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2. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): What assessment he has made of the impact of proposed changes to the hill livestock compensatory allowances on hill farmers' incomes. [103772]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): There will be some changes in support between producers but the impact will vary according to their individual circumstances. The changes are being introduced gradually so that producers have time to adjust, but we believe they are part of the positive agricultural and rural development strategy outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister in his statement to the House on 7 December 1999.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that the Minister will recognise that Aldershot is not over-endowed with hills,

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let alone hill farmers, but my family have farmed the hills of the borders of Scotland for centuries. Is the Minister aware of the serious crisis that is affecting hill farmers throughout the United Kingdom? Their incomes are forecast to fall to a mere £2,000 and only 15 per cent. of hill farmers are aged under 40. The industry has also been hit severely by the huge rises in petrol and diesel taxes. Will she confirm that the Government will not reduce the level of financial support to those custodians of our remote rural heritage until such time as average incomes have returned to acceptable and adequate levels? If so, will she set out what she considers those levels to be?

Ms Quin: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interest in the important question of hill farming, despite the fact that hill farmers are not numerous in Aldershot. I hope that he will recognise that the Government have shown commitment to hill farming through the measures that we have taken. Indeed, the maintenance of the £60 million increase in the hill livestock compensatory allowance this year is a clear example. The measures that we have announced recognise the environmental and social role that hill farming plays in our countryside as well as the important question of the livelihoods of hill farmers.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): What new research has my right hon. Friend initiated into the future of the communities on the upper slopes? Does she acknowledge the great difficulties in growing meat on those hill sides, which are cold, wet and sour, and where family farms are now at considerable risk? Does she agree that the greater problem is the very communities on the uplands, not least in Wales? What new initiatives can be taken, bearing in mind that it is obvious that the Ministry wishes to help?

Ms Quin: I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We have pursued the issue in several ways--partly by direct support and partly through the consultation that the Ministry undertook on the future of the hill farming sector and payments to hill farmers. We believe that the proposals that we made strike a good balance between economic and environmental considerations and we are aware that great concern is felt throughout the House, my right hon. Friend's constituency and the country that we get those considerations right.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister accept that her consultation paper was a tribute to the literacy of British farmers? Does she agree that the amount available for the scheme in England is falling from £42 million to £27 million? Does she further agree that if she really wants to gain environmental benefits from the scheme it will eventually have to be differentiated according to land cover and the carrying capacity of the land? Otherwise, one flat rate scheme will simply be replaced by another and the Minister's aims will not be delivered.

Ms Quin: The latter point is a serious and important one, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are well aware of those considerations. The consultation process was worth while because of the responses that we received. Indeed, the written consultation was only part of the process, because we also had consultations about the implementation of Agenda 2000 generally in meetings

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throughout the country with hill farmers and others. We are determined to keep that dialogue going. What is being proposed is only one element of the support for hill farming. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, most of the subsidy that goes to hill farmers will continue as livestock payments.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the cost to taxpayers in direct payments to hill farmers is some £700 million a year? Despite that sum, hill farmers are still in a difficult situation. Is not it time that we looked again at the way in which supporting hill farmers has not been as helpful as we would have expected and hoped it to be and that we tried to make that support more effective?

Ms Quin: I can confirm the figure that my hon. Friend quoted, which shows that hill farmers receive a large amount of financial support. However, I should also like to commend to the House the direction in which Government policy is moving. In the negotiations in which we have taken part we have achieved some success in changing the thrust of common agricultural policy support, away from direct payments and towards more general rural development. Our proposals in relation to the UK will help hill farming change the basis of its finance and support in the future.

However, given the severity of the current depression in agriculture, we must accept that such measures must be introduced gradually to avoid tremendous disruption.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Government are very proud of their introduction of the national minimum wage, but most hill farmers earn nothing like that amount. They farm some of the most difficult areas of our countryside, which would be a lot poorer without their stewardship. They ask me what their future will be: how would the Minister respond to that question?

Ms Quin: The answer is that the Government are providing substantial levels of support for such farmers, as the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I. We are delighted to have introduced the national minimum wage. The Conservative party opposed that, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman is a dissident on the issue. However, we have also supported the continuation of minimum arrangements for agricultural workers.

