HC Deb 23 January 1987 vol 108 cc1128-47

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank my hon. Friends and those Opposition Members who have jointly sponsored the Bill. There is a common view on both sides of the House that acclaims successes in the agriculture industry, but there is also a common view that expresses concern about the need, as a result of that success, for farmers to think of other ways of earning income because of the need to curb the surpluses that are now occurring. I should also thank my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials for the advice that they have given me in the preparation of the Bill.

It is a short and, I am sure hon. Members will agree, non-controversial Bill. It is designed to enable the Agricultural Training Board to offer, on a fully commercial basis, training in various rurally related activities not previously within its scope. The offer will be made to all those employed in the industry and their families and will enable farmers to diversify their businesses. The board will also be able to offer those outside commercial agriculture and horticulture training in what I have referred to as amenity skills.

Before going into greater detail about the content of the Bill and its effects, I should like to set the scene by outlining the history and background of the board. Although I am sure that many hon. Members are aware of the existence of the board and its functions, I am equally sure that there are many, especially those in urban and suburban constituencies, who may not have had an opportunity to become familiar with its activities

The Agricultural Training Board was established in 1966 under the Industrial Training Act 1964. That Act provided for the setting up of other industrial training boards, each dealing specifically with training for workers in its own sector of employment in Britain. In common with the various industrial training boards set up under the 1964 Act, the Agricultural Training Board was originally the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Employment. The transfer of its functions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales took place in 1969 and it accompanied a transfer in funding arrangements for the board from the self-funding industry levy system to direct Government funding. That became necessary as the extremely disparate and remote nature of the industry, together with its preponderance of small businesses, made the business of levy collection somewhat difficult.

The current legislation governing the board's activities comprises the Agricultural Training Board Acts 1982 and 1985 and the Agricultural Training Board (Amendment) Order 1975. Under that legislation, the board is allowed to provide, approve and make recommendations on courses, test standards of training, give advice, and carry out research connected with employment in the agriculture industry pay maintenance and travelling expenses to trainees, pay grants or loans to course providers and to pay fees to providers of further education and make payments to employers for attendance of workers on those courses.

There is one all-embracing constraint in the current law. These functions may be exercised only in connection with training for those employed, or intending to be employed, within the commercial agriculture or horticulture industries in Britain or equivalent employment overseas. The board exercises these functions through its central committees and its unique system of training groups nationwide, together comprising a form of training co-operative for England, Wales and Scotland. If hon. Members have not seen the "Review of Training in Agriculture and Horticulture 1985–86" published by the board, they may find that helpful where they have problems over training in their constituents.

Each of the training groups consists of a number of local employers in agriculture and horticulture. They arrange their own training courses as required by their members, often on their own premises. This ensures that the courses that are provided have a much greater relevance to their area. Many groups employ their own group training organiser to co-ordinate the training activities, working in concert with a local agricultural college, a careers office and relevant institutions.

The board's local training officer makes the necessary arrangements for those groups which do not have their own resources. The board contributes directly to training through grants to the groups, and more directly by developing courses, course materials and training trainers. A great deal of course training material is available and this is sent out in booklet form to local groups. The students can take these booklets away with them after their on-farm training.

There are about 650 groups in Great Britain and every farmer and farm worker should be within reasonable travelling distance of a training group. In my county of Cornwall there are 10 training groups, and of these five employ a part-time group training organiser. In 1985–86 these Cornish groups held a total of 501 training course days. These included adult training and training for those on the board's apprenticeship scheme—the Agricultural and Horticultural Training Scheme—and for those on the youth training scheme in agriculture and horticulture in the county.

Why does the board need to broaden its scope of activity even more? The principal reason, as I stated at the outset, is that the demands upon, and the expectations of, agriculture are changing dramatically. There is a growing need for the relevant training courses to be made available to meet the new demands and expectations. When such a need becomes apparent it would be churlish to deny those who wish to acquire such training access to the board's undoubted expertise. There is a good precedent for allowing that access. As recently as 1985 the need for the board to extend its activities overseas was identified. This was principally to complement the United Kingdom's other export efforts in the agricultural sector, not just to export a new agricultural system, but to sell the training courses to foreign people. At the same time, that profitable enterprise helped to broaden the board's financial base, not only by reducing its reliance upon Government funding but by helping to reduce costs of courses and course materials to students in Great Britain.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

My hon. Friend served with me as a member of the Select Committee on Employment when we considered a number of training boards. Will my hon. Friend clarify the relationship between the Agricultural Training Board and other training boards? As I understand it, the other training boards come under the responsibility of the Department of Employment. I believe that the Agricultural Training Board is the only board that is dealt with separately. Is that so?

Mr. Neale

The Agricultural Training Board is the only board that receives direct funding from its sponsoring Ministry. However, it has representation across the country in a different form from that of any of the other boards, a number of which have now been abolished.

I want to consider the additional training needs that have been identified. Over the past few years the total Great Britain farm income as identified in the annual review of agriculture White Paper has fluctuated widely, but there is an underlying downward trend. This has been coupled with pressure on farmers to reduce production of a wide range of agricultural commodities that are in surplus. Particular measures in that area include the introduction—and subsequent cut—of milk quotas, the recently agreed package intended to reduce surplus beef production, and suggestions under discussion that some land should be diverted from cereal production. Farmers are therefore increasingly and often apprehensively having to look for ways other than the growing of traditional crops to maintain or increase their incomes. Many have considerable investment and loans involved in their land, buildings, stock and equipment which must be funded.

In addition, with the demand created by the increased leisure time available to the population generally, coupled with a growing awareness of the need to conserve, protect and enhance the environment, a greater need for training in these areas has developed rapidly. Some training is available from rural agencies such as the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, and the Countryside Commission. Other courses are provided by specialist training agencies such as the Forestry Training Council and by the agricultural colleges. However, the existing level of training is not sufficient to meet the ever-increasing needs of the agriculture and horticulture industries.

