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Farmers And Crofters (Assistance)

Volume 86: debated on Wednesday 13 November 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what steps he has taken to assist farmers and crofters following the recent summer weather.

Financial help will be given to the hardest hit sectors of the industry. Details are being worked out and an announcement will be made as soon as possible.

Why are the Government being so slow? Does the Under-Secretary remember that his colleague the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said at his conference on 9 October that assistance would be forthcoming soon, and he mentioned Scotland in particular, before the winter, when cash problems would be extreme? Has the Under-Secretary been in Scotland recently? If he has, he will have noticed that it is snowing. When will the help come, because small tenant farmers and crofters in particular have been savagely hit?

I came down from Scotland only yesterday, so I am well aware of the weather there. We have had to make a careful assessment of the position and evaluate fully the various measures that are available to deal with the problem. This has necessarily taken time, but I assure the House that the matter has been given the highest priority.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the urgency of this issue and recall that I raised it with Ministers at the end of August? Will he also bear in mind that such aid will help not only the beef sector but the many dairy farmers who have been equally badly hit? Will my hon. Friend find some way to help them as well as those in the less-favoured areas?

I am aware of the particular problems of the dairy sector, but I think it is correct to say that the sector in most need is the livestock producers in those areas where fodder is in short supply. Buying it in will prove expensive.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the fodder producers and others producing non-subsidised crops are in the greatest need? Will he assure the House that not only will there be an announcement of what measures will be taken urgently, but that the Department will ensure that help goes to farmers in greatest need rather than to sectors in greatest need and that resources are not spread too far by giving money to those who do not need it?

My hon. Friend has highlighted one of the problems, which is that we must try to ensure that the money goes to those sectors of the industry that are in most need. However, it would be difficult to target in on individual farmers. We are aware of the problems, for example, in Stirling, in my hon. Friend's constituency. That sector is being considered along with others.

Is the Minister aware that already some loads of fodder have been imported from Canada? That shows the seriousness of the problem—it is not even possible to buy winter feed from the Scottish mainland. As the weather was apparent several months ago, and as Lord Gray saw the situation several weeks ago, is not this delay unacceptable?

I am aware that hay has been imported from Canada, and that highlights the problem. It is not just a matter of cost, but of the availability of hay. There is more to the harvest problem than hay—there is also a cereal problem, which has a knock-on effect to the feeding sector. We had to wait until we saw the whole picture, and we have to consider carefully how we should set about giving help so that it goes, in the most appropriate way, to the sectors most in need.

Does the Minister not appreciate that when his hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) asks for public expenditure to be increased things must be in a bad way? It is not good enough for the Minister to tell the House that the matter is under consideration. Is he aware that the farmers in my constituency, who welcomed Lord Gray earlier this year, left him in no doubt of the gravity of the position and demanded quick action? The House, particularly Labour Members, knows that the farming community often cries wolf, but on this occasion the wolf is there and we have seen the devastation. Does the Minister accept that action must be taken quickly?

As I have said, financial help will be given to the hardest hit sectors of the industry. Considerable public money is already given to agriculture. This financial year, Scottish agriculture received about £157 million in various allowances and schemes, and that is part and parcel of the Government's aid to agriculture and of public spending. Nobody on this side of the House denies that that is an important part of the Government's role in the economy.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the worst hit area in the whole of Britain is that of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? Is he further aware that many farmers are selling their breeding stock to pay for the fodder that they must buy, and, therefore, are liable to lose the premium headage payments of their entire herd? Will he consider a derogation for this year because of that?

My hon. Friend is right to point out those particular difficulties, and we have them in mind. We have already secured and announced a small but useful extension of the closing date for applications for the Buckler cow subsidy from 30 September to 30 November this year.

We welcome the promise of emergency aid for agriculture, just as we would welcome aid for other hard-pressed industries in Scotland. However, I must press the Minister on the intolerable delay in implementing that promise. Is he aware that Lord Gray said on BBC radio on 3 October that the aid package would be finalised in weeks rather than months? Is he further aware that the weeks are turning into months, and that many livestock farmers are facing a critical position now? We have had the general promise. When will we get the hard cash?

I have made it clear that we hope to make an announcement fairly soon. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's personal interest in the matter. One of the factors that we had to take into account was the cereal harvest, and the amount of straw that would remain after it to help with feeding. I hope that there was not too much burning of straw where the hon. Gentleman farms. I should be interested to know whether he saw straw burning, and whether he and his neighbours took a responsible view on burning straw.

May we take it from this afternoon's exchanges that the Minister and his Department have been shaken out of their political complacency on this issue? As hon. Members on both sides have stressed, for between a month and six weeks the upland farmers, the hill sector of livestock farming, have had great problems buying winter feedstuffs. Is he aware that the Government have driven Scottish agriculture so deeply into indebtedness that many farmers are not financially capable of handling one bad harvest? Is that not a general indictment of the Government's policies in this area?

My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Gray, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been well aware of the problem for some time. That is why I said that we were taking steps to work out a programme which would bring maximum help to those in greatest need. Some time ago I visited some farms in my constituency and attended markets to see what the price of livestock would be. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is talking rubbish when he suggests that only he is concerned.