HC Deb 23 January 1987 vol 108 cc1151-67

Question again proposed. That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.8 am

Mr. Home Robertson

If we can return from the consideration of a non-existent film about a non-existent spy satellite to the more mundane affairs of the Agricultural Training Board Bill, I shall return to the pattern of the speech that I originally intended to make.

I commence by congratulating the hon. Member for Cornwall, North on his good fortune in achieving the high place in the ballot for private Members' bills, and his choice of the useful and constructive subject. I have some experience in the lottery for Private Members' Bills; last year I came 12th and brought in a Bill, how the Protection of Children Bill (Tobacco) Act, which had widespread support and eventually reached the statute book.

Mr. Thurnham

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Home Robertson

For goodness' sake, the hon. Member has been havering on for some time already. Is it necessary for him to intervene again?

Mr. Thurnham

I want to commend the hon. Gentleman on having brought a Bill forward from 12th in the ballot, that gained acceptance and got on to the statute book. I commend to other people who are drawn in a similar position that they bring forward Bills which will also gain acceptance.

Mr. Home Robertson

I do not have the termerity to advise other hon. Members of the House on what sort of Bills they should bring forward. Hon. Members must make their own choices about the nature of their Bills.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North has given us a useful opportunity to improve the legislation in relation to the Agricultural Training Board. I am in a rather curious position here, because on the one hand I am the official Opposition spokesman dealing with agriculture and given the responsibility for covering the Bill and its progress through the House; and I am also a sponsor of the Bill, which shows that there is widespread support for the principle of the Bill. Indeed, it is a happy coincidence that this debate comes only one day after the launch of the Labour party's new Green Paper on agricultural policy, which suggests that active steps should be taken to diversify the rural economy and to help farmers to develop new uses for land and buildings in order to protect and promote employment in rural areas. That, as I said before we were interrupted, is in marked contrast to the drift and lack of policy from the Government. I hope that our suggestion will help to promote debate in that area.

It stands to reason that any process of extending and diversifying agriculture and extending employment in rural areas will require training in new skills which may not be directly related to agriculture and horticulture. Therefore, it is vital that steps should be taken to make such training available and the Agricultural Training Board is the obvious candidate for that task.

I am familiar with the activities of the Agricultural Training Board. It has carried out courses on my farm on the maintenance of machinery, the operation of chain saws and other things. The board runs a range of courses on farms and market gardens in my constituency of East Lothian.

However, I have been advised that on at least a couple of occasions current restrictions on the board's scope of activity has cramped its style in potentially useful work in my constituency. A group operating under the community programme of the Manpower Services Commission asked the Agricultural Training Board to assist with training to restore and convert an old farmsteading near Musselburgh in East Lothian for alternative use. But the people on the project were outside the legislative scope of the training board as it stands. Similarly, the Agricultural Training Board was approached by the Lothian health board for help with training some of its staff in the safe spraying of chemicals. Again, that was outside the scope of the board. As I understand it, the Bill will overcome that problem and in that sense it is clearly worth while and necessary.

In my constituency we have been giving much thought to rural development, which has been touched on by several hon. Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) and the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West. In my constituency the East Lothian district council has set up its own rural policy committee, working on a range of initiatives to revive our village and countryside communities. It is imperative that farmers should play their part in that process.

Mercifully, we in East Lothian have been spared the worst ravages of the milk quota cuts, but that is only because there were few dairy farms in that part of the world in the first place. However, East Lothian has some of the most fertile land in Scotland, which is inevitably making its contribution to the cereal surpluses just now. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before drastic changes will have to be imposed on the industry in one form or another. I am determined that the economy and the landscape of the area must be protected in that process.

That means finding new uses for farm buildings and new enterprises on farms—whether tourism, crafts or any of the alternative enterprises that various hon. Members have mentioned, such as sport. Indeed, we have a lot of golf courses in East Lothian already. The open golf championship will take place at Muirfield this year. If anyone is angling for an invitation I will see him afterwards. The Government leak stories to The Observer and other newspapers about some obscure Cabinet committee code named ALURE suggesting that there may be interesting new developments and the lifting of planning restrictions to make it possible for golf courses to be spread all over the countryside, but I suspect that we have enough already in East Lothian. However, that is certainly an idea. What would worry me about that—several hon. Members have talked about the possible lifting of planning restrictions in rural areas—is that I would not like to see Barratts and the like given a free hand to build rural shanty towns all over the countryside. There is a need to retain reasonable planning restrictions, while recognising the need for development and diversification in the rural economy.

