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Column 834farmers to diversify and the furtherance of non-agricultural factors such as environmental protection and the need to improve the living and working conditions of farmers.
Objective 5a certainly covers aid for young farmers setting up and facilitating the occupational integration of young people. There is increasing concern that young people cannot get jobs in farming, especially in the dairy sector where the milk quota scheme, although popular, lacks flexibility. They then drift to towns and conurbations, leading to the destruction of the social fabric of rural areas. If farmers go, so does rural life. The farming population is aging. It needs more young people who are able and willing to take up the challenges and opportunities of change. There is a need to keep family farms going and to maintain the demographic balance to preserve vibrant communities. Those needs can also be met by another aspect of objective 5a--inducement for early retirement. Again, that will help the demographic balance and bring a dynamic enterprise into the industry.
Objective 5a also includes assistance for diversification--although in some parts of my constituency the situation is so lean that that is not possible --into tourism, crafts, leisure and recreation, the manufacture and sale on the farm of farm produce, and environmental protection and enhancement, for example the maintenance of stone walls. The best stone wall in the world-- Hadrian's wall--is in my constituency and farmers have used it to build houses for generations.
The abandonment of farms is very bad for the countryside, but a reasonable system of grants or loans at favourable rates of interest which can be more effective in some areas should discriminate between the less-favoured areas and the non less-favoured areas and between the uplands and the lowlands. Early retirement and help for young farmers to set up are also eligible for support under objective 5b. That reinforces the need for that designation to apply to Northumberland.
The processing and marketing of agricultural products, adding value to farms, also apply under objective 5b and the report acknowledges that they are often an essential prerequisite for economic diversification and the development of rural areas. I accept that there is a cost involved, but it is frankly insignificant. We are talking about the 1990 draft EC budget of £30.7 billion, of which only £1.3 billion goes on the guidance section of FEOGA and only £294 million on structural policies.
We should bring about a shift from intervention price support to direct payments and headage payments. This year, MAFF is expected to have spent about £2 billion, but due to the vagaries of the operation of the CAP, most of my farmers will not receive much, if any, of that. Most of it will go on the cost of storage of surplus products, export subsidies and other costs of disposal. Consumers do not benefit, as they have to pay higher prices than necessary. Farmers do not benefit, because they do not receive much of the money. Therefore, the Government are right to move towards greater reliance on market forces which would benefit consumers by lower prices, reduce the costs of the CAP through reduced export subsidies, for example, and then channel the money directly to the farmers, as income or via headage payments on their stock.
The average net farm income of livestock producers in hill and upland areas is forecast to fall in 1989-90, and a particular worry is the reduction in the incomes of specialist sheep producers in hill areas where the
Column 835opportunities to diversify are limited. For example, hill livestock compensatory allowances are paid on breeding cattle and sheep in LFAs with the aim of ensuring the continuation of livestock farming in hill and upland areas, thereby helping to maintain a viable rural population and to conserve the countryside.
The recent increase of 75p per hardy breed ewe in the severely disadvantaged areas is warmly welcomed. The extra £5.2 million of HLCA payments goes directly to the farmers. The total amount of HLCAs--about £125 million a year--is direct and effective. For example, the ewe premium goes directly to the farmers, as does the suckler cow premium. I welcome the increase in the Community-funded element of that together with the increase in the amount of national top-up now paid to the EEC maximum, meaning an increase of 42 per cent. Again, £57 million in total goes directly to the producers and is particularly helpful in LFAs where 70 per cent. of specialist beef producers are situated.
In discussions on the reform of the beef regime, we should support the Government's policy of pressing for reduced intervention support and increased direct payments to producers which can be achieved by concentrating more support on the suckler cow.
Finally, we must ensure that the rest of the EEC does not discriminate against the interests of United Kingdom farmers by imposing discriminatory headage limits. We must resist that at all costs.
Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) : My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to bovine spongiform encephalopathy as potentially the greatest single threat to British agriculture since the war. I would add that it may also be--I put it no higher than this--a threat to public health.
