HC Deb 08 May 1986 vol 97 cc238-9
2. Mr. Kennedy

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the current trend in levels of income in the agricultural sector.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jopling)

Farming income fell by 43 per cent. in 1985 compared with 1984, when it rose by 35 per cent. compared with 1983. The weather plays a large part in these figures. However, the price fixing will help our producers to sustain returns overall. Our industry, which is in surplus, faces difficult adjustments at this time.

Mr. Kennedy

Does the Minister accept that the underlying trend in these figures is downward and ever more downward? Given the essential importance of agriculture and the agriculture-related sectors in rural areas such as the Highlands of Scotland, but particularly in two other parliamentary constituencies that I can think of today, what will the Minister do to arrest the underlying essential trend, which I fear will lead in the Highlands to another form of Highland clearance if nothing is done to reverse the trend?

Mr. Jopling

The Government share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about agriculture and its economic prospects. The hon. Gentleman, typically for his party, is very good at stating the problems, but is short on providing solutions to them. The alliance is very good at claiming that incomes are going down, but it is very bad at telling us how it would deal with huge surpluses such as exist in agriculture. In relation to the hon. Gentleman's points about the Highlands, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman, who I know has a degree of generosity, might draw attention to the considerable improvements that we made last year in the subsidies for less-favoured areas.

Mr. Marland

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy for Members of Opposition parties to lament the drop in farmers' incomes when they are planning to rate agricultural land?

Mr. Jopling

We all know that. My hon. Friend should not accuse the hon Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) of that, as it is only the urban Members of those parties who tell us that they will rate agricultural land. The rural Members are understandably rather quiet about it.

Dr. Godman

Given the importance of beet and beet sugar to agriculture, is it not right and proper that any bid, from whatever source, for the acquisition of the British Sugar Corporation should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

Mr. Jopling

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that these are matters not for me but for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend's attention is drawn to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Andy Stewart

Will not the Government's record on lowering interest rates and inflation, together with the reduction in the cost of commodities that farmers buy, have a marked effect in helping to sustain farmers' net incomes?

Mr. Jopling

That is true, although I think that my hon. Friend has probably left out of his accurate list the fact that the changes in the green pound will also greatly help farmers.

Mr. John

As the right hon. Gentleman wants to be specific in his solutions, is this not the last year in which delays should be experienced in the compensatory allowance payments? Does he accept that some hill farmers are still awaiting their payments, and that that is quite unprecedented? Will he remedy the situation?

Mr. Jopling

The hon. Gentleman should know that we are making every effort to make the payments as quickly as possible. He will also remember that earlier in the year we took the trouble to ensure that advance payments were made, particularly to some in the less-favoured areas. That, of course, was very welcome.