It is important that before the House rises for Easter the Minister of Agriculture should issue a statement about the future of agriculture. I understand that a White Paper is in the pipeline, in which case perhaps it might be possible to have a half-day debate on it.
I mention this not because I want to bore the House with agriculture but because the December returns for agricul- ture show that there has been a drop in production. It is the first time for a long period that the returns have shown fewer cattle and sheep. This is serious and highlights the need for a statement from the Minister that will restore confidence in the industry so that the decline in production can be halted.
The problem is serious for the farmers and even more serious for the consumers. We produce only about 52 per cent. of our needs, and if we allow that figure to drop it will have serious consequences for consumers in this hungry world. It is not possible for us to buy all our requirements from abroad. It is vitally important that we produce more food and that we restore confidence so that British produce appears on the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables.
It is important that this uncertainty should be ended. The balance of payments has suffered enough because of the oil crisis. Why make it worse by a drop in home production of food? This does not seem to make sense. A long-term plan is needed for British agriculture. It is on the stocks and it is important that we debate it.
There is a mood of retrenchment in agriculture. Farmers feel that it would be better to cut their production slightly so that they receive better prices. As a nation we cannot afford this, and yet we cannot blame the farmers for their attitude. The House must realise that agriculture is a long-term business. To produce a bullock takes at least two-and-a-half years. It is not something that we can switch on and off at a touch. We cannot just say "We will now have more cattle, sheep or pigs". It is a question of confidence and planning for the future.
In my constituency this Government and the previous one have, quite rightly, set up plants for the manufacture of milk into cheese and butter. However, having given a grant and set up the factories, there is now not sufficient milk to produce the products we need.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) has mentioned eggs and horticulture. If we go into the Common Market it must be on a fair basis. The withdrawal of the oil subsidies from the tomato growers and the unfair competition experienced by egg producers should give rise to a statement by the Minister of Agriculture and a White Paper.
The Minister is a pleasant man but a bad Minister. We only have to look at the record for the past year to see the ups and downs, the steps forward and then the steps backward, and the chopping and changing which have created increasing uncertainty. First, there was the increased subsidy for calves, which was later withdrawn. Then there was a policy of nonintervention, which was later amended and replaced by a form of intervention. The past year has been a disaster Responsibility for this must be placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Minister of Agriculture.