that we would go straight from the Front-Bench speeches to the wind-ups.

I am astonished that the Tories should choose to debate the rural economy, given their record in government. It is worth recording what they did to it. They started by cutting independent agricultural research and compromised advice for their own policy. As a result of that, they presided over a series of catastrophic disasters in farming and the rural economy. They cut the number of government scientific offices and of vets. We then found ourselves with the catastrophe of BSE, which they were slow to acknowledge and to respond to. Indeed, they tried to cover it up until it was impossible to conceal the scale of the disaster that we faced.

Not only that, at a time when farmers faced the adverse effects of the exchange rate, the Tories consistently refused to pass on the full agrimonetary

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compensation to which farmers were entitled. The Tories consequently contributed to the depression of farm incomes.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Malcolm Bruce: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to finish my description of this catalogue of disasters? The Tories sold off affordable housing in rural areas—we have debated that—and they now want to flog off the rest as their contribution to the viability of rural economies. They completely failed to acknowledge that their wholesale privatisation programme and the centralisation of services withdrew services and jobs from, and undermined the viability of, rural communities.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) rose—

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) rose—

Malcolm Bruce: The Tories withdrew bus services under bus regulation, accelerated post office closures and withdrew health services into the city. That is the catalogue of disaster in 18 years of Tory government, and they have the cheek to come here with a bleeding-heart resolution expressing their concerns about the rural community that they destroyed.

David Taylor: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have added to that sorry catalogue of evidence the fact that, of the massed ranks of the 166 Members in the parliamentary Conservative party, only six are in the Chamber for their debate. Fewer than 4 per cent. of their number are here, so 96 per cent. of the parliamentary Tory party should be ashamed of themselves.

Malcolm Bruce: The hon. Gentleman makes his point perfectly fairly. The point I make, however, is not that the Conservatives have been out of power for five years and can now make a fresh start, but that most of the damage that has been inflicted on the rural economy was inflicted by the failures, the mismanagement and misbegotten policies of the Conservative Government. It is astonishing that they should now wish to come along as knights in shining armour in a bid to say that they are the saviours of the rural community.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The hon. Gentleman paints an interesting picture, but how does it correspond with what has happened under the Ministry for Environment and Rural Development in Scotland? Under its Liberal Democrat management, average farm incomes have declined to a greater degree in Scotland than in England and Wales. In fact, ministerial time has been taken up with a Bill to ban fur farming when there are no fur farms in Scotland.

Malcolm Bruce: The hon. Gentleman, who as the only Conservative MP in Scotland is himself an endangered species, should know that the Minister in Scotland has been acknowledged as standing up for rural communities and Scottish farmers, with whom he has a good relationship. In particular, he handled the foot and

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mouth crisis with considerable acuity and distinction, and rather more effectively than the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have a great deal of confidence in him. I am not alone in that. I have heard the National Farmers Union and other environment agencies in Scotland sing his praises in meetings because of his competence and commitment to fighting for the rural community.

On farm incomes, I repeat that the exchange rate is the biggest single factor in the decline in farm incomes in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman's party will not address that and it refused to provide the agrimonetary compensation to protect farm incomes. The Conservatives could have done that and, because they did not, are more responsible for the drop in farm incomes than even the Labour party.

Mr. Simon Thomas : I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of how much of the farming industry has reached this point, but he cannot wash his hands of his party's responsibility in Wales and Scotland, where it has been part of a coalition and where, as it happens, it is responsible for agriculture in both countries. Does not he think it uniquely ironic that his motion states

which I assume includes Wales and Scotland—

What role has his party played in that?

Malcolm Bruce: I have just explained that the prime reason for the recession in agriculture is the exchange rate. That is the biggest single factor. The hon. Gentleman might not be aware that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly do not have control of the exchange rate. The Westminster Parliament and the Whitehall Government do, but they will not make a decision that will resolve the problem because the Prime Minister is too scared to face up to it.

The Conservatives have a brass neck and a cheek to come up with the motion, which sticks in the throat. Most people in beef-producing rural areas such as mine still have fixed in their minds the picture of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) feeding his daughter hamburgers while he assured us that there was no problem with British beef—when, in fact, there was a catastrophic problem with it. They will not forget what the Tories did to our beef industry.