We do not know whether BSE can be transmitted to people who eat the meat of infected cattle ; we do not know whether there is any connection between BSE and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease ; we do not know whether the incidence of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease has increased in recent years, although some evidence in the medical press suggests a noticeable increase in it ; and, above all, we do not, and cannot, know how many people will develop Creutzfeld-Jakob disease in the future.
We do know that it takes a long time for Creutzfeld-Jakob disease to develop ; and we know that there is a great similarity between this disease and BSE in cattle. As the hon. Member for
Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) said, it is true that there is no proven connection, which is why the Department of Health is undertaking and sponsoring research into it. We will not know whether there is any connection until that research is completed. What should be done while we are awaiting results of that research? I find the attitude of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food dangerously complacent--almost as complacent as the attitude of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), who told us that he had known about the incidence of BSE in cattle in the markets of Ceredigion and Pembroke, North for 50 years. If that is true, we must assume that farmers and vets in his constituency have known about it for 50 years, yet apparently no one has reported it to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Mr. Davis : Now it has become the past decade or two, but earlier the hon. Gentleman said that he had known about it for 50 years, and his remarks will be on the record. However, the past decade or two is different from what we have been told by the Ministry. Only last Friday, it told the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) that BSE had been described only in 1988, which is why the Ministry had not been able to take action before. The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North should get together with the hon. Member for Truro, who seems to be taking a closer interest in the problems of the disease.
Mr. Davis : That is contrary to everything that has been said by the Ministry, and I am inclined to believe that it did not know about the disease until 1986. The first case was diagnosed in 1986, which led to the publication of a report in 1988 and subsequent action by the Government.
The Government are also complacent because they did not ban the use of beef brains in meat products until November 1989. Even now, answers given recently by the Parliamentary Secretary show that his constant refrain is :
"There is no evidence of a risk to human health."--[ Official Report, 31 January 1990 ; Vol. 166, c. 236. ]
On the same day, the Department of Health told one of my hon. Friends that it will undertake research to determine whether there is a connection between BSE and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. The Department would not be undertaking such research unless it were necessary. Against that background, I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields in urging the Government to pay 100 per cent. compensation for all cattle that are affected, or thought to be affected, by BSE. I urge them to cull all the calves of cows that have been shown to be infected by this infectious disease. I also add a plea to ban the use of calves' brains in meat products, in addition to banning the use of beef brains.
As I have said, we will not know whether there is any link between BSE and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease until the research is completed, but what should we do while we are waiting for the results of that research? The answer is that the Government should base their food policy on the principle of being better safe than sorry.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) : I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be aware that my constituency is one of the most agricultural in Britain. My constituents are proud of their agricultural heritage and expertise, but the House will not be surprised to hear that they are less sure about the future of the industry than at any time in recent decades and are extremely anxious about their prospects for the next few years.
Ministers are aware of the gravity of the problems faced by those people and show a determined and realistic attitude in trying to tackle them, but I do not believe that the nation has grasped how serious the decline in farm
Column 837incomes has been in recent years, or how serious are the implications, not only for those who live off the land, but for consumers and the country.
Agriculture is one of our most successful industries. The achievements of British farmers since the war in delivering vast increases in production and productivity at a price that is affordable and of a quality that is sought by the consumer have few equals. It is being only slightly unfair to other industries to say that, if their performance had come close to British agriculture, Britain would be about the richest nation on earth. I only wish that some hon. Members and those sections of the media who are so ready to criticise the farming community would reflect a little more on that. The success of agriculture in this and other countries has contributed to its current problems. The ability of the developed world to produce more food than it can consume inevitably means that many agricultural sectors face difficult times. I accept that, and I think that my constituents also do so. The farming community accepts that times are hard and that it must do its bit to respond. The farming community is entitled to expect that the market in which it competes, and in which it needs to compete ever harder, is conducted according to rules that are fair to all. No one can claim that the green currency arrangements of the European Community are fair to all. When a continental farmer can claim £20 more a tonne than a British farmer, no one can claim that it is a fair or free market.
