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Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): Does my hon. Friend welcome the Minister's assurance that no decision has been made yet about HLCAs? I represent an area that is not only less favoured but severely disadvantaged and if our hill farmers do not receive positive help in the near future, many will go out of business.

Mr. Tyler: That is the case in many less-favoured areas. We look to the Minister to live up to the impression that his predecessors gave when in opposition, that they would be the hill farmers' champions.

The Conservatives have a miserable record in that respect: they cut, cut and cut again, even when the figures showed that, merely to compensate for reductions in income, which is what the hill livestock compensatory allowance is all about, payments would have been increased. We led the charge year after year--we shall do so again this year--and we look to the Government to live up to promises made in opposition.

Hill Farming Initiative estimates that, in this twelvemonth, there will be a cut of one fifth, on top of the previous cuts in incomes. We are determined to restore the real level of the HLCA to what it was in 1992, and we expect the Labour party to come with us.

The green pound revaluation has been mentioned several times and the figure is clearly considerable. The Minister rightly says that not all the money will come from Brussels, but a substantial sum can come from Brussels and is sitting there waiting for us. If we do not pick it up, our competitor countries in the European Union will use it to put their farmers in a better competitive position than ours. Every day that goes by with our Minister failing to pick up what is rightly ours gives British taxpayers' money to our competitors, making the famous level playing field even less level.

The same goes for the cut in the over-30-months scheme payments. I find it extraordinary that the right hon. Member for Fylde had nothing more to say about BSE. It is incredible. After the 18 months of dither, delay and shambles--as the farmers kept saying--over BSE, it is extraordinary that a Conservative spokesman can say that increasing OTMS payments is all that needs to be done to help the livestock sector and beef producers in particular.

There is a major problem with the weight system, and farmers in the lowland areas, where animals are fed on grass, will be especially disadvantaged--that will feed through the entire livestock sector--but to alter that will not be enough.

The Minister recently said to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West that he is actively considering a full-scale inquiry into what went wrong with BSE. I hope that there will soon be an announcement about that, because it is about time that we exposed the 18 months of confusion caused by the

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Conservative Government and their 10 years of mismanagement of BSE. On several occasions in the previous Parliament, I pressed Ministers to come clean, but they failed to do so. I hope that we shall now get the full-scale inquiry that the farming community deserves, so that we can identify what went wrong and ensure that it does not happen again.

The pressing issue of the BSE crisis is not the export ban but the failure to act effectively and vigorously to ensure that imports are of the same standard that we insist on from our own producers. The Minister announced a welcome initiative in the summer when he told us that he would introduce restrictions to ensure that products imported from other European Union countries, and countries outside the EU, were monitored to the high standards that we insist on in this country. We understand why the previous Government were only too happy to let in cheap imports for their friends in food processing and supermarket chains, but there is no excuse for the present Government not to act.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon mentioned prices. Prices in the market are affected far more by those imports than by the export ban. Of course we want to get rid of the export ban, but it would be a real start if we achieved parity throughout the European Union in controls, monitoring, restrictions and effective steps to ensure that no BSE-affected meat could ever again reach consumers in this country. It is a scandal that imports are allowed in from countries that have declared instances of BSE and are not operating on a level playing field.

I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), will respond more fully on the general issue of development and jobs. I regret deeply the threat to the Rural Development Commission, which will have an extremely important role, regardless of whether there are regional development agencies. The Government, like the previous Government, seem not to understand that there are rural environmental considerations that are completely separate from the urbanisation that has so often caused such difficulty.

That is also true, for example, with the jobseeker's allowance. All of us who represent rural constituencies must know that young people have great difficulty in meeting the constraints of the allowance because of transport problems but, as I understand it, the Government have made no attempt to adjust what they inherited from their predecessors and to adapt the requirements to the needs of rural communities.

The same is true of rural training, help for rural businesses, and advice on premises and finance. Jobs in rural areas are invariably less well paid, often give less choice, and are difficult to plan for in the new environment that the Government have inherited and seem not to be prepared to change.

Clearly, there needs to be a better balance in planning. In recent months, we have seen the Government's failure to come forward with a national plan to cope with the anticipated increase in households.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Does my hon. Friend agree that it was unfortunate that Ministers said that rural land was up for grabs? Does he agree that the matter of 4.4 million homes needs to be

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treated with great sensitivity and in consultation with the rural and urban communities that will be affected by that massive development?

Mr. Tyler: I agree very much with my hon. Friend and I hope that the Under-Secretary will examine that point when she replies.

The Government face a major problem, but it is a problem of their own making. In an admirable confession a few minutes ago, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that he had had to adopt the previous Government's spending restrictions. Who said that he had to adopt them? [Hon. Members: "The electors."] The electors said nothing of the sort. Did the electorate say that the new Government had to adopt those expenditure limits for two years? Of course they did not. What bunkum! Every councillor in the country knows that that is not true. The suggestion that the Minister had to adopt the expenditure constraints is ludicrous. By cloning the Tory Budget, the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have adopted a straitjacket in agriculture as in so many other areas of public policy.

The Minister referred to the common agricultural policy reform programme. Clearly, far too much of his predecessor's menu has, again, been swallowed hook, line and sinker. We must achieve some subsidiarity over issues such as modulation so that we can have more local and regional control over the way in which they operate. It would be fatal for the Government to go into negotiations on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and to find themselves landed with modulation at European level. That would be absurd and would not fit the circumstances in the United Kingdom.

I acknowledge that the Government are looking positively at ways in which European funding arrangements can be adjusted to suit our needs. I hope that that is true of the new objective 2 status areas. There is, however, a real problem about which those of us in 5b areas already know. I refer to the absurd red tape, the maladministration and the slow administration of existing funding in 5b areas.

We shall find that, at the end of the full period of 5b status, we have taken up about 50 per cent. of the money available to us from British taxpayers as well as other taxpayers. My colleague the Member of the European Parliament for Cornwall and Plymouth West has calculated that we have got only about a quarter of what we deserve and can draw down from Brussels, although we are already halfway through the programme. If that happens again with objective 2, the Treasury may save a few million pounds, but little will be done to help the rural communities for which the programme is intended. It is vital that we speed up the process. If we do not, the whole programme will work to the advantage of our competitors in Europe and will do little to help us.

It is sometimes said that there is a conflict between environmental policies and those designed to help employment in rural areas. I do not believe that that is true. The work being done by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is particularly helpful in that respect because it demonstrates that, in agriculture and other country activities, there is a real chance to improve employment by the use of more explicit environmental programmes. The society says:

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    The needs of wildlife and their habitat are often regarded as an obstacle to rural development. What has become clear in our research on rural issues, is that the environment is a foundation stone for a healthy thriving rural community."

Nowhere more so than in the hills.

The right hon. Member for Fylde had somewhat more notice to prepare his speech than did I. It was not much more time but I find it mind-boggling, breathless cheek that he could describe the present dispensation on HLCAs as tawdry. Where was he for the past five years when his Government colleagues cut and cut and cut again? We then had a bit of staggering amnesia when he talked about the treatment of beef farmers. Where was he last year when they were hammering on the doors of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food calling for the resignation of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)? Presumably, like most of the ostriches in the Treasury, he had his head in the sand.

Farmers have longer memories. They will not forget or forgive the Conservatives playing partisan politics this evening. We should have heard from their spokesman a speech along the lines of that of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who discussed the practical concerns of the countryside. If we had had more of that from the Conservatives, not only the House but the farming community would hold them in more respect.

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