HC Deb 01 February 1988 vol 126 cc770-802

Order for Second Reading read.

7.37 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

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

This Bill comes to us from another place, where it has already been discussed in some detail. But to assist the House in its consideration, let me put the Bill into context, describe the background, arid then deal with the three separate parts of the Bill on woodlands, farm diversification, and the structure of the Development Commission. I intend to keep my remarks brief because it is not a full-day debate. I am sure that many hon. Members wish to speak.

The new opportunities that the Bill will bring about are part of a coherent policy that we have been developing for agriculture and the countryside in relation to the alternative use of land. The farm woodlands and forestry diversification proposals will contribute in differing ways towards our general objective of promoting an enterprising and more market-orientated agriculture, a flourishing rural economy, and an attractive and living countryside.

I stress that the proposals are only part of the programme. No doubt we shall debate or have already debated other proposals on other occasions. Such proposals include environmentally sensitive areas, for which we already have powers. We have been moving ahead fast. We have successfully led the way in the European Community, which now contributes 25 per cent. of the cost of ESAs. The proposals also include developing set-aside for alternative crops, in looking at alternative crops, and encouraging research and development into alternative industrial uses of agricultural products. Tonight, we are focusing on only two parts. I shall briefly set the background.

The House is well aware of the Government's efforts to deal with agricultural surpluses and the soaring costs of the common agricultural policy. This will call for major adjustments in the farming industry. In particular, when combined with the continued technological progress, which we can foresee in the next 10 years, it is clear that more land will have to come out of conventional food production.

A very useful report on the subject was published by the Agricultural Economic Development Committee last year called "Directions for Change: Land Use in the 1990s.'" I shall not go into detail, but it predicted that significant amounts of land, scattered throughout the United Kingdom, will be released, mainly from cereals and dairying, over the next seven, eight or nine years. Although experts would differ on the figures—it is impossible to be precise because it will depend on the changing and differing reactions among farmers and other matters—most would accept this basic premise.

The main thrust of action to tackle surpluses must be taken at Community level. Price restraint and stabilisers are the key to this, but other emerging Community policies will have an important part to play in the adjustment process, especially set-aside. Proposals on set-aside are currently before the Council of Ministers that build on existing provisions for the extensification scheme, which we have already discussed in the House.

These proposals have considerable potential for taking land out of production. They are, however, still under discussion. Indeed, they are due to be considered at the European Council in 10 days' time. This is a fast-changing and fast-moving scene. It is impossible to say exactly what extensification or set-aside proposals we shall end up with, but that we shall do so I can confidently predict.

There is a broad measure of agreement that such schemes can make a substantial contribution as a complement to price policy in reducing over-production. Now is not the time to go into detail on set-aside; no doubt there will be other opportunities to do so.

Meanwhile, the Bill gives us the enabling powers for two other elements of the programme of new opportunities that the Government are making available in the United Kingdom to assist in the necessary process of adjustment and to ensure that alternative farm resources employed in diversification are used to enhance the attractiveness of our countryside and to assist the rural economy.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I have looked at the Bill with great care. I can find no reference in it to any requirement of viability of enterprise arising from the enormous subsidies that might flow from the Bill. Will the Minister explain why there is no test of viability for the receipts of grants from Government by farmers who are now in serious difficulties?

Mr. MacGregor

There are two aspects to the Bill in this context, and I hope to come to some parts of that later.

The farm woodlands scheme is not simply a scheme to get agricultural land out of agricultural production. It also has an important environmental context. That is one of the other key objectives of this proposal. I am satisfied that it will be a sensible measure to assist with the problem of reducing surpluses.

With regard to the farm diversification scheme, we are talking not about enormous subsidies—I think that they were the words used by the right hon. Gentleman—but about comparatively modest measures to assist farmers in the diversification process. I shall explain later how we hope that this will be a sensible way of achieving viable businesses and why the proposal in the Bill is designed to help with that viability.

I shall now turn to the content of the Bill. I should like to take clause 2 first. It is the major part of the Bill and it provides enabling powers for Ministers to make a scheme of grants in respect of farm woodlands for any one or more parts of Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, the necessary powers already exist.

Encouragement for woodlands forms part of our package because woodlands have been focused on by many experts as offering one of the most realistic alternatives to land currently in productive agriculture. Many people, when considering alternative ranges of crops, have focused on woodlands as one of the most hopeful sectors. I am realistic, and I recognise that they can make only a partial contribution to the land use problem. I do not want to claim that the Bill contains the panacea for alternative land use in the two proposals that it puts forward. There is no single panacea; all can make a contribution of one sort or another.

The 12,000 hectares a year scheme that we are proposing over the next three years could result in up to 30 million new trees a year, or 90 million trees in all. It is important to put that figure in context. We have all been concerned about the devastation that the storm damage caused last October in many parts of southern England and East Anglia. We now know that about 15 million trees were lost. In the farm woodlands scheme there is potential for 90 million trees to be planted in the next three years. That is interesting in comparison with the 15 million trees that we have lost, which we all regard as having had a devastating environmental impact. The Bill has potential to create an attractive environmental impact.

Assuming that the House can give the Bill a swift passage, we shall be introducing the farm woodlands scheme in time for the autumn tree-planting season.

As some hon. Members will already know, I have revised significantly the Government's original proposals, taking into account the representations that we received during the consultation process. In particular, I have retargeted the scheme primarily towards arable land and improved grassland. This has a dual purpose, since, first, it will do more than the original proposals to reduce agricultural surpluses and, secondly, it will minimise the risk to land of conservation value. I know that the changes on the environmental and conservation aspects have been warmly welcomed by those interested in conservation matters.

To be eligible, improved grassland will have to have been cultivated and re-seeded in the past 10 years. Some have urged a less restrictive definition, but we must draw the line in a simple and effective way if we are to realise savings in agricultural support costs. That was the point to which the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was trying to draw attention. As I always aim to do, in this scheme I have gone as much as possible for simple guidelines and simple administration.

We need to prevent farmers from ploughing up unimproved land to try to make it eligible for the scheme. We may therefore require a declaration from farmers to the effect that the land in question was already in cultivation in a particular base year — most probably 1986–87, as envisaged under the extensification scheme. Many of the points of detail are not for the Bill but for the regulations later.

At this stage, I should refer briefly to the main reason why it was necessary to bring forward a farm woodlands scheme. Of course, farmers are already eligible for forestry grants. It has been recognised in recent years that there is a cost in management to farmers in planting woodlands. There is also a loss of income on the land given to woodlands. There is a dual problem — a cost in managing, particularly in early years, and a loss of income on that land. Set against that is the fact that the income from woodlands is many years hence. There has been a question of income loss as well as the issue of encouragement to plant through planting grants. It is therefore the annual payments and the income to which the scheme is addressed.

Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)

In consideration of the farm woodlands scheme and the incentives for people to go into it, will the Minister say how many of the trees that he envisages being planted will be conifers? Will he accept that many people are worried about the environmental impact of large-scale conifer plantations and wish, therefore, to see environmental safeguards being built into the regulations?

Mr. MacGregor

I am coming to the environmental point. I am sure that the hon. Lady will welcome the way in which we have re-targeted the scheme to concentrate very much on broadleaf planting.

Because we are concentrating primarily on this more productive land, we have increased the rates of annual payment significantly compared with the amounts in the consultation document — to £190 per hectare in the lowlands, £150 per hectare in the disadvantaged areas and £100 per hectare in the severely disadvantaged areas. We are also encouraging more broadleaf planting by offering longer payment periods of 30 years for woodland containing more than 50 per cent. broadleaves and 40 years for pure oak and beech planting. The payment period for other planting will he 20 years.

As well as these annual payments, farmers will be eligible for forestry planting grants under existing schemes to get their woodlands established. For a wood of three to 10 hectares, the broadleaf woodland grant for pure broadleaves is currently £800 per hectare, nearly double the conifer rate of £420 per hectare. We have also accepted an amendment in another place which requires Ministers to review the rates of payment periodically. This appears as clause 2(3).

Because we are determined to try to keep down the administrative cost of the scheme and get as much of the money as possible through to the farmer, I have already announced that we shall be cutting down on the procedures whereby the Forestry Commission consults local authorities about proposed planting. Consultation on smaller schemes—those of less than 10 hectares—will no longer be required except in, for example, sites of special scientific interest, environmentally sensitive areas, national parks in England and Wales and national scenic areas in Scotland — national nature reserves are, incidentally, excluded from the scheme altogether.

I believe that this change will help to make the scheme more attractive to farmers, who are often put off by the complications of consultation, and will encourage the planting of small woodlands. I do not foresee any real risk to habitats or landscape from the planting of small areas of trees, mainly on improved land. Indeed, I think that the environmental impact of the scheme will be positive, particularly as applications are scrutinised by the Forestry Commission and can be amended if they are unsatisfactory on environmental grounds. But we shall look at this aspect very carefully when we come to review the scheme in 1991 at the end of the three-year experimental period.

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the problem of farm incomes in general? I am sure that we all agree with my right hon. Friend's line on the environment, broadleaves and so on. Farm incomes are falling and falling. It seems as though on the present rating we are talking merely about slowing the decline in farm incomes. This is not a great help to the farmer.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend has taken me rather wider than the Bill and I would probably be ill-advised to open up a much wider agricultural debate. As I have said, the Bill will help the process of adjustment on the reforms of the CAP.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Halton)


Mr. MacGregor

Having given away quite a lot, I should prefer to move on and enable as many hon. Members as wish to speak 'to do so.

The farmer's first point of contact will normally be with the agriculture advisory services. When he has prepared his application, perhaps with professional help, he will send it to the local Forestry Commission office. Checks will be carried out, including checks on the eligibility of the land, and a Forestry Commission official will visit the site to ensure that the proposals are suitable. The Forestry Commission will also conduct consultations with local authorities and other agencies where these are required. Once the application is approved, the agriculture Department will write and offer the farmer a place in the scheme. The farmer will then be required to confirm the number of hectares he intends to plant and when. In effect, the scheme is a sophisticated form of cash limit — a hectarage limit — and I should like to explain how I hope it will work.

