Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. The Minister is lengthening his interventions--

Mr. Brown rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It is my responsibility to ensure that interventions are of a reasonable length. Many hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

Mr. Yeo: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The fact is that I read out precisely what the Select Committee said in its report about the September package. The source of information on which press reports are

11 May 2000 : Column 1044

based when these announcements are made is exclusively the Government. In the case of the announcement of 30 March, the reports could not be amplified for 17 days, because Ministers were unable or unwilling to answer detailed written questions tabled by Members of Parliament. If there is any mistaken interpretation, we know who is responsible for putting the spin on the original statement. In their increasingly desperate search for a good headline, there is no level to which new Labour will not stoop, no statistic that it will not distort, no fact that it will not manipulate.

Last year, £264 million of agri-monetary compensation was available. This year, it is down to £110 million, despite the continuing weakness of the euro and the fact that farm incomes are under intense pressure.

The Minister touched on the measures for the pig sector. Pig farmers deserve more details, and I hope that we will not have to wait very much longer for a clear statement of how much of the promised £26 million will be paid to outgoers and how much to ongoers. I hope that the conditions under which the ongoers will receive the money will also be made clear and that we will be told whether the support is likely to be continued in subsequent years.

After two years in which the British sow herd has declined substantially, do the Government think that they have done enough to ensure the survival of what remains of our pig farming industry? Does the Minister accept the view of the chairman of the National Pig Association, who wrote to me on 13 April:

Another major component in the action plan is the over-30-months scheme weight limit. There seemed to be some confusion in the Minister's mind when the matter was debated before. The action plan says on page 4 that the Government will

but at Agriculture questions the Minister told the House:

I hope that he will soon be able to clarify which of those statements is correct.

Mr. Brown: The statement made at oral questions is correct: we propose to lift the limit--to abolish it.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful for that clarification. That is an amendment to the written statement that accompanied the action plan, but it is none the less a change in the right direction.

I hope that the Minister will soon be able to tell the House and, more particularly, the industry, when he expects to receive approval for the proposal. He spoke about cutting red tape, and we welcome the efforts that have been made by the various review bodies, but we remain concerned about the tangible achievements that have been recorded so far.

The Minister was involved in some exchanges about the future of the Ministry's regional service centres. A big stretch of the imagination is required to describe

11 May 2000 : Column 1045

the proposal to close them down as greater co-operation with the Government's regional offices. I want to place on record farmers' concern--well-founded, I believe--about the possible loss of the opportunity that they have to visit their regional service centre in person to discuss the details of the rather complicated IACS--integrated administration and control system--claims. Many farmers are not yet very experienced in the use of electronic communications, and to force them all at an early date to make claims via computer will, I believe, cause a great deal of additional stress in the industry.

We remain concerned about the damage that bureaucratic intervention can cause. The recent enforced closure of the Meade Webber slaughterhouse in Herefordshire is yet another example. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will touch on that later.

Whatever the Government's rhetoric about cutting burdens on business, their actions too often belie their words. The imposition of the climate change levy, even in the amended form announced in the Budget, will hit the horticulture sector. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill is still causing great anxiety and potential problems in the countryside. The threats are not confined to the United Kingdom. The European waste incineration directive is another substantial burden waiting to fall on the industry.

The acid test is whether the Labour Government are on the side of Britain's farmers and consumers and whether they believe in the future of agriculture and the countryside.

Mr. David Heath: I am a little surprised that neither the hon. Gentleman nor the Minister has mentioned the peculiarly precarious position of tenant farmers and the overwhelming need for a retirement package to enable people to leave the industry with dignity.

Mr. Yeo: I am aware of the fact that the Liberal Democrat amendment refers specifically to the retirement package. I have omitted to mention it only in the interests of time, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will deal with it in his winding-up speech.

Last year, Labour sold Britain's dairy farmers down the river on the issue of milk quotas. In the summer, the Minister let down pig farmers. He said:

Four months later, at the end of the summer recess, under questioning from me on 20 October, it emerged that those letters had never been sent out. The Minister was happy to imply that he was trying to boost public sector support for British farmers, but in practice he did so only when persistently chivvied by the Opposition. It is no surprise that in Wales sheep farmers are now banning the Ministry of Defence from conducting exercises on their land.

In the autumn, Britain was again humiliated when France refused to allow British beef to be exported. As that crisis deepened, the Minister refused even to talk to his French counterpart, saying that there would be no point in doing so. At the Anglo-French summit at the end

11 May 2000 : Column 1046

of November, the issue was not even raised. Even in the past few weeks, when the European Commission itself has, not for the first time, exposed dangerous flaws in French farming practices, and when the long-held suspicion that BSE is much more widespread in France than was previously admitted have been confirmed, he still refuses to consider any action.

Mr. Nick Brown: That is no longer my ministerial responsibility. With the setting up of the Food Standards Agency, responsibility passes to the Secretary of State for Health. Even if the hon. Gentleman was on to a good point--which he is not--he would be making it to the wrong Minister.

Mr. Yeo: I am sure that British farmers will have noted the Minister's response: that it is not a matter of concern to the British Agriculture Minister if the illegal practices of farmers in other countries, whose businesses compete directly with those of farmers in Britain, continue unchecked. His only answer is, "Oh, it's not my responsibility."

Had a British farmer been found feeding his or her livestock with illegal materials, as French ones were last autumn--when the Minister was responsible--does anyone believe that the Minister would have told Parliament that nothing could or should be done? Of course not. A French farmer behaving in that way can rely on good old Labour Ministers. Never mind the damage to Britain's farmers or the risks to British consumers, under this Labour Government there is not a word of criticism, a whisper of complaint or a moment of argument over any action or proposal, however damaging, from a foreign Government or a European institution.

Mr. Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Yeo: No, I have given way too often.

The Government's reluctance to act to reduce the flow of substandard food into Britain is now notorious. Only yesterday, the National Farmers Union revealed a 40 per cent. rise in poultry imports from Thailand, a country where practices are known, in some cases, to fall far below the standards that are required here for health reasons.

Agriculture and the countryside, and consumers, now need a Minister and a Government who are prepared to defend their cause: to defend it in Whitehall, when more taxes and red tape are being imposed on them; against the Treasury, when support levels are being cut; and in Europe, when they are under attack from other Governments who recognise the importance of rural communities.

In 50 minutes today, the Minister gave no clue about Labour's long-term view of agriculture. It is no wonder that the industry is suffering from a shortage of young people coming into it. The Liberal Democrat amendment refers to the retirement scheme, and we are sympathetic to those concerns, with which my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will deal. However, much more than a retirement scheme is needed to save British agriculture. It needs a Government committed to the industry's survival, who have a vision of the countryside as something more than a giant theme park--a rural version of the millennium dome.

11 May 2000 : Column 1047

The Conservative party believes in a living and working countryside, where a prosperous agricultural industry is the foundation of a thriving rural economy; where viable and enlightened farmers are in the front line of looking after the rural environment and have the task of producing high-quality food to meet a substantial proportion of the needs of British consumers; and where rural communities can feel hope, not despair. I commend our amendment to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page