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Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. Does he agree that farmers in his constituency and in mine are in a serious crisis? Does he agree that they require the Government, who were, we were told, elected to look out for the many and not just for the few, to help them? There are many farmers in serious crisis. Does he agree that the Government should seek to unlock the compensation funds in Brussels as a priority? Farmers are not just business men. They are the guardians of the countryside, and they require our help.

Mr. Hurst: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has clearly read a synopsis of my later remarks. I agree entirely that the Government are pursuing a strong policy to support farmers. The figure of £1 billion of support because of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis flips off my tongue, in addition to the £500,000 to support the beef industry.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The hon. Gentleman mentions £1 billion. We were told by Ministers at agriculture Question Time last week that the figure was £1.5 billion. I hope that he understands that that money was negotiated by the previous Government, and was in addition to the agriculture budget. That was done to help the beef industry in a crisis. It is incumbent on the Minister to go back and negotiate more money from his Chancellor in another crisis. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage him to do so.

The Government cannot just parade £1 billion as money that they have obtained. It was obtained in a crisis by the previous Government. We are asking the new Government to do the same now.

Mr. Hurst: I had hoped to avoid going into the origins of the BSE crisis and apportioning blame. The issues should be raised above the political knockabout so that we can examine the root cause of the problems in agriculture. I am sure that others will deal with the party political points in due course.

To sustain the rural economy, people have to work in it. That can be achieved by decoupling the payments from production and supporting the farmer for being the custodian of the countryside. The farmer has two important functions: to produce food and run his business; and to act as the custodian of the countryside. The countryside is for us all to enjoy and appreciate, but it cannot be managed on

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the cheap. It is only right and proper that farmers should be paid for sustaining environmental projects, keeping the countryside as we like it and supporting the conservation of wildlife.

The advantage of moving subsidy in that way is that conservation schemes are more labour intensive than non-conservation schemes. A hedge can be taken out overnight with a tractor and a man on overtime. It has then gone for a long time. Putting a hedge in requires continual care and cultivation over many years. The more hedges that go in, the more sustainable jobs there are. The more deciduous forestry plantations there are, run in proper woodland management schemes, the more labour will be required to coppice. The more traditional industries that are brought back to agriculture--such as charcoal burning to meet the ever growing barbecue market--the more jobs are put back into agriculture. The growth in game conservation will also put jobs back into agriculture. Each genuine rural job that is put back in agriculture is a boost to the rural community--the shop, the church, the pub and the village hall. It sustains traditional communities that have existed for generations and creates a real countryside, as opposed to a commuter haven for visits at weekends or during the summer.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Was he giving way?

Mr. Hurst: I always seek to do so if I possibly can.

Madam Speaker: I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman had finished or was giving way.

Mr. Jenkin: It is early in the morning. I am a constituent of the hon. Gentleman, and we share a problem as constituency neighbours. Our rural communities are threatened by the supposed need for 4.4 million houses to be built in the south-east of England over the next 20 years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a lose-lose scenario? It will destroy our rural communities. There will be no sense of community if vast new housing estates are to be plastered all over our rural areas.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in resisting the logic that says that such houses are needed in those areas? It will be bad for the rural economy, bad for the environment, because people will be dependent on cars, and bad for those who will have to live in those soulless housing estates.

Mr. Hurst: As my constituency neighbour and one of my constituents, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have frequently spoken in the constituency against the building plans for that part of northern and central Essex. However, now is not the time to pursue that issue. We had a debate on it recently, when hon. Members aired their views widely.

I shall seek to reach a conclusion, because this is a short debate. Rural communities cannot be sustained without rural employment. Without agricultural subsidies directed at providing incentives for farmers--or business men who are farming--to employ people, there will be ever fewer people working and living in the countryside. That will

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result in the horror of large housing estates for commuters or retired people built on green-field sites with no economic connection with the local area.

9.54 am

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for--is it Aberdeen and Kincardine?

Sir Robert Smith: West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

Mrs. Winterton: I apologise. I congratulate him on introducing this debate on the rural areas of our country, which are so important.

As a representative of a rural community, I pay tribute to the farming community, particularly at this time when it is facing such tremendous difficulties in all sectors. The contribution of the farming community is often undervalued. Wherever one drives in the United Kingdom--I say United Kingdom advisedly--one sees the most beautiful scenery and well-husbanded land. We do not give enough credit to the farming community for keeping it like that.

The first principle of farmers is to produce good, wholesome food, which has been done throughout the ages. The second is to recognise the impact of agriculture on the environment. They are the custodians of the countryside; environmental policies can be introduced through them. In addition, they provide the habitat for wildlife.

Farmers in Cheshire are interested in, and committed to, the land that they farm. They do all that they can to plant new woodland and habitats for wildlife wherever possible. That can be done only where the industry is profitable. As we have heard so often recently, the industry is in a state of crisis and its future is under threat.

Milk is important in Cheshire. The strength of sterling has driven down the produce price, but my farmers do not see much reduction in supermarket prices to reflect that. We can safely say that some people's margins have increased dramatically at the expense of our farming community. That should be said loud and clear. Supermarkets have introduced great benefits to the housewife, providing a wide range of fresh, good-quality food, but there is a down side to the control that they have. We must recognise what is happening. I was pleased to hear the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say last week that he would speak to the chairmen of all the main supermarkets and tell them that he was disgusted by their behaviour.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that the same phenomenon applies to the beef industry? Last week, we saw the lowest prices ever for beef on the hoof in Chippenham market, but the supermarket price remains miraculously unchanged.

Mrs. Winterton: My hon. Friend is right. One of the problems with beef is that, while the hind quarter has sold exceptionally well since the beginning of the BSE crisis, there have been difficulties in shifting the cheaper cuts.

The dairy industry works hand in hand with the beef sector. It provides the cull cows and breeds some of the bull calves, although they do not go into the beef industry. Both sectors have been equally hard hit by the recent crisis.

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Dairy farmers in my constituency ask me how it is that Britain has been the second largest net contributor to the budget of the common agricultural policy, yet our Government will not apply to Brussels for green pound compensation for the four revaluations this year that have caused them such difficulty. They also say that the present Government have given up one lever that they could have used in respect of interest rate policy by handing over responsibility for fixing interest rates to the Governor of the Bank of England, who is advised by an unelected committee of experts.

We believe that the Government should apply to the European agri-monetary compensation fund to assist our agriculture industry. Beef prices are down throughout the United Kingdom. Beef farmers have been hit by the weight restrictions in the over-30-months scheme and hill farmers in particular are in dire straits. The good stock is bred and raised by the hill farmers before going down to the lowlands to be finished. If the hill farmers do not survive, vast tracts of the country will go to rack and ruin. Hill farmers look after the environment, produce exceptionally good stock and have a very hard life indeed.

It is all very well for right hon. and hon. Members who work in the warm facilities of the House of Commons and elsewhere, but hill farmers get up very early in the morning to work in all weathers and we should recognise the valuable role that they play in our uplands.

I served on the Select Committee on Agriculture for 10 years, including during the beef crisis. The previous Government were advised by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which comprises distinguished scientists in the field. The Government of the day have always followed its advice to the letter. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) tried to apportion blame, but it is indisputable that the BSE crisis cannot be blamed on anyone.

Last week, I was horrified to hear the new ruling on deboning. Scientists can advise, but Ministers and politicians must make policy decisions. It was a political decision.


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