This procedure is necessary, first, to ensure that the right sort of planting takes place, and, secondly, to enable us effectively to operate the limit of 12,000 hectares a year –36,000 hectares over three years. That is our limit. We cannot sensibly operate a first-received, first-served system, because applications will take different lengths of time to process, especially when consultations with other bodies are required. We do not want all applications to have to wait for the slowest one.

We intend, therefore, to allocate places in the scheme in order of applications being approved—up to when the hectarage limit is reached. One might describe this as a first-sorted out, first-served system. A similar system will operate for the quota of 3,000 hectares over three years for planting on poorer land in the less-favoured areas. This will attract the original — as in the consultation document—£30 rate of annual payment in recognition of the much lower agricultural income forgone on such land.

We shall, of course, monitor carefully the rate of approvals and, by limiting the total area approved to 12,000 hectares a year, we shall be able to ensure that expenditure on the scheme is kept under proper control. The area planted each year will determine the Government's financial obligation, first, in terms of planting grants from the Forestry Commission and, secondly, in terms of annual payments from the agriculture Departments which start to be paid a year after planting.

Because the area is monitored at an earlier stage than actual expenditure, our system will combine the virtues of limiting the Government's commitment and allow farmers to be reasonably clear where they stand. The monitoring of applications will also provide an early warning system so that, if the scheme clearly will be over-subscribed, we can close it to new applicants. This will save unnecessary work both for farmers in preparing applications which have to be rejected and for those administering the scheme.

One aspect of the scheme which I know will exercise the House in considering this Bill — farmers have often raised it with me — is the possibility of tenant participation. I am therefore pleased to be able to say that the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors have recently agreed on the model texts on which they have been working for some time. There are two types of model text — model clauses for use in existing tenancy agreements under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1984 and a model forestry lease for use on larger schemes where this seems more sensible.

All sides also seem agreed that, given the long-term nature of tree growing, it would be wrong to allow tenants to join the scheme without their landlord's consent. As always, these landlord-tenant issues are among the trickiest issues to deal with in any new initiative and I am sure that it is best wherever possible to keep them out of primary legislation. Agreement on this model approach to tenant participation is therefore very welcome to the Government.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)


Mr. MacGregor

There is obviously a great deal of interest in the Bill. It would be better if hon. Members made their points in their contributions and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State dealt with them.

Clause I will enable us to introduce non-capital grants towards the establishment, expansion, promotion and marketing of the products and services of a diversified farm business. This will give us the powers we need to bring in the assistance towards enterprise feasibility studies and marketing costs envisaged under the farm diversification scheme. Here I return to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield.

As the House will know, capital grants of 25 per cent. for investments up to a value of £35,000 in a wide range of on-farm diversifications have been available under this scheme since 1 January this year. These grants are designed to encourage farmers to explore the possibilities of earning income from activities other than the continued production of surpluses. The scheme will also, therefore, contribute—I freely confess that it will be in a minor, but important, way—to the adjustment process made necessary by CAP reform. An amount of £3 million will be available annually for the capital grants and £1 million for the feasibility and marketing grants. Those sums will be cash-limited.

The degree of interest shown in the scheme so far has been very high. We have already received 71 applications for improvement plans in England alone and more than 2,000 inquiries about the possibility of getting grants on particular diversification projects. This sign of farmers' willingness to adapt and to explore new opportunities is encouraging and, of course, it is only one indication. We see it in many other ways. The range of ideas coming forward is enormous and a tribute to the skill, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of the industry.

Diversification is not, of course, a panacea for all.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)


Mr. MacGregor

I should press on.

I fully recognise that some farmers will not have the scope for reorganising their businesses to bring in new activities, nor may they have the spare resources in buildings, people and land which can be appropriately diverted to non-agricultural enterprises. Equally, I am bound to say that, as with any new business venture, not all will be successful. An element of risk is inevitably involved. By setting the capital grants at 25 per cent. we hope to stimulate those businesses which might not otherwise be able to get going, but it is the farmer who will need to fund the major part of the capital required.

Where we will be able to provide particular help is in assisting the farmer to plan his new venture sensibly, since careful analysis of all the implications is vital in developing a successful new business. That is why I attach importance to the grants for enterprise feasibility studies and marketing costs that the Bill will allow us to introduce.

During the consultation exercise, several organisations made the point that a greater stimulus was needed in respect of marketing costs, particularly in the first year. Other representations we received asked for higher grant ceilings. I have now decided that non-capital grants of 50 per cent. will be available towards the cost of an enterprise feasibility study and grants of 40, 30 and 20 per cent. degressively over three years towards the cost of employing marketing personnel in the initial phase of a diversified enterprise. Grants will be available to individuals and groups. The ceiling will be £3,000 a year for individuals and £10,000 a year for groups.

The farm diversification scheme is tailored to activities which naturally arise on farms and both types of grant will be available only to farmers. I have been particularly anxious in devising the new scheme to ensure that it complements rather than duplicates or cuts across assistance on rural diversification coming from other agencies, chief among which is the Development Commission and the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, but we have also kept in close touch with tourist boards, the Sports Council, the Countryside Commission and others in developing the new scheme.

In the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service we have a very useful network which will serve as the first point of contact for farmers. ADAS will also be keeping in very close touch with all the agencies that can contribute particular expertise or forms of assistance. We are keen to strengthen the rural economy by encouraging diversity of economic activity within it. The farm diversification scheme will give further encouragement to farmers to play their part in that vital process.

Finally, I draw the House's attention to clause 3, which will increase the limit on the maximum number of members of the Development Commission from eight to 12. That will assist with the merger of the Development Commission and its main agency, the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas. It will also make it possible to increase the range of interests represented on the Development Commission proper. I am sure that that will be generally welcomed.

I am glad to have this clause in my Department's Bill because it is symptomatic of how closely we now work with our colleagues at the Department of the Environment, who are responsible for the Development Commission. It also fits in well with the overall rationale of the Bill and with our new policy in relation to alternative land use, which is to encourage, in a variety of ways — some experimental — the alternative use of agricultural land; to encourage more diversity on farms and in the rural economy at large; to encourage more market-oriented and outward looking farming industry; and a different balance between the interests of the countryside and environmental objectives, and those of food production in this new world of surpluses. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.

8.2 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

This is a most appropriate time for the House to discuss the Bill, which is an enabling measure and about which we do not complain. We accept that we are discussing the Bill at a crucial and critical time in the history of agriculture in Britain because the industry is in a state of crisis and turmoil and facing many unknowns. In all the years that I have followed the agricultural and rural scene, I can never remember so much anxiety and uncertainty in the countryside and in farming.

Last week saw the publication of the annual review of agriculture, which confirmed that impression. In real terms, farm income is at its lowest level since the second world war — apart from during one year. In many upland areas, farmers have very small incomes indeed. The imposition of the poll tax will be the last straw for many of them. While we are on the subject of economics, we should note that investment in plant and machinery in agriculture is at a post-war low.

It is small wonder, therefore, that farmers are increasingly debating the virtues of alternatives which, sadly, they may often be ill-equipped to handle. However, I accept that the Bill is an attempt to persuade and to help some farmers to cope with the problems that they might incur in trying to develop alternatives.

Mr. Cryer

Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that for some curious philosophical reason, on seeing the plight of the farmers, the Government are not saying to them that market forces will solve their problems and that the thrust of entrepreneurial ability will be left isolated, but that the industry will be cushioned yet again by support from the Government, which is a complete philosophical U-turn from their attitude towards manufacturing industry?

Dr. Clark

I take my hon. Friend's point. It is an interesting observation that agriculture does not operate in a free market. Indeed, I should like to make that point at some length a little later.

It is also noteworthy — my hon. Friend has drawn this to my attention—that we are debating the Bill at a time when the European Commission does not have a budget for the current year and, as a result, will run out of money midway through the summer, unless we find a solution. The Prime Minister faces a tough time in Brussels next week, but as long as she stands firm in reducing surpluses significantly, she will have our support.

That brings me aptly to the Government's raison d'etre for introducing the Bill. The House will remember that the first formal intimation of the Government's proposals came in a statement to the House on 9 February 1987 by the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). The statement was made in somewhat ignominious circumstances. The Minister was forced to come to the House and to interrupt the debate at 7 o'clock, following an article in the previous day's edition of The Observer which had exposed the Government's secret plans for the countryside. It was so instructive that on the following morning the Minister faced a vote of no confidence — unsuccessfully — at the National Farmers Union annual conference. We are now discussing the formal Bill 12 months later.

It is interesting to read what the Minister said when he announced a review of changes in the CAP and his intention for the package of measures which the Minister rightly outlined to us earlier. The then Minister said: We have concluded that, given the scale of agriculture surpluses now facing us, a new balance of policies is needed. This will entail less support for expanding production, more attention to the demands of the market, more encouragement of alternative uses of land, mote response to the claims of the environment, and more diversity on farms and in the rural economy." —[Official Report, 9 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 70.] The House will note that the motive for that laudable change in agricultural direction was the unacceptable level of surplus production, and especially its cost. It is important to emphasise flat. The Government are absolutely correct to do so because it is ludicrous that two thirds of the cost of agricultural support in Europe goes on the storage and disposal of surpluses, or, put another way, only one third of agricultural support goes to the actual producer of the food, the farmer. That cannot be correct. Therefore, the Government are right to try to tackle that issue, although I concede that I do not think that it will be an effective mechanism for tackling the problem.

