HC Deb 07 July 1988 vol 136 cc1173-5
1. Mr. Ron Davies:

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what consultation he had with the Game Conservancy Council prior to making his announcement concerning the set-aside of agricultural land; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

The Game Conservancy Council gave us detailed views in response to the consultation documents that we issued last December and we took those into account, together with views from a wide range of other bodies, in reaching the conclusions that my right hon. Friend announced in the House on 14 June.

Mr. Davies

Will the Minister bear in mind that the Game Conservancy Council believes that, to provide the most effective environmental benefit, set-aside strips should be accompanied by conservation headlands? Now that the Government have introduced the former as part of their set-aside proposals, do they intend to provide the latter as part of their extensification proposals?

Mr. Gummer

I have a great deal of sympathy for such arguments. I know that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that fact, as I took some part in the experiment that we are conducting in the Brecklands, which I hope will be a success. Although conservation headlands are admirable in providing benefits to wildlife, they do not conform to the requirements of the set-aside scheme and that is why they are not part of it. We shall consider such headlands and other possibilities when we try to find a good way of carrying out extensification, which is not easy.

Sir John Farr

Is my right: hon. Friend aware that the consultations are regarded by the House as important and significant? Has his Department considered introducing a regime of low-input, low-output farming?

Mr. Gummer

I assure my hon. Friend that we have considered that. From the discussions that we have had in committees on which we have served he will know that it is a matter of great importance to us. There are problems about creating such a regime and about policing it. If there were not such problems it would all be much easier. I do not have any answers yet, and if my hon. Friend has some further points to put to me I should be happy to listen, because I sympathise with his aims.

Mr. Morley

Will the Minister confirm that there has been a cool response from farmers to the set-aside scheme? Will he accept that the sums of money involved do not make it an attractive proposal to farmers who grow the bulk of cereal crops, and that the scheme is more likely to attract the more marginal producer? Therefore, if we are spending public money to try to reduce surpluses, has he considered whether that money should be targeted to introduce much more environmentally advantageous farming, whether through low-input farming or other schemes, such as farm woodland projects?

Mr. Gummer

We have already produced our farm woodland project and we are to introduce an extensification scheme. We are also achieving a great deal through the environmentally sensitive areas. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman can accuse us of not taking on board the issues that he has put forward. The set-aside scheme is specifically designed to decrease the production of cereals. We have found that the scheme is attractive to the people to whom it is supposed to be attractive—the marginal producers of cereal. I believe that we would be criticised by the Opposition Front Bench if we were in the business of doling out public money in excess of that which is necessary. I have heard all sorts of words from Opposition spokesmen, and they would be even tougher if I had done other than ensure that we have a system that takes out those who are only marginal producers.

Mr. Bellingham

Is the Minister aware of the efforts made by farmers in East Anglia to plant spinneys, replant hedgerows and leave headlands to encourage conservation and country sports? That has done a great deal to enhance the beauty of the environment. Will he tell the League Against Cruel Sports and some of their supporters among the Opposition that if they had their way all this good work would come to an end overnight?

Mr. Gummer

I consider that country sports are one of the most important elements in the conservation of the countryside. I am glad of the support that we have had from bodies that support such sports.

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