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We welcome what has been done, but regret that it has taken so long for the Minister to act. We also welcome the comments on deregulation that he made in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), but they do not sit well with what has been taking place. On deregulation, the Minister once said:
Every time the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) speaks, I become even more concerned that he thinks of himself as a Labour Member. He always speaks on such matters with common sense and made several sensible points. [Interruption.] I do not want to destroy his career, but I think that he is doing it himself anyway.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to the importance of ensuring that our regulations, our charging systems and all the burdens that we put on our farmers are no greater than those for the farmers with whom they must compete. That is critical.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), in what I suppose I could call a robust oration, referred to two things. I shall respond briefly to the question that he asked. I am sure that my answer will not satisfy him, but I shall try. First, he raised the issue of beef labelling. I agree with him. I hope that the Minister will comment on the business of having to state on the label whether the beef has come from a steer, a bull or a heifer. That is irrelevant.
As for whether the Conservative Front-Bench team supports collectivism--as my hon. Friend, I think, knows, we do not. The CAP has many faults, but to describe it as collectivism is an exaggeration. It has provided opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation. Many farms are a testament to that. I do not think that either of those are features of collectivism.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) wanted a longer-term strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) highlighted the fact that the CAP is increasing in cost to the taxpayer and to the consumer, with a decrease in income to the farmer.
Many Members have commented, properly, that unarguably the biggest problem is the strength of sterling versus the euro. The Government cannot wring their hands and pass the buck. The scale of the gap between the pound and the euro is a feature not only of the problems of the euro--although I readily accept that that is a significant factor--but of Government economic policy.
When the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the Monetary Policy Committee control over interest rates to control inflation, he thought that he had shuffled off responsibility for inflation, but he had not, because increasing public expenditure, increasing fuel taxes and halving the savings ratio are all inflationary. The committee has had to counter that with higher interest rates than would otherwise be necessary.
As for the MAFF regional centres, I welcome again the Minister's recognition of the need for an interface with farmers, but the PricewaterhouseCoopers report is causing widespread concern not only among his own employees in those centres, but among farmers. Last week, I sat in the Cambridge waiting room for an hour or so and spoke to many farmers. Even I was surprised how far some of them had come for advice and help and to have their forms checked. Some had driven for more than two hours to get there. That interface is critical.
The Minister will say, no doubt, that in time it can all be done through electronic communication. No doubt it will be, but the pilot schemes so far have not exactly been a raging success. I understand that although farmers send the forms in by e-mail, they have to follow them on foot or in a car to sign them.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) referred to arable farming. The arable sector is disappointed that there is nothing for arable farmers in the latest package. Wheat and barley prices for the coming harvest are likely to be of the order of £60 a tonne--close to half the price only seven or eight years ago. On top of that, English arable farmers face a reduction in their payments.
Whereas the Agenda 2000 reform, about which we have heard so much, increased the payment per hectare by 25 euros for the coming year, our farmers will see a reduction of some £8 per hectare at today's exchange rates. That is without taking into account the 2.5 per cent. cut to fund the rural development programme.
Will the Minister confirm that there will be a further payment of £11.12 per hectare of cereals this autumn on the back of the 1999 claim? Will she confirm whether there will be any compensation for the reduction in this year's payments? Will she respond to the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) about cash flow?
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food referred to sugar. I was going to quote something that he has said on previous occasions, but I need not bother because he reiterated his policy today, which is that he thinks that the sugar price should be cut. I am glad that he has acknowledged that, and that I got his words right. However, I do not see his logic, which seemed to be that because all other arable prices have fallen, so should that of sugar. It seems odd that the one lifeline that exists for countless arable farmers should be taken from them.
Reference was made to the pesticide tax. I am glad that the Prime Minister made his statement at the annual general meeting of the NFU, but we wait to see whether the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will accept the voluntary scheme put forward by the industry. I hope and trust--given his previous pronouncements--that the Minister is supporting the industry.
Mention has been made of an early retirement scheme. The Government said no to that because of the "dead weight" issue. However, I believe--as do others on both sides of the House--that there is a case for such a scheme. The past two or three years have deprived farmers, particularly tenant farmers, of their capital. Milk quota is now 17p to 19p a litre to buy or sell. It was almost double that a year ago. The capital value of their stock has gone, so many small tenant dairy farmers have had their pension fund halved. Ireland has developed an innovative scheme, and I commend it--or something similar--to the Minister.
Long-term reform of the CAP is critical. There is no doubt about that, and there is not a great deal of difference across the House on the need for it. Last year's reform was weak. I believe that the biggest and most significant reform was the 1992 MacSharry reform, which shifted the concept from market support to direct aid. More reform is essential for enlargement, and I am concerned by stories that the enlargement talks are beginning to founder on that point.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk said, even the United States--which presents itself as a Messiah of the free market--has had to put billions of dollars into agriculture. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has figures on the producer support estimate--the means of measuring public support. In Europe, it is considered to be about £18 a week for a family of four. In the United States, it is considered to be £16 or £17. That must be borne in mind in negotiations, and it does not even take into account the burden of the environmental and welfare controls that we place on our farms.
Without support for farming in the UK, there would still be farming; land would be farmed, but not in a way that the public would support. Good land would be farmed even more intensively, and poorer land would be farmed so extensively--the word "ranching" was used in the debate--that dereliction would develop, and the public would be very upset.
What matters is the form of support. We need to move from market support and abandon production controls that prevent farmers from expanding to compensate for falling prices. We need to make support transparent--not just the sums, but their purpose.
The previous Government developed the concept of environmentally sensitive areas--the first, and, I believe, still the largest step towards payment for environmental measures. We introduced the countryside stewardship scheme, and this Government implemented our arable stewardship scheme. There is no single form of support that is right for everyone. There must be a range of options, and the only common factor must be that they are clear in their intention, and designed for a purpose that the public will support.
Farmers do not want more subsidy. They do not like being dependent on the taxpayer, and they like being dependent on politicians even less. However, they expect a fair deal and an opportunity to compete on a level playing field, with the same regulations and obligations as others. If we in this House--for very good reasons, sometimes--place upon them regulations which are not being placed on their competitors, we have a moral duty to help to compensate for those extra costs.
This debate is about the future of British agriculture, as well as the future of the British landscape and countryside. We expect ever more environmental care from our farmers, and we impose more and more regulation on them.
In my travels, farmers across the country have asked me, "Do the Government really want us any more?" I do not try to answer that question, but say, "I don't know whether they do--you'll have to ask the Minister." Farmers believe that under this Government, they are dispensable. Despite the Minister's warm words, his actions have so far proved insufficient to provide real help. It is a matter not of applying a few sticking plasters, but of addressing long-term issues.
Three years ago, Labour told the electorate that things could only get better. Since then, as European Union figures show, farm incomes in the rest of Europe have decreased by less than 10 per cent., whereas in the United Kingdom they have decreased by 37 per cent. If that is what happens when things get better, goodness knows what would happen if Labour were trying to make them worse.
I do not pretend that any Government have a magic wand, and I realise that many of the issues facing agriculture are outside the Government's control, but many more issues than the Minister seems willing to admit are within the Government's control.
Farming is a part of the rural community--a critical part, not just an add-on. The places where people live and work are there because farmers created them and maintain them. They cannot be immune to changing markets or to moves to freer trade, but they can be helped in that change. That is a challenge that we believe we are best placed to meet. This debate has shown that the Government's response is entirely inadequate.