HC Deb 29 November 1990 vol 181 cc1006-7
8. Mr. Matthew Taylor

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the financial position of family farms at present.

Mr. Curry

It is our policy to foster an efficient and competitive farming industry and to ensure its continued viability.

Mr. Taylor

I am interested to hear that the Minister wants to foster an efficient and competitive farming industry. Does he know how strongly farmers feel about the fact that, as the prices that they receive fall, making them uncompetitive and unviable and forcing them out of business, supermarket prices for the food that they produce continue to climb? How is it that the Government manage to preside over the worst of both worlds?

Mr. Curry

I thought that the hon. Gentleman, who represents a party which is supposed to be in favour of free market economics, would realise that if there is a surplus of supply it is difficult for incomes to rise at the same time. However, we can try to help farmers to overcome the worst of their problems. They will do that by being more competitive. That is our policy and there is no other sensible way of going about it.

Mr. Boscawen

Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to persuade the banks to be more accommodating towards some of our small farmers? When the Labour Government were in office, those farmers were encouraged to produce all that they could at any cost, so they were borrowing—in some cases, overborrowing—from the banks.

Mr. Curry

In general terms, the level of borrowing by British farmers is about 25 per cent., so many have not overborrowed. I recognise that some small farms are in serious difficulties and that is why we try to pay our grants to them as quickly as possible so that we can help the cash flow. I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion that the banks could be helpful when they consider individual cases.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

The Minister will agree that family farms and the farmers in them make a great contribution to maintaining the fabric of rural life and that one of the main problems resulting from the financial pressures facing them this year is that their way of life is very much under threat. What further plans can the Minister announce to enhance rural society and to ensure that that fabric is maintained into the next century?

Mr. Curry

I am perfectly aware of the part that hill farmers play in maintaining rural life, because my constituency has characteristics similar to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Government policies cannot maintain farming family life as such, but we can ensure that we give the necessary assistance, especially for the uplands farms, to enable them to get through difficult economic circumstances, which we all understand. Where we are able to give further help, especially assistance to farmers who look after the environment as part of their food-producing function, we shall take the initiatives that are open to us.

Mr. Harris

Will my hon. Friend take it from me—and indeed from every hon. Member who represents a rural constituency—that this time round, the farming community and the National Farmers Union are not crying wolf when they speak about the real pressure on farming? My hon. Friend spoke about helping the environment. Will he and my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at the possible extension of the environmentally sensitive areas, especially for Penwith in my constituency?

Mr. Curry

We shall certainly examine the possibility of adding to our policies for helping environmental enhancement. We understand the NFU's point about farmers being in difficulties and our experience is that it would be foolish to deny it. However, I hope that the NFU will not say merely that the answer is yet another multiplication of public subsidy. That is not an answer. If the NFU comes up with sensible proposals that are costed, effective and targeted we shall listen.

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