Marginal and Hill Areas

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd March 1988.

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Dr. Thomas:

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the implications of recent European Commission decisions for United Kingdom farmers in marginal and hill areas.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the outcome of the recent European Council.

The decisions made there will provide United Kingdom farmers generally with a more stable framework in which to plan their business decisions for the future.

Dr. Thomas:

Does the Minister not accept that any reduction in the variable premium would have a particularly difficult impact on the store market, which is so important for hill farmers in rural areas? Is he aware that many hill farmers are still suffering from the effect of the Chernobyl events which was a severe shock to their incomes? Has he had an opportunity to read this week's Farmers Weekly, in which an article and the editorial are a devastating attack on the way in which all the Government Departments responsible for agriculture—his Department, the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office — handled that issue? Is it not time that the Government held a full inquiry into the real effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the incomes of hill farmers?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I do not agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made about the post-Chernobyl situation. In fact, to date, nearly £5.3 million has been paid out under the scheme, which was introduced quickly as a practical method of getting the money quickly to the farmers, and which has been operated flexibly since. There is one tiny point in relation to a small number of producers where we have been unable to see a way ahead. However, it is important to remember that we introduced the scheme very quickly—faster than any other country—to help our farmers.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decisions arrived at recently in Europe are just the beginning, and the basis of the beginning, whereas when we review the CAP and the MCAs—matters that affect the hill farmers, the sheepmeat regime and the variable premiums—those areas will matter? I remind my right hon. Friend that the highland clearances began in my constituency and that people were replaced with sheep. We now want the sheep to remain there.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

As I have said on many occasions, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the sheep sector in the upland areas. I am very conscious of its position and will bear it strongly in mind when we come to the negotiations on the sheepmeat regime.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

The Minister will find few people to share his complacency about the future of the uplands. Can he explain why, with one hand, the Government give capital and revenue grants to farmers in the uplands to help them to diversify, but will take the money back with the other hand when they introduce the uniform business rate and apply it to farm businesses?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has got it quite right. First, I have no complacency whatsover about the problems in the uplands areas and I do not think that I can be accused of that. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman knows that farmland and farm buildings will continue to be exempt from the unified business rate. However, when farmers move into a business that has nothing to do with farming, it is right that they should have to pay rates on such premises because often in the same village there may be a comparable business that already pays rates. The most important point — it is real humbug for the hon.

Gentleman to have said what he did—is that under the Labour party's proposals those farmers would be paying very much more in rates.

Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West

With regard to the effect of Chernobyl on sheep farming in upland areas, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Agriculture Select Committee has chosen that as its next subject for an inquiry, and that the outcome of the Committee's findings may be of great help to him in his future deliberations on the subject?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I have said, I think that the scheme came in with great speed and that it was of great help to the farmers who were affected. The most important thing was to recognise that we needed to get the money to them quickly. Therefore, there were bound to be some elements of rough justice, which were fully agreed with the industry from the outset. I hope that that is a point that the Committee will take on board.