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12 Dec 2002 : Column 448—continued

3.43 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Before I make my remarks, may I draw hon. Members' attention to the declaration of my interests in the food and agriculture sector in the Register of Members' Interests?

On Monday 23 December, I invite all colleagues who happen to be in the St. Anne's area of my constituency to join me at the pre-Christmas farmers' market, where they will see Fylde farmers trying to keep farming and to do their bit by marketing directly and thus to respond to the public's growing interest in where their food comes from and to answer some of the questions about traceability. Two weeks before that, the farmers' market in the village of Great Ecclestone in the north-west of my constituency will have effectively done the same thing.

The enthusiasm shown in those markets is electric and exciting. They put some of the passion and interest back into countryside matters, but the sad feature of today's modern, large-scale agriculture business, the marketplace for which is dominated by supermarkets and where 40 per cent. of the country's food spend is made outside the home, is that farmers' markets alone are not enough to help to rebuild and sustain our farming industry.

I was surprised that the Secretary of State made no mention of the fact that farmers' incomes—#1.5 billion in 2000—are at their lowest level in real terms since the 1930s. In the last six years, 67,000 people have left farming in the United Kingdom. Much as I admire the commitment of the Under-Secretary to countryside matters and to matters such as flooding, water and fishing, and the passionate involvement of the Minister for the Environment, there was not much passion from the Secretary of State to provide the vital ingredient that the farming industry craves—leadership. Often, farmers look to the centre to say which way they should go. Ultimately, it is their decision—they are business people and must make investments in their farms—but given that, in post-war Britain, politicians have interfered at a national and European level to form much of British agriculture, to set the marketplace and to set the price structure, it is hardly surprising that farmers look to the Government of the day for leadership, guidance and, above all, commitment to their industry. What we heard from the Secretary of State was a tour d'horizon of umpteen things in which her Department was interested and a great deal of management speak, but not much in the way of passion and commitment to farming.

As well as passion, we want a strategy that shows leadership, and I do not see much of that. As I said, we have heard a lot of management speak about roll-outs of

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programmes, investigations and consultations. We have just been through the traumas of the foot and mouth outbreak, but did the Government take the lead in calling a public inquiry? No, they subcontracted their investigations to other people. When it came to sorting out a report on the future of farming, did the Government do anything? No, it was Sir Donald Curry, who was invited to chair a commission. It has done a good job, but the Government could have organised it, instead of which they simply subcontracted it. Now, it is subcontracting the future of farming to Lord Haskins. It would be nice if the Government, instead of publishing endless glossy booklets about the wonderful world of food farming as they see it, would face reality and offer some leadership.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): The Conservatives made a great fuss, along with Farmers Weekly and a number of other newspapers, demanding a full public inquiry. Had they got their way, that inquiry would be only about half way through its work. Through the swift action of the Government, however, we have three independent reports of great quality.

Mr. Jack: It is remarkable that on an issue of particular concern to Labour Members, such as Bloody Sunday, the Government were happy to initiate a serious public inquiry. For those in the countryside of the United Kingdom, having the opportunity to speak in public on these matters was their priority. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to be selective. Given that rural communities have been torn to shreds as a result of this devastating outbreak, which was largely down to the failure of the Government to have a proper strategy in place, it would be a good part of the healing process to let them have their say. Looking at the inquiries that have been conducted by local authorities, one can see the benefit of letting the people speak on such an occasion.

The other factor that has affected farming, which has not so far been mentioned in the debate, is the relative strength of sterling against the euro. One cannot ignore that in determining many of the positions that farming and agriculture must now take to deal with the realities of a difficult trading position, which has opened up competition from Europe in a way that has not been seen before. It is not just a question of being better at doing something but of having an automatic price advantage to help. Many of the problems of our industry would disappear if we had parity of currency values.

Andrew George: Today's Government response says that they will consider giving direct support payments in euros to farmers in two years' time. Is it Conservative party policy to support that measure?

Mr. Jack: As a humble Back Bencher, I cannot speak for my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench, but they may wish to respond to the hon. Gentleman's question. I was surprised, however, that the Government took so long to make payments in euros to UK farmers, because I thought that that had been agreed some years ago.

