Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Cunningham: I am not giving way any more. That provision for one year only was coincidentally in the year before a general election.

Mr. Jack rose--

Dr. Cunningham: I am not giving way any more.

Although we wish to help farmers whenever possible, the Government were elected with a clear commitment to remain within the previous Government's predetermined

4 Nov 1997 : Column 192

public expenditure totals, for which the right hon. Gentleman voted. Unlike the previous Tory Government, this Government will keep their promises.

I asked the right hon. Member for Fylde earlier, although he did not reply--

Mr. Jack rose--

Dr. Cunningham: No, I am not giving way again. It is clearly a waste of time to do so. The right hon. Gentleman did not suggest extra taxation or transferring resources from anywhere else. As I have said, he has tried to get through the debate without putting any price on his proposals.

The Conservative party's condemnation of the Government for not introducing

is an act of desperation rather than a coherent line of policy given its policies in that area, especially Post Office privatisation proposals. The Government will push ahead with our manifesto pledge for greater freedom for people to explore the countryside. Not only is it important to preserve and enhance the landscape and wildlife; it is important that everyone should be able to enjoy it. We are firm in that commitment but we are equally determined to respect the rights of those who live and work in the countryside. We will work closely with all those involved and shortly publish a consultation paper on the matter.

I have demonstrated the Government's commitment to rural communities. We have taken many issues forward in the past six months. The Government aim to create a healthy, sustainable rural economy. The development of an integrated approach, better use of resources and effective European policies can combine to help us create it. The previous Administration never even tried to do so on that basis.

With a new Labour Government, the prospects for our countryside and the people who live, work in and depend on it are better than ever. I urge the House to reject the fraudulent Tory motion and support the Government amendment.

8.35 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I should like to draw the attention of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the real situation in agriculture as seen in my constituency, which is a fragile one of uplands and difficult farming, where there are some of the most difficult conditions in the United Kingdom. What he has said in this debate will not bring one crumb of comfort to farmers in my constituency who fear for their livelihoods.

If farmers who fear for their livelihoods are forced to quit the land, enormous support of the landscape, the environment and wildlife will go with them. Finding an alternative means of supporting the land, keeping the landscape and enabling people to enjoy it will cost more than the maintenance of farmers on that land. They know about that countryside and that landscape.

There is a real crisis that affects the lifeblood of my constituency, which is typical of many in the uplands of the United Kingdom--whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or large parts of England. Three elements are fuelling the crisis. Price cuts following revaluation

4 Nov 1997 : Column 193

have brought the dairy prices for a Milk Marque producer down to 20p, with whatever quality payments might be available.

Cuts in the over-30-months compensation scheme, especially to the weight limit, are bound to hit suckler herds, which are characteristic of uplands and difficult areas. Farmers there do not have a range of choice of breeds. A Charolais or Belgian Blue-based herd in my constituency suffers immediately from such a cut.

Cuts in beef prices have been disastrous. I was at the Craven auction mart yesterday--I am afraid that I shall mention it frequently. The following are yesterday's prices; what farmers are getting at the moment; the actual situation to within 24 hours of the present. Farmers in the Craven auction mart are talking not about biodiversity action plans but about the beef price. That is what matters to them.

For steers, farmers are getting 90p a kilo. Two years ago, it was 115p. Heifers fetch 97p a kilo, but two years ago they were sold for 135p a kilo. The best price for the most fashionable and desirable Belgian Blue is about 138p a kilo, yet the same beef was bringing in more than 200p a kilo two years ago.

Dr. John Cunningham: That was before BSE.

Mr. Curry: The right hon. Gentleman knows that I represent hill farmers. He represents hill farmers. I am concerned about their situation now, and appealing to him to do something about it. He understands it.

Dr. Cunningham: The right hon. Gentleman should not compare prices now with prices before the BSE crisis. That is just a cheat.

Mr. Curry: It does not seem a cheat to farmers. The prices affect their income, what goes into their bank balances, their collateral, what the bank manager has to judge. If the right hon. Gentleman told farmers at Craven auction mart that they should not compare prices because it is a cheat, it would not help their bank balances or their livelihoods.