However, in spite of their fine words on the environment, the Government's response in the Bill has more to do with finance than anything else. Indeed, they have missed the golden opportunity of a more enlightened approach to agriculture and we shall seek to redress that at a later stage of the Bill's proceedings. Of course, as the Minister has reminded us, the Bill is only one of the various mechanisms that the Government propose to tackle the problem of surpluses. Others include set-aside, afforestation, capital grants for diversification and stabilisers.

It is worth re-emphasising that the Government have introduced the Bill primarily to reduce surpluses. The Minister returned to that time and again. They have not introduced it to improve the countryside or agricultural practices in themselves.

As a result of their approach, the Government have ignored one of the most positive options of de-intensification or low-input farming. The advantage of that proposal is that it would, by and large, encourage farmers to do what they do best— farm the land. By that approach to agriculture, farmers would cultivate all their land, but less intensively. There would be a lower input of fertilisers and a more benign use of pesticides with the accompanying beneficial side effects on the environment. However, that approach would still retain the machinery and labour on the farm. In addition, it would also allow us to increase food production again if the necessity arose, as well as meeting the present increasing demand for organically produced food.

We believe that that is a much more sensible approach than that of set-aside, whereby farmers are paid simply for doing nothing. I regret that the Minister has been unable to follow that approach in the Bill. Such an approach would also minimise the risk of encouraging farmers to diversify into activities for which they may not have the aptitude or the training. I do not, for one moment, doubt the versatility or entrepreneurship of many engaged in farming. However, I believe that such alternative options may be more attractive at a superficial level than in substance.

We are all aware of the individual and spectacular successes of farm diversification. The manufacturing and marketing of yogurt and other value-added dairy products spring easily to mind. Those enterprises are nothing new. Yesterday, I was interested to see the Tyne-Tees "Farming Outlook" programme which profiled one such enterprise, Calthwaite farm in Cumbria. The owners of that farm, the Pattinsons, are no ordinary farmers.

At one time the family owned a mill in West Cumberland. They moved to Calthwaite farm about 30 years ago and astutely identified a niche for themselves with the production of high quality dairy milk from pedigree Jerseys. That production made them exceptional. Later, they diversified into the manufacture of yogurts and other products. Currently, they are marketing those products extremely successfully throughout the north of England. They developed their business most skilfully and with great business acumen. They have constantly reappraised their business and, on one occasion, reshaped their venture—when they thought they were growing too quickly—by reducing their work force from 80 to 28.

I emphasise the example of the Pattinson family because they are aware of the need to re-assess continually the feasibility of their operation. In doing so they have made considerable use of advice from the Department of Trade and Industry. Does the Minister believe that the new farm diversification schemes will include advice from his Department or the Department of Trade and Industry? In the past it appears that the Department of Trade and Industry has given such advice. Let me emphasise that we are talking about business and industry and not so much about traditional farming.

The Pattinsons are not unique; there are many other examples in every county. For example, there is Longley farm, owned by the Dickinson family, in Holmfirth. However, it is important to emphasise that there are only a limited number of farms that can diversify into yogurt, dairy products or indeed tourist accommodation or golf courses. There are only a limited number of outlets for such activities.

To revert to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), one of the key difficulties that farmers might not appreciate is that they have traditionally been used to a guaranteed market, but in their diversified businesses they will normally have to fight for their particular share of the market. I do not believe that that can be repeated too often.

Mr. MacGregor

indicated assent.

Dr. Clark

I note that the Minister is nodding his head and I am aware that the Government are aware of that difficulty.

Clause 1 makes provision for grants to be paid to farmers for feasibility studies into projected alternative businesses. It is significant that the Government have made provision for the payment of grants towards the capital expenditure of diversified business before making provision towards the cost of the feasibility studies. That is putting the cart before the horse. The Minister has been ill advised to rush ahead with the end product before he has allowed farmers the opportunity to benefit from the grant for feasibility studies.

One of the crucial issues in the successful establishment of any new business is planning consent. Numerous farmers have built up successful farm-related businesses only to fall foul of local planning or highway authorities at a later stage. The Minister is aware that often there is no need for planning consent when a small business is getting off the ground, but at a later stage planning consent is necessary.

The classic case is that of the North Yorkshire farmer, Brian Moore, who built up his ice-cream business to such a successful scale that he was required to obtain planning permission. The objections to his operation did not come from the urban dwellers — the townies—who enjoyed visiting his farm shop, but from his rural neighbours who felt the negative effects of his success in the form of increased traffic and the loss of privacy. It is worth emphasising that farmers represent only a small proportion of our rural population.

We recognise that the successful development of alternative businesses on farms may have the potential for serious conflicts of interest. Will the Government make it clear that they do not countenance any weakening of the well-tried local planning system? That planning system has stood us well over time and I believe that it would be a retrogressive step if it were weakened.

I specifically ask that question because I know that the Government, are contemplating—indeed, the Minister mentioned it earlier today — limiting the consultation process with local authorities for any farm woodlands under 10 hectares. We believe that that is a retrograde move. For the long-term viability of the new farm ventures, whether business or woodland, we believe that it is essential that local approval and, if possible, consensus, is reached at the outset. That precludes difficulties at a later stage. I urge the Minister to consider that matter most carefully.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Is my hon. Friend aware that 10 hectares of forestry represents at least 25,000 trees? To allow 25,000 trees to be planted without consultation or without any local involvement in the decision-making is excessively generous.

Dr. Clark

My hon. Friend has made a pertinent point. Ten hectares may be intrusive on the local environment, and one can imagine that in a particularly sensitive environment or landscape, which may not be in the accepted areas outlined by the Minister, even one acre may be intrusive. I believe that there must be much more consultation with local authorities.

The Minister may say that the Forestry Commission will be consulted. However, will he send a circular to the Forestry Commission to draw its attention to the requirement of the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985 that imposes a duty on the Forestry Commission to pay regard to environment and conservation? I believe that that would be a useful exercise.

Clause 2 deals, quite rightly, with farm woodlands. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has reminded us, farm woodland may greatly affect the face of our countryside. Obviously it is desirable to plant more trees and redress the loss of 40 per cent. of the broadleaved woodland that existed in 1947. Furthermore, we are still losing hedgerows at the rate of I mile for every daylight hour of the year.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hardy

It is no use the hon. Gentleman shaking his head.

Dr. Clark

I do not know if any hon. Member is seeking to argue about that statistic. It was produced by the Countryside Commission in 1985 with finance from the Department of the Environment. They are not my figures, but the Government's figures.

More trees and farm woodlands would not only add to the aesthetic value of our landscape, but would enrich the habitats of our native wildlife. However, what type of tree should be planted, and where? Obviously, there is concern that our lowlands may be covered with a boring blanket of conifers. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) has already raised that point. The Ministry has tried to avoid that. problem by offering larger grants for deciduous trees, but even then it is aiming for only one third of the plantings to be deciduous and has no power to insist on that proportion.

When pressed in the other place on that issue, the Minister refused to include in the Bill any clause relating to the proportion of deciduous trees to be planted. The argument was that 64 per cent. of private sector planting under the Forestry Commission grant schemes in lowland England was of that type. If private sector planting is currently achieving a rate of 64 per cent. of deciduous trees, and that is the going rate, why can that not be included in the legislation or in the statutory instrument? That would be logical. Will the Minister reconsider increasing the level and requirement of deciduous planting?

The Forestry Commission and private forestry in Scotland have an excellent record of allowing the public access to their land. As considerable public money is now to be invested in farm woodlands in lowland Britain, what proposals do the Government have in mind to ensure that there is adequate public access to those woodlands?

Clause 3 seeks to increase the membership of the Development Commission. I was interested to see that clause in a Ministry of Agriculture Bill. As the Minister said, we are pleased that the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture are working together. Would that that were always the case. We look forward to seeing a happy development along those lines. We agree that the Development Commission has a vital role to play in the revitalisation of the rural economy, and we are happy to support that move. However, we urge the Minister to ensure that at least some of the new appointees have wide environmental and conservation expertise.

While, generally, the Development Commission has a good track record, there is some evidence that of late it has been carried away by its own enthusiasm. I specifically have in mind its support of a golf course complex in rural Northumberland, which now includes the proposal to build 60 to 80 houses for permanent occupation in the green belt. Hon. Members will recall that that led to the famous gaffe by the Secretary of State for the Environment that there were no golf courses in the northeast of England. He was wrong. There are more than 90 in north-east England. The presence of a sound environmentalist on the commission might have helped to avoid that difficulty.

We give the Bill a cautious welcome, but certain aspects of it still concern us. In particular, we feel that it is too narrow and that it does not encourage the farmer to develop his own farming skills in an environmentally sustainable manner. Furthermore, we see the risk of stampeding the farming community into establishing diversified, farm-related industries which they lack the expertise and training to operate. By decreasing liaison with the local planning authority, there will be a danger of increasing conflicts locally if businesses flourish and woodlands develop. There a re weaknesses in the Bill, and we shall seek to improve it at a later stage.

8.23 pm
Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)

There are two characteristics of any debate about forestry and trees. The first is an expression of general hatred for the poor unfortunate conifer, and the second is a furious demand for the right of access so that people can see the conifers. I have never quite understood that conundrum, but it has happened repeatedly for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament. I shall refer to some of the points made by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) later in my remarks.

The context of the Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has reminded us, is the over-production of agricultural commodities, and the consequent need to reduce agricultural surpluses. No one would claim that the Bill is, or will be, the last word on the subject, or that it will come anywhere near a solution of the problems of excess production, which stem from the amazing advances made in agricultural science, and those advances being put into practice by able farmers and skilled farm workers. Nevertheless, the Bill is another small step in the right direction of containing the output of food. Therefore, it is to be warmly welcomed.