Manufacturing industry and commerce in Cornwall suffers from a comparatively uncompetitive location. Meanwhile, Cornwall's agriculture contributes about twice as much to the local gross product than is the case with the national economy. Agriculture in Cornwall is heavily dependent upon livestock, with dairying providing about 36 per cent. and other cattle about 25 per cent. of farming activity, much of which is carried out on small farms. It is evident that any measures intended to cut milk or beef production could have a more serious effect on the local economy than in other countries. Fortunately, we are blessed in the county with a mild climate and excellent scenery. This offers many opportunities for farmers to diversify their business, provided that they can acquire good quality training for themselves, their employees and their families.

Such diversification can take many forms. A major opportunity exists in the provision of tourist accommodation and other facilities. Indeed, a farm holiday group has already been established in Cornwall. Holiday makers are understandably keen to visit rural areas for recreation, and there are already a number of "model farms" in the county of Cornwall which attract significant number of visitors. Other opportunities exist to expand on that theme and to provide a whole range of activity holidays such as pony trekking, painting, photography or sport holidays in rural areas. Despite the poor weather in the county last year—it was a particlarly freakish year in that respect—we are trying to use every means available to influence the weather in subsequent years to ensue that those who wish to come to Cornwall for a holiday are guaranteed a hospitable and enjoyable time. I am sure that many more farmers will be ready to accommodate people should they wish to take that kind of holiday.

Farmers or farm workers may also wish to exploit their own or their family's skills in particular crafts or in technical areas. One particular craft that springs to mind in relation to Cornwall is the manufacture of surf boards. Surfing has become a very popular sport in the west country. Many farmers have redundant barns which can be used for the production of such equipment. This craft is typical of the latent artisic and technical skills that can be trained and directed to profitable effect.

The operation of services such as farm shops, taxis and village bus services may also be commercially more viable when operated in conjunction with existing agricultural businesses. Finally, we should not forget the on-farming processing if the products of farming itself. The obvious examples are cream, cheese and Cornish pasties. Some on-farm businesses have shown remarkable growth in those areas recently, in Cornwall and elsewhere.

In addition to specific training in the operation of all those activities as part of a business, we should not ignore the importance of training in marketing techniques. It is of little value to have an excellent product if it cannot be sold, and the board is mindful of that.

My Bill does not merely extend the board's scope to train those involved in farming in new activities. It will also permit the board to offer training in what I have termed "amenity activities" to those outside commercial agriculture and horticulture. Training should be available in skills relating to the care of land or animals, with sport, recreation and conservation in mind. Once again some training is available in those areas, but not enough. The Agriculture Training Board, with its highly regarded training methods, its knowledge of and relationship with the farming industry, and its expertise in land-related skills, is ideally placed to meet those various needs.

The Bill is a short one with only two clauses. The objective of clause 1(1) is principally to insert into section 4 of the Agricultural Training Board Act 1982 enabling powers for the board to undertake training activities in addition to those that are already permitted. The new activities are defined in new section 5A. To avoid unnecessary duplication of courses and facilities with other public and private sector agencies the addition to new section 4 requires the board to have regard to any courses or facilities otherwise available for the purpose before providing training in additional activities.

Clause 1(2) inserts new section 5A into the 1982 Act and specifies the additional training activities which may be undertaken. As section 5(1A) of the Agricultural Training Board Act 1985 is unamended, the board may not undertake these new activities outside Great Britain.

New section 5A(1)(a) specifies those who may be trained by the board in diversification activities. The section refers to training in activities not comprised within the industry. That means the industry as defined in the 1975 order. Broadly speaking, then, the section is referring to non-agricultural skills of the type that I have mentioned.

Paragraphs (i) and (ii) of new section 5A(1)(a) define more closely the groups of people involved. Paragraph (i) refers to those employed in the industry. That does not mean merely employees, but employers and the self-employed; in other words, all who are actively engaged in a commercial agricultural or horticultural business. Paragraph (ii) refers to members of the families of people so employed. This is to avoid the position where a farmer or worker may be trained by the board, for example in the provision of tourist facilities, but a spouse, not strictly being employed in the industry, may not receive such training.

New section 5A(1)(b) introduces the other new area of activities which the board may undertake, namely, training in amenity skills of persons not currently employed in the industry. New section 5A(2) defines amenity skills for the purposes of new section 5A(1)(b). For ease of reference the definition falls into two parts. The first, new section 5A(2)(a), refers to skills directly connected to the land. There are three general areas of land use identified—sporting, recreational and environmental. I intend that the phrase, development, improvement, conservation or maintenance of such land should be all-embracing and cover all the activities which would need to be undertaken to make and maintain land fit for the purposes described.

The second part, new section 5A(2)(b), refers to skills connected with the rearing or care, but excluding the training, of animals for sporting, recreational or environmental purposes. I recognise that the board, with its expertise in land-related skills, has much to offer in the training of people who keep or rear animals. This will include animals which may need to be protected or encouraged in the wild, and sport birds and fish, from which there may be associated benefits in conservation through the care of habitat.

New section 5A(3) obliges the board to consult the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food together with the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales before providing new categories of courses or facilities.

New section 5A(4) imposes a duty on the board to conduct its affairs in such a way that revenue received from its new functions under section (4)(1)(bb) will at the earliest possible date at least meet the expediture incurred in the exercise of those functions, thereby ensuring that the board suffers no financial losses and that the activities are not funded by Government grants. This will make it fully competitive with other agencies which offer such training. This requirement is identical to that already accepted in 1985 by the House, which covers the board's overseas commercial activities.

