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Paice: Action for farming and rural communities

Speech at the Farmers' Club, London

"Farming matters, it matters to Britain and it matters to the Conservative Party. Farming's importance to Britain far exceeds its share of GDP, or even as a provider of jobs. Britain's farmers still produce nearly three quarters of our indigenous food, they manage over three quarters of the landscape, and as we discovered during the foot and mouth crisis, farming is the centre of our rural tourism industry. In many of our communities farming still plays a vital role socially and economically. Many of the features of our landscape which we cherish are the result of farming practice.

Ever since the Second World War the demand from successive governments has been for our farmers to grow more food and they have responded dramatically. Helped by advances in plant and livestock breeding, they almost tripled the amount of food grown here by the mid-1990s. We pay tribute to that achievement. Since 1997, though, farming has hit its lowest point since the 1930s. Farming incomes down by 14% in real terms and the work force has fallen by 15% and we have lost a third of our dairy farms since the year 2000. Perhaps most seriously of all, though, our actual production of food has fallen by 5% for the first time since 1947.

Under Labour, farmers have been made to feel unnecessary intrusion into their chocolate box image of the countryside. Labour have said that national food security is neither necessary nor is it desirable. It is no wonder that morale amongst farmers is so low and all this has happened before the advent of the Single Farm Payment.

But it is not just in farming that the countryside has suffered. On average, three rural post offices and six rural pubs are closing every week. Rural crime costs farmers £100 million and violent crime has risen by 25% in rural areas. Homelessness in rural areas continues to rise at more than three times the rate in urban areas and, of course, to many in our rural communities the ban on hunting has underlined the disdain with which the Labour Party treats rural people.

So that is the scenario in which we launch our Action Plan for Farming and Rural Communities. The Conservative Party is the friend of farmers and friend of our rural communities. Our challenge is to provide the help, support and encouragement to farmers as they face the new era under the Single Farm Payment system and it is also to give power back to rural people in planning, policing, housing and local services.

What struck me most when I returned to this portfolio last September was just how much the relationship between farmers and their customers had been fractured. We need to rebuild that. So firstly, we will introduce legislation to reform food labelling in order that our consumers can be properly informed about the country of original of the major ingredients of the foods they buy and indeed whether or not it meets the standards required of British farmers. We cannot continue with the deceit of the consumer which can take place under the current labelling legislation. Britain's farmers produce food to some of the highest welfare and environmental standards in the world and the Conservative Party will help them to exploit that advantage. Linked to that information is the power of farmers in the market place. We obviously await the conclusions of the OFT into their audit of the Code of Supermarket Practice but the Conservative Party will strengthen that code and respond appropriately to any other recommendations.

But we need to do more than that. The history of Farm Cooperatives in Britain has been chequered, some have been very successful, many have fallen by the wayside. But we do believe that farmers working together can create far greater strength in the market and it is absurd that Milk Marque was broken up with only 37% of the milk supply whereas we have Arla merged with Campini now controlling a vast share of the European milk market including a large chunk of the British milk sector; whereas our existing cooperatives struggle along with tiny individual market shares.

So we will undertake a thorough review of all the corporate and tax treatment of farm cooperatives to stimulate further cooperation and to enable them to generate and retain the capital they need for investment so they can carry out whatever service of buying, selling or processing they are involved with.

We will support that action by ensuring that all food that is publicly procured meets British standards. It is wrong to use British taxpayers' money to buy food which has been produced in a way that would have been illegal if it had been produced in this country. So we will ensure that all public food meets the little red tractor standard. So no more strategies, meetings and seminars which are the hallmark of Labour, instead we will have clear action.

The second theme of our Action Plan is to lift the huge superstructure of regulation, bureaucracy and costs which have descended on farming in recent years and nowhere better can I find an example than with the whole of the rules on cross-compliance where a European regulation of 13 lines was turned into an English regulation of 700 lines.

