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Column 861to proceed, and it almost aborted the sale at the last minute. It did not show any signs whatever that it was not taking great risks in taking on the Rover Group.
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East) : Is there no limit to the Secretary of State's arrogance on these matters? Is he aware that the only reason why he is at the Dispatch Box is to pre-empt the inevitable row that would follow this morning's publication of the memorandum in The Guardian ? His whole approach typifies the Government's unethical approach to the disposal of public assets. A more fitting place for his talents would be in a used car lot where, as the usual sweetener, he would throw in the whole car factory.
Mr. Ridley : The hon. Gentleman's style is not appropriate on this occasion. It was correct for the Public Accounts Committee to consider the memorandum confidentially. If the memorandum had not been leaked, the Committee could have considered the matter and concluded whether publication was in the national interest. That would have been far the better way to handle the matter. I regret that the PAC has been pre-empted because that has made the matter more difficult to handle. However, as soon as it happened I took the correct action of coming to the House to make a statement.
Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that the openness of his declaration is welcome? Will he further accept that as Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which last year conducted extensive inquiries into the purchase of Rover by British Aerospace, I would have found it helpful if the memorandum had been submitted to the Committee in confidence. With regret, I find unacceptable his statement that the conventional valuations were not appropriate. When my right hon. and noble Friend was asked by the Select Committee whether he had put a valuation on the machinery and assets of Rover, it was to our surprise that he replied no. The negotiations could have been handled by the Department much more professionally and I hope that in future that will be the case.
Mr. Ridley : The Committee may wish to follow up the question of what memorandum was put before it, but I was not aware of the point that my hon. Friend raised. The sale was not and could not have been normal. The House will remember when the possibility arose that Rover would be sold to the Ford Motor Company. As a result, there was virtually a public auction. We debated the matter many times in the House but it was impossible to resolve it because of the political temperature. Rover informed everyone involved that the position was extremely damaging to its business and at the time it lost market share. My right hon. and noble Friend had no alternative but to conduct exclusive negotiations with an acceptable British company and only one had expressed interest at that time. [ Hon. Members :-- "Not true."] At that time. After it had been announced that the deal would be negotiated exclusively, other companies expressed interest. It would have been wrong for my right hon. and noble Friend to go back on the undertaking that the negotiations would be exclusive.
Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) : If the financial arrangements were as straightforward as the Secretary of State suggests and were already available in the estimates presented to the House, why did his Department ask the National Audit Office to leave them out of the report published two days ago?
Mr. Ridley : As I said, we did not wish to draw attention to the arrangements in the July statement because it was important that the Commission should not reopen the whole matter. The matters that I reported were not relevant to the agreement that we made with the Commission. In view of the sensitivity of those facts, I thought it right that the PAC should decide for itself whether it was in the national interest to publish them. I regret that the PAC's right to decide has been pre-empted.
Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove) : Does my right hon. Friend recollect that about a month ago he was criticised for not keeping Jaguar British? Today he is criticised for keeping Rover British and for its success. Does he agree that the Opposition have no interest in the success of any British industrial company? Did we hear any request for a statement yesterday about the additional investment in the British motor industry? Will he reconsider his description of the Opposition as being wise after the event? It is clear that they are unable to appreciate the difficulty of valuing what was a bankrupt company trading insolvently under Government guarantees.
Mr. Ridley : The transformation in the health of the Rover Group after many years of decline and massive losses is justification for its sale to the private sector, if ever one were wanted. I agree that the Opposition are now to be described as unwise after the event.
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : Is the Secretary of State aware that tonight in Coventry many thousands of Rover workers will wonder whether we are witnessing the Government's incompetence or their corruption? Is it not clear that, with £600 million of cancelled debt, £60 million of underselling and the £38 million of back-handers revealed today, the privatisation of Rover was legalised theft? Is he aware that British Aerospace knew in advance of the land values, the value of subsidiary companies such as the Spanish company and Daf and of stocks and shares and is laughing all the way to the bank? The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) stayed in the Chamber long enough to make sure that the Prime Minister held her line at Question Time. Why is he not here now to make a statement about his previous role as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry from which he went directly to be chief adviser to the board of directors of British Aerospace? More than any other privatisation deal, this deal stinks to high heaven.
Mr. Ridley : Thousands of Rover workers wandering about Coventry will be grateful that their company is beginning to move ahead, investment is being put into it and the days of its failures and loss-making under public ownership have come to an end. The fulfilment of that goal makes worthwhile the deal that was done to achieve it. For the hon. Gentleman's benefit, to my knowledge no Land Rover assets have been sold.
