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Agricultural Development Scheme

4. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): How many applications he has received for grants under the agricultural development scheme to date; and how many were successful. [113371]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The scheme was designed to support farmers and growers to improve marketing and 161 projects were put forward. We were pleased to make 47 awards of grant totalling £2 million to the best of them. Partly because of the interest shown, we intend to make new marketing awards available later this year under the rural development plan.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The scheme is imaginative and makes a big difference. That contrasts with the Opposition, who

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presided over a crisis when they were in government. What are her proposals for taking the scheme forward in other farming sectors?

Ms Quin: We are keen to take the scheme forward and believe that the rural development plan is by far the best way to do so. The scheme has provided support to sectors that are ineligible for other assistance and, for that reason, I am glad that the pig industry has received a substantial proportion of the awards that have been made. I am also glad that awards in the dairy sector go hand in hand with other initiatives that we are taking, such as facilitating the generic promotion and advertising of milk.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I am sure that the House welcomes any help with marketing that farmers can receive, but is not the biggest problem with all these schemes the fact that, having invested their money in marketing excellent British products, farmers often cannot label them to show where they are from? The Government made sure that the Food Labelling Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) was talked out on Friday last. Having established excellent schemes, surely the Bill represents a way of ensuring that farmers can use such labelling.

Ms Quin: I contest strongly the allegation that we talked out a Bill--given that the promoter, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), spoke for one and a quarter hours but I was allowed only 12 minutes to respond to the huge number of points that were raised. The Government had already made clear their view of the Bill. The Bill's substance was incompatible with European law. As the promoter was arguing for European Union aid, it seemed foolish to pass a Bill in clear contravention of EU law. This Government have been much more active on labelling issues than the previous Government. The action that we have taken domestically in MAFF and with trading standards officers and our initiatives to change the labelling regime within the European Union bear ample testimony to that claim.

Organic Farming

5. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): What recent assessment he has made of the environmental advantages of organic farming. [113372]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): Evaluation of the environmental impact of organic farming is one of the three main objectives of the Ministry's organic research and development programme. For example, studies on biodiversity, soil fertility and nutrient cycling are in progress. Earlier work has indicated that organic farming has a positive effect on biodiversity.

Ms Drown: Given that the demand for organic food continues to rise rapidly and we are still importing 70 per cent. of the organic produce sold, will the Minister further increase the amount of Government support for farmers who wish to convert to organic farming methods, and set clear targets for the proportion of land that could be farmed organically, to reflect consumer demand,

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the environmental advantages of organic farming and the Government's desire to promote sustainable farming methods?

Mr. Morley: I can certainly give my hon. Friend an assurance that the Government are committed to providing more support for organic conversion. We are committing £149 million in the rural development programme over the next seven years to assist farmers who want to convert. I understand my hon. Friend's points about targets. I was pleased to meet the promoter of a private Member's Bill on this matter, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). Although the Government have concerns about the potential effects of targets, which can be negative as well as positive, there is no doubt that the Government and the Bill's sponsors have in common the objective of promoting and increasing organic conversion.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Organic farming may have some environmental advantages and be a great talking point for Labour luvvies round Islington dinner tables, but it is not the answer to the deepest crisis that has hit British farming for 60 years. We need long-term solutions but also short-term solutions for farmers such as those who lobbied Ministers yesterday, and those at a dairy farm in my constituency that I visited on Sunday. If all farmers transferred to organics, the price depression that has hit regular farming would also hit organics. May we have some decent and honest answers to the crisis hitting farmers now?

Mr. Morley: When one hears comments such as that, one can understand why organic farming got virtually nowhere under the previous Government. No one is pretending that organic farming is the answer to all aspects of agriculture. However, we want our farmers to have a share of the huge demand for organic products. To refer to the many farmers who have converted and the many more who are queueing up to convert as Islington Labour luvvies is an insult to the people who are trying to maximise their business.

Hill Farmers

6. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What assistance he has provided to hill farmers in the past two years. [113373]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Hill farms received £600 million to £700 million in total in livestock headage payments last year. A significant proportion of the £235 million purchase costs under the over-30-months scheme and various sums under other schemes, including for environmentally sensitive areas, also went to hill farmers.

Helen Jackson: I repeat the welcome that I gave to the Government policy of putting environmental schemes at the heart of their grant programmes for hill farming and other purposes, because that will improve the countryside in hilly areas. Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, often, hill farming is not big business? Do not small businesses need greater simplicity built into

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countryside stewardship schemes so that smaller applications, as well as larger integrated projects, are also given favourable treatment?

Ms Quin: I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in hill areas, especially those in her part of the country. I accept the validity of what she said about the size of hill farms and their present circumstances, but we believe that our approach is right. In particular, the review of red tape that we have undertaken, and our keenness to simplify the advice system, will help to meet her requests.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): What, in the Minister's view, is the future for hill farmers--bright or gloomy?

Ms Quin: The Government recognise the role that hill farmers play in agriculture, and the economic, environmental and social aspects of hill farming. We believe that our rural development plan, and developing the second pillar of the common agricultural policy, will help hill farmers, because those measures recognise their multi-functional role. Hill farmers have an environmental role, and are also an important part of the social fabric of the countryside.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): One of the things that sicken me about the whole question of subsidies from the Common Market is that, according to research and calculations over the past 12 months, 80 per cent. of subsidies went to 20 per cent. of farms--the conglomerates--whereas only 20 per cent. ended up with the hill farmers and the rest. We never hear the Tories talk about subsidies of that kind. I propose that we start dividing the subsidies more equally, and stop the fat cats from getting them.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Such as Livingstone.

Mr. Skinner: Yes, including him.

We should have a pesticide tax on the millionaire conglomerates that are getting the subsidies. Once we start the process, we shall manage to solve some of the problems.

Ms Quin: I firmly believe that the existing common agricultural policy provides support in an inefficient way--a way that distorts markets, helps some sectors but not others and is backward-looking rather than forward- looking. That is why the Government have adopted a rural development approach rather than the backward-looking traditional common agricultural policy approach.

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