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Column 854rise if he plays his cards right--who introduced the scheme in 1989 when he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister. On 14 February 1989, which is Valentine's day--I am sure that that was appropriate--he said :
"Concern to protect and enhance the beauty and wildlife variety of our countryside is growing all the time. Increasingly, too, the public look to the farmer as the guardian of the countryside What is less often recognised is the extra cost this can impose on the farmer."
That is the point--it is an extra cost, not an advantage, to the farmer to introduce such a scheme. He continued :
"Another important priority under the scheme deals with the problems of pollution from farm effluent. The pressure on farmers to clean up their act is acute, and rightly so."
He added :
"It also shows our determination to target assistance where it can do most good, both for the farmer and for the community as a whole."--[ Official Report, 14 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c.269-70.] Where is that promise and that targeting tonight? Cuts has been made precisely where, on that occasion, the then Parliamentary Secretary identified a need to expand and increase support. What has changed in those few years? Do the Government no longer believe that protecting the environment is important? Were their claims of sustainability so much cant? Is this measure just a sop to the Treasury because the environment does not really matter when the chips are down?
Do the present ministerial team share the right hon. Gentleman's view that the extra cost should not fall on the farmer? Today's targeting is most curious in relation to the priorities set at the Rio summit, the European Union habitats directive and the terms in which the scheme was introduced in 1989.
The Government's own 1990 countryside survey, published just a few months ago, reported the decline of habitats over the past 12 years--including the most valuable in this country. I refer to hedgerows and to upland grass and moorland--in both of which I am extremely interested, given the part of the United Kingdom that I represent.
Those habitats were precisely targeted, and rightly so, under the farm and conservation grant scheme, on the best possible advice to the Ministry. However, during the 12 years of the survey, 23 per cent. of hedgerows were lost, in addition to the considerable losses that occurred in previous eras. Up to 8 per cent. of upland grass and moorland was also lost.
Those areas are of huge value in terms of not only natural habitat but the upland landscape available to be enjoyed by people who do not live there all year but who visit from all parts of the world to see a man-made but nevertheless extremely attractive landscape--so there is even tourist value in work done under the scheme.
The survey identified an increase in derelict hedges, probably because of declining hedge management. Mention was made tonight of skills being lost because the grant is not enough--not because it is too much or too generous. Surely no one suggests that the scheme has outlived its usefulness. The reverse is true. Hedgerows, stone walls and Cornish banks-- each area has its landscape vocabulary--are all part of the fabric of our countryside. The survey confirmed that they are still deteriorating. That is surely a reason for increasing the amount.
The Minister made three small announcements this evening. We heard nothing dramatic about poultry waste.
Column 855Although I am delighted--I am sure that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) shares my interest--that the Isles of Scilly scheme will continue, that announcement was not so dramatic that we can all tear up our Order Papers and go home.
The access provisions are not a new announcement. On 10 August 1993, the Department announced that it would introduce funding for public access as part of its commitment to the European Union's agricultural environment programme. We cannot have double booking--that support cannot appear twice in the accounts. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will press the Minister to say this evening whether that is new money or whether it has simply been recycled--already announced, but presented by the Minister this evening as new by a sleight of hand.
The scheme's objectives are most worth while and deserve maximum support, but we want to ensure not only payment for existing rights of way but increased public access as part of the bargain, otherwise, we shall be paying for something that we already have. There is no value in that.
As the hon. Member for Lincoln pointed out eloquently, what is so galling is the contrast between the huge sums being spent on arable set-aside, particularly rotational set-aside--which he rightly identified as having limited conservation benefits--and this cut. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has pointed out that the cut represents 0.08 per cent.-- less than 1 per cent.--of the total amount that will be invested in organised dereliction. Rotational set-aside, after all, is simply managed dereliction.
Rotational set-aside is in danger of becoming a bottomless pit into which increasingly large area payments will be thrown, bringing the whole of farming into disrepute. Already, parts of the tabloid press--perhaps not so ostentatiously in recent weeks ; they have had other interests--have identified as scandalous the huge sums paid to large landowners in the eastern part of England. This will increasingly become a scandal, and the taxpayer will not put up with it in the long term. It simply is not sustainable politically. That would be so even if it were sustainable in other regards, which it clearly is not.
In the last year, 550,000 hectares of farmland in the United Kingdom were left idle, with virtually no environmental or social benefits. The Government's proposals will bring the CAP to its knees. It has already been brought into disrepute.