Column 863prepared to pay asset value for a company haemorrhaging hundreds of millions of pounds without the slightest realistic prospect of ceasing to do so would be considered insane? Is he aware that those of us who were anxious that the deal should go through were disturbed that at the last minute the board of British Aerospace was so unsure whether the sale should proceed that it delayed the final announcements to be made by the then Secretary of State? Is it not true that when the details of the events are examined it will be clear that according to commercial logic the Government did an exemplary deal in selling Rover to British Aerospace?
Mr. Ridley : I wish to disagree with my hon. Friend in one respect : many hon. Gentlemen, even with the advantage of hindsight, would succeed in losing millions. [H on. Members-- : "What did the right hon. Gentleman do?"]
Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend's other point, that British Aerospace hesitated on the eve of signing the deal, is absolutely true. I can confirm that it nearly decided to abort the takeover because it did not feel that it could live with the risks. It decided to go ahead, which is infinitely to the benefit of the workers and customers of the Rover Group.
Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) : Is it not the case that the Secretary of State cannot begin to understand the anger and anxiety of Cowley workers and their families during the whole period of the shameful conduct of the sale? Is it not evident that Conservative party political determination to sell Rover at any price and in any way has counted for everything and that the interests of the country, taxpayers and the work force have counted for nothing? Is it not essential that, in addition to seeing proper accountability to the taxpayer for taxpayers' money, any surplus arising to British Aerospace in this sorry affair should be invested in production and jobs at Cowley, not asset stripped?
Mr. Ridley : The deal has been done and cannot be reopened. I understand that British Aerospace intends to make massive investments in the Rover Group--more than £1 billion--to develop its capacity and model range for the future. That is precisely what the hon. Gentleman asks for.
Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of the west midlands will contrast this Government's support for the British motor industry and the glittering future that Rover Group now has in the private ownership of BAe with the glittering, wonderful future that the Labour Government gave the Meriden motor cycle co -operative?
Mr. Ridley : Yes. Because of the many changes that have taken place under this Government, the British motor industry is beginning to move ahead and to increase its market share in Britain and throughout the world. We shall see a large increase in motor car production in the years ahead.
Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North) : Does the Secretary of State realise that only one Conservative Member, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren), seems concerned about taxpayers having a fair
Column 864deal? [ Hon. Members :-- "We are all concerned about that."] Will the Secretary of State please answer his hon. Friend's questions? Why was the memorandum not put before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry? Is he aware that it is inadequate to answer that the Committee can now inquire into the matter? Does he agree that the memorandum should have been made available at the time? Was the Commission aware that if Rover were resold in the following five years, the group would not have to repay the £650 million, but only £400 million? In view of the disclosures, will the Secretary of State tell BAe that it cannot have until March before paying the£150 million, but must pay without delay because it has benefited from the swindle?
Mr. Ridley : If hon. Gentlemen have taxpayers' interests at heart, they should recognise that the £3.5 billion which was expended on the Rover Group while it was in the public sector was the biggest drain that could ever been placed on taxpayers' shoulders and that from now on the Rover Group is beginning to pay tax which is to the taxpayers' benefit. My right hon. and noble Friend who handled the matter appeared before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, and he must be allowed to give the evidence and produce the papers that he thought appropriate at the time. The hon. Gentleman is not right when he says that that £450 million will have to be repaid. The £650 million was the sum before the Commission reduced the amount which the British Government could give to assuage Rover's debts. As the Commission reduced the sum, it was right that the amount to be repaid should also be reduced.
Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey) : Does my right hon. Friend agree, as one who had a part to play in the developments at Rover at a certain time, that the problem with the company, apart from wholly inherited debt and the fact that it was trading insolvently in all but name, was the fact that the Varley-Marshall agreement entered into by the Labour Government provided never-ending commitment to the Government of the day to stand behind every bill that the company happened to offer? Will he further consider that, while enormous efforts were made to maintain productive investment, this incredibly bankrupt company would have been closed long ago had it not been for the arrangements with BAe? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was the real alternative offered?
Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He talks of what came to be known as the Varley-Marshall-Joseph undertakings and they totalled £1.6 billion by March last year. I am extremely glad that they will never be known as the Varley-Marshall-Joseph-Ridley undertakings.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : Can the Secretary of State answer the questions that he has still not answered? How does he reconcile the uncorrected public announcement that if BAe sold Rover within five years the payback would be £650 million when it would be £400 million? How does he reconcile the Prime Minister's statement about the valuation in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) on 21 November 1988 that
"the value to be attached to assets is at present purely speculative"
with his statement this afternoon that the price was reached by striking a reasonable balance between risks and objectives? How does he reconcile his declaration that he
Column 865is in favour of no support, a strong competition policy within the EC and upholding the law with his subsidisation without telling the EC, thereby breaking the law and his own declared policy?
