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Mr. Edwards: I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully and I commend the efforts that he and others have made to strengthen the supermarket code of conduct. Has he seen the recent report in the Farmers Guardian suggesting that the National Farmers Union, Farmers For Action and supermarkets such as Tesco are collaborating in order to get a 3p increase in the price of milk, half of which could be distributed to the producers and half to the processors? Does he commend such an initiative?

Andrew George: I certainly do. The last time Farmers For Action protested and erected blockades outside dairies and supermarkets, it achieved a 2p increase in the price given by Asda, at least, but as the hon. Gentleman well knows, it is questionable whether that benefit
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reached the farmers themselves. Moreover, one cannot simply establish and peg farm gate prices on the basis of protesting every six months or so; we have to have a system that is robust in the long term. That said, I entirely agree that the current farm gate price for milk is unsustainable for the majority of dairy farmers. Action is required to ensure that they are given fair protection in the market, which does not happen at the moment.

I do not want to take up too much of Members' time, but before I finish I want to emphasise a couple of points about housing. I was concerned on behalf of many people living in rural areas following the publication last year of the Kate Barker review. It pointed out that, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire argued, large swathes of the countryside could be swamped by many thousands of houses, the prices of which would be well out of the reach of people on rural incomes, and that there is a consequent need for affordable housing in such areas. However, such an observation does not help people living in the countryside. As long as green land in the countryside has a hope value, people will not put their land forward for affordable housing. The only way to provide affordable housing in the countryside is to have strict control on planning and development. I know that that sounds counterintuitive, but that is the only way to deliver the exception—land that is strictly for affordable housing. Those sites will not be made available if we take a flexible, laissez-faire approach that allows any sort of development. People will not make land available for affordable housing in the countryside because they would inevitably receive a fraction of the value that they would otherwise receive for an unfettered permission to develop.

The Minister raised the issue of, and responded to concerns about, second homes. That issue certainly affects my constituency and many others. I campaigned for many years for the removal of the 50 per cent. council tax discount for second homes, introduced by the Conservatives, which meant that many millions of pounds was spent subsidising the wealthy when many thousands of rural folk on low incomes could not even afford a first home. I am grateful that the Government have mostly removed that unfairness by allowing local authorities to charge 90 per cent. of the tax for second homes. In my constituency, we have recently cut the ribbon on a new scheme—as the Minister said—which was entirely funded by the money raised by the additional charge on second homes.

Is the Minister aware, however, that in April next year his colleagues in the Treasury will introduce, through the self-invested personal pension, a system that will permit those with personal pensions to invest that money in second homes? I received some reassurance after a debate last year that that would not happen, but all the financial press is now promoting the scheme and saying that the tax advantages of the scheme could be used for the purchase of second homes. Many people in areas with large numbers of second homes will be very concerned by the potential impact of that scheme, and I hope that the Minister will consider it further.
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5.52 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Lab): This is my maiden speech as the first Labour Member of Parliament for Wantage. I am delighted to make it on a subject that is important in my constituency—farming and rural affairs. It is agreeable, I must say, to be sitting in my old place on these Benches.

I am just old enough to remember the respect and affection in the farming community for Tom Williams, the agriculture Minister in the post-war Attlee Government and the architect of the deficiency payments system, by which farming in Britain was supported until 1973. As the European common agricultural policy evolves away from the market intervention methods of the classical CAP towards the same sort of direct payments system adopted by Tom Williams, I observe that British farmers have nothing to fear and much to hope for from a Labour Government.

I first learned to understand the importance and value of farming in British life when I served as a Member of the European Parliament between 1979 and 1984. Ever since those days, I have had regular meetings every few months with local farmers. Indeed, I had such a meeting only last Friday night. I developed a custom of writing a detailed letter to the Minister after each of those meetings, reporting on them and posing the questions that had been raised. I am glad to say that I have always had full and helpful replies to those letters from Ministers in both Conservative and Labour Governments, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his contribution to that.

In a fit of over-excitement in the mid-1980s, I even wrote a pamphlet with the dramatic title, "From Boom to Bust? The Implications of CAP Reform for British Farming." As so often in politics, the reality turned out to be less dramatic. The argument that I want to make today is that while much has changed in the 25 years in which I have been interested in the politics of the rural economy much has also remained the same. There is strikingly little correlation between changes of Government and the trends, both positive and negative, in the rural economy.

For instance, no one involved in farming would deny that the biggest single factor in its changing fortunes is the exchange rate between the pound and the euro or, before its introduction, the ecu. That has not been mentioned in our debate, but a farmer once told me—correctly, I think—that it is always 60 per cent. of the problem. There is no doubt that British farming would benefit from stabilising that critical exchange rate by joining the euro. Perhaps I may be allowed in passing to make the party political point that the Labour party wants Britain to join the euro, while on this issue, as on so many others, I am afraid, the Conservatives have settled definitively into the politics of "Neverland". The fluctuating pound-euro rate is a critical factor that has continued to operate across the divide represented by the change of Government in 1997.

