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Mr. Yeo: The lack of enforcement of existing rules in many European countries is one of the scandals of the EU. Instead of endlessly seeking to pass new laws and to extend its regulatory powers, the Commission should try to ensure that existing regulations are enforced in a timely and even-handed manner throughout the EU.

Above all, farming needs a Government who will stand up for its interests, insist that the public sector buys only food that meets British standards, help the organic sector by leading the way towards a common international standard, recognise the problems facing older farmers by introducing a retirement scheme for tenants, and protect the integrity of existing farms by exercising proper controls over genetically modified crop trials, instead of doing the bidding of their friends in big business and allowing the commercial planting of GM crops before their environmental effects are understood.

It is time to end the scandal of Labour's missing millions. Cash is promised to the farmers and then taken back by the Treasury. It is time to treat farmers as grown-ups in an industry that is fighting for survival, rather than as victims to be duped by Labour spin doctors. Farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the countryside need a Government who believe that the survival of agriculture is important to the future of Britain. Conservatives believe that, and I commend the motion to the House.

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4.48 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I thank the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for choosing agriculture for the Opposition Supply day and for his first two sentences. After that, I thought that his speech rather fell away.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to express his good wishes for my future. He commented that this may be the last time I appear at the Dispatch Box as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Unless he knows something that I do not--I think that unlikely in this context--I expect to be at the Government Dispatch Box on 15 February to discuss a matter of enormous importance to agriculture, a matter for which the Conservative party can properly take a great deal of--[Interruption.] I am not sure that credit would be quite the right word. I shall explain the Government's response to the Phillips report and the national tragedy of BSE. It is very much an agriculture issue, and I expect to be in my place to discuss it.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not go so far as to say that, on my departure he expected to succeed me. I know that the farming community will be grateful for that.

It is clear that British farming continues to suffer from a severe and prolonged downturn; there is no quarrel between us on that. The principal causes are widely agreed on, although one would not have learned that from the speech of the hon. Member for South Suffolk. Those causes are low world commodity prices, the weakness of the euro and the continuing impact of BSE, not just on the beef sector, but right across the livestock sector. I acknowledge further recent difficulties, including the outbreak of swine fever in East Anglia, widespread flooding of agricultural land and increases in world oil prices.

I want to set out what the Government have done to help, and explain our long-term strategy for the future.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): May I just clear up a certain point? The Minister has often said that he will do what he can to help, although he also asks what he can do, given the restrictions. Agrimonetary compensation is one thing that can be tackled, and every Government must

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examine that against the background of agricultural circumstances. The Minister has announced that the hourly wage rate in agriculture is now about £1, if a profit is being made. The position is desperate: he spoke about a downturn, and there may well not be an upturn.

The Minister knows that the Chancellor has a substantial budget surplus. Surely now is the time when, if the Minister wishes to keep agriculture going, agrimonetary compensation should be asked for.

Mr. Brown: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have a lot of sympathy for that. Since the Labour party came to power, we have spent £629 million on agrimonetary compensation. The right hon. Gentleman will know that when the president of the National Farmers Union and the chairman of the NFU arable sector committee came to see me last autumn and made the case for agrimonetary compensation in the arable sector, I was able to add to the mandatory payments--which I negotiated to be mandatory--part of the voluntary amount as well. I know that that was welcomed by the sector.

That is the first time any Government have paid out voluntary agrimonetary compensation in the arable sector. We did that in recognition of the difficult times that the arable sector in the area represented by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), among others, was going through. Those things are judged on a case-by-case basis. The right hon. Gentleman was a Cabinet Minister and knows that, in government, expenditure under the regime has to be argued for against competing claims for public expenditure. I put the case for the industry when I think it justified, and I have fought for it very hard indeed in recent circumstances, as the NFU and others, including Members of Parliament with constituency interests, have made a case for it. However, I cannot make an announcement in today's debate.

Since coming to office, the Government have provided short-term assistance worth £1.2 billion, which includes agrimonetary compensation of £289 million to arable farmers, £236 million to beef farmers, £82 million to sheep farmers and £22 million to dairy farmers. To answer the intervention of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, because of the difficulties in the dairy sector, last year we drew down every single penny that was available across the agrimonetary regime.

We have allocated an extra £300 million to hill farmers, above the level of hill farming grants that we inherited from the previous Government--I made that point in my intervention on the hon. Member for South Suffolk. We have offset a range of regulatory charges, including those for cattle passports, specified risk material inspections and dairy hygiene inspections. We have increased payments under the over-30-months scheme by lifting the weight limit for cattle entered in the scheme. The NFU especially asked us to do that, and we have responded.

We have dramatically increased grants available for organic conversion, processing and marketing projects, and the conversion of redundant farm buildings. We have opened a new pig industry restructuring scheme, which will provide grants to outgoers reducing capacity and ongoers seeking to make their operations more efficient. We successfully contained and eliminated the recent swine fever outbreak in East Anglia and invented from scratch the pig welfare disposal scheme to give unprecedented compensation to pig farmers affected by

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movement restrictions. Those are not the pig farmers who suffered directly from the classical swine fever outbreak, but those who were affected by the movement restrictions that were necessary to control it.

In November, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the abolition of vehicle excise duty on tractors and agricultural vehicles and the halving of excise duty on lorries. He is freezing all road fuel and oil duties and, as the House knows, he will be cutting by 3p a litre duty on ultra-low sulphur diesel and petrol. Furthermore, in the light of the severe difficulties caused to farmers by recent flooding, we have proposed to allow some flexibility in CAP scheme rules so that those who suffered from flooding do not lose their subsidy payments. I am pleased to tell the House that Commissioner Franz Fischler has written to confirm that those exceptional changes can be made.

In partnership with the Small Business Service and business links, we have launched the farm business advice service. In the service's first four months, almost 3,000 farmers have requested consultations and more than 1,300 initial consultation visits have been made. However, whatever action we take to help farmers through in the short term, a longer-term strategy is needed. I understand that the political cycle is coming to a close and that the hon. Member for South Suffolk wishes to make a robust contribution. However, his remarks did not make the Conservatives' long-term strategy clear to me. Indeed, I suspect that they did not do so for any hon. Member.

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