There has been some pioneering in agricultural diversification in my constituency. Only a few months ago, I visited a farmer who had started a new enterprise rearing a specialist breed of goats for the production of cashmere, which will apparently be rather lucrative. I can think of a mushroom enterprise and other involving fruit and vegetables, flowers and fish farming—all strictly agricultural operations. In addition, in East Lothian we have had one of the first farming, forestry and wildlife advisory groups in Scotland. Therefore, the farmers in my constituency have shown their willingness to support and protect the environment in that part of the world.

I should like to see a number of ways of encouraging alternative enterprises, whether tourism, craft or other types of industry, and, indeed, forestry. It is important—this is part of the Labour party's new Green Paper on this issue—that there should be a Government scheme to promote the planting of trees on agricultural land, and that must include arable land if it is to have any impact on the production of surpluses.

I have had experience of the agricultural training systems. I went to the West of Scotland college of agriculture, as, I think, did the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), and the agricultural course that I did there made no mention of trees. No part of that course dealt with how to plant and protect trees, the different species of trees and what types of land were most appropriate for the planting of different types of trees. Farming and forestry have hitherto been completely divorced. There must be changes in that area and that will require specialist training and skills which are not currently covered by the agricultural training board.

I have had several representations from my constituency and other bodies in Scotland showing their support for the Bill. I know that the agricultural workers section of the Transport and General Workers Union in Scotland has shown its support for the Bill, as has the National Farmers Union of Scotland and a valuable and worthwhile pressure group called Rural Forum, which is working for rural development in Scotland. Willie Swan, the chairman of Rural Forum, has written to me saying: We believe in Rural Forum that if the ATB is to be able to provide the training which will be required by a diversified agriculture, it should have much wider powers and become in effect a rural training board. That point has already been made in the debate. Therefore, there is full support for the principles behind the Bill.

I want to raise three specific points, two of which are Committee points for the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) of which it is fair to give him notice now, and one broader point which is really for the Minister's attention. My first point concerns the drafting of the Bill and the definition of the people who will be eligible for training under an amendment which refers to the training and skills relevant to the carrying on of activities not comprised within the industry of persons who are employed in the industry and members of their family. There is also a case for including people who have been employed in the industry, because many people in rural areas have been made redundant. People are losing their jobs particularly on dairy farms just now. I fear that someone who has been made redundant and is no longer employed on a farm could find himself excluded from the scope of the Bill as it stands. Perhaps we could consider that point in Committee.

My second point has already been touched on. That is the definition of amenity skills which will be eligible for training under schemes within the new legislation. They are defined as skills which are relevant to the development, improvement, conservation or maintenance of land for sporting, recreational or environmental purposes or the rearing or care of animals for any such purposes. There is one potentially controversial area about which we should be open, and that is sport.

If a partially publicly funded body is to give training or any kind of support for controversial types of sporting, for example fox hunting or hare coursing, that would give rise to some difficulties. The hon. Gentleman and the Government should be given fair warning of that point, which we shall be able to discuss in Committee.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does the hon. Gentleman include fishing in those comments about what he may consider to be controversial sports in which some people do not wish to participate?

Mr. Home Robertson

I was not expressing a personal opinion about any of those sports. I was simply putting the point, which I think is self-evident to hon. Members in all parties, that those two sports are controversial and some people feel very strongly against them. I did not include fishing in my remarks; I talked specifically about fox hunting and hare coursing and we shall need to address ourselves to that point in Committee.

My third detailed point is addressed to the Minister and concerns funding. It is all very well for the Government to give a fair wind to a Bill like this and to say that they support the principle of extending the scope of training under the Agricultural Training Board. The Government will be able to say, "Look, aren't we marvellous? We are doing something about rural diversification." I put it to the Minister that, under the Bill, the Government will be doing precious little about rural diversification. All they are doing is altering the terms of the legislation; they are not putting any resources into it.

I recognise the inhibitions on private Members in the drafting of private Members' Bills. However, it would not be beyond the powers of the Minister and the Government to introduce a money resolution of some description which would make it possible to make additional funds available to the board actively to promote the things that all hon. Members are in favour of.

The Government have an appalling record in this area. They have made petty-minded cuts in ADAS, the Scottish agricultural colleges and the availability of advice especially to small farmers who can least afford to pay for advice from ADAS, at the very time when those small marginal enterprises most need advice on how to diversify and remain in business. Such cuts are in marked contrast to the runaway expenditure on intervention buying and bring little credit on the Government. The Minister owes it to the House and the industry to say a little more about funding.

After those few brief remarks, I should like to assure the hon. Member for Cornwall, North that we support the principles of the Bill. I congratulate him again on his good fortune in the ballot and his good judgment in selecting this subject. I hope that the Bill will be on the statute book before long, and that there will be a money resolution to provide sufficient funds so that it will lead to some action in the countryside.

