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Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend reads the runes of what I have already said about the importance of horticulture as an employer, as a clear precursor to my remarks later in my speech. His analysis is entirely right. At this point, I simply say that the most important and in many ways the most refreshing element of horticulture is that it has traditionally been an unsupported or lightly supported sector. That has left it close to the market. People have been entrepreneurial and have reacted in a variety of ways. The issue now before the House is whether that native spirit, which Keynes called an animal spirit--that determination to seek a market and exploit it to make a profit--is enough to take people through the current difficulties.

Many sectors of the industry now face severe market conditions and low profitability. It will be no service to the industry to cry wolf or to say that this is the end of the industry. It is easy for tabloid newspapers to write, as they have on one or two occasions, "This is the end of the English apple industry--there will be no more Coxes". Neither the Minister nor most hon. Members who know about horticulture believe that that is so. However, to prevent it from happening, we must recognise that there are some problems.

Let me return to what I said about diversity. It is important that we analyse coolly the problems in the various sectors. Some specialist growers may be relatively prosperous at present. Large integrated businesses that may be listening to this debate may have found ways of controlling their costs and have a strong tie-up with the marketing chain. They may be using high technology and running extremely successful and professional businesses. However, people in between may be caught between a number of stalls and have to find the right niche. Although there are no large growers in my constituency, there are many relatively small businesses that supply bedding plants or nursery stock, and they are an extremely important part of diversification and providing competition in the market.

Although we must not oversell the problems, I should like to draw a number of them to the House's attention. Some come from within the industry--what one might call the MAFF sector--and others, importantly, come from elsewhere. I shall begin by dealing with the MAFF-related problems. First, there is the question of marketing support. As has already been mentioned, the regime is not generally heavy. The last thing that we would want is a return, for example in the European structure, to the old tradition of a heavy reliance on intervention, often in a wasteful and useless way.

I was pleased that, during my time at MAFF, we achieved agreement on restructuring the European marketing regime support and a new emphasis was placed on producer organisations and market development. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could, in responding, bring the House up to date on that matter. Obviously, there was a surge which happened, coincidentally, at about the time of the change of Government as people made their initial bids--MAFF was particularly helpful in securing some flexible regimes

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for them to do so. However, I am not clear whether the trail has gone dead yet or how much that is continuing to be developed as market conditions change.

The second area where market support is important is in relation to objective 5b. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) is in the Chamber and may seek to participate in the debate. We all know that objective 5b may, in turn, be subject to change under the European negotiations on the matter, but it is important that areas of economic strain should be able to raise the value added of their produce and find suitable and distinctive market niches. Objective 5b, or something like it, is an important vehicle for doing that.

One area in which I took great interest was the south-west Horticulture 2000 initiative. I hope to have the privilege of launching Cornish King, which was a successful result of that initiative, and I hope that it will lead to other things. That area of market development, which does not always involve large sums, but levers in partnership approaches and other resources, is the sensible way to proceed in terms of public support for marketing.

The third area is that of research, which is also complex. Horticultural Research International and its institutes and new privatised technology arm are of high quality. They are world-class operations. I know many of the operators and I have a tremendous regard for what they have done. There is always a debate in Government about how much can be given to research, and it is terribly important that the Government support the industry by providing research infrastructure, basic research and the ability to call on specialists to deal with problems that develop. I hope that we will have the Minister's assurance on that.

Following, but in no sense subordinate to, that is the much more close-to-market involvement of the Horticultural Development Council. This year, there is to be another poll to ratify, as it were, the continuation of that council. I hope that the Ministry will give as much lead as it properly can, and that the House will give a lead to the industry to ensure that the poll endorses the HDC's work. It is important not only for the cash that it raises and spends on behalf of the industry, but as a sign to all arms of government and to the marketing chain that growers take this matter seriously. They want the council to progress and be successful.

I should flag up the only fly in the ointment, as the National Farmers Union has mentioned it to me. The NFU is concerned that MAFF has recently cut funding for PhDs in this area. Perhaps the Minister will also comment on that. We need a continuing flow of high-quality people into the industry at doctorate and skilled technician level. This is not a task that can be done by second-rate people, at whatever level of their employment. It needs the best research brains and the best technologists trained to the highest level. The margins do not allow for anything other than that approach.

