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Regulatory Burden

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 9 September 2010

8. What areas she has identified where the regulatory burden on the agricultural industry can be reduced; and if she will make a statement. (14179)

9. What areas she has identified where the regulatory burden on hill farmers can be reduced; and if she will make a statement. (14180)

13. What areas she has identified where the regulatory burden on the agricultural industry arising from EU legislation can be reduced; and if she will make a statement. We are very aware of the need to reduce burdens on farmers, to increase competitiveness and to trust businesses to maintain standards. The taskforce on farm regulation, which I appointed in July, will consider how to reduce regulatory burdens and deliver risk-based and integrated compliance and inspection. It will consider all regulation that bears on farmers, including hill farmers, and it has started a wide consultation to understand which issues cause farmers most concern. (14184)

Can the Minister give some reassurance to farmers in my Mid Norfolk constituency who are still struggling as a result of the non-payment, late payment or part payment of their single farm payments? This is having a serious impact on their cash flow, and it is often the result of slow interdepartmental communications on issues such as land transfer.

As my hon. Friend knows, I made a statement to the House in July about the Rural Payments Agency, following the outrageous and unbelievable damnation in the report by David Lane on the agency’s operations. I have taken the chair of the oversight board, and we have appointed an interim chief executive while we search for a new one who is able to make that organisation fit for purpose. It is our determination to ensure that farmers in Mid Norfolk and everywhere else are paid accurately and on time.

Hill farmers are facing significant challenges caused by the previous Government’s scrapping of the hill farm allowance, and by the bureaucracy involved in its replacement. Will the Minister meet me to discuss specific cases in Skipton and Ripon some time in the near future?

Of course I would be very happy to speak to my hon. Friend on this subject, and I appreciate the point that he is making. The upland entry level stewardship scheme is basically a very good scheme; I would not dissent from that—[Interruption.] I am not going to criticise the basis of the scheme, but my hon. Friend is right to say that some aspects of it are too bureaucratic and difficult to access, particularly when issues between landlords and tenants or issues of common land are involved. I am happy to try to address that.

Farmers in my constituency of Bromsgrove rightly abide by EU regulations, including those that are frankly unhelpful to the farming industry. The Minister might know that farmers in other EU countries often ignore those same regulations, and attract little or no sanction from the authorities in those countries. Will he reassure us that he is aware of this issue and that his Department is doing all it can to make it better?

I am very much aware of the belief in many parts of the British farming industry that regulations are not applied elsewhere in Europe. I am going to be completely honest, as the House would expect, and say that I think some of those stories are slightly exaggerated. I have many friends and contacts in the farming industry elsewhere in Europe, and they complain just as vigorously about this. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend’s fundamental point is absolutely right. When a regulation is passed by Europe, it should be implemented and enforced equally across the whole of the Community, if we believe in fair trade and a single market.

Does the Minister think that the Agricultural Wages Board constitutes a burden or protection for vulnerable workers?

We have already announced our intention to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, which has gone unchanged for the past 50-plus years. It is entirely inflexible and unable to face up to modern needs. For example, a farmer is not even allowed to pay a worker a salary under the Agricultural Wages Order, which is nonsensical. We now have the minimum wage legislation, and it is only right that we should bring agricultural legislation into line with the rest.

As we have just heard, the Secretary of State announced in July the plan to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, which sets terms and conditions in an industry where pay is low. That is a step that, as the House will recall, even Baroness Thatcher shied away from. Will the Minister try to explain why setting wage rates of between £5.95 an hour—which is only just above the minimum wage—and £8.88 an hour constitutes the burden of which he speaks? Where is the evidence for that?

The issue is one of inflexibility, because of the wages orders implemented through the Agricultural Wages Board. The right hon. Gentleman has just made the point that the minimum wage for agriculture is 2p an hour more than the national minimum wage, so what is the point of having a whole superstructure of an Agricultural Wages Board for the sake of 2p an hour? That question answers itself. The right hon. Gentleman talks about who is responsible for abolition, but he should remember that it was Labour policy to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board and the Government were forced to rescind it by the Warwick agreement when they were in hock to the Liberals—[Interruption.]—I mean the trade unions.

There we have it—we see the burden under which the Minister is having to labour! That was no justification at all, because as the Minister is well aware, grades 2 to 6 will not be covered by the minimum wage legislation, and what about overtime rates and standby and what about bereavement leave? Does the coalition have something against the Agricultural Wages Board providing an entitlement to bereavement leave for farm workers? When will the Minister admit that all this talk about flexibility and so forth is nothing more than a smokescreen for a shabby little plan to cut the wages of agricultural workers?

That just demonstrates how behind the times the right hon. Gentleman really is. In today’s modern economy, we must have flexibility. We do not have wages boards for other sectors. His Government never brought back any of those abolished by the previous Conservative Government. If this system is so wonderful, why did Labour not bring any of those back? The answer is that at least some of his colleagues recognised the need for that flexibility. The reality is that the industry should make its own decisions in negotiations with its workers in tandem with the advice of the National Farmers Union.

As the Minister is in hock to the Liberals, he will be aware of our commitment to landscape and biodiversity, including hedgerows. In reviewing the regulatory burden, will he ensure that the taskforce considers the new report on hedgerows by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which suggests that regulations have helped, that it is necessary and possible to simplify them and that we should enhance the protection of hedgerows in the countryside?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I accept his comment. The point of deregulation and the role of the taskforce is to simplify the burden, not to lower standards. I cannot repeat that too many times. We have no intention of reducing the protection for hedgerows. I was as concerned as my hon. Friend about them, but if we look at the issue carefully, we will find that many of the hedgerows have been removed not by farmers—in fact, they have been planting a lot more in the last decade—but as a result of development and local government actions.