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6.31 pm

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): No hon. Member would deny that the situation facing our farmers and the entire rural economy is extremely serious. We recognise that a number of fundamental issues have contributed to that situation, as we heard in earlier contributions--the strength of the pound, food scares and the renegotiation of the complex and troublesome CAP.

Over the past four years, the Labour Government have shown a firm commitment to agriculture and to ensuring that our food is safe. The development of our Food Standards Agency is a leading example in Europe, in which we should all take pride. On many different fronts, the Government continue to tackle the underlying problems that affect British agriculture.

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Over the longer term, that will help the industry to develop in a sustainable way--"sustainable" is the key word--in a regenerated, enlivened rural economy. It is essential that we do not rush towards the quick fix or the short-term solution that does not address the issues over the long term.

The rural White Paper was an example of joined-up government. It outlined a radical package of measures to tackle the issues that matter to people who live in the countryside, such as jobs, hospitals, schools, post offices and transport. Those measures will ensure that quality public services and a stable thriving economy are brought to everyone in rural areas, including people engaged in agriculture.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said, the White Paper makes it clear that

He went on to say that since 1997 Labour has provided an extra £1 billion to help the farming industry, and that £1.6 billion will back up the comprehensive measures to be taken under the English rural development programme.

I welcome the modulation of the CAP, with the resulting increased funding for the development of agri-environmental schemes. I hope that we will hear more about those later. They will ease the way for many farmers to develop their business through the adoption of stewardship or organic farming, which is moving towards the top of the political agenda.

Under the Conservative Government, research and development funding for organic farming was just over £1 million a year. The Labour Government have increased that to more than £2 million, which means that we are second only to Denmark among EU countries.

In 1997-98, expenditure on countryside stewardship was £19 million a year. Labour has already increased that to £35 million. Under the rural development programme, expenditure will rise each year, reaching £126 million by 2006-07.

The Government have supported the adoption of integrated farm management. I was glad to hear comments on that from Members on both sides of the House. IFM integrates care for the environment with the production of safe, wholesome food at affordable prices. It is an approach to farming that will combine beneficial natural processes and traditional practices such as crop rotation with modern technology and selective targeted use of agrochemicals. The result is the ability to minimise pollution and avoid unnecessary use of chemicals and energy, while maintaining our profit margins.

IFM is supported partly through the DETR-funded scheme linking the environment and farming--appropriately known as LEAF. I visited a LEAF farm near my Peterborough constituency only last autumn, and was extremely impressed both by the personal commitment of the farmer concerned, David Felce, and by the potential of IFM to support a sustainable agriculture in the current economic conditions. In fact, I shall host an event here in March to help to increase awareness.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister has also visited a LEAF farm, and that there is a strong possibility that MAFF will give LEAF additional support. LEAF has contributed to the production of sustainable development indicators at farm level, and I am glad to say that that too

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has been favourably received by MAFF. I understand that LEAF's contribution has also been recognised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

This Government recognise that agricultural problems cannot and should not be solved by a quick fix. It is a question of assessing the options that are workable for and available to farmers. There are taskforces whose purpose is to simplify the burden of law, without simply carrying out a "slash red tape" exercise--we have heard about that today as well--that might have undesirable knock-on effects, including endangering public safety.

Work is in progress to develop farm assurance schemes, and to help farmers to get nearer the marketplace. I understand that that includes diversification and the establishment of farmers markets and co-operatives. There is an assessment of the advisory services offered to farmers with the aim of reducing the industry's costs, and ensuring collaboration and better feed-through of information throughout. There are training schemes, free business advice, benchmarking and online information. Farm buildings now house computers as well as more traditional supplies and implements, as I have seen for myself.

In short, this Labour Government are developing a range of solutions for the agriculture industry, as well as tackling the social and economic problems of the rural economy, which will obviously benefit farmers too. Only by adopting a long-term comprehensive strategy will we ensure the sustainable development of a thriving, lively agriculture sector, which is what I believe we all want.

