§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)
I beg to move,That the draft Agriculture and Horticulture Development Regulations 1980, which were laid before this House on 28 July, be approved.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
With this it may be convenient to discuss the orders relating to:The Agriculture and Horticulture Grant Scheme 1980.The Horticulture Capital Grant (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1980.The Farm Capital Grant (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1980.
§ Mr. Wiggin
After carefully considering a memorandum by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, we felt obliged to replace one of the statutory instruments laid on 2 July with two of the statutory instruments that we are considering today—the agriculture and horticulture development regulations and the agriculture and horticulture grant scheme. We are grateful to the Joint Committee for its advice, to which we reacted promptly, but in doing so we unavoidably laid the replacement instruments rather late. I apologise to the House for any inconvenience that that may have caused. I wish to emphasise, however, that in all important respects the two new statutory instruments will have the same effect as the one that we withdrew.
Hon. Members will recall that on 31 January this year my right hon. Friend laid statutory instruments before the House changing the rates of grant payable under the three current capital grant schemes. He explained that he was making those changes as a first step towards the introduction of new, simplified capital grant arrangements, replacing the existing ones. He promised to present the necessary legislation to Parliament before the Summer Recess. The agriculture and horticulture development regulations and the agriculture and horticulture grant scheme now before the House meet that promise.
The new arrangements are based on recommendations resulting from a study of the administration of the current 837 schemes made in consultation with Sir Derek Rayner. They are designed to reduce bureaucracy, cut the number of forms that farmers have to fill up, generally speed up the whole process and leave farmers with more responsibility for their own investment decisions.
The keynote of the new arrangements is: "Treat the farmer as a responsible person." He usually finds most of the money, so we want to leave him as free as possible to get on with the job. To help him we intend to have as simple an application form as we can devise, and we are trying to produce an explanatory leaflet which is readable, helpful and, above all, comprehensible.
The changes that we are making will save about 400 posts in my Ministry alone. Of those, 250 will be administration jobs and 150 ADAS posts. The savings will come mainly from cutting out prior approval and by considering claims for grant after the work has been done. That is what happens with regional development grants.
Following last January's announcement, we consulted a large number of organisations and individuals about our proposals for a new scheme. As one would expect, reactions differed widely. Everyone wanted some changes, but the changes spanned a very wide spectrum. We have tried to meet as many as possible of those interests while still meeting our objectives. We have been flexible in our approach; otherwise, there would have been no point in consulting. But we have always had in mind our main objective of simplification.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
The Minister said that he had consulted widely and that people had different views about the proposals. Can he say whether any organisation approves of the proposals?
§ Mr. Wiggin
Yes, my Department. We are surrounded by many differing views, with which I shall deal during the course of my speech, justifying, I hope the action that the Government propose to take.
The statutory backing for the proposals is included in the orders with which we are dealing today. The agriculture and horticulture development regulations and the agriculture and horticulture grant scheme, in effect, consolidate the farm capital grant scheme, 838 the horticulture capital grant scheme and the farm and horticulture development regulations, on which the existing capital grant schemes are based. If the House approves these statutory instruments, the new arrangements will come into operation on 1 October next. From that date the existing provisions will no longer be needed, so they will be ended by the other statutory instruments which are before the House.
Two of those statutory instruments also clarify the provision, introduced in February, which limits to 160,000 ECU—about £100,000—the amount of investment on which grant will be paid. The Joint Committee expressed doubt about the wording of the provision when the original statutory instrument was laid in January, so we have taken this opportunity to clarify it.
The biggest departure from present practice will be the dropping of prior approval. I think that most hon. Members will be familiar with that procedure. The rule was introduced many years ago and has been retained mainly to ensure that farmers got proper advice about their investment proposals. I think that it has been very valuable, but it has also been very expensive on manpower. It has produced its own problems, giving rise to complaints from farmers on a number of occasions. It delays them when they want to get on. It subjects all their investment decisions to "the Man from the Ministry, who knows best." It leads to arguments over whether it has been breached. After all, a fairly minor or technical infringement of the rule resulted in a farmer losing grant. So, although the scheme had many defenders, it also had many critics.
But farming has now grown up. Farmers and growers long ago learnt the value of seeking professional advice from Departments. They are quite capable of making their own investment decisions. With few exceptions, they are finding much the greater part of the costs, so surely it is right that they should be trusted. Dropping prior approval will give them the freedom to make their decisions and to decide for themselves how and when they wish to invest.
This will not impede the continuation of the close and fruitful collaboration between farmers and advisers. This is good for the farmer and good for the nation, 839 and we are anxious for it to continue. But it is time for farmers to take on their responsibilities in full, backed, as in the past, by the solid assistance that our ADAS provides.
Our decision to drop prior approval and not to require any form of advance notice has been criticised. It has been said that farmers will be less certain of their grant than at present and that we are disregarding our responsibilities for the countryside and wildlife.
The whole point of the new arrangements is to make them as simple and as automatic as possible. We do not intend to be pernickety. We shall be mainly concerned to ensure that the investment is of a capital nature, because this is a prime requirement of the legislation. The explanatory leaflet will give guidance on the specifications or British standards that will be acceptable. If farmers want to be sure that work will qualify for grant, all they have to do is to meet these standards. Where there is no appropriate standard we shall be looking for a good, sound job.
Although the risk of a farmer losing grant is negligible, I recognise the anxiety that exists. We shall be doing everything we can to set farmers' minds at rest. For example, we shall include in the claim form a check list to remind farmers of the most important conditions that they have to observe. I shall be looking for other ways to allay any fears on that account.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)
Will there be an opportunity for the farmer who will not, for one reason or another, get the full grant, to appeal against the Ministry's decision?
§ Mr. Wiggin
As I understand the situation, the administration of these grants is absolutely at the Ministry's discretion. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will well know, there is always, if not through internal channels, through Members of Parliament, an appeal to the Minister. In this respect I do not think that we shall seek to administer this scheme any differently from the administration of the former scheme. I hope that there will not be too many cases for appeal, but of course, we shall look 840 favourably where there are borderlines. However, I see there being fewer opportunities for borderlines under this scheme than there were under the previous scheme.
The assertion that we shall be disregarding our obligations in terms of conservation and the countryside is quite unfounded. We acknowledge that our obligation under the Countryside Acts will be exactly the same in the future as it has been in the past. Indeed, we have had extensive consultations with the interested bodies to work out a satisfactory approach.
In the leaflet about the new grant arrangements we shall make it clear that, in accordance with the requirements of section 11 of the Countryside Act 1968, the Minister, when considering claims for grant, will continue, as in the past, to have regard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside, including its wildlife. If farmers wish to avoid putting their grant at risk for this reason, it is important that they should consider whether the work they have in mind would be likely to create problems in relation to conservation and, if they are in any doubt, to seek advice from ADAS, which is in touch with the responsible authorities in the course of its work. In national parks and sites of special scientific interest special considerations apply, and if a farmer wishes to claim grant he will have to consult the national park authority or the Nature Conservancy Council, as appropriate, before starting work.
If the authority had no objection or if agreement was reached on modifications the work could go ahead. If there is disagreement that cannot be resolved ADAS must be brought in. Grant would be payable on condition that it had. Here, too, ADAS would, as now, offer advice and try to achieve a mutually acceptable compromise. If agreement was not possible, the Minister would have to reach a decision in principle on whether, if the work were done and grant was claimed, he would have to reject the claim. The farmer would be advised of this decision. If he decided to go ahead without waiting for the Minister's decision, he would be told that grant would be at risk and the Minister's decision would be based on the situation prior to work commencing.
841 In this context, it must be remembered that the only sanction that my Department has in this matter is whether to pay grant. What the farmer does without grant on his own land is a quite separate matter over which I have no control.
We have considered how we could best assist the authorities which would be notified under this procedure to assess the environmental implications of proposals put to them. For England and Wales we have decided to make available to them on a regular weekly basis suitably qualified and experienced ADAS officers. They will help an authority to decide whether any proposal is likely to give rise to difficulties on conservation grounds and, if neccessary, will be ready to visit the farmer concerned to give him guidance on how to overcome them. Arrangements will be made in Scotland for similar contacts to be made.