Much effort is being expended by continental politicians to persuade us of the case for closer political and economic integration of the European Community. I hope that they realise that few things do more damage to that aspiration than the utterly inadequate performance of the Community in dealing fairly with the diverse agricultural interests that it contains, despite the best efforts of successive British Ministers. It is sickening to see other members of the Community posing as European idealists but jumping to protect their industries and favour their farmers at the expense of others in the Community.
It is vital for the future of agriculture in this country that we obtain a substantial devaluation of the green pound and ensure that its complete abolition takes place as soon as possible. I hope that Ministers will press the case for simple justice and fairness, which would mean the elimination of the current gap. I appreciate that they would need a Commission proposal and a majority in the Council of Ministers to achieve that, but I hope that the Government are prepared to say that a failure by the Community to rectify the problem will hold up progress in other aspects of the Community's work.
No one should under-estimate the importance of getting a fair deal for our farmers or the number of farm businesses that are in a poor financial condition. It is vital that they be treated fairly and properly by the European Community, and I hope that Ministers will go into the next stage of price fixing and negotiations on the green pound with all guns blazing.
We ask our Community partners to act reasonably and fairly on the green pound, but the same should apply to BSE, which has been the subject of much discussion this evening. British beef is safe, and the opportunistic action of the West German Government in seeking to ban our
Column 838exports is a disgrace. I hope that we shall stand firm in our determination to take the matter to the European Court if the action is not reversed.
I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister that there is much dissatisfaction about the level of compensation payments for BSE-infected cattle. There is a powerful case for the compensation payable on infected cattle to be increased substantially. The taxpayer may argue that a business man must bear his own risks and that the nation as a whole is not responsible for the disease. However, it is of overriding importance that the disease be identified and dealt with wherever it appears, for the sake of the producer and of the consumer, both of whom are equally innocent in the matter.
I understand the difficulties of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in increasing compensation to 100 per cent. The Ministry might look silly if farmers turned in their whole herd to claim 100 per cent. compensation, but there is a strong case for a large increase to 90 per cent., if not to 100 per cent. On the green pound and on BSE, the British farmer is simply asking for a fair deal. He is not expecting to be featherbedded against the cold winds of competition, but to be given the same chance as others to compete at all.
There is a further aspect of agricultural activity for which the farmer deserves the special support of the nation, and I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister refer to it in his opening speech. I have the privilege of representing much of the area of the Yorkshire dales and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food represents most of the remainder. They are the most naturally attractive part of England and are visited by vast numbers of tourists, from home and from abroad.
The reason that the dales look as they do is a result of farming and in the absence of farming, they would look very different. On behalf of my constituents, I urge the rest of the nation--a predominantly urban and suburban nation--to learn to respect and support the farmers who preserve that natural environment. That means not only shutting gates and respecting property when visiting the area--although that in itself might be a considerable advance--but providing financial assistance to livestock farming in such areas, which is barely economic and from which there is little or no possibility of diversification.
In the past year, the combination of interest rates, drought and changes in the sheepmeat regime have reduced the incomes of some of the hill farmers whom I have visited to the lowest for 27 years. That is why I am delighted that the Government were able to announce last week an increase in hill livestock compensatory allowances in the less favoured areas. Equally pleasing was my right hon. Friend's statement that Britain will make its own assessment of the economic position of hill farming in determining HLCA levels in the future. I also congratulate the Government on the success of the environmentally sensitive areas, which have done much to show how the interests of agriculture and of conservation work naturally together, rather than in opposition to each other. The Government deserve far more credit than they have hitherto received for grasping that. However, I have one complaint. The new farming and conservation grant scheme had the effect of reducing the grant payable for the maintenance of drystone walls in the Yorkshire Dales from 60 per cent. to 50 per cent. The Yorkshire dales national park tried to supplement such
Column 839grants, and has at least one such scheme for doing so, but its resources are nowhere near adequate to the task. I ask the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department of the Environment to look again at those matters and to monitor carefully the condition of an outstanding and irreplaceable aspect of our national heritage.
