HC Deb 20 December 1994 vol 251 cc1583-90

2 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

My constituency is in a predominantly rural area and contains some of the most beautiful countryside in Britain. We cherish and love our rural community, but we are constantly aware of the threats to it and to those practical farmers who work the land and are so industrious.

What I have to say is partly national and partly local. I shall first mention the scale of the problem and the pressures. Some 12 million people—23 per cent. of the population—live in the countryside and there is inevitably much pressure from visitors who make 900 million trips a year to the countryside. We must take into account the desire of the millions who belong to the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ramblers and others who want to use the countryside. We have constantly to strike a balance between providing facilities necessary to enable people to enjoy the countryside and ensuring that the countryside is not diminished by over-invasion and misuse.

It is also fundamental to our way of life, our culture and heritage to devote a significant amount of time and policy making to the countryside and the rural community. In that respect, village halls are immensely important. There are several in my constituency, including in Ashley, as well as the new Grosvenor centre at Gnosall, which was refurbished, voluntarily, by local people. I hope that some effort can be given, for example through the lottery, to help people who make such a positive effort to help others in their local rural neighbourhood.

People often associate crime primarily with urban areas. But Peter Cadbury—a relation of mine—recently, and famously, commented on the problems of rural law and order. He is right. The problems have grown significantly worse in our area and elsewhere throughout the country. In many places—even in some reasonably sized towns—local police stations have been closed so that one can obtain immediate help from the local police only by means of switches through the local police telephone network system, which causes much concern.

The House of Lords recently produced a report on rural housing. Some 39 per cent. of parishes have no shop, 60 per cent. have no primary school and 74 per cent. have no general practitioner practice. A great number of changes have been made, but I am trying to show that people who think that life in the countryside is some sort of idyllic Fragonard-style life are sometimes unaware of the fact that rural inhabitants do not always have brilliant communications. Sometimes, more elderly residents do not have facilities that people living in towns take for granted.

The Government have taken important initiatives in relation to using housing associations as a means of drawing money from the Housing Corporation and so forth. Between 1990 and 1993 those initiatives produced only 11 per cent. of the projected need. We must look again at the very important question of rural housing. The House of Lords report said that the issue was considered by some witnesses to be the most pressing of all in rural areas in the United Kingdom. We need to take careful note of that point.

Hunting, shooting and fishing are part of the culture and identity of the countryside. Many people associate those pursuits with elitism, but that is not the case. Fishing is one of the most popular hobbies in the United Kingdom—I believe that as many as 3 million people go fishing. Before he moved to London, Izaak Walton lived in Stafford and wrote many of his great works with the area in mind. He left his estate to the burghers of Stafford with the proviso that, if they did not behave themselves, the remainder of his estate would pass to a rural area called Eccleshall.

Shooting is not an elitist activity by any means; it is now enjoyed by a broader section of the community than ever before. Hunting is a controversial issue. I have expressed my strong objections to hare coursing and badger baiting, but I believe that foxhunting is a traditional country pursuit which should be allowed to continue.

We must reform the common agricultural policy and, in the process, reform the support that is given to farmers. Today the Council for the Protection of Rural England produced a new policy paper which shows that an extraordinary amount of public money is spent on farm support throughout rural England, but the quality of the English landscape—its flora and fauna—continues to decline at an alarming rate. It says that the farm support system must be changed.

The balance of opinion in the agricultural community is shifting. British farmers must be given a fair and reasonable deal, not only by this Government but by the European Community and the general agreement on tariffs and trade. British farmers deserve a fair deal for their industry, high efficiency and the quality of their products. Although one welcomes reports such as this, it is important to make sure that they have the right emphasis and look after the British farmer as well.

The set-aside policy is not welcomed enthusiastically by farmers in general; they do not want it. There is something extraordinarily perverse about the scheme. As a result of European Community directives, land is compulsorily put to one side and farmers see their land, which they would prefer to use, covered in weeds. That practice is counter-productive to the wonder and the beauty of the countryside. Thistles and weeds spread from one field to another, which means that farmers must use more pesticides to eradicate them, and they may tend to use too many concentrated fertilizers on the remaining land to increase the volume of production. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way in which the scheme works.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Herriot drew inspiration from our countryside. We should examine to what extent rural life is destroyed by the vast amount of red tape which farmers face. Farmers in my constituency are tearing their hair out over the volume of paperwork about set-aside and so on with which they have to deal. It is exhausting to have to fill out paperwork late into the night when one has been up since 5 am. Most farmers are small business men and they have to contend with an enormous burden of paperwork.