As the arable area scheme is now constituted, it is clearly doing great damage to the reputation of the farming community, and to the taxpayer. It appears that it is doing some good only to the largest landowners and the largest farmers. No doubt they used to be Conservative supporters. I do not know whether that is still the case. In the meantime, the Minister has suffered a severe defeat. Let us be clear about this : these are not the Minister's proposals. I give her credit for at least having the good judgment to know that this is not the right target for cuts, although it may be a soft target. The statutory instrument involved has the Treasury's fingerprints all over it ; it is nothing to do with the priorities of the Minister and her team. I have too much respect for them to believe otherwise. The Treasury has been allowed to savage the most valuable and vulnerable elements in the Minister's budget. No flights of fancy can disguise the fact that this represents a major defeat.
Column 856That defeat concerns not only the Minister ; the real victims will be the farmers who really want to plan, in the long term, for the conservation of their land, as good stewards of that land. This is a defeat for the countryside.
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : I trust that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) will forgive me if I do not follow his remarks too closely ; others wish to speak. Let me say, however, that I felt that a good speech was spoilt by his conclusions. The remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) put the matter into perspective. I think that it was a bit over the top to talk about a "savaging" policy. I am, however, grateful for his reference to the Isles of Scilly, which are in my constituency. I fear that I have spent a good deal of my time in the House criticising my hon. Friend and his predecessor over their responsibility for fishing matters. I am delighted to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend on the announcement about the Isles of Scilly.
As one of your predecessors knows, Mr. Deputy Speaker--Lord Dean spends all his summer holidays there--the fabric of the islands is composed of small holdings. They are not farms in the accepted sense ; they are minute holdings, but they make the landscape for the inhabited islands. In recent years, I--along with others--have been increasingly concerned about the future of some of those holdings. The structure of agriculture and horticulture on the islands has come under trememdous pressure from economic forces and several other factors. One of those factors was cold weather and violent storms some years ago, which destroyed the hedge pattern of the islands. I was pleased to accompany my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) to the islands when he was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He announced the application of the scheme to the islands with particular reference to replacing some of the hedges. [Interruption.] I cannot hear what the hon. Member for Glandford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) is saying. That is probably just as well. I am sure that his comments are not helpful. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Suffolk, Coastal announced the scheme to give aid to the islanders to replace hedges and to improve and store bulbs. That has been a valuable scheme. I am sorry that, as a result of economic factors, there has not been the take-up for which some of us hoped. It is right, and greatly appreciated, that my hon. Friend the Minister has announced tonight that the scheme will be extended for another year while longer-term measures are considered. That will be welcomed by farmers on the Isles of Scilly and particularly by Mrs. Penny Rogers, the splendid secretary of the National Farmers Union branch. She is a grower, as are all her members of her family. She has worked extremely hard on behalf of all those involved in horticulture and agriculture on the islands. She has been in constant contact with me about the scheme and other measures that are needed.
My concluding remarks refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) said. He was right to say that responsible farmers do not expect to survive or depend on grants. That is perhaps the fundamental difference between Conservative Members and some Opposition Members on the point. There is a
Column 857place for grants where encouragement is needed and where they are necessary to carry out certain preservation works. The Isles of Scilly certainly come into that category.
Isles of Scilly farmers are extremely independent. They do not expect to survive on grants. They have done an enormous amount to help themselves, particularly in marketing the daffodil crop. It always gives me enormous pleasure to see Sol d'Or daffodils being sold at Westminster tube station. A year ago, when Mrs. Rogers came to the House, she stopped at the tube station because the florist there was selling Sol d'Or daffodils from the Isles of Scilly. She looked at the box and they came from Lunnon, her farm on the Isles of Scilly.
The farmers have imagination. They have done a tremendous amount in marketing and promoting their products, particularly the daffodils. The scheme is a little further encouragement. For those reasons, I thank the Minister, on the farmers' behalf, for his announcement tonight.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I had not intended to speak, but I wanted to ask the Minister a simple question. I was sorry that he did not give way. I shall be brief because I know that several hon. Members wish to speak.