The methods proposed for the reduction of output are, in clause 1, the diversification of farm businesses, and, in clause 2 the conversion of farm land into farm woodland. I should like to say a few words about each of those clauses. Clause 1 seeks to stimulate investment in a variety of alternative farm enterprises and to encourage effective marketing. Assistance is to be given to businesses involving horses, particularly livery stables and, in the uplands only, horses for hire. The general principle of giving assistance seems excellent, but why for horses for hire in the uplands only?

The demand for riding horses and ponies is huge and growing, particularly in areas adjacent to towns, some distance away from the uplands. Why is assistance not to be available nearer towns? If it were, it would encourage the removal of more good agricultural land from food production. That would cut surpluses more than in upland areas.

Horses and ponies, to a far greater extent than has yet been recognised, can help the Minister to overcome excess production problems. More people want to ride horses and ponies as a recreation; therefore, more horses and ponies need to be bred, and more acres need to be set aside for their keep and use. It is worth noting that even now, the latest national equestrian survey estimates that there are more than 1 million households in Britain in which someone rides a horse, and about 3.3 million people ride regularly.

The horse and pony breeding industry alone uses about 293,000 acres. Furthermore, labour intensity in breeding establishments is much higher than it is on general agricultural land, involving about one person per 23 acres compared with one person per 132 acres in agriculture generally. Thus, in addition, horse and pony breeding establishments are a good means of sustaining rural employment, and the demand for horses to ride is growing.

The little help that the Bill offers is welcome, but i7rom every point of view—above all from that of my right hon. Friend the Minister — if might be worth being a little bolder. I must add that the use of land for horses will not be increased or helped unless the Government act to equate horse and pony breeding with other agricultural activities by derating it, as was the case from the mid-1930s until 1981 and the recent outcome of the Whitsbury stud test case when the courts decided, contrary to a 1930s judgment, that horse and pony breeding establishments should be rated.

There seems to be little point in encouraging better opportunities, as the Bill does, while elsewhere there are new deterrents to the breeding and maintenance or horses. I know that this is not a subject that can be dealt with in this Bill, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the deterrent that the newly imposed burden of rating on horse and pony breeding establishments has on breeders and the adverse effect it could have on possible alternative land use.

I have no doubt that clause 2 will be an encouragement to farmers to reconvert some of their land to farm woodlands. I was glad to hear from my right hon. Friend today about the National Farmers Union-CLA-RICS agreement. It is a credit to all those concerned, and undoubtedly it will be helpful in the achievement of my right hon. Friend's objectives.

I said "reconvert" some of the land to forestry, because it should be remembered that in times past much more of our countryside was wooded, incidentally providing variety, windbreaks and cover for wildlife. We import about 90 per cent of our timber needs, so it must be sensible to use more of our land for timber production. The environmental benefit is an excellent extra bonus.

I shall now deal with one of the points made by the hon. Member for South Shields. I must express my regret that in another place — and apparently so far here — the Government have remained unprepared to accept a new clause that would have provided a third method in their armoury of weapons aimed at cutting surpluses. That method goes under the terrible title of de-intensification. Putting it simply, it would involve a return to more traditional and simpler forms of farm production.

A variety of schemes could be considered, but, for the most part, they would limit, or even disallow, the use of fertilisers and chemical sprays. Clearly, organic farming would qualify and so would the conservation headlands that have been pioneered by the Game Conservancy Trust. Such schemes would have a double benefit. They would reduce production and be enormously advantageous for environmental conservation. In passing, I must give credit to my right hon. Friend for including conservation headlands in the Breckland environmentally sensitive area. However, their application could be much more general and beneficial.

The effect of the headlands in terms of the regrowth of wild arable flora is astounding. The seed bank, which still happily exists in the land, and the consequential effect of the germination of seeds from that bank on insect and bird life has to be seen to be believed. It is a pity that there is not a de-intensification clause, even of the Government do not immediately wish to make use of its provisions on the basis that they may wish to carry out more research before doing so. In spite of that reservation, I welcome the Bill for what it proposes and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on taking another step in the right direction.

8.32 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

I ask for the indulgence of the House because I have not participated in an agriculture debate before. I hope that my interest in the Bill will become apparent as I proceed. I should like to congratulate the civil servants who drafted the Minister's speech because it gave new meaning to the old phrase about not being able "to see the wood for the trees".

The reality is that the Bill derives from the total failure of the common agricultural policy. It seems inconceivable that the Minister did not mention the fact that on television we hear of starvation in the Third world, while he is boasting that he hopes to reduce food production in Britain and that the Common Market will be reducing food production too. An incapacity to relate world needs and world resources is one of the great problems facing humanity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who is also a Member of the European Parliament, told me that the CAP costs about £11–50 per family per week. That is to pay farmers to reduce production and to bring about—this new phrase—de-intensification. When the miners of south Wales object to six-day working at Margam, I shall advise them to talk about de-intensification. It is really a way of saying that if more people could be employed with lower productivity in economic terms, one is serving a purpose that the Government want.

The farmers are in trouble. One has only to listen to "Farming Today", which is one of my regular diets, to know how serious the problem is and why so many farmers have come to participate in the debate on the Bill tonight.

I read the Bill with considerable interest. In particular, I read clause 1. It talks about the power to give grants for the establishment or expansion of a farm business". It talks about grants for the establishment or expansion, for purposes connected with the establishment, expansion or carrying on of such a farm business or the promotion of such a farm business or the marketing of anything produced". The Bill began to ring a bell. It is the same as my Industry Bill of 1975. I have with me the very copy of that Bill which I took through the House against bitter Tory opposition. That Bill dealt with the establishment of the National Enterprise Board. It talks about assistance to make a grant and the assistance of the economy of the United Kingdom or any part of the United Kingdom; (b) the promotion in any part of the United Kingdom of industrial efficiency. It states: The functions of the Board shall be— (a) establishing, maintaining or developing, or promoting or assisting the establishment, maintenance or development of any industrial enterprise". That Bill was introduced by a dangerous man about whom I read in the newspapers from time to time—myself. The Bill was designed to deal with the problems in industry that have now hit agriculture. Community membership damaged our industry by exposing it to competition from the more competitive German and French industry. The common agricultural policy raised the cost of food in this country instead of adopting the old farm support scheme introduced after the war.

The Minister has drafted the first Bill for a Socialist Government in Britain. It is nice to have the Queen's Speech drafted for us by the Conservative party. I would make only two amendments to the Bill. The first would be to delete the words "Farm Land and Rural Development" and call it the "Development Bill", and secondly, so as not to make the farmers left out, because I sympathise with them as with others, I would add "and others".

The Conservative party has lectured the miners year after year for their failure to be productive or competitive and in the Bill the Government are subsidising—that is the word, and I have no objection to the idea—farmers, faced not with foreign competition, but with the absurdity of the agricultural support scheme that flows from our membership of the Common Market.

There is another issue about which I am concerned. I hardly dare mention it because it is so reminiscent of the nanny state we are supposed to be repudiating. That issue is the power of the Minister to impose requirements to be complied with by persons applying for the grants. Local authorities are not allowed to do such things. They are not allowed to have contract compliance so as not to have to buy from South Africa. The Labour Government would no doubt use clause 2(2)(b) to confer a discretion on the appropriate Minister … (c) to provide for the grants to be paid to persons on such terms as may be specified in or determined". It is interesting that the Bill proves once and for all that this is not a monetarist Government. I never believed that they were. I never thought that the Prime Minister sat up at night with a cold towel round her head reading the works of Milton Friedman — however attractive, given the alternative, that might have seemed — before going to bed. The Government are paying their supporters for the support they depend on in the shires. The Bill reveals the Conservative party as having an absolutely simple pork-barrel view of how to get back into power.

Sir Charles Morrison


Mr. Benn

I shall certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman. Short of the newly elected president of the National Union of Mineworkers, nobody could have done better for the industry of which he is a member.

Sir Charles Morrison

How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his remarks with the fact that the Government have invested some £5.5 billion in the coal mining industry since 1979, at a rate of about £2 million per working day, and, what is more, plan to invest another £2 billion over the next two years?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman should allow himself to be led down that path; it does not relate to the Second Reading of this Bill.

Mr. Benn

Like the cavalry, Madam Deputy Speaker, you save me from a tempting diversion, although I do not notice this Government now, at this stage, allowing food from South Africa to come in without restraint, which would automatically not be permitted under this Bill.

Why do the farmers need the money? It is partly because of the problem that I described and partly because tenant farmers are having to pay rising rents to their landlords for their land. As with all land, the price of agricultural land has risen very sharply. High land prices are creating the urban crisis of high rents in housing in the towns and pressure on tenant farmers in the countryside.

The money paid to farmers under the Bill will go in part to landlords. I again congratulate the legal department of the Ministry on explaining, through the Minister, the difficulty and complexity of landlord-tenant relations in agricultural legislation. If one wants to bring rents down, it would be better to bring them down by common ownership.

Lest any hon. Member should think that this is a new idea that has emerged from what is now known laughingly as the "Champagne" group of Labour Members, I remind the House that the idea of common ownership is a very old idea. The idea that the earth is "a common treasury" and that it is "a crime to buy and sell the land for private gain" goes back to the 17th century.

And for the benefit of the Liberal party—whichever of its factions is here today—I was brought up on Lloyd George's land song: The land, the land, the land on which we stand, Why should we be paupers with the ballot in our hand? I therefore hope that I may be acquitted of introducing a controversial note by taliking about the common ownership of land.

The private ownership of land was the result of a medieval privatisation. I have been to the Library to look at the Enclosure Acts, under which common land was sold to the rich farmers, just as British Telecom, British Gas and British Petroleum were sold. It was the Enclosure Acts that took the common land and gave it to the landlords, who are now to have their rent subsidised through a grant, in the guise of providing money for woodlands.

