HC Deb 23 July 1986 vol 102 cc539-42

Lords amendment: No. 23, after clause 14, insert the following new clause— (1) In section 28 of the Agriculture Act 1970 (interpretation of provisions relating to capital and other grants) at the end of the definition of "agricultural business" there shall be inserted the words "and includes any other business, of a kind for the time being specified by an order made by the appropriate authority, which is carried on by a person also carrying on a business consisting in or partly in the pursuit of agriculture and is carried on on the same or adjacent land". (2) The existing provisions of that section shall become subsection (1) of that section and after that subsection there shall be inserted— (2) An order under subsection (1) above shall be made by statutory instrument and any statutory instrument containing such an order shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.".".

Mr. Gummer

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment extends Minister's power over agriculture capital grants to cover ancillary farm-based businesses. We discussed this in Committee, and listened carefully to what was said. I gave an assurance that I would look to see whether there was a way in which we could put forward what was necessary. My hon. Friend who pressed this amendment on us was very concerned that we should be able to take account of the changing circumstances for agriculture and the urgent need to find alternatives for farmers whose products are in surplus. Farm diversification is one of the most promising of these avenues.

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Therefore, the Government have listened very sympathetically to the proposition that the Agriculture Ministers should give financial aid to help farmers to develop other enterprises on their farms. The wide support that this idea has attracted in both Houses of Parliament has encouraged us in the belief that now is the appropriate time for the Ministry to take the necessary powers. Accordingly, this amendment would permit agriculture Ministers to make grants to ancillary businesses specified by order, provided that the person carrying on the business has a farm on the same or adjacent land.

I should, however, warn hon. Members that at this stage we are taking only an enabling power. Before any schemes could be introduced under it, they would need to be cleared with the European Commission as state aids. Also, we have still to resolve the question of how the new schemes might be funded. Nevertheless, to miss this opportunity of enabling the Ministry to take these measures would be quite wrong. This is a good opportunity to ensure that the Ministry's powers cover what is a much more appropriate definition of agriculture.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have to inform the House that this amendment involves privilege.

Mr. John

I extend a welcome to the principle. In Committee many hon. Members felt that this would be a worthwhile extension of the Ministry's powers. I am glad that candidly, but in rather less lurid language than that used by the Ministry spokesman in Big Farm Weekly, the Minister has announced that, although the principle has been accepted, it does not mean that any cash will be forthcoming. The Ministry spokesman said that the Ministry had taken on board exciting new powers but that it was not saying that it would provide any new cash. It is the prospect of new cash and of translating the principle into actuality that interests us.

When, therefore, may we expect such grants to be introduced? When will an approach be made to the European Commission? And what sorts of grants will be on offer? If the Minister could provide a realistic assessment of what he believes will happen, it would add realism to what is regarded as a heady concept by the Ministry. However, without money it will remain a matter of principle.

Mr. Cash

I welcome this provision. I have sought in various ways to secure the creation of a provision of this kind, and I am delighted that it has been introduced. However, I hope that it will not be too restrictively construed and that it will not be confined to questions relating to agriculture and agricultural land. The object of the exercise is to enable farmers to sustain their incomes by going in for other small business activities — for example, bed and breakfast.

When these grants are made available, will people be able to use the land in the way for which the money is provided? This question relates to the White Paper "Food from Our Own Resources" that was published in 1975 and the guidelines that followed from it.

I hope that some steps can be taken to ensure that maximum flexibility is built into the planning process so that when grants and/or advice under clause I are made available, it will be open to the farmers affected — in order to sustain their incomes at a time of over-production and when they are having considerable pressure put upon them — to go into other businesses. I hope that the planning process can be eased to that end.

Mr. Maclennan

The Government's decision to take the power to make farm capital grants available for ancillary businesses is entirely welcome. I was rather disappointed that the Minister hedged it round with caveats about having to go to the European Community to clear these proposals for state aid before he was prepared to state the Government's intention. It is clear that certain aids of this kind would conform completely to European Community legislation.

The integrated development programme for the Western Isles involves grants to non-agricultural enterprises and I understand that that is done on regional grounds. I recognise that this power goes beyond that and more towards the guidance part of the farm fund. Is it the Minister's intention to pursue this quickly with the Commission to make sure that there is no obstacle in the way of diversification out of normal farming activity and into other businesses that can be carried on from a farm? It would be acceptable if he could give us an idea of his sense of urgency.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I take it that the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again.

Mr. Gummer

I want to be frank about the points that have been raised; to do that one has to look at the matter in the following sequence. First, the Bill gives us an opportunity to take powers. That opportunity will not arise again in the near future and for that reason it seemed necessary to make a clear decision in principle. Secondly, anybody who has been involved in Government will know perfectly well that such powers are not taken unless there is the intention to use them.

I think the word "baleful" was used in describing the eye of the Treasury, but naturally the Treasury would not wish powers with implied use to be taken when it would not allow them to be used. There is a stage before one goes to the European Commission and it is to look much more closely at the kind of scheme that might be available, and not only at schemes which would work and which would meet the requirements, but also at schemes that would be acceptable to the Commission and to the Community.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) was right to say that there ought to be nothing in this Bill contrary to the intentions of the Community. However, these things are often seen as national aids. They can be misused and the Community rightly keeps a close eye on them. We are keen that it should do so because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the problems in the industry is the feeling by our farmers that farmers elsewhere are aided in ways that are not open to them. If we press other Governments to be as careful as we wish them to be, and if we demand that their proposals are properly scrutinised, we must do those things ourselves. These matters must be looked at carefully and after that we will go to the Commission when we decide that we have something that we ought to present. Then we will have to resolve how such schemes should be funded.

I hope that the House will accept that this Bill is an earnest of our intentions. First, we will look at agriculture in the wider sense presaged by the change in the definition of agriculture contained in the Bill. That is probably the most important thing in the Bill, because it says that agriculture is different to the very narrow view of it which was to be found in the Acts under which we worked in the past.

In future, people will look back at the Act and see it as beginning a new era in agriculture. The major difference will be the definition of agriculture. The House should be grateful, not only to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) but also to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) who has fought the battle through and pushed it in Committee and explained it in a way that has enable us to take this step.

The planning aspect is overwhelmingly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, there is every intention, as has been outlined particularly in the White Paper "Lifting the Burden", to be much more flexible in the way in which we deal with planning. But even then we have to accept that there is a real responsibility to ensure that the planning laws are so enforced that we get flexibility for new jobs and enterprises without destroying the very environment which makes those jobs and enterprises possible. It is a balance. It is not easy and it is one which we should take seriously, because the countryside is also a place of refreshment for those who live in the towns.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to, some with Special Entry.

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