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4.46 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I endorse the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), but at the start I declare an interest because I own land in Norfolk that could be affected by the regulations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said, farming is in real crisis at the moment. In the two years before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, 42,000 farmers left the industry. Anyone who has visited livestock-producing areas, such as that represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), will know of the sheer devastation in those communities. Compensation for those farmers is a big issue, but other industries—such as tourism—were affected by the foot and mouth crisis and the issue of compensation for them also arises.

Historically, the arable areas have been the most viable and prosperous farming districts. If the prices of one or two crops failed one year, another crop would have a good

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year. If grain prices were down, people would get a better price for potatoes. If potatoes and grain were both down, they could rely on the prices for sugar beet. Until recently, many farms in Norfolk were very diversified. For example, many had livestock, such as poultry. Now, every farm in Norfolk is making a loss and if it were not for IACS, the farmers would face a disaster on the same scale as those farmers in the livestock breeding and rearing areas.

Mr. Robathan: Will my hon. Friend confirm that not all his local farmers have yet received their IACS payments because of inefficiency and industrial action in the Department? That delay could be critical for a farmer on the cusp of bankruptcy.

Mr. Bellingham: That is absolutely right. People assume that all farmers in places such as Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire farm 500 or 600 acres, but they do not. Many smallholders in those counties struggle to make a living, possibly after losing the other job that they used to do in addition to working the smallholding.

As I said, there is a silver lining. The countryside stewardship scheme and other agri-environmental schemes have meant that many farmers receive other incomes. Charles Barratt, a prominent Norfolk business man and stockbroker, recently expressed in his newsletter his gratitude that the country stewardship scheme existed. He was right to do so, as the countryside is changing. The trend to ever more intensive farming has been reversed, and the days of prairie farming are over. More emphasis is now placed on habitat, conservation and biodiversity.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey made a good point when he said that more and more farmers recognise that what is good for the environment is often also good for business. The overwhelming majority of farmers now look for every opportunity to encourage the wildlife on their farms.

I hope that the Minister will recognise the crucial importance of country sports, for example. He goes on about the need to protect jobs in the countryside, but he is part of the campaign to destroy those jobs. That goes down badly with farmers in my constituency.

Travelling around Norfolk, one is struck by the number of tubular tree guards in hedges, which show that new hedges are being laid. One also sees increased conservation headland. Last Friday, I went on an ecological walk around John Alexander's Westwick estate, and every field had a 20-metre headland. I also noticed that a number of rough field corners had recently been moved out of cultivation.

That is typical of many East Anglian farms. The landscape is being transformed by dedicated and committed farmers, in a climate of extreme economic pressure. They are acting partly in response to the incentives that have been put in place, but also out of their love for the countryside.

That is the context into which the regulations that we are discussing are being introduced. They will bring in environmental impact assessment procedures for projects to convert uncultivated land, or semi-natural land areas, to intensive agriculture. The Department's guidelines make clear the type of land that will be affected.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey noted, the regulations were published on 18 January, but they come into force tomorrow. No wonder, therefore, that there is so little awareness of what is going on.

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My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey also said that a number of organisations have voiced considerable concern about the regulations. The Council for the Protection of Rural England supported the regulations, and even said that they did not go far enough. However, the council did not produce a briefing paper. In contrast, a number of other organisations have produced excellent briefing papers, and I have also been contacted by a number of farmers in my constituency who are concerned. Farmers involved in the countryside stewardship scheme or others like it, or those who meet the set-aside obligations, are very worried indeed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey pointed out, the 25 to 30 per cent. rye grass guideline test is of crucial importance. The measure means that land will be considered uncultivated if it has less than the threshold 25 to 30 per cent. of rye grass—or of white clover, or of other sown grass species indicative of cultivation.

The National Farmers Union has stated clearly that the species of grass used by most farmers to ensure that they meet the requirements of the countryside stewardship scheme are such that, just three months after planting, land will be caught by the 25 to 30 per cent. rye grass guideline. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey made a good point when he said that farmers entering into the countryside stewardship scheme did so on a promise and a contract that made it very clear that new restrictions would not be imposed at the end of the agreement term. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some hint of comfort in that regard.

I hope too that the Minister will accept that there should be no disincentive for farmers to enter the countryside stewardship scheme, which everyone agrees is excellent. It would be a great pity if farmers were discouraged from joining it, for the reasons that I have given.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey also spoke about the possible reduction in land values. Everyone knows that the value of farm land is now unrelated and disconnected from its underlying productive capacity. My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility that land values could be reduced by as much as £500 per acre. If he is correct, I hope that the Minister will comment.

I hope that the Minister will also say something about the need for compensation for farmers affected by the measure. Will there be a compensation package of any sort? What is the Government's attitude to farmers who manifestly will be out of pocket as a result of the regulations?

The Country Land and Business Association, among other organisations, is seeking formal assurances from the Government on the definition of semi-improved land. It is also concerned whether IACS-registered set-aside can be excluded on the basis that it is clearly neither uncultivated nor semi-natural. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) asked a moment ago, can DEFRA cope with the burdens of the new regulations? I very much doubt it, because many farmers in my constituency have complained bitterly to me that the IACS payments are well behind. They ring up Cambridge, talk to sympathetic

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people on the telephone and are told that the payment will arrive soon. I hope that the Minister understands that this money is crucial to cash flow. It is crucial, in many cases, to farmers being able to employ the few remaining staff they have left on their farms, if they employ anyone at all.

I hope that the Minister will also consider whether it is really necessary to have criminal penalties, with farmers breaching the regulations committing a criminal offence. I agree that there must be penalties but should we really give farmers a criminal record and fine them heavily in the criminal courts over a matter that I believe should be in the civil court domain?

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) will be concerned about orchards. In the north-western part of my constituency, there are a number of growers of hard and soft fruits in the marshland area. The environmental impact assessment regime could prevent the grubbing up and replanting of redundant orchards. That would be a disaster. It would devalue the land and do the reverse of what the Minister has said on a number of occasions that he wants.

The Minister has been down to my constituency. He came in 1998, looked around various orchards and went round a number of glasshouse complexes in the marshland. He came down to my constituency last Friday as well, but unfortunately did not tell me that he was coming. If he had told me, I would have made sure that we went round an orchard and met a number of small farmers in the marshland part of my constituency. However, perhaps he can make up for it by coming again in the future.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Take him foxhunting.

Mr. Bellingham: I certainly will. It would be good for him to see what happens on a foxhunt, because I doubt whether he has ever been on one.

In his concise and excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey said that farmers are demoralised and confused. Most are doing their level best to cope in extremely difficult circumstances. He was right to quote from the Curry report, which, on page 72, says:

If only they had a strategy for this particular directive. The report continues:

That is very well said.

Of course the industry will go along with these regulations. However, it is crucial that they receive the assurances for which we have asked.

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