I have introduced a little Bill, which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, would not allow me to read. Its purpose is to bring the land into common ownership—except for owner-occupied land, which is a different case. The rent of all the land in this country would amount to £70 billion a year. That would cover the full costs of the rates and the rate support grant. It would be the answer to the poll tax, which I understand my hon. Friends on the Front Bench are working on very carefully—and listening as they do it. The answer to the problem of the poll tax is the common ownership of land, which is in the constitution of the party of which I happen to be a member.

For all the reasons that I have given, I shall support the Bill with enthusiasm. If there is a Division, I shall go into the Lobby with the Minister, because I believe that what he has done, in a flash of rhetoric—albeit perhaps riot fashioned by his own pen—is to expose the nature of the Conservative party. It is a party that does not believe in free enterprise, in the Common Market, in monetarism or viability. It believes—as any party naturally would—in winning power. As Samuel Gompers once said: Reward your friends and punish your enemies. This Bill rewards the Minister's friends and, meanwhile, his enemies are being punished in the mining areas of Britain. Incidentally, I never heard any argument about the environmental advantages of coal over nuclear power, although we have heard today the environmental argument for woodlands.

At this late stage in the third term of the Prime Minister, who is evidently going on for ever and ever, it is refreshing to find at long last that we know the true nature of the Conservative party. It has come out in the Bill and, if necessary, I shall be a Teller for the Ayes. Otherwise, I shall raise my voice loudly in its support and thank the Minister for the clarity that he has brought to such an important subject.

8.44 pm
Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I hope that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will forgive me if I do not follow his argument. He should be reminded that the reason for the success of agriculture, which has brought about the surpluses, is that over the past 10, 15 or 20 years there has been a massive annual increase in productivity.

I see that the right hon. Gentleman has turned his back; he will not even do Conservative Members the courtesy of listening. The present problem of agricultural surpluses has been brought about by the tremendous increase in efficiency and productivity year by year, which has left the coal mining industry and every type of manufacturing industry miles behind and in another street. That unparalleled success, brought about by intensive mechanisation, accounts for our problem of surplus. That is a far better problem with which to have to deal than the problem of shortages that we have in our coalfields, which means that we are having to import cheap coal from all over the world. I am proud of what British agriculture has done with Government aid.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on his speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on his important remarks. He referred in particular to clause 1, which deals with the diversification of farm businesses. He also said that it was necessary to get improved planning consent arrangements. As it happens, my reason for speaking is to illustrate to the House the difficulties that people who want to expand are facing in obtaining planning consent. In the east midlands, we have a very active branch of the National Farmers Union, which covers the counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Rutland. That branch has repeatedly had difficulties with local planning authorities which have failed to give approval for bringing redundant farm buildings into use again.

In December, the local NFU wrote to me about a case which came up a few weeks ago. One of my constituents, who often lets out work in his farm, has a large grain dryer which is a redundant farm building. His daughter and son-in-law have set up a computer business, which they run from part of the grain dryer. Planning permission was refused, and I was sent a copy of the correspondence. The Harborough district council's refusal, dated 19 December, relating to the conversion and use of the farm building for storage, offices, craft shop and workroom at Wood lane, Tugby is worth quoting to the House. It gives us an example of an obstructive local authority that has not changed with the times. The refusal states: The site lies in the countryside and the proposal is contrary to policy L/SE14 contained in the Structure Plan for Leicestershire … whereby development normally will not be permitted in such areas except where it can be shown that it is essential for the efficient operation of agriculture, horticulture, forestry, recreation, public utilities or tourism. The District Planning Authority is not aware of any special circumstances which would justify setting aside this policy. The site is prominent in this pleasant rural landscape and approval of the use proposed would have an adverse effect on the visual amenities of the locality. The NFU received the refusal in December and the group secretary, Mr. Theakston, asked me to raise the matter in the House because, repeatedly, local authorities, such as Harborough district council, continue to give adverse responses to applications to save redundant farm buildings from complete and utter dereliction. The purpose of this admirable Bill is to keep those old buildings in use. We have entrepreneurs who want to retain the buildings in the countryside, but time and again local authorities bar them. In his letter of 16 December Mr. Theakston stated: In the meantime I am still interested in the principle of why the Government has made encouraging noises for conversion of redundant farm buildings to rural industry, yet this has not percolated through to local Planning Authorities. It is all very well passing this Bill, but it is meaningless if there is a network of obstructive local authorities. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning, who replied on 27 January, saying: Since 1980 we have consistently urged planning authorities to treat applications for the re-use of redundant farm buildings sympathetically … . Permission for the re-use of redundant farm buildings should therefore be granted unless there are specific and convincing planning objections. Clearly, my right hon. Friend must encourage the Minister for Housing and Planning to do more than merely "urge" local authorities to behave in that way.

The Minister has been kind enough to send me a couple of booklets—one published in 1987 and the other in 1985 — dealing with this matter. Both have been circulated to local authorities, but local authorities seem to be determined to turn their backs on what I regard as not progress, but maintenance of an existence. I hope that my right hon. Friend will urge the Minister for Housing and Planning to look again to see whether local authorities should not be more than just "urged".

I agree with my right hon. Friend on forestry. I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) said about the terrible word "de-intensification". It is not a double negative, but a double positive and it could be improved on. It is a weapon which Ministers could bear in mind. I understand that in the other place a new clause on de-intensification was discussed and that the Government took on board some of the points raised. If a new clause were introduced in Committee, it would help with some of the nitrate excesses, chemical excesses the factory farming and outlook of agriculture and it would possibly reduce some of the worse excesses of the intensive farming system. A de-intensification clause would provide additional encouragement.

I welcome what is said about forestry in clause 2. The new payment of grants towards expenditure incurred in the conversion of agriculture land to woodland is long overdue and badly needed. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree in Committee that some improvements can be made to the Bill. It would be helpful if there were a form of indexation for the payment of grants so that they keep pace with inflation.

I particularly welcome what my right hon. Friend said about co-operation between the CLA and the NFU and the agreement which has now been reached to make available to tenant farmers the available grants after agreement with the landlords through the CLA. I am also particularly pleased to welcome the four main objectives of the farm woodland scheme, which are to enhance the landscape, to encourage recreation and tourism, to contribute to supporting farm income and to maintain or stimulate rural improvement.

This is a good Bill and certainly it will not be opposed tonight. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing it.

8.55 pm
Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I have waited nearly 15 years for the opportunity to debate tree planting. It has been a tradition in our family from my great grandfather down to myself to plant thousands of trees annually. I shall say a few words from my experience of tree planting in the less-favoured areas in the mountains of Wales.

To help the Minister and perhaps the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on their way —I should be a little worried if I saw them going into the same Lobby; I am sure that I would go the other way—over the past 80 years my grandfather, father and I have planted more than 10 per cent. of all the land in the less-favoured areas, and we have been able to increase our stocking rating over the years as we take more land out of production to plant trees. The simple reason is that sheep like shelter. We have planted small plantations of up to 10 acres, not hundreds or thousands of acres, and we have been fortunate in having grants from the Ministry. This year I shall go in for similar schemes.

About 20 years ago, when I was keen to plant about 20,000 Sitka spruce and Japanese larch on a particular piece of land, permission was not granted. Nevertheless, I planted the trees and today they are worth looking at.

The everyday reality for farmers is that they have to come to terms with a changing market and control of food surpluses. Following the introduction, with such indecent haste, of milk quotas, thousands of dairy farmers found themselves in heavy debt. The rural economy has been undermined seriously. Only last week, five creameries—one in my constituency and another in that of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones)—were scheduled to close, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. I warn the Government that producers of other commodities face similar difficulties.

On behalf of hill farmers in less-favoured areas, I plead with the Minister not to dismantle the sheepmeat regime. Farmers are pleased and satisfied with it. It is a wonderful regime and it has been with us for decades.

We must welcome any attempt to help farmers and improve the rural economy. The Bill is a small step in the right direction, though it will not solve the problem of surpluses and not every farmer will be able to benefit from it. The Minister will find it difficult to persuade many farmers to go in for tree planting. I have tried to persuade many of my friends in Cardiganshire, but they will not do it. I hope that the Minister and his team will be more successful in persuading hill farmers to plant trees.

This is a constructive measure which has received general support from farming unions and conservation bodies. One criticism voiced by farming unions is the failure to find a way of including areas of permanent pasture which could qualify for the farm woodland scheme. Paradoxically, they are the areas where farmers are least able to diversify and where many farm incomes are coming under pressure.

I understand the Minister to say that he is considering giving farmers a chance to plant land that has been cultivated during the past three or five years. I am anxious that the planting of broadleaved trees should be encouraged as much as possible. I like, however, to see a conifer growing here and there— I have planted many thousands of them.

With respect to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin), conifers have been criticised a little too much by many people. The Sitka and the Scots pine are beautiful trees if they are not planted too thickly. The mistake that has been made in Wales as well as in Scotland and England is that thousands of acres have been planted with conifers. It would have been better if those in charge of the Forestry Commission had planted, say, 1,000 acres, left another 1,000 and then planted the next 1,000, rather than plant all of a 10,000-acre plot.

There may not be sufficient assurances that the annual payments will keep pace with inflation. I believe that there is an argument for making the commitment to review the scheme a more positive statement.

Although my grandfather planted many trees, as did my father after him and as t have, I do not think that we have made one penny out of it. We like the trees and we will leave them. My advice to the Minister is to carry on with the planting. I shall give him all the advice that I can if he needs help, but I do not think that he does. Since he took office after the general election last year, he has not, with respect, given farming much encouragement.

I know that the Minister finds it difficult to persuade his counterparts in Europe, but farmers are looking for encouragement. We all shout at the farming community to produce less, but we cannot expect farmers then to produce less when they are offered no incentives—only a freeze at the annual price fixing. We cannot penalise the farmers and expect them to produce less. That situation cannot go on. I hope that the Minister will persuade the Prime Minister to give extra financial aid so that he, in turn, can look after the interests of the farming community much better in future years than he has over the past four years.

