HC Deb 06 February 1992 vol 203 cc438-40
2. Mr. Eadie

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about levels of employment within the agricultural industry.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry)

The 1991 census of agricultural holdings showed that the number employed in agriculture in June 1991 was 628,000, a decline of 2 per cent. from June 1990.

Mr. Eadie

I thank the Minister for the information that he has given the House. Does he agree that farmers and farmworkers are the backbone of rural communities? Is he aware that this year their numbers have declined by about 9,000? Is the Minister also aware that, in my area of Lothian, since the Government gained office, roughly one third of farmworkers have lost their jobs? Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what he proposes to do about that?

Mr. Curry

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that increasing productivity in agriculture has been a feature in the past, both in good years and in bad. Employment has gone down only 11 per cent. in 10 years and a great deal of that is due to higher productivity. The hon. Gentleman asked what we would do about that fall in employment. The first thing we must do is to defeat the MacSharry proposals that target British farm workers, and particularly those relating to sheepmeat, which represent a direct attack on those who work in British agriculture—not merely those who own or rent farms but those employed on them. That is our first priority.

Sir Jim Spicer

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the whole thrust of the proposals, as they are currently based, directly discriminates against efficiency? Will he undertake that when he and my right hon. Friend the Minister go to Brussels next week for that crucial meeting, they will continue to fight for British agriculture as a whole and not bend over backwards to please MacSharry, as the Opposition would do?

Mr. Curry

I give my hon. Friend that pledge with a great deal of enthusiasm. We have always fought for all the people employed in British agriculture, whatever their status. It is particularly important that we have the support of everyone in the House. We must recognise that many people who earn relatively modest wages and who are essential to the rural economy will be the first to be put at risk by those proposals. We will fight them.

Mr. Geraint Howells

Can the Minister explain why 10,000 full-time farmers left the land last year? There is no point in blaming MacSharry, because that happened last year.

Mr. Curry

It has been happening all the time and, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, it has been happening constantly. Even in the best years for agriculture, people have been leaving the land because the trend is towards larger units, maximising productivity and getting the best out of the work force. I cannot stand here and guarantee that we can halt that long-term consolidation of holdings in agriculture. No Minister in the European Community could do that. We will do our best to ensure that we maintain a sensible, profitable structure for agriculture in the United Kingdom in the interests of all those employed by it and involved in it.

Sir Hector Monro

Does my hon. Friend accept that with falling net incomes, particularly in the hills, and diminishing employment prospects, everyone on the Conservative Benches wishes him well for the negotiations in Europe? We cannot possibly accept the MacSharry proposals as they stand because they discriminate against British farming more than anything else.

Mr. Curry

My right hon. Friend and I have spelt that that out categorically in meeting after meeting. We shall continue to do that until Mr. MacSharry understands it.

Dr. David Clark

Does the Minister appreciate that, today, 25 farm workers will lose their jobs and 14 farmers will be forced off the land? Does he appreciate that for every single day that he and his right hon. Friend have been in office in Whitehall place, we have similarly lost 25 farm workers and 14 farmers? Have they no conscience about that? Do they not feel any personal responsibility? It is simply not good enough to blame MacSharry, because his proposals, bad as they are, have not yet affected British agriculture.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman would know if he had addressed as many farmers' organisations as I have that the first question farmers ask is how we can deal with the uncertainty of the MacSharry proposals, which now confront us. We know that there are other uncertainties, such as GATT, which represents an equally difficult problem. What happens eventually in eastern Europe will also present just as much difficulty for our farmers.

Our first task is to remove the uncertainties with which we can deal, and the first of those are the proposals of Mr. MacSharry. Until we have dealt with that, there will not be the certainty in the industry which will give people the confidence they need to invest. Otherwise we shall see a continuing decline over and above that which increased productivity would normally dictate.