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Mr. Brown: Some people have very short memories. I remember when, under the Conservative Government, interest rates were twice their current level and the value of the pound was falling, which reflects market confidence. The Government's macro-economic strategy is right. To underpin that, I should point out that long-term interest rates are at their lowest level for 30 years.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. There will be a genuine welcome for him in the hillsides of Wales, today and in the coming months.

In relation to the dairy sector, my right hon. Friend will know that there has been a substantial collapse in the price of milk, and that that has exacerbated other problems in the livestock sector. He has told the House that he wants to see further co-operation. May I suggest that he brings together the processors and producers of milk, so that he can bang some heads together? I have never known two parts of the same industry to be so greatly at loggerheads that they are depressing the price.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend's suggestion is incredibly tempting, but it would be premature to take it up while the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's inquiry continues.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): Welcome though the Minister's statement will be, is not the underlying problem of the industry structural, and will not that problem be resolved only if he proves to be successful in CAP reform? Specifically, what does his statement do for the few surviving hop growers in East Sussex? More generally, does he accept that there is concern on the Conservative Benches for hard-pressed farmers and growers, and for consumers, as food in British supermarkets continues to be among the most expensive in the world?

Mr. Brown: We all look forward to the report of the OFT's investigation into supermarket pricing. As a student, I used to pick hops, so I know something about it from the labourer's point of view. Changes in the way in which beer is produced probably have more influence on the growing of hops than anything done by my Ministry. I stand ready to help where I properly can, but I will not distort markets so that people engage in economic activity that they would not otherwise undertake.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I welcome the package that my right hon. Friend has announced, which will bring £2,000 for each farmer in less-favoured areas. That is not as much as they have lost, but it is none the less a significant help. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key issue over the next two or three years will be the rebuilding of the economies of south-east Asia and Russia so that they can take our food exports? There are food shortages in Russia, so will

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my right hon. Friend enthusiastically press the European Commission to help with packages of food aid in the coming months, both to help poverty in Russia, and to deal with surpluses from our own markets?

Mr. Brown: The reopening of credit lines so that some supply can enter Russia would be a sensible way forward on humanitarian aid for Russia. An enormous amount of food was being sold to Russia, and the Russians will be in for a very difficult time if we do not find some way in which to restore their markets. I welcome my hon. Friend's other points.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Any positive move by the Minister will be welcomed by farmers in my constituency as a step in the right direction and as an improvement on past rhetoric. Farmers have financial burdens and they are struggling to reduce their losses, but the frustrations of the bureaucracy that has built up around farming--once an activity that involved working out and about in the environment--are becoming worse.

The farming community is subject to almost draconian penalties for the slightest slip of a pen, but ministerial errors--not by current Ministers--that delay payments or cause disruptions seem not to carry any compensation. Will the Minister consider ways in which to reduce the paperwork burden for farmers, and the farmers' sense that penalties are out of proportion to any error?

Mr. Brown: I have asked my Ministry to conduct a review of the information we require from farmers, and of the way in which we require it. That has been done before, but I wanted to take another look in order to satisfy myself that the Ministry is going about information collection in the most rational way possible. That work will continue into December.

I have tried to be specific in what I have said to the farming community, rather than making generalised statements that everything will be all right in three years. I want to say clearly what the Government can provide, and what the public purse will pay for. My vision of the future is a framework within which people may make their own judgments in a free marketplace.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I join the general welcome for my right hon. Friend's statement, but will he focus on the second part of it, which announced a thorough-going review of our preparation for Agenda 2000 negotiations? Those preparations should go far beyond the producer side of the industry, as they must also encompass processing, transport, the regulatory environment and--critically--the retail environment, in order to give a total picture of the preparedness of our agricultural sectors for a competitive market.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend follows these matters closely, and I am grateful for his informed interest. He understands the significance of the second part of my announcement. It is vital to the United Kingdom industry that we engage in the discussions early, and not just around the Commission's Agenda 2000 proposals.I broadly support those proposals, but broader challenges are marching quickly towards the industry.

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Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the Minister accept that the reason why he cannot pay more money to the farmers--to which they are entitled, given their extremely difficult situation over the past few years--is that the rules are dictated by the Maastricht criteria? The question of state aids must be carefully considered, as it seems hardly fair that German miners should receive £6 billion a year in subsidies while UK farmers are entitled only to the fairly minimal, if welcome, amount that he has announced?

Mr. Brown: The framework within which decisions must be made was entirely shaped for the UK by the previous Conservative Government. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to find it so bewildering, but I have to operate within the rules. Fortunately for British farmers, I am able to conduct a sensible and rational discussion with the Commission, and to persuade it to help us. The previous Government could not do that.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I thank my right hon. Friend for listening and for helping. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Minister of State, the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), and the Parliamentary Secretary, the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who have both done a cracking job, particularly in receiving the message from Lancaster and Wyre. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that issues such as the development of producer co-operatives and the revitalisation of small market towns will play a large part in his discussions, so that we can market high-quality local British produce?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right on all three points. Local marketing, the ability of local farmers to work co-operatively and the work of my hon. Friends in my ministerial team have all shaped today's announcement. I have not been alone in going out to listen

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to farmers as other members of the Government have done that too. I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for that work.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): On behalf of farmers in Congleton, I welcome the package of measures that the right hon. Gentleman has announced, and his acceptance that the measures are short-term aids, intended to bring a little stability to the industry. May I return, however, to the vexed question of the level playing field, and particularly highlight the import of meat and meat products from countries in which animals are not raised, transported or slaughtered under the same welfare and hygiene standards that apply in the United Kingdom?

Will the Minister undertake to try to win a complete ban on such products? Until then, will he ensure that the public purse bears the high costs of regulation in the UK, such as the meat hygiene regulations and the cattle tracing scheme? Will he ensure that those costs are not transferred to the private sector until a ban is in place?

Mr. Brown: I am invited to be a protectionist rather than a believer in free trade, and to spend public money rather than to save it, as the Opposition usually want me to do.

I agree with the hon. Lady on two things. First, I am grateful for her welcome for the announcement, even if that welcome was qualified. Secondly, she argued that the rules that British producers must obey should be obeyed by others, and I think that she is right. I intend to take a hard look at the matters she raised. However, in my experience, the allegation that the others are cheating while we are not is often made in general, while specific examples are harder to come by. If the hon. Lady knows of any examples of grotesque unfairness in trading, I invite her to pass them on to me, so that I may have them investigated at once.

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