HC Deb 22 January 1998 vol 304 cc1128-9
3. Mr. Yeo

When he last met the president of the National Farmers Union to discuss the recent fall in farm incomes. [22303]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

My right hon. Friend last met the president of the NFU to discuss incomes in December last. Along with many right hon. and hon. Members, I also had discussions with farmers on Tuesday.

Mr. Yeo

Is the Minister aware that farmers in South Suffolk are experiencing a drop in their incomes partly as a result of Government policy, including the high level of sterling that has been caused by five interest rate increases during the past nine months? What discussions has he had with the Treasury about using the underspend on agricultural schemes that we will receive as part of our European Union budget rebate to help farmers cope with the effects of declining incomes?

Mr. Rooker

Other industries are also affected by the increase in the price of sterling. Agriculture is not alone, although in special recognition of that problem my right hon. Friend announced in the House on 22 December substantial extra help to the farming industry.

Dr. Ladyman

At the farm income lobby on Tuesday, one of the points made to me was that our pig farmers are forbidden from feeding meat and bone meal to pigs, yet meat raised in that way is freely available on our supermarket shelves. What plans does the Minister have to restrict imports of meat produced in that way?

Mr. Rooker

We have no plans to restrict such imports. We are subject to the restrictions of the ban imposed on meat, bone meal and other products because of the mismanagement of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis by the previous Government. The consequences of that are being felt by farmers and the whole of the food production industry today and that will remain the case for some time to come.

Mr. Paice

The Minister knows that on Tuesday the president of the National Farmers Union and others presented a petition with 650,000 signatures from people who want to keep Britain farming. He knows full well that it is not merely a question of sterling and that in fact the Government have taken £129 million away from farmers and given back only £85 million. Why will he not now answer the question my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked? Will he undertake to the House that any underspend in the sheep premium, in set-aside, or in any other European programme will be used as part of our refund to access more money to help Britain's farmers?

Mr. Rooker

First, let us get the record right. The figures that the hon. Member quoted are correct, but they are for two different years. The increases he mentioned are for the next financial year and the assistance to farmers will be paid in this financial year. We do not make a move on those finances without the agreement of our colleagues in the Treasury. On the so-called underspends, what he suggests has never happened in the past and I do not see it happening in the future.

Mr. Blizzard

The main problem facing farmers is the large variation in the exchange rate of our currency and its effect on the green pound. Does my hon. Friend agree that if Conservative Members were really concerned about the countryside and were really the farmer's friend, they would take a far more positive attitude to the single European currency—which is favoured by the NFU—instead of their ridiculous policy of not going anywhere near it for 10 years and leaving farmers to suffer from sharp variations in exchange rates?

Mr. Rooker

The answer to that excellent question is yes.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Does the Minister recognise that, as sterling is likely to remain strong against the European currencies until the single European currency has been seen to fail and is abandoned, we are not dealing with a short-term problem? For the foreseeable future—for some years to come—British agriculture will be unfairly and exceptionally adversely affected by the present green pound arrangements. Are the Government seriously considering some way to help farmers over that period? If the green pound is left as it is at present, it will destroy British agriculture in the next three years.

Mr. Rooker

I bow to the hon. Gentleman's superior knowledge of the banking system. His confidence that the European monetary system will fail will not be shared by many people. He may be able to look into the future with such certainty, but we cannot. The issue will be with us for some time, as he said. Not only the farming and agriculture industry, but the whole of British industry, will be affected.

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