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12 Dec 2002 : Column 484—continued

Mr. Morley: I want to give the hon. Gentleman two reassurances. First, I understand the problems of the fishing industry and the pressure on fishing communities, and that will be reflected in the policies that we advocate next week. Secondly, we will always argue for a derogation from rules on animal transportation for remote and offshore communities.

Mr. Weir: I am grateful for that helpful intervention.

The motion refers to green technologies. Scotland has great potential for wave and tidal power, but much of it is in the north and the west, where there is no ready access to the national grid. One of the problems is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for environmental matters, but the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible for many energy matters. Often, there is no link between the two. Ministers must look at ways in which investment can be put into the national grid, in order to extend it to those very areas where wave and tidal power systems can be set up.

6.10 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): In view of the time, and fortified by the British beef sandwich that I had for lunch, with apple pie for pudding, I want to make just three brief points on three different aspects of British agriculture and rural life. First, I want to touch on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) about tenant farmers. Secondly, I want to touch on horticulture, an issue that the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) dealt with in some detail. In particular, I want to bring news to the House of November's national conference of cucumber growers, and to give the Minister a couple of ideas that

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emerged from it. Thirdly, I want to touch on biofuels and particularly bioenergy, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and many others.

The problems of full-time tenant farmers, particularly those on marginal land, are highly specific. The Tenant Farmers Association estimates that perhaps 2,000 farmers are hanging on by their fingertips. They are too poor to retire because they have nowhere to go to live, their land is marginal and they have no asset to sell. Indeed, several tenant farmers in my constituency who came to see me recently said, XWhat are the Government doing about their manifesto promise to provide a retirement scheme—an outgoers scheme—for farmers?" I said, XCome back next month, and in the meantime I will research the issue."

I asked my researcher to look at our manifesto to see what commitments we made on British agriculture and fishing. He consulted the House of Commons Library, and I returned to the farmers with another piece of paper saying that no such commitment was made in the Labour manifesto under the section on British agriculture. An elderly Yorkshire farmer looked at me and said, XYes lad, you're right: no such commitment was made under the section on British agriculture, but look at the section above, on British rural life." It has to be admitted that reference was made to outgoers schemes and early retirement schemes, particularly in relation to foot and mouth. Indeed, such commitments were made in the manifestos of both main parties.

The Curry commission looked at this proposal on value-for-money grounds, and rejected it. I urge the Government to consider what we can do for tenant farmers. There are difficulties in targeting a scheme at tenant farmers—the Tenant Farmers Association has come up with a scheme that would cost #25 million a year—but I urge the Government, and, indeed, other political parties, to consider the problems of tenant farmers in particular. We need to consider not just those who would do best to leave the industry—indeed, it would help to consolidate the industry if they did so—but those who want to continue to make a living, and who find it more difficult to access grants for diversification than do owner-occupiers, because they have the status of tenant.

The right hon. Member for Fylde has mentioned Horticulture Research International. Stockbridge house, in my constituency—the Minister has visited it—is a world-renowned horticultural research centre. To be frank, the best thing that happened to it was the announcement of its closure, in 2000, by HRI. That forced Stockbridge house and many local stakeholders to get together to establish a scheme—with no Government subsidy whatsoever—to buy the site, in order to continue the valuable practical research that takes place there. Now, as we have heard, there is a question mark over the entire future of HRI.

I want to mention two particular issues in which Stockbridge house is involved, and which have wider resonance in the industry. An article in the most recent edition of The Commercial Greenhouse Grower refers to the problems of combined heat and power in the

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industry. Many horticulturalists have invested in this particular form of energy, which is suited to the industry. The article states:

That development—the company is a subsidiary of TXU—reflects the recent problems with CHP, which have resulted from the increase in gas prices and the decline in electricity prices. I hope that, after Christmas, the Government will review the matter in their energy policy.

The Horticultural Development Council has agreed to fund a practical idea proposed by the cucumber growers—a new technology demonstration project at Stockbridge house. To meet pressure from retailers the growers need to produce all year round, and that can be simply achieved by installing extra lighting during the winter months. The cucumber growers have stumped up some money for the research—as has the HDC—and only a small amount is required from DEFRA. It could help CHP production because some of the energy from a CHP plant could go into that extra winter lighting and there would be no need sell electricity into the national grid.

A further suggestion from the cucumber growers would help to reduce red tape. Many horticulturalists face the fact that in future they will be unable to use pesticides that they used formerly. Part of the solution might be the biologicals, which are an important range of products, including fungus spores, pheromones, and natural plant or fungus toxins. They can control fungal diseases as well as attacks by some insects without leaving residues. Unfortunately, at present the authorities treat them as though they were chemical pesticides, so some of the small companies that are trying to market those biological products face costs of more than #300,000.

May I urge Ministers to look into ways of reducing the red tape in respect of such projects? For example, in this country, we are leading users of predatory insects for pest control, especially in the cultivation under glass of cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. Such means are now being used world wide and Stockbridge house is the centre of research. As there are no registration requirements for the use of predatory insects, massive strides can be made in the research.

On biofuels and bioenergy, I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and others who said that 20p a litre is welcome but it is probably not quite enough to accelerate the use of biofuels as much as we want. The Country Land and Business Association suggests a 10 per cent. target for renewable fuels for road transport by 2010. That is one way in which progress might be made.

I draw the attention of the House to an example of the use of bioenergy in my constituency. I think that my hon. Friend the Minister may have visited the Arbre project at Eggborough, which is a revolutionary demonstration plant for wood burning. Fifty farmers signed 20-year contracts to supply the plant. It was difficult to persuade farmers to diversify in that way and great efforts had to be made before they would do so. It took three or four years to get the farmers to sign up.

