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Agriculture Industry (Profitability)

Volume 974: debated on Thursday 29 November 1979

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will bring forward proposals to improve the profitability of British agriculture.

Last week my right hon. Friend announced substantial help for hill livestock producers. He keeps under review the position of agriculture generally.

Will the Minister accept that net farm incomes are at the lowest level for 10 years and that the increase in the bank rate will add a further £75 million in a full year to the problems that farmers face? Horticulturists are in real trouble. Does the Minister hold out any hope for these people?

I recognise that there are problems in different sectors of agriculture, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least acknowledge the £20 million that will go to the hill farmers on 1 January.

Is the Minister aware that the hill farmers' basic problem this year was the weather, which prohibited hay making? Does he intend to take further steps to encourage silage making, especially on the smaller farms?

The weather had an effect, but one of the main problems was bad markets for produce from the hills this autumn. It was in that respect that action was taken. Aid is available through such means as the farm capital grant scheme which enables farmers to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that profit margins are being severely squeezed and that increased costs have to be covered if we want further production? Will he use every means possible to right the position? It will be in the interests of the consumer and the balance of payments to do so.

Our objective is to obtain fair competition between our farmers and those in Europe. I agree with my hon. Friend that further production is in the interests not only of producers but also of consumers in the security and continuity of supplies.

Scottish farmers' overdrafts have doubled in the past two years, and the Government have brought in extremely high interest rates. Does the Minister think that the new levels of compensatory allowances are sufficient to reverse the decline in hill farming?

One would hardly think that the hon. Gentleman was a member of a party that was in government for the greater part of those two years. He is also a member of a party which, when in government, gave only 50p to hill sheep farmers in hill livestock compensatory amounts. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would show a little more gratitude and realism.

Is my hon. Friend aware that British producers are likely to be hamstrung not only because exports of lamb to France are being held up but because sugar beet production has been placed in jeopardy by EEC proposals? Will he adopt a robust attitude in both those respects?

Is the Minister aware that many working farmers, who inevitably have to borrow money for much of the year to run their businesses, are now charged interest rates of 20 per cent? If that continues, thousands of them will be forced into the bankruptcy courts next year.

Has the hon. Gentleman no shame? The previous Government's mismanagement has necessitated drastic measures to put our economy right. If the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept that reality, he should not speak from the Opposition Front Bench.