The Minister made a long speech, but he gave no clear idea of the results delivered by a Labour Government to turn the situation around. Labour continued to run down the number of scientific officers and vets when it came to power. That is only now being reversed, but the number has not climbed back to where it needs to be. The Government mismanaged the foot and mouth epidemic and refused to hold a public health inquiry. All they did was introduce draconian measures in the Animal Health Bill, which they tried to force it through Parliament. The other place rightly delayed it because the measures were unjustified, unnecessary and, in many cases, vindictive, and they did nothing to secure co-operation between Government and farmers to deal with the problem of epidemics.

The Secretary of State is not here. I am not complaining; I merely point it out. I criticise her most specifically on this matter. She loses few opportunities to

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talk about reform of the common agricultural policy, but she does so in a way that shows a complete lack of consideration of the dire state of farm incomes. We all want a reform that ensures that the continual subsidisation of production is replaced by more beneficent measures. However, the Secretary of State seems to imply—the Secretary of State for Scotland has also been accused of this—that farmers are subsidy junkies. In reality, farmers are looking for an income that bears a correlation to their costs of production.

Most farmers I talk to would be happy to live in an environment without subsidies if the price paid at the farm gate related to their costs of production. There is no correlation at the moment, and it is one reason why all major agricultural systems in the world have some form of subsidy. When the Secretary of State talks about reform, she often does not realise how concerned farmers are that all she wants to do is to cut the subsidies that they still have, in spite of the fact that their average income has dropped to about #7,000 a year. That is not a viable proposition.

I repeat that the Government have underestimated the scale of the exchange rate's impact on farm incomes and business. They have not given the full agrimonetary compensation that was available, and they have continued to dither about what we should do about the exchange rate. This party has been clear in its views, and certainly an early decision to join the euro, subject to a referendum for the British people, would do more than any other measure to restore the incomes of the farming community. In any case, whether one is for or against the euro, what is needed in every sector of the economy is a decision, rather than the Prime Minister leaving the British economy to dither and struggle year after year because he does not have the confidence or leadership to face up to the issue.

As I have mentioned, I represent a mixed agricultural community, which apart from being a prime quality beef-producing area is also a pig area, a sheep area and an arable area. However, beef has been the flagship of the north-east of Scotland, and we are still suffering under export regulations negotiated by the Government to secure the chimera of the legal lifting of the ban, whereas in reality we all know that it is pretty impossible to sell British beef abroad because we are over-regulated. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is muttering. I say to him that companies and producers that had a large export market for prime Scotch beef are unable even to consider rebuilding it, because the regulations that we have imposed on ourselves to secure the lifting of the ban make it impossible, on grounds of practicality and cost, to deliver a product at the quality and price necessary to build up such a market.

The serious point that I make to Ministers is that with BSE incidence rising in France and Ireland, although not yet to UK levels, which are falling, surely there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when an EU-wide regime will apply fairly and evenly across the whole market and a genuine single market will be re-established for beef and beef exports. An Italian beef importer, rejoicing in the name of Mrs. Francesca Piccolini, was a major importer of quality Scotch beef before the ban was imposed and says that she has scoured the world to look for a replacement product of comparable quality and has been unable to find anything as good. Yet she still cannot get back into the

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market because she cannot get quality at a realistic price. The Government should address that issue in the hope that, in two or three years, we can once more have a single market in beef and other meat products.

In the long speech by the Minister for Rural Affairs there were many references to initiatives, targets and White Papers, many promises and many indications of additional money here and there, but ultimately the Government will be judged on delivery. Right now, the rural economy does not see that delivery. People will judge the Government by the outcomes, and although I made it clear that the root of the problem was 18 years of mismanagement by the Conservatives, the Government have certainly not rebuilt confidence or solved the problems faced by rural areas. That is why, in spite of the lateness of the hour and the shortness of the debate, the fundamental question for the political parties is: who has the necessary vision to address the issues facing rural communities?

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