HC Deb 22 April 2004 vol 420 cc424-5
4. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)

What representations she has received on the exclusion of cider orchards from the proposed area payments under the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy. [167006]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

This matter was the subject of an Adjournment debate on Tuesday, led by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Some commentators feared that our orchards would be grubbed up in order to qualify for the new single payment. As such applications would qualify only for the new flat rate element, the financial benefits would be small, and I therefore believe the fears to be misplaced. We are working with the industry to make sure that traditional orchards and biodiversity are not damaged by the new arrangements.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Is the Minister aware that Somerset's cider orchards are a vital asset, for the cider that they produce, for their appearance—especially at this time of year—and because they provide a habitat for many interesting species of insects, birds and so on? Those orchards miss out on the new area payments unless they are grubbed up and returned to agricultural use. Why is that? Contrary to what the Minister just said, there is a clear economic incentive to take the trees away and return the land to ordinary agricultural use. Why is he persisting in a scheme that is unfair to apple growers, and also a clear threat to the diversity and beauty of our environment? That is something about which his Department ought to be more concerned.

Alun Michael

There seems to be a clear trend today—Conservative Members who are not up to speed on the issues about which they ask questions. I recommend that the right hon. Gentleman read the interesting exchanges in the Adjournment debate held only two days ago. He made no distinction between commercial cider orchards and more traditional orchards, and he did not refer to stewardship, which provides more financial support to many traditional orchards than would be available through the flat rate element in the new single payment. I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman gets to grip with the facts.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

In common with other growers, cider apple producers are heavily dependent on legal labour, provided under the student agricultural workers scheme, to harvest their crops. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the students who come from Romania and Bulgaria every year will arrive in time to harvest summer fruit in May and June, and that they do not get caught up in immigration chaos?

Alun Michael

I am not going to stray into areas that are appropriate for the Home Office and other Departments, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are fully conscious of the need for seasonal workers to carry out the sort of activity that he describes. We will respond to a private Member's Bill shortly, but we want to encourage legal seasonal working and to discourage those who operate illegally. In that context, we understand the importance of the students and those who come through the avenues that the hon. Gentleman describes.