HC Deb 20 May 2004 vol 421 cc1080-1
3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

What discussions she has had on her proposals for single farm payments in respect of farmers in severely disadvantaged areas. [174401]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

I have had discussions with, and received representations from, a wide range of interests on this subject. As a result, I made a parliamentary written statement to the House on 22 April.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

As the Secretary of State knows, part of my Macclesfield constituency lies within the Peak District national park. Will she take seriously the views of my farmers, who are deeply concerned about the proposed single farm payments? Up to 200,000 cows are estimated to be on the 5,000 farms in severely disadvantaged areas, and the National Farmers Union believes that those farms will no longer be profitable and will go out of business in respect of livestock farming. Would not that be a disaster for farming, the upland environment and our rural economy?

Margaret Beckett

Of course I am aware of the concerns that exist. It is because of them that the Government have agreed to phase in the move to area payment over some eight years. That gives farmers in every part of the United Kingdom plenty of opportunity to assess the position of their own businesses and make their own business decisions. Other payments are available, such as the hill farm allowance, which is paid under the rural development regulation. It will continue until the present period ends in 2006.

We believe that all farming interests will benefit from decoupling. We have sought to deal with the concerns, but the hon. Gentleman, who is also a staunch advocate of his manufacturing constituents' interests, will know that many businesses would like the degree of certainty that we seek to offer agriculture.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab)

Many of my constituents in areas such as the North York moors will be affected by the proposals. Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a seminar for all Members representing such severely disadvantaged areas, so that we can talk to officials and perhaps, if necessary, bring along some of our staff? I am sure that we shall need to give a great deal of information to constituents facing the new arrangements. It would be helpful if that information were as good, as up to date and as factual as possible, so that we could cut through some of the confusion that currently exists.

Margaret Beckett

That is a wise suggestion, which echoes one made a while ago by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who chairs the Select Committee. We certainly have it in mind to offer special briefing to all interested colleagues, not least those representing moorland areas. We are well aware that although the moorland line has been fairly well established for a long time, when it was established there was no process of appeal, as there was in the case of the boundaries for special areas.

We are considering all the issues. Officials are currently tied up with detail, but I hope and expect that we shall be able to offer the support that my hon. Friend seeks in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

The Secretary of State is familiar with my constituency in the Peak district. Although the change she has had to make since her original announcement has been welcomed, many farmers are asking why they are being treated differently from those farming perhaps only half a mile away but outside the area. Would it not be better to have only one distinction, between moorland and non-moorland farms?

Margaret Beckett

We thought about that carefully. One of the factors that led us to refine our decision—not reverse it, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, although he may not really have meant that—was the scale and unanimity of representations from a wide range of farming organisations. We believe that this is an improvement, because it mitigates the effects of the redistribution that would otherwise have occurred.

We looked carefully at the possibility of using the distinction suggested by the hon. Gentleman, but when people were forced to choose the balance was in favour of the proposals I announced a week or so ago.

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