HC Deb 04 February 1982 vol 17 cc524-5
2. Mr. Peter Mill

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he now expects to make a statement on the inquiry into marginal agricultural areas in England and Wales.

8. Mr. Hicks

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he hopes to make a statement about the designation of marginal land in the United Kingdom; and what forms of specific assistance are to be made available to these areas.

Mrs. Fenner

The marginal land surveys in the United Kingdom are now complete and my right hon. Friend is at present considering with colleagues the case for extending the less-favoured areas that might be submitted to the European Commission.

Mr. Mills

Is my hon. Friend aware of the tremendous economic benefit that would arise to the rural areas if this process went forward quickly, particularly for the lime spreading and drainage contractors? In view of the terrible loss of agricultural land to roads and buildings, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to increase home food production from marginal land?

Mrs. Fenner

As soon as the results are fully examined and the interested parties consulted on the scope of the case, it will go to the EEC Commission. However, care must be taken because we need to submit a watertight case as soon as possible. The NFU has agreed to this approach. I accept my hon. Friend's comments, but we have always said that there is no Government commitment to provide funds if areas are designated. The first step is to put the case to Brussels.

Mr. Hicks

Does my hon. Friend recognise the urgency of the case? We seem to have been talking about the problem for all too long a period. Does she agree that the reintroduction of a lime subsidy and enhanced rates of grant for drainage and fencing, together with similar farm improvements, would not only be cost effective but would raise the output from marginal areas?

Mrs. Fenner

I accept that there has been a slippage of a few weeks in our original timetable. This has been caused partly by a backlog of work at the computer centre following the industrial action that was taken last summer. I have reassured my hon. Friend that as soon as consideration of the survey is complete the case will be put. I agree with his comments in the latter part of his supplementary question.

Dr. John Cunningham

Does not the accelerating decline in rural areas, which is reflected in the closure of village schools, the loss of bus services and the second homes problem, from which many in rural areas suffer, show an urgent need to improve the viability of such areas? Does the Minister agree that extra support for marginal land is one way of assisting an improvement in viability? Will the hon. Lady think again about her statement that there is no commitment to extra resources? It will be of no satisfaction to the agriculture community if the Government take resources from one heading and allocate it to another without increasing the total sum available.

Mrs. Fenner

I canot answer for the aspects of rural life to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, the survey has been completed and we are considering the case to be put before the EEC. It is necessary to obtain the approval of Brussels for an extension of the marginal land areas before we consider whether the case for extra assistance is such that extra funds could be found.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

What does my hon. Friend consider the criterion of marginality to be? Is she considering it in the context of half the world being underfed and desperately needing more food to be produced, or is she considering it in the parochial context of a temporary surplus of some foodstuffs within the EEC? The two concepts are very different.

Mrs. Fenner

Consideration is being given to areas that are so marginally less-favoured as to come into the EEC scheme for the less-favoured areas.

Mr. Maclennan

Is the Minister saying that if the EEC accepts new definitions the Goverment will make extra resources available? Will she publish her findings?

Mrs. Fenner

I have nothing to add to my comment that there is no Government commitment. We are studying the survey most carefully and the information suggests that a good case can be mounted. We are still studying the results of the survey and we want to put a watertight case to the Commission.

Mr. Strang

As the inquiry was begun by the Labour Government, is it not surprising that a sense of frustration is building up among marginal farmers, especially as they are among the hardest hit at present? I welcome the resources that the Government have provided, but will the hon. Lady make it clear that the Government intend to submit an application to Brussels to extend the less-favoured areas? If that is the intention, surely it will make sense to do so before this year's price fixing is completed.

Mrs. Fenner

The survey could have been completed earlier had it not been for industrial action at the computer centre. I regret the delay as much as anybody else. We believe that a good case can be mounted, and it will be mounted as soon as we are ready.