11.22 am
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale), which will make further provision with respect to the functions of the Agricultural Training Board.

My association with the training board goes back to its inception 20 years ago, and, as a result, I believe that I should declare an interest. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), recalled how we both received our agricultural training at the same college. I cannot imagine what went wrong with the training after I left.

Before I speak on the Bill, I should like to comment on the remarks made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) about the devastating effects of high interest rates on farmers' incomes. The hon. Lady should be aware of the statistics that are available to everybody and which show that more farmers lend money than borrow it. The gross indebtedness to agriculture is carried by the 2,000-acre farmers, about whom she talked, who are supposed to be earning a fortune. The hon. Lady should look at the statistics and make sure that she gets it right for the policy document next week.

During the earlier part of the Agricultural Training Board's life I was an examiner specialising in livestock courses; I still pay my group training membership. Who knows, if the additional provisions become law, I may be able to run a course on the advantages for farmers of political awareness. I am sorry to see that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has gone. I am sure that he believes that farmers are well and truly politically aware now.

In its early days, the ATB had few friends. However, once the advantages that would accrue to the industry and farmers were known, by making use of the board's training and retraining provisions, it has become an integral part of the industry. There would be great hostility if anyone ever suggested ending the Agricultural Training Board.

The highly successful Agricultural Training Board service in the county of Nottinghamshire provides for accurate local assessment of the training needs of farmers and horticulturists, and for a response to those needs, largely in the form of short courses. Those courses are essentially practical and are held for small groups of trainees so that the individuals gain genuine "hands-on" practice under the supervision of highly skilled instructors. In an average year, over 1,500 farmers and farm staff in the county participate in courses that cover a wide range of agricultural and horticultural production and deal with all occupational levels. Virtually all the training is now delivered through the network of nine training groups, to one of which all farmers have reasonably convenient access.

The productivity record of the industry is well known and second to none. That has been brought about by the industry accepting new production methods and technology. However, the importance of the ATB in that achievement was in transferring that knowledge and skills to those employed in the industry. The tremendous success is now evident in the unwanted food surpluses. For no other reason, change to both the industry and its training board must come, but under the present legislation the expertise and training materials that the ATB has developed over 20 years cannot encompass that change, despite requests for it to provide a training service in land maintenance skills and supervisory and management skills, to utilities such as water authorities, electricity boards and local councils. There is also training demand from garden centres, leisure parks and small rural industries.

In my historic and famous constituency of Sherwood, there is a great opportunity to take advantage of the increased tourist activity. The catalyst will be the new centre park holiday village being built in the heart of Sherwood Forest, and costing £32 million. Already one farmer has opened a rare breed section as a tourist attraction on his farm, reducing his output of unwanted cereals. However, the rural community in general will need courses on how to exploit the opportunity from tourism. There is no better organisation than the Agricultural Training Board to teach them how to achieve that goal.

I commend the Bill to the House and am delighted to be associated with it.

11.28 pm
Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

I rise to support the Bill wholeheartedly and should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) on his initiative and also on the excellent way in which he has presented his Bill this morning.

The Bill seeks to widen the scope of present Agricultural Training Board and to meet the challenges now facing the industry. I note with pleasure that it will achieve that aim on a self-financing basis.

I was brought up on a farm on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, and I observed the technological revolution in the farming industry over some years. I have seen the British farmer adapt to tremendous change. When I was a small boy, many farm workers milked large herds by hand. Then the vacuum milk bucket was introduced, followed by the line parlour. Now we have the herringbone and rotary parlours. All that has happened in the space of 30 years. It is an incredible change, and has required guts on the part of farmers, in the investment that they have made. We have also seen the effect of that change on the number of people living in the countryside. For example, the difference between the number of people needed to milk a herd of 200 cows by hand compared with the number needed today is tremendous. Thus, there has been a large flow of farm workers from the countryside.

We have seen the British farmer accept tremendous risk in investment, not only in land but in equipment and machinery—and, indeed,. in seed fertiliser and stock. At the same time, there has been an enormous increase in productivity. If only British manufacturing industry could have matched even one quarter of farming's productivity increases, we would be in the same position as Japan today. The increase in productivity has also meant a flow of people from farming into other industries, and from the countryside into other activities in small towns.

The British farmer has been constantly urged to produce more and more. He has met that challenge by outstanding management and effort. Many farmers whom I know, particularly in the Winchester and Hampshire area, have achieved dramatic increases in productivity, particularly in cereal production. That was a barren area before the first world war, and land was going for £5 an acre. Increases in productivity have been fantastic. However, now there are massive food surpluses in both North America and Europe. Farmers are being urged to cut back at the same time as real farm incomes are turning downward and farm asset prices are falling.