These procedures have been worked out in co-operation with the bodies concerned. I should like to record my appreciation of their co-operation and the help they have given us and, I hope will give us in the future.
We originally proposed to apply the special procedures to areas of outstanding natural beauty as well as to sites of special scientific interest and to national parks, but the idea ran into difficulties. The Association of Disctrict Councils was worried about the extra work that might fall on its members, and some organisations representing farmers and growers were concerned about the problems it would create. On further consideration with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of the Environment, we concluded that it would not be necessary to impose these very rigorous requirements in areas of outstanding natural beauty.
It has been suggested that these proposals represent a change in our attitude to the Strutt report. This is not true. Our commitment to it is the same as before. As we—and our predecessors—have always made clear, ADAS can develop its work on conservation matters only to the extent that resources can be made available. But one beneficial effect of the new arrangements in England and Wales is that by reducing the administrative burden on advisory staff and not taking the savings in full, we are deliberately increasing the capacity of ADAS 842 to give advice and assistance, on both argicultural and conservation aspects.
With one exception, the rates of grant introduced on I February remain unchanged. The exception is the standard rate of grant for improvements to banks and channels of watercourses in Scotland. The rate was reduced from 50 per cent. to 37½, per cent. in February; but, in order to provide assistance in line with that available for similar work to drainage authorities in England and Wales, a standard grant rate of 50 per cent. for this item is proposed. Because of its special nature, prior approval is being retained for this item, and this item alone.
The coverage of the new scheme is essentially the same as for the existing ones. But we have made some small changes. We are including hedge layering and classifying peas for vining as a horticultural crop. We have also made it clear that deer and goat farming are eligible.
I do not think that it would be sensible to persist to the last with all the requirements of the present schemes, though there are legal constraints on the extent to which they can be waived. Consequently, if the House approves the new provisions, we propose to make transitional arrangements which will give farmers certain options during the period between the date of approval and I October. I shall not detain the House by explaining them in full. We shall be publishing them shortly.
In presenting these new arrangements to the House, I firmly believe that we are heralding an era no less important and significant than the one which began in 1957 with the farm improvement Scheme. That was designed to bring the industry and the Ministry, particularly its advisers, closer together in working out the best way to develop a farm business. This one continues to give farmers and growers financial help with their capital investments but leaves them with greater freedom to decide their own destinies, secure in the knowledge that ADAS is there to help them.
I commend these statutory instruments to the House.
§ Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
The Parliamentary Secretary has sought to justify and explain these proposals, 843 but he has done so inadequately. The origin of the proposals is the Rayner project. I have no objection in principle if the Government wish to bring in someone such as Sir Derek Rayner to look at the efficiency of the Civil Service, but when Sir Derek Rayner comes up with cuts which—when subjected to scrutiny—are found to be unjustifiable, Ministers should have the courage and responsibility to reject them.
The proposal put forward by Sir Derek Rayner is impracticable. It is damaging to the agriculture industry and to conservation interests. The advice given and representations made to the Government demonstrate that. Nevertheless, Ministers have sought to ram measures such as these through the Houses of Parliament. When the Department of Health and Social Security proposed to abolish a pensioner's entitlement to draw his pension weekly, there was opposition to the proposal and it was withdrawn. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not prepared to listen to reasoned advice. The best illustration of that occurred when my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) asked the Parliamentary Secretary to name one organisation—among the many consulted—that had supported the proposals. The hon. Gentleman replied that the Ministry supported them.
We oppose the new regulations because there is a lack of public accountability. It is all very well for the Parliamentary Secretary to say that on the whole farmers' money is being spent. It usually is. Some rates of grant, particularly in the less favoured areas, are very high. Indeed, half the money comes from the State. Millions of pounds of public money is spent annually, and we are entitled to seek an assurance that there will be genuine public accountability. I do not single out farmers as being more likely to abuse the procedures, but they are human like the rest of us. If, in a few years' time, it is proved that abuses have taken place, and if grants are claimed that are wholly unjustified, I hope that civil servants will not be dragged before the Public Accounts Committee to justify them. I am convinced that this is a political decision. Ministers have insisted on pressing ahead with arbitrary cuts.
844 The agricultural interest can best be summed up by quoting from the National Farmers Union. The article is dated 1 August, and it was therefore made after all the consultations, representations and changes had been made. The article said thatthe NFU considers that the arrangements currently proposed for administering the new scheme will result in unnecessary difficulties for farmers and growers; are unlikely, in overall public expenditure terms, to lead to the level of saving claimed; and will act as a deterrent to a continuation of the positive maintenance and enhancement of the countryside.The position of the agricultural interest is clear and unequivocal: it is opposed to the proposals.
I understand why ordinary farmers are unhappy about the situation. A farmer has no guarantee that he will get a grant for his proposed investment. It is in the industry's interest that an investment proposal should be given consideration and approval by the Ministry. I am all for cutting red tape. There might be scope for simplifying such procedures, particularly at the stage of prior approval, but the Government have removed the principle of prior approval. That is against the interests of farmers, who are the recipients of such grants.
The criticism made by conservation interests is more crucial. There has been widespread criticism from all the organisations and from the responsible people who are concerned about preserving and protecting our countryside for the benefit of this and future generations.
I should like to give another quotation, which is representative of the attitude of all the conservation organisations. I quote from what was said by the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation. The document, which was issued to Members of Parliament, is dated 29 July. I note that one of the organisation's patrons is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. It said:Farming and conservation organisations are united in their belief that the proposals should be withdrawn and substantially modified to ensure that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is aware of all proposals for capital works which conflict with conservation and is therefore able to undertake the necessary consultations and offer appropriate advice to farmers throughout the countryside, not just in designated areas. Meantime, the Orders terminating the present arrangements should be negatived.845 That is the position of the conservation interests. Their case was acknowledged in the Parliamentary Secretary's statement. The hon. Gentleman has told us that special arrangements will apply to sites of special scientific interest and to national parks. I do not have time to go into this issue in depth. I am not happy even with the proposals for the designated areas. The central thrust of any criticism on the ground of conservation is that the conservation interest is not confined solely to those areas. We are concerned about conservation throughout the countryside. We are not concerned only about areas of outstanding natural beauty, which the Government have dropped from special consideration.
Farmers do not always have the same view about conservation as do conservationists or the general public. We need some protection. There is a growing desire to enjoy the countryside. We have a responsibility to future generations. That responsibility is being discarded.
§ Mr. David Myles (Banff)
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that farmers are so irresponsible that they do not pay attention to conservation requirements?
§ Mr. Strang
I am suggesting nothing of the kind. I recognise that there is often a genuine conflict. A hard-pressed farmer may be anxious to maximise his productivity and increase his output. Understandably, he would like to plough up an old meadow, but perhaps it has a hedge that is of great benefit to the countryside. It is not that farmers are not concerned about conservation. Usually, they are. Their leaders are certainly concerned about it.
It is a fact of life that a conflict exists, and we are entitled to do something about that at the decision-making level. The system has worked well. The advice of the Strutt committee and of everyone else was that ADAS should be encouraged to increase its responsibility for conservation. I support that approach. I am in favour of using the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service in that area, and not officials in local councils or the national parks.
§ Mr. Strang
No, I shall not give way. I have done so once already. This is an important debate and the sad thing is that we have only one and a half hours in which to discuss these matters. There is great resentment about the regulations.
I conclude with a question about conservation. What is the position on designated areas in Scotland? The designated areas in England and Wales are inadequate. Indeed, we do not want designated areas; we want application right across the board. Will the Minister tell us what areas of Scotland will be subject to this special procedure, and will he confirm that the provisions for the undertaking that a farmer must sign a statement saying that he has consulted conservation interests, and for the arrangement that if agreement is not reached a grant will be refused if ADAS is not brought in, will apply only to the restricted areas? Will he also confirm that there will be no requirement on the farmer to consult conservation interests or to seek a solution to this problem outside these areas? If the farmer goes ahead and does damage, even in the selected areas, and there is an objection or complaint from the conservation interests, will the Minister automatically deny that farmer the capital grant?