It is intended that the board's new activities should not be a charge on Exchequer aid; rather, that by acting commercially the board may show some profit. If it should transpire that diversification and amenity skills activities do not prove to be self-financing, section 6 of the 1982 Act empowers Ministers to direct that the operation of such activities shall cease. Meanwhile, any pump-priming moneys required to finance these new activities must be found from income from existing commercial activities, rather than from grant-aid.

Clause 1(3) extends the Minister's powers under section 7 of the 1982 Act to disclose information to the board which will assist it in carrying out its new functions. Information already supplied under section 7 could be relevant to its new functions, and this clause merely expands the section in line with the board's new powers.

Clause 1(4) inserts a new paragraph, paragraph (aa), into section 8(1A) of the 1982 Act, as amended by the 1985 Act. Section 8(1) requires the board to keep proper accounts and records and to prepare a yearly statement of account in the form determined by Ministers and the Treasury. The 1985 Act amplified the section of the 1982 Act requiring the board to keep separate records and accounts for its commercial overseas activities. New paragraph (aa) requires that a similar separate account should be kept, covering the new functions described in section 4(1)(bb). Although the Bill will expand the ATB, such expansion can only be for the overall good of the agriculture industry and, indeed, for the amenity and leisure industries. Not only will farmers and amenity workers who wish to learn a new skill benefit from receiving expert tuition in what is potentially a wide range of subjects, but basic agricultural skills training will benefit from the reinvestment by the board of additional income derived from these new sources. The record of the ATB in agricultural training shows that the board warrants not only continuing, but further, support in the direction outlined in the Bill, and I commend the measure to the House.

9.58 am
Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

I wish to make a short speech in support of the Bill as I am one of its sponsors. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) on his important initiative in bringing the measure before the House. It is important in terms of extending and diversifying acquired skills in rural areas and equipping agriculture to adapt to the changing circumstances of the future. That was perhaps the most important point made by the hon. Gentleman. Agriculture must face future changes in circumstances and it is essential that people involved in agriculture are trained to meet the new challenges. I hazard a prediction that when this short Bill reaches the statute book it will have more far-reaching significance than a good many other measures that have had a higher political profile in the House.

I have two purposes in giving the Bill my support. First, I agree wholeheartedly with what it tries to do in principle. Secondly—here I shall make a regional point—in the medium and long term there will be substantial opportunities through which the rural and industrial economies of East Anglia can benefit. East Anglia is predominantly an arable farming area. The long-term view for arable farming, in a much wider context than East Anglia, is that we simply cannot go on piling up arable surpluses without making some attempt to reduce structural excesses to a manageable proportion. In doing that, there must be a ground change whereby agriculture can adapt to new opportunities and provide new employment prospects.

The Bill seeks to amend the scope of activities of the ATB. Like any other organisation, it must operate under working definitions of what it can and cannot do. The Bill seeks to widen the terms of reference of the ATB and allow it to do more in areas such as recreation and the environment. Those two aspects are interconnected. The training activities that currently exist outside the remit of the ATB's agenda clearly should be part of the ATB's future responsibilities. If agriculture and rural areas are to adapt to future changes in circumstances, there must be a change in the ATB's training agenda.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North clearly explained the purposes of the Bill and he outlined what the clauses seek to do. I shall refer to two areas mentioned in suggested new section 5A(1)(a), which states: with a view to the diversification of the trades or businesses carried on by persons so employed". The important word is "diversfication". There must be diversification in the process of adaptation and aiming towards doing new things in rural areas. Proposed new section 5A(2)(a) refers to the development, improvement, conservation or maintenance of land for sporting, recreational or environmental purposes. Those two aspects are important as they provide a way out of some of the pressing problems in agricultural employment and activity in rural areas.

The work of the ATB in Suffolk has been a success story, despite existing limitations, and I pay tribute to those who, over the years, have made this enterprise such a working success. It works through training groups and it has a training officer. Its training is conducted through both apprentice-type courses and regular participation in the YTS scheme. It has adapted to local circumstances. The training that it offers occurs on farms and in an agricultural college, and one group in Earl Soham has its own training centre. There are eight groups, five in agriculture proper and three in horticulture, and they have been a success on two counts. First, they have equipped young people with marketable skills and, secondly, they have meant that East Anglia is well to the front in agricultural quality.

East Anglia agriculture owes a debt to the board's training. The courses are diverse and by no means tied to the predominantly arable nature of the region. With the increased use of sophisticated machinery and the responsibility entailed by the increased use of chemicals and pesticides, some courses have a high-tech approach.

East Anglia supports the change in the Bill for very relevant reasons, because it wants to look to the future. First, farming in this country is in an age of surplus and the aims of public policy must change accordingly. Structural arable farming surpluses can no longer be financed on the scale on which they have been financed in the past. We cannot, as an aim of public policy, produce food on the scale that we did in times gone by. In the past, ever-increasing production and productivity were fundamental aims that overrode other matters, but that is no longer the case. There is a need to diversify and to look to other activities to ensure employment in rural economies. If this is to be achieved, training must be put on a wider and more flexible basis. For this reason, the changes highlighted in the Bill are not only desirable but essential.

We no longer need an agricultural policy—we need farm and countryside policies that are interdependent and can benefit from each other. In the post-war period in East Anglia, tens of thousands of people left the land, many of them young persons. If there are to be new opportunities for activity and if the ATB is to widen and build on the success of its past performance to include the new scenario, we in East Anglia stand a chance of halting and reversing the decline.

I wish the Bill well. It is based on need and is a welcome and thoughtful step towards improving the economy of the countryside.