As I said, people have been driven off the land by technology and increases in productivity. We have seen inflation-led land prices discourage new people from coming into farming, and we have also seen those same inflationary rises in land prices encourage some farmers to sell to major institutions—again resulting in a social denuding of the countryside.

Now there are restrictions on beef production, milk quotas and price restrictions on cereals. All that portends the risk of forcing more farmers off the land, denuding the life of the rural areas yet further. Therefore, we need a real rejuvenation of the rural areas. In order to do so, we have to find alternative uses for land and buildings. We must also find new ways of encouraging rural employment and keeping people in the villages and the country areas. In short, I believe that we must show creativity and flexibility in meeting the challenges that face agriculture. The Bill both allows for and encourages creativity and flexibility. In Hampshire, milk and cereals are in substantial surplus, so the Bill will be widely welcomed there.

Alternative or even additional activities in rural areas might include such things as tourism, with hotel accommodation and so on, and fish farming. In my constituency, we have two famous fish rivers—the Itchen and the Meon. Next door, in the part of my constituency that I lost in the boundary changes, is the river Test. That is of particular interest to the people in my constituency.

There are also opportunities for the direct marketing of farm products, particularly now that there is an accent upon health, natural foods and so on.

These opportunities, fit in very much with the Conservative philosophy on agriculture, of encouraging the British farmer to think beyond producing just for the farm gate, but of selling into the market. In the early 1980s we encountered problems with products such as apples and bacon, illustrating one fault in British agriculture, that our farmers had tended to grow for volume. The Milk Marketing Board and various other boards would buy the food in bulk. The farmer was not thinking of the end consumer; he was thinking of the wholesaler rather the retail consumer. There are still opportunities in that area for initiatives by farmers.

There are also opportunities in value-added products such as cream, cheese and meat products such as sausages and ham. Other opportunities were mentioned by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who spoke of recreation. In addition to activities such as nature walks, he mentioned sport and questioned whether any Government money, even indirectly, should be used to finance what he terms controversial sports, such as fox hunting and hare coursing.

In Committee, there must be major concentration on what might be considered controversial—in other words, when people exercise their freedom of choice—and on things that are legal or illegal. If sports such as fox hunting and shooting are legal, there is no problem. I noticed with interest that the hon. Gentleman excluded from his list another blood sport, fishing, which often allows an animal—the fish—to suffocate over many hours. I wondered why until I considered the voting profile of many people who fish. Then I began to see. The hon. Gentleman may—I do not say that he is—be interested not so much in the life of those animals as in his own votes. We must focus on that matter in Committee, if the hon. Gentleman tries to say that, as a legal sport is controversial and he does not support it, the Bill should not cover it.

There are also commercial opportunities, such as garden centres. Farmers might also be encouraged to enter taxi and lorry businesses. With their families, they could carry out activities not instead of, but in addition to, farming. For example, if they ran a lorry business, it could be in support of agriculture.

There are also tremendous opportunities for crafts and light industry. On high technology, a farmer's son and daughter might have gone through different schooling from the one that he enjoyed. Their education might be orientated towards a high technology future. They do not have to leave the farm and live in the city; they could live on the same farm and bring high technology to it.

For the rural areas to remain viable, we must accept that there has to be change. We must protect the environment, and we must maintain a serious grip on the green belt. At the same time, we must show imagination in adapting to the necessary changes. We must not restrict the evolution of life on the farm as the farmers grapple with the challenges of the changed use of land. We must show imagination and flexibility at the same time as retaining the overall goals of protecting the environment. I shall now deal with planning permission, especially on the part of local authorities. I believe that local councillors on planning committees and their staff must be made aware of the need for adaptation on the farms and the implication of the changes that are about to happen. It is our job to make sure that they are made aware. We must remind them that Conservative policy, even at this date, is to encourage the changed use of farm buildings.

The great advantages of high technology are that it is largely clean and non-pollutant. It does not have to be concentrated around coal or a certain market, distribution centre or labour. It can be well diversified into the country. In fact, a farm provides a good site. It has access for the odd van or lorry delivery, it has utilities and buildings. Some of the At cost barns are easily adapted to all sorts of uses on the inside. Of course, the farms are in the country, often in a fold in the ground out of the wind. Therefore, the conversion of a farm into a high technology site would have very little impact on the environment.

