HC Deb 27 July 2000 vol 354 cc1223-5
3. Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

What assessment he has made of the effect of subsidies for farm diversification and innovation. [131263]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

This is an important question. Evaluation of the farm diversification grant scheme—which closed in 1993—and objective 5b suggests that well-targeted aid can provide good value for money. It is on the basis of the evaluation of previous schemes that we intend to operate the new rural enterprise scheme in England—I have responsibility only for schemes in England.

Mr. Flynn

Has the Minister seen the comments by the Federated Farmers of New Zealand? It says that the removal of farm subsidies there has given birth to a vibrant, diversified and growing rural economy. New Zealand's experience over the past 15 years of reform has thoroughly debunked the myth that the farming sector and the environment cannot remain healthy and prosperous without government subsidies. After 60 years of generous Government subsidies, the farming industry has been in almost permanent crisis. It has become a dependent industry that is not inclined to innovate or diversify. Is it not true that, in many cases, subsidies are not the answer to farming crises, but the cause of them?

Mr. Brown

I have paid careful attention to the New Zealand experience. My hon. Friend is right to say that we cannot carry on supporting agriculture's over-reliance on the supply side support mechanisms under the common agricultural policy. I attach proportionate importance to the diversification element of the new rural development regulation, which is why we have planned expenditure of some £152 million pver the next seven years in England alone. The purpose of that expenditure is to get farm businesses away from an over-reliance on supply side subsidies and closer to the marketplace.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister recognise that in his plans to reorganise the regional structures of MAFF, he is making some heroic assumptions about farmers' ability to use advanced technology in applying for subsidies and other applications? Knowing that many farmers are not confident in this area and are elderly, will he ensure that the facilities are available to give practical help to those who cannot master the technology, so that those who depend most on aid are not denied it?

Mr. Brown

The link is a bit tenuous, but it is an important point. I would be making some even more heroic assumptions if we did not take action in that area. I intend to ensure that there is a presence in each of the MAFF regions so that farmers can continue, during the changeover period, to have direct contact with officials in the Ministry to discuss their concerns face to face, not necessarily via new technology or even by telephone. We have conducted successful experiments in East Anglia on the electronic transmission of data, and I am aware of similar experiments carried out in Scotland by the Department with devolved responsibility for administering those schemes. Those give grounds for optimism.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that belching cows are responsible for 25 per cent, of the methane released into the atmosphere, which is a powerful greenhouse gas? Is he also aware that a UK-invented feed additive can cut down that dreadful belching?

Mr. Flynn

From both ends.

Mr. Prentice

Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) said, is it not the case that, to encourage farmers to get that innovative product into the market, we should look at a small kick-start subsidy?

Mr. Brown

A lot of regimes started with small kick-start subsidies. We are looking at non-food crops and some experimental work is under way. We shall provide some funding under the rural development regulation and I am always willing to consider new and innovative ways to enhance farm incomes.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

My mother has asked me to tell you, Madam Speaker, that she will miss you very much on the Parliamentary Channel. [Interruption.] It is true!

Given the Government's commitment to diversification into organic conversion, will they set specific targets for that conversion over time and will those targets be supported by a stable financial package for the long term?

Mr. Brown

I wish that the hon. Gentleman's mother would choose the questions that he asks me as well as the remarks that he makes to Madam Speaker.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

His mother gives him the answers.

Mr. Brown

Perhaps she does.

We have put aside £140 million to spend on organic farm conversion during the seven-year lifetime of the English rural development regulation. We expect that the outcome of that expenditure will be a tripling of the area that is farmed organically. We are not setting specific targets. Clearly, the organic farmers need to win their places in the market, but we are providing substantially enhanced financial support for organic farming because that it what consumers want.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Does the Minister accept that innovation in e-commerce in farm diversification will be hampered by the lack of advanced telecommunication systems in constituencies such as Congleton? What action will he take to ensure equitable access to the super-highway and, indeed, to increase competition in rural areas, where British Telecom currently has the monopoly of provision?

Mr. Brown

I do not want to stray outside the matters for which I have ministerial responsibility, but I want to ensure that everyone has equal access to the services that the Ministry provides. We are considering making use of the network of rural post offices, for example, as service providers to those running farm businesses, but I assure the hon. Lady that we shall keep a front-line service for farmers in place during the transitional period, with travel distances no greater than they are now.