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National Farmers Union

Volume 940: debated on Thursday 1 December 1977

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next meet the President of the National Farmers Union.

I have no specific plans, at present, for a meeting with the President of the National Farmers Union but I keep in close touch with the union on matters of concern to agriculture.

When the Minister next meets Sir Henry Plumb, will he dissociate himself and his Government from the remarks of another Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett), who said recently that he was in favour of the public ownership of land because the individual farmer is not to be trusted to maintain the long-term fertility of the land?

The proper person to whom that question should be addressed is my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. There is no reason why I should answer a question that relates to something that I do not believe was in fact ever said.

Will the Minister consider meeting the Newdeer and Turriff branches of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, and discuss with them the dreadful fall in livestock prices in the North-East of Scotland in recent weeks, which they attribute, perhaps rightly, to the imports of subsidised Irish beef? Will the Minister review the position in respect of the rate of variable premium and consider whether the ceiling is now adequate for the market conditions?

I think there is a difficulty in this sector, and not only in regard to Scotland. Perhaps it applies more to Wales, for largely historic reasons. The marketings plus the exports have come at the same time. I believe that the matter will be looked after fairly well during the winter months, but I shall keep the position very closely under review to ensure that that is so.

Reverting to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Bulmer), may I ask the Minister whether he has read the report of what his colleague in the Government said? Does he recall that the report was written by Mr. Jim Murray, who was at one time a Labour parliamentary candidate, and that the words in the report were in quotation marks? We want to know from the Minister today whether he personally agreed with what his colleague in the Government was supposed to have said—that the public ownership of land was justified because individual farmers could not be trusted to look after the long-term fertility of the land.

I will deal with the substantive part of that question, but I was anxious that the House should know that it is absurd to ask one Minister to deal with remarks, however phrased, made by somebody else. For example, if I were to deal with all the remarks made by the hon. Gentleman, I would be in a very sorry state indeed. I said that I would deal with the substantive part of the question. As to the fertility of farmers, surely what is meant is the fertility of farmland. I do not think that I dare raise a voice about the fertility of farmers.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House a little more about the inquiry which he has asked his noble Friend Lord Northfield to undertake into the ownership of farm land? Was one of the reasons for setting up the inquiry the genuine fears in parts of the industry about the increasing investment by financial institutions in agricultural land, because they are interested not in agriculture but in a potential profit from the land?

My hon. Friend has made a point on this subject which is worth considering. The question of who works the land—whether it is the owner, the tenant farmer or the worker who works for either of them—is a very different one from the question of who owns the land. The Northfield Committee was set up to consider whether the whole structure of agricultural land acquisition militated against the proper farming of the land in question.