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6.34 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I remind the House of my interest which is properly listed in the Register of Members' Interests.

Although the debate was rather short, it was marked by a succession of excellent maiden speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House. They commenced with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) who, as well as rightly paying tribute to Michael Heseltine, demonstrated that his wit in literature is repeated in his speeches. His light-hearted tour of his constituency enshrined some serious concerns. He is lucky to hold such a grand constituency and the House is fortunate to have him. He came here with a reputation—that can often be a millstone around new Members' necks, but he demonstrated that that will not be so for him.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) rightly paid tribute to Sir Peter Emery whose wise words we miss. He, too, took us on a tour of his constituency from Roman days, through Raleigh and Betjeman, to its problems today. He presented a shopping list for his constituency, and I hope that when he stands for re-election he will have ticked off some of the items that he has come here to obtain.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) continued the trend of using breweries as part of the route map around a constituency, which in his case is in the garden of England. He succeeded Andrew Rowe, a true gentleman whose mild manner concealed strongly held views. My constituency also grows much fresh produce and we, too, have the problem of obtaining enough labour, to which my hon. Friend referred.

We also heard maiden speeches by the hon. Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton), who used strong words to describe his mission here, and the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), who even I have to admit represents a truly beautiful and historic constituency. However, if he is worried about hospitals in his area, it is no use coming here because the House no longer deals with such matters in Scotland.

All the maiden speeches were fluent and clearly argued. The new Members bring a great deal of varied knowledge and experience to the House. They are all welcome and we look forward to their contributions.

When the Secretary of State replied to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), she criticised him for repeating some of the points that he made in the

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debate on the Queen's Speech. That was churlish because she could not reply to him at the time because of her voice, and it was right that he should repeat them.

We strongly welcome the right hon. Lady's announcement that the over-30-months scheme will restart. Farmers in many parts of the country have pressed for that. However, a large number of cattle are over 30 months only because they could not be moved off their farms as prime beef. We await a Government decision on whether those farmers will receive compensation.

The right hon. Lady also referred to the green belt and produced a lot of statistics, but it is not size that matters with the green belt. It is no use expanding the green belt on the outside if we allow it to be eaten away on the inside, because it then ceases to protect villages and city centres, for which the green belt is important.

Mr. Challen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: No, I shall not. We have tried hard to fit in a number of maiden speeches.

The development of the green belt and greenfield sites is a problem in my constituency. I do not understand why it is necessary for the Government to impose housing figures on local authorities. We have been told that we must have 2,800 new homes a year in the Cambridge sub-region, which is a higher figure than either the county council or district councils believe is necessary. The consequences of possibly creating a new town in the area are causing many people much heartache.

I deal now with agriculture, and agrimonetary compensation which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst). Much of the debate has been about the livestock sector and my later remarks will deal with that, but we must not ignore the arable sector, which is also suffering. Last week, the figures for this year's area payments were fixed, as a result of the exchange rates during June. For cereals, the payment rate went up by 26 euros per hectare, but translated to sterling, the rate, including the penalties for over-production and the modulation, is at a standstill. That is another example of the increasing difficulties that British farmers are experiencing in trying to be on the same playing field as their continental competitors. I hope that the Minister can give an undertaking on agrimonetary compensation.

As for livestock, an order on the fishmeal ban was laid before the House last week. It will have considerable cost implications for farmers and feed manufacturers. Of course we support the ban on meat and bonemeal, but it has been banned in this country for many years, whereas in the rest of Europe the ban is very recent, so we already have systems to control and authenticate fishmeal to ensure that there is no risk of contamination by meat and bonemeal. I understand that the Food Standards Agency's advisory committee on animal feedstuffs has said that the new proposal is unnecessary, so why is DEFRA continuing with that further cost increase for farmers?

I want largely to deal with the situation in our hills and uplands, to which the Secretary of State briefly referred. I look forward to what she will say when she considers the matter later this month, as she has promised to do. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Agriculture Minister said that the sheep industry was two months from meltdown. Does the Secretary of State share that refreshingly honest opinion? The reason for the crisis is that large numbers of

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lambs will be finished in the next two or three months and many of them, as hon. Members have said, would normally go to the Mediterranean trade and are not appropriate for the UK market so there will be a huge surplus of those animals.

In addition, between 5 million and 7 million lambs and draught ewes would have been sold at auctions throughout the country from August to October. That includes store lambs for further finishing in the lowlands, and ewe lambs and draught ewes bought for further breeding. On top of that, some 800,000 cattle would normally change hands in the autumn.

I have several questions for the Government. First, will they confirm that there will be no changes in the provisionally free area system? Will they allow any live sales to take place in provisionally free or at-risk areas? Will they clarify whether slaughtered-out farms can be restocked from within the infected areas with some of the lambs that I have mentioned? Will they amend the licensing rules, which at the moment allow movement only for breeding purposes, to allow movement for further growing and fattening? What is the Government's attitude to the Meat and Livestock Commission's protocols for various alternative trading options to try to assist with the problem? Will store lambs and cattle that do not find a market be eligible for a welfare scheme?

Will it be possible to designate corridors through infected and at-risk areas to provisionally free areas so that sheep from the highlands of Scotland, to which the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) referred, can come down into English at-risk and provisionally free areas? The Government are already allowing transport to slaughter outside infected areas, so they appear to have accepted that the process of transportation carries minimal risk. I ask them to look carefully at the idea of designating corridors, perhaps just motorways or dual carriageways, along which sheep can be transported.

Finally, I turn to the issue of farmers putting the sheep that they would normally have sold out to other farms. As many hon. Members have said, the problem is that farmers have very little money with which to do that. Can we have an advance of the sheep annual premium, or something similar, so that farmers will have some cash to pay for over-wintering in the hope that those animals can be sold in the spring?

None of those ideas or questions are new. The industry has been pressing the Government for answers for weeks, but no decisions or guidance have been forthcoming. The concern voiced in Westminster Hall last week is that in the absence of information all sorts of rumours abound—and that, coupled with the Government's suggestions about buying back quota, leads farmers to believe that the Government want many of them to go out of business. I hope that that is not true, but farmers' fears are understandable in the absence of information to the contrary.

That view was intensified by reports of comments that the Prime Minister made to the chairman of the National Farmers Union of Scotland—apparently, the right hon. Gentleman said that farming was not one of his top 15 priorities—and exacerbated by the delay in producing

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a recovery plan. I have been looking back on the issue of a recovery plan. On 27 March, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said:

and so on and so forth. A month later, he said:

On 3 May, he said:

The current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on 26 June:

Three and a half months later, we are still waiting. All we have had is this week's announcement of £10.5 million of business advice.

We need information now. The farmers of this country want to know how to get through the crucial sales periods in the coming months. Three and a half months to produce a recovery plan is too long. It is time to stop considering, reviewing and listening; it is time to act and to make decisions.

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