10.7 am

Sir Peter Mills (Torridge and Devon, West)

I am grateful for this opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale). This is a good Bill and will be of great benefit to the south-west and many other areas. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing it forward. It also gives me much pleasure to support my hon. Friend, after the support that he gave me on the Okehampton bypass issue, particularly when I could not be in the House because I was ill. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr.Hicks) has asked me to say that he fully supports the Bill and regrets that he has to be in his constituency today.

There is no doubt that the Bill is needed. Great changes have taken place in agriculture over the years. Having been involved in agriculture since I was a boy of 14, I have seen the enormous problems that have arisen because of the changing scene. The changes have caused considerable sacrifices to be made by rural people—sacrifices, as my hon. Friend said, including loss of employment, with all that that means.

We must face the fact that the demand for food has dropped—last year, a staggering 18 per cent. less butter was consumed—but production has been encouraged to increase dramatically. When I was a very young man, we thought that it was good if we produced 25 cwt of cereals to the acre. Now it has all changed. Modern machinery has meant that vast numbers of men are not required. Huge surpluses, because agriculture has been too successful, have resulted in cuts and quotas. This has meant a considerable drop in income and a decline in the economic life of rural areas affecting everyone—not only farmers but farm workers, machinery manufacturers and all those who service this great industry. We cannot be blind to those facts.

The worst sin of all is for some Opposition parties—I exempt the Socialist party—to say that there is no need for these cuts. I regret the fact that the Social Democrats and Liberals still carry on in their speeches in the south-west as though there were no problems. A letter which I received from the chairman of the economic and employment committee of Devon county council, Councillor Walker, an ardent Liberal, was written as though nothing had happened and he and others could continue misleading farmers into thinking that the status quo should continue. That is not true. It is unfair. There must be changes and cuts.

Mr. Thurnham

Is my hon. Friend aware of the recent remarks by the president of the National Farmers Union, Mr. Simon Gourlay, when referring to a speech by the leader of the SDP? He said: You will annihilate UK farming. You do not begin to comprehend what you are suggesting". The average size of a farm in Britain is so much greater than the average size of a farm in Europe that any policies that might be beneficial to small farmers in Europe will be ruinous in this country.

Sir Peter Mills

I am well aware of that. One of the distressing problems in the political scene is that the policies of the Liberals and Social Democrats vary from constituency to constituency. It is sad that misleading statements are made. We must reduce agricultural production and find alternative ways of assisting farm workers and farmers. The Bill will do that.

We need to plan for a "revival"—a term that I like—of rural activity, and the Bill will assist. Activities must be encouraged to make up for the loss of production in normal farming. The Agricultural Training Board needs to have its powers and functions widened to offer training outside the scope of the industry to allow farmers to be trainined to take up other activities and to diversify their businesses. I do not think that anyone would argue against that view. Everyone should support the Bill.

I believe that this Government will support the extension of training to achieve a rural revival. Other measures are needed. It is no good men and women being trained in new skills if they are not allowed to set up businesses to use those new skills. There are currently too many central and local government planning restrictions and other, probably unnecessary, bureaucratic controls which stultify and frequently totally prevent farmers from diversifying and developing new and constructive uses for their land and buildings, not necessarily totally oriented towards traditional farming.

Probably the biggest problem is the heavy-handed planning restriction. No one wants this to be totally removed, so as to allow pre-war ribbon development and other uses that might be adverse to the rural environment, but there needs to be a more common-sense approach to opportunities for new businesses to be developed in the countryside. Only if such development occurs will employment be maintained or increased in rural areas while employment in traditional agriculture inevitably drops.

If the skills of farmers, farm workers and their families are to be widened and other enterprises set up, planning permission must be given.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson)

indicated assent

Sir Peter Mills

I am glad that my hon. Friend is nodding his head. I hope that the instructions to the planning committees of the various councils will be tougher and stronger, so that that becomes a reality.

Mr. Thurnham

Will my hon. Friend take account of the fact that, in park areas such as the Lake District, where I live, planning permission is required to be given by not only the South Lakeland district council but the special planning board, which leads to more difficulties?

Sir Peter Mills

I have similar problems with the national parks planning committee in Dartmoor. That is an important point. Local planning authorities should listen and act on Government advice to allow more small businesses to start up in rural areas. Germany has a good system of small factories where some members of a farmer's family can work while continuing to maintain the farm. We must develop that system in this country.

Redundant farm workers need the chance of work in their villages, but that will never happen if planning restrictions mean that small businesses are not allowed to start. I know of a disused Methodist chapel outside a village in North Devon. The planning authorities caused endless trouble to the two people who were trying to use the chapel as a small factory. The authorities demanded double glazing, sound proofing and goodness knows what else. Such petty conditions hinder people in starting businesses. There is no doubt that many disused barns and other buildings in the countryside could be used for these purposes.

Training skills are needed, and the Bill will assist in providing them. We need a balance in rural society again. Work in the form of rural crafts, light industry and farming will be of benefit, if we can get the combination right to the rural revival and the rural environment about which I am so keen.

The south-west faces a problem because the fastest growing group in the south-west are retired people. I beg retired people to remember that people have to work. As I have said before, we cannot all live on fresh air and a view. Some of us have to find employment. There must be readjustment in rural life, because traditional ways cannot go on. A big change must take place.

There are restrictions other than planning. Farmers and their staff, because they live in the countryside, are still those most concerned with the conservation of the environment and the health of their animals. Unhappy, uncared-for stock do not grow and are not profitable. Extreme views on animal liberation, conservation of the environment, diet and health must not be allowed to take over the in the interests of short-term political expediency, often fuelled through substantial ignorance. The rural community needs to be assured that the urban politicians will not be too easily be swayed into making the farmers' already difficult financial position unnecessarily impossible.

Many other factors besides just training are involved if we are to achieve this rural revival that is so important for our areas, especially the south-west. Such factors are training, planning and allowing the farmer and the farm workers to get on with the skills and the jobs that they know so well.