There is a problem, and I would like to help the right hon. Gentleman to solve it. Plenty of cattle are still being sold at 80p a kilo. He mentioned that there might be a hill livestock compensatory allowance review. It certainly does not feel as if there is to be one to the farmers in my constituency.

For a dairy farmer, the combination of cuts in cull cow compensation and price cuts for heifers and bull calves means that the farm income for a 55 or 60-strong dairy herd, which is a typical size, especially in Wales, is £13,000 to £15,000 down on last year's profit. In the past few months, no fewer than 15 small dairy farmers in my constituency have sold their whole undertaking at the Craven auction mart. That is the extent of the haemorrhage affecting the dairy herd.

Of course, that option is not open to many hill farmers, because they are locked into the land and cannot get away so easily. They do not have quotas, as dairy farmers have, which are immediately marketable and, in fact, provide pensions for some of the older farmers. They depend on the HLCAs to the tune of 90 per cent. or more, and they have been hit by the cattle price and the sheep price.

4 Nov 1997 : Column 194

I am sorry to keep coming back to the Craven mart, but the prices there represent the farmers' incomes, because it is their marketplace. Mule wether lambs were selling for £38 to £42 in August, but the same animals are now £34 to £35. That fall has happened in a matter of months, so the same problem is occurring even in the sheepmeat sector, which is normally regarded as having done well.

Upland farmers cannot walk out, so we see increasing poverty. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was right about one thing--people in the countryside work for very low wages--sometimes for what we would regard as pocket money. Poverty in the countryside is much less obvious than in the town, because the communities are more remote and it is therefore less easy to treat. The sheer levels of despair that are reached--the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) is nodding, because he knows this is true--are very serious indeed. The Government can help.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) mentioned the green pound revaluation and the weight limits. On that subject, I wonder whether the Government have achieved savings on the suckler premium, because that has been affected by the revaluation. The suckler premium savings might enable the Minister to lift the weight limit on suckler herds only, which would be an enormous help, which could be targeted on some of the most vulnerable sectors.

The Government should conduct a proper HLCA review. The cost of doing nothing may be bearable in the short term, but in the long term the fabric of rural life and landscape--which we value and which the Minister says he values--is at risk from what is happening. That is not just a farmer's whinge. Everybody is used to epigrammatic remarks about farmers always being miserable, but the current problems go to the very heart of their livelihoods and of life in my constituency and other rural areas.

I can tell the Minister that the hills are bleeding, and, if the Government do nothing, the hills will soon be dying. That is not the only fear. People have fears about access, and the Government could do a service by tidying up the many untidy bits of legislation on access. It is not right for the diversion of a footpath to cost £10,000 and take seven years. There is a good case for tidying up the legislation and introducing voluntary access agreements with landowners.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), I am concerned about the fate of the Rural Development Commission and the absorption of objective 5b into objective 2. Will the Government continue the single regeneration budget universally across the country, or pull it back to the cities? Not a word has been said on that by the relevant Department since the Government came to power. It appears to be one of the few matters that the Government are not reviewing at the moment.

I am concerned about local authority services. The Government claim to have helped education and health, but personal social services will face a crisis this year. That crisis will affect many elderly people living in residential homes in remote communities.

What will the Government do about planning? The Minister is a decent man, and he represents an upland constituency. I know that he understands the problems and would like to support his constituents. He knows, because

4 Nov 1997 : Column 195

he talks to farmers and the other country people who come to see him and he goes about his constituency, that the problems are the same throughout the country.

We all accept the financial constraints on Governments--although the Government have had a Budget and the opportunity to change their priorities--but what matters is the livelihood of the people on whom we depend to maintain a certain sort of countryside and way of life. Those people are crucial to the countryside, and we want to preserve them. If the right hon. Gentleman does nothing, we will not succeed. If he is prepared to act, we can look forward to seeing succeeding generations in that precious and vital landscape that we all wish to enjoy.

Next Section

IndexHome Page