6.38 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I begin by reminding the House of the interest that I have declared in the Register of Members' Interests.

Our short debate has covered a lot of ground. No doubt the Minister of State will shortly rise with a pained expression, and declare that she cannot answer all the points that have been raised, but--as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)--we need answers to many of the points made by Members on both sides of the House. I hope that the Minister will dispose of any pre-prepared speech and seek genuinely to deal with them.

A number of Labour Members were obviously at pains to criticise my party, but went on to recite exactly the points about problems in agriculture that we have made. We welcome what the Minister has done to alleviate at least some of the problems caused by flooding: the derogation with regard to the integrated administration and control system--or IACS--rules was very sensible, although I would not have expected the Minister to do otherwise.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, the Minister's account of his achievements sounded remarkably self-satisfied and smug. It could lead people to believe that things were getting better when, as we know, they are not.

The Minister accused Conservative Members of being against free trade and for protectionism. As all Opposition Members know, that is absolute rot. Conservative Members believe in free trade and the market because of political conviction--not because of political convenience, which is what attracts Labour Members to

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such opinions. Nevertheless, we have to accept that totally unfettered free trade would cause standards to fall to the lowest common denominator. No hon. Member wants that in food standards, in welfare standards or in anything else. There must be a standards threshold to ensure that there is fair trade.

The Minister said a little about BSE and tried yet again to lay it at our door, and I know that BSE will be the subject of another debate. I noticed, however, that he failed to mention that today, Commissioner Byrne said that the rest of Europe should follow Britain's example of how to control a disease. Those controls were put in place by the previous, Conservative Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) made a very thoughtful speech in which he emphasised the importance of agriculture and explained why, for all types of reasons, it is different from other industries. He could also have mentioned the fact that 500,000 jobs in food processing would go abroad if the raw materials were sourced abroad.

Various hon. Members have spoken about agrimoney and compensation. It is essential that the Minister claim the available £202 million or thereabouts not only for its own sake, but because if he does not, we would be denied the opportunity in subsequent phases to claim another £170 million. However, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, the Minister gave us no indication of what will follow the current agrimonetary scheme, which expires on 1 January 2002. I think that the Opposition are justified in asking the Government to tell us their plans to negotiate a replacement--or does the Minister believe that Britain will have joined the euro by the end of this year?

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk mentioned the sugar industry. Two major threats hang over that industry, but in both cases, the Minister has gone against the interests of British industry. Although he seemed to try a different line today, I remind him of an answer that he gave only a little while ago in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). He said:

The Commission, however, has published its own impact assessment showing that, if the everything but arms proposals had proceeded as originally planned, they would have cost the common agricultural policy 1 billion euros and reduced the sugar quota within the European Union by 1 million tonnes, which is about the same as the United Kingdom's entire production. Anyone who thinks that that is overstatement is deluding himself.

Now, as we have heard, the Commission has shelved the proposals, including those on sugar, for the next six years. It is doing that because once the French Government lost the presidency, they started to stand up for their own sugar industry. I wonder whether the Minister feels good that the British industry has been saved not by him but by the French Government.

The Minister espouses reform of the regime, but he wants even bigger cuts than those demanded by the Commission. Indeed, he has previously quoted some of my right hon. Friends in support of his claim. However, when those calls for reductions were made, all arable

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crops were making reasonable, and in some cases substantial, margins. Now, no other mainstream arable crop is making a margin at all.

By how much would the Minister expect the price of a packet of biscuits or a soft drink to fall if the sugar price were cut by 20 or 30 per cent? Can he tell us? The answer is almost certainly that the price would not be reduced by a penny. Neither has he commented on whether he believes in area-based compensation for sugar price reductions, as has been provided for other arable crops.

The Minister also referred to the TB crisis in our cattle industry, which is serious and getting worse. The Krebs inquiry said that trials should be running in three months, but three years down the line, not all the trials are up and running.

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