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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Is it an entirely different point of order?

Mr. Jack: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Is it an entirely different point of order?

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Mr. Jack: Of course. Mr. Deputy Speaker--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Is it an entirely different point of order?

Mr. Jack: It is entirely different.

I awoke this morning to radio reports that there was a significant development in terms of constitutional legislation. Details of it seemed to be available, in plentiful quantity, to the BBC. Can you assist Members of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by making clear whether it is a discourtesy to the House that that type of information has been made available, before being made available to Parliament? If the Prime Minister has had anything to do with releasing that information, perhaps you would care to deprecate that action from the Chair.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Madam Speaker has always made it clear to the House that important decisions, if they are to be made, should be announced to the House first of all. Perhaps we can move on to private Members' business.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that we have dealt adequately with that matter. This morning is private Members' time. There will be adequate time to discuss all these issues at the appropriate time. It is important that we move on to--

Mr. Bruce: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Is it an entirely separate point of order?

Mr. Bruce: Yes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: All right, I shall take it.

Mr. Bruce: I know that the Chair is keen to ensure that the rights of Back Benchers are looked after. Before Christmas, I asked the Prime Minister a question at Question Time. His response was that I had my facts wrong on long-term unemployment among young people, effectively saying that I was misleading the House with the figures that I quoted.

I wrote to the Prime Minister last year, giving him the full facts and asking--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is clearly not the time to raise matters of that sort.

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11.5 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I should say at the outset that, although the debate may have lost a few moments because of the points of order, they were about matters that are of great concern to all Members of this House, and I do not resent the exchanges that have taken place. I shall go on immediately to the problems of the horticulture industry.

I am delighted and honoured to have the privilege of initiating a brief debate on the important topic of horticulture. It is nice to have the support of a number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, although I am conscious that some hon. Members with important constituency interests in horticulture are not able to attend the debate--in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, who has duties in respect of that Committee. However, there is a good attendance, because this is an important subject.

I shall give a little context. Many of my family traditionally have been growers in the Vale of Evesham and, although I have never lived there, I retain close links with the area and with those of my family who still practise horticulture there. It is perhaps a sign of the change in the industry that a number of them have either restructured their businesses or have gone out of the industry.

I used to be a plum grower on my farm in my constituency, and that provided valuable experience in terms of the technology of growing and the requirements of marketing, either directly at the farm gate or through wholesale markets. Therefore one has seen the tremendous changes that have taken place, and continue to take place, in the industry. I shall return to that point.

My second experience of horticulture is not unrelated, because I asked for the horticulture portfolio when I was posted to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the years 1995 to 1997, as Parliamentary Secretary. I can assure the House that I do not intend to rehearse the difficulties, or the triumphs, of that time, but I should record my personal appreciation for the high quality of the advice given by MAFF officials to Ministers--I am sure that that continues--and for the lively involvement of distinguished members of the industry in the fortunes of that industry. That is a helpful and constructive partnership.

It is necessary at the outset to establish two major and distinctive features of the British horticulture industry,in comparison with its perhaps better known farm equivalent. Not all farmers know nothing about horticulture and, especially on the field vegetable side, there may be a close relationship.

The horticulture industry, as broadly defined, has an output valued at slightly under £2 billion a year. Such definition is difficult, partly because of the greater retail involvement of horticulture in comparison with the majority of agriculture, which represents foods that go on for further processing before sale.

The industry is worth slightly under £2 billion and, although it is an imprecise measure, I used to calculate that it was worth about 10 per cent. of British agricultural

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output. Despite being comparatively small proportionately, horticulture represents almost as much diversity as the rest of the agriculture industry. For example, many producers of salad onions or salad crops have been doing relatively well--although some will probably write to me to say that they have not--because of their specialist production. Ethnic foods such as ochre are produced for an ethnic minority market and, increasingly, for a British market as well, because people have diversified their tastes. Others produce bedding plants, nursery stock and traditional top or soft fruit, so the industry is extremely varied.

One of horticulture's distinctive features is that it is an intensive labour employer, whereas most of agriculture is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham andMid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was telling me only today that there are an estimated 30,000 full-time equivalents in Kent alone. I have always worked on a figure of more than 50,000 full-time workers engaged in horticulture, which is almost as many as there are salaried farm workers in the rest of agriculture.

A second feature is that, traditionally, horticulture has relied little on Government support. Like pig and poultry farming, but unlike most of the traditional agricultural regimes, it has been a light or unsupported regime. Long may that continue, because no one in horticulture would want to send the signal that stepping up the subsidy would benefit the industry. That could have the effect that we have seen elsewhere in the common agricultural policy, where successive Governments have tried to remove some of the subsidy and reduce the unnecessary costs in the system, so that the outcome is more market related.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way at that important point in his remarks. Although I accept his point about subsidy, does he agree that it is important that the Government of the day encourage and support the industry? Does he find it worrying, as I do, to read continuing reports in the Grower magazine about the number of occasions when the Minister directly responsible for horticulture, the noble Lord Donoughue, has had to cancel those encouraging engagements?

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He was a most distinguished horticulture Minister before my time and he gave great encouragement to the industry. He is entitled to comment. I realise some of the difficulties of this debate. The noble Lord with day-to-day responsibility for horticulture is in another place and, in fairness, some cancellations have taken place because of factors outside his control. May I revert to the point about perceived support for the industry by Ministers as I bring my remarks to a close? My right hon. Friend makes a substantial point when he says that what we do not want from Government is lots of money, but what we do want is lots of encouragement and perceived attempts to solve the industry's problems.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Boswell: I shall give way just once more because I am conscious of the time restraints.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend cover in his speech the issue of changes in Government employment

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legislation? Increasing employment costs, particularly for some horticultural activities that require large gangs of lowly paid people who would otherwise have no employment whatever, could put the horticulture industry at a serious competitive disadvantage.

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