HC Deb 23 March 1995 vol 257 cc471-2
4. Mr. Jenkin

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress he is making in the EC to allow land set aside under farm woodland and agri-environmental schemes to be counted against farmers' set-aside obligations. [13877]

8. Mr. Luff

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking in the EU to enable farm woodland to be counted against farmers' set-aside obligations. [13882]

Mr. Waldegrave

Following the United Kingdom's campaign, the Commission has produced proposals to allow that. They are under discussion at a technical level and we are pressing for their early adoption.

Mr. Jenkin

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the woodland planted under the farm woodland premium scheme so far has been disappointing? Would it not be more justifiable if farmers could use set-aside money for schemes that benefit the environment and the countryside?

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the purpose of the change for which we have been arguing—that is true of both legs of his argument. We believe that many farmers have not come forward for the woodland scheme because they do not want to undertake that as well as the set-aside scheme. If joining the woodland scheme counted as set-aside, that would boost the woodland scheme. We do not like set-aside and would much rather not have it, but that move would give us the opportunity to do something useful with set-aside, and improve the environment.

Mr. Luff

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the step that he has just announced is important and would no doubt assist the uptake of forestry and other agri-environmental schemes? Can he reassure me that the administration of the farm woodland premium scheme will continue to be as efficient as possible, bearing in mind the problems of two of my constituents to which I recently drew the Ministry's attention?

Mr. Waldegrave

I have seen one of the schemes involving Mr. Day and I shall look at the other. We make every effort to be as efficient as possible. I endorse the first part of my hon. Friend's contribution.

Mr. Tipping

While the movement within the European Union is extremely helpful and will help community forests such as the Greenwood in Nottinghamshire, will the Minister take another look at the grant available to land owners because that lack of financial incentive is holding up community forests?

Mr. Waldegrave

That matter was reviewed relatively recently. We believe that the grants are adequate, but we shall keep them under review. The scheme to which the hon. Gentleman referred is interesting and imaginative.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

On the question of the agricultural environment, the Minister keeps saying that support for agriculture needs to move away from production to environmental and rural considerations. Why is his Department's budget for the agri-environment just £21 million this financial year, when support for the common agricultural policy is £2,800 million? Less than 1 per cent. of the Department's budget is allocated to the environment. Is that not a rather feeble commitment to the environment?

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman should recall that we are also financing schemes within the European Community part of our budget which go to the environment. I am sure that the House is well aware of our dilemma. As net contributors, it is very difficult for us to argue for a domestic increase in a budget when we are spending so much through the CAP as well. There must be some constraints on spending. If we were able to reduce our contribution to the European Community—which I think we will achieve over time—there would be more room for funding localised schemes.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the people of Scotland are astonished that land has been set aside when it should be used to grow desperately needed malt and barley for the whisky industry? It is difficult to explain that to people, but it would be easier to explain if we were able to grow woodland on that land.

Mr. Waldegrave

If the land is suitable and is eligible for the farm woodland grant scheme I hope that they will be able to do exactly that. I remind my hon. Friend—I am sure that the House is aware of it—that set-aside is not compulsory. Farmers in different parts of the country have chosen not to fill in their integrated administration and control systems forms, take the subsidy or set aside. One obviously must have good land if one is to do that. Set-aside land is an exchange for the subsidies that are offered.

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