Orders of the Day — Sidbury

– in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 16th March 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neubert.]

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton 10:01 pm, 16th March 1988

I wish to speak on behalf of a number of my constituents — farmers who are farming on land that is difficult to farm and would be judged to be difficult in whatever part of the world it was situated. They do a remarkably fine job against all possible odds and in conditions that seem to work against them. The EEC could hold out some financial help and relief for their farms, but the Government have so far found themselves unable to help.

The farmers are in an area north of Sidbury. It is difficult farming land and they want the Government to grant their land to be eligible for disadvantaged area status. Such status, which is available through the EEC's less-favoured area directive, would enable them to receive grant-aided headage payments on beef, cows and sheep.

The area submitted can be specifically seen on a map, which no doubt is in the possession of my right hon. Friend the Minister. It is a high, sharp, sloping area north of Sidbury and stretches almost up to Honiton on the northern boundary, with the scarp slope east of Ottery St. Mary on the western boundary and stretches almost to Colyton in the east.

The central part of the appeal area is on a high plateau, which is just under 800 ft high, and is a southern extension, in geological and geographical terms, to the Blackdown hills. An application was submitted on behalf of the Blackdown hills area, which is similar in nature, for less-favoured area status and subsequently that application was successful.

An appeal was submitted on behalf of nearly 70 farmers, and a clear boundary was put forward to give an island site well in excess of the 1,200 hectare minimum size required for less-favoured area status. Subsequent to the proposal being submitted, surveyors from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food assessed the area to see whether it would qualify under the terms of directive 75/268/EEC, article 3(4).

The Ministry is the initial assessor of whether proposals meet the criteria of that directive and, in essence, whether the block of land in question is of sufficiently poor quality to be handicapped in its farming activity to such an extent that it requires the additional farming assistance that the EEC would allow.

Having surveyed the area, the Government surveyors rejected the initial submission for less-favoured area status on two counts: first, that there was not sufficient land of grade 4 or 5 status for it to be determined as being a predominantly less-favoured area, and, secondly, that it was not homogeneous.

In keeping with previous practice, the Minister allowed the rejected proposal to be submitted to an appeal process. That process requires farmers to resubmit their proposals to an independent tribunal. The tribunal was made up of three farmers appointed by the Minister, with terms of reference set by the Minister. It was required to assess the submission at a formal meeting and on site. Ministry officials gave evidence to the tribunal about why the site was originally rejected. In the case of the Sidbury appeal on 3 and 4 February 1987, the Minister's appointees met and heard evidence by farmers, the Minister's surveyors and independent experts produced by the National Farmers Union. A detailed case was put by the NFU experts, who represented 66 of the 70 farmers.

I am certain that the Minister knows the basis of the case. The high plateau top of the area reaches 835 ft and is exposed and difficult to farm. Many of the valley combes off the plateau are not south-facing and are open to northerly winds. Slopes off the plateau are extremely steep — if one drives over them, one realises that that is an understatement — and are beyond the gradient recommended by health and safety standards as suitable for tractor work. Virtually the entire area is above 600 ft, and is so similar in characteristics to the Blackdown hills just to the north of the appeal site as to be indistinguishable. Again, I stress that the Blackdown hills site has been accepted as suitable for LFA status.

Because of the land's physical characteristics, the principal form of farming in the appeal area must be beef and sheep, and only around the periphery is there any evidence of dairy production. After all, the Minister does not need to be reminded that dairy farming is the basis of the Devon farming industry. Characteristically, farms have low stocking densities, and high yields are achieved only by the purchase of high levels of concentrates and by renting land off the hill for summer and winter grazing. A natural boundary can be found around the area. If the Minister cares to look at the map, he will see that it is obviously a boundary. It was submitted to the Ministry, and it is inclusive; there are no areas away from it.

Perhaps most significantly, the soils of the area are inherently poor and offer little prospect for improving farming. Much of the plateau suffers from poor natural drainage due to impermeable clay subsoils. Without exception, loamy topsoils contain a high proportion of flint and chert stones. The plateau is surrounded by steep scarp slopes, at the bottom of which is a spring line of running sand, which is almost impossible to drain. There is frequent land slipping. Valley bottoms are poorly drained and are frequently in a marshy condition.

In summary, the interaction between climate — rainfall exceeds 40 in a year—soil types and topography restricts the period for grazing and land work essentially to only summer months. In the spring, most of the area remains wet until the end of April in an average year, and May in a wet year. Where it is possible to cultivate, a high flint content leads to additonal costs in respect of implement wear and breakage.

The panel of Government arbitrators fairly considered the appeal area that was submitted to them. I stress that they spent two days on site. It has become widely known that, having heard the arguments of all parties concerned, including Government officials, they felt that the area was suitable for LFA inclusion. In short, an independent panel reached the conclusion that the Government should include the area as part of their submission to Brussels. It must be pointed out that the tribunal panel was given very clear guidance by the Minister as to what was acceptable and what was not. It was fully briefed as to the criteria for less-favoured area status.