Mr. Ridley : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The adjustment to the ceiling of any penalty for a sale within five years was indeed communicated to the Commission. It was twice reduced because the Commission reduced the original consideration. The conclusion of a valuation between a seller and a buyer must be the price at which the buyer is prepared to buy and the seller to sell. That is the price that was finally agreed last July.
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that while Austin Rover was in the public sector the plant at Stratton near Swindon was a frequently mentioned candidate for closure and that since Rover has been in the private sector that plant has been the recipient of £17 million of new investment from BAe? Does my right hon. Friend draw any conclusion from that? Can he tell the Opposition how many new hospitals and schools could have been built with the money that for many years haemorrhaged into Austin Rover while it was in the public sector? Can he tell us what efforts he is making to find the person who leaked the document?
Mr. Ridley : On the latter point, it is not for me but for the PAC to re-establish its reputation for looking after the financial and confidentially financial interests of this House. I am glad to hear that the privatisation of the Rover Group has led to increased investment in my hon. Friend's constituency. It will lead to increased investment in many other constituencies as the momentum increases.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) : In the light of the Secretary of State's answers this afternoon, the only thing for which the House can be grateful is that it was not he who negotiated the deal. If he had, it would have been an even bigger rip-off than it was. [Interruption.] We have yet to receive a successful answer to two shocking revelations, first, that not one penny has yet been paid by BAe and, secondly, that the British Government surreptitiously paid £38 million. [Interruption.] Finally-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Robinson : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in the light of those revelations and the inadequacy of his answers about them, the Government have forfeited any remaining claim that they ever had to be from the party of financial responsibility and managerial competence?
Mr. Ridley : It is a rare and well deserved tribute to my noble Friend Lord Young that the hon. Gentleman believes that he negotiated an even better deal than I would have done. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have dealt with the rest of his questions because I gave full, open and satisfactory answers to all the points that were raised.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Column 866Accounts Committee report. I understand that the Public Accounts Committee is to discuss this matter tomorrow and no doubt we shall return to it later. I will allow three more questions from each side and then we must move on.
Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East) : As a west midlands Member and the proud owner of a British Rover car, I feel duty bound to pay tribute to the success of Rover in private hands. Thanks to the vision of the Government, Rover has gone from strength to strength and has secured the jobs of many midlands workers. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government dealt exclusively with British Aerospace because of pressure from the House not to sell to an overseas company?
Mr. Ridley : My hon. Friend is quite right. I remember, although at the time I was not in the Department, the extraordinary political clamour surrounding the possibility of selling the company to Ford. Therefore, my noble Friend had no alternative, when he finally got a serious offer from British Aerospace, but to undertake to negotiate exclusively lest a situation such as that which had developed previously arose again.
The Department misled the European Commission by failing to tell it that concessions were being made and that subsidies were being paid. What credibility do we now have with people in the European Community who have been complaining about the stiff position of the Government on the whole question of regional subsidies and sectoral support?
Mr. Ridley : That is not the case. My noble Friend considered that the agreements that he had made beyond the main deal in relation to the sale of the Rover Group did not come within the competence of the Commission in relation to state aid. I have explained why I think that that was right. If the Commission does not agree, it can comment in the future. We wait to see what it says.
Mr. James Cran (Beverley) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that in evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry the chairman of Rover, speaking on behalf of his whole board, gave absolute backing to the Government on their action? The board gave as the precise reason for that the fact that it did not want a public auction and the consequential adverse effects that that would have on the dealer network, the work force and the customer.
Mr. Ridley : So far I have not heard any hon. Member question the fact that it was correct to engage in exclusive negotiations, and that is because of the reason that my hon. Friend has given. If that be so, no one could question the deal that was finally agreed with British Aerospace, especially as it was regarded at the time as extremely risky and unfair to British Aerospace to undertake such large risks for the consideration that they offered.
Column 867Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : Can the Secretary of State tell us whether his permanent secretary as accounting officer for the Department has put in an accounting officer's minute complaining about what went on? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if the directors of a public company acted in the way in which he has acted, the fraud squad would long since have had them in the dock at the Old Bailey for corruptly defrauding their shareholders?
