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If the response of the Minister's Department at this juncture is to evade the challenge by doing what the rumour mill has it the Secretary of State has in mind and inaugurating that wonderful Sir Humphreyesque device of
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I thank the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) for managing to surprise us. He said that this was his annual debate, so that was not the surprise. He said that he had not come simply to lament, and that was true, given the nature of his contribution. He did not just repeat himself; in general, he gave what I can only describe as an endorsement of the Government's approach.
In his initial remarks, the hon. Gentleman was right to say that we could hardly be totally positive about farming, given the horrendous time that farmers and the non-farming members of rural communities have experienced over the past 12 months. I am glad that he acknowledged that not all is within the power of the Government to change, and certainly not an individual Minister. He then gave a dutiful nod in the direction of a public inquiry. Without the Government's decision to have three specific inquiriesone dealing with the lessons to be learned, one dealing with the science in a searching way, using some of our most senior scientists, and one that establishes the commission on farming and food to look at the way forward for the industrythe hon. Gentleman could not have been as positive as he was in responding to the outcomes of the Curry commission's report.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of meeting farmers who are still positive, despite their horrendous experience and the reasons they have to feel damaged and depressedthe months of foot and mouth disease and the difficulties faced by the industry. I have had the same experience in recent weeks. When I met farmers at a conference organised by the Bishop of Hereford, I expected a negative response. Instead, they were exchanging views on how to make themselves more competitive and how to bring more of the end-shelf price back to the farm and into the local community. In many ways their arguments were the same as those of us who argued for fair trade on the international scene. They want the opportunity to get a fair return; they are not looking for feather bedding.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are some rays of hope. That is not to be over-optimistic, because we face a challenging period over the coming months and years in moving to a sustainable farming and food industry for the long term. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Curry commission report points to the way forward. I assure him that the Government's response to the report will be thoughtful, as it should be. It will engage the stakeholdersthe farmers and othersin designing the response, as it should do. It will also be practical and positive about the future.
I liked the hon. Gentleman's description of romantics and realists, although I think that it should be romantics and pessimists, because the realists are now winning. Those who want a bright future for the farming and food industries, enormously important though they are,
There are good examples of such initiatives in the hon. Gentleman's area. The local action group and partnership for rural economic development, "Dorset chalk and cheese", is aiming to add value to local products and to develop local employment opportunities. It is bringing together diverse stakeholders such as the Prince's Trust, the National Farmers Union and Weymouth college. In many ways, the west country as a whole has shown the way by branding the region through the "taste of the west" initiative, while retaining the personalities of individual local products, be they from Dorset, Cornwall or Devon. I am impressed by that approach.
The hon. Gentleman considered different ways in which we might deal with the countryside, but let us be absolutely clear: we do not want to turn the countryside into a museum. The whole point of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is sustainable development. Sustainability means getting matters right environmentally, economically, and socially in the local communities. In our view, those three objectivesenvironmental, economic and socialare not alternatives. They are not options to be chosen from, but targets to be pursued in harmony with each other.
That process needs the engagement of the whole communitythe farming community and, indeed, the urban community. We should aspire to a better understanding between the urban and rural communities, and the hon. Gentleman certainly did not speak as if there are worlds between them. I hope that he agrees that we should remind both that they need each other, or that we need each other, depending on how one wants to put it. We should therefore see the positives in the countryside.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware of our response to the recommendation of the rural taskforce, which was established at the height of the foot and mouth disease, and which I have had the honour to chair since the general election. The taskforce recommended taking action to attract people back to the countryside, but we recognised fairly quickly that people were indeed returning. In many cases, the tourism industrywhich includes many farmers who have diversifiedis experiencing stronger advance bookings than for a number of years.