Running through all my comments has been a concern for the future of agriculture, for its profitability, for its investment and for its environment. We must recognise that, without the entry of a new generation into agriculture, we shall one day be very short of food.
There is a tremendous amount of agricultural expertise and interest among the young generation. Anyone who doubts that should visit the Bedale agricultural centre in my constituency and meet the young people who take courses there. I hope that we can help those people where we can. In any forthcoming revision of milk quotas, for example, I hope that we shall make some provision for new entrants. Many of those young people will abandon agriculture over the next few years without a chance or a hope unless the House succeeds in winning for them a free and fair market for their products.
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood) : I begin by reminding my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) that the last famous Scottish reformer, George Wishart, was burnt at the stake, so my hon. Friend should be cautious about going out into the countryside this weekend.
The prosperity of British agriculture is dependent on external forces beyond farmers' control. The weather and widely fluctuating interest rates make nonsense of all attempts to work within projected budgets. Those factors are further exacerbated by inflation. If those were all our troubles, there would be room for hope, but we have still to contend with the European Commission and the manipulation of the Common Market rules against the interest of British farmers. In my constituency, farmers face another uncertainty as a result of the proposal to introduce nitrate- sensitive advisory areas, which has blighted farms and made them unsaleable. I hope that there will be an early announcement removing that blight from the area. Before we had--
Mr. Stewart : Before we had the Green party, we had the green pound. The public could be forgiven for thinking that it was an environmental tax. It is certainly a tax, not to protect the environment, but on Britain's super-efficient farmers and it now amounts to about £650 million. That green tax, or pound, was created to protect farmers in other EC countries from fair competition. British farmers cannot afford to be indifferent to this injustice. There comes a time when we must say that enough is enough, and that time is now.
Why should we have an artificially overvalued rate of exchange? When sterling falls against other European currencies, the green pound gap widens. For other British industries, that fall in value protects their trading position. The price of competing imports rises and British exports become more competitive on foreign markets. Why should those benefits be denied to United Kingdom farmers? To prevent the benefits coming through, the green currency
Column 840system is underpinned by monetary compensatory amounts. The MCAs tax our exports of agricultural produce and subsidise competing imports. There has been talk today of a level playing field. I should prefer to see the goal posts remaining in one position.
The reality of the green pound gaps for farmers is lower prices. That was reflected in farm incomes in 1988 reaching their lowest point in any post- war period and they have fallen to a point that even a certain lager cannot reach. I accept that supply and demand for agricultural commodities will be guided increasingly by the market, and the European Commission's tight policies on the CAP support prices are consistent with that approach. However, our top priority at this year's price fixing in Brussels must be to secure fair competition in Europe for British farmers. The European Commission proposes a 33 per cent. devaluation of the green pound whereas my right hon. Friend the Minister wants a 50 per cent. cut. We British farmers not only propose but demand in the name of justice a full devaluation of the green pound. The farming industry cannot wait until 1992 for that distortion of competition to be removed.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the green pound is a complex matter? If we were to tell the British public that farmers today are suffering to the extent of 44p per kilogramme on every lamb, £65 on every carcase and £20 on every tonne of cereal, the message would get through and justice would be secured for our farmers.
Mr. Stewart : I know that, if the decision was the sole responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister, action would be taken because he more than anyone else knows that unprofitable farmers are not in the national interests. However, his voice is only one of the 12 who will discuss the price fixing in Brussels next month. Nevertheless we know that our right hon. Friend will go there full of fight and determination, fully supported by the House to accept nothing less than a fair deal for British agriculture. 9 pm
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : I have the great good fortune to come from, live in and represent one of the loveliest farming areas in the world. My farmers do not ask for an easy ride ; they never have done. What they ask for is a fair deal. They want to be paid as much for what they produce as other European farmers get--not an unreasonable request, one might think. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) is laughing, but he will soon be laughing on the other side of his face.