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) referred to hedgerows. We have lost 23 per cent. of our hedges in 12 years. I presented a hedgerows measure in 1982. The Government said that it was not required because the threat to hedgerows had ended. Between 1984 and 1990, almost a quarter of Britain's hedgerows disappeared. I urge the Minister to give favourable consideration to the Bill that I have presented in the past few days. It has been refined from the one that was blocked in 1989. It commands the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House, including some of the Minister's hon. Friends who have a distinguished record in conservation. I know that I could have had the support of more of his hon. Friends, if a larger number of supporters were allowed. The Minister will recall that we are trying to keep that measure non-partisan and I say that as a long- serving chairman of the Council of Europe sub-committee on the natural environment.
I would like Britain to maintain its leading position in the field. The Government's commitment in the manifesto on which Conservative Members were elected in 1992 means that they have an obligation to ensure that a hedgerows Bill is allowed to go through and that would make up for the decline in interest in hedgerows which may be a consequence of the order.
Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor) : I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr.Greenway) made one of the most telling contributions when he asked the Minister about the position of those farmers who have already submitted plans to the Ministry and had them accepted. I was very interested and encouraged by the Minister's response that, if plans are accepted, they will receive grant at the higher rate. I note that the Minister is again agreeing to that.
I am especially pleased about that because, sadly, at the time that the farm and conservation grant scheme was
Column 858introduced in 1989 there was some difficulty about the interpretation of the expression, "expenditure incurred", which appears in paragraph 2 of the statutory instrument.
One such case involves one of my constituents, Mr.Winston Richards, who was engaged in a project under the agricultural improvement scheme, which predated the farm and conservation grants scheme. The interpretation of "expenditure incurred" in his case has been particularly inflexible. I shall briefly quote to the Minister a letter that I received from the Secretary of State for Wales, which said that he accepted
"that the Welsh Office has to determine in any individual case how the term expenditure incurred' is to be applied. In doing so it must act in accordance with the guidelines which have been agreed between all Agriculture Departments and the Treasury".
If the interpretation has changed, I wonder how it will apply to constituents such as Mr. Richards, who incurred £15,000 of expenditure and--whether the grant is 25 per cent. or 50 per cent.--has not received a penny of assistance because of the inflexible interpretation of the rule.
I was very much encouraged by what the Minister said about developing the agri-environmental package. Environmentally sensitive areas are playing a more significant role in some of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom, such as my constituency. Two areas within it--the Cambrian mountains and the Radnor area--have been designated ESAs in recent times. However, the Brecon Beacons national park--an area of equal beauty--has within it many hedgerows, as the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) will know, on which the skills of hedge laying have been kept alive.
Although other schemes assisted hedge laying and maintenance, I look forward with anticipation to the proposals that the Minister has said that he will present to the House in due course to ensure that we do not lose those skills and that farmers will be in a position to carry on their important work of looking after our beautiful countryside, in which they should be supported.
Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West) : I was struck by one comment made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on agriculture. He said that each area has its traditional landscape. I only wish that that were true in my area on the Lancashire plain. When I first knew it 20 or 25 years ago, it looked as most hon. Members would expect. Now it is a huge plain, which resembles Saskatchewan more than Lancashire.
So many years of destruction and dereliction of hedgerows will need a lot of fixing. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton- Brown), who mentioned having created one mile of hedgerow, would have to work extremely hard to restore some of those in west Lancashire. They have been left as stunted stumps, which have all sorts of implications for country roads in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans)--who has quite a large rural patch, believe it or not--watches as, in dry weather, thousands of tonnes of topsoil annually blow off his constituency and all over mine. Much as I like to receive things from his constituency, we could do without that. That is attributed by the farmers to the destruction and dereliction of hedgerows.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : When my hon. Friend refers to the situation on the south side of Lancashire, will he recognise that, in east Lancashire, the situation on the Pennines is very different in terms of the need for stone walls ? The farmers in other parts of Lancashire will not be happy about what a Lancashire Minister said in opening the debate.
Mr. Pickthall : I welcome the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). He is quite right and the wind that blows in his part of the world is even more ferocious than it is in mine, although I maintain that, in a flat area like west Lancashire, any diminution of grants towards the maintenance and building of shelter belts and hedgerows is nothing short of disastrous. I shall briefly mention the cuts in grant for the handling and storing of poultry manure in my region, where farmers have already expressed a great deal of concern to me about their problems in disposing of that manure. Especially they express concern in connection with the 15 per cent. set-aside, which presents them with extra diffficulties. When I brought the problem to the attention of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials, I was told that the solution was simply to burn it. That seems to me not only an absurd waste of energy in the process of the burning, but an absurd waste of energy in the material itself, which I suggest should be more imaginatively used. The types of grant that we are discussing could be useful in that respect.
