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16 Oct 2002 : Column 416—continued

Jim Knight: Are any of my hon. Friend's schools getting new school halls? In my constituency just a year ago, three schools approached me, and now all three are on their way to getting new halls in the near future.

Mr. Cawsey: I am sure that that is the case. I hope to have a new school at Rawcliffe and another at South Ferriby.

There is much more that I could say about public services, but I am aware of the time and I know that others want to come in, so I shall give the final word in my little contribution to a local farmer, the chairman of one of the branches of my National Farmers Union. We were out together the other night in a joint enterprise to keep the British brewing industry going, and he said to me, XYou know, Ian, I am not really all that bothered about politics". All hon. Members know that that is the lead-in to a constituent saying that he does not support them. He said, XI am not really bothered about politics, but when I was old enough to vote, I mentioned it to my granddad, who said, 'You are a farmer, son, so what you do is vote Conservative and pray that the Labour party wins.'"

Having watched the performance in the Chamber tonight, all the prayers and hopes must go to the Conservative party, because on this performance, the Conservatives do not have a prayer.

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9.30 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey), especially as he has enlightened me somewhat about the market towns initiative. Hexham was a Labour target seat and the Labour party announced before the election that we would have #1 million as part of the initiative. On making inquiries, just as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) did, we discovered that the amount put in was significantly less than #1 million. None the less, for target seats the stated amount was #1 million, and I still have the press release in my files to prove it.

It is right and proper for me to declare an interest as a consultant to the Countryside Alliance. I am proud to be a consultant to that organisation, which brought 407,791 people into London in the biggest demonstration ever seen in this city. Let me tell the Minister for Rural Affairs that there was certainly no muddle at the heart of the march. Presumably, he did not march, but I and many other colleagues did so and I can say that there was no such muddle. The muddle lies at the heart of DEFRA. It is fascinating that the Minister should describe his Ministry as one of focus and drive when I would regard it as wonderful if I could obtain answers to letters that I sent to Ministers many months ago. Let us forget the focus and drive, and have some answers to letters dealing with the problems that farmers have raised with me and other colleagues. The Ministry has a vastly long way to go before it can be called a Ministry of focus and drive.

The Minister's muddle was shown by the way in which he dealt with the role of the farming economy in the countryside. There is a continual misunderstanding about the fact that only half a million people are directly employed in agriculture and that its importance is small in terms of GDP. To see how the farming industry underpins the rural economy, however, we must consider what happened when foot and mouth struck in my constituency and Northumberland as a whole, in Cumbria and Devon and also in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan). When foot and mouth struck, the whole rural economy came to a standstill, but it was not the precautions that brought other businesses either near or completely to bankruptcy. When the countryside is closed, the tourism industry and other businesses suffer hugely. The strength and importance of the farming economy in the countryside is underlined by those dreadful tragedies.

The Minister talked about farming incomes falling under the Conservatives, but he was completely wrong. In 1995, the income of British agriculture was #6 billion, but in 2000, the last year for which I have figures, it fell to #1.8 billion. That is a huge fall during the life of this Government.

Farm incomes in my constituency, which contains many upland farms, are under #5,000 a year. They are even lower in Scotland, where the Liberal Democrats are in coalition government, and I think in Wales, where there is also such coalition. The subsidy provided to an upland farmer in Cumberland will now be about #30,000 a year. The bleak logic is that it would be better for the taxpayer and possibly the farmer to strike a deal

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so the stock is slaughtered and they take half the subsidy each. They would be better off, but the uplands would suffer from not being farmed.

In a constructive spirit, I ask the Minister to consider a particular issue concerning farming and the rural economy: the confusion that now exists because of the plethora of different organisations that are involved in the countryside. There are pockets of money, but such organisations have different and often conflicting requirements. The plethora of organisations drives farmers to confusion, especially in upland locations that are sensitive environmental areas. That is incredibly confusing on top of all the regulations and other burdens that the Government have imposed on the farming community.

