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Farm Incomes

3. Mr. Swinney: When he last met representatives of the Scottish farming industry to discuss farm income levels. [21714]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Calum Macdonald): Ministers meet the National Farmers Union of Scotland on a regular basis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last met representatives of the union on 16 December. My noble Friend Lord Sewel last met them on 5 January, when farm incomes, among other issues of concern, were discussed.

Mr. Swinney: I welcome the Minister to his post. He will be aware of the TSB agricultural study, which was published yesterday and which shows that 94 per cent. of farmers believe themselves to be less prosperous this year than last year, that there has been a collapse in agricultural investment and that there is poor confidence in the hill and livestock sectors.

What measures is the Minister taking to secure European Union support for the lifting of the export ban, either through the computerised traceability scheme or through the date-based scheme? When does he expect the first beef from Scotland to be sold in Europe, alongside beef from Northern Ireland?

Mr. Macdonald: I acknowledge that farmers are going through a very difficult period in comparison with earlier years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the lifting of the export ban is being pursued in a number of ways. There is the certified herd scheme--the work on computerisation is proceeding as fast as possible--and there is the new date-based scheme, which we are pursuing in parallel with the European Commission.

Mr. Home Robertson: I welcome my hon. Friend--who represents the most rural constituency in Britain--to his important responsibilities.

When my hon. Friend meets representatives of farmers in Scotland, will he explain that the blockade at Stranraer carried out by people such as John Cameron is likely to make it rather more difficult to resist similar blockades against Scottish food exports in the future? Will he join me in paying tribute to Sandy Mole for his excellent record of responsible leadership of the National Farmers Union of Scotland in recent years? As a member of that

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union, may I also pay tribute to the Government for their excellent initiatives to restore public confidence in Scottish beef, both at home and abroad, and to support the vital hill farming sector?

Mr. Macdonald: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I entirely agree with him about the unfortunate nature of the events in Stranraer and elsewhere, which did not help the case at all. I also associate myself with my hon. Friend's remarks about Mr. Sandy Mole, with whom we had a very good working relationship. I hope that we shall continue to have that good working relationship with his successors.

Mr. Ancram: I, too, congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and wish him well in his responsibilities. I am, however, surprised and somewhat disappointed that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not responding to this question. Does he really not appreciate the seriousness of the crisis facing farming, and the damage that is now being done to agriculture by the high rate of sterling and the green pound? Will he disown his noble Friend Lord Sewel because of his view that farmers have been treated generously in the past, and should stop complaining now? Will he also take action urgently to rescue an industry that is vital to Scotland's rural economy, but is currently in danger of going to the wall?

Mr. Macdonald: I certainly agree that the industry is vital, and that it faces difficult pressures. That is why the Government have indeed taken action. We have announced an £85 million package, a full third of which will go to Scottish farmers who--as the right hon. Gentleman knows--are facing a particularly difficult time.

Mr. Ancram: That simply is not good enough. Such complacency is endemic in the Minister's Government at present, and does no service to agriculture in Scotland.

Does the Minister not understand that financial help is now urgently needed, as is compensation for the high value of the green pound? The help that was given earlier has already been overtaken by extra charges. No other country in Europe would not have triggered the compensation mechanism in such circumstances. Will the Minister and his colleagues wake up and do something for the farmers of Scotland?

Mr. Macdonald: Let me directly compare the assistance that we have provided with the assistance provided last year. Last year, the right hon. Gentleman's Government provided £60 million of extra assistance to deal with the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy crisis, but they made no further provision for the following year. We have provided £85 million to respond to farmers' current difficulties.

University Applications

5. Mr. David Davis: How many applications have been made to Scottish universities for the 1998-99 academic year; and how many were made in the comparable period for the 1997-98 and 1996-97 academic years. [21716]

Mr. Wilson: Figures for Scottish higher education institutions have not yet been published by the universities central admissions system. However, provisional United

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Kingdom figures show that, by 15 December 1997, the universities and colleges admissions service had received 326,220 applications for entry to higher education in 1998. That compares with 347,037 at the same point in 1996 and 340,711 at the same point in 1995.