In the long term, the outcome of these changes will be damaging for the agriculture industry. If my fears and those of the conservation organisations are justified, and if instances of significant damage result from investments made by obtaining these grants without proper prior approval and consideration of the conservation issue, the clamour to subject agriculture to the normal planning procedures will grow. At present, farmers can erect buildings without making planning applications to the local planning authority. The failure of these regulations—and I regret to say that as proposed they are destined to fail—will lead to a growing resentment. It will be unfortunate if farmers are subjected to the whole bureaucracy of the local government planning system when they seek to erect relatively minor buildings.
I believe that this is an example of the immense damage that Ministers are doing to one of the strengths of this country—that is, the research capability in agriculture, the advice capability and the whole administrative structure of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We 847 have seen arbitrary cuts. We have seen offices throughout the land closed and changes made in the structure of the Ministry. We have seen cuts in ADAS. The Minister made it clear that at least 150 advisory jobs will go as part of this ill-thought-out measure.
It is regrettable that Ministers have not yet learnt from the mistakes of the present Secretary of State for Employment in a previous incarnation. He will be remembered for the damage that he did to what was then called the NAS. Although our Minister of Agriculture is allegedly one of the leading "wets", I am afraid that he is not getting away with the modest cuts in his Department. On the contrary, it almost seems as if the fact that he is a moderate means that he must be more arbitrary and swingeing and more insensitive to the agriculture industry and conservation interests.
Because of our resentment of the Govment's whole approach to this great national asset, because we believe that these instruments are a mistake and that Ministers should have rejected the advice that they received from Sir Derek Rayner and because the proposals are opposed throughout the country, we on these Benches will vote against this measure tonight.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this important debate. I wish to concentrate on the conservation aspects of the proposal. We must be in no doubt at all that there can be few more important subjects than the maintenance of the richness and diversity of the wildlife in our countryside, not only for our own enjoyment but for the benefit of future generations. Because the fabric of conservation is so delicate in Britain, any Government have a particular responsibility to examine with the utmost care any proposal which might adversly affect that fabric.
I accept the proposals for designated areas—the national parks and the sites of special scientific interest. Here the arrangements are satisfactory. I welcome the Minister's aim to save on administrative costs. We all recognise that this Government must scrutinise every aspect of expenditure I also welcome the move to make the farmer accept a greater 848 responsibility for conservation on his own farm. Self-reliance is a goal that we must welcome. Clearly, these are all steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, the proposals as they stand will, without doubt, have a bad effect on conservation. All groups which are responsible for conservation appear to agree on this. If the Government genuinely take seriously their responsibilities for conservation, they must take more account of those views, especially as I believe that it is possible to satisfy the legitimate worries that exist and to meet the twin goals of saving costs and making the farmer more responsible.
Let me say first why the proposals are not satisfactory for conservation purposes in non-designated areas. There are two main reasons for this. First, we must recognise—I speak as a working farmer—that most damage is done by farmers out of ignorance. Certainly, damage is not done as a result of a wilful disregard for nature.
Moreover, we all recognise that the economic pressures on farmers make it more likely than ever that they will clear away a bit of old scrub or plough up an old pasture without being fully aware of what they are doing. Certainly, they can consult the Ministry beforehand, and some will do so, as is their right. However, the majority will not. Farmers are independent, and they live in remote areas, far from the rest of the population. I can say confidently that they will want to get on with the job. Therefore, irretrievable damage will be done through ignorance, and it is not good enough to pretend that this will not happen. We must also recognise that it is not just the SSSIs that are important—they cover about 4 per cent. of the country; it is the fabric of woodland, hedgerow and pasture throughout the rest of the country, which knit together these valuable sites.
This brings me to my second objection. In theory, the Minister will be able to refuse grants to the farmer if damage to wildlife is serious, but I do not believe that that will work effectively in reality. For example, if a wood has been scrubbed out a water maedow drained or an ancient pasture reseeded, how can anyone judge the damage that has been done? There is no record of the richness of that site or any way of ascertaining what wildlife existed there before the wood 849 was cleared or the work was done. Although the threat of refusal of grant in some cases be invoked, it is not sufficient protection in the majority of cases.
If we recognise that the proposals are not satisfactory for non-designated areas, we must ask what can be done. The most practical solution would make use of the prior notification, which was suggested for audit purposes in the consultation document, one month before starting work on field drainage, land clearance and grassland regeneration, especially as action in those three areas has the major effect on wildlife. I propose that ADAS should sift through the prior notifications and pull out those that could have an important impact for wildlife. On the weekly visit to the Nature Conservancy Council, those cases could be discussed and action taken on the significant ones. I suggest that the number of investigations would be a small proportion of the total number of notifications, yet they could have an influence on conservation out of all proportion to their number.
I believe that such a scheme could involve the employment of only an extra 25 people. Even if a few more were needed, the number would not be excessive in view of the impact on preserving the fragile fabric of the countryside for the benefit of future generations. Once a habitat is destroyed, it can never be replaced. The best habitats take decades, and often hundreds of years, to evolve. I recognise that the extra 25 places will have to come from elsewhere. However, as a farmer, I recognise the ability of ADAS. I have been pleased to make use of its advisory facilities. However, in fulfilling his responsibilities the Minister must have regard to the proper development of the countryside. We should get the balance right and devote a little more effort to conservation. I should be happy to receive a little less advice if we could achieve a better balance, which would be for the long-term benefit of the countryside and the country.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can indicate that he can move towards what I am suggesting or bring forward other ideas at least to hold the situation while we see how his major proposals—which I an not criticising—work out. I regard conservation of the countryside as so important that, unless he puts 850 forward more satisfactory suggestions, regretfully I shall not be able to support him in the Lobby tonight.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)
I recently had occasion to look at the number of people employed in agriculture in Northern Ireland. In 1940 the number was 157,000. In 1950 it had risen to 161,500. Today it is only 60,500. Hon. Members may wonder what that has to do with the orders before us. A statistical survey of Northern Ireland agriculture published recently shows that 1979 was a had year for agriculture. It shows a 53 per cent. decline in the net income of farmers, calculated in current money terms, which is equivalent to a fall in real terms of about 60 per cent. We should consider the schemes against that background. If workers in any other industry experienced a fall in real income of 60 per cent., they would almost be tearing down this building in protest.
We must view with grave concern changes in capital grants that place an extra burden on our food producers and question closely what the Minister has said, in a press notice on 2 July, the hon. Gentleman indicated that the Ministry had consulted a wide range of interested parties. I may have missed all of what he said today. Perhaps he could list who those people were and what they said. If I understand him correctly, none of them agreed with the Ministry. Whenever a regiment of soldiers marches down the street and only wee Johnny is in step, his mother alone is proud of him. The Minister has put himself in the position of Johnny's mother.
§ Mr. Wiggin
As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) said, there is inherent disagreement on such matters. Those in favour of conservation see all agricultural development as against their interests. Those involved in agriculture see the interests of conservation as inhibiting their industry. There was a broad spectrum of disagreement either side of the issue, and I believe that I can reasonably say that we have it just about right.
§ Mr. Ross
The hon. Gentleman is still out of step as far as I and other hon. Members on the Opposition Benches are concerned.
851 As a practical farmer, I am most concerned about the removal of the requirement to get prior approval from the Ministry. Previously the farmer sought approval against known standards, and he was on safe ground. It is all very well for the Minister to say that farming has grown up. Many small farmers do not have the expertise or financial resources to seek the advice that they may need before embarking on what would for them be a major scheme. In the past, that information was available to large and small farmers. It will now be denied them. Being able to go along and ask for such information is not the same. The change is a big step in the wrong direction. To avoid quarrels and fights, we should retain the procedure.
