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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is being slightly unfair to the Minister. Surely the Minister is holding his meeting back until he can welcome the representatives of the farming organisations into his new offices, having spent £1 million of taxpayers' money tarting them up so that he can have a meeting. He does not want to have a meeting any earlier as there might then be suspicions that the refurbished offices are merely for his own interests and not to be shared by anyone else.

Mr. Jack: My right hon. Friend is right. Given that the hill farmers are struggling to keep a roof over the Minister's head, I am sure that he has taken careful note of what my right hon. Friend has said.

I shall put before the House an interesting letter that I received. In 1994 a Labour Member wrote these words to a farmer in Richmond about HLCAs:

Those comfortable words to hill farmers were uttered by none other than the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), in a letter to Mr. Davy of Richmond. How thin that diet now appears as the Minister connives with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to face hill farming with a difficult situation.

Let us consider what a letter from No. 10 Downing street tells us on the same subject. A letter to the same Mr. Davy of the Hill Farming Initiative contains the following:

That shows that the Government are thinking about the issue, but they are not exactly backing up their thinking with very much action.

The Minister wrote to Alistair Davy on 22 October 1997:

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. More than 40 per cent. of hill farmers in England and Wales earn less than £10,000 a year. The Minister is choosing, however, to take a large sum away from these farmers.

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I want the Minister, if he will, to concentrate on the lines that have been put to me by the Hill Farming Initiative. Those involved have made it clear that if the Minister does not recant, hill farmers will be short by about £60 million. The figures show that there will be a 20 per cent. loss in hill farm incomes, and some have suggested that the loss will be even greater. Is it the Minister's understanding that the loss in hill farming incomes projected for next year for those farmers with an average net income of between £10,000 and £16,000 will be between 20 and 25 per cent? Will he admit that there are real problems for hill farmers, especially with the debt load that they are carrying?

I draw the Minister's attention to an example--

Dr. John Cunningham: Please draw to a close.

Mr. Jack: The Minister asks me to draw to a close. When the truth is hurting the answer is no--I shall continue to give the Minister information.

I pass on to the Minister for his comment some information from the Hill Farming Initiative. Those involved point out to me that a farmer last year with £18,200 of net farm income--38 beef cows, six cows in heifer, 663 ewes and 89 gimmers, which the Minister will recognise as a typical modest-sized hill farm--faced with all the changes that will ensue as a combination of green pound rates and the expected reduction in HLCAs will be about £8,000 down next year. The Minister, so far, has turned his face against the real needs of the most vulnerable in the rural economy. It seems that the Minister is hitting the weakest hardest.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the principal beneficiaries of the work of the Rural Development Commission are hill farmers, who will need all the help that they can get? The RDC has a fuddy-duddy image: that it is only about thatching, shoeing horses and saddlery. It is not; it is about high-tech help for rural communities and assistance for all rural hill farm communities as well as the wider rural community. Is he aware that the RDC is due for the chop under this Government? What a mean-minded trick.

Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk will deal with that matter when he winds up.

The changes that the Minister made to the over-30-months scheme bear particularly heavily on hill farmers. How did he calculate the weight restriction that he has imposed? Why did he do it? I have been informed that it was on the basis of an analysis of the Irish cattle market. He seems to have got a very Irish result. He has chosen 560 kilos as a wholly arbitrary figure for the cut-off point for the over-30-months scheme. It is one of those situations where people choose the breed of cow that best suits the marketplace, then the Minister comes along and arbitrarily decides who will get maximum help and who will not. It is about time that he explained himself. It is particularly mean-spirited as far as hard-pressed dairy farmers are concerned. The Minister owes it to the House to deal with that issue.

There are other issues that cause the countryside to feel under threat at this time. In their amendment there is a clear indication that the Government are still keen on having a legal right to roam, with all the uncertainties that that causes for the countryside. Will the Minister pay attention? These are questions to which we shall want

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answers. What representations will he make to his colleagues in Government about what is to be defined as moorland, heathland and downland in terms of the access schemes to be proposed? For instance, will downland that is currently farmed in a managed way be part of the open access policies? One thing that distinguishes our approach from the Government's approach is that we believed in managing access through agri-environmental schemes to applaud and support landowners who voluntarily made access to the countryside available. The Government's sole solution is to legislate. So far there is great uncertainty in the countryside about that matter.

The threats to country sports remain. I do not want at this stage to have the debate that will take place on 28 November, but I point out to the Minister that the countryside feels under siege. The pressures on rural sports are a threat to an industry which, in 1997, common resource consultants calculate to be worth £3.8 billion per year. The Government have sought, perhaps, to distance themselves from the Bill on fox hunting, which is to be debated on 28 November, but they will need to do more than that to reassure the countryside and farming interests that they have not got a long-term agenda to take away one of the most valuable contributors to the rural economy.

My right hon. and hon. Friends will make their own contributions to the debate to fill out some of the arguments that I have made, but the time has come, as the Walrus said, for the Minister to speak of many things. I hope that his reply will be forward looking and that it will respond to the real fears and concerns of country people. I want him to show that the fine words that he and his colleagues have uttered from time to time on the question of hills, the vital role that hill communities face and the work that they do in looking after that aspect of our countryside, will be sustained by his Ministry. I want him to show that he has at least some understanding of farming matters. If he does not do so, it will be absolutely clear to anybody in the country and the farming community that there is only one true voice for countryside matters in this country--the Conservative voice.

8.5 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) to his new position in the shadow Cabinet. He has taken over from the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who has an enviable record in these matters and no doubt will be sorely missed--even though they might not recognise it yet--by the rest of the shadow Cabinet. We just wonder, given the ructions in the Conservative party at the moment and his well-known views on European issues, whether the right hon. Member for Fylde will survive until Agriculture questions on Thursday.

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The right hon. Gentleman displayed a broad sense of humour in his speech and an easy facility for being rather careless with the facts. I remind him that he promised us that in the course of his speech he would tell us where he would conjure up the £60 million that is not in the provisions that we inherited from him and his colleagues in the previous Government. He made no mention of where it would come from.

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