I remember the day when, under the late John Silkin--I was at the Berlin agricultural fair with him--British
Column 841farmers were paid 45 per cent. less for a pint of milk than the German farmers were getting. That was grossly unfair. My farmers said so in no uncertain terms, and I said so, too. Today, my farmers are getting 19.5 per cent. less than the proper price for their milk and 20.8 per cent. less for sheep. That is not fair, either. I was glad to hear the Prime Minister say at Question Time today that she sees that gap as quite unacceptable, and that her Ministers will fight hard to remedy that injustice in Brussels.
I was equally glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister tell us that he will fight hard to close the green pound gap, but I do not think that his target is high enough. The Commission's proposal to reduce the gap by one third--will the Minister kindly listen and stop talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)?--is inadequate. That would still leave a gap of 13 per cent. for milk and 13.8 per cent. for sheep. The Minister's target of 50 per cent. is just not enough either. We want to be paid exactly the same as other European farmers. It is sheer nonsense to talk about a common agricultural policy with uncommon prices.
In my part of the world we are prepared to accept the kicks that farming inevitably brings, but we do expect the ha'pence. We expect to get as much for what we produce as our European counterparts get and we look to the Minister to fight our battle for us. I have every confidence that he will do so.
As to fraud, nothing does the European ideal so much damage as the feeling by our fellow citizens that they are being diddled. Fraud destroys people's confidence in Europe. The hon. Member for South Shields--a very civil man, if I may say so--implied that Britain has a bad record for fraud. That is simply not correct. The truth is that we make very strenuous efforts to catch fraudsters and we hand them over to be punished. We do not cover up for them ; we hand them over to be dealt with as they should be. Other countries either connive in their action or cover up for them. We shall never conquer fraud until we have impartial inspectors at every level of inspection who will be operating in someone else's country and will have no compunction in reporting the fraud that they find.
I am glad that the Minister, like the Prime Minister, takes fraud seriously, as he made clear in his speech. I know that he will take steps to stamp it out so that all of us, farmers and citizens, will know that we are getting a fair deal. That is all that we ask. 9.4 pm
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : I apologise to the House for not being here earlier. I have a good excuse, which I am sure that the Opposition will appreciate. I was detained by criticising the Government's policies on television. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary may be less understanding about that.
Therefore, it gives me even greater pleasure to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for the good work that he is doing in the face of problems that I need not reiterate. Believe it or not, that is appreciated by farmers. They know perfectly well that the old CAP days are over. None of my farmers tries to argue back over that time.
I want to make a specific point of mentioning the appreciation in retrospect of many of my milk farmers for
Column 842the work done by a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in introducing milk quotas, for which no one gave him any thanks. I do not remember anyone at the time having a good word to say for him, but where would we have been without those difficult measures? I pay tribute retrospectively to his efforts.
However--this is where we get to the "however" part of the speech--I want to begin by associating myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) on the green pound. In all honesty, I must recognise that this is a complicated matter, which has repercussions for the retail prices index which there is no point ignoring.
In my constituency, many small-to-medium farmers face a drop in incomes. That is not farmers' flim-flam. It is the reality. I have looked at one or two yearly accounts and in some cases there has been a catastrophic drop, for reasons that I am sure have been mentioned in the debate such as high interest rates and a combination of other circumstances. Against that background, the green pound should be looked at again carefully.
One other point that is very much on the minds of farmers in my constituency is the Government's apparent assumption that it is an easy matter to turn to alternative sources of income. That is an extremely complicated matter. Farmers frequently turn to, or in some cases are driven to seeking, alternative sources of income in ways that risk disrupting the rural environment.
For example, one or two of my farmers have tried to arrange motor cycle scrambling in order, understandably, to boost their incomes. But when my constituents approach me about motor cycle scrambling in the countryside, I find it difficult not to be sympathetic to them. There are other cases, of less environmental irritation, in which for one reason or another, local councils find it difficult to give planning permission.
