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12 Dec 2002 : Column 489—continued

6.28 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I had hoped to speak in this debate as someone who has a long-standing interest in the environment and in agriculture, and, more narrowly, as a constituency MP representing one of the few seats in which fruit farming predominates.

I grew up in the area that I represent—I was born and educated there, and have lived there all my life—and it means a great deal to me. As a result, I believe that fruit farming is something that we all ought to support. It is wholly unsubsidised, it produces high-quality produce close to the marketplace, and it is extremely good for the environment. It is therefore, in many ways, a model for the kind of agriculture that we, as a country, should be looking to support.

At the moment, however, the future looks pretty bleak, and the stakes are extremely high. On DEFRA's figures, given to me in a written answer a couple of weeks ago, 10.9 per cent. of the national orchard has been grubbed in the last three years. That is a staggering amount, and were it to happen anywhere else, it would be a national scandal.

What is going wrong? A number of difficulties are wholly outside the Government's control, and I will not go through them all. Many imports are coming into the country, supermarkets have enormous power over the market and the changes to the UK climate clearly affect growers enormously. Their falling revenues have hindered their ability to reinvest.

Growers have made great advances in meeting the challenges and, to be fair, the Government have helped them in certain respects. For example, the Government

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have let growers off the environmental impact assessment, allowing orchards out of its clauses, and they have stalled negotiations on the EU marketing standard, and that has been of enormous use. The Government have also increased the number of workers allowed in under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to 25,000 and they have given growers a rebate on the climate change levy. That has been of enormous value.

However, there is great concern about the activities of the Agricultural Wages Board. No one in the fruit-growing industry would dispute the headline rate, but the changes that have been made to the casual workers rate are estimated to add about 14 per cent. to the bill of the average grower. In an industry in which between 40 and 60 per cent. of the cost base is down to payment to workers, that is an enormous hike.

I want to say a few words about Horticulture Research International—hon. Members on both sides of the House have touched on that. It is most unlikely that horticulture and the fruit-farming sector can continue to develop as we would wish without a proper research base. HRI is recognised across the globe for its excellence, and the quinquennial review has asked that DEFRA guarantee 40 per cent. core funding in research stations. When the review is completed in January, I hope that the Minister will take note of that.

Time is short, so I shall quickly stress that we should all support the fruit-farming sector. It is unsubsidised, it produces high-quality food close to the marketplace and it is good for the environment. The growers whom I represent want nothing more than to run their farms as small businesses, free from regulation and with an achievable long-term vision for the future of horticulture. I hope that DEFRA will be able to help them to achieve that.

6.32 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): This has been a vital, thoughtful and disturbing debate. It has been vital, because rural Britain is vitally important as the home and place of work of millions of Britons and because the countryside is, in my estimation and that of Members on both sides of the House, the brightest national jewel.

Although we have not heard this in the debate, it has become fashionable to underplay the economic significance of agriculture and horticulture. To do that when one considers the 500,000 people employed in those sectors is neglectful. To do so mindful of the wider affects of farming and growing is irresponsible. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) pointed out, without viable agriculture there can be no viable countryside.

The debate has been thoughtful as well as vital, because Members have made clear, well-informed and incisive points. The debate has been characterised by good information and a lack of rancour. There was clarity from the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), who talked about the need for imports to conform to the same standards as home-produced products. In particular, he referred to poultry and turkeys, and he will know both that turkey production in this country has virtually halved and of the competition that comes from countries such as Brazil. We are raising turkeys in

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Britain and doing so very efficiently but our turkey farmers have to compete with people from south America, Africa and further afield. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise those important points and to defend that important industry.

There was clarity, too, from the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), who talked about the damage caused to the livestock industry by the 20-day rule and described the ongoing problems that are faced in that respect. His commitment to his farmers was well illustrated by the forceful way in which he argued his case.

We had information on horticulture and particularly on horticultural research from my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. He and I share a profound concern for the subject. We also had information on integrated crop management from the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). In a well-made point, he was right to say that the benefits of such an approach can find form more quickly than is often imagined.

We had incisiveness from the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), who talked about labelling, liability and food localism. He made a compelling case for reconnecting the consumer with the producer and so shortening the food chain. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) was an ally of those of us who recognise that the common fisheries policy has been a disaster for the sustainability of fishing communities and for conservation. The debate was also thoughtful because of the recognition by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber that we need to think long and hard about the future of farming and its relationship with the rural economy and society at large.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who, like me, has for many years enjoyed participating in long debates on such matters which have gone into the night, spoke about the Xconsensus for change" and the need to consider the issues in a thorough and non-partisan way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde—I do not want to keep referring to him in case he thinks he has become my mentor—said that farming is a cultural issue that extends beyond pure economics. He explained that there is something deeper to it, and he is right. It is about what we value and prize; about defining our obligations as custodians of a rural and natural heritage; about the legacy that we wish to pass on to the next generation; and about the investment that farmers make in that heritage and legacy.