The movement of livestock is very contentious. I have made my position clear. Farmers are being badly treated. As I told my hon. Friend the Minister in Committee the other day, they should not be put over a barrel because of the monopolistic activities of the ferry owners. I am glad to see that there has been some movement, but we still have a long way to go, as my hon. Friend knows.

Perhaps the code of conduct that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agreed is a move in more or less the right direction, but the real problem is that farmers are up against it and need as much help as possible.

On the use of nitrates, it is highly inappropriate for European directives and rules to be applied throughout Europe when the water tables, aquifers and water supply systems are different in each country. Often, the person convicted or harassed about bad pollution did not cause it. The polluted water often seeps through the sandstone or whatever and percolates to another part of the countryside and the person held responsible is not the person who caused it. We must deal with problems of that type.

We should pay more attention to the new reed bed proposals, which will help to combat pollution and sewage in streams and rivers. I understand that that is a brilliant, simple and cheap way to reduce the sewage and other pollutants that get into our river system.

As I am not much of a chemist, I do not know about sonochemistry, but I understand that it is a system designed in the United States, which is a highly effective means of cleaning up water in a cost-efficient manner.

Leisure is another important factor. The English tourist board should be encouraged to provide more help for getting the balance right. People know of my strong opposition to car boot sales. When 20,000 cars descend on Eccleshall in my constituency they cause pollution, destroy the environment and are a noise nuisance. The sales are also unfair to other small businesses. We have debated all those factors before and I hope that in the near future an hon. Member will take up the Bill that I tabled last year.

The criminal element is associated with such sales. We heard how Peter Cadbury found that articles were stolen from his and his friends' garages and outhouses. The relationship between car boot sales and the development of crime is important. It is a serious problem.

Also, we do not want the countryside to be turned into theme parks. I shall merely leave that as a general thought for my hon. Friend.

Farmers need a proper economic return from agriculture and the rural economy must have the capacity to provide them with another source of income. Farmers in my constituency, whom I meet regularly, are deeply concerned about several issues, for example, the lack of sheep quota for developers. That means that young farmers who have taken on a larger farm cannot obtain milk quota or an increase in their allocation of sheep quota to match their increased acreage. The policy should be carefully thought through.

The proposed removal of the waste grant means that the smaller farmer, who has endeavoured to acquire sufficient capital to install a slurry management system, will not be able to proceed.

The problems associated with livestock exports are increasing, not decreasing. Despite some of the efforts that Ministers have made, the result will be an oversupply on the British market and a collapse in prices, which will affect small farmers who do not have milk quota.

I shall refer to the 1994 Budget proposals. Farmers and rural communities are deeply concerned about the question of taxation placed on fuel in an attempt to increase the use of public transport. But public transport is not generally available to those in rural areas—at least, not on the scale on which it is available to others.

The proposals to remove the tractor licence exemption facility will seriously affect many farmers, particularly those whose farms are divided by roadways. That is a practical point, which means that a farmer wishing to gain access to his own buildings and land across a road cannot do so legally without the purchase of a full tractor licence. Something must be done about that. The Budget also included proposals to reclassify the agricultural vehicle excise duty, and I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at that in her discussions with the Treasury.

I now come to the vexed question of milk. I was selected for my constituency on the day that milk quotas were announced in May 1984, and I will not forget that in a hurry. I was not pleased when the Chancellor did a deal with the Italians, despite their fraudulent activities, regarding the milk quota. I will not go into that now, as I might have the Whip taken away.

On the black marketing of milk, the industry would support any action taken by the intervention board, but we must remember the serious problems which face the milk industry at present due to the price of additional milk quotas. In some cases, farmers are having to deal with quota at twice the value of production levels, and I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister will look at that.

