Orders of the Day — Agricultural Training Board Bill

– in the House of Commons at 9:36 am on 27th March 1987.

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As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Mr Gerrard Neale Mr Gerrard Neale , North Cornwall 9:37 am, 27th March 1987

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

First, I should like to thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have joined in sponsoring the Bill, especially my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his officials for the advice and assistance that they have given to date. I have received considerable help from them, and I am most grateful. I should like to record my thanks also to the agricultural training board for the guidance that it has given.

This Bill, like the Register of Sasines (Scotland) Bill, is a straightforward and simple measure that seeks to modify two of the constraints on the agricultural training board. First, it modifies the constraint that requires the board to offer training only to people who are involved in agriculture. By so doing, it enables the board to offer training to people outside the industry who are involved in agriculture-based skills and allows it to charge fees for that. That will improve its income-earning potential. Secondly, it enables the board to offer skilled training, in non-agricultural skills, to people involved in agriculture to enable them to diversify in the face of the huge surpluses being produced by the industry.

There is one improving amendment which enables those who have previously been involved in agriculture to be trained. As a result the measure will be useful for the agriculture industry. It will enable the ATB to improve its service to the industry.

I am grateful to the hon. Members who have sponsored the Bill and helped to take it through Committee. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who is a co-sponsor of the Bill, informed me that he could not be present today because he was involved in constituency matters. I am also grateful for his support.

Photo of Mrs Elizabeth Shields Mrs Elizabeth Shields , Ryedale 9:41 am, 27th March 1987

We in the alliance welcome this modest Bill, which contains useful proposals, widening the remit of the ATB and encouraging ancillary activities which could be undertaken on farms in association with main agricultural or horticultural businesses.

The proposals have been given added point by the news this week that the ATB, responding to high demand, had to re-run a course on free-range poultry and will next week repeat a course on fish hatchery management. Those are both subjects of diversification which confirm a growing interest in the application of such techniques, and I hope that they will both gain in popularity.

However, the Government should take note that the activities of the ATB will not be a substitute for the recovery of the farming industry. Indeed, I wonder whether Ministers appreciate the problems of small farmers in particular as new charges are introduced in the dairy sector, in plant and seed exports and in the beef sector for artificial insemination. Obviously the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) has at heart the interest of rural communities and industries, and I am pleased to support the Third Reading.

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek , Wrexham 9:42 am, 27th March 1987

I wish to associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Members for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) and for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields), who spoke about the problems facing small farmers. The Bill will benefit the agriculture industry and the Opposition welcome it. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill, hope that it passes all its stages this morning, and wish it well on its way through the other place.

Photo of Mr Donald Thompson Mr Donald Thompson , Calder Valley 9:43 am, 27th March 1987

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Neale) on introducing this more than useful measure which is a precursor of things to come.

In reply to the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields), may I say that the Government grant to the ATB this year is nearly £8 million. The ATB is the only industrial training organisation to be so funded; all others operate on a direct levy system, involving the respective industries. Therefore, in the circumstances our agriculture is already doing rather well. As diversification grows there may be room to move into other areas, but in the present circumstances agriculture is doing well.

The amount of money in the pot to be shared out is limited and it has been decided to put the money for diversification towards capital costs. If more had been made available for training, less would have been left for capital costs. There is no money resolution to the Bill, and that was fully explained in Committee.

Grants for tourism and craft industries were introduced in the Agriculture Improvement Scheme and there will be socio-economic advice and aid from special advisers. Our new package of diversifications which goes much further will provide capital grants on a wide range of diversification activities, both in the less favoured areas and in the lowlands, such as Ryedale. Details are still to be settled and will be the subject of consultations with industry and other parties. Possible areas of discussion are value-added food processing, the processing of other agricultural products such as wood and skins, amenity and recreation grants, pony trekking and more extensive tourism and craft grants. There will also be grants for marketing the products of diversified farm businesses.

It may be said that diversification only scratches the surface, but the Department and I believe that it is a solid beginning. I fully accept the hon. Lady's point that we must do all we can to look after our small farmers because, whatever else goes, the land remains. The land runs from the tip of Cornwall to the north of Scotland and only farmers, often small farmers, can look after it properly. We cannot expect local government officers or park keepers to do that, although our national parks are a great glory. The land will not evolve or remain beautiful unless we rely on farmers to look after it. That is why we are keen that farm diversification should not be seen as a way of taking people off the land into other areas, but rather as a way of keeping farms going and families involved in other activities.

At first sight it may seem offensive to a lady, instead of feeding the calves, to do bed and breakfast on her beautiful farm for three or four couples who have come to see the view. She may have found the calves better company. But at the end of the day bed and breakfast may be her better source of income. Therefore, we must encourage diversification in all its forms. It can play an important role in sustaining farm incomes through the difficult times ahead for the farming industry.

Diversification includes any commercial activity carried out by farmers, other than the production of a staple crop and livestock husbandry. It may involve processing farm products so that they can be sold more profitably, providing facilities for recreation or attracting visitors to stay on the farm. Such diversification benefits farmers, taxpayers and consumers.

First, diversification is obviously beneficial to farmers who can maintain or increase their income and diversify the source from which it comes, without at the same time adding to the production of crops, for which there is no immediate market and which must be put into costly storage. None of us wants to encourage more huge food mountains. They are an embarrassment to the civilised world because they cost money and we have not found efficient, sensible ways of sending them to the Third world. Secondly, taxpayers benefit as a result of lower common agricultural policy costs. Thirdly, diversification benefits anyone and everyone who enjoys or could enjoy the countryside as a place of beauty, interest or leisure and good quality fresh farmhouse foods.

