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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for at least one thing in his speech—the support of hunting. It is a pleasure to hear someone on the Labour Benches putting forward a sensible view on that sport. I agree with him about one other thing. He mentioned Tom Williams, a formidable Labour agriculture Minister.
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Mr. Williams was also a staunch defender of hunting and for many years resisted attempts by Labour party members to ban it. For such small mercies, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are grateful.

The last debate in the House in Government time on the serious issues of agriculture and farming was on 12 December 2002. It continues to be a matter of regret that dealing with something of enormous importance to this country is constantly sidelined by the Government and has to be debated in the House in short Opposition and Adjournment debates. It is wrong that the whole practice of holding a substantial debate on agriculture has been abandoned by the Government. For me and, I think, for the farming community, that reflects the Government's view of agriculture.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) quoted DEFRA officials saying at the royal show that agriculture was neither necessary nor desirable for this country. Those comments underline a great deal of the thinking that exists in government about the problems that face agriculture.

We have experienced one of the most dramatic changes in agriculture since the Agriculture Act 1947, and we are debating that change and all that flows from it not in a proper full-scale debate, but in a short Opposition day debate. The introduction of the single farm payment has been marked by chaos. Today is 19 January—a significant date in the life of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—and we are well into the new year, but farmers still do not know exactly what they should do. For example, livestock farmers in my constituency in Northumberland are still awaiting a host of details about their cost-compliance arrangements, which are fundamental to some of the decisions that they must make.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I do not know how many farmers in my constituency or in the vale of Aylesbury as a whole have their birthdays today, but I can only say that I am intimately conscious of the fact that, such is the self-preservation of my hon. Friend, many people might reasonably conclude that I am 20 years older than he is.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sure that there is general rejoicing at the birthday of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for the fact that his intervention today was rather shorter than the one yesterday.

Mr. Atkinson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister looks puzzled. It is a rather private joke, but we will enlighten him with a note later.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I hope the Minister will be able to enlighten us. Fallen stock has been mentioned, and I am curious to find out what would happen to a sheep with an ear tag that fell into a river and was washed a long way downstream. Would the responsibility for dealing with that dead animal lie
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with the Environment Agency, or would it seek to trace the owner using the ear tag and get him to pay for the incineration of the dead animal?

Mr. Atkinson: That is a good question. I hope that the Minister can answer it—I certainly cannot—and it shows one of the confusions that exist.

Returning to the serious subject of livestock farmers in the uplands, we think that, according to the cost-compliance regulations, the use of round cattle feeders will not be allowed because of the danger of the excessive poaching of the ground around them. If those things are not allowed under the cost-compliance regulations, the cattle will have to go inside much earlier in the season, which will have a profound effect on the economy of those beef-rearing farms. Clearly, the farmers will have to feed their cattle inside much more intensively as a result. That is one example of why it is important that farmers know the answers as quickly as possible.

The DEFRA roadshow, which will be launched any day now, will not reach the north country until the end of March. It first arrives at Carlisle on 17 March, which is St. Patrick's day—far too late for farmers to know exactly what to do. The beef sector will continue to struggle until farmers are clear about how they can develop their herds, and to do so, they need to know the details of how the cost-compliance schemes will work.

We have touched on the dairy industry. Where I live in north-east England, we are now down to a handful of dairy herds. Most of the farmers with dairy herds have either given up and gone away or turned to other things. That is amazing in this country. One thing that God gave this country was the ability to grow grass. We are located on the west of Europe; we have a brilliant climate for dairy farming, yet we face a £700 million deficit in the balance of payments on dairy products. A serious aspect of the problem is the fact that a substantial number of the new modern products that consumers want—such things as yoghurts—are produced abroad and imported into the UK, which leaves our farmers to supply the liquid milk and cheese markets. That is nonsense because we will not be able to encourage the food processors and manufacturers that create such new products to come to this country unless we have a proper supply of milk, and we will not have a proper supply of milk if more dairy farmers simply go out of business.

The Government seem unwilling to address the crucial problem of how to make smaller dairies more economic. We need to bring the profitability of those dairies up to that of the biggest, but that will not be encouraged while dairy farmers are battered from head to foot by supermarket competition, which is endlessly driving down the price of milk to such an extent that most dairy farmers would be losing money if they properly factored their labour costs into the equation.

Bovine tuberculosis is another major crisis facing the dairy industry. The Irish have been studying the effect of badgers on bovine TB since about 1997 and have recently reported. I am sure that the Minister is aware that in areas in which there was a substantial cull of badgers, the number of herds reporting TB reactor cattle dropped dramatically. There might well be criticisms of the methodology of the Irish survey, but it is the best evidence that we currently have to suggest that bovine
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TB can be controlled, albeit only with a programme of culling infected badgers. The Government stand accused of considerable complacency on the matter.