There are also the problems of pig farmers. I have written to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions regarding stalls and fairness for the British pig fanner in relation to those in the rest of Europe. Over and over again there are distortions and there is a lack of enforcement of the rules in other countries, whether in livestock, transport, milk quotas or environmental standards and pollution.

This is not just Europhobic waffle—it is what is going on in other countries. People such as myself want the European Community to work effectively and have continually said so. We raise questions about what is going on, but sometimes we do so in language which is not thought to be entirely desirable. None the less, there is a fundamental dishonesty about the way in which European Community issues tend to get dealt with. It is not always deliberate, but it turns into a real problem because we get a mismatch between the promises and the performance. That makes people extremely unhappy.

British farmers are suffering from the uneven playing field in comparison with their European counterparts. They feel strongly that we must take a more realistic approach, bearing in mind some of the unfair competition that is currently coming from Europe.

There is another, and final, point. Yes, we must reform the common agriculture policy, but the benefits of coming out of the exchange rate mechanism have led to an improvement in fanning incomes in the past two years. We have a new opportunity with regard to the volume of meat which is apparently now being consumed by Brazil and the Asian countries. That is liable to increase, and it could completely distort the basis on which GATT was calculated with regard to beef production and exports. We should be wary—as in some other matters on the European scene—of getting ourselves locked into rules which have no regard to the reality of the movements in the marketplace.

There are some useful papers coming out on the subject, which must be a good indication of the fact that people—including my hon. Friend and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—are thinking through the problems in the light of the new circumstances. I am delighted, for example, with the constructive paper produced by the Country Landowners Association which said that we must make agriculture in Europe more competitive in world markets, bring supply and demand into better balance, be compatible with the single market and—in relation to the environment—improve the countryside to make it clean and attractive. It continued to say that we must support environmental programmes, develop rural communities, diversify the economies of rural areas and support the economic programmes where there is a market failure. Those are constructive ideas and I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend will take in good part the fact that I am not trying to criticise now or at any time but hoping desperately that somebody is listening.

2.19 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

I am grateful for the opportunity provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) to have a debate on so important an issue. He began by outlining the importance of the rural economy in his constituency. I assure him that I, too, am familiar with Stafford, having canvassed for him at his by-election some years ago.

I shall touch on a few specific points which my hon. Friend mentioned before dealing with the general context of his speech. On difficulties with the live transportation of animals for export, I hope that he will be reassured that, having put at the top of our list the importance of animal welfare, which also concerns farmers and exporters, the Government will introduce new measures on 23 January to ensure that we cut out the cowboys in the trade who have done a grave disservice to a legitimate and legal trade. I hope that we can then continue to export animals with the highest standards of animal welfare and bring before the UK courts those who try to cheat and break the rules. That will greatly benefit the industry.

My hon. Friend mentioned sheep quotas. When proposals for sheep quotas were put on the table, the UK Government opposed them because we had the experience of milk quotas and find quotas extremely inflexible. However, other member states disagreed and we have had to apply them. I sympathise with my hon. Friend, but sheep quotas have been allocated for this year, which means that some people who may have expected to receive a quota have not received one.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the pig industry. He may be aware that in a debate on the pig industry under the Consolidated Fund motion last week, I outlined to the House the measures taken by the UK Government in respect of the French, who have not played fair and have put our pig industry at a competitive disadvantage. We have already placed those measures before the Commission because matters such as the Staviporc scheme and interest-free loans in the French pig industry are not in line with regulations. We shall pursue those issues vigorously.

Before looking at the relationship between farmers and the rest of the rural community, I shall expand a little on the rural community as a whole because the sweeping importance of rural communities formed the basis of my hon. Friend's speech. Some important changes have taken place in recent years in the jobs and life styles of people who make up the rural community and it is questionable whether, in many traditionally rural areas, there is a truly distinct community dependent entirely on the economy of its local village.

In the period between 1981 and 1991, the population of rural areas in England increased by just over 7 per cent., with a corresponding decline in metropolitan areas of nearly 5 per cent. Those of us who have lived in rural areas for all or most of our lives understand why people wish to leave urban areas and enjoy the quality of life in rural areas. During the same period, the number of new businesses in England increased by 33 per cent. net and employment by 15 per cent. in rural areas.

