HL Deb 30 June 1988 vol 498 cc1703-5

3.10 p.m.

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What reduction in the acreage of arable crops they expect to result from their proposals for the "setting aside" of arable land.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the Government have not taken a view on the reduction in acreage because this will depend on the level of response to the set-aside scheme.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she aware that there is considerable disappointment among many environmentalists and farmers that the set-aside proposals do not include a grassland option, a so-called grazed fallow? Will she agree that the Government are to be congratulated in achieving what the Labour Party has wanted to achieve since it was formed; namely, bringing about the demise of the private landlord in British agriculture? It will now make no sense to re-let a farm which has become vacant on a secure lifetime tenancy rent of, say, £40 an acre when all the landlord has to do is to plant the whole farm with a cover crop and draw the set-aside compensation of £80 per acre.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's supplementary question, there is a serious risk that the grazed fallow option could lead to adverse impact on existing livestock producers, particularly in the uplands. In addition, under the EC rules stocking densities are to be properly controlled and therefore substantial new bureaucratic resources would be required.

I do not agree with the premise in the second part of the noble Lord's supplementary question because we cannot believe that the introduction of the scheme will significantly affect present landlord-tenant relationships which have existed for many centuries. The rate of aid is unlikely to encourage landlords to eject tenants from land or fail to renew tenancies. Participants, including landlords, will still incur the costs of managing set-aside land.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, in the light of the drought in the United States and the forecast of a grain shortage, are the Government revising that policy?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, that is another question, but the scheme stands regardless.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I am sorry that the Government have not had an appreciation of the possible situation. Is the Minister aware that considerable discussions have been taking place, particularly with landlords, agents and general farmers? In respect of farms up to 150 acres it is almost worth taking the lot and taking a job. Up to 450 acres it is a difficult proposition because on 20 per cent. one cannot reduce by one man or one tractor so one is stuck there. That leaves the good land situation. I doubt whether it is very attractive to those on the good land from where the surpluses are coming.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, we see the scheme as a complement to stabilisers which are the main instrument of reform. The rates of aid are aimed at offering reasonable reimbursement for loss of income and the cost to farmers of managing land, while not overcompensating. However, rates are at the top of the scale set out in the consultation document which the noble Lord has no doubt seen. It is likely to be most attractive to cereal growers of marginal profitability or in economic difficulty.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, have the Government considered achieving a reduction in the cereal yield by achieving a reduction in the intensity of the application of fertilisers, thereby securing an environmental goal at the same time?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, that is another question which I shall be delighted to answer if the noble Lord tables it. However, today we are discussing set-aside.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the noble Baroness explain to those of us who have difficulty in following the matter why we are subsidising farmers to produce more crops while at the same time we are subsidising them to produce fewer crops?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, we are certainly not paying farmers to do nothing. We shall be requiring farmers to manage the countryside and keep it in good agricultural condition and environmentally attractive. As regards stabilisers and set-aside, we are trying to lower the quantity grown of crops which are in surplus.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, will not the noble Baroness agree that, in as much as the set-aside scheme allowed a substantial measure of the national determination of the details of the scheme, it is a matter of great disappointment to British farmers that the scheme which the Ministry is now offering is based substantially on Continental experience—in other words, that of small farms—and that in those circumstances it is unlikely to be taken up in substantial measure by British farmers, resulting in the use of the trigger mechanisms of the stabiliser scheme which we would all deplore?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in other countries in the EC the farming conditions and the size of farms are very different. We can only try to do our best with the set-aside scheme, and time alone will tell how many farmers find it attractive.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether the failure of the British Government to allow the option of the grassland scheme will put British farmers at a disadvantage because Continental countries are allowing their farmers that option?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, France and Germany are allowing it. Member states have the option of permitting low-intensity livestock grazing on fallow land. Stocking densities would be limited to either one livestock unit per hectare of grassland or no increase in the number of livestock units already on the holding. The rate of aid would be half that offered for green fallow.

In our view, green fallow, or non-grazed fallow, is preferable to grazed fallow for the reasons that I gave at the beginning. They are that it would be extremely difficult to police, and our sheep, dairy and beef farmers would be seriously disadvantaged if people increased the number of livestock by using the fallow in this way.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, will the noble Baroness explain to my noble friend sitting behind me that the bulk of the subsidies are not paid to farmers but for the restitution of prices and for storage? They do not go into the pockets of the farmers.