The point that I am making is that it is not as easy as my right hon. Friend the Minister sometimes gives the impression of believing for farmers to drum up extra income from the diversification of activities or the diverse use of their land or buildings. They quickly run up against planning restrictions--some entirely justified on environmental grounds, some perhaps less so. That is an important point. Flexibility in agriculture is much less than my right hon. Friend sometimes seems to imply.
I stress that my farmers, and I am sure those of other hon. Members, are not such a plaintive lot as they are sometimes depicted. When my farmers grumble, as they occasionally do, there tends to be something behind it, so I tend to listen.
Farmers want the Government to state their vision for farming in the future. Small and medium tenant farmers are particularly anxious to have the answer to that question. They want to know whether the Government see developing in Britain a situation analogous, for example, to that in Germany, where family farms tend to go by the board so that, particularly close to large conubations, one member of the family runs the farm and the rest of the family have jobs in the town. If that is part of the Government's vision for the future, they should say so.
If, on the other hand, the Government believe in the advantages, which seem obvious to me--social as well as economic--resulting from traditional family farms, they should make that clear and do what they can to support such farms.
Column 843A number of farmers in my constituency have raised with me what they regard as irritating problems caused by the withdrawal or curtailment of the service of the knackerman. I gather from the nods of assent on the Opposition Benches that I have support in raising this remote subject. Because that service has been curtailed, an extra cost is placed on farmers at a time when they can ill afford it.
Farmers are also concerned with the environmental implications because it is important to dispose of dead stock quickly. It is difficult to do that on a small farm, because it is a time-consuming operation and many rules and regulations surround it. What has happened to that service? It was a small but important service to farmers and I hope the Minister will explain why it has been curtailed or withdrawn.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Like my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), I apologise to hon. Members for arriving late for the debate. I was detained in a Standing Committee. Not only as a farmer but occasionally as a stockman, I have to use the services of the knackerman. The one I use is in my hon. Friend's constituency, so I endorse what he said on that subject.
We have faced a period of significantly declining farm incomes. As a farmer, I can read that in my trading accounts, and the figures are readily available from the national survey of farm incomes. I have not studied the figures which were published this morning--through what in the old days was the annual review procedure--but I understand that they show a small uplift in farm incomes following a long period of dramatic and inexorable decline.
The figures for farm incomes are low and the Minister must have got the message that, however hard we work at diversification and however many schemes he introduces, they will be of benefit at the margin but cannot by themselves be guaranteed to restore farm incomes. There is no Aladdin's lamp for the environmentally sensitive areas, the HLCAs or whatever. There is no Aladdin's lamp resulting even from the promotion of British food. All such endeavours are important, but will not by themselves solve the farm income problem.
That problem is not confined to Britain. It applies to other parts of the European Community. Indeed, it is worldwide. It is two years since I visited New Zealand, where agricultural subsidies were removed--as the phrase goes--at a stroke. I appreciate that that is not the Minister's intention, and I hope that it will never be the intention of a Conservative Government in this country. After that dramatic, and in my view misguided, decision, many New Zealand farmers, have picked themselves up and reached a measure of survival, not at a high level of income--it has not been an easy or happy process--which proves that it is not always necessary to aim for the highest levels of income.
Mr. Martlew : Can the hon. Gentleman remember that, when several hon. Members, including myself, went to New Zealand, we visited a dairy farm where the gate had been left open because the farmer had gone to play golf?
Column 844hour of the day and night. They are milked in the morning and the evening and if that farmer had time to play golf in the middle he must have worked hard earlier--so good luck to him.
Mr. Gummer : Will my hon. Friend ensure that the people of New Zealand realise that the Opposition spokesman on agriculture always eats their apples in preference to British apples, in the hope that he might get some votes somewhere?