However, mistakes can be made and one nearly happened in my constituency. In the village of Kingsworthy the intention was to concentrate all the high technology of the area into one place and to build a huge high technology park that completely engulfed and dwarfed the local village and created its own environmental problems. It was being slipped through under the guise of high technology, when it was light industry. High technology does not require a major concentration. I urge local authority planning committees to look seriously at farms as a wonderful option for areas in which high technology can grow in a non-pollutant way.

For 20 years the Agricultural Training Board has offered a training service in Hampshire, often in conjunction with the county agricultural college at Sparsholt. It now offers over 1,100 courses. The grass-roots organisation in Hampshire is in the hands of eight agriculture and two horticulture training groups with over 30 per cent. of all Hampshire farmers and growers active at any one time. Therefore, there is real participation in Hampshire and I know that there will be great interest in this Bill.

The Bill will allow farmers not only to take courses in farm management, as they do now, but to take courses that will help them adopt new forms of land and asset use to meet the challenges of the industry. It will also allow people from urban areas to become involved in activities in the country and it will encourage people back into the villages and restore vibrancy. It will provide opportunities for people in urban areas, especially deprived areas, to live in the country and play a full part in the country communities. It will encourage other bodies such as equestrian centres, local authorities and the National Trust to participate in the rejuvenation of rural areas more actively than at present.

As I have said, the Bill is self-financing and will contribute greatly to adapting and continuing country life. I offer it my full supprt and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North on his welcome initiative. I should like to wish him good luck in furthering the Bill through the processes of the House.

11.44 am
Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I should like to add my congratulations to those already expressed to my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) on taking the opportunity to bring forward his Bill to widen the powers of the Agricultural Training Board. If one comes high or at the top of the private Members' ballot, it is tempting to take some apparently sensational step that will leave the Member concerned covered in glory, or something else, for ever and a day. Therefore, to take a measure which is of such enormous importance but without instant box office appeal, shows responsibility for which my hon. Friend should be commended.

The fact that the Bill does not have immediate box office appeal does not in any way detract from the vital significance it has for the countryside. Hon. Members from both sides of the House have already picked up the significance of the changes happening today.

Twelve months ago we were involved in the early proceedings of what is now the Agriculture Act 1986 and we spent much time talking about rural diversification. We spent hours in Committee dealing with the fine points of the desirability of rural diversification and at the end of the procedures, the Act included a clause that enabled Ministers to be able to encourage rural diversification on a broader basis than had been envisaged when the Bill was first drafted. I was particularly grateful for that. However, at the moment Ministers do not have the ability to bring forward funds directly to be able to encourage that. We are not talking about funding today because the fact that the Bill is private Member's legislation means that there cannot be an extension of public expenditure involved. However, we are talking about broadening the base of opportunity for rural diversification and that is a good thing.

When looking at rural diversification we must deal with the question of training so that people can take advantage of the opportunities that are being presented and sought every day. The training facilities in my part of the world are already fairly good under the Agricultural Training Board and I am told that in my county there are already 17 training groups dealing with the training needs of agriculture and horticulture. Hon. Members do not need to be reminded of the importance of agriculture and horticulture to the county.

It is significant that, in the year ending 31 March 1987, the training groups will have held almost 500 short practical courses in a wide range of skills from craft level to management to meet—this is the important point— the locally identified needs of the members' businesses. It is a good thing that most of the courses are held on farms with the facilities provided by group members. Trainees learn by doing, and "hands on" practice under the supervision of skilled instructors and tutors is a good and effective way of using funds.

In addition to subjects primarily concerned with husbandry and production, there has been a recent surge of interest in courses designed to improve the financial and business management of farmers and growers. I cannot underline the importance of that point too strongly. Far too often over the years, that dimension has gone by default.

The industry's increase in coherence at present makes it imperative that everyone involved in agriculture and horticulture is as fully aware of the financial dimensions in operation as every other engineering or professional enterprise. They cannot afford to have any aspect of their enterprise financially unquantified at the moment.

I gather that horticulture businesses, which are of great significance in my part of the world, have taken advantage of a new series of Agricultural Training Board courses designed to prepare newly appointed supervisors for their responsibilities in the management of people and processes. That is welcome, because the margins of horticulture become ever less as the industry becomes more competitive and expert. However, significantly, it has been reported to me that it has not been possible, because of the present limitations of the Agricultural Training Board's scope, to respond to growing requests for training in woodland management, tourist and recreational developments and the valuable production of milk and meat products. Those areas particularly relate to rural diversification of the first order, not the rural diversification referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) but that first line of rural diversification in the countryside where it is clearly apparent to those involved with the countryside that they have an additional aspect of business which can be expanded.

I am told that there is also an unsatisfied demand for training in agricultural skills from individuals and organisations which manage land for purposes other than food production. The Bill will contribute enormously to the satisfaction of those demands that at present are unsatisfied. For that reason, it must be commended.

