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Column 887

McMaster, Gordon

Maddock, Diana

Mahon, Alice

Mandelson, Peter

Martlew, Eric

Meale, Alan

Michael, Alun

Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)

Milburn, Alan

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)

Morley, Elliot

Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)

Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)

Mowlam, Marjorie

Mullin, Chris

O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)

O'Brien, William (Normanton)

O'Hara, Edward

O'Neill, Martin

Patchett, Terry

Pearson, Ian

Pickthall, Colin

Pike, Peter L

Pope, Greg

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)

Prescott, Rt Hon John

Purchase, Ken

Quin, Ms Joyce

Raynsford, Nick

Rendel, David

Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)

Roche, Mrs Barbara

Rooker, Jeff

Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)

Ruddock, Joan

Salmond, Alex

Short, Clare

Skinner, Dennis

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)

Soley, Clive

Spearing, Nigel

Spellar, John

Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)

Steinberg, Gerry

Stevenson, George

Strang, Dr. Gavin

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)

Timms, Stephen

Tyler, Paul

Vaz, Keith

Wallace, James

Wareing, Robert N

Welsh, Andrew

Wicks, Malcolm

Wilson, Brian

Worthington, Tony

Wright, Dr Tony

Tellers for the Noes: Estelle Morris and Tessa Jowell.

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Question accordingly agreed to.


That the draft Legal Aid Advisory Committee (Dissolution) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.

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5.58 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack): I beg to move,

That the Farm and Conservation Grant (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1994 (S.I., 1994, No. 3002), dated 25th November 1994, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th November, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): With this it will be convenient to consider motion No. 3 in the name of the Leader of the Opposition:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Farm and Conservation Grant (Amendment) Regulations 1994 (S.I., 1994, No. 3003), dated 25th November 1994, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th November, be annulled.

Mr. Jack: This debate deals with developments affecting the farm and conservation grant scheme. The House may recall that, on 29 November last year, my right hon. Friend the Minister announced the outcome of the 1994 public expenditure round as it affected agriculture, saying:

"Against the background of an extremely demanding public expenditure round I am delighted that resources have been found to support farming enterprises in the six Objective 5(b) areas in England".

Although he found some extra resources for this task, savings had to be found from capital grants to fund our new programme. It is on those capital grants that the debate will concentrate.

These two short instruments, the Farm and Conservation Grant (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1994 and the Farm and Conservation Grant (Amendment) Regulations 1994, came into effect on 30 November last year. They end the availability of grants to farmers for waste handling measures. However, let me reassure the House that where a commitment to provide waste facilities before 30 November 1994 can be shown, or where a farmer has a current improvement plan which includes such facilities, claims will still be accepted.

The grant scheme which we are ending has exceeded our original expectations. When the scheme was introduced in 1989, the then Minister announced a provision of up to £50 million over three years for waste handling facilities in recognition of the need to tackle the problem of farm waste pollution. In fact, since the scheme's inception, more than £150 million has been paid in grants to farmers in the United Kingdom for the installation or improvement of waste handling facilities, valued in total at about £300 million. In England and Wales, 11,500 farmers have benefited. The scheme's effectiveness is mirrored by the fact that, in 1988, the year before the scheme was introduced, there were 940 serious agricultural pollution incidents. In 1993, only 63 major incidents were reported. However, we acknowledge that particular difficulties may be experienced by farmers in areas that will be designated as nitrate- vulnerable zones, and I can confirm that it is our intention to provide assistance to farmers in those areas for waste handling measures.

We want to help farmers to maintain high standards of pollution control. To that end, free pollution advice and help in the preparation of farm waste management plans will continue to be available. That will be backed up by the codes of practice for the protection of soil, water and

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air, which give sound advice and guidance on how to avoid pollution. Moreover, we are continuing to invest around £2 million a year in research programmes designed to help farmers to manage farm wastes.

The farm and conservation grant scheme also provides help with the provision, replacement and improvement of hedges, traditional walls and banks, and the repair or reinstatement of traditional buildings. That help will continue, with about £8 million of grants in England, Scotland and Wales until February 1996, when the scheme will expire, and we will consider how best to continue that work in the light of the transfer of the Countryside Commission's stewardship arrangements to our Ministry. I commend the measures to the House.

6.1 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): The measures, as the Minister said, end grants for facilities for handling the storage and treatment of agricultural effluent and waste and related fixed disposal schemes. The grant scheme has been useful. As the Minister outlined, agricultural pollution has been a major source of river pollution. When I looked at the figures recently, I was surprised by the high proportion of pollution incidents that have been attributed to agricultural run-off, particularly in the south-west, where there are many dairy farms.

There is no doubt that organisations such as the National Farmers Union have done much to support farmers in developing, for example, management advice on controlling pollution from slurry and from the animal livestock industry. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service has also played a valuable role. It is a great shame that ADAS is to be privatised, because it has provided great support for the agricultural sector over the years. Many farmers would find it difficult to buy such expertise and support. In terms of the support which the agricultural sector receives, farmers should expect research and development advice from bodies such as ADAS. I fear that in future such advice will be denied to many farmers.

The grants were reduced from 50 per cent. in 1989, when the scheme was introduced, to 25 per cent. in 1993. That was obviously a clear signal that they would be phased out. I have no doubt that they are being phased out as part of the Ministry's obligation to the Treasury, as the Minister said, so that the Treasury can accumulate money and can bribe the electorate with their own money and offer tax cuts at the next general election.

