My right hon. and learned Friend and I attended the union's dinner on 12 March. I addressed the annual general meeting the following day and had a further detailed exchange with the leadership and members.
The Under-Secretary will recall that a delegation of myself and colleagues met him on 8 April and urged him, amongst other things, to support the increase in the suckler cow premium. I welcome the fact that yesterday the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in a written reply to me, confirmed that that will be done, in response to pressure and demand from the industry, and indeed, from myself and hon. Friends. Will the Minister now acknowledge that although that is helpful, it does not resolve the crisis in the beef industry, which is looking for a double figure devaluation of the green pound? Will he give an assurance that he is pressing for that?
I do not want to depress the hon. Gentleman's delusions of grandeur, but I remind him that it was the Government, with Agriculture Ministers at the December Council, who persuaded the Community to raise the ceiling on the suckler cow premium, which has allowed us to increase the amount to be paid this year from £24·74 to £33·40. That will mean that some £3¼ million more will go into the Scottish beef industry. The industry will welcome that and will thank the Government for their efforts in getting that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that increase of no less than 35 per cent. in the suckler cow subsidy is good news, but does he also agree that the Government's retention of the sheepmeat and beef regimes, lowering interest rates and the keeping down of inflation is also welcome news for Scottish farmers, who have been going through a difficult period as a result of the weather and for other reasons?
Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right. One of the other important gains that we made at the December Council was to keep the beef variable premium scheme for the next two years instead of having to battle for it every year. My hon. Friend is also right about the need for a devaluation. We have made it clear that the 4 per cent. devaluation proposed by the European Commission is not enough. Our aim will be for a higher devaluation, certainly one higher than that for the French and Irish, who already have more MCAs than the United Kingdom.
Does the Minister accept that the Government's record in rural Scotland is downright shameful? In particular, does he remember the description of the Government's position by the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland as
A botched-up, incoherent and chaotic set of policy decisions"?
Now that we have almost unprecedent depression and uncertainty in the farming industry, and growing chaos in the CAP, is the Minister aware that the industry will be far better off when it returns to the practical partnership on which it has always been able to rely under Labour Governments?
I am always interested in the view of the landowner from Berwick on these matters. I should like to be a fly on the wall when he explains to farmers around Britain that the Labour party will rate agricultural land and considerably increase the cost to farmers. We have a good record on farming. Of course, there are difficult times with surplus production, but anybody who thinks that there is an easy solution to that lives in cloud-cuckoo-land, which is probably where the hon. Gentleman does live.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, above all, farmers seek confidence in their industry's future and reassurance about their prospects? Does he agree that he and his colleagues must be seen publicly to fight their corner on behalf of farming? Will he continue to give a commitment to fight vigorously to remove the distortion of the green pound and protect Scotland's vital livestock sector?
I am well aware of the position of the beef sector and its importance to Scottish agriculture. Indeed, when I visited my hon. Friend's constituency earlier in the year and met his farmers they left me in no doubt about the importance of those matters and I left them in no doubt about the Government's commitment to the farmers and the rural economy of Scotland. That is shown clearly by the announcement that we have just made about the suckler cow premium and the reiteration that I have just made of the view of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on our aims in the current negotiations over the green pound.