Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12 Dec 2002 : Column 411—continued

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Before the previous intervention, the Secretary of State referred to the Government's overall view of the agricultural landscape of this country, and the role that the agriculture industry plays within it. Having quickly perused the documents to which reference has just been made, I recognise the Government's commitment in terms of a viable agricultural industry. Does she envisage—this does not seem to appear in the document—a reduction in the amount of the land area of this country used for farming? Does she envisage land coming out of agriculture and being used for other purposes to any significant extent?

Margaret Beckett: I am tempted to say that it depends. I emphasise that I do not have any kind of master plan, blueprint or theoretical view of the number or size of farms that should exist. I know that that was not what the hon. Gentleman was implying, but it is important to put that on the record. As we develop the countryside stewardship scheme, and as we pilot the new agri-environment scheme—the broad and shallow scheme to which the Curry commission referred—it is entirely possible that marginal land in particular, which is now used, for example, for growing crops, might be

12 Dec 2002 : Column 412

used for flood plain alleviation, wetland creation or a range of other things. The answer to him, therefore, is that such a change is possible, but that does not mean that it will not contribute to the welfare of the individual farm business or the wider rural community.

The latest statistics suggest some improvement in some farm incomes. We fully accept, however, that there are many and continuing problems in farming and food, and that the Government should do what they can, in their own proper sphere, to assist in overcoming those problems. I say that deliberately because, particularly in this place—understandably—there is a tendency for people to talk as if the whole responsibility for the welfare of food and farming rests on the shoulders of the Government. That is not, of course, the case: the future of the industry, like the future of the individual businesses within it, is primarily in its own hands, but there is a role and a place for Government to help and support, and we shall do our best to deliver our side of the bargain.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Just before the right hon. Lady embarked on the question of incomes, she rightly mentioned some of the broad industries and services in the countryside. To that end, we have just seen the terms of reference of Lord Haskins' inquiry, which is virtually an inquiry into the Government's policies towards rural Britain. Will she assure us that Lord Haskins will have access to other Departments in analysing those services? If joined-up government is to mean anything, he should have such access—he is looking at the regional development agencies, and he has been told to look at local authorities, the national parks, the Countryside Agency and English Nature, all of which have implications for other Departments. How wide ranging is his inquiry, and how will she define its limits, its time scale and its resources?

Margaret Beckett: Its limits are likely to be defined by the amount of time that Lord Haskins has—it is not likely to be an unlimited and untimetabled study. In that regard, the phrase used by Lord Haskins was something like Xstudying policies and delivery". We want him to focus particularly on the delivery of what the Department seeks to do in rural areas. We want him to take a broad look at what we are trying to achieve, to look critically at what the Department is doing, and to judge whether we are pursuing the best way of achieving our goals with the resources available, and whether we are getting the best value for money and the most effective delivery. That will inevitably curtail what he will do. I do envisage that he will talk to the other players with whom we are involved, which will, to some extent, include other Departments. We are anxious that he should give us the benefit of what will no doubt be his robust views on a reasonably good time scale, as we have challenging targets on which we want to deliver.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Before the Secretary of State leaves the issue of farm incomes, does she recall that one of her Conservative predecessors told me that approximately only a third of common agricultural policy funding ends up on the farm? What

12 Dec 2002 : Column 413

calculation has she made of what percentage of common agricultural policy funding now ends up directly in farmers' hands?

Margaret Beckett: I do not have the latest calculation, but I shall make inquiries and drop a line to the hon. Gentleman if it appears that that has changed significantly.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Before the right hon. Lady was diverted, she was outlining the different sectors of farming. My constituents are most concerned with dairying, and the principal problem of dairy farmers is simple: the price of milk at the farm gate. Do the Government intend to make their influence felt in that area? As things stand at the moment, we will lose dairy farmers unless we can get the retailers to increase the price that they are prepared to pay for milk.

Margaret Beckett: I do not think that that is an issue in which the Government should seek to intervene directly by trying to set prices. Certainly, however, we are conscious of the difficulties that many dairy farmers are and have been facing. I hope and believe that the range of issues that cause difficulties for dairy farmers will be among those addressed through the work of the food chain centre and, to some extent, through English Partnerships.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right to say that farming itself must bring something to the task of restructuring the industry. Is not the problem, however, the imbalance between production and demand? Many small producers produce goods that are purchased by a few large and powerful purchasers—the supermarkets. How can she help to rebalance the industry so that the producers have more of a sway in that calculation?

Margaret Beckett: I am coming to that point, in a sense, a little later. It can be addressed in two areas. First, it can be addressed through work in the supply chain. Clearly, the experience of the imbalance of power between the producer and the purchaser is not unique to farming and food, and, in other industries, supply chain work has consistently been found to be useful in addressing those issues. Secondly, the whole issue of collaboration has been found to help with implementation in relation to supply chain difficulties, once they are identified.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall make a little more progress first.

We fully accept the recommendations of the policy commission chaired by Sir Don Curry that the food and farming industries need to be responsive to changing consumer demands for higher-quality, safer, more traceable and yet competitively priced food, produced to higher environmental and animal welfare standards. In our strategy for sustainable farming and food launched today, the Government set out some of the

12 Dec 2002 : Column 414

steps that we can take to assist and support the industries, particularly in promoting the spread of best practice. We are making available some #500 million to support the strategy, which will be used to examine ways to encourage, for example, a more effective food chain and whole-farm audits, as well as to develop measures such as the livestock database and work on contingency planning.

The strategy builds on the steps that we took immediately after the launch of the policy commission report, such as setting up the food chain centre. We want to see increased co-operation within the food chain and improved performance across the board. We want to help farmers get the right training and advice to develop their businesses, and see them rewarded for providing sustained benefits to the environment. We want to help them move on from production subsidies that distort market signals and distance them from their customers. As ever, investment and reform are key. To try to ensure that we secure those improvements, and get value for the money that we are prepared to invest, we have asked Sir Don Curry to chair an implementation group to focus on and help keep us up to the mark in our delivery strategy.

Most of that work is done in the context of international agreement and international policy making. The House will be well aware that, in relation to both the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy, there is strong debate about the need for change and the nature of the change that will be required. The Fisheries Commissioner has made his proposals—they include a proposal for a complete moratorium on cod fishing—but he is exploring with us and other member states whether a less draconian mix of measures can be taken as a way of substantially reducing fishing activity so as to try to ensure that stocks can recover. We recognise that even this would be painful, but we must act sensibly if we are to have fish stocks to argue about in the future.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): I am glad that the Secretary of State has introduced the subject of fisheries to the debate. Yesterday, in a debate on European matters, Foreign Office Ministers said that they would speak to the Prime Minister about the prospect of raising this subject at the Copenhagen summit. Will she update us and tell us whether the Prime Minister will raise the matter at Copenhagen at the weekend?

Next Section

IndexHome Page