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The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): We were pleased to secure the European Commission's agreement that, for the current year, we should continue to apply the rules on field margins in the same way as we have in previous years. For 2001 and subsequent years, we continue to explore with the Commission the options for achieving the objective to which my hon. Friend refers.
Ms Keeble: I welcome the progress that has been made. Farmers in Northamptonshire have in some cases lost thousands of pounds on the issue, and they are also concerned about the loss of hedgerows, wildlife and traditional countryside features. However, may I ask my hon. Friend to look at two particular things: ensuring that there is proper flexibility, so that field margins allow for the varying width of hedgerows and are not too fixed; and ensuring that there is speed in making progress. Farmers will start planting their first crops in August. They want to be sure that progress will continue to be made, so that they will know where they stand on their subsidies next year.
Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend is right. We appreciate that there is a deadline on the issue because farmers will have to take decisions on their autumn planting regime. However, farmers should not have lost money on the issue. The ideal will be to persuade the Commission to accept the current situation, whereby we apply traditional cropping methods in terms of the arable area payment claims. There are a number of ways of addressing that. We are exploring all those options with the Commission and hope for a speedy resolution.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): It was tragic and heart-breaking to see the bonfires all over North Wiltshire as a result of the introduction of the 2-metre IACS rule last year. Farmers acted swiftly, taking note of what the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was saying, but it was tragic to see the destruction of historic hedgerows as a result. Perhaps the Minister will kindly advise the House precisely which Minister proposed the 2-metre IACS rule, which caused that destruction.
Mr. Morley: We have received no reports from our regional service centres of bonfires all over the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Was he referring to 5 November by any chance? The proposal has not come from any Minister. It has come from auditors and accountants from the European Commission. They are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that funds are paid on the area of land that is actually eligible for them. We understand that point. The point that we want to get over to the Commission is that we had original agreement that payments would
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Provisional figures for 1999 show that common agricultural policy subsides paid in the UK totalled some £2,851 million. Hill farmers received 25 per cent. of that in livestock subsides alone. In addition, hill farmers received various other payments such as those for agri-environmental schemes.
Helen Jackson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that hill farmers have suffered a triple whammy: the total mismanagement of the BSE crisis by the previous Government, the general depression in livestock prices and, now, the absolutely correct emphasis on the role of hill farmers in the leisure and environmental management of the countryside in future? Will he ensure, as he moves further through the reform of the CAP, that the important and specific role of hill farmers, as represented by the 25 per cent., continues to be recognised as they move in the direction of countryside management?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right to refer to the combination of factors that has made life particularly difficult for hill farmers and to say that it is important, when considering reform and what publicly funded support schemes should be put in place, that we consider the environmental and landscape roles of hill farmers, not focusing solely on agricultural production.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he has no plans further to reduce support for hill farmers until their average incomes, currently standing at a meagre £2,000 a year, have recovered to an adequate level; and will he tell us what he thinks is an adequate level?
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right inasmuch as my policy is to help each hill farm business to reach better--sustainably better--times; that is the Government's policy. Can I give him an assurance that no one's income will ever go down as a result of necessary changes that are now under consideration? No, of course I cannot. However, for the range of reasons, I have just explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) we have devised policies to get hill farm businesses through to better times.
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point, although it is early days yet. I have discussed with the Agriculture Minister for Wales and other territorial Ministers our joint approach to the forthcoming review. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand, I do not want to set out our negotiating position now, but I assure him that I am alert to the fact that if the review is conducted in isolation from reviews of other regimes, the outcome might be different from that which would have emerged had the views of the British Government carried the day originally and the review been conducted alongside other reviews under Agenda 2000. I greatly regret that it was not, and that fact conditions my thinking about the whole process.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the superb initiative to bring together producers, auction marts and other processors in the Bowland Forest foods initiative, which points the way to the future of agricultural production, especially in hill areas. Can he assure me of the Government's utmost support for such initiatives?
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Does the Minister agree that it is extremely helpful to hill farmers to have easy access to small abattoirs, which, as we all know, currently suffer under considerable cost burdens? When asked his opinion of the Meat Hygiene Service, the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency said that it was
Mr. Brown: There is much in what the hon. Gentleman says, although were I to set out to close down as many abattoirs as were closed down under the previous Government, I could not do so, because there are not that many left. However, he is right to ask whether the Government support the change to a hazard analysis critical control point system, or HACCP system, from the current system of veterinary inspections. We are taking that issue forward with other EU Ministers. On the related question of charges, as the House will know, since 1 April that has not been my direct ministerial responsibility, although I retain an interest because of my industry sponsorship. That question is now being examined by the FSA, which has the lead role, and myself.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): The arable stewardship scheme is a three-year pilot scheme that has been operating in two areas of the west midlands and East Anglia. Before deciding whether to make the scheme permanent and expand it, we need to see the results of the three-year monitoring and evaluation study of the options that we are testing in the two pilot areas. The results are due in spring 2001.
Mr. Kidney: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I do not recall such a scheme being introduced by the previous Conservative Government. Is my hon. Friend aware of how phenomenally popular the scheme is proving to be in Shropshire and Staffordshire, as evidenced by the representations that I have received from individual farmers, the National Farmers Union locally and the NFU regionally? In addition, is my hon. Friend aware that over the past year the scheme was over- subscribed threefold in Shropshire and Staffordshire? Given such success signs, is it possible even now to say that the scheme should be expanded over a wider part of the country?
Mr. Morley: I can certainly agree with my hon. Friend. It is a popular scheme. I have been to Staffordshire to see it in operation. I have talked to local farmers who are part of the pilot, and they are enthusiastic about it. I am convinced of the benefits of many aspects of the scheme. We have already offered an over-winter stubble option in some environmentally sensitive areas. My hon. Friend will know that we are substantially increasing the budget for countryside stewardship schemes under our rural development programme. There will be about £1 billion available for agri-environmental programmes over the next seven years. I am sure that there will be room within that programme for extending the scheme into other areas.