9.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), and I endorse very much of what he said.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is not in his place. His speech was such fun that one could not take it seriously. He told us that he starts each day by listening to farming programmes on the radio. He may well listen to them, but I fear that he understands and learns little from them. His speech was a treat of a grandiose Socialist extravaganza, but irrelevant to the debate.

I welcome the Bill as a quiet and relatively uncontroversial aspect of the Government's policy, which seeks to discourage the production of surpluses and encourage the creation of a more soundly based rural economy. The central points of the debate are well known to us and I shall be brief. I want to refer only to the farm woodlands scheme and its environmental and wildlife implications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Sir C. Morrison) referred to the exclusion of permanent pastures from the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knows that this worries the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association. The measure will remove from the scope of the scheme one third of agricultural land in England and a higher proportion of agricultural land in Wales. It removes a great deal of the wetter, heavier soil of the west country and of the north of England, which are among the best parts of the country for growing trees. In such areas, options for diversification are few and farm incomes are under greatest pressure. It is to be regretted that the scheme is not more widely applied, and I hope that further thought will be given to it, even at this stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) spoke of the need to index payments. This is an important point. I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to increase the amounts from his original proposal. I welcome the fact that he is prepared to review the scheme after three years and then at least every five years. The scheme will lack confidence unless this indexing can be achieved.

The need for annual review of a different sort has been put forward by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has contributed so much to debates about the Bill. The RSPB is surprised that the Bill makes no provision to review the effects of the scheme annually and the extent to which it achieves its objectives. The argument is for a statutory annual review. Taxpayers' money is being used and the environmental impact should be monitored. It can be argued that the scheme should have greater monitoring.

To be effective, the scheme must be readily available to tenant farmers. All hon. Members welcomed the statement at the beginning of my right hon. Friend's speech. I am glad that a formula has been produced, whereby tenancy agreements can be readily adapted. Unless the scheme is readily available to tenants, it will be seriously weakened.

I wish to make a number of observations about the implications for the environment and wildlife. Much fear has been expressed that the small areas of conservation value will be badly affected. The Government propose to reduce the consultation process for small developments of less than 10 hectares. The Nature Conservancy Council and others fear that less consultation will mean less protection. We still look for reassurance from the Minister that this will not be the case.

There is anxiety about the impact of the scheme on unimproved land, on which 3,000 hectares of planting will be targeted. That will benefit hill farmers and bring back to the uplands birch and oak woods, but the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says that those uplands are inhabited by important species of wild birds, especially greenshank and curlew. We look for more reassurance from the Minister that those interests will be safeguarded.

Much the same could be said about improved agricultural land of conservation value. Many improved pastures have reverted to rough grass and rushes. Those pastures are breeding habitats for many species of wading birds. We want reassurances that improved pastures will not be turned into woodland and unimproved land ploughed up, thus doubly damaging wildlife habitats.

I should mention a final point on o which we need clarification. In a letter to many Members of Parliament, the National Farmers Union expressed the belief that the exact mixture of broadleaf and conifer trees in each plantation is best left to local negotiation between the interested parties. What does the Minister understand by the term "interested parties"? Are environmental organisations involved? On what criteria should interested parties base their judgment, and will those criteria include planned provision of wildlife habitat?

Although some points need further consideration, the Bill should be welcomed. Above all, in its implementation, the greatest care should be taken to ensure that the farm woodland scheme enhances the beauty of the countryside and effectively protects and promotes wildlife.

9.11 pm
Mr. Elliott Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

As a Member of Parliament for a largely rural constituency, I give a general welcome to the Bill, but I also wish to mention the balance between the needs of the farming community and the environmental needs which we all share as a community. I hope that when he replies the Minister will clarify some parts of the Bill. On diversification in farming, will nature trails or wetland habitats in the form of nature parks be eligible for grant? Will the environmental impact on a scheme be carefully considered before, instead of after, aid is given, so that a scheme which may have an undesirable environmental effect can be rejected?

Hon. Members have talked about marginal land and ploughing up meadowland. Could a farmer receive a grant for planting trees and then plough up empty marginal land to plant crops, thereby not only receiving the grant for the woodland but retaining the capacity and defeating the purpose of the Bill?

I understand that areas of outstanding natural beauty will not count under the terms of the 10-hectare limit. That is a glaring omission from the Bill.

I see some benefit in granting aid for planting in severely disadvantaged areas, especially if it includes the planting of indigenous species, including broadleaf trees. But the schemes could affect the habitat of breeding birds in those areas, and some of the rarer species, including the merlin and the hen harrier, are under threat. The Minister will be well aware of the controversy that is raging in the flow country about the effect of such tree schemes on those habitats.

I am concerned that insufficient emphasis is given to the involvement of local authorities in the schemes. There has been criticism of local authorities that have stopped the development of rural areas and farm building, but local authorities have a responsibility to the whole community. While I am in favour of diversification, I am not in favour of it at any price. Local authorities should have a say in any sort of scheme; they should give their point of view and protect the needs of the whole community.

Hon. Members have mentioned monitoring of the schemes; annual monitoring is important, and it is also important that assistance be given to farmers who plant woodlands. For many of them it will be a new venture in a new business. So I hope that any woodland scheme will be staged and staggered so that when it comes to cropping the woodlands in the future, they will not all be cleared in one go, but in stages. I am sure that such advice is available to the people concerned. The Bill is an important step forward, but I would appreciate some assurances from the Minister on the points that I have raised.

9.15 pm
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

I want to raise two themes that are important to the success of diversification generally and my constituency in particular —planning permission, which has already been aired at length tonight, and Sunday trading, which is important in the context of an integrated rural economy.

My constituency consists of large tracts of Yorkshire Dales national park. When growing trees there, conifers arc an important element as a nursery crop to afford protection from hostile weather to the broadleafs that are growing in association with them. My constituency also consists of an important part of green belt between Leeds and Harrogate in which, among many others, Mr. Moore lives — a fact which Opposition Members have mentioned. I think that he will fall on his feet at the end of the day, because he is an enterprising person. There is also some high quality arable land in the vale of Mowbray.

So my constituency is a microcosm of the countryside of Britain. If the programme of farm diversification is to work, it must work there. It is also a major tourist area of wilderness and urban fringe. Planning delays, perhaps more importantly than restrictions, coupled with Sunday trading, are in danger of being an unintentional instrument for the destruction of jobs and opportunity—precisely the sort of opportunity that the farm diversification programme seeks to create.

The national parks present their own problems, and the work of COSIRA and the Development Commission is important in that context. This Friday, I shall have the pleasure of presenting some COSIRA awards in my constituency.

The green belt is a harder problem. It is easy enough to read economic lessons on how anti-economic the effect of the green belt is, but there is a clash of legitimate interests in it. There are no villains; there is a lack of consensus, if that is not an unparliamentary expression, about what the countryside should do. It extends to relations between some Government Departments, although I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend the Minister that emissaries have been exchanged between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment.

We see the dangers and the problems when we read the reports of inspectors who have the misfortune of trying to adjudicate cases sent to them on appeal. In practice, they are trying to reconcile opposing advice. In trying to reconcile different interests, that opposing advice remains at odds. We do not want a landscaped people, with suburban Marie Antoinettes playing shepherds and shepherdesses in an ephemeral Ruritania; we want a working countryside. Equally, residents who have purchased for amenity have the right to expect that necessary developments will be sensitive to that amenity in scale and nature. Unless there are clear guidelines based on such a consensus, plans for rural development will sink beneath the quicksands of innumerable planning subcommittees.

If the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has sent emissaries to the Department of the Environment, I invite it also to send an ambassador to the Home Office, because Sunday trading is also an important issue affecting the rural economy. Shops in most small villages and towns are able to open for trading in the summer. The problem arises in winter because small shops which take perhaps as much as one third or one half of their takings on Sunday need to be able to cater for the tourist trade. That is vital for small shops. The villages are the focus of visits and the visitors then spread out to the farms and to the various other amenities offered by the farm diversification scheme.

Shops are at the mercy of an arbitrary and asinine law that shuts shops in one village and leaves them open in another, and that closes one market square and allows another to trade. That is not the fault of local authorities which have no option but to apply the law once a complaint has been received. Perhaps the law has a right to be an ass, but it must not be an indiscriminate ass in its application. There is no point in farms setting up businesses that require retail operations if the law then closes them down on the day on which they are likely to do most of their trade.

The Government must not funk this issue. It is intensely destructive to the rural economy, especially in the tourist-orientated areas such as the national parks in the northern uplands.

When we talk about farm diversification, as often as not we are inviting the farmer's wife to take more responsibility, because a major part of the diversified activity may fall to the wife. I recommend that an emissary be sent to the Treasury to sort out the married worried woman's tax treatment. That is a major disincentive to farmers' wives to mount this sort of collaborative enterprise. A little help in that direction will do a great deal more than a whole string of marketing aids.

9.22 pm
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

The Minister emphasised the co-operation between his Department and the Department of the Environment and certain other agencies. I am sure that we all welcome that. He devoted a good portion of his speech to clause 2. That deals with tree planting, and, as he said, we in Northern Ireland already have the necessary authorities and mechanisms in place.

I am mainly concerned about clause 1, which deals with farm businesses. I am sure that grants under this heading will be very welcome. What farmer has ever declined grant assistance? Farmers are an enterprising race, and most of them will make a success of their business, grant or no grant. Their main problem will be not finance, but, as some hon. Members have pointed out, the attitude of planning authorities. To some extent the Bill renders that attitude obsolete.

I do not advocate the wholesale scrapping of planning safeguards; I merely suggest the introduction of some common sense. Common sense has not always been very evident in some planning decisions. I shall give one example. A farmer with suitable premises opened a farm shop to dispose of his own produce. Seasonal fluctuations in supply forced him to purchase produce from other sources. Immediately, the planners pounced and finally ordered him to revert to own produce or close down. Then, wonder of wonders, along came Marks and Spencer with a planning application for a massive supermarket within a few hundred yards of that farm shop. That application has been granted. When I was asked for my view, I said that I would accept the own-produce restriction on the farm shop if Marks and Spencer could be required similarly to sell only goods produced on its new site.