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Earlier this year, the owners of the plant decided to close it. Fortunately, however, due to the efforts of the Government, especially the Department for Trade and Industry and DEFRA, and the European Union, there is every prospect that the plant will be rescued soon after Christmas. I understand that there are four prospective buyers.

When farmers are persuaded to grow alternative crops and when demonstration plants are set up, it is vital that we see the projects through. I very much hope that there will be good news about Arbre during the next few months and that the plant, supported by the Government and the EU, will go into full production some time next year.


Andrew George (St. Ives): I am aware that time is limited, so I shall keep my remarks as brief as possible.

It is a pleasure to have an opportunity to contribute to what has been an engaging debate. There has been a great deal of consensus on many issues. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) told us that he was speaking in an agriculture debate in the House for the first time. Although some hon. Members did not welcome the hon. Gentleman's contribution, I did. He presented a challenging opinion and his views should be addressed by those people who present themselves—as do the Government—as the champion of farmers and of the countryside.

I fear, however, that the hon. Gentleman was fighting old battles. He compared steelworkers with farmers and argued that there was a dependency culture in the agriculture industry that had never existed in the steel industry. If he had heard the whole debate, he would have realised that there is cross-party agreement that we should be moving away from production supports, as the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) pointed out in a very good speech.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is no longer in his place, made some challenging points. He was perhaps unnecessarily critical of the previous Minister of Agriculture, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), whom, I think, he described as clueless at one point. During the foot and mouth outbreak, particularly in the early days, I found that there was a parallel human disease, which I described as the benefit of hindsight disease, the symptoms of which were brass neck and short-term memory loss.

In fact, during the very early days of that outbreak, the whole House agreed with the plans put in place by the right hon. Gentleman, who acted very quickly at that stage. The criticisms were made only with the benefit of hindsight, when it became easy to do so. Of course we can all make mistakes and we can learn from them, but there was an unnecessary assassination of the Minister's character at that time.

I would say, perhaps with the benefit of foresight, that the Government have an unwritten farming policy, which they sometimes describe as restructuring. Perhaps the cat was let out of the bag by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who is now back in his place. Frankly, the aim is to get rid of small farmers to a large extent. Although the NFU and the Govt have regretted the fact that 15,000 farm workers left the

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industry last year—a larger number than at any time since the second world war—they want that level of restructuring to take place in the industry, and the removal of a large number of farmers from the industry is part of that plan. I do not doubt that they quietly welcome that situation.

The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is no longer in his place, made a number of telling points, with which I agree, in relation to the Government's rather slothful, mañana approach in response to the Curry commission's report. He certainly endorsed a view that my constituents and I have about the Whitehall mentality. My constituents view Whitehall and Westminster as rather remote and insular places, where the pace of life is extremely slow. Perhaps if people looked at rural areas from the other end of the telescope, they might get a different impression of the culture that exists here.

Farm-gate prices was a theme pursued by many hon. Members during the debate. Of course it is extremely difficult to draw a decent comparison between what happened 50 years ago, when the basic raw materials were put on retailers' shelves, and what happens now, when so much food is processed. However, it is clear that the proportion of the final retail price that farmers receive is considerably smaller than many decades ago. We can be sure of that because if it were the other way round the processors and retailers would be telling us about it.

The code of practice, which pays lip service to that issue, has no real teeth at all. Although the Government's response suggests that the Office of Fair Trading will issue reports regularly, what will happen when processors and supermarkets do not abide with the rulings under that code of practice? They will face no sanction.

With regard to the collaborative ventures under recommendation 8 of the farm plan, are the Government saying that they regret breaking up Milk Marque? In effect, they are saying that farmers should co-operate, but the fact that they broke up Milk Marque only a few years ago made it much more difficult for farmers to co-operate at the level needed to compete in the international market.

With regard to recommendation 2 about farmers getting the benefit of receiving their support payments in the euro, reference is made to putting in place a computer that will allow that to come online late in 2004—once again, the mañana attitude mentioned by the right hon. Member for Fylde. In fact, the Prime Minister brought in the euro compatibility exercise in February 1999. What consideration did the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its predecessor Departments give to euro compatibility to ensure that farmers were getting the benefit of euro payments before today, let alone waiting a further two years for the benefit of that measure? Surely we need to do a great deal more as far as that is concerned.

The Secretary of State mentioned several matters to which I do not have time to refer, as other hon. Members want to speak, but it is clear that the Department is not just a champion for the environment; it should also be a champion for rural areas. In relation to the White Paper, I question whether the Department is talking to other responsible Departments. On rural housing, for

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example, the 50 per cent. council tax rebate on second homes has not been removed, which we were expecting and which was originally proposed in the White Paper. There is no serious attempt to address the need for a twilight market somewhere between social housing and the open market, as there is a clear mismatch between earnings levels and house prices in many rural areas.

The key issues facing rural areas are those relating to the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy, and as the Minister will know well, those relating to the important debate that will take place in Europe next week on the future catch in the fishing industry. On the CAP, I urge that we do not allow a situation to emerge in which we simply turn the countryside into prairie and ranch and move from blue-box to green-box subsidies, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said. That recognises, as perhaps the hon. Member for Newport, West did not, that the factory floor of farming is a place about which we all care. We walk across and have recreation in that area, and farmers should be properly paid to fulfil an important role in that regard.

Next week, the Minister has some important negotiations on fishing quotas. I hope that he will listen to the industry, whose response to the current crisis has been very responsible, as he must accept. Quotas will have to be cut in certain areas, but there are ways, using tactical and other measures, of avoiding absolute catastrophe, which will otherwise occur across many coastal areas of Britain.

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