It is no good bleating about farm incomes, but it is right to record that there has been a problem with them. The main reason for that problem is the existence of agricultural surpluses in Britain, Europe and worldwide. I expect my right hon. Friend the Minister--as do all hon. Members--to continue telling the truth to British and European farmers and to his colleagues in the Council of Ministers, and to remain unremittingly committed to agricultural reform. I realise that some of my hon. Friends say that we should do more, and they doubt whether anything has been done. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) that from the viewpoint of farm incomes and cuts in prices, there has been much pain in agriculture, and it is not easy now. The issue is where we go from here.
I do not believe that the British Government's position is credible unless they sustain pressure for agricultural reform in the European Community. Equally, the position is not credible with our own farmers unless the Minister is seen to be anxious to remove discrimination against the British farmer. British farmers, with their skills and resilience, are prepared to take hard knocks and the truth, but they are not prepared to take all the knocks in Europe and to be the only ones respecting the truth in agriculture.
Two built-in tendencies within the European Community need addressing. The first and most obvious, which was mentioned in parts of the debate that I could not attend, is the question of the green currencies. An interesting exercise, which the Minister could construct at his leisure, would be to return to our accession to the Community in 1973 and work out for how many months of that period the pound was at a premium to the green pound and how many months it was at a discount ; also how many months during that time the British farmer was receiving over the odds in sterling and how many months he was short-changed against the so-called common price structure. It is clear that there has been if not a universal, a general period of under-recoupment, as there is at the moment. We are aware of the Commission's proposal to cut one third of that difference. Many British farmers still do not understand the mechanism by which those things operate. Some of them believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister is personally in charge of the green pound and that he has only to rub his Aladdin's lamp and a decision will emerge tomorrow. Perhaps he can disabuse the House of that misconception. Those farmers who hark back to the good old days of Tom Williams and Jim Turner, 40 years ago, probably believe that the National Farmers Union is personally responsible for the green pound. My experience of the NFU branch meetings is that the leadership gets as much stick as the Minister. Those decisions are taken in Europe
Column 845and they have to be agreed by our colleagues, but they will not reach an acceptable level unless the Minister and his team go forward and fight for a necessary and appropriate realignment.
The second point, that will be touched on by some colleagues--but of which less is made nationally--is the ever-present danger of differentation or discrimination against the British farmer on the grounds of the size of his or her holding. The average farm in Britain is still four times the size of farms in most of the Community, so it is very easy to produce specious arguments on social grounds for a two-tier price structure or some relief from quota for the smaller farmer or in particular circumstances. They may not be formally presented as anti-British measures, but in almost every case they operate against British interests. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of that, but I should like his assurance that he will fight that off as hard as he has in the past, and as hard as he possibly can.
The other area where the British farmer needs support from Ministers is that of food policy. If there was any suggestion from Opposition Members today that there was something wrong with British food, I should like the Minister to come down very hard against it. The measures which he has taken, and for which he has been bitterly attacked, on salmonella and other aspects of food safety, are positive measures, unrivalled anywhere in Europe. He is entitled to some credit for them. To say that British food is in some way unsafe or not of the highest quality is not a reflection on British food or the British farmer but it may well reveal some basic, underlying psychological or personality defect in the person who makes such a statement.
Mr. Martlew : Will the hon. Member agree that, during the present Government's period of office, the number of food poisoning victims has increased threefold--10,000 when the Government came to power, and 30,000 now? Will he explain that?
Mr. Marland : Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it has now become easier, thanks to progress in medical science, to identify salmonella, listeria and hysteria, and that this is probably why the finger is being pointed at these various diseases?
Mr. Boswell : My hon. Friend puts it better than I could myself. I have perfect confidence in British food. I have confidence in the Ministers who protect our food. I have grave doubts whether such rigorous regimes apply in certain continental countries. I will say no more, but it needs saying occasionally, because we have allowed ourselves to get into a frame of mind in which we have, as usual, assumed that Britain is worst when it is not and that there is something wrong with us when there is not.
After a period when agriculture has been in difficulty, the time has come for the Minister to stand up and speak for agriculture and to promote its interests. I know of nobody better equipped to do so. I believe that he is committed to reform but also to the protection of British interests. With all the difficulties that we have had, there is