Some would say that I am being excessively romantic. If so, I plead guilty. A passionate romantic attachment to that which is beyond the narrowly material is the prerequisite of vision. The absence of vision on the part of the Secretary of State and Ministers has made the debate—in addition to vital and thoughtful—disturbing. As hon. Members repeatedly said, the Secretary of State's speech lacked passion. It was as though she was going through the motions. However, I do not want to be unkind or ungenerous because I am not an unkind or ungenerous person, as the House knows. The Curry report is important. It was limited by

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time and resources, but it is a useful start none the less. The Government's response is better than nothing. However, as Curry said:

We certainly have not had that commitment from the Government.

Some things are welcome: the help with small regional producers; the improvements in competitiveness and marketing, which are an ambition of Government policy; and a serious look at entry-level stewardship. There is some recognition of what my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) highlighted as the link between food and farming, that vital connection which cannot be ignored in Government policy or our debates.

There are significant gaps, however. We need to take seriously a policy that allows our farmers to add value to their products by developing processing capacity, so improving their opportunities to make a good and decent living. For example, the dairy industry in most other countries is able to add value because the producers have processing capacity. In this country, processing capacity is focused on a few enterprises and that opportunity does not exist. The Government need to assist in that.

We also need a real commitment to deal with the burden of regulation. We also need serious investment and an appreciation of the value of food. Perhaps most of all, however, we need an acceptance that the relationship between retailers and producers—the shortening of the food chain, as it has been described—will be taken seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House made that point. Frankly, the Government's comments on shortening the food chain are weak as water. They talk about

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said, that is not sufficient to restore producers' faith in a Government who need to do an awful lot to restore farmers' and growers' faith in them. We must face up to the disproportionate effect that a few retailers have had on the food chain. Rebalancing should be a priority—it is not fair to let a commercially capricious retail sector put the kind of pressure on producers that it is putting on them at the moment.

As I have said, there is a lack of vision and strategy. There is no business plan for farming and growing in this country or, to use the Secretary of State's words in response to an early intervention, no feeling for an appropriate number of producers or level of production. We do not ask for precision, but any business plan or strategy would take a notional view of which sectors will be productive, and how many producers there will be over the next year or five years. We cannot ask our farmers and growers to develop business plans if the Government do not provide them with leadership or a sense of direction.

There should be a balance sheet for agriculture and horticulture which measures their social, economic and cultural effects. It is not unreasonable to ask DEFRA to introduce such a cost-benefit analysis and for it to be

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debated and discussed. Such an analysis should be dynamic and produced regularly—not an unreasonable request from the industry or Conservative Members—and should be based on the partnership approach identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) in his stimulating and apposite analysis of the Government's response to Curry. That approach would reinvest in faith, making farmers and growers believe that the Government care, but would also achieve coherence and co-ordination between various schemes and their management by Government agencies. This lack of coherence and co-ordination was identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon and is exemplified by the incompatibility of the IT systems of the Rural Payments Agency with those of DEFRA, and the ensuing confusion that has caused misery to livestock farmers and others throughout the country.

We need an understanding of the problem. The long-term fall in commodity prices is seemingly inexorable, and for many years farmers' share of the retail price of food has declined, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire pointed out—what a champion of the farmers of Derbyshire he is and has always been. Through no fault of their own, British farmers' purchasing power has fallen relative not only to general inflation but, as Members know, to inflation in key agricultural inputs, undermining their capacity to invest in improvements. Falling incomes and rising costs are the cutting blades of the so-called agrarian scissors and are the only meaningful context in which debate can take place. Without addressing the key issue of farm income, anything that we may hope to achieve environmentally, socially or culturally is impossible.

Whatever the vision of the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), who clearly lives in a different world to the one occupied by the majority of hon. Members, farming is the force that shapes four fifths of Britain's land area. There is no conceivable alternative that could provide the same coverage, but without sustainable incomes farming will cease to be viable in the greater part of this land. The only sustainable agricultural policy is one that identifies and counteracts the power behind the agrarian scissors—excess production and the payments associated with it. Frankly, farmers have been trapped in a system of production subsidies that provides perverse incentives for the commodification of agriculture when almost all other industries in this country have prospered by producing ever more sophisticated goods and services, adding value to them, and marketing them on the basis of quality.

We need better alternatives: payments that provide sustainable farm incomes and serve as an incentive to environmental good practice as an integral part of marketing food production. Those are important challenges, but they must be seen in the context of real difficulties and problems. In their response to Curry, the Government could bring themselves to acknowledge only challenges. Unlike the hon. Member for Sherwood, they would not say that there was a crisis, and less still that that crisis was as wide-ranging and deep as it has been in agriculture at any time since the 1930s. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) spoke of 67,000 people leaving the industry over the past five years.

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There are hon. Members of all parties who care about agriculture, horticulture and the countryside. I do not deny that for a second, but there is only one party that has rural Britain at its heart and soul. That is the Conservative party. We will be unfailing in our determination to fight for British food and farming, unstinting in our efforts to ensure that our farmers can compete on a level playing field, and unhesitating in our protection of our rich environmental heritage. We will always be ready to be the proud and passionate champions of the interests of rural Britain.

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