Mr. Ridley : My permanent secretary as accounting officer has made a complete disclosure to the Comptroller and Auditor General on all these matters. That is the confidential memorandum that the Public Accounts Committee is receiving. He has made no comment other than to make sure, as I have said, that the PAC was aware of all these matters.
Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is rather quaint to hear Opposition Members complaining about an illusory loss of £38 million when we did not hear a peep from them about the loss of 100 times that amount--£3.5 billion--which can be laid at Rover's door over recent years? We wholly endorse the Government's position on the sale. The difference between my right hon. Friend and the Opposition is like the difference between a Rover Sterling and a Trabant.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Those of us who were in the Department of Trade and Industry when British Leyland and Rover were partners remember that the company had to be taken into public ownership because it was on the point of collapse. The Government of the day had no choice because they had to save the jobs of the people in the industry. If we had not taken the company into public ownership there would have been mass unemployment. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would have liked to see those workers being put out of work. Obviously, Conservative Members have a short memory about what actually happened. Because of the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government, money has been lost, although I am not saying that they had their fingers in the till. If they were councillors they would have been disqualified and surcharged. It is high time that the right hon. Gentleman resigned.
Mr. Ridley : If I were the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) I would sit this one out and not admit to having played such a prominent role in the waste of the £3.5 billion to which I have referred.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement. Hon. Members will be well aware of the considerable problems this year on straw and stubble burning, and will recall a similar situation in 1983 when there were many complaints from the public. [Interruption.]
Mr. Gummer : In 1984 the Royal Commission on environmental pollution recommended a ban on straw burning to come into force within five years. By then, the Government had already drawn up model byelaws providing for greatly enhanced controls, and the National Farmers Union had issued a toughened code of practice in 1986. A ban on burning was therefore not judged to be necessary.
However, in 1989 the problems have returned with a vengeance. There have been many cases of smoke drifting across roads, in some cases with disastrous results, smoke-filled homes, dirty smuts, and genuine fears for the safety of property. In addition, there have been considerable losses of hedges and trees and, of course, wildlife. I have received more than 600 letters, many of which have been from hon. Members in all parts of the House and my Department has received notification of more than 2,500 complaints.
I have, therefore, ordered a thorough review of the policy and the effectiveness of existing controls. I have considered the alternatives carefully so that I can respond first to the public's concern, secondly to farmers' concerns that prohibiting straw burning completely will add to their costs, and thirdly to the fact that the reputation of the farming community suffers inevitably from the consequences of this practice on others who live in the countryside. I note that the NFU has not come out in favour of a ban, but has instead proposed a licensing scheme, charging for the issue of licences and withholding them from farmers with a poor track record. There are, of course, legal difficulties with the scheme, in terms of withholding of licences on a discretionary basis, but in my view the strongest argument against the licensing proposal is that it would be unlikely to result in any significant reduction in burning. The Government have therefore decided that straw and stubble burning should be banned. If Parliament agrees to the ban, it will come into force in England and Wales in the late autumn of 1992. That will give farmers three seasons to adjust to the new situation and to develop alternative methods of cultivation. That seems to be a proper balance between the demands of people who live in the countryside and the consideration that we would give to any section of the community to enable them to meet the needs of the whole community.
Accordingly, during the passage of the Bill which will be introduced to give new powers to control pollution and waste, the Government will be seeking the necessary powers to ban straw and stubble burning. The powers will also enable me to grant exemptions, but I should like to make it clear that, although I intend to consult the industry on their scope, any exemptions will be limited
Column 869--for example, to a specific crop such as linseed. I do not propose to introduce a system of licences for farmers permitted to burn under those exemptions.
I shall also discuss with the NFU how the existing code of practice should be strengthened and applied during the period leading up to the proposed ban.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I congratulate the Minister on his decision to ban the anti-social and anti-environmental practice of straw burning. This year straw burning has become an unacceptable public nuisance in many parts of Britain. The NFU code of practice and local authority byelaws plainly have not worked, and the Minister is right to announce his intentions today. It has long been the policy of the Labour party to ban straw burning. We therefore support the Minister and welcome his conversion.
The Minister referred in his statement to seeking powers in the course of the anti-pollution Bill. Will he give the House an assurance that there will be a representative of his Ministry on the Committee of that Bill to ensure that that aspect of agriculture and land use will be fully aired because it is an important matter and there are difficulties involved?
