HC Deb 22 January 1998 vol 304 cc1134-7
10. Mr. Bercow

If he will make a statement on recent trends in farm incomes. [22311]

Mr. Rooker

Farm incomes rose as a result of devaluations of the green pound and improved productivity in the mid-1990s. They peaked in 1995–96, when average net farm income in the United Kingdom was about £31,500. Since then, incomes have fallen, mainly as a result of the strength of sterling.

Mr. Bercow

Further to the response to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), how can the Minister justify taking away £129 million from farmers in cuts to the over-30-months scheme and extra charges resulting from the need to meet new meat hygiene regulations and the cattle passport scheme?

Mr. Rooker

There is no justification whatsoever for the taxpayer fully funding all the controls necessary to check specified risk materials. Those extra charges will not come into force until 1 April this year. As we made clear before the election, we are working within the overall public expenditure limits of the previous Government and we make no apology for that. It is simply not possible to pour more and more taxpayers' subsidies into the industry. We wish to support the industry, but it will not benefit from further subsidies.

Mr. Pike

Does my hon. Friend accept that the incomes of hill farmers, who farm land that is difficult in terms both of the weather and what they can do on it, have been eroded for many years? What does he think the future holds for them? Does he believe that farming in those areas will continue to be viable?

Mr. Rooker

I certainly hope so. That is one of the reasons why we are redirecting funds to ensure that the majority of the money announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22 December goes to hill farmers and those in less-favoured areas.

Mr. Swinney

Is the Minister aware of the Scottish agricultural survey conducted by the Trustee Savings bank, which came out this week? It revealed that 94 per cent. of the respondents from the farming sector of Scotland believed that they were less prosperous this year than they were last year. How much evidence must be produced before the Government truly respond to the crisis affecting the rural industries of Scotland?

Mr. Rooker

I am not aware of the survey that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Farmers in Scotland will benefit from their share of the money announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22 December. I freely admit that the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that net farm incomes in Scotland have dropped—in 1995–96, they were £22,000, and in 1996–97, a little over £19,000.

Mr. Skinner

Has my hon. Friend seen the latest figures out this week which showed that nine farmers had received £1 million in subsidies and that another one had received a £250,000 subsidy under the set-aside scheme? Does he agree that those sums distort the figures relating to the many thousands of farmers who have a job to make ends meet, while there are some people at the top who are making a small fortune out of the common agricultural policy?

When my hon. Friend decides to reform the CAP, will he remember to make sure that the ones at the top, who are raking in the money, are the ones who will have their incomes cut in order to ensure that hill farmers and others get a fair crack of the whip? He should bear it in mind that when he introduces that new policy, every single Tory Member and all the Liberal Democrats, with all their farming interests, will refuse to support any change to the CAP.

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is quite right. The figures that I have quoted in the two previous answers are averages, which can be extremely misleading. They are, of course, distorted by the state handouts given under the equivalent of a social security system for part of the farming industry. Some individuals get an absolute fortune and I would like nothing more than to be able to publish the detailed information, but under the terms of the law of confidentiality between the Government and the recipient of such state handouts, I am unable to do so.

Mr. Steen

Does the Minister agree that if the south Devon countryside were covered by a lot of dead sheep, lying on their backs with their legs in the air, it would not help the tourism industry? Farmers in my area are finding it more and more costly to remove dead sheep, while the income that they receive is falling. I am not asking for more state subsidies, but I know that those carcases are offending all the urban dwellers who come down to my area to enjoy the countryside. May I suggest that the Ministry conduct an inquiry into how we can reduce the costs of removing dead sheep carcases from the green and pleasant land of Devon?

Mr. Rooker

I admit that that sight is not a good advertisement for tourism in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Todd

On Tuesday, I spent two hours in talks with farmers from Derbyshire, having taken the precaution of booking a Committee Room for the meeting rather than leaving them in Westminster Hall. They are concerned more about the future of farm incomes than about analysing the past. They are most concerned about what progress can be made with the European Union to help to restructure their industries so that they have a healthy future. What progress can my hon. Friend report?

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is perfectly right to say that it is the future that counts, not the past. I openly admit that, this year, the prospects for farm incomes are not good. We must look to the future to give hope to the industry and the thousands who work in it, love it and depend on it. That means that decisions must be taken Europewide; we are not sole masters of our future. During our presidency of the EU, we will do everything that we can to take reform of the CAP forward. Without such reform, which is opposed by many of our European economic partners and competitors, there will not be much hope for a positive future. Nothing less than reform of the CAP is required.

Mr. Jack

The Minister and the Minister of State have both made much this afternoon of the aid package announced just before Christmas, but so far, farmers have not received a penny of it, so may I ask the Minister of State some straight questions?

Farmers facing £44 extra charges per livestock animal as a result of the Government's policy want to know when they will receive the money under the package. Has the Minister of State yet obtained Commission approval for the hill livestock compensatory allowance package? Is it possible for the Commission, in determining its agreement to that package, to change its contents, namely, the division of moneys between sheep and livestock, between the hills—[Interruption.] The Minister knows that there is a difference between the payments for cattle and for sheep and he would do well to listen to the questions that I am asking, because farmers want to know whether those in the highlands and lowlands will receive the same payments.

Will the Minister of State tell us when those matters will be resolved? Finally, will he tell us why the enhanced suckler cow payments have not been made, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already has enough information to do so?

Mr. Rooker

I will answer the question that the farmers really want to know of those on the list that the right hon. Gentleman asked—the answer is, before Easter.