HC Deb 21 November 1990 vol 181 cc280-2
8. Mr. Wallace

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received regarding the current state of agriculture in Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind

I have received various representations on aspects of Scottish agriculture. In particular, I met the president of the Scottish National Farmers Union on 23 October to discuss the circumstances of farmers in the hills and uplands in the light of the weakness in the livestock markets this autumn.

Mr. Wallace

The Secretary of State has heard concern about the hill farmers in earlier questions. Does he accept that those fears are compounded by the proposed cut in commodity support? Can he confirm that, despite the cut in production support, there remains a surplus of income which could he channelled to support other than for production? If that is so, what constructive proposals have the Government put forward to ensure that that money is channelled towards the family farms, particularly in the upland areas?

Mr. Rifkind

If, as I assume, the hon. Gentleman is referring to the 30 per cent. reduction in subsidies as part of the GATT negotiating process, he will be aware that part of the Council of Ministers announcement was that the total level of support to the less-favoured areas of the Community would not be reduced. As 90 per cent. of Scotland is in the less-favoured area category, that was an encouraging announcement. Precise details on how that might be achieved are being considered by the Commission and we expect proposals in the relatively near future.

Mr. Andrew Welsh

Does the Minister agree with the statement by the president of the NFU that Scottish agriculture faces its worst crisis since the 1930s and that he fears a spate of bankruptcies in the hill and upland sector? What input, direct or otherwise, did the Minister and his Department have in this week's GATT talks between Ray MacSharry and the American Agriculture Secretary? If there was none, will he tell us why?

Mr. Rifkind

Obviously, we would not be directly involved in talks between the American Secretary of State and a European Commissioner—in the circumstances, it would be rather odd if we were. The British Government are very much involved in the GATT negotiations and played a prominent part in the conclusions reached by the Council of Ministers a few weeks ago.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Secretary of State agree that, on top of all the other problems pressing in on agricultural and rural Scotland, none is more serious than the disproportionate impact of the poll tax? Does he accept that rural Scotland and urban Scotland are waiting to hear where he stands on that great issue? Is he to be a born-again Heseltini, demanding an instant review, or will he cling to the sinking ship and maintain the Thatcherite line that nothing is wrong? Will he tell rural and urban Scotland today where he stands on the poll tax?

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman was interested in the subject and concerned about the plight of those in the rural sector, particularly the farming community, and the impact of local government taxation, he should do what he can to change his party's policy to end the derating of agricultural land. He must know perfectly well that the introduction of a farmers tax by a Labour Government would devastate the rural economy. He might, therefore, explain to the House why the Labour party is proposing, in Scotland alone, such a penal form of taxation directed against Scotland's farming community.

Mr. Bill Walker

While my right hon. and learned Friend is listening to the NFU's representations, will he bear in mind that the raspberry and soft fruit industry in the Tayside area is an essential part of the Tayside economy and that the dumping which has taken place over the years from eastern Europe, particularly of pulp, has had an impact? When the Council of Europe is looking into such matters will my right hon. and learned Friend remind it of the importance of raspberries to Tayside?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I am aware that that industry makes a significant and important contribution to the well-being of the rural areas of Tayside. It is important, particularly when access to EC markets from countries outside the Community is being considered, that the impact of any such proposals on those who depend on that product for their livelihood should be fully taken into account. My hon. Friend is correct to draw attention to that matter.

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