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9.16 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture on a speech that in many ways almost united the House, for a while at least. Even the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) almost went along with the tripartisan feeling of unity that followed, which is to be welcomed.

Farmers, whatever their constituency, are not particularly interested in who did what, when and where, or in saying that that Government did this but another Government are doing something else. Farmers have jolly long memories--going back centuries--so they can certainly remember what has happened in the past 20 years in politics. However, that is not the issue.

The issue is that there are grave difficulties--I hesitate to say "a crisis", as we have been told that its use might be inadvisable--in British agriculture in the short term, and it faces grave risks in the long term. There is general agreement about the measures that my right hon. Friend the Minister has introduced or is hinting at, but they will not mean an end to the problems of British agriculture: I endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) and her pleas.

I must cast some doubt on the wonders of the golden calf of the free market. I do not want to get into trouble by saying too much against it, or by not being seen to worship it fully, but we must understand that the sweeping of the free market through some parts of the world is one of the many factors that are harming British agriculture. Since economies are now globalised--a dreadful word--the collapse of economies in other parts of the world has an effect here, which permeates down to the farm at the bottom of the road. Unless we get reform of the common agricultural policy right as soon as we can, the free market will blow through our farms and create greater havoc than many of the diseases that have cursed our agriculture through the decades.

We must get the system of supports right, and I was grateful to hear Opposition Members saying so. Farmers will not care too much whether their incomes come from being the custodians of the land that they and their families have farmed for generations, or from raising crops or livestock.

Farmers want to be part of and contribute to the community in which they have lived for many years. If they are preserving our heritage, they should jolly well be paid for doing so. That would not be a subsidy; the rest of us would be paying farmers properly for doing what we want them to do for us. The sooner we move to such a system of support and away from the endless incentives to over-produce, the sooner we will get things right.

Time is not on our side, however, and it is certainly not on the side of the family farmer. We hear the word "restructuring" bandied about--hon. Members have spoken about it in the context of other industries--but restructuring can take a number of forms. I fear that it will take the form of the destruction of small farms and farms in poorer and remoter areas, with vast tracts of land being taken over by combines of organisations whose primary interest is land value, not land use.

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We must search urgently for medium and long-term solutions to the problems that our farmers face. In agreeing on the immediate measures that need to be taken, we must not overlook the urgent need to act to retain the structure of rural Britain as we have known it for so long.

9.20 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), whom I am delighted to follow, was cautious about using the word "crisis". I shall be less so: agriculture is in crisis. The Minister is right to be careful about the use of language--exaggeration is not good for the industry--but it is inappropriate to understate the case. It is important that farmers understand that we appreciate the extent of their difficulties, so I am not hesitant about using the word "crisis", but I am not suffering under the same discipline as the hon. Member for Braintree.

Measured in any terms, agriculture is in crisis. The 56 per cent. fall in incomes over the past year, the level and cost of borrowing, and the fall in the price of products across the sectors all show that it is so.

I notice that the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) have not had the courtesy to stay to hear the debate. Their suggestion that what has been happening is part of a continuum or general trend is wholly untrue. There was a downturn in almost every sector in 1996, but, compared to what has happened in the past year to 18 months, that downturn was very small indeed. In the arable and livestock sectors, the real problems and the significant decline in incomes have been in the past 18 months.

It would be nonsense to pretend that this Government caused all that, but the scale of the crisis requires emergency action. It is inappropriate to point the finger at Conservative Members and the previous Government, because the current problems are of different proportions from those of two years ago, when it might have been legitimate to blame the Conservative Administration.

I was delighted by the tone of the Minister's remarks, which was in stark contrast to that of his predecessor. I am reminded of the maxim that, to get on, one must be very clever or very nice--the Minister has clearly opted for the latter course. I would say that perhaps the former course was not available to him, but that would be ungracious. The tone, however, is only part of the story. It is important that the Government are listening, but their listening must be backed by action that is, in the Minister's word, proportionate.

There is no question but that the Conservative party legitimately speaks for rural Britain; in psephological terms, it is the principal party of rural Britain. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) may wave his head about, but, if rurality is measured by a combination of agricultural employment and sparsity of population, the Labour party is the third party of rural Britain. It holds less than 20 of the 100 most rural seats. In England, it holds fewer than five of the 50 most rural seats. The Conservative party is the legitimate spokesman of the rural community, with the Liberals trailing some way behind.

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It is also true that the Conservative party speaks up for rural Britain. We hope that the new Minister will be seen a little more diligent in attending conferences, visiting shows and mixing with farmers. His predecessor was not famed for that--he was notably absent from some major events in the farming calendar--and we hope for a change of emphasis as well as tone.

The Government must take some positive steps. It is important to emphasise that agriculture is different, and should be treated differently, from other industries. Rural Britain and agriculture are not synonymous--probably the majority of employment in my constituency is related to agriculture, although that is not true throughout the whole of rural Britain--but agriculture holds a special place, not only because of its custodianship of the land, as the hon. Member for Braintree said, but because of family connections, the long-standing nature of the businesses, and the contribution they make to the wider community. Rural and urban Britain should not be separated, but they require different solutions.

