HL Deb 03 November 1993 vol 549 cc1086-8

3.7 p.m.

Viscount Addison asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether farmers can use set-aside land for cropping where planted land has been devastated by recent floods.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, set-aside land cannot be used for any kind of agricultural cropping during the set-aside period except under the non-food arrangements. However, farmers have until next January to take firm decisions about what land to set aside in 1994. If they wish to do so, they can set aside fields sown this autumn which cannot in practice be cropped because of subsequent flooding. They should, however, inform their MAFF regional service centre so it is clear that they are not intending to crop the field.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his helpful reply. However, is he aware that there are over 8,000 square kilometres of land in England and Wales which lie five metres below the Ordnance Survey contour? Is he further aware that 52 per cent. of all agricultural land in England and Wales requires drainage for flood defence? Is he aware too that where artificially protected land is flooded through breaches in man-made banks maintained by the National Rivers Authority, the NRA classes those breaches as an act of God? Can my noble friend say which god it is that decides to offer over £100 million of subsidy to farmers in the United Kingdom growing linseed—£478 for every hectare of linseed grown—whether they harvest the linseed or not and which god it is that decides that the farmer who, through no fault of his own and despite paying drainage rates, loses his potatoes and autumn drilled crops under flood water is offered neither compensation nor arbitration?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government provide substantial funds for flood and coastal defences every year. But it is important to recognise that those defences cannot provide absolute protection against the forces of nature. There is always the possibility of an event occurring which is more severe than that for which the defence was designed. For compensation to be payable it would be necessary to show that damage had occurred through the negligence of a flood defence authority rather than as a result of a severe natural event. My noble friend mentioned linseed. Under the arable area payments scheme there is no requirement to harvest any crop in order to receive such payments. The crops must simply be sown and maintained up to a specific date with the intention of being harvested. If crops are destroyed by flooding before that date, farmers should write to their regional service centre explaining the full circumstances. It may still be possible to make a payment.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, might not the Minister consider set-aside a sensible way to reduce agricultural surpluses?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the UK has always argued that the best way to control surpluses is to cut prices. The CAP reform package agreed last year included price cuts of 30 per cent. for cereals. That is often overlooked. However, price cuts take some time to work through the system. Set-aside was chosen as a way to help get production down more quickly.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the deficit in timber products in this country is something like £6 billion per annum? Would it not be wise for the EC to give us the necessary authority to plant trees on set-aside land?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. That is something for which we are pressing hard in Brussels.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, when there is terrible pressure on the PSBR and finances, how long will the British public put up with paying people £120 an acre (or whatever it is) to grow weeds? I benefit from that and I will happily take the money when it is given to me. But is it not a seriously silly policy which must be looked into immediately and, if possible, changed?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the aim of the arable area payments scheme is to move away from volume-related incentives towards area-based support which, I believe, should have the effect of reducing the costs of the CAP over a period of years.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that every farmer I know regards the set-aside scheme as an abomination? Does he agree that it would be too much for a farmer to have to set aside land and to have, in addition, an area of enforced set-aside through flood damage? Can he confirm that there is scope in the set-aside regulations for a derogation because of bad weather? Since the recent MAFF strategy for flood and coastal defences put rural flood defence firmly at the bottom of the list of priorities, surely—if that is the ministry's thinking—it should allow flooded farms some degree of help through amendment of their set-aside acreage.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the rules for set-aside and arable area payments are much more flexible this year than last year. The cardinal piece of advice I would give to farmers who have unfortunately suffered flood damage is to contact their regional service centre. Every case will be looked at on its merits and MAFF officers will do their best to be flexible and helpful within the rules.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, considering that 1,500 million people are starving and dying in the world, would it not be better to set aside set-aside?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have said to the noble Lord in the past, even with set-aside there would be more than enough cereals in the EC to respond to emergencies. Furthermore, I believe that it is better to provide food aid from local sources. The EC's and the UK's assistance to developing countries is much better directed towards restoring local economies and giving local farmers greater independence and security. Those very things are often undermined by the export of EC agricultural surpluses.