I give a fair wind to this Bill. It will help effect the changes that must take place because of surplus production. If those measures are carried out, the rural scene will be revived.

10.20 pm
Mrs. Elizabeth Shields (Ryedale)

We in the alliance support the Bill. The legislation contained in it aims chiefly to assist the farming industry to diversify its activities. Diversification, whether into tourism, crafts or similar ancillary activities, offers an important opportunity to strengthen agriculture, but the Government's wish to be seen to be promoting the Bill arguably emphasises its sensitivity to the current malaise of British farming.

Before discussing the details of the Bill, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect for a moment on the need for that diversification. The slump in farm incomes, recorded at 43 per cent. in the 1986 annual White Paper, with not too great a recovery expected in the imminent review, the high levels of indebtedness, damagingly high interest rates and uncertainty about production practices and future prospects are symptomatic of a general failure by the Government to supply a lead to the industry.

The Bill, essentially an employment measure, is being introduced at a time when the number of jobs in agriculture, fisheries and forestry has fallen by more than one sixth since 1979. The immediate prospects are no less stark. Last week's Public Expenditure White Paper referred only to a "partial and modest recovery." The reasons are not hard to discern. Support for structural measures alone, which are particularly important in the hills and uplands—have some of those in my constituency—forecast to fall to £256 million in 1986–87 against £302 million last year. spending in that area alone has fallen by more than one third since 1983. So the welcome for this Bill is tempered by the recognition of the deep and continuing decline in agriculture that has taken place in recent years.

I shall comment briefly on some of the remarks made by Conservative Members. The alliance agricultural policies are directed to the preservation of the small farmers, but in recent years the policies of the dairy quotas, the co-responsibility levy on cereals and the variable beef premium have all added to the problems associated with people who have perhaps only 50, 60 or 70 acres. Those who have a large acreage—2,000 acres—will lose on profits; the livelihoods of the smaller farmers are at risk.

As the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) said, we cannot live on fresh air, and neither can small farmers. At present Government policies are forcing more and more small farms out of business. Perhaps the Government should take note of the many bankruptcies that have occurred as a result of their policies.

The Bill proposes two changes to the current operation of the Agricultural Training Board. First, it allows the board to provide training for those employed in agriculture and their families through the diversification of agricultural businesses". Secondly, it allows the board to offer training in amenity skills of persons who are not employed in the industry". The need for the first dispensation arises from the Government's growing interest in diversification as a means of alleviating these problems of the industry.

Even though belated and modest, the Government's response to the case made by the alliance, not least at the time of the Second Reading of the Agricultural Bill in November 1985, for a change in direction in agriculture is welcome. Successful diversification could ultimately help to stop the outflow from farming to other employment—though only of course where that is available—as well as to maintain existing jobs in rural areas.

Diversification, which includes the judicious promotion of tourism, is certainly welcome. The maintenance and, in some cases, the revival of ancient handicrafts could bring interest and employment to our rural areas, not least to many in my own constituency where our Ryedale Quest will again encourage visitors to explore the delightful villages of north Yorkshire and thereby help to keep them alive.

It may also be argued that the Bill is a logical step in the progressive development of the ATB which has taken place since its foundation in 1966. Since that time, the board has developed from simply providing training for agricultural employees in agricultural techniques, and currently enjoys considerable support in the industry. The ATB's new responsibilities will have an important role to play, if only to restrain producers from trying to go into unsuitable enterprises or to diversify without the appropriate skills. These duties have therefore been welcomed by the National Farmers Union and the Tenant Farmers Association. It seems sensible for the board to provide training in, for example, farm machinery maintenance for those who, although not employed in agriculture, nevertheless work with tractors, combines and other equipment.

In addition, the increasingly technical nature of modern farming results in a growing need for training and retraining to acquire new skills. Boys and girls can no longer go into farming on leaving school by simply staying on a farm. They need training in various and many agricultural techniques.

There is general agreement that the quality of training provided by the ATB is high, and that it should be more widely available than at present. Therefore, I believe that the Bill is a useful measure but it does not relieve the Government from their central task of providing consistent, considered and strategic advice to the industry. The future health of our rural economy depends upon the adoption of such an approach.

10.27 am
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I shall refer briefly to the speech of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields). She said that she was going to speak on alliance policies. What causes Conservative Members the greatest concern is that there are so many policies that it is difficult to determine exactly what policy the alliance is trying to put forward. No doubt if an attempt is made shortly to re-launch the various Opposition parties we shall hear more about a single policy rather than about policies. The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Freud) has now entered the Chamber, so no doubt we shall hear a little more about some of the additional policies that the alliance is putting forward.

Mrs. Shields

I assure the hon. Gentleman and all Members in the Chamber that the alliance will have one policy and that it will come out next week. It is a question, not of may be, but of will be. There will be one unified policy. Anything that applied when the two parties came together will be made one. It will be seen as one unified policy.

Mr. Thurnham

That will have to be prepared at great speed, because the hon. Lady referred to policies. Presumably much work will have to be done in the next few days to bring everything together into one single policy. We shall look forward to that with the greatest interest.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) on his good fortune in winning such a high place in the ballot. Hon. Members are always interested to know the result of the ballot and the place that they have secured. I remember listening with great interest to the announcement of the ballot results in a Committee Room. The higher one's place in the ballot, the greater one's chances of success. Having secured a high place in the ballot, however, it is most important to introduce a Bill that will gain wide acceptance on both sides of the House. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be successful in securing that acceptance. I assure him that he will have my support in his efforts to place the Bill on the statute book.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) is about to leave the Chamber. I note that his Bill is listed on the Order Paper, and it is to be hoped that time will be available to debate it. He might be interested to know that production of agricultural products has increased so enormously because of improvement in livestock production. Embryo research has led to considerable improvements in livestocks, and those who are engaged in agriculture will know that this has been an important factor. Developments and improvements in agriculture in Australia, for example, have led to that country being in the forefront of human reproduction studies. The world's second test tube baby was born in Australia.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. It is difficult to relate test tube babies to agricultural training.