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The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on one of the features of the response to the commission on food and farming. There is an incredible sense of lethargy—a sort of mañana attitude. Things do not happen today; they will happen in a few years' time. For example, the code of supermarket practice is all about reviews. It is not about ensuring that all the supermarkets sign up to it or about ensuring that the code is given some bite. The approach is, XLet's look at it in a few years' time, folks"—if there is anything still left to look at.

Let us consider the motion against the background of the huge decline in income and employment in agriculture. To table a motion of such unbiased self-congratulation that does not accord with anything in the real world is unbelievable. The motion and the Secretary of State's remarks gave no indication of what the Government think are the strengths and weaknesses of agriculture. The motion gives no encouragement to the better parts of the industry and no commentary on the overall strength of the United Kingdom in, for example, the milk and dairy sector in which we have a tremendous advantage over other parts of Europe. It does not talk about how the Government should be in Europe developing a strategy to enable the best bits of UK farming to survive. It did not even say that they want a vibrant farming industry in this country to survive. It is the lack of passion, commitment and analysis that worries me.

The Select Committee has exposed the utter failure of environmental policy to deal with the fridge mountain, the confusion caused over matters connected to the disposal of dangerous goods and the mañana attitude towards public consultation on the ultimate disposal of nuclear waste. However, I find no mention whatever of those issues in the Government motion. I wonder what planet they are living on when it comes to their agricultural and environmental responsibilities. There is no mention—in any seriousness—of genetic modification and what the Government plan to do. I could go on, but the fact that they have tabled such a motion demonstrates their lack of a sense of reality and their discourtesy to the House. Each item in the motion should have merited much longer debate on its own. To try to jam the entire Department's responsibilities in one onomatopoeic—I think that is the correct word—motion goes too far.

I welcomed the commitment in the Secretary of State's remarks to sustainability and the acknowledgement that farming must be profitable. Many of the things that we want for farming depend on its profitability. I mention that point in the context of sustaining our rural economies. Without profitable agriculture, we cannot have many of the rural community facilities that we want.

I remind the House of what the Select Committee's report said about the role of DEFRA. It concluded:

That puts agriculture right at the heart of the rural economy and no one should ever forget that. Agriculture is not a manufacturing activity; it is about communities. It is about centuries of devotion to the

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land in this country. The very fabric that we seek to sustain is the result of centuries of good farming. It is time that the Government acknowledged that.

The Secretary of State's speech referred to the announcement of #500 million to help implement the Curry commission. However, the detail is fascinating. There is #500 million over three years, and most of it has already been announced. It comes to #133 million a year for programmes that are part of the English rural development package. If one looks across the range of the programmes, one realises that there is limited money for many of the things that the Government say they are going to do to sustain the rural economy. It would have been helpful for the Secretary of State to comment on the workings of the English rural development plan.

There was no mention in the Secretary of State's speech about the state of CAP reform. Like the mid-term review, it did not exist. In the foreword to one of the plethora of documents issued today, the Prime Minister says:

Schröder and Chirac ensured that he was sidelined on the mid-term review. When Lord Whitty, the Minister from the other place, appeared before the Select Committee two days ago, I quizzed him on what exactly is on the table for the mid-term review. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can confirm what is still alive. Is dynamic modulation on the table? What is going to happen to the other elements of the separation of payments from production? What is the timetable? What has happened to the mid-term review, because if the CAP is to be reformed, that is when it will be decided?

What is interesting is that there is no mention of the non-subsidised sector of agriculture—pigs, poultry and, above all, horticulture. A member of the food and farming commission, Mr. Mark Tinsley, explained that the horticulture industry is responsible for 20 per cent. of agricultural output and 25 per cent. of the food chain, and that it is largely unsubsidised,

So a large part of the agricultural sector, which accounts for a large part of our output, is seen as irrelevant. Most importantly, it is not subsidised. If there is a vision for the future of farming and the Government's role in it, the horticulture industry is it. Yet a leading player on the commission says that DEFRA thinks that it is irrelevant.

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