To illustrate the problems that will arise, I draw the Minister's attention to the arguments over BSI standard 5502 and its application to buildings such as round-roofed Dutch barns. From 1 January 1980, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Northern Ireland will not accept such a building over 30ft. or 35ft. wide. The previous limit was 45ft. No qualified engineer in the Department is prepared to say that a 45ft. building is absolutely safe. It is said that it does not meet engineers' structural requirements.
What will happen if a farmer in Northern Ireland—I am pleased to see that the Minister responsible for agriculture in Northern Ireland is in the Chamber—builds a 45ft. wide building of a type that already exists down the road? Such buildings have not read the engineers' reports. They stand up against all the weather. None has yet fallen down or been blown away. What will happen if a farmer erects a building in the belief that he has met the criteria and the engineers decide that it is not up to standard? Will he lose the grant? That is the tip of a large iceberg, and I fear that such problems will multiply in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
There will be confusion, because the EEC rates still need prior approval in the form of a development plan. We shall have like structures not being treated in a like manner. That cannot be good for farming or any other industry.
A number of serious and interesting problems arise from regulation 3 of the 852 agriculture and horticulture development regulations. I cannot wholly understand the regulation, but I suspect that it means things that will not be welcome to many landowners. Regulation 3(1)(a) provides thatan individual carrying on an eligible agricultural business if the appropriate Minister is satisfied that that individual or, as the case may be, the farm manager or other person through whom the business is being carried on—(i) practises farming as his main occupationwill qualify for a grant. Does that mean that in future the landowner—and this has much wider application in Great Britain than in Northern Ireland—cannot personally apply for a grant and that only the tenant may do so? May we have the exact position spelt out?
The regulation also includes a requirement that the applicant must earn not less than half of his annual income from farming. Does that shut out those who were formally encompassed within the grant regulations? Am I correct in believing that it is a change for the worse?
The regulation also sets out other necessary qualifications:sufficient agricultural skill and competence, in that he holds an appropriate certificate issued by a teaching establishment recognised for this purpose by that Minister or has been engaged in agricultural activities for not less than five years".Let us consider the case of a youth leaving school at 18 and coming home to farm, without having the necessary certificate. If his father dies suddenly, will that young man be outside the qualifications, or will there be some way in which proper sympathy can be shown to him? The provision could have serious consequences for young people starting out in farming. The Minister knows the sort of problem that I have in mind.
We have a peculiar problem in Northern Ireland because of our conacre scheme. Children are often young when their father dies and the farm is "let for a long time on the annual conacre scheme. What will be the position of a family in those circumstances? Could it get a grant, or will it be outside the scheme because it is not carrying on farming as a business but is merely preserving the lands in question until the children have grown old enough to take over the running of the farm? Will the children be caught by the five-year requirement when they are grown up? There could 853 be serious effects for a number of family farms in Northern Ireland, and I should like to be told exactly how such individuals will be affected.
Farmers generally trust the Department and accept what its officials tell them. I am concerned about the involvement of conservation bodies. I believe that they will be a source of great friction, because the instruments appear to be giving power into the hands of persons who will have no financial liabilities as a result of their decisions and no responsibility for their actions but who will be able to put pressure on the farming community. I believe that we should stick to the present system. It has been well tried and has been proved to work. We should not lightly cast it aside.
§ Mr. David Myles (Banff)
As a practising, practical, less-favoured tenant farmer, who has availed himself of grants on numerous occasions, I heartily welcome the Government's move. The simplication is something that we farmers who use the schemes will greatly welcome, because the less bureaucracy that we have to go through, the better.
We have considerable experience of applying for grants and we have a good relationship, in Scotland at least, with the Ministry in Scotland—with the help of the colleges—and I see no reason why that good relationship should be spoilt. In fact, I am sure that the proposals will enhance it.
A number of erroneous comments have been made about the simplification of prior approval. It is prior approval—not approval—that is being clone away with. There will still have to be final approval before grants are paid.
In those circumstances, any sensible farmer—and most of us are quite sensible—will get in touch with the Ministry official, whom he will know well, and tell him what alterations or developments are proposed. They will have a chat about it and the official will give his advice. That is how the system works, and it works well.
I once had a great friend in Northern Ireland who held a high position in the NFU. He was on such good terms with officials in Northern Ireland—I admit that the Irish are slightly different—that he always got grants without going through 854 the prior approval system. I always envied him.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
The hon. Gentleman said that in future he would intend to have informal discussions with an official of the Ministry in Scotland in order to check whether proposed work would be eligible for grant. Does he not realise that the whole idea is to ensure that the officials will no longer be available? The Government are seeking to sack them.
§ Mr. Myles
Not all the Ministry officials will be sacked. It will be only those who have to traipse all over the countryside checking on developments being carried out by commonsense farmers. Department officials know the people on the end of the telephone. Instead of running around the countryside they will chat with people they know. This can work well, and I welcome it.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) mentioned the National Farmers Union press release and selected his little bit from it. I shall select mine. The release states:As indicated in an earlier brief the NFU welcomes the proposed replacement of the present minimum income test of elegibility for national grants by a test ban on 'sufficient employment', and the extension of grant aid to cover hedge-laying and general purpose building for fish-farms (though the growing numbers of fish farmers consider that this latter should be extended to equipment and specialist buildings). We also welcome the proposed simplifications of the standards of construction and materials which will give farmers more freedom in making investment decisions.Unless the whole of the NFU's submission is quoted, it should not be quoted.
I turn to the use of standard costs to carry out a development. Standard costs are the most efficient and valuable way of operating for farmers. However, inflation causes a problem. Inflation has been running at a tremendously high rate and standard costs are always out of date before they are updated. I am confident that the Government will bring inflation under control and that the problem will not exist. However, while the problem is there I urge that standard costs be put on an index-linked basis so that that simpler procedure can be used to a greater extent.
The rule is that half a farmer's income must come from agriculture for him to benefit. The income of some farmers from farming is negligible, especially in 855 hill areas. Instead of half the income being the test, it should be half the turnover. That would be more acceptable to the small operators in the countryside.
Capital grants are the best way to aid agriculture. They are better than low-interest loans and other schemes used on the Continent. Capital grants are a sensible and more efficient way of encouraging agriculture. Moreover, they are more selective and can be used to encourage the branches of agriculture that should be encouraged.
I welcome the fact that areas of outstanding natural beauty have been removed from the schemes. I live in such an area, and there are conflicts. Where there are conflicts there must be sensible arbitrations and ideas. If only one of the conflicting parties decides, a sensible judgment will not result, especially if that side does not have a financial interest. The side with the financial interest—the agriculture side—should be given priority. I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
I shall try to be brief, but we are discussing a serious matter and I have much that I should like to say. I have never heard a more outrageously selective comment than that made by the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) when he read from the National Farmers Union brief. That brief concludes by suggesting that the House should throw out the schemes if the Minister is not prepared to change them. The NFU, most wise farmers and all conservation organisations are united not merely in opposing but in critically and angrily condemning the proposals. The Government have placed themselves in a ridiculous position.
Under section 11 of the Countryside Act, which has been endorsed by the Conservative Party, the Government are required to have regard for conservation. The regulations fundamentally change that position. They threaten, by their lack of regard, the maintenance of conservation patterns and practices in Britain. They pass responsibility away from the Government on to the shoulders of the farmers. That is dangerous and could be extremely divisive.
Conservationists are not opposed to the farmer. One of the problems about the 856 regulations is that division and conflict will develop. In the last few years a remarkable advance has been made in securing harmony between conservationists and agriculturists. The conflict will develop as a result of the proposals. That is perhaps one of the most dangerous aspects.
The role of the Agriculture Development and Advisory Service is to be imperilled or withdrawn. Whatever the Minister says, the result will be that each chancer in agriculture will seize the new opportunity. The chancer will try to take advantage of the new opportunity. If he gets away with it, the responsible farmer next door might feel required to go along the same road because of competitive pressure. As the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) said, that is one reason why Government Members should be worried about the future of the countryside. They should ensure that the Minister provides sensible schemes instead.
