HL Deb 12 December 1983 vol 446 cc64-6

6.58 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead) rose to move, That the draft scheme laid before the House on 8th November be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that this Scheme be approved by your Lordships. An outgoers scheme has operated in one form or another since 1967, and the current scheme, which is made under the Agriculture Act 1967, fulfills our obligations under European Community Directive 72/160 on measures to encourage the cessation of farming for the purpose of structural improvement. This directive is one of four structural directives due to expire at the end of December this year but the new proposals which the Commission put to the Council of Ministers are still being considered by a working group discussion. Consequently we expect the Council of Ministers to be asked to agree to the extension of the European Communities structures measures for 12 months, and we have to extend our provisions in line.

To be eligible under the scheme a farmer must be aged between 55 and 65 and must occupy an uncommercial farm unit; that is, a holding which is not capable of providing full time employment for its occupier and one farm worker. The relinquished land must be amalgamated with a farm business which has a development plan as provided for by the farm and horticulture or agriculture and horticulture development schemes. Alternatively the land may go for afforestation or for recreation or for some other public use. The farmer relinquishing the land must also undertake not to farm commercially, although he is allowed to maintain a small area of land for private use, such as for a domestic house or garden.

The financial incentives available to the successful applicants, of whom there are currently about 25 each year, are paid either as a lump sum of between £1,000 and £3,000 or by way of annuity of between £250 and £450. The actual amount depends in part upon the size of the land being given up. Of these payments, 25 per cent. is eligible for reimbursement from the guidance section of the Community's FEOGA fund.

The Payments to Outgoers Scheme 1976 is due to close to new applicants on 15th December 1983. The instrument before us would extend the period for applications until 31st December 1984, so that the United Kingdom would continue to meet its Community obligations under Directive 72/160. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Farm Structure (Payments to Outgoers) (Extension of Duration) Scheme 1983, laid before the House on 8th November be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I do not think that I need to say much about this scheme. The noble Lord has very ably explained it to the House. However, I would just say that I had quite a lot to do with the introduction of the scheme as I was a junior Minister at the time. The scheme had much criticism. I notice that the noble Lord says there are 25 applicants each year, and that is not many. It was considered that amalgamating farms when there was such a demand for them was a had thing. But there are many farms in this country, particularly in Scotland, that are so small they are completely non-viable. The scheme helps those people who generally are not well off to obtain some help to retire from them and enable the farms to be amalgamated with neighbouring viable farms.

As the noble Lord says, this scheme is to he continued until the end of next year. May I just put one small point to the noble Lord. The printing of these orders, and so on, must cost money and need a lot of work. I have often wondered whether it would not be better if the scheme were just simply continued indefinitely and an order made to stop it. This would be preferable to repeated orders to carry it on. I am not sure whether that would be possible but it seems to me that these schemes come forward repeatedly to be continued for another year and it might be better for indefinite schemes to be stopped by an order rather than have this continuous flow of paper. However, we commend the scheme.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to the scheme by the noble Lord which was not unexpected because he was in at the birth of the present scheme. Incidentally, perhaps it would be of interest if I said that since the scheme began in 1976 there have been about 300 applications, of which 170 have so far been approved, and grant paid which totals about £250,000. Of course, we have been reimbursed from the FEOGA fund to the tune of around £67,000. If, as I guess from what the noble Lord said, we agree the scheme this evening, and it has been agreed by another place, that will mean, roughly, additional assessed expenditure for the next year of about £65,000, and 25 per cent. of that will be eligible for reimbursement.

The only other point I make is that the noble Lord put his finger on the slightly awkward question of why structural policy is apparently geared to removing some small businesses and perhaps making larger businesses even larger. I think the noble Lord answered that better than I could have done. I would only add that in the noble Lord's own home country there are, after all, many small farmers already benefiting substantially from aid under structural measures such as farm grant schemes, particularly in the less favoured areas. I do not believe, and I do not think that the noble Lord feels, that this scheme has worked out in the way in which the criticisms suggest. It has simply been a way of less young farmers with uncommercial holdings being able to get out of farming. It has not happened in the numbers we might have hoped but, nevertheless, it has been of help to some.

On the noble Lord's specific question, I think the truth of the matter is that in the present situation we did not quite know, speaking nationally, where we stood. We hoped that the discussions in the Council of Ministers on the structures directives would have been completed by now. I am as sure as I can be that there will be important and valuable conclusions as a result of the discussions in the Council of Ministers. But those discussions are still continuing and, therefore, we were in a position where we had to bring forward a scheme to continue our national arrangements for one more year. The noble Lord will understand when I say that we could not foresee that a little while ago and that it could not be automatic. Therefore we had to bring in this special scheme.

On Question, Motion agreed to.