The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Because this is the last Question Time over which you are expecting to preside, Madam Speaker, may I say on behalf of us all that we will miss you very much indeed?
Before you call me to order, Madam Speaker, I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that arable farmers have so far received £170 million in agrimonetary compensation: £18 million last year and £152 million this year, with a further £57 million to be paid later this year. That is in addition to the £1 billion that the sector receives every year in direct aid.
I welcome the amount given to farmers to help them in this time of crisis, but would it not be sensible for us to consider the rigidity of the mechanism for automatic payments related to currency? In particular, is it not perverse that better-off farmers seem to receive the lion's share of agrimonetary compensation?
Mr. Brown: It is true that 20 per cent. of farmers receive 80 per cent. of the support payments under the current structure of the common agricultural policy. That is one reason why we press for reform.
Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister, whose well-publicised memo in The Times this morning advised the country that he hopes that we will join the single currency as soon as possible, for political reasons? What benefit would farmers derive from that? At what level does he believe that it would benefit farmers for Britain to join the euro? Does he think that we should join as soon as possible, or when the level is correct?
Operation Gangmaster is a good example of joint action by several Government agencies to tackle agricultural gangmasters who act illegally. Since June 1998, Operation Gangmaster has undertaken a number of raids in the pilot area of Lincolnshire and is following up leads on many illegal activities including VAT fraud, income tax fraud and employment law. During the summer, Operation Gangmaster will be extended to other parts of the UK.
Mr. Dobbin: During this Parliament, workers' rights have been defended, protected and strengthened, whereas during the 18 years of Conservative Government, workers' rights were massively attacked. Will Operation Gangmaster be targeted at agricultural gangmasters who exploit illegal immigrants? According to a recent "Panorama" programme, forced labour camps have been set up. Will the Government tackle those problems?
Ms Quin: I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are tackling those issues. Just as he rightly says that we have improved employment rights here at home, so we have to be equally vigilant in ensuring that there is no exploitation of immigrant workers, some of whom have made a bona fide entry to this country to do seasonal work on our farms and in our horticulture industry.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): On behalf of all my Front-Bench colleagues, may I also say how much we will miss you, Madam Speaker? It has been a positive pleasure occasionally to receive your rebukes when we have mildly transgressed the rules of order, and I hope that I will be rebuked again.
Does the Minister understand that fruit and vegetable farmers face a problem in finding enough workers to pick their crop? A farmer in Kent whom I visited last week, who produces high-quality soft fruit, could substantially increase his production and even begin exporting if he had more pickers available. Will the Minister therefore support my call for a raise in the ceiling on the number of seasonal agricultural workers from abroad who are allowed into Britain for a limited period to work on specific farms, for the mutual benefit of the worker and the farmer? Does the Minister agree that that would help to reduce demand for illegal immigrants, who may otherwise occasionally find work in that area?
Ms Quin: Once again, the hon. Gentleman calls for action which the Government have already undertaken. We have already approached colleagues in the Home Office about this matter, and they are looking sympathetically at the needs of the horticultural sector and at increasing the number of people who can take advantage of that scheme, which can benefit students from eastern European countries and help build good relationships between our countries.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): This is an important question. Evaluation of the farm diversification grant scheme--which closed in 1993--and objective 5b suggests that well-targeted aid can provide good value for money. It is on the basis of the evaluation of previous schemes that we intend to operate the new rural enterprise scheme in England--I have responsibility only for schemes in England.
Mr. Brown: I have paid careful attention to the New Zealand experience. My hon. Friend is right to say that we cannot carry on supporting agriculture's over-reliance on the supply side support mechanisms under the common agricultural policy. I attach proportionate importance to the diversification element of the new rural development regulation, which is why we have planned expenditure of some £152 million over the next seven years in England
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister recognise that in his plans to reorganise the regional structures of MAFF, he is making some heroic assumptions about farmers' ability to use advanced technology in applying for subsidies and other applications? Knowing that many farmers are not confident in this area and are elderly, will he ensure that the facilities are available to give practical help to those who cannot master the technology, so that those who depend most on aid are not denied it?
Mr. Brown: The link is a bit tenuous, but it is an important point. I would be making some even more heroic assumptions if we did not take action in that area. I intend to ensure that there is a presence in each of the MAFF regions so that farmers can continue, during the changeover period, to have direct contact with officials in the Ministry to discuss their concerns face to face, not necessarily via new technology or even by telephone. We have conducted successful experiments in East Anglia on the electronic transmission of data, and I am aware of similar experiments carried out in Scotland by the Department with devolved responsibility for administering those schemes. Those give grounds for optimism.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Is my right hon. Friend aware that belching cows are responsible for 25 per cent. of the methane released into the atmosphere, which is a powerful greenhouse gas? Is he also aware that a UK-invented feed additive can cut down that dreadful belching?
Mr. Prentice: Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) said, is it not the case that, to encourage farmers to get that innovative product into the market, we should look at a small kick-start subsidy?
Mr. Brown: A lot of regimes started with small kick-start subsidies. We are looking at non-food crops and some experimental work is under way. We shall provide some funding under the rural development regulation and I am always willing to consider new and innovative ways to enhance farm incomes.
Given the Government's commitment to diversification into organic conversion, will they set specific targets for that conversion over time and will those targets be supported by a stable financial package for the long term?
We have put aside £140 million to spend on organic farm conversion during the seven-year lifetime of the English rural development regulation. We expect that the outcome of that expenditure will be a tripling of the area that is farmed organically. We are not setting specific targets. Clearly, the organic farmers need to win their places in the market, but we are providing substantially enhanced financial support for organic farming because that it what consumers want.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Does the Minister accept that innovation in e-commerce in farm diversification will be hampered by the lack of advanced telecommunication systems in constituencies such as Congleton? What action will he take to ensure equitable access to the super-highway and, indeed, to increase competition in rural areas, where British Telecom currently has the monopoly of provision?
Mr. Brown: I do not want to stray outside the matters for which I have ministerial responsibility, but I want to ensure that everyone has equal access to the services that the Ministry provides. We are considering making use of the network of rural post offices, for example, as service providers to those running farm businesses, but I assure the hon. Lady that we shall keep a front-line service for farmers in place during the transitional period, with travel distances no greater than they are now.