Mr. Thurnham

I am anxious, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we should retain the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North. I should hate him to miss some of the issues that will arise in this debate that might be of interest to him at a later stage today.

As I have said, it is important to introduce a Bill that is acceptable to both sides of the House. I remember that last year my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), although lowly placed in the ballot, was able to bring forward an excellent Bill dealing with corneal grafting. I think that his position in the ballot was No. 14, but his Bill gained rapid acceptance on both sides of the House and found its way quickly on to the statute book. I commend to hon. Members the idea that they should introduce Bills that gain wide acceptance on both sides of the House.

It is a pleasure to speak in the Chamber on a Friday when the atmosphere is conducive to a good debate, and I hope that we shall have a good debate today. I remember that when I first spoke in the House on a Friday I had only recently completed some calculations that showed that the cost of running the House was £10,000, or perhaps £20,000, an hour. I think that we should all be conscious of the length of time that we speak and ensure that we take the greatest advantage of that time. Fridays give us the opportunity, however, to have a constructive debate that can be of interest to Hon. Members of both sides of the House and to those outside who are concerned with the subjects that we discuss.

I served as a member of the Select Committee on Employment with my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North, and before this debate we discussed the fact that the Agricultural Training Board is not within the province of the Department of Employment. It is unique in coming within the direct sponsorship of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In the same way, the wages council for agriculture is not within the province of the Department of Employment. Thus, the Agricultural Training Board has slightly greater scope in the way in which it can relate to industry. This is possible as it does not have to meet the bureaucratic requirements that other training boards may feel they must comply with if they are to work in harmony with the relevant industries. We shall have to consider whether the activities of the Agricultural Training Board will conflict with those of other boards. It is important that the taxpayer is not involved in funding over provision.

Before speaking in detail on the Bill, I must declare a personal interest. I am a small-scale farmer in Cumbria, with rather more than 200 acres. Most of the land is tenanted, but part of it is freehold. My wife and I are engaged in agriculture and we are concerned with broader aspects of farming, including the use of older buildings. There is a listed building on our farmland. It is a Pele tower, which is unique to our part of the country. It is a listed grade II building, and the use of such buildings and the wider interest that the public display in our heritage are factors which the board should take into account when widening the provisions and scope of the training that is being offered.

I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in his place for the early part of the debate. My farm is in his constituency and he knows of my personal interest in the subject.

Both my own family and my wife's have long connections with fanning. My father was a tea planter throughout his working life. He planted originally in south India and then worked for Brooke Bond, being responsible for its tea estates worldwide. One of the better provisions of the Bill is that it gives the board scope to gain income from abroad by charging fees for the training that it can provide for those overseas who wish to learn about the great advances that have been made in agriculture in the United Kingdom.

My mother's family was engaged in market gardening for many generations, and my wife's family, too, has been active in farming. My wife has three brothers and they are all farmers. I am a refrigeration engineer and my business involves the provision of cold stores to keep food refrigerated. I am worried about the extent of United Kingdom food surpluses. There are 2 million tonnes of butter and beef in cold storage and this is costing a great deal. One of the effects of this is a distortion of the cold storage industry. I understand that it is costing £1 million a day to store the surpluses. We cannot tolerate any growth of the surpluses and we must seek ways of reducing them.

Anyone who is concerned with rural life must understand the need for diversification. It is important that farmers have other sources of income, and that has always been possible in traditional tourist areas. We must consider every form of income that can be brought into the farming community, so that there is less reliance on products that are in surplus. This must be to the benefit of farmers, who will have a broader source of income. Another beneficiary will be the taxpayer, who cannot continue funding products that are in surplus.

I well remember my first meeting with my wife's family, who farm just outside Cambridge. I became involved in a lively discussion about subsidies. I found myself in considerable trouble when I suggested that it would be expensive to pay for parkkeepers to keep the countryside tidy. To say that to a family of hardworking farmers who had acquired additional farms so that all three sons could go into farming meant that my courtship started rather stickily on that day. I think that all those who are involved in agriculture will accept, however, that we cannot continue producing commodities that are in surplus. It is necessary to take a much broader view.

I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North has not proposed that we should rename the Agricultural Training Board the Rural Training Board. The thrust of his speech was that we must address ourselves to the rural community. Consequently, it might be simpler and more straightforward if we regarded the board as a rural training board.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

indicated assent.

Mr. Thurnham

I note that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) agrees with me. That is interesting, as the hon. Gentleman is one of the Opposition's spokesman on agriculture and is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. I think I am right in saying that I read today's newspaper yesterday. Sometimes I am confused about which day's newspaper I have read, especially when I read the day's newspaper the previous night because I have received an early edition of it, with the result that I cannot remember when referring to a newspaper article whether it was in the day's newspaper or in the edition that appeared on the previous day and found that it contained an article stating that the Labour party would launch a discussion document today.

Mr. Home Robertson

No, that was yesterday.

Mr. Thurnham

It appears that the Labour party proposes to have a Department of Rural Affairs, which would no doubt have greater scope than the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is possible that the hon. Member for East Lothian will propose that the board should be renamed the Rural Training Board. We might be able to discuss that issue on another occasion.

It is excellent that there should be more self-funding provision. One of the best features of the Bill is that it does not call for additional public funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North is looking for direct funding by the beneficiaries of the training themselves. If the Agricultural Training Board is to stand on its own feet and charge for its services, does my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) consider that it could be privatised? Presumably not every agricultural activity has to be funded by the state. If we live in a market economy, I believe that the more agricultural provisions that can be provided on a market basis the better. My hon. Friend should consider that.

