Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Breed: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a shame that agriculture GCSE is not to continue? Some 700 students a year took that examination to help them to go on to agricultural college, and they will no longer be able to do so.

Mr. Edwards: I am interested to hear that, because I was not aware of it. I am concerned that our agricultural colleges should be as vibrant as our business schools. I wonder whether they are getting the investment that they need to provide the lifelong learning, training and management experience that the existing farming community deserves.

Mr. Todd: From my already over-long speech, I struck out a planned reference to agricultural education. Does my hon. Friend agree that an opportunity has arisen for a

11 May 2000 : Column 1065

wholesale review of the support that we give to training and education in agriculture? That would be consistent with the Government's strategy.

Mr. Edwards: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

Ever more farmers in my constituency want to go into agri-environmental schemes. In Wales, the Tyr Gofal scheme has increased in value from £4 million to £7.5 million this year, and in future years it will increase from £7 million to nearly £11 million. Those announcements are welcome. although scope remains for more resources to go into Tyr Gofal and other agri-environmental schemes.

The Government have increased the resources for organic conversion. There is considerable demand in my constituency, as there will be in many others, for support for farmers to undertake organic conversion, so I hope that the Government will continue to think seriously about the issue.

Let me turn to the subject of slaughterhouse charges. I have in my constituency, in the very heart of Monmouthshire, the Raglan slaughterhouse, owned by the lovely James family. They are struggling because of the veterinary fees that they have to pay. I go to the slaughterhouse to talk to them about their problems--and I am always mighty relieved to get away alive. They are concerned about the very high charges that the veterinary profession, with its monopoly, has imposed on the industry, much to the disadvantage of the small independent slaughterhouse, which provides such an important facility for our local farming communities.

In conclusion, I wish Ministers every success in their negotiations on common agricultural policy reform. Farmers work exceedingly hard providing high-quality food to feed our people, and maintaining the environment. They deserve a better deal than they have had in recent years, and I wish my right hon. and hon. Friends every success in working to achieve a better deal for farmers in the future.

4.1 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members agree about the need for reform of the common agricultural policy. Much of the frustration that has been caused has been to do with the speed of reform. It was surprising that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should remark how successful he thought that Agenda 2000 had been. Many people, not only in the House but those working in agriculture, were extremely disappointed at the relatively modest reforms that were ultimately achieved.

We have to ask ourselves whether there is another agenda in the process. Enlargement is on the agenda, and many countries have indicated that they are in favour of it. However, I sometimes wonder whether they do not want enlargement to take place particularly quickly, and look on reform of the CAP as a break in the enlargement process. The difficulty is to reach agreements that allow us to proceed and reform the CAP with any speed.

It is clear that European Union member states will have to move away--gradually, and whether they like it or not--from direct subsidy for production and towards a

11 May 2000 : Column 1066

policy to support wider rural development, for which we and others are pressing. The CAP will be entirely different in a few years. I hesitate to suggest that it might become a common rural and agricultural policy, because that has an unfortunate acronym. However, that is the way in which the agricultural policy must go. It must be much more responsive to the marketplace and to rural concerns.

I, too, welcome the farming summit, although it took place a little late--we have been calling for one for quite some while. Although there has been little progress on CAP reform, many of us hoped that the summit would take place earlier. However, it has not really changed anything. Agriculture is still in crisis. Some prices have improved marginally--some farmers are approaching the glory days of breaking even, but that will not compensate them for the huge losses that they have incurred over recent years.

Last year was a poor year for farm incomes, and now we learn that they are likely to fall again this year. The misery will continue for many of our farmers and growers. We are concerned with the speed at which change should happen, and the way in which we see the future. For the rest of this year and probably for part of next year, a huge change in the weakness of the euro against the strength of the pound is very unlikely. Yet I cannot see what the Government's strategy is in dealing with that problem. We will have to live with it, and we need to know that there is at least a strategy for dealing with that uncompetitive currency situation.

Regulation continues to hamper the competitiveness of our farming businesses. I was extremely pleased to learn that 98 of the 107 recommendations have been accepted by the Government. However, I would like to see a timetable for the introduction of those measures. That will enable farmers to feel confident about the way in which they manage their business under the new deregulated, lightly regulated, or differently regulated scheme.

Concern has been expressed about the problem of the MAFF regional service centres. There is a growing disquiet that farmers will not be able to access the information that they require to fulfil their obligations on their integrated administration and control system forms or any other type of regulation. They have had the luxury of being able to speak directly to the officials dealing with their forms and their circumstances, and who would be understanding. The hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) gave the terrible example of someone who made an honest mistake and paid dearly for it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned appeals, and we need to consider that issue. Of course there have been deliberately fraudulent claims, but they are relatively few. The overwhelming number of mistakes on these highly complex forms have been made because farmers have been unable to complete them absolutely satisfactorily. They have paid significant sums in penalties for their mistakes.

The additional costs on the industry have not melted away significantly since the farming summit. Most of them still exist. Animal welfare costs, which are not borne by competitors abroad, will be with us for the foreseeable future. However, there are others hovering around, such as the new integrated pollution prevention and control regulations, the welfare regulations on egg production, the climate change levy and its effect on horticulture. Even

11 May 2000 : Column 1067

the pesticide tax is still hovering in the background-- it has not been dismissed as if it will never be introduced. Those additional burdens are on farmers every day. We must speed up the implementation of the objectives with which we all agree.

Uncertainty in the industry is the major obstacle to recovery. Farmers find it difficult to plan their business--farms are businesses, and they need business plans--bankers do not have much confidence in farming incomes in the future, and costs may be visited upon farming businesses at any time.

In addition, there are the potential problems of planning, which have been aired in the debate. Planning will play a critical part in the process of recovery and diversification. It will be possible to put some pieces of land to alternative uses, but not all.

Only this week I have been trying to assist a constituent who was a pig farmer and who is now hoping to be able to build an observatory. There is still some quite clear air in Cornwall and occasionally, when it is not raining, there is a clear sky. There are good opportunities for those people who want to spend a few days learning about the stars, for example.

There have been negotiations for seven, eight or nine months on the building of an observatory and the provision of some farming accommodation. It is difficult to imagine the problems that have ensued. I am certain that the planning officers are following planning guidance to the letter, but whether they are doing any great favours to the area in which they are operating needs to be questioned.

The farm summit was the Government's attempt to help the industry back on to its feet. It was welcome, but a few months on we are waiting for the money. Farmers are waiting to see how they can get their hands on it so that they can keep their business together and continue to face the bank manager and their suppliers. Gaps have appeared following the summit, and when the Minister of State replies she might address them.

For example, the aid announced for hill farmers is less than they were receiving in some instances. Some of the aid will have to be used for consultancy. It will not go direct to farmers, but it will enable them to obtain a consultant's report.

I have tried to quantify the money that will be made available for marketing. I agree with the Government that as farm subsidies are reduced, it is vital that we concentrate on the demand side and increase it. Marketing will play a significant part in that process. The marketing budget of a major plc is often up to six times as much as the money that agriculture will supposedly be able to use to market produce in the UK and abroad, a sum which is entirely inadequate. That is not to say that we do not welcome it or that we eschew it, but enormous sums are being spent on marketing and the industry should have proportionate funds.


Next Section

IndexHome Page