Part of the influx to rural areas has resulted from greater access to cars, which enables people to work in towns yet live in the country. Improved mobility has also given rise to employment opportunities that have little connection with traditional village life, such as light industries or financial services, which we now find increasingly in rural areas.

It may not be surprising to find that agriculture accounts for only 2.2 per cent. of the total national work force and contributes only 1.4 per cent. to gross domestic product. Yet anybody visiting the countryside will not fail to appreciate how much—more than three quarters—of the landscape is still predominantly agricultural. It is essential, therefore, that our rural development policies take account of environmental and conservation concerns in an integrated approach—my hon. Friend touched on that, too—while also recognising that rural areas are not homogeneous. For instance, in my home county of Devon, farming accounts for one fifth of the work force—above average for the United Kingdom. Although farming may account for only a small contribution to the rural economy, it still has an important part to play in the wider issues of countryside development.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noted with interest the announcement made on 22 November regarding the rural White Paper. It is being produced jointly by my Department and the Department of the Environment, and will be drawn up in consultation with other Government Departments as well as a range of non-governmental organisations.

My hon. Friend mentioned several aspects of rural life that might not seem immediately relevant to agriculture but which are part of the rural culture. He mentioned difficulties with village halls, crime in rural areas, housing needs, village schools and leisure and rural sports. The aim of the White Paper is to produce a long-term strategic outlook for the future of rural areas, and it will be set in the context of the Government's sustainable development strategy.

I agree with my hon. Friend that an area that needs urgent attention is the changing role of agriculture and the future of the common agricultural policy. In addition to the White Paper, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced on 6 December that he is establishing a CAP policy group to provide advice to the Government on all aspects of United Kingdom policy on the CAP.

The reform of the CAP is one of the most important challenges facing us, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we intend to press for a rational policy which better serves the UK's interests. It should also meet the needs of an expanding European Community; the countries of central Europe wish to join at the end of this century and that will have an important effect on CAP policy.

Although we are concerned to achieve a fairer CAP regime, we believe it important that other member states also recognise that, with other countries joining the Community, the CAP has to be resolved not just in this country but on an EC-wide basis. For instance, as part of the structural funding arrangements to aid structural readjustment, six predominantly rural areas in England have been designated under objective 5b, with the overall aim of improving socio-economic conditions.

The projects and schemes approved under these arrangements will be financed by a partnership between the Government, the European Commission and, when appropriate, the private sector. Funding will be limited, and it is intended that this assistance will enable businesses to become self-supporting by, for example, securing new markets for their goods or services.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of diversification by agricultural businesses. The agricultural component of this structural readjustment is aimed at moving away from traditional agricultural support to a wider economic base, providing a more market-based approach which can survive without the necessity for Government handouts in perpetuity.

Another area in which we have made progress in partnership with Brussels is with agri-environment measures, which were introduced as part of the 1992 CAP reform settlement. Under the EC agri-environment regulation, we have implemented a number of schemes that encourage environmentally friendly farming. As part of the CAP reforms, farmers are increasingly looking to diversify their businesses to supplement traditional agriculture. It is indefensible to continue growing food that is surplus to requirements and yet to support farmers for doing so. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees with that.

Structural adjustment, agri-environment measures and diversification are therefore some of our key tools in the implementation of a more sensible, rational approach to agricultural support.

I have highlighted the development of reform in a European context, but we should not forget the other important contributions that the UK Government are making in their own right to improve structural matters, such as the proposed agricultural tenancy law reforms. A dynamic tenanted sector will be important if agriculture is to respond to market and policy changes. I hope that it will also be of help to the group that my hon. Friend mentioned—young farmers entering farming for the first time.

To tackle the decline in the amount of rented land available, the Government published their Agricultural Tenancies Bill on 18 November. The Bill has already started its progress through the House in another place.

It must also be remembered that there is a range of Government policies aimed at other aspects of rural areas, their economies and communities. Industrial, education, housing and transport policies all have special significance for rural areas. We want a vibrant rural economy, covering both agriculture and non-agricultural sectors, in which people work and live and make an invaluable contribution to the national economy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has introduced a wide-ranging debate, but I hope that I have convinced him that the new measures being taken, especially by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will consider some of those issues in a much broader context.