I wish to comment on what the Minister said about the low take-up of greenhouse replacement grant. Most of that grant must have been taken up in my constituency, where there are vast areas containing thousands of derelict greenhouses, which are being restored piece by piece, with great difficulty in these times of recession. I very much resent any cut in that grant.
I welcome the provision of grants towards access to agricultural land for the maintenance of stiles, gates and so on, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). Such provision is important because popular paths especially sustain much damage from normal wear and tear. Footpath groups such as the Ramblers Association are, quite rightly, aggressive in keeping those paths open to walkers. That costs a good deal of money.
I hope that it will be possible for some of the grant to go towards the major footpath projects that we have in my part of the world. We have a lot of huge sluices in the peatland area, which sometimes can be as much as 20, even 30, ft across. Where the footbridges have fallen into disuse, it costs a vast sum of money to put them back in place. I know that the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) will be reaching for her garlic, but Lancashire county council has shared with the Council for the Protection of Rural England the cost of building a bridge there that has cost tens of thousands of pounds. Farmers could not afford that, even with the type of grant assistance that we are discussing. That is the responsibility of local authorities and I hope that some of the money might find its way in their direction.
Mr. Morley : With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond to some of the comments which have been made. The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr.Carlisle) made a fair contribution, describing how farmers were trying to move
Column 860away from grant support. Indeed, there should be a move away from set-aside schemes to environmental support schemes. That is precisely what the Opposition are arguing. The whole farm and conservation grant scheme is extremely small compared with the overall package of agricultural support and in such a small scheme, which has been viable and well supported, the cuts made are mean and petty. The Opposition want a major shift in the structure of the agricultural support system. I know that farmers want to be more commercial and more independent, but for all sorts of reasons--whether social, environmental, economic or strategic- -there will always be a need for some sections of the agricultural community to receive support. Assistance should be shifted away from subsidies for production towards support for environmental gain. Measures such as the grants scheme should therefore be expanded rather than cut. I much appreciate what the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) said about the Isles of Scilly. I usually spend a week there each year, and last time I was there I had talks with the chief executive about local problems. I generally go to the Isles of Scilly during the week of the Conservative party conference, because there are few better places to be at that time, and I recognise the sensitive and fragile nature of their habitat. Incidentally, I believe that support for increased public access would be much appreciated by the tourists who go to Scilly.
I again emphasise the importance of a proper measure to protect hedgerows. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) may well have created one mile of hedgerow on his farm, but by wrecking the private Member's Bill on hedgerows he destroyed the chance to protect hundreds of miles of hedgerow. His constituents will judge him on that rather than on the one mile that he has created, and the electorate will judge the Government on their commitment, or lack of commitment, to conservation and the environment--a commitment that is sadly missing from the scheme. 2.31 am
First, I put on record my profound appreciation of the considerable interest shown in the measure by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but especially on the Government side. There has been an excellent turnout. Many of my hon. Friends have stayed throughout the debate, and I was especially pleased by the telling contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and for St. Ives (Mr. Harris).
The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr.Morley) chastised me for being the bearer of the news that rates of grant were to be diminished. He shows the typical Opposition approach to such matters, in that he is unable to take the wider view. We have heard during the debate about additional farming income from other sources. The Government have had to take a balanced view, because our task is to make the best use of scarce and limited resources. We reviewed the effectiveness of the scheme and, for the reasons that I explained in my opening speech, we concluded that we could afford to make some
Column 861sensible and modest reductions without inhibiting the take-up of money. As I have said, about 9,000 farmers have already taken advantage of the waste management grants. We have spent £149 million under the scheme, £119 million of which has gone towards waste handling projects.
One of the common themes of the debate has been the question whether we have put fundamentally at risk our commitment to the restoration of dry- stone walls, hedgerows, traditional farm buildings and various forms of banks and cover. I commend to the House an excellent book called "Conservation Grants for Farmers", a joint publication by my Department and the Department of the Environment, which lists a tremendous range of available schemes.