The third area where the market situation is relevant has an impact on the others. I am talking not about public money, but about the involvement of the supermarkets. Horticulture is distinctive because much, although not all, of its produce is sold to the consumer in a recognisable form--we can see an apple or a pear, but we cannot see the grain that an arable farmer produces because it is

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turned into bread. A high proportion of final output goes through the multiples. The NFU's estimate is that upwards of 75 per cent. goes through the multiples.

In many areas of agriculture--as in horticulture--there is a lively debate about the role of the multiples. I have always felt that megaphone diplomacy is unhelpful. One side tells the other that it is being ripped off, and there is no mutuality of interest. I believe that it does not matter how it is operated, or what the legal form of the contract is, but both parties--the grower and the supermarket--must work together to provide an acceptable and preferred product for the customer. There is an emphasis on working together, and that is positive, but it does not remove the need for fair treatment.

We should welcome the way in which the industry as a whole has worked together on product assurance, and has established crop protocols. Supermarkets should not, at the final point of sale, mix or dilute British produce that has been raised to that protocol level with a product imported from the European Union or elsewhere that has not been grown to that standard. In an ideal world, the British protocols should form the international standard for good practice for the production of the product in question. It is much better if British produce is marketed as British, unless it is not available on a continuing basis--one hopes that it will be.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): My hon. Friend is making an important point. One of the crucial elements of the intervention of the supermarkets is that they are increasingly and properly demanding higher standards from British growers. However, whenever they are short of British produce, they are quite willing to import products for which there is no guarantee that they meet the protocol on the use of pesticides or fertilisers. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend is on to a very good point. That problem is of concern, and we need to find ways to prevent such practice.

We should also consider horticultural markets generally, because they comprise more than just supermarkets. I hope that MAFF will continue to seek practical opportunities to bring parties together to ensure that the horticultural market system, which has not worked as well as it might in the recent past, is rationalised, made efficient and provides an important additional service for the catering trade and specialist outlets that can best be served in that way.

I shall deal briefly with some of the concerns that are outside the narrowly agricultural sector. In the past two years, the strength of sterling has caused as many difficulties for growers as anything else. I do not intend, or have the time, to go on about that today. The state of the weather has also affected sales, as it has affected the growing experience.

I want to leave three specifics with the Minister. First, planning varies hugely from area to area. In areas where horticulture is understood, such as the Sussex plain or the fens, it is often easier to obtain planning permission than it is in areas adjoining major conurbations, such as South Ribble--I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), who is present for the debate--or parts of the Vale of Evesham. I hope that the Minister will give the right guidance to his colleagues.

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Secondly, I do not intend to rehearse the arguments about the national minimum wage and the fairness at work package, but three major conceptual problems in agriculture must be resolved in discussions. We must ensure that there is a proper fit with the Agricultural Wages Order 1998, which is not easy. There should be an acceptable form of treatment to produce a fair basis for piecework and for the analysis of rest periods. There should also be an acceptable way of keeping records. However responsible a gang master may be, if there are 50 people in a field, a practical way must be found of keeping score. That may get more complex when we get into the rest of the fairness at work package.

Thirdly, I have been surprised by the vehemence of representations on the pesticides tax. The Minister should acknowledge that huge progress has been made in integrated crop management and in crop protection, particularly for crops grown under glass in a glasshouse. It is completely incorrect to say--although people still believe it to be the case--that horticultural produce in this country is drenched in chemicals. There are likely to be fewer chemicals on a British product than on its imported equivalent, but, in any case, they will be controlled by statute and there is a strong commercial interest right across the sector for them to be reduced to a minimum.

We should also acknowledge that horticultural produce is offered directly and needs to be visually attractive. Pest control is a way of achieving that. Our concern is that the pesticide tax, if imposed, could be another imposition of costs without a matching benefit to the industry. Frankly, given the horticulture's present economic position, it could not take much more of that.

I readily acknowledge that Ministers cannot solve all those problems, certainly not this morning. However, they need to be seen to be caring about them, raising the profile of this important and excellent industry and, above all, consulting its practitioners on the best way of overcoming them.

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