The tribunal's views towards the area were submitted to the Minister along with many other appeal decisions around the country. In the case of Sidbury, it would appear that the same officials who submitted evidence to the tribunal again submitted views, after the tribunal had reported, urging the Minister to overturn the tribunal's decision. The Minister decided not to accept the independent tribunal's view, and to reject the appeal.

One of my local farmers wrote to me saying: Our local committee of farmers representing the whole group carried out considerable preliminary work to make sure that we only appealed on land genuinely disadvantaged and to identify a boundary that excluded patches of better land. Our committee had several farmers with a wealth of experience drawing on generations of farming in this area, and could readily identify those farms and areas where farming is hard. Mr. Hailey continues: I have had fourteen years' experience of running farms both on the plateau and in the steep valleys in an area which the Ministry agrees is Less Favoured and I was impressed with the homogeneity of the area in the application. The Ministers' panel of experienced, practical farmers, familiar with other panels and appeal areas, were apparently also impressed with what they saw of the whole area …If we had been told that we do not qualify for Less Favoured status in comparison with other areas, then we would be able to accept it. However, to be told that part of the area is acceptable and another part, which is indistinguishable from the first, is not makes no sense whatsoever. My conclusion is twofold. It comprises an argument and a request to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. An appeal procedure was established and the terms of reference were set by the Minister. It has also been confirmed to me in writing that the vast majority of Panel recommendations have been accepted by officials without the need for reference to Ministers. That was said in a letter from Lady Trumpington dated 12 August 1987.

How many or what percentage of representations have not been accepted, because Sidbury is one of them? I gather that very few have been rejected. In the Sidbury case, the panel's recommendations were overturned, so the Minister has been influenced either by the old arguments rejected by his appeal panel or by new arguments put by the same Ministry officials whose noses have been put out of joint by the panel's decision. If there have been new arguments to overcome the panel's judgment, surely the farmers should know what those arguments are and should have had the opportunity to refute them.

The Minister's reasons for refusal are twofold. First, he says that this is not a homogeneous farming area. However, it is contiguous, and has a single boundary to create a continuous island site and is more than 1,200 hectares. If the Minister were to visit the area, he would see that the land is of a uniform nature — one of the definitions of "homogeneous" in the "Oxford English Dictionary." The farmers have gone to great trouble to exclude land that was better land or was not homogeneous to the site.

Secondly, the Minister has stated that the land is not of sufficiently poor quality to qualify. However, the farmers—not the civil servants—the designated members of the appeal and the independent experts before the appeal, do not accept that view; nor do I. On one side there are the local farmers, the independent experts, the NFU, the appeal panel and the local Member of Parliament. Against them are the local civil servants supported by Whitehall.

I realise from experience the extreme difficulties for Ministers in reaching decisions when there is such conflicting advice. However, if my right hon. Friend were to see the land, be driven up and down the massive slopes of the combes, see the slate and stone, the nature of the soil, the wet, the dampness and the overall difficulties, I am sure that he would join me in supporting this application.

As one of my right hon. Friend's supporters and admirers, I ask him to accept my invitation to come and see the site. I should be delighted to ask him and his wife to spend a relaxed weekend with me, and we might even have a good bottle of claret. However, it is necessary to spend only two hours on the Sidbury hills, and then my right hon. Friend might immediately reverse his decision. If that is now impossible, he might at least accept a new application upon which he could look favourably. After all, it is not asking very much, and it is w hat this Adjournment debate is all about. Will he come and see for himself?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 10:16 pm, 16th March 1988

Those who read the report of this debate will recognise the care and local knowledge with which my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) has put his case. None of his constituents could possibly imagine a better advocate for his cause. Certainly, he has been most kind in taking us through the real problems in agriculture in that part of his constituency. He will recall that I have seen that part, and others, when I have visited him. His offer is a considerable temptation. I remember when I accepted such an offer before and enjoyed myself immensely. If I do not satisfy my hon. Friend on this occasion, I hope that he will not refuse to allow me to walk on those scarps and to look at the countryside.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

All that my right hon. Friend has to do is to say, yes.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The problem is rather different from that which my right hon. Friend described.

There were about 1,700 appeals against the original decisions, but ultimately only six of them came to me. That is not a large number, so I was able to devote some considerable time to studying the problems. My temptation was to agree to them all, because there is nothing to be gained from saying no to one's right hon. and hon. Friends, or even to Opposition Members. It is much easier to say yes than to say no, as my hon. Friend will understand.

When the alterations to the less-favoured areas are finally put together, they must be submitted to the European Commission, which must be satisfied that the process through which we have gone has been proper and that the Commission's requirements, which have been endorsed by the Council, have been met.