In view of the Minister's mention of co-operation between Departments and agencies, I hope and trust that Ministers in the Departments concerned, who have a reputation for tenacity and fairness, will see that the Government's approach to this matter is a seamless robe.

9.24 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I wish to speak briefly in this important debate on behalf of the west country, and particularly South Hams. As the House may know, my constituency, which is mostly south Devon, consists of designated areas, known as areas of outstanding natural beauty. Little of South Hams is not designated as such. Nearly 70 miles of my constituency are "heritage coastline": conservation areas, areas of great landscape value, sites of special scientific interest and, of course, part of the Dartmoor national park.

What has kept the area so beautiful? It has really been the farmers, who have done a tremendous job in looking after the land. What concerns me, and other west country Members, is how we are to find solutions to the problem of conserving such a wonderful part of the country, when the production and income of those farmers are to be reduced. If diversification grants fall short, how will the farmers maintain the area? They cannot be expected to turn into golf course pros or safari park attendants. Areas such as South Hams need special grants to protect them.

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister, when he replies to the debate, say whether he is considering giving grants to farmers who are farming areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the lower slopes of Dartmoor? I do not see how such areas can be maintained on the present grant. If the Bill is fully put into practice, the planners will inevitably be under enormous pressure to relax their regimes. Many disused barns will be used for small craft workshops; hillsides will be used for modern housing and urban sprawl.

Ivybridge, a small town in my constituency, contained 2,000 souls 10 years ago. There will be 14,000 there by 1992, all just on the edge of the national park. That is the extent of the suburban sprawl and the pressure on the south: a 14 per cent. increase in the population of South Hams in the past 10 years. The pressure is increasing. Unless my hon. Friend is very robust, the diversification policy will mean that areas such as south Devon, which has been traditionally preserved by the farmers, will be destroyed by the farmers.

My plea to the Government is to introduce an extensive new category for compensation. Let the Government tell farmers in the west country that they are needed for their conservation work, and that my hon. Friend wants to see south Devon kept in pristine condition, with its rare beauty preserved. Will he perhaps declare as areas of outstanding natural beauty Britain's "farming preservation areas"? I know that we are very fond of declaring special areas, but could we at least designate such areas by another name than the de-intensification of farming? That term was defeated in the other place. We need a new name. We could vote on it, and then my right hon. Friend could say that he had won.

We must have a means of preserving south Devon and other west country areas as tourist attractions. We must preserve the countryside and find alternative land uses which, while they will not solve the farming crisis on their own, will help to solve it. Besides allowing farmers to get out of farming, the Government must encourage others to remain in farming to keep the countryside attractive so that people will spend their vacations in the west country.

That is my message today. Will my right hon. Friend act to preserve areas of outstanding natural beauty against destruction or neglect?

9.29 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). As an ardent conservationist, it would give me great pleasure to see an amendment to the wildlife and countryside legislation that recognised that, under the Government, farmers have become an endangered species. The hon. Gentleman might support that proposition in the Division Lobby. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is a matter of great concern.

In many parts of Europe, there is deep anxiety about rural depopulation. It would be a great mistake to allow the present fearful situation to lead to excessive population growth and the blighting, destroying or disfiguring of attractive areas, when the scale of the problem could effectively be dealt with by greater emphasis on de-intensification. "De-intensification" is an ugly word, and the hon. Member for South Hams will recognise it as such. It is an ugly word, but it is one approach that the Government should properly pursue.

I noticed that the Earl of Cranbrook, whose father was of considerable assistance in respect of two or three of my private Member's Bills in the 1970s, put forward a cogent set of arguments in favour of that approach. I hope that a Ministry will accept that Lord Cranbrook's amendments represent a possible approach to the problem and a sensible arrangement. I do not say that the Minister's proposals are not acceptable. I am merely suggesting that other approaches should be considered.

The Minister may agree with the suggestion that the World Wildlife Fund has made to me. It suggested that the approach contained in Lord Cranbrook's new clause, which he unsuccessfully moved in another place, would be perfectly within the terms of EEC regulations. EEC regulations 1760/87 would allow the approach that the Government have so far rejected and might be an important arm in reducing the food surplus.

I have certain anxieties about the effect of the Government's proposals, which have already been aired by my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) and the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), who referred to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on whose council I serve. I shall not delay the House by referring to anxieties at any length, save to say that other hon. Members will refer to conservation bodies' axieties. I certainly hope that the Minister will take into account the points that have been made and seek to ensure in Committee that the anxieties that have properly been expressed and which are genuinely felt can be resolved. The Government will have to move some way towards an adequate and improved arrangement for consultation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) sought to intervene during the Minister's opening speech. He wished to make a specific and important point. He cannot be present, so I agreed to make it on his behalf. My right hon. Friend is the vice-president of the Association of County Councils. As my constituency contains a metropolitan authority, I must recognise that the Association of County Councils may have more representatives on Conservative Benches than on Opposition Benches.

The Association's concern is non-partisan, but it is serious. I referred to it in an earlier intervention. I pointed out that 10 hectares, which may be planted without any consultation, can accommodate 25,000 trees. The Government are saying that someone can get 10 hectares of land and, without consulting anybody, can plant 25,000 trees.

Frankly, there may be some parts of the country in which the planting of 25,000 trees may be an advantage. There may be areas in which 25,000 trees may be planted and not many people will notice. However, there would be plenty of people in the constituencies of Labour Members — constituencies which we treasure more dearly than Conservative Members treasure theirs—who would be horrified if the Government allowed 25,000 trees to be planted without any consultation with or consideration for local authorities.

We have reached a pretty pass. Over the past three years, the Government have shown contempt for local government. Now they appear to be prepared to take on and ignore local government by allowing a locality to be disfigured. I accept that some Conservative Members will not worry at all. The hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) introduced the subject of Sunday trading into the debate. He might be prepared to swap Sunday trading for 25,000 trees in his area of Yorkshire.

Many of my constituents would bitterly resent the planting of 25,000 trees in their area and in the hon. Gentleman's area without consultation. I hope that he will not be bombarded by representations from all parts of Yorkshire if he supports this development, which is a cause for anxiety among local authorities representing the shires of England. It is because of the concern of the Association of County Councils that I hope that the Minister will pay heed not only to my comments but to the urgent point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton.

The Minister suggested that this was a limited debate touching on only some of the aspects of the problems of food surpluses. I have consulted farmers in my constituency, and they, like me, would welcome a wide debate in which we could consider the realities of our European involvement. The Minister suggested that the responsibility lies to a large extent with Europe rather than ourselves. We need a debate in which we can consider the implications of increased agricultural production, not only on a national or continental basis but on an international basis. Until there is international agreement with the United States on the price and production of cereals, the problem will continue to be serious.

If we are to consider the problem on a European scale, the Minister must recognise that the proposals made or practices followed by some other member states give cause for considerable anxiety about the arrangements that we make here. For example, the Minister well knows that the Italians have not introduced milk quotas. The French appear to be ignoring the system of dairy farming. The Germans have brought forward proposals for set-aside that make the Government's proposals—apart from the new ones with regard to certain kinds of tree planting—seem ridiculous. We cannot take a completely different view and operate on a lower scale of expenditure than our European colleagues.

I spoke in the Council of Europe Assembly debate on launching the North-South campaign last week. I largely reflected the view of the committee that I chaired with regard to forestry. We showed that the rate of destruction of forest in the world is such that the area of forest destroyed in the past four years equals the size of the largest European country. The pace of destruction is accelerating. Given that fact, the Government must have our sympathy in tackling the problem of afforestation in a realistic manner.

I shall not suggest that our present dependency on £4.5 million-worth per year of imported timber can be ignored. We must match that dependency by increasing our timber production in Britain.

I am concerned that in this and in other ways the Government's forestry policy is largely irrelevant. We are talking about planting more trees on marginal and poor land. Perhaps we could increase our timber harvest through that policy, but it would be a marginal or modest improvement. We must increase our timber production, but not by using the poor land that cannot grow anything else and does not produce much timber per hectare. We must grasp the nettle and grow timber on grade 1 and grade 2 land. Those are largely the farms that produce the surplus and will remain untouched by the Bill. The debate —a modest one, as the Minister said—is irrelevant, to an extent.

I am not suggesting that we should turn 20 per cent. of our arable land to the production of standing timber. The Minister knows that the French have already embarked on producing cellulose and timber for industrial purposes. Once again, we are allowing a lead which we could have obtained to be surrendered to our continental colleagues.

We must afford a modest welcome to the Bill, not merely because it is the first obvious step in the spurning of market forces, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) reminded the House, but because it gives us an opportunity to debate the priorities that the Government should pursue. I hope that the Government will be sufficiently sensible to listen to the suggestions of my right hon. and hon. Friends, whether in the Chamber or in Committee, and to pay heed to the advice available from various sources, including the conservation bodies.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been commended by others, and it has basked in a little self-righteousness, in regard to its movement towards conservation. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart)—I am not complaining about the fact that he does not take part in the debate; there are obvious reasons — shook his head vigorously to deny that hedgerows had been cleared at a regrettable rate over the past few years. I remember the Ministry blocking my Hedgerows Bill in 1982 and making it clear in 1983 and 1984 that it would continue to block the Bill if I presented it again. The reason that the Ministry advanced for blocking the Bill in 1982 was that it regarded the problem as largely resolved. I believe that it had not been resolved in 1983 or 1984. It was not resolved in 198:5, and hedgerows are still disappearing at an unacceptable rate.

