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Agriculture: Assistance Programmes

Volume 621: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2001

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What practical help other than financial or grant-aided assistance they are offering to the agricultural sector.

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

My Lords, given the extremely difficult conditions facing agriculture, the Government have introduced a range of help in addition to the substantial financial aid that has already been provided. This includes free business advice, training packages, action on planning issues and support for diversification. We have reduced regulatory burdens, including fewer but better co-ordinated farm inspections. We have also provided help for small abattoirs and secured EU support to maintain field margins and to deliver special help for arable farmers hit by flooding.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her comments, which are most welcome. Does she accept that excessive regulation and high taxation currently being imposed on UK farmers is strangling the industry? The proposed pesticide tax, the climate change levy and the water Bill, which will directly affect farmers utilising the trickle-feed system, all add costs and burdens to the industry. Furthermore, does she agree that, when some 42,000—I repeat, 42,000—people have left farming over the past two years, this is not the right moment to increase the legislative burden on farmers? Indeed, it is totally unacceptable.

My Lords, I do not think that we are increasing the legislative burden on farmers. We are providing support to help the industry become sustainable for the future. That means giving not only short-term financial assistance, substantial though that has been, but also providing support to farmers moving into areas that will be sustainable and profitable, and that will recognise their importance to the countryside and the environment in the future. I certainly do not agree that we have not recognised the particular needs of, for example, the horticulture industry as regards the climate change levy or the pig and poultry sectors by delaying the implementation of IPPC until 2007.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government should consider offering more help to the bio-diesel industry which is environmentally friendly and would provide enormous help to an industry which is in dire financial straits?

My Lords, the noble Lord is a strong advocate of bio-fuels. He will be well aware that the rural development programme contains a £30 million energy crops scheme to support planting and producer groups. Furthermore, we recognise the potential for liquid bio-fuels to contribute to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For that reason, the industry has been invited to submit proposals to the Green Fuels Challenge for significant reductions in duty on transport fuels.

My Lords, the Minister commented on the Farm Business Advisory Service. Welcome as the service is, with a budget of £8.5 million for this year, is she aware that, because this was the first year that such a service has been provided, the underspend is likely to be around £3 million? Can she confirm that that sum will be rolled over to next year's spend rather than clawed back by the Treasury? The scheme is new and it has taken some time for each region to get its programme off the ground.

My Lords, I can certainly confirm that I am aware of the issue raised by the noble Baroness. We shall have to wait to see exactly the level of underspend because currently we are doing well in terms of meeting applications. The point made by the noble Baroness as regards the possibility of carry-over is presently being actively pursued in government.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to assistance being given to small abattoirs. Does she agree that small abattoirs are essential to many small farms and, indeed, to small butcheries? Bearing that in mind, can she tell the House how many small abattoirs have closed down since the Meat Hygiene Service took over, and whether that haemorrhage has now been stopped?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the figures for the number of small abattoirs that have closed. However, drawing on my knowledge from the days when I was responsible for the Meat Hygiene Service, I can tell my noble friend that although many abattoirs have closed over the past 20 to 25 years, that reflects a shifting pattern where some abattoirs close and others open. Indeed, I visited a farm where a small organic abattoir had recently opened. We recognise that many farmers wish to use small abattoirs in order to access local markets. To that end, the £8.7 million made available in the rural White Paper to support small abattoirs is extremely valuable to the sector.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the current situation in agriculture and has recognised the difficulties. Is she aware that one of the main problems for farmers is the enormous amount of red tape and bureaucracy with which they are faced? Is she prepared to accept that something must be done to remove that burden in order to make life a little easier, at least so far as concerns farming operations?

My Lords, the situation has been accepted. What we need now is better regulation, because we do not wish to see any unnecessary bureaucracy. That was why, in September 1999 we set up three industry-led red tape reviews and why we have acted upon them in areas such as those I have already mentioned—for example, co-ordinating farm inspections and reducing their number. Today we have published the Action Plan for Farming Bulletin, which provides an update for several of these areas. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House and I commend it to noble Lords. Furthermore, the Government will reply within the next few days to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, on better regulations.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether her department is continually monitoring the impact on British agriculture of the United Kingdom being outside the single currency? Can she further say whether arrangements are being made to advise my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this matter in order that he may take it into account when he is looking at his five criteria for membership?

My Lords, I am not aware of any such formal arrangements being made within the Ministry at the moment. I shall certainly check. I can assure my noble friend that the issues in relation to the currency and their effect on British agriculture are frequently brought to the attention of agriculture Ministers.

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further on her response to my supplementary question. How many of the other EU member states are passing on such costs to their farmers? If they are not, obviously our farmers are at a great disadvantage even within the EU, let alone globally.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will understand that we are talking about a large number of countries responding to a large number of directives. I cannot from the Dispatch Box now give her details of implementation in every individual country in every individual instance. I accept the noble Baroness's basic point of trying to ensure a level playing field. That is why, for example, we were so pleased to see the action being taken under the Swedish presidency on animal welfare issues, particularly in relation to the pig sector.