I am in regular contact with the conservation organisations. They are all extremely angry and concerned. It was all very well for the Minister to say that the Department backs the proposals, but that was a frivolous response. I am speaking of responsible organisations, not the eccentric "nut cases", of which there are a few in this area. I am speaking of responsible people, who care about the country. They have been treated with contempt. The Government appear to be contemptuous in their response to the Strutt report. The Conservative Party endorsed and commended the Strutt recommendations. One of the report's principal recommendations was that ADAS should have an enhanced role. Now, it is seriously imperilled.
The Minister might say that irresponsible action will not qualify for grant but the damage will be done before the farmer is disappointed. In the short space of time available, I cannot say much more except that this—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is time, but I hope that he will not be over-tempted. There is a great deal of business before us.
§ Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How long is the debate timed to last?
§ Mr. Hardy
I promise that I shall have sat down by 11.30 pm—perhaps even a little earlier. Indeed, I hope to be sitting down in Yorkshire by 11.30 pm. I do not propose making my remarks at great length.
The Minister must remember that the Conservative Party previously accepted, endorsed and applauded the Strutt recommendations, which foresaw an enhanced role for the advisory service. This measure is a remarkable retreat from that endorsement and one which has not been properly explained. There have been inadequate explanations. There seems to have been an element of slickness in the Government's approach. When their Lordships were considering this matter in another place, they were pursuaded to allow the regulations to go through on the ground that it would be wrong to throw them out before they had been considered here. The Minister knew that there were more independent people in another place, who might have been tempted to throw out the regulations, than there would be on the Government Back Benches today. I hope that Conservative Members will be concerned about the future shape and character of our countryside and will express resentment of the measure by their actions this evening.
The Minister believes that he has made a concession about part of our countryside, namely, the SSSIs and the national parks, but there is no concession for 80 per cent. of the British countryside. There are hon. Members in the Chamber whose constituencies have little of their surfaces 858 devoted to SSSIs and which may be some way from a national park. But in those constituencies, as in mine, there are areas of considerable attraction that should be protected. Many Conservative Members may think that my constituency is industrial. It is an important steel and coal area, but it is also a county constituency, with 256 farms.
An important part of the agricultural area of Rother valley was created in the great agricultural reforms of the eighteenth century, when there was a longer and wiser view than that exhibited by the Government Front Bench today. The area around Roche Abbey was designed by Capability Brown. He was instructed to apply the eye of an artist and the heart of a poet. It took a long time to create, and it has been treasured and esteemed for centuries. It has given enormous pleasure to my constiuents, their grandparents and their grandparents before them. We want our grandchildren and their grandchildren to have the opportunity of solace and refreshment provided by the British countryside.
In order to fly the flag of St. Michael rather than St. George—that is a reasonable metaphor, given the influence of Sir Derek Rayner on these proceedings—the Minister is prepared to put an enormous risk upon the rural heritage of Britain. It is not simply a question of protecting the SSSIs, the national parks or the areas of outstanding natural beauty. We must remember that one of our great legacies—something that we must pass on to those who follow us—is the diversity and abundance of British wildlife, the treasure that lies within our habitats in our rural areas. That legacy can be found in the vast majority of the constituencies represented in the House. It is wrong and regrettable and will be described in future as criminal for the Government to pursue the course that they are presently pursuing.
Strong words were said in another place. There may be few strong words said in the debate tonight, but the Minister knows full well that there is already great anger in the conservation organisations. There will be even more irritation as conflict and division emerge. Considerable disturbance, dissatisfaction and regret will be felt in the rural areas of Britain. The Minister may not wish me to make the point—but I shall do so—that the Conservative Party has, over the 859 years, claimed to be the natural representative of the rural areas. In the past 12 months the rural areas have suffered more disadvantages from this Government than they have suffered in the previous century. Public transport has been removed, uncertainties and anxieties have developed, and those areas now see a real threat to the natural treasury which makes life worth living in their localities. I do not think that the rural areas of Britain will readily forgive Conservative Members if they lightly allow the measure to pass today.
I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment on the Government Front Bench. He is well aware that last year the Conservative Administration promised Britain and the world legislation to preserve wildlife in our natural habitats. We were disappointed. We are to have that legislation next year. We were promised it last year, we may get it next year, but what is happening this year is most contradictory and anomalous in relation to the Government's international commitments.
If the Minister listened to what is said in the country and paid regard to the countryside, he would not press the regulations. He would do what every conservation organisation in Britain has demanded and what the National Farmers Union has requested, and withdraw the proposals and consider them again.
§ Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)
At the conclusion of a long parliamentary Session I propose to curry your favour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by being excessively brief and not reiterating many of the points that have been made. To put my remarks in context, I wish to say how much I welcome a great deal of what is contained in these instruments.
I turn to the area where I have some reservations, and which was touched upon in a thoughtful and knowledgeable speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle). My concern relates to the restriction in the role of prior approval and the reduction in the role of ADAS. I take the point and the necessity for staff savings, but there is a broader implication that we must consider. It seems at least arguable that the reduced role of ADAS will be compensated for largely at the expense of shifting that 860 burden on to other agencies, local authorities and other organisations. I agree that the manpower saving will be welcome, but I question whether the other agencies will have quite the same competence to deal with this important and delicate matter in the fashion in which ADAS has dealt with it over recent years.
I appreciate and welcome the fact that where advice is sought it will still be available from ADAS. I seek my hon. Friend's assurance that he is satisfied that the rump of ADAS that will remain will be sufficient to discharge his obligations under the Countryside Act 1968. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) began to touch upon that matter. I do not think that he specifically quoted section 11 of the Act, which calls upon the Ministry to haveregard to the desirability of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside.My point is simple and straightforward. There will be a welcome for and agreement throughout the House on the proposal to seek to preserve and maintain the countryside that remains. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the reduced role of ADAS will leave sufficient capacity to ensure that the Ministry can discharge its obligations under section 11 of the Act? If he is so satisfied, will he comment on the apparent danger that a farmer who has not studied the available advice may, with the best will in the world, start a development which, in retrospect, can be seen to have damaged irreplaceable countryside? I hope that he can assure me that the Ministry has studied this matter carefully.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)
I declare an interest as a hill farmer who has taken full advantage of all the grants and has received great co-operation from officials and others in Wales.
We are discussing the future of the most efficient industry in Britain. I wonder how many people know that we spend less on research for this industry than for any other in Britain. I have read what was said in the other place yesterday—that about 400 people will be made redundant for a saving of about £2 million a year. If that money were to be spent on research I should support these statutory instruments, but that is not to be.
861 To take advantage of any grant scheme, the farmer has to be able to match it pound for pound, and in the current state of agriculture fewer farmers can do so. We were told last week that the industry's income this year will be lower again—by about 15 per cent. This happens year after year. I am afraid that fewer farmers will take advantage of the capital grants scheme.
Like other small business men, many farmers have to bear the brunt of high interest rates. Until the MLR is lowered by at least 2 or 3 per cent., there is little chance that that financial outlook will improve. That is yet another reason for setting up a land bank from which farmers can borrow at advantageous rates to keep their heads above water.
Another difficulty for those who will apply for the grants is that the farmer always has to find ready money to pay the contractor before the grant is forthcoming. That applies even under the current system.
When the contractor has completed his job, he rightly expects his money. Many of us, when we started on our own, could not take full advantage of the scheme because we did not have the capital to pay the full amount. I hope that the Minister will look at this matter and that in years to come a percentage of the grant can be paid to farmers when the contractors are working on the land.
There are good arguments for and against getting prior provision for grant-aided schemes, but the new proposals could be fraught with danger. There is also great danger in the arrangements for farmers in the national parks, which include a large percentage of the agricultural area of Wales. I am afraid that there will be two groups of farmers. Those outside the national parks will be able to carry on with their schemes, but the others will have to get the blessing of the park authority and other organisations before carrying out a scheme. That is unfair.
I am one of those who believe that we should conserve the best parts of the country. There are beautiful areas in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. I have always believed, as, I hope, have most hon. Members, whatever our other views, that, whatever schemes are de- 862 vised, farmers must remain the guardians of the countryside. They will do the job much better than any other organisation.