If the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is serious about the timber policies that it is proffering in the Bill and is concerned with the environment, as it has suggested throughout the debate, I wonder what it will do when I again present a hedgerow protection Bill later this Session. Perhaps the Minister of State would like to demonstrate the sincerity or genuineness of the conversion for which credit has been sought. I wish the Bill well, but I hope that when it emerges from Committee it will be different. I trust that the proposals made by Lord Cranbrook in another place will have received rather more sympathetic attention in this House.

9.42 pm
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on introducing the Bill. It is a welcome initiative. I had nearly thought to say that it was a modest initiative, but I appreciate, after some 30 weeks in this place, that the word "modest" must be used with particular care.

I wish to restrict my contribution to clause 2, on the woodlands, and ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to comment on three points. First, why restrict grant in most areas to arable and improved pastures and not extend it to permanent pasture? That disqualifies most of the land that it would be realistic to put forward as suitable.

I understand that the Bill's aim is to reduce agricultural production, but surely this structure will reduce the Bill's effectiveness. In the west country, most applicants under the Bill will be small farmers; therefore, their applications will be for small acreages of woodland. I believe that, since we are talking about just a few acres, the conservation aspect has been slightly overdone, important though it is.

Secondly, in recent years many new sawmills have been set up in Scotland, Wales and England, with all the latest Scandinavian technology, but we know from the latest Forestry Commission revised surveys that there is likely to be a shortfall of coniferous logs. If we are serious about timber production, we must acknowledge that fact.

My third point concerns the planting grants and the annual grants. Unlike the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I thought for once that I had understood the drafting of a Bill and was rather proud of myself. However, I had reckoned without the briefing from that centre of excellence from which no lies emanate, in Smith square, which confused me thoroughly. It stated: It was envisaged that during the first three years of the scheme the planting would be paid under existing forestry grant schemes based on the Forestry Commission's powers under the Forestry Act 1979, and that the annual payments would be paid by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is for these annual payments that clause 2 of the Bill provides. That would seem fair enough for the first three years, although three years is the minimum and it may be longer. However, do applicants make an application under the forestry grants scheme in the normal way and then at a later stage apply to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? It seems a cumbersome process if applicants have to deal with two Departments. Indeed, if one must commit oneself in the first instance to a forestry grants scheme, and then apply for the MAFF annual payments, surely that will make it something of a lottery? The process should be kept as simple and as straightforward as possible. I would greatly appreciate my right hon. Friend's comments on that.

Notwithstanding those points, the Bill is a considerable step forward. The rewards to the nation that will flow from informed woodland management are significant and substantial. In some rural areas they will help to prevent depopulation and they will certainly help to keep local people employed.

9.46 pm
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

As we have heard from hon. Members of all parties, the Bill is modest and must be seen in its proper context. Its limited aim is to tackle part of the problems created by the surpluses in some agricultural commodities in the European Community. In consequence, therefore, it lies on the fringes of the problem rather than being on the centre stage.

As we have heard, the Bill introduces grants for farmers to diversify farm businesses and to encourage them to find alternative sources of income, other than in traditional areas. Although I can give the Bill and its proposals a cautious welcome, the opportunities for diversification are limited in areas such as my constituency. Traditionally, Wales has been dependent on livestock production and dairying. Due to our terrain and weather patterns, it is difficult for our farmers to move into other areas of production. That is why the impact of milk quotas has been so severe, especially in west and north-west Wales. The Government must have regard to those difficulties. Indeed, I suspect that in such areas the Bill will have a limited impact.

I find it difficult to be objective in this matter, but I believe that an element of subjectivity is important for an hon. Member who seeks to elucidate the genuine concerns of his constituents. Over the weekend I visited Llangefni creamery, where 46 people are to lose their jobs. That visit affected me deeply. We are told that the main reason for the closure of that creamery is the lack of milk due to the imposition of milk quotas. Those people at the creamery who now face the prospect of unemployment—some have given 25 years service to agriculture—have been given what they consider derisory redundancy terms.

Those workers will read the record of this debate and they will learn that farmers are to be given grant to diversify. They agree with that prospect, but they ask, "What of us?" They have also provided sterling service to the agriculture industry, but they are to be left with little after so many years of work.

Tonight we have heard a great deal about the need to protect the economy of rural areas. I believe that the plight of the creamery workers at Llangefni and at Felinfach in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) should be recognised by the Government. I urge the Government to ensure that grants are made available to those people who have served the industry well to enable them to set up alternative small businesses. I look forward to the Minister's response to that idea.

Clause 2 relates to woodland. It has already been said many times in the debate that the proposed scheme must be attractive enough to be taken up by sufficient farmers to make it worthwhile. Time will tell whether the rates adopted by the Government will provide sufficient incentives. I welcome the encouragement given to mixed woodland, which will contain a high percentage of broadleaved trees. Parts of the countryside have been spoilt by acres of uniform conifer plantations.

I remind the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North of a Welsh saying, which, translated into English means: When we do things, we do things in moderation. When we consider conifer plantations I urge the hon. Gentleman that we do so in moderation. We must strike a balance between planting of conifer plantation and the planting of broadleaved trees. Having considered the provisions of the Bill and read the contributions made in the other place on Second Reading I question whether the Bill, in its present form, goes far enough to encourage the plantation of broadleaved trees. I hope that those provisions can be strengthened in Committee.

The Bill cannot be seen as the answer to reducing surpluses. In truth it is a minimalist Bill. The great problem to be tackled is the economic, cultural and social consequences of the change in agriculture. I hope that, before long, the Government will face up to that central task and bring proposals before the House.

9.52 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I support and welcome the Bill. I do so as someone who had the privilege to work in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at about the time when these matters were beginning to be considered, so I would, wouldn't I?

The Bill can be defended on three separate criteria, which, as a Conservative, I would support as measures of Government assistance. The first offers adjustments to an industry facing a rapid change in economic circumstances; the second offers aid for starting up new activities within the industry; and the third recognises certain external benefits from the activities of agriculture.

Agriculture is distinctive. Most industries are conducted behind closed factory doors, but the production process of agriculture takes place in the fresh air and occupies 80 per cent. of the land surface. Therefore, it is of immediate interest to the public and to farmers.

I am pleased that the Bill, with its reference to the Development Commission, begins to move away from the concept that has been prevalent since the days of "Dig for victory", that agriculture should be the sole activity of the countryside and that industrial activity should, as far as possible, be pegged back and carried out on industrial estates in towns. The Bill can lead to greater diversification and variety, which is to the good of both.

I should mention two particular interests in woodlands. First, as a member of the Select Committee, I know that we have not yet heard evidence, let alone produced a report, but the Bill is a useful foretaste of what we shall be coming up with later. Secondly, as a farmer, I acknowledge that the Bill is directed towards farmers such as myself. I take a potential interest, as I may avail myself of the scheme later. Farmers who are not naturally knowledgeable about trees have not had to bother about them, but now they find that they may have a certain role in future.

It has been said, almost to the point of boredom, by the Government and others that the Bill is a modest one. It is entirely right that we should not try to oversell what it stands for. The Bill will not deal with agricultural surpluses. Taking out 36,000 hectares might, at best, remove one year's technological improvement in the industry. By the same token, the Bill will not deal with the timber shortage—certainly not for the time being, and, on its own, not at all. It will not reverse the downward trend in farm incomes and employment.

However, the Bill can make some useful contributions to agriculture. First, it can provide an alternative income on suitable areas of individual farms. The definition of marginal land is always somewhat slippery and confusing. It can be quite properly directed in arable areas, where the highest incentives are now to be offered, to farm areas that are less suitable or less convenient for cropping. Therefore, it can fulfil both roles. The second point is not often made in this context. In arable farming, it can spread the labour profile by giving the work force something to do in winter.

More widely, the Bill can increase the timber-consciousness of farmers, to which I referred in my own case. In Germany, half the farms have a significant farm forest enterprise. If that is to catch hold, it will need more than the Bill; it will need a big thrust into the improved marketing of timber. I am pleased to see the way in which the timber industry has reacted to the crisis of windblow in the south-east since October. It will need greater exploitation and recovery of the existing desolated woodlands.

Finally, the Bill can lead to some environmental improvement. It will lead to improvement in game habitat, an important consideration for many farmers. I am glad that not only broadleaves are to be grant-aided, and that there is to be a graded scheme, because many working farmers may wish to avail themselves of it. It is appropriate that they should be able to plant conifers as a nurse crop and a cash crop while the broadleaves are growing up.

That leads me to touch briefly on areas of contention. I support hon. Members who have spoken about permanent pasture. The scheme is cash-limited and size-limited. It is entirely appropriate that, if farmers deem the part of their farm that is now in permanent pasture to be most appropriate, they should be entitled to use it. As for conservation, I have listened to speeches from both sides of the House and read submissions from the RSPB and the CPRE, of which I am a member. The difficulty is that farming has an internal and an external aspect. It is important that both are harmonised and kept in line.

I am not absolutely certain that the answer is to maintain the existing process of consultation through the forestry grants scheme, which has been argued by many conservation interests. It might be worth considering merely notifying, or perhaps the Forestry Commission could pass on submissions, but the Government should return to the matter and give it closer consideration. Perhaps they might consider the possibility of using the quinquennial review of the scheme not only to review the level of grant, but to review the general progress and tenor of the scheme and to work on it as the situation develops.

Both sides of the House want to help farmers and, at the same time, they want to help the countryside. We all want to ensure that the Bill is tailored to achieve those objectives.

9.59 pm
Mr. Calum A. MacDonald (Western Isles)

I shall be brief, because there is another important debate yet to be held and time is marching on. I shall confine myself to one important point affecting the highlands and islands of Scotland. I say with genuine regret that I can give only a faint welcome to the Bill. It is not that I do not welcome the principles behind it; I recognise the need for diversification and I welcome the support that the Bill gives to that process.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.