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Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to take him back to agri-monetary compensation, about which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked. The Minister talked about further tranches of existing money, but is he saying that the Government would not support any further agri- monetary compensation system to take over when the existing one runs out at the end of 2001?
Mr. Brown: I have not said that, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that the circumstances will be pretty difficult, with 11 of the 15 member states in a single currency and three others preparing to go into it. He should think about the circumstances in which such a scheme would be negotiated. It is better to pursue our current policies to stabilise exchange rates so that currency variations impact less on agriculture.
We are trying to support the pig industry and secure its long-term viability through the pig industry restructuring scheme. The issue is under discussion with the Commission, as well as with the industry and other interested parties. I know that the House will be interested in this, because right hon. and hon. Members have often raised the plight of the pig sector.
We have also notified the Commission of our plans to provide funding for farmers to receive specialised business advice. I am pressing the commission for a rapid response to all the notifications that I have referred to so that we can act quickly to introduce the new measures.
Legislation to remove dairy hygiene inspection charges in England, which I referred to yesterday, was put in place yesterday. Parallel action is in hand to remove the dairy hygiene inspection charge in Wales shortly, but that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly. When that has happened, there will no longer be a charge for such inspections anywhere in the United Kingdom.
My Department is working with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to ensure that planning regulations, and their implementation, are flexible to local needs. It is essential that planning laws are compatible with opportunities for the farm business diversification that is already taking place, and that will be further facilitated under the new rural enterprise scheme. I accord great importance to that, because it would be discordant for me to favour diversification but for the planning rules to thwart it.
Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire): I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would be saying rather more about the pig industry. Can he envisage a time in the foreseeable future when our pig industry will be able to compete on a level playing field with its competitors in Europe, with the same animal welfare and hygiene overheads as our competitors? There seems little likelihood, in the foreseeable future, of our competitors having the same costs imposed on them as we have imposed on our pig industry.
Mr. Brown: Both the animal welfare imposts on the industry--the stall and tether bans and the meat and bonemeal restrictions--are unique to the United Kingdom. The legislation to put those measures in place was introduced under the previous Government. I make no complaint about that--
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman does, and no doubt he did at the time. However, these matters are not as party political and partisan as he might imply. Better news is that the price in the marketplace is crawling back to what the industry regards as a break-even point. That does not get the industry out of all its difficulties, of course, because there will be residual debts from the prolonged recession in the sector. However, it offers some hope, and the measures that the Government are taking now and have taken, particularly on the marketing side, to help the industry through, with the support and encouragement of Members of Parliament from all sides of the House, have undoubtedly helped.
That is not all that I am trying to do, however. The Government will continue to explore other ways in which we can develop the action plan to help the industry in the short term. I can announce today that the Inland Revenue is offering to join with the National Farmers Union to increase awareness of the assistance available to farming families through the working families tax credit. Many farmers, like many other hard-working families, stand to gain from the working families tax credit. It is important that those who are eligible claim their entitlements in full.
Government action has been matched by initiatives from the farming and food industries. The Institute of Grocery Distribution is taking the lead on developing a code of practice for collaborative and constructive working in the food supply chain. That is having a tangible effect on my efforts to get the food chain joined up.
The NFU has developed a new British farm standard, the "tractor mark". The mark has the support of major retailers and they have agreed to use it, to identify clearly to customers produce that meets the high standards of British farm assurance schemes.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is wide acknowledgement that the Government are doing everything that they can to promote high-quality British produce? Are we getting the same commitment from the food processing industry and supermarkets? My right hon. Friend seems to have had constructive discussions, but when will we see real action from those important sections of the industry?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend makes his point forcefully and well. The same point was made to me by farmers in his constituency when I met them recently. I try, as much as the boundaries of my office allow, to make these points to processors, retailers and distributors. The Ministry is the sponsoring Department for the entire supply chain, and I want the consequent responsibilities integrated within it, to the benefit of all.
I shall now say something about the red-tape review. Farmers say to me time after time that the burden of regulation is one of the most difficult things with which they have to cope. They go on to bet that others do not have to cope with that burden in the same way. Other Agriculture Ministers all make the same point on behalf of their farmers. It seems that it is right to bear down on regulations that are a burden to farming. The three regulatory reviews launched towards the end of last year made 107 recommendations, of which the Government accepted 98 straight away. I know that it will be of interest throughout the House that one of the most far-reaching recommendations relates to the computerised administration of CAP schemes. The Government have accepted the working group's finding that computerised administration could offer a radically improved service for farmers and significant savings to the taxpayer.
Mrs. Dunwoody: My right hon. Friend has been extremely understanding and sympathetic. I know that he understands the worry in my area about the problem of farmers and information technology, especially in relation to completing forms--forms on which a farmer's entire income can depend. Can he assure me that we shall try to resolve the difficulty when there is no civil servant to give direct advice to the farmer at the point of use?
Mr. Brown: Although we have accepted the principle, we have not yet agreed to a specific proposal. The matter is under active consideration. Before embarking on any change, I want to do two rather obvious things. First, I wish to ensure that the proposal has been as robustly tested as possible. Secondly, I want to ensure that we have given every consideration to my Department's regional interface with farmers, to which they attach so much importance and about which I continue to hear complimentary remarks from individual users of the regional service.