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9.36 pm

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): It is right that we should debate the tremendous crisis in the farming industry, highlighting the difficulties that farmers are going through. After the general election, I was surprised by the attitude of the Government. They seemed to be much against farmers. We were told that the Government had poured between £3 billion and £4 billion into the BSE crisis, that farmers had had enough money and that the Exchequer would not give them any more. The then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was fairly combative, and he seemed not to be very sympathetic to farmers.

The power of the Ministry seems to have reduced greatly. We seem to be under the control of Europe, which decides our agricultural policy. We can do little without the consent and approval of Europe. Unfortunately, the only power we seem to have is the power of persuasion. We seem unable to threaten, but merely to persuade. However, it would be churlish of me not to recognise the work done by the previous Minister on BSE, which resulted in the lifting of the export ban in Northern Ireland. Now that the ban has been lifted, though, we are recognising the difficulties of exporting beef. Markets have changed. There is a surplus of meat in Europe. The standards that must be met before beef is exported are high. It will be a long time before Northern Ireland exports the same percentage of beef as it did before BSE. We need a good marketing operation to persuade people that our beef is the best.

The farming crisis has hit Northern Ireland particularly badly because farming is our chief industry. The pig industry has been badly hit by the fire at Lovell and Christmas, where, overnight, the number of pigs that could go to the factory was reduced by 40 per cent. The situation in Northern Ireland is perhaps much worse than that on the mainland.

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I welcome the change in the Government's approach. It seems that they have recognised that there is a serious farming crisis. That was noticeable this evening in the message given by the new Minister of Agriculture. I think that we would all agree that since he was appointed to his post he has spoken to farmers and has an appreciation of their needs and the difficulties that they face. We saw that sympathetic approach this evening.

It is always easy to argue against someone who is incompatible. It is more difficult to argue against someone who agrees with us all the time. The problem tonight is that the Government have agreed with everything that the Opposition have said. The Minister seems to agree that the various points that we have been making are true.

I welcome the Minister's speech, which drew a response from both sides of the House. We have promises that a range of proposals will be coming forward and that the calf processing aid scheme will be reconsidered and that various other things will be given careful consideration. We have promises and we have expectations. I am sure that the farming community will look forward to delivery of its expectations, and the sooner it comes, the better.

9.41 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I had the opportunity last week to listen to Ben Gill, the president of the National Farmers Union, who came to talk to local farmers. The meeting took place in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) but there were plenty of representatives from my constituency.

In quite a wide-ranging speech, Ben Gill made two key points and--this shows how things have changed--I almost entirely agreed with him. First, he said that if farmers were to look for reform they had to understand that value added had to start from the bottom up instead of the way in which the food chain now operates, which works downwards from the retailer's margin. Secondly, he said there must be much greater collaboration among farmers. Ben Gill would not attach the word co-operation to those aims although I would. Certainly there is a need for a new way of working.

Ben Gill's third point was particularly valid. Whether speaking on his own behalf or that of the NFU, he was quite worried about pressure from the United States in terms of the agri-chemical business and the changes that this is making to British agriculture. I share his misgivings.

As there is a shortage of time I shall merely add to the points made by Ben Gill and try to find solutions rather than continuing to analyse difficulties, crises and long-term problems. First, we must recognise that although we are much in favour of help in the form of environmental subsidies and aid, farming is still an important part of the rural economy. It must be recognised that there is such a thing as an economically sensitive area and provide support accordingly. That is so important in the context of tenant farmers and other farmers who are not necessarily from the wealthier end of the farming community.

Secondly, we must recognise--this goes back partly to the point made by Ben Gill last week--that farming must be put much more on a business footing. I have nothing

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but respect for the way in which farmers farm, but, from an outsider's perspective, I see the limited business experience that some farmers have and their genuine need for help in terms of training. In addition, we must look at ways in which markets could be made more easily accessible for farmers.

Thirdly, I am sure that hon. Members would agree that the centralisation of the food supply may have gone too far. Even though there have been advantages in that food standards, hygiene and safety have become paramount, we must recognise that food can be supplied locally. A localised food supply is not only what consumers appear to want, but represents a saving in transport costs and an increase in choice. If we can make progress on that, we might begin to arrive at long-term solutions to an extremely difficult short-term problem.

9.45 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The Secretary of State charmed us all with his speech and his generosity in taking interventions, but I fear that he has underestimated the seriousness of the crisis. An industry whose turnover has dropped from £4 billion to less than £1 billion in two years is, by any definition, in crisis.

Today at the Oswestry auctions, lambs were fetching as little as 61p per kilo on average--about half what they fetched two years ago--and one farmer told me that the sheep industry is "a total disaster". I should like to give the Government a few quick, practical measures that would be of immediate help to the sheep industry.

The farmer I spoke to said that "the Government had panicked about slaughtering costs". There is an abattoir near to my home that employs four meat inspectors, one vet and only four other employees. It sends a cheque every Monday morning for £3,880 to Chester. That is crazy. We must reduce those costs, which are a burden to all farmers. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs reported on "The Present Crisis in the Welsh Livestock Industry" on 20 May, but we have yet to receive a reply from the Government. We were told that we would receive a reply just after the recess, but have not yet got one.

Finally on the subject of sheep, I acknowledge that the Government are good at spin and controlling publicity and ask them to address themselves to the dangers of maverick, publicity-seeking scientists bursting on to the radio waves and, with one or two sentences, causing severe damage to the livestock industry. That is what happened to the sheep industry in the summer.

Turning to the beef industry, there is a crisis. Good finished bullocks were fetching 75p to 78p per kilo today at Oswestry--way down on the £1.10 to £1.20 per kilo they were fetching a couple of years ago; and stores are making only £120. The future is bleak. In such a climate, it is crazy to consider abandoning the calf scheme. I was pleased by the Minister's equivocation on the point, because, on commercial and animal welfare grounds, some form of the scheme must continue. Before arbitrarily ending it, a way out must be considered, so I suggest that the Minister reads this week's Farmers Guardian, which contains an interesting article about the potential veal market on the continent.

Hon. Members on both sides expressed doubt about our ability to reopen the beef market. One exporter in Inverurie had a substantial business: a third of

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his turnover--£14 million to £15 million--came from exports to Holland, Italy and France. I stress that the meat was almost entirely beef on the bone. That exporter said today:


    "They know that what they are getting from the rest of Europe is rubbish. They want British beef for quality. Australia, New Zealand and southern Ireland do not compare."

Prior to the BSE crisis, he had a £42 million turnover, but that figure is now down to £30 million. He reckons that he could get at least one truck per week back tomorrow if the beef ban could be lifted.

We have heard good news today, but we have yet to see any practical gains. I appeal to the Government to threaten our EU partners with a return to the European Court if they fail to lift the ban, because it is rank hypocrisy to continue it. We in this country have taken the measures needed to make our meat safe and the response has not been good enough. From British cattle exported in the past five years, the Germans should have picked out 285 cases of BSE, but they have picked out only five. We know that there are now no human or animal health grounds for banning British beef.


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