There has been excellent uptake of the scheme. The figures show that £64,000 was granted in 1989, rising to £23.4 million at its peak, and declining slightly to £21.1 million in 1992-93. The scheme's success can be seen in the decline in the overall number of pollution incidents. The overall pollution figures show that there were 4,441 incidents in 1988, declining to 2,883 in 1993. The involvement of dairy and beef farmers in those pollution incidents was about a third--35 per cent. in 1988 and 32 per cent. in 1993.

The National Rivers Authority concludes that the issues at which the grants are aimed--the containment of slurry and silage liquors, which are very powerful pollutants, and the failure of storage areas--are the main causes of agricultural pollution incidents. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we need high-quality aquatic habitats and

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that such habitats are threatened. Many of the cleanest rivers are under great pressure from all kinds of pollution, not just agricultural pollution. Indeed, they are also under pressure from water abstraction. Chalk rivers are also under pressure.

Pressure on the unspoilt and cleanest water environments has been demonstrated by the decline of the otter. I am glad that the otter is making a comeback in certain parts of the country. That is a tribute to reintroduction programmes, conservation bodies and better pollution control. We have seen the decline of the dipper, which is linked to the greater acidity of water, and the decline of trout in certain streams. Those declines are important also as bio-indicators of the health of our country and of our aquatic environment. The scheme has been effective in reducing that problem when subsidies are rightly under scrutiny in the agricultural sector and the common agricultural policy is under review, not least by today's Euro-rebels' manifesto.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): What does it say?

Mr. Morley: The Euro-rebels' manifesto stressed the need to reform agriculture and fishing. They called for the return of control to individual countries in respect of agriculture and fishing. I do not know whether the Euro-rebels' condition will be that the manifesto must be accepted by the Government before they allow themselves to be readmitted. We await developments with interest.

The savings from the scheme are quite modest, as the Minister will concede. The NFU calculates that ending the scheme will bring about a saving of about £8 million in 1995-96. That is a very small sum, taking into account the global sum of agricultural support. I am sure that it did not pass your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that last night's threat of rebellion over the recent fishing deal produced an extra £28 million in grants because 27 Tory Members showed their dissent. On my calculation, that worked out to a little more than £1 million per dodgy vote.

This is not one of the best-attended debates; I am sure that it makes up for that in quality, if not in quantity. If the five Conservative Members present would care to show their rebellion tonight, there could be a useful £5 million to go back into the scheme. It would take only another £3 million and we would be able to make up the £8 million that the scheme is meant to save. Conservative Back-Bench Members might consider the way in which Government finance seems to work. There are certainly better odds than in the national lottery.

It is a sad fact that environmental grants for those and other environmental measures are still a very small part of the overall agricultural budget. Opposition Members have warmly supported schemes such as the environmentally sensitive areas scheme; it brings quick benefits to farmers and it benefits countryside management. However, there is still a need for the effective monitoring of those schemes. That is not an issue that we may talk about tonight, but I am sure that the Government accept that there is a need to evaluate whether public money is spent effectively and whether it achieves the objects for which it was designed.

The agri-environment programme is also very disappointing in terms of the overall proportion of money that is allocated to it. In fact, the agri- environment programme accounts for about 1 per cent. of current spending on agricultural support. The public would see

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much more rationale behind grants directed towards environmental gain than they would in special beef premiums and other schemes linked to production subsidy. Support for environmental control--that is what the grant was designed for--would command popular support. I cannot deny that profits in the dairy sector have improved recently and are fairly good at the moment, but farmers with existing quota are the ones who gain, while dairy farmers who want to buy or lease more quota to expand, because of agreements or developments that they may have-- especially new entrants into the dairy industry who have to buy or lease quota--face heavy financial burdens. The grants were helpful in that respect. I hope that the Minister realises that some farmers will find it hard to raise the money to provide the facilities.

I do not want to take too much of the time of the House on narrow points connected with the regulations, but I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with two aspects in his reply. I understand that MAFF and the Department of the Environment are reviewing all environmental land management schemes. They want a more coherent approach to the implementation and development of schemes within the proper framework of a conservation strategy. We do not disagree with that. We certainly think that a land management and land use approach is sensible, and it is good to design schemes to meet the Government's international biodiversity commitments and the European Union habitat directive, which also places an obligation on them. The Government's Environment Bill will be considered by the House shortly; that, too, has elements connected with the strategy, in that it deals with hedgerow conservation and conservation grants in general. What role does the Minister expect the forthcoming environmental protection agency to play in connection with conservation grants and with directing resources to conservation programmes in the agricultural sector, as part of an overall land use and countryside management scheme?

I note that the Minister said that some form of grant would be available for farmers in designated nitrate-vulnerable zones. Can he outline any details of how those schemes will work? Apparently, there is good reason for farmers in such zones to receive grants for waste storage. That is fair enough. We do not disagree with it; but if there is good reason for that, where is the reason for taking the grant away from other farmers? Preventing pollution is important not only in nitrate-vulnerable zones but in every region.

There is no doubt that when such incentives are lost, some farmers will be less able to invest in efficient and environmentally sensitive pollution control facilities, so there is still a potential agricultural pollution problem. The scheme has been successful, and I urge the Government to include something like it in any future overall land management scheme rather than to scrap it completely, as is proposed.

6.14 pm

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