Mr. Davis: I thank the Minister for his answer. It is always regrettable when the number of applicants for higher education goes down, particularly when, as in this case, those applicants are not helped by an immoral policy that discriminates against all UK students who are not Scots. More Northern Ireland students apply to Scotland than to anywhere else in the UK. When we are in every other way helping Northern Ireland to remain a part of the Union, what is he doing to end that immoral discrimination?

Mr. Wilson: I would caution anyone against placing too much importance on applications because there is a big difference between applications and admissions. In quoting any of these figures, hon. Members have to remember that, in the current academic year, admissions to Scottish universities went up by 5 per cent. as people moved, understandably, to pre-empt the changes in student funding.

On the point about non-Scottish students, again, the right hon. Gentleman should consider some of the statistics. For instance, in an Adjournment debate last Thursday, I pointed out that, in marked contrast with the near hysterical comments at the last Scottish Question Time about the prospects for St. Andrews university and about the cataclysmic implications for the Scottish economy, applications to the university from non-Scottish students within the UK are up 6 per cent. for next year. The problem of Northern Irish students is a funding problem for the Northern Ireland Office. It has to decide how to fund students who go to universities in other parts of the UK, as the Scottish Office has to determine how Scottish students are funded.

Mr. Dalyell: How long can a system be sustained whereby students on the same course pay different fees simply because they come from different parts of the UK?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend knows that his question is disingenuous. It is not simply because students come from different parts of the UK; it is also because they hold different entry qualifications. If he wants perfect symmetry in the UK education system, that is a big argument, but at present Scottish school-leaving qualifications are geared to the Scottish four-year honours degree course and students who hold A-levels may in many cases enter in the second year of a four-year course. In making a judgment about which university to go to, any student will take into account whether he wants to enter a four-year course in the first year or whether he should take advantage of the possibility of entering a four-year course in the second year, if his qualifications are appropriate.

Mr. Wallace: For students entering university in 1998-99, in subsequent academic years, what will the position be with regard to supplementary allowances? Does the Minister accept that that is of considerable importance to students throughout Scotland, particularly those from

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more remote areas, who are worried about their travel allowances? For example, a student from Shetland attending Dundee university may face travel costs of £360. It is important that students entering a course should know what the financial implications are throughout their period at university. Those who enter in the coming academic year should have the same supplementary allowance arrangements throughout their stay at university.

Mr. Wilson: The existing arrangements do not disadvantage students in terms of travel costs, but that is all part of the consultation on the Dearing and Garrick reports. I would be pleased to hear any additional point that the hon. and learned Gentleman would like to make to me on the matter, but there is no such proposal.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Some people might think that the Minister's answers have been disingenuous. Northern Ireland students have travelled to Scotland since long before the Act of Union 1801. I therefore ask that the matter be given further consideration. Can the Minister tell us, for example, the difference in academic standards? Northern Ireland students have met the Scottish standards and come through with flying colours--not only to the betterment of Northern Ireland students but to the credit of Scottish universities.

Mr. Wilson: Northern Ireland students, and students from all other parts of the United Kingdom, are very welcome and valuable components of the Scottish higher education system, and they will continue to be so. The debate is very narrow, because 40 per cent. of all students--irrespective of where they come from--will pay no tuition fees, and only a relatively small minority of students will pay the full amount.

Whether fees should be met for paying students from other parts of the United Kingdom who are on Scottish four-year degree courses is a question for the relevant territorial Department--for the Department for Education and Employment, for English students, and for the Northern Ireland Office, for Northern Ireland students. Those Departments have their own considerations in answering that question. I have responsibility for Scottish students in higher education. I realise--as the Garrick report realised--the anomaly in Scotland of the four-year degree being the normal course linked to school leaving qualifications, and I have dealt with that anomaly.

Dr. Fox: In the fiasco over non-Scottish UK students and over student fees generally, two matters are clear. First, the Minister has absolutely no appetite for the changes that he is introducing. Secondly, the changes are utterly Treasury-driven. Will the Minister tell us whether the Treasury's inability to recognise the different funding requirements for Scottish and English higher education provision is--to use the words of No. 10 Downing street--one of the Chancellor's "psychological flaws"?

Mr. Wilson: I have an appetite for annually putting £140 million extra into Scottish higher and further education. The Tory legacy was to pile on the numbers and to cut the money.

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