However, it was necessary to remind people of the benefits that the countryside provides. I am proud of the way in which the "Your Countryside, You're Welcome" campaign has developed. It is not a top-down Government publicity campaign but a Government-backed initiativeinvolving some 50 organisations such as the NFU and the Country Landowners Associationto remind people of the countryside's attractions. In doing so, it offers a positive image for farming and countryside communities, rather than simply being critical or looking on the downside. In many ways, that reflects the ray of realism but optimism that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the debate.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the example of New Zealand and a move away from dependence on subsidy. It is a different country with different pressures, but our need to move from production-related subsidy to an effective and competitive farming industry is at the
The hon. Gentleman referred to the problem of imports, which of course is divided into two; large importswe need to make sure that regulations on them are properly observedand small quantities that are brought into the country for personal consumption. Both kinds of import involve problems. We recognise the strength of concern about illegal imports and action is being taken. A high-level imports forum has been convened for next month to discuss what action, in addition to that which has already been taken, can be taken to detect and prevent illegal imports. However, the United Kingdom can never reduce the risk of importing disease to zero, so we must be prepared to deal with any outbreaks.
The hon. Gentleman was a little unfair to suggest that there were no contingency plans, because there were. The lessons learned from the foot and mouth outbreak of the 1960s led to plans being drawn up and visited from time to time. However, no one anticipated the speed and virulence of the foot and mouth outbreak that we experienced last year. One positive was that it led many people and organisations to look afresh at the way we do things. Supermarkets, for instance, have looked at the way in which they procure their foodstuffs, which is extremely positive.
The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the problem of low farm incomes and pointed to the way forward. We need to help farmers, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing, to reach a position in which their farm business is viable. For some people, that means organic conversion and being able to compete in a market with a large of proportion of imports; there is a market to be won back for British producers.
Some people may have to get involved in a niche market, producing and marketing things so that more comes back to the primary producer; other people may have to look at the expansion of farmers markets, which we are strongly encouraging. Farmers markets come in many shapes and sizes, and I have seen a number of them around the country in recent months. There is a good example in Bristol; in the heart of the city, foodstuffs from the surrounding area are being marketed to people, who benefit from high-quality foodstuffs being brought into the city in an attractive way. There is also a benefit for the hinterland of the city. Sometimes an individual opens a shop, developing something on behalf of the wider community of farmers and their families.
There are therefore a number of approaches to the problem; it is not just a question of farmers diversifying and everybody having one or two bed and breakfast rooms. Each business must find the right solution and choose the right options, given the support available through the England rural development programme, the rural enterprise scheme and other available options. We must encourage and help farmers to take those options. Recently, we have had a positive announcement from my noble Friend Lord Whitty, who has ministerial
I have responded mainly to the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's speech, which was about looking forward, not backwards. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the fact that farmers have experienced a devastating period.
There was the impact of foot and mouth disease, even in areas such as the one that the hon. Gentleman represents where there were few immediate cases, although the disease was not too far away. The farming community as a whole has been enormously damaged. In many instances, as we have seen through the excellent work of the rural stress network, individuals were traumatised by their experience. It is greatly to the credit of farming communities that they are responding positively to the recommendations that we have seen in the Curry commission's report. They are responding often not with over-optimism, but with a gritty determination to succeed in the business that they have chosen, and to meet the challenges of the future.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making his points in a positive way. I am certain that that is the best way to represent the interests of the farming community. We should take forward the ideas that have been outlined in the policy commission's report. We should consider issues of efficiency and recommendations such as the establishment of a food chain centre to improve efficiency. For instance, we should consider ways of developing the red meat sector. We should examine demonstration farms so that lessons can be learned and carried forward in a more positive way.
We must examine diversification. That includes non-food crops, an integrated approach to businesses and the support of farmers through business advice that is effective and co-ordinated. We are considering how the inward rural development programme can be simplified and made easier to access. That is not without its problems, but we intend to do all that we can in that direction.
Finally, there is the road, which the commission stressed, of supporting reform of the common agricultural policy. I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in the shifting of priorities away from the first pillar subsidy to the second pillar, and that is something that we shall pursue actively through the CAP's mid-term review.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating the debate and on discussing some of the issues that are for the future and how we implement the Curry commission's findings. These are issues on which the Government will report before long. We shall respond positively. I hope that from both sides of the Chamber we shall receive encouragement to help the farming community to develop, stand on its own feet and be successful for the future. That is the best way to have a thriving and living countryside that all can enjoy, and a successful farming industry. That is in the interests of everyone in this country, whether they live in rural or urban communities.