For the sake of producers and consumers, I urge the Minister to persuade his colleagues to look again at the present proposals. They are not acceptable to the majority of hon. Members on both sides, if we are honest, or to the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales or any other organisation.
Like many other hon. Members, I have received many letters on this subject. It is a shame that we should force through legislation against the will of farmers and every relevant organisation, all of which have come out against these proposals. Therefore, I shall have to vote against the instruments. I hope that the Ministry will bring forward other proposals in the next Session.
§ Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)
I greatly welcomed the practical, down-to-earth speech of my hon. Friend the Minister. I would compare it with that of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), which, as usual, was full of bitterness. He said that the Government had harmed argriculture, yet as a Minister he did more harm to British agriculture than any other man, with the introduction of succession into farming. That has put farmer and farm landowner against each other. The hon. Member knows that it was introduced in the face of hitter opposition from many of his right hon. and hon. Friends, including the previous Minister of Agriculture.
As a land agent who has sat at meetings between landowner and tenant, I know that the prior approval system was an absolute curse. The time that it took meant that plans became out of date and that contractors who had given an estimate would not stand by it. One had to get another estimate. Then the cost rose and many farmers and landowners said "We shall have a much simpler scheme, although probably not as good. We shall do without the grant and get on with it rather than wait for approval." I can assure my hon. Friend the Minister that many practical farmers will welcome the ending of prior approval as a sensible step.
863 I am sorry that the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) is no longer present. Small farmers in my district are highly intelligent and can cope with this sort of legislation. They probably know quite as well as the large farmer, the advisers of the NFU and the secretaries who have a great deal of information. With prior approval so many forms had to be filled in that one needed a secretary, but I believe that simplification will do a great deal of good. I do not believe that these farmers will be unable to cope with that.
I was glad to hear the Minister's assurances about conservation and the countryside. I accept them. I think that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy)—I call him my friend because we serve on a committee together in the Council of Europe—will admit that, though I am not so outspoken as he, I try to do my best to preserve the countryside. I am extremely keen on that. I believe that a protest lobby has been worked up without the conservation societies really knowing what they are doing.
I am a member of the Norfolk Naturalist Trust and of the Wildlife Trust, which has a wonderful preserve in my constituency, and I find that their members, who are in close contact with the farming, landowning and tenant community, have far more influence than officials from outside. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) made a good speech, but I disagree with him.
We must realise that the only matter with which the Minister can deal is the grant. Everybody else has spoken about ploughing up old pastures. One does not need to ask for grant in order to cut down a hedgerow, but I fear that far too many hedgerows are cut down. However, that has nothing to do with the regulations.
Therefore, I welcome these instruments. I believe that they will speed matters up and help farmers large and small. I hope that we pass them without delay.
§ 7.1 pm
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)
I declare an interest at the outset, since I have been known 864 to claim these grants. The regulations before us have been dressed up as a rationalisation scheme, but if they are the result of rationalisation carried out by Sir Derek Rayner, and if that gentleman is to undertake a rationalisation exercise in other Government Departments, I despair because of the red tape and confusion that will be created throughout the Civil Service.
This is a phenomenally complicated set of regulations. The Minister said that he intended to produce a straightforward explanatory leaflet, and I shall be fascinated to see how he manages to do that. There are one or two unforgettable passages in the regulations. I shall quote item 8(1), on page 7.Subject to the provisions of this regulation and regulations 12 and 14 the amount of any grant payable under regulation 7(1) towards expenditure in respect of any work, facility or transaction of a kind specified in any of paragraphs 1 to 20 and 22, in column 1 of the Schedule shall be the percentage of that expenditure specified in relation to that work, facility or transaction, in column 2 of the Schedule, except that in the case of any work, facility or transaction which, in the opinion of the appropriate Minister …It goes on in that way. There are three lots—
§ Mr. Home Robertson
The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) has anticipated what I intended to say. I was about to criticise the farm and horticultural development scheme on which the regulation is based. That is a complicated scheme. If I cast my mind back to the beginning of my farming career 10 years ago, I remember that if I wanted to carry out work on the farm I did it under the old farm improvement scheme. Under that scheme, I simply had to look at a schedule of eligible works to see whether what I wanted to do was eligible, fill in a simple one-sided form and send it to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland.
Someone would come along from the Department, have a look at what I proposed to do to ascertain whether the work was necessary or desirable, and give me 865 written approval to get on with the job. In due course the job would be done and the grant would be paid. There was no problem. Since then, this typical European-inspired monstrosity, the agriculture and horticulture development scheme, has emerged. Its complications lead to considerable difficulties for farmers most of whom are unable to prepare their own schemes. They must find a specialist consultant, a member of the college advisory service or ADAS to draft their schemes for submission. It is then decided whether the schemes are eligible under the regulations.
All that must be done so that capital grant may be paid out. I do not believe that this is a clever way of conducting our affairs. Is that what the Government want? Do they want such a proliferation of non-productive, pseudo-administrators on the back of what should be a productive and efficient agriculture?
It is fair to say, in this instance, that Sir Derek Rayner is chasing his own tail, because these psuedo-administrators are in many instances employed by the Government. They are employed either by the Scottish agricultural colleges or by ADAS. To what end are they engaged on all this paperwork?
Our advisers, whether in the Scottish or the English services, should be put to much more useful work in helping the industry to become more efficient by giving constructive advice to producers and growers rather than by preparing all this bumf. The Government should put before the House a much simpler scheme, based on the farm capital grant scheme, with prior approval, as happened in the past. It is about time that we tore up this scheme. I recognise that it was set up in order to tap European funds, but surely there must be better ways of tapping such funds.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), who spoke of the need to maintain prior consent. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), who spoke of the need to give proper weight to conservation interests throughout our rural areas. I am delighted that on this happy occasion I agree not only with my hon. Friends but with both my trade unions, namely, the National Farmers Union and the National Union 866 of Agricultural Workers, in opposing these regulations.
§ 7.8 pm
§ Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
I am glad that on this occasion we are, for once, debating these impor-thank my hon. Friend the Minister for having met many of the objections that were raised against the February proposals. There are many aspects of these regulations which I welcome.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) say that we must keep our hedges and that the old proposals had worked out well. If his idea of things working out well is that people should be paid for grubbing up hedges, I have to say that it is not mine.
In the part of the country which I have the honour to represent, there are some superb examples of hedge-laying. Competitions are held and great pride is taken in the craft. It is extremely good for conservation, and it is an excellent way of keeping in one's stock. It is a first-class job. However, it is quite hideously expensive. In the past, though not the immediate past, not only were farmers not encouraged to lay hedges: they were actually paid to grub them up or, as my late husband used to say, to cut them off at the knees. That was equally hideous.
In the area in which I farmed for many years—I must declare an interest as a farmer—almost all the hedges were grubbed up. We continued to lay our hedges, and there was a half-page article in the local paper when we laid a roadside one last year, because the practice was so unusual. It had not been seen in the district for many years. I am glad that the interpretation of the regulations is being widened so that hedge-laying is included. There is no finer form of conservation than the hedgerow. It is good stock protection and a wonderful protection for wildlife.
I am glad about the simplification of the standard of construction. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) is right. Many farmers despaired at the complications and the escalation in price that ensued in the delays involved in getting prior approval. In despair they probably built, as I did myself, a simpler form of construction and forwent the grant.
867 I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) when he says that the standard should be half the turnover and not half the income. In many country areas, especially the fells in Lancashire and Cumbria, it will be essential in years to come for farmers to have ancillary forms of income such as tourism, which is rapidly increasing in those areas, and part-time work in forestry. It would be much better if the criterion was half the turnover of a farm instead of half the income.
I do not like the uncertainty that the draft regulations will involve for a farmer who can just about find the money to do the job if he receives a grant but who will not be able to do so if he does not receive it. If the farmer is not certain that he can get a grant, it would be helpful if a residual capacity to apply for a grant were to remain—a residual option so that if a farmer is in doubt he can obtain prior approval. That will apply probably to only one application in 10. If that is so, it will not cost very much and it will be a valuable addition. I know that my hon. Friend cannot change a draft statutory instument, but he can possibly delay this one.
