HL Deb 09 February 2000 vol 609 cc659-63

2.57 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their long-term strategy for British farming following the Prime Minister's visit to south-west England.

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

My Lords, our long-term strategy remains as announced by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place on 7th December last year; that is, to secure a more competitive and sustainable industry with a strong market orientation; to reduce agriculture's reliance on subsidies based on production; instead, to reflect in public support the public benefits that agriculture provides; and to encourage restructuring for long-term economic and environmental sustainability.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that rather uninspiring Answer. Michael Meacher described the Prime Minister's visit to the West Country as being "very courageous". Does she agree with that? Furthermore, does she agree that the Prime Minister's visit was not only courageous but a well orchestrated, unrealistic, sanitised public relations study which kept him from seeing the worst crisis in agriculture this century?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am less upset by being accused of giving an uninspired Answer when I hear the misrepresentation of the visit by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to the South West. Far from being sanitised, he took the trouble to surprise some of the people who were with him, to meet, speak to, invite in and talk to some of the people who protested, those who were concerned and wanted to make their concerns felt about the crisis in agriculture. I believe that those who read his speech to the National Farmers Union last week would recognise that in that speech he was looking, as I believed the noble Lord was in his Question, to the long-term strategy and future of the farming industry in this country. That means change; it means painful change for many people, and no one would underestimate the amount of pain which exists at the moment. Equally, if we are to have an industry that is sustainable for the future, it is no good pretending that we can simply go on as we have done in the past or even at present.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I declare an interest in asking this question in so far as I am involved in agriculture.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is kind enough to resume his seat, perhaps I may continue with my question. I am half way through my question and I think I did get to my feet first.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, the Clock says 23 minutes. I am sure that even if the noble Earl and my noble friend Lord Stoddart were speak at some length, the Minister would have time to reply to both of them. As the noble Earl was on his feet first, perhaps we should hear from him first.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I shall try not to speak at length because my question is a simple one. Is the noble Baroness aware that the price of milk in places like Denmark and Holland is 26 pence per litre; in England it is 15 to 16 pence per litre? How does the noble Baroness intend to rectify that in what is supposed to be a common market?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the rectification of pricing which is the result of market forces is not something that a single market does. A single market does not imply that exactly the same price applies in every part of the market with which we are dealing. Of course there have been difficulties and I recognise that UK prices are at the bottom of a European price league. It is regret table but it is not new. The noble Earl should reflect on the history of the regulation of the milk market within this country over a period longer than the term of office of this Government.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government's agricultural policy cannot be anything other than uninspiring because it is controlled by Brussels through the common agricultural policy? Under those circumstances, would it not be far better for our agricultural policy to be repatriated to the nation states in order that they can assist agriculture in a way which suits their own farmers and economies?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I do not believe that my noble friend offers a realistic alternative for farmers in this country. I accept that the common agricultural policy has proved an impediment to agriculture developing in ways which are sustainable and market oriented for the future. That is why we have supported strongly both the reform of the CAP and the establishment of the rural development regulation, the second pillar of the CAP, as a basis for a sustainable EU agriculture policy.

Noble Lords who say that this is all so uninspiring should look at the £1.6 billion to be spent on rural development measures over the next seven years and the reaction there has been from the farming community and environmentalists to the opportunities which that provides. There is the possibility of redirecting expenditure towards environmental benefit. Therefore, it is not so uninspiring as they suggest.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, the Minister referred to a painful future. I presume that she meant in terms of restructuring the number of family farms which will disappear. Will she ensure that a family-farm support structure is put in place nationally in order to encourage young people into farming?

Secondly, some young people are unable to continue and diversification is the only option. Therefore, how will the continued procrastination of the Government in relation to Objective 1 funding for our most needy rural areas give any encouragement to young people who are looking to move into forms of employment other than agriculture?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the point which the noble Baroness made that we must see agriculture and employment in agriculture in terms of the wider rural economies and support for those rural economies is well made and important. That is why the rural White Paper later this year will be valuable in that respect.

As regards the reference to "pain", I was talking about pain in the present rather than in the future. That pain exists for individual farmers, and tenant farmers in particular, who are having great difficulty. We are not seeing the possibility of only large non-family farms in the future. There are other possibilities under the rural development regulation—energy crops, marketing schemes, countryside stewardship, and the vast amount of extra money which is to be put into that, and skills training—which will benefit new entrants to farming and young farmers and will support a diversity of size in the agricultural industry.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, first, does the Minister believe that the United Kingdom should continue as a food-producing country? That is a very basic question which needs to be answered.

Secondly, will she confirm the Prime Minister's assurance, which I understand he gave during his visit to the south-west, that pig farmers may be compensated for the BSE regulations imposed upon them? If that is not done there will be no future for the pig industry either in the short or long term.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as regards food production, I can do no better than quote from the final passage of the Prime Minister's speech which was about the challenge facing agriculture. He said it was, a challenge to get away from the cycle of short-term crises and become again what British farming should be—a world-class industry in a world-class setting-. Of course, food production is part of the agricultural industry. We must look at that within the context of a worldwide market. We cannot simply look back to the same policies and constraints which framed support either through the CAP, when it was first introduced, or for post-war agriculture in this country. If we do that, we ignore the present.

The Prime Minister made it quite clear that we have not ruled out further measures to help the pig industry. We are willing to continue the discussions which have been taking place for a long time. But there are difficulties on the question of state aid, and anyone who pretends that there are not is deluding either himself or the farming community. Any help which is forthcoming must be linked to a strategy that provides a long-term framework for that sector.

Lord Henley

My Lords, perhaps I may raise a matter with the Government Chief Whip which arose yesterday. At Question Time yesterday my noble friend Lord Rotherwick asked a supplementary question about asylum applications. He quoted various statistics in support of his question. In response he was told by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, that those statistics were "fictional statistics".

I have since checked in what is described as Home Office Statistical Bulletin 20/99, the control of immigration statistics, and discovered that my noble friend's statistics were correct. Therefore, I ask the Government Chief Whip to ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, comes to the Dispatch Box at the earliest possible opportunity to offer his apologies to my noble friend and a correction to the House for his description of my noble friend's statistics as "fictional statistics".

Lord Carter

My Lords, the Opposition Chief Whip was kind enough to tell me just before Starred Questions that he was going to raise this matter. Clearly, I am not briefed to reply on the specific exchange to which he refers. I shall draw the attention of my noble friend Lord Bassam to the question which the noble Lord has asked.