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Mr. Öpik: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that farmers in Wales were keen to become involved in organic farming? Unfortunately, the project was massively oversubscribed, and there was not enough money to go round. As a result, farmers are being a bit more cautious.
Mr. Todd: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Many farmers, including some in my area, have expressed interest in organics. The typical south Derbyshire farmer is canny and cautious and does not necessarily think that today's fashion is tomorrow's marketplace, so farmers in that area may not have leapt on the idea as keenly as some; but there are prospects. Those who are investing need sound business advice on the appropriateness of their decision.
My point is that a project involving the provision of money for the purpose of achieving a particular goal was immediately oversubscribed--and I should be very surprised if the same did not happen during the current financial year.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): As the hon. Gentleman will know, I have sponsored a Bill setting targets for organic food production. He will also know that 70 per cent. of organic products in supermarkets are imported. I wonder if he also knows that the Prime Minister has committed himself to trebling the amount of agricultural land involved in organic production by 2006, and that there is no money to back up that commitment.
Mr. Todd: I accept all that the hon. Gentleman says, but freely admit that I subscribed neither to his Bill nor to the early-day motions that preceded it. Those who know me--members of the Select Committee, for instance--are aware that my view on such matters is firmly market-based. I regard approaches that set targets, at Government level, for the conversion of agricultural land to organic status as dangerously dirigiste--almost like the Soviet approach, suggesting that particular areas should be converted to organic status regardless of what the marketplace may want. I sense--as, regrettably, I often do--a degree of assent to some of my market-led views on the Opposition Benches. Nevertheless, I am keen to support the development of the organic sector along market-led lines.
Having been led along that track by others, let me return to my core point. The scheme to which I referred was oversubscribed last year. There are a number of examples of similar schemes, which I believe will be oversubscribed and in whose case the shortage of money is not related to a market problem. They include training schemes to encourage farmers to move into other sectors and improve their business skills, marketing assistance, and to some extent the development of support grant systems for farm-based enterprises.
It is feared that older farmers are less able to envisage change, will be locked into continuing to farm, and will present a potential barrier to reform. That has always been my strongest argument for an early-retirement scheme.
Without wishing to direct criticism at an older generation of farmers, who have served this country well, one could argue that they are the least equipped to manage change. There is therefore an argument for reviewing the basis for an early retirement package.
Nevertheless, I have listened carefully to the Minister's reasonable view that a large chunk of the cash would be wasted because a significant proportion of farmers who would be aided by an early retirement package would leave agriculture anyway. We would therefore simply be providing additional cash for pensions, which those farmers would claim in due course. I understand that rational argument, which is typical of the Treasury, and not necessarily shared by other Departments. We must consider it carefully, but, so far, the micro-economic argument for the change that I described has been badly expressed.
I am not clear about the mechanism for implementing some of the policies. The part of the speech by the hon. Member for South Suffolk that I heard referred to the role of regional service centres. I take a different view from the Opposition spokesman. There is plenty of room for reform in that service to farmers. However, greater co-ordination is required between support for farmers through regional service centres and support through the Small Business Service and various regional government offices. Provision of support and explanation of opportunity needs to be more finely tuned. So far, I am not persuaded that that has been thought through rigorously.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the best forms of support for British agriculture is freedom from burdensome and unnecessary regulation? What is the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the draft Feedingstuffs Regulations 2000, which have come from the European Commission and to which the Minister has so far limply agreed? They will effectively prevent farmers from feeding their herds health-boosting minerals or vitamins, with the limited exception of compound feed. Does the hon. Gentleman know that the National Farmers Union regards them as unnecessary? What does he think?
Mr. Todd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Those who have heard me speak about the subject know that I do not support greater regulation in farming. I was about to deal with regulation. The hon. Gentleman has therefore anticipated me, although I did not intend to refer to the regulations that he mentioned. However, his point deserves consideration.
I should like first to make some positive comments. Various working parties were established to examine regulation in agriculture. I can claim a role in arguing strongly for the need for such working parties, and I am largely pleased with the results, especially the quality of the reports, which highlighted some problems, and the
I welcome the statements, and the intellectual progress that has undoubtedly been made in examining the regulatory burden. However, I shall judge success by outcome rather than words. Again, I do not criticise my Front-Bench colleagues.
As I have said, I have contributed regularly to the debates on agriculture. In a debate on the dairy sector, I referred to dairy hygiene inspection charges, which have caused particular anxiety. I urged the Government to tackle the additional burdens that the English--not the Scottish--dairy sector bears. Perhaps the Government were persuaded by my argument, although others also commented on the matter, but I was delighted that the dairy sector featured specifically in the action plan and that the burden will be removed. That represents a genuine cash gain for dairy farmers. However, my previous cautionary remarks about the removal of regulations apply.
Another aspect of the action plan deals with aid for the pig sector. Like other Select Committee colleagues, I had the opportunity to question Commissioner Franz Fischler on potential aid packages for the pig sector before the Government devised their package. We had an entertaining Agriculture Question Time when another member of the Select Committee, who is sadly absent this afternoon, and I gave slightly different interpretations of the conversation.
The Commissioner made it clear to the Select Committee that there was absolutely no basis on which the Government could provide support mechanisms for the continuing activity of the pig sector. The regime is light and the sector does not currently receive subsidies. To take the example that the industry chose, the United Kingdom Government could not argue for compensating the sector for what is perceived as the BSE tax to cover the additional burdens of disposing of offal, which would otherwise find a market. Commissioner Fischler's judgment was clear and I reported it to the Minister. In my question, I suggested that the future lay in an aid package that was focused on restructuring and additional marketing support. I am pleased that that featured in the Government's action plan.
I alluded to the precise definition of restructuring in a more private meeting with representatives of the pig sector. It is rather vague. The Government's approach suggests that restructuring has an historical element. It is not entirely oriented towards the future; thus it is not designed to reduce the industry's capacity further. It is designed to look backwards at those who have already left the industry. That is an interesting definition of restructuring, but it is more helpful than an approach based only on the future.