HC Deb 29 June 2000 vol 352 cc1036-7
10. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

What proportion of subsidy paid under the common agricultural policy to UK agriculture goes to hill farmers. [127039]

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

Provisional figures for 1999 show that common agricultural policy subsides paid in the UK totalled some £2,851 million. Hill farmers received 25 per cent. of that in livestock subsides alone. In addition, hill farmers received various other payments such as those for agri-environmental schemes.

Helen Jackson

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that hill farmers have suffered a triple whammy: the total mismanagement of the BSE crisis by the previous Government, the general depression in livestock prices and, now, the absolutely correct emphasis on the role of hill farmers in the leisure and environmental management of the countryside in future? Will he ensure, as he moves further through the reform of the CAP, that the important and specific role of hill farmers, as represented by the 25 per cent., continues to be recognised as they move in the direction of countryside management?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the combination of factors that has made life particularly difficult for hill farmers and to say that it is important, when considering reform and what publicly funded support schemes should be put in place, that we consider the environmental and landscape roles of hill farmers, not focusing solely on agricultural production.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he has no plans further to reduce support for hill farmers until their average incomes, currently standing at a meagre £2,000 a year, have recovered to an adequate level; and will he tell us what he thinks is an adequate level?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is right inasmuch as my policy is to help each hill farm business to reach better—sustainably better—times; that is the Government's policy. Can I give him an assurance that no one's income will ever go down as a result of necessary changes that are now under consideration? No, of course I cannot. However, for the range of reasons, I have just explained to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) we have devised policies to get hill farm businesses through to better times.

Mr. Bercow

What level of income?

Mr. Brown

The decision on what level of income is appropriate is for the person running the business, not for the Government.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Will the Minister tell the House what preliminary views his Department have fed into the sheepmeat review currently being undertaken by the European Commission? He will know both that consultation is under way and that sheep annual premium is extremely important to hill farmers. We must sustain the current level of premium at all costs.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point, although it is early days yet. I have discussed with the Agriculture Minister for Wales and other territorial Ministers our joint approach to the forthcoming review. For reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand, I do not want to set out our negotiating position now, but I assure him that I am alert to the fact that if the review is conducted in isolation from reviews of other regimes, the outcome might be different from that which would have emerged had the views of the British Government carried the day originally and the review been conducted alongside other reviews under Agenda 2000. I greatly regret that it was not, and that fact conditions my thinking about the whole process.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the superb initiative to bring together producers, auction marts and other processors in the Bowland Forest foods initiative, which points the way to the future of agricultural production, especially in hill areas. Can he assure me of the Government's utmost support for such initiatives?

Mr. Brown

I recently had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend's constituency and seeing for myself the work going on there. Such initiatives have my Department's support.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the Minister agree that it is extremely helpful to hill farmers to have easy access to small abattoirs, which, as we all know, currently suffer under considerable cost burdens? When asked his opinion of the Meat Hygiene Service, the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency said that it was an outdated system, one which provides little protection to consumers while placing considerable burdens on businesses. Does the recommendation of the Maclean report to introduce a new formula for meat inspection charges find acceptance with the Government? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that "ingenious proposal"—the words of the FSA chief executive—may avert the annihilation of small and medium-sized abattoirs, and so give support to hill farmers?

Mr. Brown

There is much in what the hon. Gentleman says, although were I to set out to close down as many abattoirs as were closed down under the previous Government, I could not do so, because there are not that many left. However, he is right to ask whether the Government support the change to a hazard analysis critical control point system, or HACCP system, from the current system of veterinary inspections. We are taking that issue forward with other EU Ministers. On the related question of charges, as the House will know, since 1 April that has not been my direct ministerial responsibility, although I retain an interest because of my industry sponsorship. That question is now being examined by the FSA, which has the lead role, and myself.