Mr. Neale

My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Government have pegged the amount of funding for the board for some while. The board is looking increasingly for outside funding of its courses. I am sure Labour Members feel that because people had to pay for courses this can endanger the courses that are offered. However, on the contrary, the board has found that people are willing to pay for courses, if they are good, and therefore the board has become more market orientated. However, it would be a dangerous course to remove all Government funding. The Government must retain an interest, to ensure that the board continues.

Mr. Thurnham

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. My hon. Friend may think that it is dangerous to remove all Government funding, but it is also dangerous to become too dependent upon that funding. Nothing could be better than for any organisation to be fully funded by the market that it serves. By doing so, it escapes the fate that has befallen so many training boards.

I believe that in 1981, 16 of the then 23 training boards that came under the scope of the Department of Employment were abolished. That fate could befall the Agricultural Training Board if another party came into power and financial stringencies were imposed. My hon. Friends will recall that in 1977 the International Monetary Fund had to bail the country out. It may be that at a future date the training board, funded by Government will be abolished. Therefore, the more funds the Agricultural Training Board can obtain from elsewhere, the better.

Sir Peter Mills

May I remind my hon. Friend and the House that, besides the Agricultural Training Board, the young farmers clubs run excellent courses in proficiency and so on, for which the members pay themselves. That could be encouraged and certainly in my role as chairman of the Conservative Back Bench agriculture committee I would suggest to the young farmers clubs that they move out and organise courses not only for agricultural training, but for other training, to take account of the changes that are taking place.

Mr. Thurnham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps the members of the Agricultural Training Board who are taking an interest in today's debate—I hope that they are—will consider in a future annual report extending the scope of training and acknowledging the contributions made by other people. The latest report that I have, that for 1985–86, shows that the Government funding in that year was £7.74 million, which accounted for 84.6 per cent. of total funding.

The big change has been the amount of money coming in from the Manpower Services Commission through the youth training service. The Agricultural Training Board should change the balance of its funding and seek other sources that will strengthen it and make it less liable to difficulties in the future.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Government funding is taken from the agricultural support market for the industry and therefore the funding comes from the agriculture industry?

Mr. Thurnham

The total cost of the agriculture industry to the taxpayer is £2 billion. I am sure the taxpayer hopes that, over the course of time, if farming continues to be as productive as it is, agriculture will be less rather than more dependent on the taxpayer. I hope that the board will extend its sources of income by widening the scope of its activities as set out in this excellent Bill.

The Bill is not in the business of making a levy. Only last week we debated the Construction Industry Training Board and there was a proposal to increase the payroll levy from 1 to 2 per cent. for certain classes of contracted-out labour. When the Agricultural Training Board was set up it was found that it was not possible for the board to raise its funds through a levy because of the nature of the industry. Of course, farmers are always reluctant to part with any money, and that would have been necessary if a levy had been imposed. I sincerely hope that there will be an opportunity to increase outside funding, because that must be to the advantage of the board and its future operations.

I welcome the widened scope of services offered. We certainly need more training and to remove restrictions on the type of training. I am surprised that in the Bill there are restrictions on the type of training to be provided. There is the strange anomaly of the exclusion of the training of animals. I do not understand why such training has been specifically excluded.

A near neighbour in Cumbria recently applied for planning permission for an indoor riding centre. Unfortunately, permission was refused. This is one of the difficulties faced by farmers. Show jumping would have been an integral part of that centre. I do not understand why we should exclude the training of show jumpers, in which this country leads the world, from the rural activities that we are trying to encourage.

When the Bill is in Committee, as I am sure it will be shortly, I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider that provision most carefully. There should be fewer restrictions. I read somewhere that there is anxiety that the Agricultural Training Board will, in some ways, turn itself into a racehorse training board. What is wrong with the training of racehorses if it is an activity that can contribute to the life of the countryside? Such training provides an enormous levy for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, which in turn helps to pay for the agricultural subsidies. I do not understand why there is any restriction at all on the training provided.

Mr. Donald Thompson

I hope it will be made clear in Committee that the Bill restricts the training of people to train animals.

Mr. Thurnham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that it does not go as far as I feared.

I am sure that the general intentions of the Bill will be welcomed by town and country dwellers alike. We are not merely proposing greater training for those who live in the country. It is the ambition of many town dwellers to get a job in the country. If we widen the scope of jobs that are available in the country, that must be to the advantage of town dwellers. I welcome the provisions in the Bill to provide training for those who are already involved in agriculture, and also for those who are outside the agriculture industry at present. If the board is funded by the taxpayer in the future, as it has been in the past, it is important that all the people who contribute to the funding of the board should benefit from its widened scope.

For farm workers, anything that reduces their reliance upon the strict specialisation that operated in the past must be an advantage. It is a tragedy that the restrictions that applied to the Agricultural Traning Board in the past resulted in people being trained so narrowly that all they could do was to contribute to the surplus of labour that was already presenting a problem to the industry. I hope that in future that will be less of a difficulty.

The west country has always been a favourite area for tourists. My favourite product from Cornwall must be clotted cream, for which it is renowned. There is little to rival the quality of farmhouse cream teas in Cornwall. I have always thought that Cornish farmers were in no way behind the times in their knowledge of how to market a fine product. Marketing will, no doubt, be one of the disciplines that can be taught by the Agricultural Training Board in future under these wider provisions. I am sure that those who are concerned with the industry in Cornwall will be able to teach others quite a lot about marketing. They are not behind the times in knowing how to market their services there.