I agree that we should consider whether article 36 of the treaty of Rome could help us to create a "level playing field" in trade. We need to consider fresh marketing support, not only for the beef sector but for the whole industry. We should try to improve the advice and research available to farmers. Someone spoke in an earlier debate about farming our way out of the crisis. That cannot be the whole solution, but it can be a part of it. It is a source of shame that the Government have cut the agricultural research budget.

We need a package of aid. The Minister talked about keeping that in proportion. The proportions are there for him to see: I have already mentioned the fall in incomes and the scaling down of the industry. In response, we surely need a proportionate multi-million pound aid package.

Members of all parties on the Select Committee highlighted the fact that the Government seem to lack a strategic vision for agriculture. We need that long-term vision, as well as the short-term aid, if Britain's farmers are to be reassured that they have the support of the House in competing with other nations in feeding the world, as Britain has done in the past and will do again in the future.

9.27 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I want to do something that, I regret to have to say, for the Whips' benefit, is slightly unusual for me, and compliment my right hon. Friend the Minister on a thoughtful speech that drew out many of the consensual elements that exist in the House on the subject. He made this a much more positive and interesting debate than it would otherwise have been, and I warmly commend him for that. The farmers whom I represent have already told me how much they welcome his role and his listening function, and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties agree with that. The strategy remains much the same, but there was a need to listen and to learn, and I think that he has done that.

We should also welcome the progress that has been made on the beef ban. A critical further step in lifting it was taken today, but there is far, far more to do: we must get the ban lifted on beef off the bone, then beef on the bone, and then livestock. Beyond that, we need to win back the markets that we have lost. One of the critical issues, on which I would welcome a ministerial opinion,

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is whether we can assist our agricultural sector to win back those markets in the future. We have started to hear encouraging noises and a recognition of the problems that the industry faces. Now is the time to turn that into firm policy.

We should compliment the Government on persuading the retailers to adopt a clearer position on defending the strengths of British agriculture and being more honest with their consumers. That has required substantial work by the Government and a recognition by retailers of the strong public consensus on the matter. Both sides of the House should commend that.

Any steps that we take to put together a short-term package must be consistent with a long-term strategy. In dealing with the crises--I use the plural--that we have faced in farming, we have tended to look for short-term fixes and ways of supporting farmers into the next crisis that they will face in due course, instead of looking at the medium to long-term future of farming in Britain.

Hon. Members have implied that, for the first time ever, small farmers are winding up their businesses or transferring them to larger farmers, but that has been going on for decades, and will continue. I should be sorry if any steps that we took impeded the normal process of the market in moving towards more competitive units or more focused--[Interruption.] Hon. Members may disagree, but there is an alternative--more focused attention to niche markets or diversification in the use of farm assets.

We should encourage farmers to explore all those possibilities. We should not give temporary lifelines to businesses that have no honest long-term future. I say that baldly, as I have said it to the farmers whom I represent--10 days ago I spent three hours speaking to a dozen of them in my constituency. I do not have a habit of pulling punches with them, and I would not do so in the House. Some farmers are in unsustainable businesses and we must help them to find alternative uses for their assets or alternative occupations. We cannot fool people that they can maintain their businesses in the future as they have done in the past.

If we are to extend the calf processing scheme, which I believe should be extended, we must carefully balance that against the conditions that those producers will face in a freer--but not free--market, once the ban is lifted. We must recognise that that market is in surplus across Europe, which is a tough marketplace.

I empathise with those who say that we must scrutinise the relative costs of our regulatory regime. I do not question the animal health or food safety aspects of that regulation, but I question the cost burdens that are passed through the industry and whether our officials have learnt enough from the approach taken by other countries in tackling those tasks in an EU regime. I do not believe that we learn enough from other countries that have the same tasks as we have, but undertake them with greater efficiency and sensitivity.

Our longer-term strategy needs far more work. That strategy is the business of Government because we spend £4 billion a year supporting the sector, and we should be concerned about whether that money is well spent.

We have no obvious grasp of a rural development strategy. If by a miracle of miracles an agreement was struck tomorrow on Agenda 2000, and a large amount of money was transferred to rural development, we would

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have little idea of what to do with it. We have developed little thinking in that area. We were slow to take up the opportunity of objective 5b funding in rural areas. We will be similarly slow to take our opportunities on rural development.

We cannot hold off on development of a long-term strategy simply by saying that it is a matter of common agricultural policy reform. We have to serve our farming community and our citizens, and that obligation overrides others. We should be quite clear about our responsibilities. A long-term strategy is also the best way to persuade our European partners to reform their practices. If we have a clear vision of our own, we will be more persuasive.

We should also recognise fully that the strategy in Agenda 2000 will not succeed in the World Trade Organisation negotiations. We should own to our responsibility to look beyond those limited proposals towards what the marketplace for farming will be like in 10 years time. We have not yet done that thoroughly. The Government need to think carefully about how short-term measures, which are of course welcome, can be balanced with a long-term strategy that will be tough, but to which many positive, market-oriented farmers look forward with enthusiasm.

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