Organic Farming

3. Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): What plans he has to increase support for organic farm conversion. [103773]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): On 7 December 1999, my right hon. Friend the Minister announced the Government's plans for spending on the rural development programme for England. Under these plans, £140 million will be available over the life of the programme for aid for conversion to organic farming.

Mr. Simpson: I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking organic farming seriously--something that the previous Conservative did not do in their 18-year dynasty of

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agricultural disasters. However, will he confirm that the legacy of neglect from those years still leaves the UK with less than 1.5 per cent. of its agricultural land devoted to organic farming production? That is less than half the European average, in terms of investment in organic farming.

The Welsh Assembly has set a target of achieving 10 per cent. organic production by 2005. The Danish Government have set a target of trebling organic farming production by the same date, and of having 50 per cent. of all agricultural production coming from organic farms by 2010. In Austria, 10 per cent. of agricultural production already is organic, and the country plans to take that level to 50 per cent. in some sectors within a couple of years.

Will the Minister come back to the House and set targets for organic farm production in the UK so that we will be back among the best in Europe, rather than just one of the rest?

Mr. Morley: The latest figures show that 3 per cent. of land has been converted to organic farming. Since last April, the area of such land has increased by 400 per cent. In the five years up to last April, only 400 farmers undertook that conversion, but since last April, 1,200 have done so. That shows the depth of the Government's commitment to organic farming.

My hon. Friend asked about targets. Targets can be useful in terms of fixing aspirations and underlining commitment, and the Government have studied the matter carefully. However, we want to expand the organic sector only to the extent that the market will accept. If targets are set too high--if production is driven on beyond what the market can stand--the market can be damaged. If they are set too low, there is no incentive for continued expansion.

We consider that we should expand organic farming in an open-ended way, as far as the market will allow. That huge boost of £140 million in the rural development programme will allow us to do that.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that £140 million is nothing like enough? Given the increased demand in this country for organic food, and the fact that the high prices militate against poorer people who are excluded from buying these products at a time when more and more people are concerned about additives, does not the hon. Gentleman think that he should reassess the budget and support for organic farmers? The Government must recognise that times have changed and that more money should be made available.

Mr. Morley: We are currently reviewing the organic sector and the rates of payment. However, I remind Opposition Members that the Government have doubled the rates of conversion payment, which is why there has been a massive increase in organic conversion. We see this as the beginning, not the end. This substantial amount of money allows great expansion. We will keep the situation under review.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the very large increase in money for conversion? But may I remind him that the money that the Government give to research and

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development in organic farming is just one third of the money given to research in genetic engineering in agriculture? Given the huge demand for organic food in recent times, particularly by people who wish to avoid eating genetically modified organisms, will my hon. Friend consider raising that research and development budget to reflect the concerns of consumers and give a very much needed boost to British agriculture?

Mr. Morley: I know that my hon. Friend has been very active in promoting the organic sector. However, I must correct her on one point: the actual budget for genetic research is very similar to that for organic research. I think that my hon. Friend is confusing that with the biotechnology budget, which covers issues such as research into the effects of pesticides on food.

We have doubled the budget as part of our commitment to the organic sector. It is important to maintain not just support for research and development but practical advice to the organic information helpline. We shall be considering those issues in the current review.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): In the light of the Minister's plans to support organic farming, would he consider protecting organic farmers from cross- pollination from GM crops? Is he aware of today's independent report from the National Pollen Research Unit, which indicates that there is a high risk of cross-pollination between source and recipient fields for as much as up to 4 km? Farmers converting to organic production need protection as well as aid. In advance of the spring planting, will the Minister take action to increase the very inadequate isolation distances between such fields?

Mr. Morley: The separation distances between organic and GM crops are based on current best practice, which has been in place for many years. The Government are funding detailed research on cross-pollination and potential cross-contamination. The research is being carried out by a consortium led by the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology. It is looking into the whole issue, including aspects such as headlands and field margins. Wildlife will also be sampled, including vascular plants, arthropods and, on the ground, so will plants, caterpillars, slugs, snails, bees, butterflies, seed banks and earthworms.

A great deal of research is being carried out into GM and organic crops. If it demonstrates that the present separation differences which, as I said, are based on established practice, are inadequate, there will be changes to the guidelines.

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