I am a member of the council of the Cumbria tourist board. When remarks are made that are damaging to the tourist industry, they cause enormous concern. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North is not suffering in his constituency from the trouble that we have experienced in Cumbria. The would-be Member for Knowsley, North, Mr. Huckfield, made the most damaging remarks about the tourist industry in Cumbria, and they have led to great setbacks and difficulties. It is important that in its widened scope the Agricultural Training Board should be able to educate all members of the public who are in a position to influence opinion that they should not make remarks that are as damaging to the tourist industry in Cumbria as Mr. Huckfield's remarks have been. He spoke about the effect of the nuclear industry on Cumbria, and his remarks have led to reductions in employment in Cumbria's tourist industry.

I support all the provisions of the Bill. They will enhance tourism, for which there is great scope. Farm buildings have traditionally been a good place for a holiday. I hope that the Agricultural Training Board will be able to work closely with other training boards that are involved in the tourist industry. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been able to consider the relationship between the ATB and the Hotel and Catering Training Board. The two must overlap to a great extent. As provision is being made for farmers to learn other skills, the provision of farmhouse accommodation will bring farmers into the hotel and catering industry. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been able to consider whether there should be joint provision of training by the two training boards.

Mr. Neale

It is not the intention—indeed, it is not possible under the Bill—for the Agricultural Training Board to enter into the substantial duplication of existing courses. The intention of the Bill is that by encouraging those who are involved in farming to diversify, the board should find out how best it can fill the gaps in training that need to be filled if the industry is to take advantage of the new opportunities.

Mr. Thurnham

I am glad that my hon. Friend has been able to consider the point. If the board is able to fill gaps in the existing provision of training, that can only be welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West referred to the difficulties caused by planning restrictions. If we are to expand the rural economy from its traditional activities in the past to new activities in the future, planning will be one of the most sensitive and difficult areas. I hope that the Government's great interest in reducing the burdens on industry, and also in deregulation, will lead to it becoming easier for the countryside to be used in a broader sense for the enjoyment of all, instead of restrictions being imposed because of a narrow view of what should or should not be done.

Whether or not there should be more housing development in the countryside is a sensitive area that will have to be considered with great care by local planning boards. However, I hope that new industries will be looked at in openminded and constructive ways by the planning boards, so that training can be provided in new occupations as they arise. It is impossible to know what new industries will develop that are suitable for the countryside, but it is important that planning restrictions should not throttle and stifle new developments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North referred to training boards in particular parts of the country. The Lancashire agricultural training board is the training board that is of the greatest significance to my constituents. I am glad to say that we have more training groups in Lancashire than my hon. Friend has in his county of Cornwall. I understand that there are 12 different groups in the county, managed by local farmers. I imagine that those groups are managed in much the same way as they are managed in Cornwall. In the current 12-month period, 350 course days will have been held. Over 300 youngsters have benefited through the new training scheme from training in the industry.

I am a little concerned that the Lancashire agricultural training board's activities should still be very much related to the provision of agricultural skills. I understand that, in special training, emphasis has been placed upon beef production, soft cheese making and yoghurt making. The training has been aimed at dairy farmers, but we must find a way of extending the scope for training people who have depended upon farming in the past for their livelihood. We must encourage a move away from the traditional industries. Cheese making and yoghurt making should be encouraged, but we must look much more widely than that. I hope that the Lancashire ATB, under the excellent chairmanship of Mr. Talbot, will be able to widen the scope of its activities.

I am conscious of the time and am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate. Therefore, I end by congratulating once more my hon. Friend on introducing a Bill that will extend the scope and activities of this industry. I hope that the bill will be welcomed as it continues on its way through both this House and the other place. I shall give it my greatest support.

10.56 am
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) prefaced his remarks by saying that he wanted to have a constructive debate on the subject of the Agricultural Training Board Bill, and he went on to give us a blow-by-blow account of his courtship of a farmer's daughter in Cambridgeshire. Anyone who makes the mistake of reading this debate, or any members of the public who are making the mistake of listening to it, must wonder what on earth is going on. At the beginning of his speech, the hon. Gentleman made it abundantly clear that what he was really doing was taking up time in order to prevent the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill, which is third on the Order Paper today, from being reached and debated.

Mr. Thurnham

I hope that I made it clear that, being involved in farming myself and with my wife being the owner of over 200 acres of land, I have a very great interest in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting in any way that my contribution to this debate was on anything other than a proper and genuine basis.

Mr. Home Robertson

Of course the hon. Gentleman's speech was entirely in order; otherwise you, Mr. Speaker, or Mr. Deputy Speaker, would have stopped him in his tracks. However, I am amazed that he managed to make that intervention with a straight face.

We have had an interesting debate so far, which I understand will be interrupted in about three minutes by the Leader of the House. Perhaps, therefore, I may tread water for a minute or two as well and then try to take up the thread of the debate a little later.

The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) referred to his deep commitment, and that of his party, to the rural revival. He could have fooled me, in view of the conduct of this Government and this particular Minister of Agriculture towards the rural areas of Britain throughout the seven years of this Administration. It is worth noting that, although the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West is committed so deeply to the rural revival, the Government that he supports have published no White Paper on rural policy. They have staggered from one crisis to another and farming is in dire difficulties.

We do not know what is the Government's policy, any more than we are yet familiar with the policy of the alliance, although I am delighted to see that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) has seen fit to come and take part in the debate. He made an interesting speech recently on the subject of agriculture, in which he suggested a policy which at a stroke, would increase European Community funded support to all farmers in all countries on the mainland of Europe, while cutting the support to farmers in Britain.

I understand from the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) that the alliance intends to publish a document on agricultural policy in the next week or two. We shall be fascinated to see what it says and whether it includes the sort of ideas that were being suggested by the right hon. Member for, Devonport during his recent lecture that he delivered recently.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).