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4 Nov 1997 : Column 176

Rural Life

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Before I call the first speaker, I inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

7.32 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I beg to move,

I find myself at the Dispatch Box as a result of the sad resignation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) from the post that I now hold. He carried out his job as shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with distinction following his ministerial career in that Department. He has made his decision for his own reasons, which he has stated. I know that he wishes to contribute to the debate this evening, and I wish him well in the future.

The motion standing in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends deals with the threats to rural life and the rural economy arising from the Government's actions. We shall address issues such as the decline in farm incomes, the future of the hill livestock compensatory allowance, access to the countryside, country sports, and the situation with rural development agencies. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) will deal with a whole raft of environmental issues that are threatening the countryside at present. It is hardly surprising that the countryside believes that it is under siege, but it is interesting that Labour Members should express surprise about that.

I note that the amendment put down by the Liberal Democrats--the junior partners in government--which you did not select, Mr. Deputy Speaker, agrees largely with the line that we have taken and that we shall debate this evening. We should not be surprised that the countryside feels under siege as a result of the Government's actions.

I referred to the Labour manifesto--it is always useful to see where a party is coming from--and, after an assiduous search, I discovered the 20 words in that manifesto that amount to an agriculture policy. One of those words was "Labour" and the other 19 dealt vaguely with agriculture. On the basis of such a thin diet, not only do the Government not have a coherent rural policy but they cannot claim to speak for the countryside, as Labour Members do from time to time.

It is interesting to consider what the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been up to since May. I used the modern technology of the internet to see if I could find anything that constituted a coherent rural

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policy. The only document I found that used the word "comprehensive" was a spending review. That was the only reference to rural policy to be found in MAFF press releases. The way that Ministers' minds were working is clear from the way in which they caved in to Treasury pressure. The press release entitled "MAFF Conducts Comprehensive Spending Review" states that the Government aim

    "To examine the contribution of HLCAs towards meeting the objectives identified and to examine any other options for achieving those objectives more cost effectively or in ways which otherwise minimise public expenditure"--

the cat was well and truly out of the bag as long ago as 29 July when the Minister was under pressure to reduce public expenditure--

    "and maximise the positive impact on the economy."

The Minister wants to boast to the rest of the non-rural world about how he has cut expenditure in that area. He winds up by saying:

    "The consideration of possible options should not be limited to agricultural support measures."

Goodness knows what is going on. No wonder there is uncertainty in the countryside and that it feels under siege.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Is it not hypocritical of the Minister to talk in those terms when Labour inherited a bill for £3.5 billion arising from the BSE disaster?

Mr. Jack: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman anticipates a rapid change of Government that would translate me immediately to the other Dispatch Box. Would the hon. Gentleman not have afforded that degree of support to farmers as a result of the BSE difficulties? It was right and proper to support the farmers at a time of considerable stress. It is no use Labour Members mocking me. Successive Ministers of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the former Conservative Government followed the scientific advice that they were given and acted properly in the interests of food and farming. They fought our corner in Europe until Professor Pattison's announcement. This debate is not solely about BSE, but I am happy to discuss the matter with the hon. Gentleman--perhaps on a Wednesday morning--and to defend our position robustly.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food claims to speak for the countryside: he claims to be in touch with rural Britain. What was one of his earliest acts? On 28 May, the Minister who wants to be in touch with the countryside scrapped the MAFF regional panels--the one lifeline of communication with the countryside. He replaced it with Ministers having to go hither and thither, the length and breadth of England, listening to farmers and talking to the food industry. They will be breathless if they try to carry out the work of the regional panels. [Interruption.] I hear the Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), saying, "We will do it." I suggest that he read the Grower, for example, where his ministerial colleague the noble Lord Donoughue is reported only for cancelling meetings--not a good example of getting out and about so as to be in touch with the countryside.

Cutting off those rural panels was not a very clever thing to do if the Minister and his team want to keep in touch. The people involved will feel cheated because they

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made a significant contribution to ensuring that the previous Government were kept up to speed about rural and countryside issues and the benefit of that knowledge will no longer be available to the Minister.

It is hardly surprising that Labour Ministers go about their business in this way. One has only to read the Government amendment that has been selected for debate. It is pretty old, tired politics for the Minister to fall back on words such as

I am delighted that behind me this evening is my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), a distinguished former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whose track record in fighting for the interests of British farmers during a period of reform of the common agricultural policy is second to none. He defended the interests of Britain's farmers, as did the former Member, William Waldegrave, my boss when I was in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But for his hard work, animal welfare would not be an issue on the European agenda. The Government's tawdry charge that the previous Administration did not look after the countryside for 18 years does not wash.

I remind the Minister that since 1992, farm incomes went up by 85 per cent. when we were in charge. I remind him that our work on Food From Britain has helped more than 1,000 companies to develop their food exports. We have some of the highest welfare standards in Europe as a result of our stewardship of countryside matters. We brought in massive deregulation and the opening up of agricultural markets with the removal of the Potato Marketing Board and the milk marketing boards. That is a record of which my right hon. and hon. Friends can be proud. I dismiss the first line of the Minister's amendment to my motion.

The amendment goes on and

Twenty words in a manifesto do not add up to a commitment, and the cancelling of the regional panels seems more like cancelling a commitment than building one.

Further on in the amendment, we get to the real issue:

We will speak about declining farm incomes, the tawdry way in which the Government are dealing with hill farmers, the burden on dairy farmers of the work that they have done on the over-30-months scheme, and other issues.

Then we read the hidden agenda--the Government's intention to

If that is not shorthand for the right to roam, I do not know what is.

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