HC Deb 14 March 1979 vol 964 cc445-7
16. Mr. Henderson

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the decline in Scottish farming incomes during 1978.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

The return to more normal potato prices is the main cause of the decline in farming incomes in the year ending March 1978. A general improvement is forecast for 1978–79.

Mr. Henderson

Is not the hon. Gentleman glossing over the fact that there has been a decrease of 33 per cent. in farm incomes in Scotland in the last year? Can he tell us what measures he intends to take to ensure that that is made up in the coming year? Farmers are getting a bit fed up with the Government's"jam tomorrow"policy.

Mr. Brown

I am not glossing over anything. I attended the annual general meeting of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland on Friday, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not allowed to gloss over anything. I give the House the assurance that we expect a rise in incomes for the year ending 1979. I readily concede that the hard winter may, perhaps, influence that and that there are other factors that do not give any ground for optimism or complacency. But, to be realistic, the farmers will not starve.

Mr. John Home Robertson

Will my hon Friend take all possible steps to help the hard-pressed hill and marginal farmers? Will he bear in mind that a number of the perhaps less hard-pressed lowland farmers in my constituency managed to find enough spare income to raise £7,500 for the Tory Party two weeks ago?

Mr. Brown

I am glad to say that there are enough intelligent electors in Berwick and East Lothian to return a Labour Member. I am sure that that will continue. We made a specific announcement that we were putting more than £1 million into farming in the hill areas in Scotland where there is the greatest need to supplement incomes.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Surely the hon. Gentleman, after his meeting with the Scottish NFU last Friday, can be in no doubt about the genuine concern amongst farmers in the hill and upland areas. Is he aware of the genuine concern among cattle producers at the inflation in costs and their vulnerability to market prices? Is he prepared to do more to help this hard-pressed sector of Scottish agriculture?

Mr. Brown

I share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and I have already said that we have applied aid to the areas of greatest need. The hon. Gentleman knows that the production of cattle is a risky business, and I am assuming that the supporters of private enterprise do not want to take away all the initiatives that should be open to the producers. Nevertheless, there is a real concern, which I have recognised. We certainly shall not see the hill farmers lost.

Mr. Buchan

Will the Minister assure us that all the agriculture Ministers will fight to prevent the implementation of the iniquitous EEC milk levy, which is designed to perpetuate the existence of small inefficient farmers by penalising efficient British farmers? We would be glad of that assurance.

Mr. Brown

Yes, I can give that assurance, but I do not want to pre-empt anything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may say later.

Mr. Welsh

Will the Minister comment further on the special problems facing Scotland's hill farmers because of harsh winter conditions and high interest rates? Does he accept that the delay in announcing the hill livestock compensatory allowances was disgraceful? What further steps is he prepared to take to help hill farmers?

Mr. Brown

The delay was not disgraceful. The reasons were explained to the NFU of Scotland and I think that it accepted them. But as always when we are handing out money, there will be people who say that it is not enough.

Mr. Younger

Does the Minister agree that the more or less unanimous view of those at the conference which he attended was that the announcement that he made to hill farmers was inadequate to deal with the serious escalation in costs and the Government's high interest rates? Was he not made aware that what is at stake is the very viability of many of the marginal hill farms in this country, unless he does something more to help them?

Mr. Brown

I assumed that most of the Labour farmers were at Perth and not at Peebles on Friday. Perhaps the warmth of the reception that some of the farmers gave me had political overtones. There are always variations in an industry which is as diverse as agriculture. But, overall, Scottish farmers are doing reasonably well. I do not put it any higher than that.

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