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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome the commission's report, especially its emphasis on the link between food production and health and education and the strong recommendation that goes through it in relation to increased collaboration, which my right hon. Friend has mentioned on several occasions. Can I rely on her and her hon. Friends to lead the movement towards greater co-operation in this country, in which respect we are markedly different from our European competitors? In particular, is that not the way to save smaller farms and tenant farms?

Margaret Beckett rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. I realise that this is an important subject. I want to call every hon. Member who wishes to speak. The House's co-operation and very brief questions and answers will enable me to do that.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome of the contents of the report. I assure him that the Government are mindful that much of the answer lies in greater co-operation, especially for smaller farmers. I hesitate to say that we should lead that co-operation, although I am conscious that for a considerable number of years many have been arguing that we should do so.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I refer the Secretary of State to page 130 of the report, which says:

That has angered the National Farmers Union of Scotland, the National Farmers Union in Wales and the Farmers Union of Wales. They all say that the suggestion undermines policies being pursued in the devolved Administrations. Bearing in mind the remit of the commission, is that interference or a misunderstanding of its remit?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman asks me a question that only the commission can answer. It was charged with looking at the future of farming in England, and I am sure that it will be dismayed if it has distressed those who take part in farming and agriculture in Scotland and Wales. Clearly, it felt that it must indicate broad views about the general direction of policy, which it thought had a wider application.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Is it not a sad reflection that the commission, which was set up by the Government, had to make the following recommendation to the Secretary of State:

Margaret Beckett: With respect, the commission is saying that people in the countryside and rural areas are not sufficiently highly regarded and well rewarded—

Mr. McLoughlin: By the Government.

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Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman mutters, "By the Government", but, as he has looked at the report, let me point out to him that the commission is saying that the problem is the result of a long-standing failure, which it believes we should all address.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does the report recommend how farmers might work more effectively with the tourism industry? During the foot and mouth outbreak, farmers were all too often set against the interests of the tourism industry and the leisure industry, to the great detriment of the rural economy.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the interdependence of farming and rural tourism. The report does not suggest the specific steps that should be taken, but it clearly identifies mutual interests and the fact that they can only be addressed together.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)—who is at Stoneleigh today—and I met members of the National Farmers Union and many small farmers in Macclesfield on Saturday, where we had a three-hour discussion. We discussed the report, because of the leaks that had taken place. Will the Secretary of State accept that those farmers, who were predominantly small farmers, were especially worried about bureaucracy and form-filling? They estimate that every small farmer spends one full day a week dealing with bureaucracy and form-filling—and they work seven days a week. Will she accept that they are concerned that there should be adequate inspection of food coming into the country, especially meat products, which is inadequate at the moment? Will she also consider seriously whether we should reduce food production when it is estimated that, in eight years' time, there will be a world food shortage? Is that planning for the future?

Margaret Beckett: Nobody is talking specifically about reducing food production per se. What is being said is that the structure of incentives gives a perverse incentive to produce food that people do not want and cannot consume. Most of us think that that is not sensible. However, I entirely share and accept the point that many small farmers, like other small business men, are especially worried about bureaucracy. The hon. Gentleman will know that many of the requirements that have to be implemented are not within the Government's control. We are talking, and are prepared to continue to talk, to people in rural areas and in the farming industry about what we can do to simplify and slim down the requirements placed on them for information.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a growing awareness in the countryside of the need to change the way in which support to farmers and the wider countryside is given? Is not the lesson from foot and mouth disease, and, indeed, from the Curry report, that urban visitors contribute a great deal to the economy of the rural landscape? Surely it is right that we support farmers to lift the landscape and enhance the environment so that we bring people into the countryside. Those are considerations for the public good. The challenge is how we measure and pay for them.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right. To an extent, he reiterates a point made by the right hon.

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Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—that we must consider how to identify, address and measure the public goods that are under consideration. As Sir Don Curry said at the press briefing this morning:

That is an indication of the change that he is trying to pursue.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Given that no fewer than five ex-Agriculture Ministers have spoken, may I urge the Secretary of State not to accept the mea non culpa excuses that we often hear from former Ministers? In particular, I draw her attention to the fact that the industry is almost uniquely affected by Government policy. One of the few defects of the report is that it makes few international comparisons, presumably because of the time scale of the inquiry. Is it not true that many of our competitors, especially in Europe, have been more successful in averting the disasters of foot and mouth, BSE and so on, and in encouraging a co-operative movement, to which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred? Is that not an important connection, from the producer right through to the consumer, which gives a better return to the producer?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is often a much more extensive network of co-operatives across Europe. He is being a little unfair to the commission because that was part of the thinking that lay behind some of its observations—I assume from the intervention by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that page 35 is relevant to this—on the need to stimulate more co-operation and its wish to see obstacles to such co-operation removed. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that the industry has a uniquely strong relationship with the Government. Part of the commission's recommendation is that that relationship should become more arm's length and not so directly related to production levels.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): May I welcome in particular the section in the recommendations on upland areas such as those in my constituency? Each upland area is unique and there is great expertise—I think in particular of the North Yorkshire moors national park—in stewardship schemes and the enhancement of the local environment, built up over the years within the national parks. Does my right hon. Friend envisage a role for the expertise of the national parks in helping the recommendations to come to fruition and to aid my constituents in those areas?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. He is right about the expertise and experience. We hope to draw on as much of that as possible, across the board, when we make the Government's proposals to take forward the strategy identified by the commission. As I said, the commission is adamant that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. My hon. Friend is right about that. It is clear that there will be different opportunities and different problems for farmers in different circumstances and in different parts of the country. That is why it is so important for people to address the problems that they actually face, rather than a generic set of problems that are said to beset all farmers.

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