In general, I welcome the much greater flexibility that has been introduced and the considerable thought that has been paid to the objections that were made to the original proposals.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
The last way to commend the draft regulations to me is to say that they have been introduced at the behest of Sir Derek Rayner and that they will result in a reduction in agriculture costs. If my memory serves me right, it was Marks and Spencer that in March of this year first started selling the individually priced potato. That does not commend its cost-saving abilities very much.
I make no apology for contributing to the debate when my constituency is Holborn and St. Pancras, South. My constituents and others who live in urban areas have as great an interest in the future of the countryside as anyone else. That is partly because it produces food for them and partly because it represents a form of recreation and relaxation, in the same way as the cities provide 868 recreation and relaxation for those who live in country areas.
Probably Exmoor best epitomises the conflict within the national parks between the interests of farmers and those of visitors and conservationists. The Government and previous Governments have not resolved the conflict. That is partly because it is a conflict between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, which have different objectives.
As I understand it, the requirement for prior approval for the reclamation of moorland in the national parks will stilt be required. I also understand that a thorough consultation procedure will be required. That is not going far enough. The procedure is not as conservation-oriented as it should be. Secondly, the present method stimulates bureacracy.
In the national parks, and on Exmoor especially, there should be a presumption against the further reclamation of moorland for farming purposes. At present there is no presumption towards either allowing the ploughing of moorland or the retention of moorland. That unclear area of discretion is an area in which bureaucracy flourishes.
Many people will be consulting many others—this will apply to official bodies, unofficial bodies, voluntary bodies, conservation bodies and agriculture bodies—and at the end of the day there must be an individual decision on each issue, based on its merits and without a presumption one way or the other. That must be calculated to be the most fertile breeding ground for bureaucracy, which loves consulting itself and others on matters where it has a discretion and where there are no clear and binding rules.
It would be better for Exmoor—better from the point of view of conserving it, better from the point of view of farmers who would not need to make applications that would not succeed, and better from the point of view of reducing bureaucracy—if the Government set out and maintained a clear presumption in favour of retaining moorland when dealing with its reclamation in national parks.
§ Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)
About three-quarters of my constituency is in the Peak District national park.
869 When I first read the Government's proposals I had grave reservations. I welcome the changes that the Government have made. I welcome the proposal that an ADAS representative should hold a weekly surgery and should appear once a week at the offices of the national park. That goes a long way towards allaying my anxieties.
There is a rumour in my constituency —I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend dispels it when he replies—that in the national park area the effect of these measures will be to oblige farmers to consult conservation interests when previously they were not obliged to do so. In fact, conservation interests have always had to be consulted. The ADAS representatives used to talk direct to the national parks and there was not so much interface between farmers and those responsible for the parks. I understand that the result of these measures will be to make a direct interface between national parks and farmers.
Relations between the farming community and the national parks used to be rather had. I have the impression that those relations have been improving slightly, in no small, part due to the intense efforts that have been made by the national parks to improve their public image. Those efforts have begun to pay off and relations have been getting better.
The new interface between farmers and the national parks may make it more difficult for the parks to improve their relationship with the farming community. Decisions that might have seemed acceptable if they had come from the ADAS representatives may seem less acceptable to farmers when they come from the national parks. Farmers may be more inclined to challenge decisions from the national parks than from ADAS representatives. That is a problem, but it should not prove to be insurmountable. To what extent is the effect of the regulations in the national parks simply to transfer manpower requirements from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the national parks bureaucracy? Can my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that there will be no requirement to increase manpower in the Peak District national park as a result of the new obligations that the regulations place upon the national parks?
§ Mr. Wiggin
By leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to seek to deal with some of the points raised during the debate.
The speech of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) epitomises the difficulty for my Department and the equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland in seeking to marry the conflict between the wish of his constituents to use the countryside as an area of recreation with the fact that those who earn their living from farming have to do so in the same countryside. The question of moorland conservation is not relevant to the debate but will be relevant to the countryside legislation that I believe my right hon. Friend may be seeking to bring forward.
The hon. Gentleman reminds me that under the voluntary arrangements that have been in existence not a square inch of Exmoor has been ploughed up except by agreement with the national park authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) dealt with the question of the national parks. I understand the substantial feeling that exists in that part of the world about such matters. My hon. Friend used the word "oblige" in the context of the necessity of the farmer having to consult. That is right. This is a change from what, in effect, was a voluntary arrangement to one that requires him to consult in the interests of the countryside before proceeding. I remind my hon. Friend that we do not look upon this development as necessarily leading to a vast bureaucratic load.
Each week the ADAS officer will visit the office of the national park, go through the applications, remove, I believe, the vast percentage that will not be of a sensitive nature and proceed to deal with the handful that remain by visiting the farmers and talking to them about the issues, proceeding in the same way as in the past by consultation, persuasion and, if necessary, management agreements and such procedures.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells
Does the Minister agree that previously it was a voluntary action for the farmer to approach the officials of the national park? Now it is compulsory.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I agree. That is what is happening. The point is whether this will be a disadvantage.
I suspect that Opposition Members consider that national park authorities will not be sufficiently consulted even now. I believe that I can allay the farmers' fears. I understand their fears that unknowledgeable members of national parks' committees will start dictating, without the intervention of ADAS, what should or should not go on. This will not be a question of holding matters up for months. Each week, under our administrative arrangements, there will be a visit, which I believe will deal with the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles) gave a welcome to the scheme for which I am grateful. He asked about the review of standard costs. They are reviewed annually—a major exercise. We should like to do so more often at a period of high inflation. We shall look at my hon. Friend's suggestion, but I cannot make any promises.
My hon. Friend and also my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) and others raised the matter of eligibility. Eligibility for the scheme is the same as before. Eligibility is laid down by the Community so that these schemes should qualify for Community contribution. There is nothing that I can do about the matter at this stage.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), in a passionate speech, claimed, like many of his fellows, to speak on behalf of a wide range of conservation societies. The hon. Gentleman confirms my conclusion, which I have mentioned previously, that in such matters these societies are opposed to capital grants.
§ Mr. Wiggin
They are indeed. They are saying, in effect, that development in the countryside is harmful to conservation. We have to ensure that farmers are able to continue to develop their businesses. We must produce food. At the same time, we do our best to ensure that our duties under the Countryside Act are kept.
§ Mr. Hardy
The Minister does many people in the conservation movement a 872 great disservice. There has been a great deal of effort to try to ensure that conservationists and agriculturists work together. A great deal of progress has been achieved. The Minister may care to clarify the position, because the conservationists agree with the view of the Nature Conservancy that the Ministry's proposal will lead to a marked and accelerated decline in wildlife habitat. That point concerns conservationists and also a great many farmers.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I do not accept that argument. The history of the previous arrangements, with the prior approval scheme, has not been very successful in the context of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. We shall require the farmer—not the ADAS man who gave the prior approval—to say that he has considered these aspects.
I do not accept the criticism that we have not considered the conservation aspect. I believe that, at the end of the day, there will be the opportunity for a greater relationship between the conservation interests and the farmer. If that is not the case, there are farmers—signs exist that some are starting to do so—who will say that they are not prepared to have this argument, not prepared to delay their investment, and who will forgo the grant and get on with doing what they want to do despite the interests of conservation or the countryside. I am against that approach. It would be a great pity if that stage was reached.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson
The hon. Gentleman knows the industry pretty well. How many farmers can afford not to take advantage of the type of grants about which we are talking?