As the Minister knows, it is not enough simply to ban straw burning. We need to turn our attention to the problem of what to do with the surplus straw. Obviously, there are occasions when straw can be incorporated and it can be fed to animals, but there are times when those means are not appropriate. With a little ingenuity and innovation, surplus straw can be used to positive environmental effect.
Have the Government any plans to encourage that? Will the Government be providing financial assistance for research and development into other uses of straw? For example, it could be used in the construction industry, as a timber substitute--in contiboard and plywood panels. Are the Government prepared to assist companies such as British Sugar which, I understand, is contemplating a straw-powered paper-making plant in East Anglia? It is vital that those aspects of straw burning should be seriously considered. Otherwise the sound environmental benefits of banning straw burning may be lost.
Mr. Gummer : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I assure him that the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who has responsibility for farming, will sit on the Committee of the Bill to represent the interests that the hon. Gentleman mentioned and to ensure that the proposal is carried to fruition.
The Government are already spending some £700,000 on the research to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am interested in the use of straw to make boards. Stramit is a major organisation in Suffolk which has done a great deal of work to develop that, and I pay tribute to the important exports of machinery developed by that company.
There is a plan by British Sugar to develop a large factory, using straw not as a fuel but in the paper industry. That has a real chance of success, and I have no doubt that various plans will be announced as they come to fruition. I am sure that they will receive the support that they deserve.
Column 870Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the House that there is an important debate after this on the Public Accounts Committee report. I know that this subject is of great interest to right hon. and hon. Members but the proposal will come into effect in 1992 and there is to be a Bill, so there will be other opportunities to discuss the matter. I should like to get on to the debate on the PAC report by 5.30 pm, so I hope that hon. Members will keep their questions brief.
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : Although my right hon. Friend is right about what he is doing for the environment, has he given sufficient thought to the problems of farmers, bearing in mind that their incomes are substantially lower than they were some years ago, and how they can find ways to dispose of the straw within three years? From a husbandry point of view, it is difficult to find an alternative.
Will the Minister also give an assurance that muirburn in the hills will not be affected because it is an essential part of the regeneration of grass and heather in the uplands?
Mr. Gummer : I can certainly give that assurance to my hon. Friend and I shall consider the effect of the ban on the farming industry. However, if we do not have such a ban, the price paid by farmers every year in terms of the effect upon public confidence and attitudes will be higher than any loss that may arise from the ban. Many farmers who used to think that straw burning was essential have already found alternatives. I believe that the industry will find ways of complying with the ban in the three years to come. I suspect that if the ban had not been announced now alternatives would be unlikely to be found within three years.
Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North) : I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the views of my colleagues on the Liberal Benches and those of many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I congratulate him because on this occasion he has made the right decision. It is long overdue, but all hon. Members should co-operate and work with the Minister. The Minister has given farmers two or three years to put their house in order. We have learnt from the mistakes of 1983 -84 when milk quotas were delivered overnight. We should all back the Minister and the Government during the proceedings on the Bill.
Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the planned British Sugar plant will consume some 750,000 tonnes of straw per year--10 per cent. of annual production--but that the innovative nature of the technology required and the high risks involved mean that it may need substantial contributions from the Government? Will the Minister make representation to the Department of Trade and Industry in favour of that excellent British enterprise?
Mr. Gummer : We are not at that stage yet, but the proposals, albeit in their early stages, certainly look attractive. There is also the European dimension, which I shall consider with care and thought.
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke) : I accept what my right hon. Friend has said as both inevitable and necessary, but I have one reservation. Will a ban on burning involve greater use of incorporation, which in turn will involve greater use of nitrates? Is the Minister sure that we are not replacing one environmental problem with another?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend would no doubt subscribe to the concept that "You don't get owt for nowt". There is no way that we can make those changes without some deleterious effects. It is true that a small amount of extra diesel fuel will be used and that some farmers wil need to use or release more nitrates than they would otherwise have done. However, on balance the extra damage done is far outweighed by the advantages of banning the practice, and I am sure that many other countries in Europe will soon find it necessary to do the same.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Will my right hon. Friend accept from a farmer who has burnt many thousands of acres of straw that I believe that the balance has shifted as he described and that it is right to bring forward the ban? There are acceptable alternatives and three years should allow plenty of time to introduce them.
Mr. Gummer : I thank my hon. Friend for that. We should recognise that there is an added difficulty for the farming community in this. None of us should think it wrong to give the farming community time to find answers to a problem which is not easy, especially in areas of heavy land. Nevertheless, I do not think that farming can continue to pay the price in terms of public esteem which straw burning such as we had this year was always bound to cost.
