HC Deb 22 January 1981 vol 997 cc405-6
1. Mr. Hicks

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress has been made in his Department's survey of marginal land in England and Wales; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

As announced in the House on 4 December, a full survey on marginal land is to be carried out for the whole of the United Kingdom. It will be confined to the original hill counties and will take in land contiguous to the existing less favoured areas together with nearby island sites of substantial area.

The survey is now under way and a case for less favoured areas extension in the whole of the United Kingdom could be ready for submission to the European Commission before the end of this year. I must stress, however, that the Government cannot give any undertaking at this stage, either that the less favoured areas will be extended, or if they are, that extra public funds will be made available.

Mr. Hicks

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Will he appreciate, however, that there is a real urgency for the survey to be undertaken as quickly as possible and for the scheme to be introduced at the earliest possible opportunity, because this section of the farming community is probably at a major disadvantage, compared with other sectors? It needs the help of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Wiggin

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. It is because of that urgency that the Government have proceeded. The previous Government were prepared to say that they would, but they devoted neither funds nor resources to that purpose, as we did.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

As it is the timing of the survey in England and Wales that is holding up consideration of marginal land in Northern Ireland, where the facts are already established, will the Government do their best to accelerate the completion of the United Kingdom operation?

Mr. Wiggin

I am conscious of that problem, but it was felt that it would not be tactically wise to put the case for Northern Ireland on its own, particularly as negotiations are in progress for an agricultural development programme there. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern, which is similar to that of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the Minister bear it in mind that it is important to give further encouragement in this area, from the point of view of producers and consumers, and, above all, from a national point of view? I say that because we are losing 45,000 acres of land a year. We need to bring that marginal land into full production, and that means encouragement and aid.

Mr. Wiggin

That is one of the factors which we took into consideration when setting out along this course. The initial problem is to establish the line and then negotiate the details with Brussels, because without that we would not qualify for the contribution from the Commission.

Dr. John Cunningham

Is the Minister aware that many hill farmers in Cumbria, while welcoming this survey, will see little point in extending the less favoured area land acreage unless additional resources are made available? If additional resources are not made available, the result will be to spread resources more thinly, and in some cases less effectively.

Mr. Wiggin

I do not wish to commit the Government, who will want to consider the matter when the survey is completed. It seems unlikely that the dilution about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned would be acceptable. Rather, the Government should be ready, within the availability of funds, to find the area and agree the matter with Brussels.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

Will the Minister note the problems of marginal land farmers in the North-West, who mainly farm beef and lamb? They lack the advantage of fell land or hill gracing and are currently excluded from much assistance. The problem of small dairy farmers is equally important. Because they have a small dairy herd which fulfils the local need, they are also excluded from the assistance of the EEC directives.

Mr. Wiggin

The first categories that my hon. Friend mentions will obviously come into the survey, but the problem of the small dairy farmer on what is really marginal land, as both she and I know, is one of the definitions of the directive. That is one of the things on which we hope to convince Brussels that we have a good case, because those farmers need assistance, as do the beef and sheep farmers.