HC Deb 25 May 2000 vol 350 cc1096-8
4. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

What evaluation he has made of the value of the countryside stewardship scheme to rural conservation. [122403]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

We believe, as do most environmental organisations, that the countryside stewardship scheme is of considerable value to rural conservation and I recently announced a significant expansion to the sector. An independent study to assess the environmental benefits of the scheme in more detail is due to report shortly.

Judy Mallaber

I agree with my hon. Friend that the countryside stewardship scheme is of great value to rural conservation. It is also a valuable source of income for hard-pressed farmers. The Ministry has told me that, at present, there is only one such scheme in Amber Valley. What steps has my hon. Friend taken to make sure that farmers in Amber Valley and throughout the country are able to have access to countryside stewardship?

Mr. Morley

The schemes are very popular, and until recently they have been heavily over-subscribed. Thanks to the measures announced under the rural development programme, we will be able to increase the number of applicants to the scheme from 1,600 last year to 3,000 in the coming year. I have emphasised the benefits of the scheme in meetings with farmers, and many farm and environmental organisations have stressed those benefits too. I have no hesitation in asserting that many more farmers will want to join the scheme, and I am sure that many will be from my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Does the Minister accept that there is a catch in the small print of the scheme? Income is based on income forgone, which means that if the market price of cereals, for example, falls, farmers will lose money. Indeed, Strutt & Parker has estimated that farmers who enter the scheme will be worse off than those who stay out of it.

Mr. Morley

I would like to see those figures, because I do not think that that is necessarily the case. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that that the scheme is based on income forgone, although I do not think that that is the best method of calculation. Nevertheless, that is the European rule.

We are aware of the implications for farmers when their incomes fall and prices go down. Logically, the payments based on those incomes should go down with them as well. We have, however, taken a reasonable and balanced view, and tried to cushion farmers from the worst effects of the changes.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Can my hon. Friend confirm that this type of scheme is essential in areas of the Pennines like mine, where land is extremely difficult to farm? It is wild and rugged, but very beautiful, and farmers can be helped considerably by the scheme.

Mr. Morley

I can confirm that. Areas in my hon. Friend's constituency benefit particularly from stewardship schemes. They have the flexibility to cope with different regions, demands and areas. I am glad to say that the Government will be increasing spending in real terms by £16 million every year for the next seven years.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

It is a pity that the Minister did not say that it was the Conservative Government who introduced the stewardship scheme. We are very proud of the way in which it has developed.

Will the Minister confirm that, as of next year, many of our hedgerows will be under threat from the 2 m rule, which still stands to be implemented for the next cropping year? Would it not be better to amalgamate the set-aside scheme with the country stewardship scheme in terms of headlands, allowing a narrower width for set-aside, so that all farmers could be encouraged to convert their headlands to conservation set-aside, and bring some simplicity to arrangements that confuse many farmers trying to work out which way to go forward?

Mr. Morley

On the first point, the Government are increasing spending on agri-environmental schemes by £1 billion over the next seven years. We could perhaps have increased it even more, were it not for the fact that the European Union contribution towards the rural development programme is 3.5 per cent., based on historically low levels of spending on countryside programmes by the previous Government.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, there is a real threat to field boundaries from the Commission's proposals. Thanks to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Minister with Franz Fischler, we have managed to get a year's grace in which to put forward proposals to deal with the point from the auditors that the area of land that was cropped is less than that which is being claimed for arable aid payments. That is because of historical cropping patterns in this country.

We want to look at a number of options, such as a more flexible use of set-aside land. We invited Commissioners to look at our proposals in March. They have been over, and we await their response to our ideas.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

It is true, as the Minister says, that the doubling of funding for countryside stewardship from the niggardly levels bequeathed us by the previous Administration has been warmly welcomed by such organisations as English Nature and the Council for the Protection of Rural England, of which I am a member. Does he agree that this a worthwhile step towards obtaining modern and efficient financial support for farming and countryside development? Is he hopeful that we can take more substantial steps by thoroughgoing reform of the common agricultural policy in similar ways?

Mr. Morley

I agree with my hon. Friend that, under this Government, spending on countryside programmes has increased by 60 per cent., compared with under the previous Government. In relation to the common agricultural policy, there is no doubt that we need to move funds away from production-based support into agri-environment-based support and support for the wider countryside and rural economy. That is our objective. We have made some progress by putting in place the rural development programme, but we recognise that there is more to do in relation to reforming the CAP, and we are committed to doing that.

Madam Speaker

Question 6.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

Has the Minister seen the letter in today's—

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

Thanks for the clue about the supplementary question, but I had anticipated it.