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that his decision will be welcomed by people in north-east Kent--urban dwellers in Margate and Herne Bay who have suffered from the practice every year, and responsible farmers whose reputations have been damaged year upon year. Nevertheless, his statement means that, for a time in the autumn, straw will lie in the fields before it is incorporated. Will the Ministry embark on some form of publicity campaign to ensure that the public are aware of their responsibility in this matter as well?
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. We shall have to divert the funds that we have until now used to encourage safer straw burning to remind the public of the need for them not to fire straw, although we hope that it will be incorporated as quickly as possible and will lie in the fields for only a short time. There is no point in ignoring the fact that there will still be dangers and difficulties. One does not solve any problem without running into others.
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : My right hon. Friend rightly said that an exemption would be granted in some cases, but he linked it only to cost. Will he consider some types of land where the ban will be a major problem?
Mr. Gummer : I think that I shall have to disappoint my hon. Friend on that score. I do not envisage there being exemptions in those circumstances. There may be a few circumstances in which it would not be proper or safe not to allow some kind of burning, but we would raise hopes that we could not meet if we suggested that certain types
Column 872of land were suitable for straw burning and others were not. One of the problems has been that some farmers, who have burnt straw precisely in line with the best practice and the NFU code, have found that a change in the wind has rendered their straw burning dangerous.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that, although many people will welcome his announcement, many responsible cereal farmers in East Anglia will be rather anxious about it. There is no doubt that, since 1983, there have been great improvements in agricultural practice such as incorporation and the alternative use of straw. We welcome those, but my right hon. Friend will be aware that there are circumstances in which the only answer for farmers who want to get on to the land to get the next crop in is to burn. They will be saddened to hear that no loophole is to be left which enables them to burn straw in those circumstances. As only a selfish minority brought all this about, will my right hon. Friend consider making some provision for unusual circumstances in which burning is the only option?
Mr. Gummer : I am tempted to take the route that my hon. Friend suggests as his constituency and mine are immediately adjacent and my constituents are among those who will be most hard hit by the ban, but although I recognise that fact, I have concluded that it is not possible to operate a licensing system in a narrow way. I do not see how it is possible to have a system in which bureaucrats say, "You can burn here, but not there" without their being responsible for the damage and danger that burning entails.
As a reasonable period of time has been allowed for our constituents to come to terms with the ban, I think that we should not have straw burning except in circumstances which will be very narrowly defined and which probably relate only to certain crops, of which I gave an example, for which alternative methods are simply not available.
Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this action has been taken because a minority of farmers have flouted the regulations year after year? That is where the blame must be attached if people wish to attach blame. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that considerations with regard to nitrates are important, especially for farmers in areas which have been designated as potential nitrate-sensitive zones? When he draws up regulations for such zones, will he ensure that the fact that straw incorporation requires extra nitrogen is recognised so that farmers in my constituency and similar areas are not jeopardised?
Mr. Gummer : I shall certainly consider carefully the effect of the ban on nitrate-sensitive areas. I assure my hon. Friend of that. He is right to say that the activities of a small minority have let down the vast majority, who have been very anxious to keep the practice within bounds.
Once again, we must observe that the trouble for farmers is often that they are judged not by the average, nor by the best, but by the few who get into the newspapers and are not fair examples. Nevertheless, this year, a number of the serious accidents which appear to have occurred were the result of perfectly proper straw burning which was affected by a change in the weather.
Column 873Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : My right hon. Friend's statement will be widely welcomed, but it will not be terribly popular down on the farm because bale carting is a lousy job. We recognise that 2 per cent. of the population cannot dictate to the majority and I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said, but there will be a danger from accidental, uncontrolled fires. Moreover, the accusation that his protection of the environment from straw burning is cosmetic may be levelled at my right hon. Friend because the use of nitrates and chemicals could be much worse.
Mr. Gummer : I might be accused of that, but it would not be true. One need not worry too much if one is accused only of things that are untrue. I am not too worried about such an accusation because it will not stick.
I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the farming community has a major role to play, looking after 80 per cent. of the land surface of Britain. We owe a great deal to farmers for what they have done. They have protected the countryside and continue to do so. One of the reasons why the ban is necessary is that straw burning sometimes makes the public so angry that what they owe to farmers is obscured.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement because the action of a minority of farmers is giving a bad name to all. My right hon. Friend mentioned British Sugar. Is he aware of a company in my constituency which is researching how to make board out of straw and has received considerable support from the Government? Can he confirm that Government research grants will continue to be made available to such companies?