HL Deb 13 October 1999 vol 605 cc362-4

3.7 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the useful achievements of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, MAFF's successive annual reports detail its achievements in promoting a sustainable, efficient food chain and ensuring consumers have competitively priced food produced to high standards of safety, animal welfare and environmental care.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, such gratitude as I have for that reply is at least tinged with sympathy for the noble Baroness in her present role. Will the Minister be so kind as to assemble a group of her colleagues and advisers and take it on a tour of the countryside in Germany, France, Holland, and anywhere else she may choose in the Community, where it will find prosperity and confidence? If the same group returned to the UK it would find the very reverse: no prosperity and no confidence whatever. My neighbour, who is a third generation small farmer, has been forced to sell up because of rising capital costs and the disappearance of rewards. I put the following question to the noble Baroness, even in her rather embarrassing position: does that not point to a total failure of the department, which in fairness may be attributed to the split in its role representing the interests of both consumers and producers? Should that not be replaced with the farming role in preserving the environment and ensuring that the health of the countryside is fully safeguarded?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am not in the slightest bit embarrassed in answering this Question, although any prudent Minister would probably adopt the precautionary principle when dealing with questions from the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, particularly those that appear to be deceptively simple.

I do not disagree with him as to the severe problems that are facing farmers and the agricultural industry in this country across a wide range of sectors. It is the difficulties in each of those sectors occurring at the same time that makes this crisis particularly deep and difficult for those involved.

Many issues are influencing the situation, not least the over-supply in commodity markets, the effects of world trade, the recession in the Far East, the collapse of the Russian economy and the fact that farmers in this country have had to deal with the beef export ban and the associated charges on the livestock industry.

We are trying to deal with all the issues involved, but there is a general understanding that there will have to be a restructuring within agriculture, not only in this country because there are areas of agriculture where equal strains are being felt internationally. We have to find ways of supporting those who are working in the industry while that restructuring occurs.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance that she will give the utmost support to British beef farmers following the insufferable and illegal action by the French of banning British beef, although the European Union has said that it is safe? Will she and her department be tough when negotiations are held with the EU and, if the French will not return to legality, will my noble friend advise the British people to boycott French goods?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I prefer to adopt the strategy suggested by my noble friend in the first half of his question in relation to the completely unjustified non-implementation of an EU decision about the resumption of beef exports from this country. We must ensure that the decision is properly implemented throughout the Community. I can reassure my noble friend that my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture and the Prime Minister have made quite clear within Europe and to the governments concerned, particularly to the French Government, our belief that they have no new evidence in this field and that the measures that have been approved by the EU scientific advisers after exceptionally thorough scrutiny show that British beef is safe and that they are legally obliged to implement that decision.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to her new position. May I say how pleased we are in the south-west that we will be part of her particular brief.

Will the Minister make particular efforts to ensure that MAFF looks beyond the farm gate, which it has failed to do historically? That is one of the reasons for the lack of prosperity in the countryside and has led to a situation in which the amount of money that we are to receive for rural development regulation is below that given to Finland and most other countries in Europe. Can the Minister ensure that that money receives matching funding for the development of such essentials as farmers' co-operatives, farmers' markets and measures to make it easier for farmers to sell their extremely high quality produce to local people?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her welcome. I agree that the Rural Development Fund gives opportunities for exactly that kind of restructuring, diversification and support for rural economies in the round, not necessarily only through a very narrow definition of conventional agriculture. There have been difficulties because of the EU decision to base the amount of funding that is available on historical spend rather than on necessity, and that is an issue that we are pursuing. I agree that the opportunities exist, as with the special aid package that was announced by my right honourable friend in providing support for marketing schemes in particular areas for particular produce.

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