I want to take this opportunity to raise a particular point with the Minister which he may not necessarily be able to answer today. However, it is right that we should be aware of the difficulties that face tenants on agricultural holdings when they seek to diversify their businesses, That reflects very much on their willingness to take up training opportunities.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) said that he hoped that no one would read the proceedings on this debate. I hope that they will be read by the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union, because there is a problem at the heart of this matter. Written into the model tenancy agreement, which is so often the foundation of the landlord-tenant agreement, is the provision that a tenant may not diversify or undertake business outside the narrow scope of agriculture without the agreement of the landlord. On the face of it, that may be a sensible provision. However, at the moment it means that many tenants are in contravention of their tenancy agreements if they carry out bed and breakfasting.

It has been brought to my attention by a constituent who sought to diversify his operation by creating a model farm specialising in rare breeds that his landlord immediately said that he wanted an enhanced rent or a share of the take. We are concerned with the unfettering of the tenant so that he may utilise his holding within a far wider scope of definition of agricultural or countryside activity so as to be able to pay the rent that he has agreed to pay in the light of his lessening ability to indulge in the full production for which the tenancy agreement was drawn up in the first place.

This point may not strictly be within the terms of the Bill, but it very much affects the ability or willingness of those in the countryside to take the training opportunities created under the Bill. That condition in model tenancies is a positive disincentive to training opportunities proposed in the Bill. I plead with those who are in a position to change matters to recognise that the current provisions of the model tenancy inhibit the future of rural diversification in the countryside. All landowners who operate under model tenancy agreements should desire a full and healthy scope of activity in the countryside.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North on having identified and laid on the table another piece in the jigsaw puzzle which is confronting agriculture and the countryside in shaping their future. That has been an invaluable contribution, for which he must be fully commended. I look forward to seeing the Bill progress through Committee and on to the statute book.

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

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) on obtaining the Bill and on the first-class way in which he presented it. Normally, I would have noted what he said and skilfully woven his comments into my speech—

Mr. Home Robertson


Mr. Thompson

Yes—and everybody would have been satisfied. I must thank hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I know that some of them live in far corners of the United Kingdom, so I shall deal with my hon. Friend's comments first and then proceed to the more general aspects of the Bill and comments from Opposition Members.

As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) lives furthest away and has important business in his constituency, I shall deal first with his comments. I thank him for welcoming the Bill and, indeed, for sponsoring it. I know that the Labour party is genuinely worried about diversification and I was surprised that he could not resist making a little dig at the Government. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman brought the support of agriculture workers, the Scottish farmers unions and Rural Forum, all of which will be of great benefit to my hon. Friend during the passage of the Bill.

I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about trees. We agree that trees will play a great part in the diversification programme to come, so any training given in the growing of trees will be for the better. I took his point about fox hunting and hare coursing. This Bill is no vehicle for any discord. Although some of my hon. Friends may disagree slightly, I do not want the Bill to include anything that could cause discord in future. We seem to have general agreement about that. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that, but not pleased to hear——

Mr. Home Robertson

The Minister has no money.

Mr. Thompson

I need not continue. The hon. Gentleman asked questions to which he knew the answer and that is not within the rules of the House. There is no money, at this time and we shall have no money resolution on the Bill at present. We shall see how it goes, as Ministers say from this Dispatch Box.

We must diversify. As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch)—he sends apologies for his absence—and my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) said, we are in the middle of an agricultural revolution. It started before the common agricultural policy started. During the past 25 years the United Kingdom has doubled its cereal production from 7 million to 15 million tonnes, its sugar beet production has risen 30 per cent., milk production 50 per cent., beef and veal production 50 per cent., mutton and lamb production 40 per cent., pig meat 140 per cent. and, most dramatic, there has been a tenfold increase in poultry production. All that has been achieved on a declining area of agricultural land.

Back in 1967, when I was a county councillor, people were talking about how awful it was to continue building because we would run out of land and would end up starving outside our houses. That has not happened. [Interruption.] There is no sign of that with me. One would not expect the Minister for Food to look as though he had never had a good meal in his life, and I do not intend to.

With that background, we are happy to welcome the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North gave a good outline of the Bill, and I am sure that he will endeavour to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in a moment to wind up. He covered many of the matters that have since been covered. The Bill was well explained by him, and it was also explained that it will be self-funding.