In the short time that remains, I want to consider the reform of the common agricultural policy. The Government have let farming down on that. I appreciate that Ministers are busy, but the reform is important. Ministers are happy to shuttle around the capitals of Europe to pursue matters that are interesting or important to the Government, but they make little effort to set about meaningful reform of the disastrous CAP.

Jim Knight: Does the hon. Gentleman not recall that when the Conservative party was in power, nobody in Europe listened to it? It was ignored on BSE, yet when the Labour Government held the European presidency, the Commission adopted our policy on CAP reform. We are making progress. I admit that it is slow, but at least our voice is heard in Europe, unlike that of the Conservative party.

Mr. Atkinson: A party can only be judged on results. The Government's results on reforming the CAP have so far been lamentable. Most of the reforms agreed in the medium-term review are potentially damaging to, for example, livestock farming. Proper reform, which Sir Donald Curry specified, is right. I hoped that the Government would pursue the recommendation of Sir Donald, who is a constituent of mine. However, they did not do that with any force.

Since the Government have been in power, they have gone to Brussels, banged the table and returned with less than they had. Every time they go to Brussels, they return with a disadvantage to British farming. Only yesterday, the Meat and Livestock Commission produced a report showing that the agreed proposals in the medium-term review of the CAP would mean a reduction of 17 million in this country's sheep flock and substantial reductions in our beef herd. That has been agreed.

It is no good Ministers coming to the House and claiming that they are fighting and batting for the British farmer: the British farmer simply does not believe it. A quick resolution of the CAP's future is vital. Every day, farmers must make decisions in a capital-intensive business about whether to buy more land or more machinery—whether to expand to survive or diversify. Yet their future remains unknown.

Will young men and women who want to go into farming do so if they do not know where their future lies? The Government must understand that farming is the bedrock of the rural economy and rural society. If farming does not emerge from the current depression, the future for the rural areas of this country is grim.

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9.37 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate, and I thank Conservative Front-Bench Members for giving us such a useful platform.

Contrary to popular opinion, I represent a constituency that is partly urban and partly rural. I live in a small village outside the town and I love country sports, especially fishing and shooting. I was pleased to be recently appointed adviser to the Minister for Sport and the Minister for Rural Affairs on fishing and shooting. I shall speak later about the tremendous contribution of those important sports to the rural economy. However, another subject, to which other hon. Members have referred, needs further examination: the spurious town and country divide.

Many of the activities and tactics of the Countryside Alliance are objectionable, not least the lies and smears that it spreads about the Labour party's intentions for fishing and shooting and the failure of its stewards at the latest march and that held a few years ago to prevent the British National party from distributing racist, fascist and prejudiced literature. Not a single Conservative Member or Countryside Alliance steward prevented the attendance of the British National party at the so-called march for the countryside.

David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Salter: I will not give way. I have only three or four minutes to speak.

Most objectionable of all is the entirely false premise that we have some kind of apartheid Britain: one country that is urban, another that is rural. MORI recently polled a substantial sample of people, both from urban and rural environments. What were the top six issues in rural Britain? No. 1 was transport—well, are we surprised at that? No. 2 was protection of the environment. No. 3 was conservation of wildlife. No. 4 was the need to improve our infrastructure and our road system. No. 5 was crime. No. 6 was unemployment. The fact remains that the issues that affect rural Britain affect this country as a whole, and the spurious divide between town and country has to be challenged.

A tremendous contribution has been made by shooting not only to the rural economy but to the country as a whole. I would like to pay tribute to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which has certainly helped me and was kind enough to invite my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and me to address a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Blackpool. Incidentally, that conference was not disrupted by the provisional wing of the Countryside Alliance, due to the arrest of Janet George and other prominent Countryside Alliance activists by the Lancashire constabulary, to whom we should pay tribute for upholding law and order in Blackpool and elsewhere. Sadly, I believe that those people have now been released.

In the United Kingdom, 26,300 full-time jobs are directly dependent on shooting. Another 13,450 are indirectly dependent on it. That is many more than the 700 jobs that relate directly to hunting, as identified in the Burns report, and very different from the 60,000 jobs

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that were supposed to be under threat if hunting were banned. Those were more lies and smears put about by the Countryside Alliance.

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