More positively, another factor of continuity is the United Kingdom's broad approach to reform of the common agricultural policy and to the wider issues of agricultural trade in the Doha round. Governments of both parties have pursued essentially the same policy of "decoupling" farm supports from production, ending export subsidies and promoting trade liberalisation.
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I have always supported those policies, and I have always found that my farming constituents understood and supported the principles involved, although not necessarily the details of implementation. Both parties in government have shown a lively awareness of the special problem of British farming in the European setting—our relatively large farm-size structure. Both have sought tenaciously, as far as possible, to resist CAP reforms that are biased against the interests of larger producers.

One of the biggest changes in the rural economy since I first became involved in the late 1970s is the relative decline in farming's contribution to the total economy, which has gone down from about 3 per cent. in 1973 to 0.8 per cent. today. Again, that relative decline has continued across the divide of 1997. That is also true of efforts by Governments of both parties to promote the diversification of the rural economy, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) took a particular and welcome interest when he was Minister for Employment. One of the results of the study that he carried out on the Government's behalf was the important market towns initiative. To be party political again for a moment, I wonder how many of these efforts to support rural diversification would survive a Conservative Government planning a £35 billion cut in public expenditure?

Beneath those broad continuities of policy between Governments over time there is, of course, a host of current issues that come and go. For instance, at my constituency meeting with farmers last Friday I was asked to raise four issues—farm waste disposal and the local operation of the national fallen stock scheme; the threat of bovine tuberculosis; the "Discovering Lost Ways" project, which has not been mentioned yet in our debate; and the increasing burden of regulation. I shall write to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality in detail about those issues, but I hope that the Under-Secretary will say something about them in his winding-up speech. In particular, would he comment on the fact, relayed to me last Friday, that there has been no bidder for work in my area under the national fallen stock scheme? Could he also say something about how the Government intend to grasp the nettle of bovine tuberculosis and prevent it from spreading into Oxfordshire?

Before I conclude, let me briefly address two of those current issues. There is genuine concern in the local farming community about the possible negative implications of the "Discovering Lost Ways" project. We are all familiar with the way in which existing rights of way can be abused. Indeed, I take this opportunity publicly to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his active engagement with the problems of abuse, by 4x4 vehicles and motor cyclists, of the great, historic Ridgeway, which runs through my constituency. I suggest that the Government go easy on discovering lost ways, at least until the new regime under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 settles down properly.

The second point is about regulation. We should remember the background. The most important events in the recent history of British farming were the emergence of BSE, followed by the foot and mouth disaster. I note in passing that in both crises the Government of the day, Conservative and then Labour,
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followed closely the advice given by representatives of the farming industry. Indeed, some would say that they followed that advice too closely. I have told farmers in my constituency frankly, and I say it again, that after two such disasters on their watch—so to speak—it was inevitable that farming in Britain would be subject to a barrage of regulation, both from Brussels and from Whitehall. Equally, there is no doubt, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will accept, that some of that regulation is ill thought out, that sometimes there are inconsistencies between different elements of it, and that there are all sorts of glitches in its implementation, even including, sometimes, the coming into force of schemes before the details of how to comply with them has been vouchsafed.

The Government are currently carrying out a review, aiming for a strategy for better regulation of agriculture to be published in November. I shall do what I can from these Benches to encourage Ministers to take that issue seriously, as it is currently one of the biggest bugbears in the rural community.

At the beginning of my speech, I referred to Tom Williams and the way in which the post-war Labour Government won friends in the rural community. My speech has, I think, amply shown that on the big questions of policy those with a stake in the rural economy have much for which to thank the present Government and much to hope for from them. However, as I have acquired a perhaps undeserved reputation for speaking my mind, I say to the Minister in conclusion—I am sorry to end on this note—that some of that heritage of rural good will has been forfeited by the hunting ban. Of course, it was a free-vote issue, and support for the ban and opposition to it has always been on a cross-party basis. I attended a meet of the Old Berkshire hunt at Goosey on Saturday morning where I found admiring recognition of the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and of Bernard Donoughue and Ann Mallalieu in another place.

The story has not yet reached its denouement. The experience of Scotland has shown that it is possible for lawful riding to hounds to continue even after a ban on hunting with dogs. I am pleased that the Government are taking time for the matter to be addressed by the courts, and I note that all sorts of detail about the implementation of the policy remain to be resolved. I believe that somehow a way can be found for the honourable traditions of the countryside to be preserved, and I look forward to making whatever contribution I can from these Benches to that worthy purpose.

The fact is that the Labour party, too, has a honourable place in the annals of the countryside, which the Government, with their wide-ranging policies for the rural economy as a whole, are doing well to maintain.

6.3 pm

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