I can put on record the fact that, in additional to our expenditure, the Department of the Environment has a budget of some £105 million, which goes to the Countryside Commission, to national parks, to English Nature and to Groundwork, all of which have various schemes to deal with some of the important features of our countryside. The Government's commitment to working to restore those features is second to none, especially in the extension of the environmentally sensitive areas.
While considering the expenditure on those environmentally sensitive areas, the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe chose to ignore the fact that by the financial year 1996-97, £63 million will have been spent on that highly focused form of help to special types of countryside, of which hedgerow management and dry stone wall restoration are a part.
I visited Cumbria during the Christmas recess--I did not visit the constituency of the hon. Member for Workington--and went into an environmentally sensitive area. One of the farmers there said that the available money meant that there was no excuse for not maintaining the country craft of restoring dry-stone walls. Opposition Members' use of some rather cataclysmic and flowery language to describe the changes, when they are balanced by the introduction of many other schemes, must be for the consumption of local newspapers.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) referred to the wider environmental package. I remind him that, in addition to the environmentally sensitive areas and the continuity of the farm and conservation grant scheme, and the schemes which I mentioned under the Department of the Environment's responsibility, in 1994 we shall introduce the moorland scheme, the habitat scheme, nitrate sensitive areas, the countryside access scheme--which the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe mentioned--organic aid schemes, and so on. We are not reluctant to take seriously our responsibility for the countryside and the environment.
Opposition Members must have written their speeches on the financial impact of the changes before I had a chance to put on record that expenditure in the next financial year under the farm and conservation grant scheme in England will be £27 million--£2 million less than it is in the present financial year. By any standards, that is a substantial amount of money spent on such important matters. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe asked me a number of questions. He asked whether resources could be made available to separate in the schemes water from building roofs and run-offs resulting from the farm
Column 862waste scheme. The answer is no. If the scheme had been extended to do that, we would have ended up cutting grant rates on the wider scheme. The hon. Gentleman asked whether access provision was paid for by money diverted from the agri-environment package. The short answer to that is no. It is in the envelope of the existing farm and conservation grant scheme.
The hon. Gentleman also suggested that there was no consultation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment on the changes. The fact that I have pointed out a growing range of schemes administered by the Department of the Environment which dealt with many of the sensitive issues that he chose to raise shows carefully that, as expenditure in one area of Government rises, quite properly we re-examine expenditure in those same areas of our own budget.
Much criticism has been made of money that farmers are receiving under the arable area payments scheme and in other community receipts. It was this Government who fought for the reforms of the common agricultural policy and it was this Government who fought to control expenditure in that area. Farmers cannot ignore the fact that that income enables them, at a time when, properly, price support is being reduced and they are becoming more market sensitive, to play their part with or without grant schemes and to maintain the traditional fabric of the countryside which they have fashioned. The hon. Member for North Cornwall should not lose sight of that fact, because that is a farmer's responsibility.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) made his speech from the Back Benches for the first time in six years. It was a special contribution, and I am glad that he made it. He reminded us of the importance of good management practice within the set-aside scheme. I assure him that there is growing awareness of that. My hon. Friend will be aware of the new requirements within the rotational and non-rotational set- aside, and I shall write to him and spell out in more detail some of the important measures. I welcomed my hon. Friend's recognition of the need to re-examine our spending priorities in light of the substantial income that farmers receive from various sources.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned the habitat scheme. That is part of the agri-environment package. the hon. Gentleman cannot walk away from the fact that we are committed to introducing it during 1994. I emphasised environmentally sensitive areas. They cover about 10 per cent. of the land area of England. That brings to bear in a very focused way schemes to deal with many of the points to which the hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention. I am certainly convinced, from my own involvement in inspection during the Christmas recess, that farmers in those areas are taking advantage of schemes. Mr. Tyler rose --
Such schemes are contributing to the preservation of those important features of our landscape.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives for his generous comments on the Scilly Isles. It is right and proper that, when discussing big agriculture, we do not forget small, innovative farmers in places such as the Scilly Isles.
Column 863This has been an interesting debate. It clearly shows that, when farm incomes are rising, the Government were right to re-examine their priorities. I hope that I have demonstrated that we do not shirk our responsibilities in the environmental sense and that the schemes of my Department and of the Department of the Environment fulfil the objectives laid down by the House.
Question put :--
The House divided : Ayes 153, Noes 38.
Division No. 79] [2.41 am
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Gardiner, Sir George
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Madel, Sir David
Maitland, Lady Olga
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian