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Column 454might learn about the contribution that those people make to the natural environment. The beautiful scenery in the hill areas is not natural in that it would not exist if the area were depopulated. It is the hill farmers, their families and the other people who work on the hill farms who make that environment what it is. The hill farming industry provides the basis for the infrastructure and the economic basis for tourism in such areas.
Many of the hill farmers are not well off. Many still earn less than the average industrial wage. As I have said repeatedly, it is all very well for the Minister to talk about increases in incomes. Of course an increase has taken place, but that has to be judged against the very depressed previous level, especially towards the end of the 1980s.
I do not believe that the industry will be encouraged by the Minister's statement that the Government do not intend to abolish the HLCAs. It would have been encouraged by a statement that there would be no further cuts in the allowances while the Government are in office, or even an assurance that there would be no more cuts in the next public expenditure round.
The Labour party strongly supports the principle that farmers in the hill and marginal areas, many of whom run relatively small farms, cannot be expected to compete on the same terms as lowland farmers. That is why we should maintain the differential level of support, to give hill farmers a chance to increase their incomes further so that they can restart the investment that we need in those areas. That is what the HLCAs are all about.
I must mention the cuts in research and development. I listened with interest to what the right hon. Lady said about agricultural science in this country. To listen to her one would not have known that the Government had decimated our scientific base. But when the long-term economic and social history of the Government is written it will probably be found that the greatest damage that they have done to our long-term productive base has been the systematic slashing of publicly funded research and development--and nowhere more so than in British agriculture.
As the House knows, agricultural research and development has been singled out for more swingeing cuts than other areas of scientific endeavour. Scientists are still being made compulsorily redundant from our research stations. Only last week, when I visited Rothamsted, I found out that another seven had been made compulsorily redundant. The people in the research establishments are demoralised. The number of personnel has been slashed by half since the Government came to power, and many of those who are left are on short-term contracts. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the Ministry's policy. What sense do short-term contracts make for young scientists who want to do long-term agricultural research ? Most agricultural research has to be done over the long term. It sometimes takes about three years for the soil to settle down after what has been applied to it. Almost all the recently recruited scientists in the research establishments are on short-term contracts, and the idea that we should rely on such contracts is undermining morale and making it harder for the establishments to attract and retain the high quality researchers whom we need.
I listened with interest when the right hon. Lady talked about the contribution that our scientists have made to animal breeding. May I remind her of the development of artificial insemination that was carried out at Cambridge, not far from her constituency ? That was achieved through what was then the Agricultural Research Council. It was
Column 455not encouraged by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time, but that is a different story. However, it makes the case for funding agricultural research not only through the Ministry but through the Office of Science and Technology.
I hope that when the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council comes into operation on 1 April the Minister will take the opportunity to call off the nonsense about yet more privatisation. The Government have sold off goodness knows what in research and development, and they are even considering privatising further some of the research establishments. But agricultural research is a long-term business, and much of it has to be done within the framework of the state. Oil companies and fertiliser companies cannot do all the research that we need.
Any hopes that we may have had that the Minister would mitigate the Government's excesses were greatly disappointed when she announced the publication of a consultation document on the future of the agricultural wages boards.
Farm workers earn only 67 per cent. of the average industrial rate. As I told the House at Question Time, even with the increase announced yesterday, they will still earn less than three quarters of the average wage of industrial workers. Taking the average of the Low Pay Unit and the Council of Europe's low pay thresholds, 43 per cent. of full-time male and 68 per cent. of full-time female agricultural workers have earnings below the low pay threshold. They earn £76 less per week than employees in manufacturing. That is a crude figure, but even with the recent increase the gap will still be £70 per week. When the Government published their consultation document we heard the usual rhetoric. The covering letter with it says :
"On the basis of its view that statutory wage fixing arrangements distort the labour market and destroy jobs, the Government has already taken steps to eliminate statutory wages controls in others sectors where they exist."
The Minister is, of course, knowledgeable on that subject, because as Secretary of State for Employment she presided over the final winding up of the wages councils. And evidence is already coming through that jobs in some of the low wage areas are being advertised at rates below those prescribed previously by the wages councils. The right hon. Lady has acknowledged that the outcome of the consultation process has been an overwhelming view that the wages boards should be retained, but I fear that as a result the Government will announce a decision to retain the form of the wages boards, but not their substance. It is crucial that the House recognises that it will not be sufficient merely to retain the boards ; it will be necessary also to retain the statutory provisions that underpin the wages and conditions of farm workers and their families.
We shall not complain if the announcement is delayed, but if it is made next week that will be all right with us. I hope that when the right hon. Lady makes that announcement she will be able to assure us that the Government will not follow their usual policy on wages
Column 456councils--as illustrated by their opting out of the social chapter--of trying to compete with our European competitors on the basis of lowering the wages of some of the least well off and, in the case of farm workers, some of the most deserving, and also some of the most skilled, workers in the country.
When the right hon. Lady said that the Secretary of State for Scotland would also be making a statement--I do not know whether the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be doing the same because there is a Northern Ireland wages board--I took it to mean that it would be made on the Floor of the House. I do not know whether the fact that there is to be a separate statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland means that there will be some disparity in the announcements. Whatever the answer, it is an important issue.
The second major aspect that I wish to cover is Europe and the common agricultural policy. By way of introduction, I mention that the right hon. Lady rightly referred to animal welfare. She will be aware of the great concern expressed about the lorry loads of sheep that arrived in Birmingham in a deplorable state. I urge her to redouble her efforts on animal welfare in general and, in particular, to accept that the United Kingdom must take a firm stance and seek the agreement of other member states to reduce the maximum journey time for animals in transit from the current 15 hours to eight hours in the United Kingdom and 24 hours elsewhere in the Community. In the remaining few minutes, I wish to deal with the Minister's position on the European Community and the common agricultural policy.
Mr. William Ross rose
Mr. Ross : Perhaps I am his hon. Friend on this issue. Would not it be better to go further and encourage the slaughter of animals close to the point of production rather than the transporting of live animals ?
Dr. Strang : I am not sure whether we can describe ourselves as hon. Friends, but we are in complete agreement on that issue. The Government should be doing precisely what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
The right hon. Lady has today been figuring in the columns of our newspapers in a rather big way. We understand that, on the 23 or 27 European Union blocking vote provision, the right hon. Lady has been arguing that the 27 blocking vote provision--the one which the hardline anti-marketeers, if I may call them that, are determined should not be foisted on the Government--might be quite useful in some spheres, including agriculture.
The Daily Telegraph reports :
"However, on agriculture, the single market and air fare regulation, Britain would be prepared to see the blocking minority increased to 27."
The Daily Telegraph would probably like to regard itself as the Conservative party's best house journal--I do not criticise it for that because it is an excellent newspaper in many respects--but The Independent today carries a slightly fuller and more interesting report. It states that the Prime Minister reportedly pointed out at a lunch yesterday that
Column 457"in certain circumstances the higher minority of 27 would be helpful to Britain. For example, while the UK constantly finds itself in a minority on social legislation--often of only one, or in EU terms just 10 votes--it"
"is in a majority in wanting to secure the form of the Common Agriculture Policy, a point emphasised last night by . . . the Minister . . . to the Cabinet."
The Daily Mail , the last newspaper from which I shall quote, stated :
"The move has been supported by the Agriculture Minister, who believes that dilution of the veto will undermine the position of the heavily-subsidised olive oil' states."
That is very interesting, but I suggest that the right hon. Lady should perhaps not relay that information to Spain, which is still lined up behind, or alongside, Britain on this issue. I am sure that she will be aware that a large amount of olive oil is produced in Spain. I think I am right in saying that last year more than 2,800, 000 tonnes of olives were grown in Spain, producing more than 500,000 tonnes of oil.
It is also worth noting that the British Government are apparently again interested in reforming the CAP. Indeed, there was a hint of that today when the Minister said that the 1992 reforms were only the first step. Let us leave aside for the moment her remarks about new sugar and wine regimes because we knew that they were coming, but I presume that she means that the reforms are a first step in relation to what is needed.
The Minister is well aware that her predecessor, the Secretary of State for the Environment, was so enthusiastic about the reforms that he claimed them as his own. He said that they were no longer the MacSharry reforms but the Government's reforms. He strongly supported the reforms at the time and, indeed, exactly a year ago he repeated his statement that the reforms were his. He said :
"That is why we got rid of the MacSharry proposals and replaced them with our own. That is what the CAP reform achieved."--[ Official Report , 25 March 1993 ; Vol. 221, c. 1228.]
I assume that there is some movement in the Minister's position and that she is gently bringing herself into line with the stance that the Labour party has consistently taken on the issue.
The truth is that the right hon. Lady has not dealt with the reform of the CAP. European taxpayers are now spending more than £30 billion a year on a common agricultural policy that keeps food prices high, builds food mountains and dumps cheap food on world markets. It has been estimated that in 1992 the CAP cost the average family of four about £20 a week in higher taxes and food prices. The Minister of State looks up with interest. I remind him that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury referred to that figure, although he put the figures in dollars, so the Government are now accepting the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's figure.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : How can the hon. Gentleman square his criticism of the CAP's budget with the European manifesto to which his party signed up and which states that we need further substantial public resources which have been estimated at £77 billion, double the current EC budget ?
Column 458also want EC expenditure to be used to encourage industry, research and development, regional policy and social objectives throughout the Community, as well as agriculture. Of course, the Minister Mr. Clifton-Brown rose
Dr. Strang : No, I shall not give way again. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that farmers in Europe were paid to leave fallow more than 6 million hectares of set-aside land last year. Meanwhile, the grain mountain last weighed in at more than 19 million tonnes. European taxpayers spend £2.5 million every day on the tobacco regime.
The truth is that the CAP is a disaster. Since 1979, under the Conservatives, the CAP budget has been bloated to one and a half times its size, after allowing for inflation. The Agriculture Commissioner has already had to admit that the CAP will not be kept within its enormous budget for 1994.
I listened with interest to what the right hon. Lady said about fraud. Much of the fraud does not take place in the southern European states, although there is fraud there among the farmers in the sense that they do not properly declare what they are producing or do not produce what they declare. There is massive fraud and British firms are in it as are others, taking advantage of open-ended state intervention, buying and the subsidising of agricultural exports. I am not convinced that the Government have been tackling the problem, not least because they have not taken up all the money allocated by the European Union to chase fraud.
The right hon. Lady has not seen the wood for the trees in respect of her participation in the Council of Agriculture Ministers. Dare I suggest that she has been the voice of the Norfolk grain barons in the Council of Agriculture Ministers. She has secured minor changes to set-aside. I emphasise the fact that we regard set-aside as a scandal. It is an outrage that we are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on objectives that are doing nothing positive for the environment, that we are taking out a disproportionate amount of production in the United Kingdom and, what is more, that we are paying large sums of money, often to wealthy landowners, for no great national benefit.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack) : I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as I know that he is just coming to the end of his peroration. All that he has done so far is criticise my right hon. Friend the Minister and say that he does not like set-aside. Will he confirm that that is the sum total of his party's agricultural policy ? As he referred to certain cost items in terms of what his party would do, could he also tell us how much a Labour Government would spend in those agricultural areas and on what they would spend it ?
First, we have made it clear that we want to see the subsidies disconnected from production ; we are opposed to the continued use of subsidies to encourage production. The common agricultural policy was originally set up with that objective--it was a laudable objective at the time--in a deal between the French and German Governments. However, that should no longer be the objective. The deal was made before we joined the European Community.
Column 459We must break completely with a policy that continues to subsidise production. When we have surpluses, how can the Minister defend open-ended state intervention ? For goodness sake, when will the British Government take a stand on these issues ? We have a policy that is utterly indefensible and the 1992 MacSharry reforms, of which the right hon. Lady is still not prepared to let go, will not solve the problem ; we all know that in our heart of hearts. How can anyone believe that set- aside is a solution to the cereals problems ? The British Government have failed agriculture. We all understand that an increase in farm incomes is the direct result of black Wednesday, the devaluation of sterling and the consequent increase in support prices. The Government are now threatening the incomes of farm workers by suggesting that they might abolish wages boards. They have utterly failed to address the excesses of the common agricultural policy. That is why my hon. Friends and I will vote for our amendment this evening.
Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln) : It is a great pleasure for me to take part in the debate and to follow so closely after the opening speech from my right hon. Friend the Minister. I welcome her involvement in agriculture. Her speech shows clearly her integrity and her wish for that great industry to do well. She also has a common sense approach to it ; she wants to cut through all the complexities and get an industry that can stand on its own feet in the future. I agree that agriculture is one of our central industries and is crucial to the well-being of the countryside.
As my right hon. Friend said, the whole food chain accounts for 9 per cent. of the gross domestic product and employs about 14 per cent. of all people in work. Farming is at the heart of the food chain. However, despite the impressive increase in productivity recently, we still have a deficit of some £6 billion in the trade in food, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said. Although we cannot grow tangerines, we could grow half of that deficit quite easily, and that is what we must seek to do. That underlines the need to press for efficient production, which we are good at. We must involve all the modern techniques that we can and we must also have better marketing of our products--we all know that farmers can market their products much better--a level playing field and fair competition.
The industry is going through a time of unprecedented change. That has been brought about not only by the surpluses but by the large cost of the common agricultural policy. As a farmer, I welcome the fact that prices are reducing to world levels. That is healthy. None of us is sure what the world level is, but it is good that we should be moving towards it. It means that food is cheaper, contrary to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said. As a result of the decline in prices--for example, the decline in the price of wheat by 35 per cent.--over the next few years, food will be cheaper. As a component of price statistics, the declining value of food, combined with the static value of other products, is the reason why our inflation rate is so encouraging.
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : Can the hon. Gentleman give an assessment of what the possible reduction in the price of food as a result of the cut in cereal prices might be, say, over the next three years ?
Mr. Carlisle : Over the past year, there has been a 1 per cent. fall in seasonal food production--the prices came out yesterday. The figure stands for itself ; it helps to keep the inflation rate low. It is healthy for farming that subsidies are no longer disguised in prices. I think that all farmers preferred the old efficiency payment system where the subsidy gained for the farmer was absolutely clear. The common agricultural policy is trying to cope with the surpluses and at the same time lower prices to world levels. In addition, it is trying to provide a transitional period to farmers by making open payments to them. That is much better than hidden subsidies. If we explored, we would probably find that the cost of the CAP is less than the previous cost of the hidden subsidies.
Farmers are proud to be custodians of the countryside. They take great pride when the countryside looks good, is full of vitality and is good for wildlife. The current system provides exciting opportunities for the countryside, and for farmers to meet that role and make much better use of our land. The taxpayer will be prepared to continue subsidies only if he can see benefits to the countryside in a number of ways. Those benefits include proper conservation, the recreation of habitats and better access for the public where suitable. As that matter is so central to the continuation of subsidies to the farmer, I shall concentrate on it.
As we know, there are many special schemes to assist
conservation--sometimes, a bewildering number. At the top of the list, we have sites of special scientific interest and environmentally sensitive areas. I welcome the fact that there will be four more ESAs shortly. There are also schemes, such as the countryside stewardship scheme, aimed at restoring habitat and landscape types. There is the interesting Tir Cymen trial in Wales where 28 adjacent farmers on 2, 500 acres are getting together whole farm management plans to find a balance between farming and wildlife. There is also the set-aside scheme.
All those schemes are bewildering to those who must work with the land and I ask my right hon. Friend to try to integrate them and make them more understandable. A conflict arises from the schemes. As an example, one need look only at the Breckland ESA between Norfolk and Suffolk, which was set up largely to help the stone-curlew. If a farmer has an environmentally sensitive area under the scheme, he cannot count that against set-aside. However, because set-aside payments are higher than what he would get for the ESA, many farmers are not encouraged to look after their land in the best possible way. Clearly, that is one example of how we can try to sort out some of the conflicts between the schemes, which are admirable in many ways. The real value of set-aside is not that it is a specialist scheme but that it applies to the wider countryside. It gives farmers who cannot apply for special schemes an opportunity to improve the habitat and create diversity in the wider countryside. Last year--the first year of set-aside- -we set aside 15 per cent. of our land. I welcome the possibility this year of having non-rotational set-aside over 18 per cent. of our land. That will give far more options on how best to use our land for set-aside.
However, the announcement came far too late for farmers to plan their operations in a way that would allow them to introduce that this year. Announcements from Brussels and the Council should come early in the year, so that we can make use of them as we plan ahead and purchase our seeds and fertiliser for the coming year.
Column 461Using non-rotational set-aside, I am looking forward to creating green veins through the countryside by setting aside 20 m next to my best hedgerows. I am also looking forward to leaving woods along woodland edges, and many farmers will do their best to recreate water meadows along streams, which non-rotational set-aside allows. We are also learning--thanks to the advice of organisations such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and others--how to manage set-aside better. One of the lessons is that we should avoid early mowing or early cultivation if we are to enable set-aside to provide a proper habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Progress in the second year of set-aside has been admirable and it enables us to do far better than in the first year, but there is scope for further improvement. I hope that in the second, third and fourth years of set-aside we shall be able to be even more constructive and therefore merit the subsidies more.
I should like to describe some of the changes which would help. I know that my right hon. Friend wanted the planting of woodlands to count against set- aside. At the moment, that cannot happen if one enters the farm woodland premium scheme and I hope that my right hon. Friend presses on that. I can assure her that, if we were allowed that, there would be a tremendous planting of broad-leaved woods, coppices and belts throughout lowland Britain. That would enhance the landscape in 50 or 60 years more than anything else. It is time for the rebirth of Capability Brown.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will continue to press for the habitats scheme. It is important that it is not only a part of long-term set-aside, but should be allowed to count against set-aside despite the difficulty that she might have in winning that. The argument is simple. In the same way in which people will not plant woods unless that is counted against set -aside, they will be reluctant to go in for long-term set-aside under the habitats scheme unless that counts against set-aside.
We must review and take forward our policy on grazing and hay-making. The time-honoured way to produce good habitats in heathlands and water meadows is to graze lightly in late summer or take a light crop of hay. That has produced richly diversified habitats, but 1 September is too late to provide that.
The case for grazing is shown well by a friend of mine who has a mixed farm in Northumberland. He was keen to go for extensive grazing and yet he cannot put his set-aside land into pastures. If he could put his set-aside land into pastures and yet keep the same number of sheep and cattle, as he would have to do under the quota system, he could graze the totality of his pastures more extensively. At present, he must have a part of his land in set-aside and cram his livestock on to fields that are under grass. That, of course, gives the worst of both worlds, as there is over-grazing in some parts and unmanaged set-aside in others. We should look at the grazing regime if possible.
I would also like to see the green vein idea extended by allowing a 6 m stretch along hedgerows. I could then put those strips around all my fields giving access to the public and a greater variety of habitats for hedgerow plants and wildlife. The problem is that 6 m cannot be seen from a
Column 462satellite, but 20 m can. I recognise that there are problems, but I hope that my right hon. Friend can do something about that. I hope also that she will press ahead with the moorland scheme. It is important to reduce stocking densities in less-favoured areas, and I would be grateful if she would let us know when that is to be introduced.
There is also a real role for organic farming which, while it will never be dominant in this country, should be encouraged. Therefore, I welcome the support for new entrants, but I ask my right hon. Friend to remove the skew against existing organic farmers. It takes about two or three years to build up the fertility of a field to go back into cropping if one is an organic farmer.
During that time, the land lies idle but cannot be counted against set- aside. The organic farmer must not only set aside 15 per cent. but nurture those fields where he is putting back fertility. If we take into account that the average yield of wheat on an organic farm is 2 tonnes to the acre, as opposed to 3 tonnes for a normal farm, there is a good argument for trying to be more sympathetic to organic farmers.
The access scheme is admirable, and all or most farmers have land near to villages or communities that could contribute to the quality of life in those communities. I should love to set aside part of my land next to our local village on to which people could take their dogs, and on which they would have greater freedom to roam. I hope that those ideas can be put forward more constructively.
I want to emphasise the need to encourage conservation in the wider countryside and not just the special areas that we have nurtured so far. We should consider what is the best use of the huge sums that sustain the common agricultural policy. Next year, we shall spend some £2.5 billion on the CAP.
There is an argument that we should give greater payments to those farmers who take active measures to increase the diversity and sympathy of their land for wildlife. Some mechanism could well be found for that and, if so, the public will accept that the subsidies are needed during the transition stage and will understand that good constructive work is being done in return.
Just as economic pressures led to surpluses with prices encouraging production during the 1970s and 1980s, so economic incentives should help to bring good conservation practices to the wider countryside. I know the difficulties of negotiating in the EC and this is a good chance for us to make subsidiarity work here. There should be more subsidiarity on how we tackle the reductions in what we produce on the land.
Farming is good for that, because it differs so much in each country and also in each region of the United Kingdom. We know that sheep farming in Sicily is different from sheep farming in the Pennines, but there is also a huge diversity of countryside within the United Kingdom. We must be sensitive in nurturing that diversity and applying slightly different management techniques to each area. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister has a robust attitude to Brussels. She is a good European, but she understands what subsidiarity should deliver, and agriculture is a sector where we could do better.
In conclusion, I think that we all accept that we need healthy farming. We need a strong food industry. Farmers are custodians of the countryside. We need to sustain farming. We need to sustain the industry that relies on it. However, the surpluses that the skills of farmers and
Column 463scientists have produced give us a huge opportunity. Set-aside gives us an exciting chance to restore the countryside, to restore habitats and to encourage wildlife.
If I might give a mid-term report on our progress, I think that we have made some progress. I give every praise to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for trying hard, but we have to work even harder to develop the remarkable potential that set- aside gives to our land.
Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West) : I have listened to the Secretary of State and to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) with great admiration for their grasp of detail and their ability to ski round the issues with great skill.
I contrast their expertise and their erudition with what my constituents and, I believe, taxpayers throughout the country perceive as the nub of the issue that we are discussing--how much they pay, and for what, in subsidies and other measures involved with the agriculture industry. By and large, their answer to that question is that they pay too much and they pay it to too few. They perceive that the common agricultural policy forces them to subsidise a vast range of agricultural endeavour in a bewildering variety of ways, determined by incomprehensible formulae.
For example, The Times readers among my constituents--I presume that there are a few--will have read, on Monday last, 21 March, the story of Mr. Robert Sherriff, a farmer who has been paid £27,000 a year for growing only grass on more than half of his farm, which he has been doing for five years because he was part of the pilot scheme. It is quite a substantial article, headlined :
"Fields that grow nothing yield lucrative harvest".
One interesting little passage in it is :
"As a master of foxhounds with the Enfield Chase, Mr. Sherriff appreciates more crop-free land for horses and hounds to hunt over. All field sports have benefited'"
"'because one of the few things you are allowed to grow on set-aside land is game cover.'"
Whatever one's views on hunting, the idea that the taxpayer should be inadvertently subsidising that activity is a nonsense that, I am certain, all sides of the argument would deplore.
Occasionally one hears a very sane speech in the Chamber. I think that we have just heard one from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle), and there was a great deal with which to agree in what he said. I agreed especially with two important and simple points that he made.
First, the hon. Member for Lincoln said that the taxpayer is only prepared to continue to pay for subsidies when he can understand and see the benefits. He was speaking especially of environmental benefits. I think that that would also apply to the taxpayers' instinctive knowledge of the difficulties faced by less favoured areas such as the hill farmers about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East spoke at some length.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Lincoln said that he would ask the Secretary of State to work towards making the schemes more understandable. I am sure that everyone would agree with that, although I disagreed with his argument about the satellite. I would have thought that, these days, not only could the satellite spot a 6 ft strip, but it could spot the rabbits running along the 6 ft strip.
Column 464At one end of the subsidy debate are many of my constituents who are farmers in west Lancashire, which is an exceptionally rich growing area. They tell me, when I meet them, that all they wish to do is to do what they do best--to grow or to raise food. They point out that an area of 15 per cent. set-aside means 15 per cent. less employment, 15 per cent. less farm machinery bought for that activity and 15 per cent. less fertiliser--that might be a good thing--or seed or whatever, and all the multiplier effects of that cut on the general economy. They do not, and cannot, see the sense in it. In a country that still imports a vast amount of its food--I acknowledge the fact that we cannot grow satsumas, but I would have thought that that was an unfortunate choice of fruit--the taxpayer can be excused for believing that he or she is in a mad world, where he or she is paying for farmers not to farm, and growers not to grow. In a world where half the population is underfed, the equation is even harder for them to bear.
Of course, we are economically sophisticated in this place and we fully understand the economic processes that allow millions of people to starve while we pay food producers not to produce. We know, unlike our electorate, the sheer economic stupidity of trying to square our capacity with other people's need. The people are, after all, silly innocents who think that high production or overproduction should result in lower prices for basic foodstuffs. They imagine that increased efficiency in production for a single European market and for export beyond that market should improve the lot of the farmer and remove his need for so much protection and subsidy. In their innocence, the people of Britain will make great sacrifices so that the economies of countries struggling to find markets and to protect subsistence farming can survive, little appreciating the western need to grind them down through a general agreement on tariffs and trade which seems to me to be neatly arrived at to protect advanced economies.
I am tempted to adapt the famous remark of Bertolt Brecht that the people indeed are so silly in these matters that it is about time Parliament abolished the people and elected another.
I am in danger of getting tragic over this and missing some of the nitty- gritty points that I want to make about the way in which we shuffle money about to preserve producers in this, that and the other sector of European agriculture, and about the way in which we prevent the French or the Spanish getting one over on us, but of course I have to play that game too.
I note from the documents before us that we continue to support tobacco growing with subsidies while we are taxing tobacco consumption heavily on the grounds, I presume, of health protection as well as supporting the Treasury. We support tobacco production to the extent of 3.5 million ecu a day--I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East gave the figure in real money earlier. I know that the European regime still spends large amounts of money intervening to protect the wine-growing industry. Whereas in north America grape juice, as a fruit juice drink, rivals blackcurrant juice and grapefruit juice on every supermarket shelf, it is very difficult to find it in this country--I am not so sure about other European countries. That is mentioned in the documents and I am grateful for that. It seems to me that that is one major and positive way in which we could move forward.
Column 465We read of mountains of fruit destroyed or left to rot in Europe--15 per cent. of peaches and nectarines withdrawn, 1 million tonnes of apples this year, huge mountains of surplus lemons in Spain, Portugal and Italy. You may recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you read the newspaper The European , that last year it published a dramatic, huge colour photograph of what appeared to be a sky view of a range of mountains. It was in fact a range of apples being shovelled together by bulldozers to be burnt and destroyed. It was one of the most morally and economically disgusting pictures that one might see.
It would be easy for us to say, "a plague on all this", scrap the system of support and subsidy and ignore all the multifarious problems of the different sectors of the agricultural economy that must be considered while we are waiting for that system to be destroyed. I want to mention one which may seem small, but which is important to my constituency and perhaps others. In my constituency, many growers face ruin in spite of all those eleborate systems of support.
Last night, I received a phone call from a lettuce grower, Mr. Baxter, who has 12,000 dozen lettuces ready for cutting. At this time of year, he would normally cut 500 boxes--6,000 to 8,000 lettuces--a day. He sells through brokers right across the country. At present, he can sell nothing and will probably have to trash his crop because Spanish iceberg lettuces are flooding the market, particularly the Liverpool market in the case of the north west, at £1 a box. They are even being given away before they go off.
As a box costs about 60p and transport, even within the United Kingdom, costs £1.10, Mr. Baxter understandably cannot believe that that is happening to him and his colleagues in the trade without an unofficial subsidy helping the Spanish producers. Because he is losing his crop, he in turn must cancel his orders for the boxes, which are also made in my constituency, in an important factory that employs many people. When he telephoned the factory to say, "I am terribly sorry about this, I am embarrassed but I must cancel my order", the secretary who took the call said that she was not surprised as that had happened time and again recently.
This is the first year in some 20 years that Mr. Baxter has been unable to sell his crop. As the Minister of State represents an agricultural area not far from mine and probably similar in richness, he may have heard similar complaints from growers. Will he undertake to investigate lettuce dumping to see whether allegations of improper subsidy by Spain are true ?