§ Mr. Wiggin
By the very fact that they have not applied for a grant, I do not know how many, but two substantial cases were drawn to my attention last week. I have sought information on this point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major) raised the question of shifting responsibility. I do not think that this is the case. ADAS will still be available to give advice. To suggest that we are making some dramatic reductions in the total numbers of ADAS and that ADAS involvement will be less is contrary to the facts of the situation. 873 We are cutting down on ADAS administration. ADAS is currently over 5,000 strong, 3,000 of whom are advisers. The cut in ADAS, which is 150 man-years, will come from less administration. We hope not only to maintain our level of advice but to improve it. I gain the impression that this will be the wish of almost every hon. Member who has spoken.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle), who has spoken to me on the matter in recent days, has referred to the pressures on the farmer. The pressures on the farmer by the conservation interests are such that there is a detectable and regrettable antipathy. Ministers on occasions have to seek to resolve these difficulties. We are adopting a procedure whereby advice content in these disputes will be as high as or higher than in the past.
The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) raised a number of detailed questions about eligibility in Northern Ireland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was listening to his speech, will write to him and deal with what are Northern Ireland points. Among other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman was the question of building standards. British Standard 5502 is a highly complex document, but all professional firms, and presumably contractors, will understand its implications. There will be no worry about buildings built to that standard. We are not saying that because a building is not up to standard we shall reject the grant. We shall give advice and suggest how the standard might be maintained. We shall use good, common sense. I hope that there will be no difficulty there.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that there was a change in the operation of the FHDS. The change is not that the plan will not need prior approval, because it will. The farm plan will get approval as in the past, but the buildings and capital investment which are part of the plan will not require prior approval.
The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) mentioned research. I hope that he will look at this separate subject and recognise that, where it is possible to make savings in one part of a Department, there is a balancing element. We 874 have made some cuts in research, but I believe them to have been as modest as possible. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the amount of agricultural research which is going on are not well founded.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins), with his customary deep knowledge of the countryside, has welcomed the practicalities of the scheme.
The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) referred to Sir Derek Rayner chasing his tail and then argued extensively that the Government should seek to reduce bureaucracy and to increase advice. That is precisely what we are doing. If anyone is chasing his tail, I suggest that it is the hon. Gentleman.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster shares my enjoyment of a well cut and layered hedge. Making the layering of hedges available for grant is a step forward.
My hon. Friend referred to contingency approval. I understand her concern about this matter. Where there is doubt, the farmer concerned will be well advised to seek guidance from ADAS. Provided that advice is complied with, I cannot see that the other hand of the Department is likely to turn down the resulting application. I suggest that in practice that point has been met. We do not foresee the turning down of too many grants for the reasons put forward by my hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) raised the important matter of public accountability. It has exercised my mind considerably. However, he will know from his previous experience that we must satisfy the Treasury, and it is in agreement with the scheme as it has been announced. We shall certainly watch this matter with our customary audit procedures. There will be sampling, inspections and checks in the normal way. The Public Accounts Committee will breathe heavily on us in the ordinary way. However, I believe that we have taken all possible precautions in the same way as they were taken before.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about Scotland. The prior notification procedures will apply in SSSIs and, when 875 they come into being, national scenic areas. In general, the same procedures and thoughts will be applied to the scheme in Scotland as apply here, bearing in mind that there are some differences in the advisory services there. My noble friend the Minister of State will be altering the scheme largely to deal with those slight differences.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the necessity for conservation. I hope that I have dealt with that aspect sufficiently both in my opening remarks and in replying to the debate. In view of the conflicting interests, we have emphasised the need for and provided the manpower to give advice. I do not think that every ADAS officer has a magical ability to deal with all conservation problems, but he has the trust of the farmer and to a large extent of the conservation bodies, though I suspect that that trust has been elevated substantially during the debate.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to the cuts. My Department can, will and intends to bear its share of the full economies which must take place across Whitehall. In making these cuts, we have sought to impinge upon the farming community as little as possible. This is a fundamental change in bureaucracy, organisation and form-filling. We believe that the farming community can and should be trusted to make its own decisions.
§ I remind the House that the only sanction that we have is whether we pay the grant. Some will choose to ignore that sanction and go the other way. However, this is a good scheme. It is an improvement on the old one.
§ Mr. Kenneth Carlisle
My hon. Friend said that one sanction was to refuse to pay the grant. Will he elaborate on that point? I do not see how it will work. What criteria will be applied? For example, a woodland or small copse may have been destroyed and there may be no evidence of what existed before. How can one say what damage there has been when, so to speak, the horse has bolted?
§ Mr. Wiggin
My hon. Friend knows that if a wood is an SSSI and has been allocated as such, prior notification will be involved. As I have said, the applicant will have to say that he sought to consider countryside effects. If, as a result of his doubts, he has not sought the advice of ADAS and has deliberately flouted common sense, we shall reserve the right to withhold the grant. That is made clear in the explanatory leaflet, and it will be carried out.
I emphasise again that the purpose of the scheme is advice, not bureaucracy. I commend it to the House.
§ Question put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 96, Noes 45.877
|Division No. 469]||AYES||[7.35 pm|
|Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon)||Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Neale, Gerrard|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Goodhew, Victor||Neubert, Michael|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Gow, Ian||Newton, Tony|
|Blackburn, John||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Normanton, Tom|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hawkins, Paul||Onslow, Cranley|
|Bright, Graham||Hawksley, Warren||Page, Rt Hon Sir Graham (Crosby)|
|Brinton, Tim||Henderson, Barry||Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire)|
|Brocklebank-Fowler, Christopher||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham)||Parris, Matthew|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Hurd, Hon Douglas||Patten, Christopher (Bath)|
|Brotherton, Michael||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Patten, John (Oxford)|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe)||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Prentice, Rt Hon Reg|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Kershaw, Anthony||Price, David (Eastleigh)|
|Buchanan-Smith, Hon Alick||Lawrence, Ivan||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Buck, Antony||Le Marchant, Spencer|
|Cadbury, Jocelyn||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Carlisle, John (Luton West)||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Chapman, Sydney||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Ridley, Hon Nicholas|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||MacGregor, John||Rossi, Hugh|
|Colvin, Michael||McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury)||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Cope, John||Major, John||St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon Norman|
|Costain, Sir Albert||Mellor, David||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Silvester, Fred|
|Dorroll, Stephen||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch)||Speed, Keith|
|Dover, Denshore||Moate, Roger||Speller, Tony|
|Dunn, Robert (Dartford)||Monro, Hector||Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)|
|Elliott, Sir William||Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcesetershir)|
|Eyre, Reginald||Murphy, Christopher||Sproat, Iain|
|Faith, Mrs Shella||Myles, David||Squire, Robin|
|Stanbrook, Ivor||Waddington, David||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Stevens, Martin||Waller, Gary||Wolfson, Mark|
|Strading Thomas J.||Ward, John||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Wickenden, Keith||Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and|
|Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)||Wiggin, Jerry||John Wakeham.|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Johnson, James (Hull West)||Ross, Wm. (Londonderry)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Kilfedder, James A.||Snape, Peter|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Lyons, Edward (Bradford west)||Soley, Clive|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Spearing, Nigel|
|Dobson, Frank||McKay, Allen (Penlstone)||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Dormand, Jack||McNamara, Kevin||Strang, Gavin|
|Dubs, Alfred||McQuade, John||Tinn, James|
|Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Urwin, Rt Hon Tom|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Molyneaux, James||Winnick, David|
|Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Paisley, Rev Ian||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Hamilton. W. W. (Central Fife)||Palmer, Arthur|
|Hardy, Peter||Parker, John|
|Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Penhaligon, David|
|Holland, Stuart (L'beth, Vauxhall)||Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch (S Down)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Home Robertson, John||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Mr. George Morton and|
|Howells, Geraint||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North)||Mr. Terry Davis.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That the draft Agriculture and Horticulture Development Regulations 1980, which were laid before this House on 28 July, be approved.
That the Agriculture and Horticulture Grant Scheme 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 1072), a copy of
which was laid before this House on 28 July, be approved.
That the Horticulture Capital Grant (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 929), a copy of which was laid before this House on 8 July, be approved.
That the Farm Capital Grant (Variation) (No. 2) Scheme 1980 (S.I., 1980, No. 930), a copy of which was laid before this House on 8 July, be approved.—[Mr. Wiggin.]