Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I thank the Minister for making his statement available to me a little while before he made it here. It presents a complex package, which I hope the House will have an early opportunity to debate.

Many of the long-term aims to which the statement refers will command widespread support, but I want to ask four questions. I want to ask about the amount of money involved, the type of scheme that will be supported, the timing of the changes, and their effects on British farmers.

First, will the Minister explain more clearly than he did in his statement exactly how much new money will be involved, as opposed to cash that is moved from one pocket to another? In September, he claimed that a package was worth half a billion pounds; on examination, it turned out to contain only £1 million of new money. Following that claim, there is some cynicism in rural communities. A farmer who filled out his IACS form--the integrated administration and control system form--on the basis that Labour Ministers use for announcing spending programmes would soon find himself in jail.

Secondly, how much of the new money to be spent under the rural development regulation will actually reach farmers? How much of the total package has been funded by cuts in payments already being made to farmers? Will the Minister guarantee that other existing spending on the countryside will not be reduced when the new measures are introduced? Will the new rural enterprise scheme be controlled by the Ministry? If not, by whom will it be controlled? What proportion of the new money can be spent on article 33 measures? Is there any guarantee that support for hill farmers will at least be maintained? How many more bureaucrats will be employed to administer these schemes?

Thirdly, although we support a move towards more environmental schemes, I should like to know why the Government think that the right time to cut production payments is when farm incomes have just suffered three years of crippling falls.

Fourthly, and finally, this package does nothing to address the crisis that is destroying British livestock farming today. It does nothing for pig farmers who are wondering whether their businesses can survive beyond Christmas. It does nothing for dairy farmers who have been hit by falling prices and by a Government who let their competitors abroad have a higher milk quota when they cannot even meet home demand. It does nothing for beef farmers whose hopes of rebuilding export markets have been undermined by one Government blunder after another. It does nothing for sheep farmers on the hills whose incomes are down to £2,000 a year, and who now face more uncertainty in regard to their support payments. Does the Minister realise that unless he acts today to help Britain's livestock farmers, few of them will be around to take part in the new schemes that he has just announced?

Mr. Brown: As usual, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general welcome for the announcement before turning to his long list of specific complaints. I tried to help him by giving him the statement in advance, and many of his questions have been answered by the statement. I shall try to do his points justice, however.

7 Dec 1999 : Column 704

The hon. Gentleman referred to difficulties in the livestock sector. Those difficulties stem from the BSE problems that resulted in a national tragedy. As I have said before, a little humility from the party that presided over that crisis would be welcome. The livestock sector, more than any other, stands to benefit from the measures that I have announced. Even pig farmers cannot but benefit. Although they can apply for the schemes that have been announced, they are not the recipients of the payments that are being modulated.

The hon. Gentleman asked about sums for the use of article 33--I gave those figures in my statement. He also asked about control of specific schemes. I intend to involve our regional partners in the administration of the schemes. In England, the boundaries will parallel the boundaries of the Government offices for the regions. There was detailed consultation on the measures before they were drawn together for the statement.

The hon. Gentleman asked which budgets are being cut. There is no proposal in today's statement to cut any budget. The situation is quite the reverse. I have announced new money and a significant expansion of a range of regimes. The departmental element is subject to the comprehensive spending review round, but we are submitting the whole prospectus to the European Union in good faith. It is our seven-year plan.

I totally reject what the hon. Gentleman said about the farm aid package announced earlier this year. He asked how much new money was in today's statement. For every pound modulated in England, the Treasury will provide another pound of new money from new funds specifically for this scheme. The moneys for England will be spent in England; the moneys for Scotland will be spent in Scotland; the moneys for Wales will be spent in Wales; and, the moneys for Northern Ireland will be spent in Northern Ireland. Each pound modulating on a rising profile of expenditure will be matched pound for pound.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a false prospectus and Ministers in jail. In fact, a former Cabinet Minister is in jail. Another former Minister is currently before the courts in a very entertaining libel action. A political party exists that is funded by the ambassador of a foreign Government. Recently, a candidate withdrew in disgraceful circumstances from the forthcoming election for a mayor of London. None of those individuals has anything to do with the governing party.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I welcome absolutely everything that my right hon. Friend has said. He is clearly listening to the true voice of the countryside. Does he agree that rural parish and town councils have a crucial role to play in assessing and developing the needs of their local communities in order to produce plans that can be funded under these excellent initiatives?

Mr. Brown: That is true. I am keen to ensure that schemes and regional priorities, which will differ in different parts of the country, reflect the ambitions of individual communities, particularly the agricultural communities most closely affected. I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for today's announcement.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I, too, broadly welcome the proposals. Of course, the Liberal Democrats have been advocating many of them for some

7 Dec 1999 : Column 705

time. Nevertheless, we have two concerns. First, we are concerned that the administrative systems often become very bureaucratic. We would not want more civil servants operating or administering the system in Whitehall than there are farmers implementing it on the ground. The proposals need to be user friendly, openly acceptable and understandable; and the decision making will, we hope, be swift.

Secondly, we are a little surprised that there is no mention of an early retirement scheme. We applaud the Minister's view that there need to be fresh faces and fresh thinking in farming at this time. We would have liked some proposal for such a scheme. Will the Minister consider that and come back at some stage during this Session to find out whether an early retirement scheme for farmers may be possible?

Mr. Brown: What the hon. Gentleman says about the Liberal Democrat party having advocated these measures for some time is right. Previous Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesmen have advanced those arguments to me. I have given the indicative figures for the scheme spend. Of course, I hope to keep the administration as accessible as possible and the costs to a minimum.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asks about an early retirement scheme. As he and others who have followed these debates will know, I am a strong supporter of such a scheme, if we can get one to work and to be value for money. We have tried hard to shape such a scheme, but we have not succeeded. Therefore, it is not part of the package that I have announced and I cannot hold out any prospects for it, for England at any rate. It is better to say so clearly now so that there will be no expectations about such a scheme in the future, as I do not think that it will be possible.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I welcome today's announcement, but will my right hon. Friend say a little more about the development of the countryside stewardship scheme? I know from experience in my constituency that the scheme is welcomed not only by the farming community but much more widely. It represents a partnership between the farming community and people who, in many cases, used to work on farms. Can he give us any hope that that type of activity will be expanded in years to come? It is particularly welcomed by tourists and everyone who can benefit from it.

Mr. Brown: I am doubling expenditure on the scheme, and that announcement will be welcome to the farming community. The scheme is oversubscribed, which demonstrates how popular it is, and it provides farm businesses with a steady and fixed income stream. They are working in partnership with the Government to provide goods that are easily defended to the electorate--the environmental benefits that we know our citizens want.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Does the Minister understand--I have a sneaking suspicion that he might--that the proposals that he has announced will generally be welcomed? They are a significant step in the right direction. However, I am not sure whether they are as radical as he thought. I enter two caveats.

7 Dec 1999 : Column 706

First, when the Minister makes his announcement, will he please try to give the information on an annual, financial year basis? It is difficult to absorb the figures. As I understand it, they run for not only the next Parliament but the one after that, so the £500 million for the countryside stewardship scheme is over seven years and amounts to about £60 million or £70 million a year. Undoubtedly, that scheme is good in principle, but--this is my second caveat--before the Minister commits large additional sums to it, I urge him to look into the bureaucracy of administering and monitoring it. I think that something like a quarter of the money that is spent on countryside stewardship goes on monitoring. Could we see more of it going into bringing more benefits for the environment and farmers?

Next Section

IndexHome Page