The hon. Member for Ipswich sent me his apologies. He is another sponsor of the Bill. I agree with him that the Bill will lead to a ground change in agricultural training. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North mentioned their local training schemes, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) a moment ago. I am glad to add my congratulations to the training schemes going on in north Yorkshire, west Yorkshire and south Yorkshire. Those schemes seem to be successful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West had some hard things to say about planning. He made an important point about training people in the welfare of animals and how the Bill will extend people's awareness of the need properly to look after animals. The Government have set up the Farm Animals Welfare Council to guide them on the welfare of animals. We look forward to and often receive comments, upon which we often act, from organisations such as Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA and other welfare groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West and I shall have no truck whatsoever with the lunatic fringe. We shall encourage farmers and the farming community to see that such lunatics are caught and imprisoned with the full severity of the law.

I was a little disappointed by the sour reception of the Bill by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields). She comes from an area with almost no unemployment—3 per cent. or 4 per cent.—yet she, like many of her colleagues, would have us believe that the whole of the north of England is painted black. I am as lucky as she is to live in a most beautiful part of the country.

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

It cannot be that beautiful—it is not in Lancashire.

Mr. Thompson

No, it is not in Lancashire, it is in Yorkshire. Conservative Members consider that small farmers—my constituency is made up of small farmers—are the backbone of the farming industry. The Bill will give a great deal of help to those small farmers who wish to take it.

It is not demeaning for a farmer's wife to put on bed and breakfast, as opposed to getting up early in the morning to feed the chickens or the calves. Perhaps the chickens and the calves have more interesting conversation, but it is a change of job. The farming community, and small farmers especially, will welcome the ability to move into training. I shall not deal with alliance farming policies, the Liberal farming policy for the north, the SDP farming policy for the south, or any of their multiplicity of policies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) made a welcome wide-ranging contribution that has already been commented upon. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) made an interesting point about the Sherwood forest leisure park. Leisure parks were looked upon with fear only a few years ago, but now people all over the country are competing. Leisure parks and theme parks give a great deal of employment to people living in the surrounding countryside. I was glad to hear that my hon. Friend welcomed the leisure park in his constituency.

It was nice to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) talk so knowledgeably about farming. I have often been instructed by his speeches on finance in all its rarified aspects. Perhaps he is moving with the City into farming—a better bet, perhaps.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bow and Poplar)

He is diversifying.

Mr. Thompson


I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend said about anglers. Tomorrow night, I shall speak to anglers in Todmorden. Anglers are considered to be an integral important part of the sport and recreation community. My hon. Friend pointed out that there are more people involved in angling than in any other sport. Conservative Members have not forgotten the needs of anglers compared with the needs of those in many other sports.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford made an expert contribution and saw the point of the Bill exactly. He added to the pleas of others on the need for trainers and training. He was right to mention the value of value-added products. About 46 per cent of the butter manufactured this year in the United Kingdom was immediately put into intervention butter. If it could have been put into cheese, yogurt or other value-added products, the whole of British farming industry would have been much more prosperous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford directed his last point specifically at me. It concerned diversification and the tenant and the landlord getting a fair crack of the whip. Harmonisation can only be achieved by those associations that deal with and look after tenants and landlords. I hope that they read Hansard carefully, as my hon. Friend requested.

I think that I have covered most of the points raised. Many hon. Members have referred to planning as important. It is often argued that the planning system prevents farmers from diversifying into other activities. The Government are sensitive to the needs of farmers seeking to diversify, and recent circular advice from the Department of the Environment to local planning authorities illustrates this. For example, circular 2/86 "Development by Small Businesses" draws together advice from previous circulars over the freeing of redundant farm buildings for other uses—for instance, small-scale commercial or industrial ventures to help diversify the rural economy, and also refers to the importance of leisure facilities in contributing to employment being underlined in a report "Pleasure, Leisure and Jobs, The Business of Tourism", which was published in July 1985. The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West about the small business which tried to occupy the disused chapel on the edge of a village is covered by those references.

Green belt policy is often singled out as a particular constraint on farmers in those areas. The Government's policy on the development in green belts is set out in Department of the Environment circular 14/84, annex A, which says: Inside a Green Belt, approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings or for the change of use of existing buildings for purposes other than agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds, or other uses appropriate to a rural area". Where planning permission is sought for new uses of redundant agricultural buildings, it is for the local planning authority to consider the application by reference to this policy and any other material consideration. But it would be appropriate to take into account, where material, the need to diversify the rural economy by encouraging new types of employment and enterprise. Redundant agricultural buildings can provide suitable accommodation for small firms or tourist activities, or can be used for individual residences, without detriment to the green belt and to the benefit of the local community, especially where the buildings are of attractive appearance and can be expected with normal repair and maintenance to last for many years. In deciding planning applications for new uses of redundant agricultural buildings, I would expect local authorities to have regard to these considerations.

