HC Deb 09 December 1993 vol 234 cc473-4
6. Ms Eagle

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what was the average farm income for mostly sheep producers in the severely disadvantaged areas of (a) England and (b) Wales.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

Details of incomes for specialist sheep produces in the severely disadvantaged areas of England and Wales are contained in the 1993 autumn review of the economic conditions in the hills and uplands, a copy of which is in the House Library.

Ms Eagle

Is the Minister aware that 57 per cent. of mostly sheep farmers in less-favoured areas in England, and 47 per cent. in similar areas in Wales, had to exist last year on an average income of less than £10,000? Does the Minister think that that is an adequate living for farmers who have a difficult job to do trying to farm in areas that are particularly difficult to turn into productive profit?

Mrs. Shephard

Of course, I recogise the importance in economic, social and environmental terms of farming in the hills. I remind the hon. Lady that the details of farm incomes were agreed by the farm unions. This year, we simply could not ignore the evidence of a rise in farm incomes of about 41 per cent. in England and 55 per cent.—admittedly on a lower base—in Wales. Also, although hill livestock compensatory allowances have been reduced by £25 million as a result of the public expenditure survey round, income from other sources to people who farm in the hills has increased by £100 million. That is not the sort of evidence which one can ignore when considering those arrangements.

Mr. John Greenway

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why the income of sheep farmers in severely disadvantaged areas such as the North Yorkshire moors national park has risen over the past years is the 30 per cent. increase in the export of sheep to the continent? Is not it hypocritical of hon. Members to argue in one breath that we should provide more money for hill farmers and in the next breath say that we should cut off the very source of that increase in income by banning the export of live animals?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend makes a good point because he knows the way in which farming works in his constituency. It is right that sheep farmers have benefited from the devaluation of the green pound, not only in terms of exports, but because the devaluation has increased the value of the support payments that they get by almost 16 per cent.

Mr. Beith

Is not the Minister using the one-off devaluation of the green pound to justify a severe reduction in the incomes of hill farms that are at the margin of viability? Is that to be the pattern for future years, or will the Minister seriously consider the future incomes of hill farmers and the danger to the whole conservation and life of hill areas if those farms go to the wall?

Mrs. Shephard

HLCAs continue to play a vital part in the viability of hill farms and incomes of hill farmers. As I have already explained, this year we could not ignore rising national incomes, which were agreed by the farming unions. Those aspects are looked at year on year and trends in farming incomes are always examined as we come up to the public expenditure survey round. Of course, I will review the position as we approach next year's arrangements.

Mr. Hicks

Does my right hon. Friend accept that good financial years are necessary not only to offset the years that are less good, but to enable the farmer to make necessary investment? Does my right hon. Friend realise that hill farmers make a positive contribution not only to the overall pattern of farming, but to the rural economy of those areas?

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, indeed. That is precisely why I stress the importance of hill farming to the economic and environmental well-being of the whole country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish to know that a couple of years ago, the average level of direct subsidies to hill livestock farmers in England was about £19,000. It is forecast that it will be £27,000 next year. That is a real increase and a real commitment to farming in hill areas which I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate.

Dr. Strang

Will the Minister acknowledge that between 1988 and 1990, hill farm incomes halved and that the figures that she has quoted today have to be set against that background? Will she accept that hill farmers require special assistance and that in many of the remotest parts of the country, the tourist industry is dependent on successful hill farming?

Mrs. Shephard

I am happy to confirm again my understanding of the importance of hill farming in those areas, in economic, environmental and social terms. But I should also remind the hon. Gentleman—it is a figure worth remembering—that there are some 67,000 hill farmers and next year they will benefit from a total of some £550 million worth of help through subsidies. That is a real commitment.