So we will radically simplify the rules on cross-compliance. We will reduce the army of inspectors that descend on farmers by developing a self-regulation system for farmers and using the whole farm approach to minimise all regulations on farms. We will abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. We will resist any double tagging requirements for sheep and we will ensure that abattoir and meat hygiene regulations do not prevent local slaughterhouses and butchers from meeting the needs of farmers to have their livestock slaughtered and prepared for sale. We want farm shops, farmers' markets and other local outlets to succeed and we will lift the burdens that prevent them.

And we will review the operation of the Cattle Movement Service to ensure that all animals are properly registered. It is absurd and counter-productive that we have so many animals which are not registered because their owners have fallen foul of the bureaucratic rules which exist. There are countless more areas of regulation where we will act to set farmers free to produce the goods that the public demand and require.

Conservatives believe that farmers are the best and the natural custodians of the countryside. The environmental and amenity benefits which farmers provide deserve a continued system of support so that has to be as simple and as transparent as possible. By the time of the election the closing date for applications for Single Farm Payment entitlement will be almost upon us. But we will act wherever possible to ease the transition to the new system; to clarify the continuing confusion regarding many of the rules and reduce the bureaucratic mess that is the root cause of the likely delays in farmers' first payments.

The countryside has other roles. At the moment it seems to be the location for umpteen planning applications for wind farms thanks to the Government's obsession with land-based wind as the only means of meeting our renewables' obligation under the Kyoto Agreement. We will rebalance the way that obligation operates to ensure that research and development continues into alternative sources of renewable energy especially the role of biomass whether it is Miscanthus or Coppice or forestry waste which should be used much more widely to generate heat and power in local combined heat and power plants. And we will also stimulate an industry in bio-fuels. Bio-diesel and bio-ethanol both provide new crop opportunities for farmers and can make a very significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions. So with a combination of the duty rebate and the introduction of a renewable fuels obligation we will stimulate a viable UK industry to produce the bio-fuels which are necessary. We believe that producing energy from crops is a far more constructive use of the countryside than simply as a location for vast numbers of unsightly turbines.

That brings me to another issue of crops in the countryside, namely genetic modification. The final arbiter as to whether GM foods are produced will, of course, be the consumer. And we believe that consumers have the right to chose non-GM foods if they wish and, therefore we will ensure that all foods containing GM material are clearly labelled as such. But a Conservative Government will also reflect public concern about the development of GMOs and the continuing absence of proper husbandry guidelines to prevent cross-contamination.

So we will ban any planting of GM crops until or unless the science shows that it would be safe for people and for the environment and until or unless the issues of liability and crop segregation are properly resolved.

Let me turn now to the wider issues of rural communities. We have already made it quite clear that we will introduce a government bill in government time to repeal the ban on hunting. But the concerns of rural communities go much wider than that. We have already announced that we will increase the police force by some 40,000 officers. That is enough to put an officer in every single parish in the country. But perhaps the biggest issue of concern in rural communities is the cost of housing. To enable local people to stay in their community rather than forcing them into the cities as the only place they can find somewhere affordable. We will ensure the provision of more affordable housing in our rural communities by extending and improving the current exception sites policy and through our commitment to shared home ownership schemes. But we will also amend current planning guidance to contain a presumption in favour of the re-use of former agricultural buildings whether it is for commerce or for housing. There is little doubt that with the current changes there will be many redundant farm buildings and they won't all be of pretty Cotswold stone or similar.

Perversely there is also the problem of over-development. We will abolish the whole regional planning structure and give local communities a much stronger voice in deciding the right level of development in their own areas. We will stop this Labour Government's obsession to concrete over the green belt in much of South East England and we will make it much easier for local councils to create new green belts to protect their villages, their towns and indeed cities from urban sprawl.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there are other issues in our Action Plan and no document that is readable could possibly address all the issues facing farming and our rural communities. Farming has countless facets but we want it to succeed as an industry. By lifting the burden of regulation and helping farmers get closer to the market place, by developing new crops, by combating crime in our rural communities and the provision of more housing for local people, we can begin to restore the vibrancy of our rural communities that has so sadly been damaged in the last few years."

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