I shall be brief because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality seemed to dismiss agriculture as a declining and unimportant aspect of rural life. Of course it has been overtaken by tourism and commuter jobs, but agriculture and farming still underpin the essence of rural life. The Government have a duty to maintain an important industry for the benefit of the countryside and the people who live in it.

6.12 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I am especially pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). I welcome him to these Benches and commend him on his courage for doing what many people in this country have done, especially in areas such as mine—realising that the Conservative party that they supported in the past does not represent the values that they think it should and changing the habit of a lifetime by coming over to the Labour party. My hon. Friend is welcome to speak to farmers and others in my constituency because his thoughtful contribution would be well acknowledged.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend's view on hunting. I represent a rural constituency in which there has been a tradition of hunting, but hunting is a fundamentally moral issue. I think that it is morally wrong to hunt with dogs for the purpose of sport, and remain of that view despite the fact that I fully acknowledge the need to remove foxes that are a threat to livestock and appreciate the contribution that the hunting community has made on fallen stock—that is one of the great challenges that remains.

My constituency of Monmouth is very rural. It was badly hit by the foot and mouth outbreak a few years ago, but there has since been a notable improvement in morale. Livestock prices in the beef and sheep sectors have increased, but there is no doubt that there is a continuing crisis in the dairy sector. The Usk valley used to be rich in dairy farms, but the number has diminished considerably. I commend the efforts of those who are trying to get a better price for milk producers. The Welsh Affairs Committee undertook an inquiry on prices in the livestock sector a few years ago and one of its recommendations led to the introduction of a code of practice. The code needs strengthening, however, so I commend all those who are doing their best to achieve that.

I recently met some tenant farmers in my constituency who told me that the price of raw milk is still only about 17 or 18p. They cannot make any profit from that. As tenant farmers, they face other difficulties, not least that of finding housing when they retire. Traditionally, they would have sold their stock when they ceased to trade in order to buy themselves a country residence, but that has become virtually impossible because of the price of housing in rural areas. Schemes such as shared equity schemes, which were mentioned earlier, should be encouraged. After the Housing Act 1919, clusters of council housing were developed throughout the countryside. Sadly, much of that has been sold as a
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result of right to buy. I was not fundamentally opposed to the policy, but I was against the failure to replenish social housing using the receipts from the scheme.

I come to the sale of woodland, an issue that has particularly concerned me recently. I commend Members on both sides of the House who have recognised the threat of the subdivision and sale of agricultural land. The hon. Members for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) have taken up the matter. In my constituency it is the sale and subdivision not of agricultural land, but of woodland that is causing concern. As a result of the initiatives taken by the Government in England and now in Wales, local authorities have been given guidance to inform them of the scope that they have in planning regulations to introduce what are called article 4 directives, and thus ensure that they can override permitted development rights where there is a threat of the sale of woodland.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will, as they travel through their constituencies and elsewhere in the land, have seen signs saying "Woodland for sale". I urge them to look at the website of the company selling the land so that they can see what might happen if such woodland was subdivided into small plots and sold to people who are led to believe that they can use the land for bonfire parties, parking their caravans and undertaking other activities that would not normally be acceptable in a rural area, and certainly not in an area of outstanding natural beauty such the Wye valley in my constituency.

My constituency has suffered as a result of the crisis in farming in the past 10 years. There was a time when I was summoned to angry meetings of farmers. I have not seen such meetings in recent years—I think that morale in the farming community has risen. I notice that a recent Farmers Guardian reported a new year and a new era of optimism, saying that there is a general feeling of optimism for the coming year throughout the industry, and that although accepting the introduction of CAP reforms on 1 January will represent the biggest challenge facing the industry for years, many look on it as a great era of opportunity. That is a more optimistic outlook for farming than is contained in the Opposition motion, which is particularly depressing and pessimistic.

The farmers in my constituency want to see new investment. I hope that we will get a new livestock market in or around Abergavenny in my constituency. That would be an important boost to the industry's infrastructure in Monmouthshire, in neighbouring areas of Wales and over the English border. Such an investment would be very welcome and I hope that the decision to invest in such a facility will be taken at the earliest opportunity.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that many of us on these Benches represent rural constituencies. We may take a certain moral view on hunting, but fundamentally we want to do our very best to help the farming communities in our constituencies.

6.19 pm

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