It is not just in remote country areas where planning authorities seem to lose their way in these measures. We should encourage planning authorities, wherever possible, to diversify in an environmentally sensitive way. There is nothing the matter with that phrase. It means exactly what it says. We should do so in a way that everyone who wants enterprises established can accept. If that is done carefully and gently, without banner waving and silliness on either side, far more jobs will be created and people can use the provisions in the Bill widely.

The Bill will involve all sorts of advisory services. The agencies include the Development Commission, the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, the Forestry Commission, the Countryside Commission, the Nature Conservancy Council, the English Tourist Board, and the sports councils. All those bodies can give grants and offer advice on various aspects of diversification at local level. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food works closely with them. Some enterprising farmers have successfully expanded beyond traditional activities without financial help from outside. It is the Government's policy to provide incentives in the form of grants where they can be of most help. That is one reason why we do not need a money resolution for this Bill, because the money to do the job is already available in many cases from other areas.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my hon. Friend, who will be coming up to my constituency in Stafford shortly and will be discussing these questions with local farmers and others involved in the rural economy, agree that enterprise agencies also have an important role here in dovetailing with all the important bodies that he has just mentioned?

Mr. Thompson

I certainly agree that enterprise agencies do and should dovetail.

In commenting on the Bill, I have sketched over much that I have to say, as it has been said ably and wll by other Conservative Members today. This Bill will be welcomed not just by the Agricultural Training Board but by the agricultural industry and by many other interests that the Bill will enable the board to serve. On behalf of the Government, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North on bringing the Bill forward, and I commend it to the House.

12.15 pm
Mr. Neale

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall reply to the debate.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for his kind remarks. There is a wide measure of agreement on what he said about planning. That applies to those who are involved in farming as well as to others in rural areas. Matters of the sort that we have been discussing should be dealt with in a way that is environmentally sensitive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) said, it is always a matter of balance. It is only when rigidity is applied by planning authorities that great upset can be caused.

An example arose recently in my constituency when a proposal was agreed by my parish council, the local people and the district council, but the county council found that a change of use on a farm which was well tucked away amounted to an infringement of the structure plan, and accordingly turned it down. That is an example of how a farmer's efforts to diversify were brought to naught.

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken so kindly about the Bill. It is clear that there is widespread agreement about the need to accept that there is difficulty in farming in rural areas. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) talked of the need for a farming and countryside policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West talked about a rural revival. The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) spoke of the trauma of some small farmers. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) spoke kindly of the Bill and talked about the social denuding that is taking place in rural areas because of changes in farming. These speeches are of common concern and will be confronted to some extent by the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) introduced us to a considerable number of members of his own family: I confess that I rather lost count. He may have appeared to range slightly wide of the Bill, but one of the critical features which singles it out from many others of its kind is that it confronts the problem of farmers' family members and the wives of farm workers, who can participate so much in the diversification process. They too would be able to obtain some training under the Bill. That is most important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson)—the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell me that he would be watching the clock carefully as he is due to attend a constituency engagement, and I suspect that many others are in that position—acknowledged the need to establish alternative skills and to encourage small farmers as well as those employed on small farms, and large farms, too, to take up the opportunities that would be open under the Bill. It was interesting to hear of the hon. Gentleman's participation in that process.

It is not the Bill's purpose to allow the board to duplicate other courses. The Bill is a sincere attempt to provide opportunities that will plug the gaps that now exist. In any event, it would be necessary for the board to seek approval for the various forces that it wishes to establish.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West hit the nail on the head when he said that there is a need to accept change. As the hon. Member for Cornwall, North, I have a warm regard for my hon. Friend, who has helped me over the years on agriculture matters. That is a fundamental aspect that affects agriculture at present, its need to accept change and face realities.

The hon. Member for Ryedale was somewhat critical of the Government, although she did say that the Bill would have alliance support, for which I am grateful. In my research and preparation concerning the Bill, I have not found one example to suggest that the Government have in any way been unaware of what has happened and unaware of the changes that must be faced in agriculture. I did not seen any sign of a lack of enthusiasm in terms of solutions to advance those changes.

After my discussions with members of the farming community, I suggest that we should not under-estimate their real desire to face the changes and their wish to seize the opportunities for training and help. For many, the changes have been traumatic. There has been a great deal of anxiety and apprehension when it has become apparent that the customs and ways of business which have been followed for generations are no longer relevant.

Although I have no illusions that the Bill will transform all British agriculture, I pick up the remarks kindly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and I hope that the Bill will contribute in some way to help the entire farming industry to cope with the changes, diversify and improve itself on the foundation of the great successes which have already taken place since the war.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order, No. 61 (Committal of Bills).