If we allow within our submission areas of land that do not meet those requirements, they will be in jeopardy, as will all those areas that do meet the requirements. There are problems. Already more than half the land area of this country is designated as less-favoured. The Commission is naturally cautious about extending that land area. We have gone through the most complex and careful consideration of all those parts of the United Kingdom that have asked for this status because, as my hon. Friend says, it carries with it certain considerable advantages in terms of the aid available to farmers. My problem is that, if I decide in a way that the Commission would find contrary to the regulations — which we all have agreed as members of the European Community — I cast in doubt areas that fully meet those requirements. This gives me a considerable burden to bear.

I did not agree with my officials on all the appeals. I upheld several. I look at the appeals carefully. Wherever possible, consonant with my duty to the rest of those appeals whose cases were so clear that they had already been included, I tried to include those appeals that came before me. In this case, I was unable to do so. The reasons will, I think, be clear to my hon. Friend, although they are not particularly helpful, because obviously my hon. Friend would like me to change my mind.

I have a difficulty. I cannot comment on what advice was given to me by the local panel, because that advice is confidential and, for almost every local panel, and all the cases at which they looked, it has remained so. I cannot undermine the confidentiality which has already been kept by almost every panel asked to do this job by agreeing, or disagreeing, with my hon. Friend, and he will understand why. There may be three farmers with local knowledge. They have to live in that community for the rest of their lives. If they are to give the best advice they can, it must not be advice that is automatically spread abroad to everyone else who lives in the area. I must defend their right to confidentiality. In a sense, I cannot defend myself, or otherwise, on this matter, and my hon. Friend must excuse me for not doing so.

There are two issues which, I am afraid, those who want this area to be included within the LFAs must face. An area that wants to be included in an LFA must either be contiguous with an area already in the LFA or be an island site at least 1,200 hectares in size. Those 1,200 hectares must be—it is no good avoiding it; I wish that it were not so, but this is the rule — homogeneous in the sense that the land must have common qualities of poverty and of not being able to maintain sufficient stock such that it would be unreasonable to expect people to get a decent living from it. That is the kind of criterion that applies.

The difficulty with this area is that it is neither contiguous nor does it contain sufficient areas which are disadvantaged, by objective judgment rather than in the subjective view of those who have been there—which I understand. It does not contain more than 700 hectares of disadvantaged land. The area is not even on the margin of acceptability; it is 500 hectares out from the European Community's regulations.

What would happen if I included the area because of my respect for my hon. Friend and for the pressure that he has brought to bear, and my respect for the farmers and my knowledge of their difficulties? Because the measurement is an objective measurement, the Commission could without difficulty assess that I had included in the LFA application an area which clearly, on that ground alone, did not meet the criteria.

It is rather like filling in a tax return. If the tax man finds that one has failed to declare something that one has clearly been paid, he begins to think rather carefully about the rest of the contents of one's tax return. He begins to ask, "I wonder whether that is right. I wonder whether he has remembered to include that. Do I think that he should have included this?" Very soon, the taxpayer, I think with justification, finds himself having to answer a whole series of questions that he would not have been asked had he not brought it into question that he was following the rules properly. If I include the area in the application, every doubt will be cast on every other area that we propose. The Commission has the final word; it can say no. It can reject the whole application.

There is a second reason why I cannot include the area. The less favoured areas directive says that the area must be homogeneous from the point of view of natural production conditions and comprise a predominance of land mainly suitable for extensive livestock farming". In practice, the area is a mixed farming area typical of large parts of south-west England, particularly those inland from the south coast of east Devon and west Dorset. Many of the farms in the wooded valleys are dairy farms, most of which have been developed in recent years and are modern, intensive units. There are also many sheep flocks in the area, but they are predominantly intensive flocks, producing fat lambs, not the extensive enterprises typical of the LFAs. There is also a large acreage of cereals in the area — a far higher proportion than one would normally expect in a livestock-rearing area, let alone a less-favoured area.

My problem is that, because the area does not meet the criteria, I cannot include it without endangering other areas proposed. My other problem is that many other areas, which have already been excluded and have accepted their exclusion, could more reasonably be included than the Sidbury area. It worries me considerably to have to say that, because my hon. Friend is a friend. I love his constituency and would wish to support its countryside and give additional aid to his countrymen. However, the criteria laid down by the Community are quite clear and the area does not meet them.

I wish it could be otherwise, because I should have loved to tell my hon. Friend, "I have considered this matter again. I have seen the problems and I believe that with careful phraseology and proper presentation I can encourage the Commission to take it on board." However, I cannot. As Minister I have one job that the advisers and the panels do not have: I have to consider each individual case not just as an individual case but bearing in mind its effect on the rest of the cases. Even if it were true that the panel had said otherwise and that the local people said otherwise, I have to think of how that would affect the rest of the United Kingdom. For that reason, I have to disappoint my hon. Friend in order to protect others.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

I thank the Minister for his reply. I believe that some of the information about the amount of farming, the cereal and the dairy, is not accurate. If I can support that, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at the matter again.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I give my undertaking that if that is so, I shall look at it again.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.