A further benefit is the role of diversification in exploiting the various skills and experience of farm family members and using them to develop the farm business to the benefit of the family as a whole. Too often farmers find themselves failing to utilise to the full their assets of buildings, land and people. Diversification is a way of getting the maximum return from all those, including farm personnel. It can, for example, provide a focus for the catering skills of the farm wife or for the business acumen of a son or daughter. In that way diversification can contribute to the strength of the farm family and provide a wide range of opportunities for skilled farm labourers.

I recognise that it is not always easy for a farmer to embark on a diversification project, particularly when a lot of investment is involved. It was with that in mind that in 1985 the Government introduced craft and tourism grants in less favoured areas. They covered 25 per cent. of total expenditure up to £24,000. Some imaginative proposals have already been put forward for such grants.

Last year, the Government took the further step of introducing the Agriculture Act 1986. Section 22 of that Act gives power to extend the scope of existing capital grants to a wider range of ancillary farm-based businesses. On 9 February, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced his intention to introduce new grants in the near future. In consultation with the industry and other interested parties, we are now considering the details of the new schemes. The other interested parties will include the agricultural training board. In addition to capital grants, the schemes will include grants for marketing— that is for market research and feasibility studies—so that farmers can be sure of an outlet for the products of their diversified businesses.

One cannot over-emphasise the need for marketing. The need for marketing of British farm products is continuing. Grants, either capital or marketing, are only part of the story. Advice to farmers about the opportunities available to them to diversify from their existing base can often prove to be just as valuable as financial assistance from the Government.

Through our network of regional socio-economic advisers— that name sounds a bit grim to me— and Agricultural Development and Advisory Service advisers the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is able to advise farmers on how they might best develop what may be under-used farm resources, such as buildings, land and people, and particularly the varied skills of their families. ADAS continues to provide free of charge general advice on diversification. It also refers farmers to other agencies such as the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas—COSIRA—which does a good job in my constituency. It is skilled not only in providing grants but in preparing a business plan for small farmers or business men for the first time. The Countryside Commission also offers grants and advice on diversification. The farm woodlands scheme was introduced to encourage planting on agricultural land as part of a farming enterprise. We are trying to expand not only traditional forestry in regard to conifers but broadleaf trees and various diversification schemes. We have also introduced the environmentally sensitive areas scheme. A great deal of diversification actitivy is going on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North was wise to choose this subject for legislation. As the years go by, his wisdom will be remarked upon by successive generations of farmers. He will he lucky to have such a Bill on the statute book. He has made it clear that the Bill, although modest in appearance, is of great significance, particularly to the rural community and its economy, and to amenity workers, whether they are rural or urban based.

I entirely agreed with my hon. Friend when he spoke of the value and good sense of the amendment to the first main provision of the Bill relating to diversification training which was suggested in Committee by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). I thank Opposition Members for the fair wind that they have given the Bill and the help that they gave us in Committee and in the House. I am sure that the farming industry will be pleased to see that this matter has not become a political football and that the whole House supports my hon. Friend's Bill. That people who were formerly within the industry should also have access to the board's training facilities can only be a good thing. It will help those who, for whatever reasons, have ceased to work in agriculture to find new employment opportunities.

The Government attach great importance to the encouragement of farm diversification and the role that it can play on sustaining farm incomes. There are other benefits for farmers taxpayers and consumers. First, it is obviously beneficial to the farmer who is able to maintain or increase his income and diversify the source from which it comes without, at the same time, adding to the production of crops for which there is no immediate market and which must go into costly storage. Secondly, there is a benefit to the taxpayer as a result of lower CAP support costs. Thirdly, diversification benefits anybody who enjoys the countryside. The countryside is not a museum or a park; it is a living, growing, thriving enterprise. People who visit the countryside should realise that they are going to an area of activity and work and should treat it with respect.

Additionally, diversification will allow farmers to utilise to the full farm assets such as buildings, under-utilised machinery, and unworked or unproductive land. Most important of all, it will enhance overall employment prospects in rural comunities. It is essential that additional training is available to encourage such moves.

The other principal provisions of the Bill will allow those who are not employed in agriculture to take advantage of the highly regarded training expertise to which the hon. Member for Ryedale referred. There are a couple of such courses in her part of the world. We all have training expertise in our constituencies, and we are glad of it. Farmers' wives, on a voluntary basis, sustain some of this work of the ATB. In the terms of the Bill, they are amenity skills.

When the board came into existence 21 years ago, its birth coincided with the establishment of a number of other training boards that are associated with various industries. The feeling at the time was that duplication of the work done by various boards should be avoided at all costs. As a result, the scope of the ATB was tied down in considerable legislative detail. My hon. Friend's Bill seeks to remove such constrictions and to allow the board to adopt a more commercial approach in seeking a greater share of its income from those who are willing to purchase its services instead of relying to a substantial extent on grant aid. Although many other industrial training boards are no longer in existence, there is naturally still a desire to avoid unnecessary duplication, and we shall have to try to ensure that there is no duplication between the industrial training board and other bodies such as ADAS. It would be ridiculous if Government bodies were to compete for the same job. Therefore, the Bill contains a necessary safeguard.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.