Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Wednesday 4 July 1990


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Arnold, Mr. Jacques (Gravesham)

Atkinson, Mr. David (Bournemouth, East)

Bellingham, Mr. Henry (Norfolk, North & West)

Body, Sir Richard (Holland with Boston)

Cash, Mr. William (Stafford)

Conway, Mr Derek (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Curry, Mr. David (Party Secretary to The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Davies, Mr. Ron (Caerphilly)

Emery, Sir Peter (Honiton)

Fishburn, Mr. Dudley (Kensington)

Jack, Mr. Michael (Fylde)

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Clwyd, South-West)

Livsey, Mr. Richard (Brecon and Radnor)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Morley, Mr. Elliot (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Burnley)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Wood, Mr. Timothy (Stevenage)

Ms. E. Samson, Committee Clerk

3 Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, etc. Wednesday 4 July 1990


Farm and Conservation Grant (Variation) Scheme 1990

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry): I Beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Farm and Conservation Grant (Variation) Scheme 1990. The scheme can be conveniently divided in two for the purposes of comprehension. What I refer to as part 1 is partly funded by the European Community, which pays 25 per cent. Part 2 is a nationally financed scheme. This debate relates only to part 2. Nevertheless, I shall mention briefly the elements of part I, because while making changes to it, we have been anxious to keep, the two halves of the scheme in balance. To be eligible for the Community-funded scheme, the farmer must provide an improvement plan for investments. Until the recent changes those investments had to increase the income of a farm business. Now they have only to maintain it. The schemes covered include waste facilities, land improvement and drainage. For the nationally funded scheme the farmer does not have to submit a plan. He can make an investment and then get an ad hoc grant to cover part of that investment. It is the difference between a menu and an á la carte approach to farm improvement. The main points covered are to do with waste and conservation. We need to make some changes to the ad hoc discretionary part of the scheme because of the decisions on structures taken at the Agriculture Council last December, which related to Part I of the scheme. At the same time we decided to modify the scheme because in the light of experience there were improvements that we could make. Brussels also wants some changes which we can conveniently include in the changes to the second Part of the scheme. Here again, experience has shown that improvements can be made. The changes to the plan part of the scheme are subject to a negative resolution of the House, which is why they will not come before the Committee. The Part 2 changes are subject to an affirmative resolution, which is why we are here this morning. The changes are minor. The first relates to the eligibility requirement for a grant for traditional buildings. Farm diversification can now count towards the 50 per cent. of the time and income that has to be derived from agricultural activities in order to qualify, although the agricultural side per se, the muck-shovelling bit, has to provide 25 per cent. of the income. With regard to glasshouses, we are required by the Commission to reduce our grant rate from 30 to 25 per cent. in the non-less-favoured areas, although we are not clear how many glasshouses there are in the non-less-favoured areas or why anybody should put them there. Because of 4 the recent storms we shall delay its implementation until January to give people who have storm damage a chance to get in under the farm gate before we close it. We are clarifying the position on plastic polytunnels. Some people thought that we could pay that grant out on black plastic mushroom tunnels. We cannot. We make it clear that the grant is for translucent polytunnels. With regard to traditional farm boundaries, we are extending the eligibility to grant-aid fencing which is used as a protection while earth banks are being established. In parts of Scotland and in the south-west that is important, and there will be dancing in the street as a result of this measure. The measures apply to all parts of Great Britain. Northern Ireland has its own scheme. There are no deletions from the scheme. All the grant rates, except that for the glasshouses, remain as they were. All other rules of the scheme remain unchanged.

10.34 am

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): When the scheme was introduced in 1989 it was widely welcomed by farmers and people in the conservation movement because it provided a great improvement on previous grants which had damaging side effects. I appreciate the Minister's explanation of the changes in the regulations which I had anticipated. I am glad that nothing drastic was slipped through among all the jargon. I am disappointed that more was not made of the opportunity to amend the national part of the regulations, over which Parliament has control. For example, changes in conservation grants should be made, so that capital grant aid is available for the full operation of an extended countryside premium scheme. That would include the creation of habitat and landscape features and land diverted from intensive agriculture. That would take conservation grants further than they go at present. Grant aid should also be available for capital works associated with environmentally sensitive areas. I accept that some of those schemes may have to be dealt with in different legislation and orders. The Minister will be aware that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have called for greater evaluation of agricultural grants. Some of the regulations, for example about defining the number of days people farm, would be hard to monitor. How does the Ministry ensure that the criteria for grants are adhered to? The evaluation of grants should be changed to include environmental monitoring. An assessment of a grant's impact on the local environment, such as on buildings, fencing or improvements, might be carried out when a grant is applied for. On receipt of a grant, a farmer should agree to a minimum standard of environmental care of his land. However, that shift in the concept of grants probably does not relate to the regulations, and I shall not dwell on it. The regulations are a big improvement on previous schemes and I welcome them. However, they could be improved further, particularly through the criteria for evaluation and environmental impact assessments. We should ensure that when farmers receive public money, they should give something back, through their industry, which is important, and through the husbandry of the 5 environment. That should be made a condition for receiving public money. I hope that the Minister will consider my suggestions and answer my questions. I have one detailed, technical question, which the Minister may not be able to answer this morning. A list of qualifying activities for a grant, which includes forestry, tourism and craft activities, also mentions sports and recreational facilities. If a landowner who does not make his money directly from farming but through tenancies, takes part of the land out of tenancy and puts it into set aside, as low grade land, and then produces a major scheme which includes a golf course, a hotel, a craft centre, a driving range, tennis courts and a whole complex of leisure and sporting activities, that scheme might be eligible for grants from the Sports Council and the Department of Trade and Industry. Would it also be eligible for conservation grants for the reinstatement of hedgerows, or repairs to vernacular farm buildings, dry stone walls and other features. Land that is taken out of farm use and converted for sporting, leisure and recreation facilities would meet the criteria for taking farm land out of production, even if it were not converted permanently to, for example, a golf course, driving range or tennis court. Would a landowner who was not directly involved in farming the land qualify for a conservation grant?

10.40 am

Mr. Curry: The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) has raised issues, such as Sports Council grants, that are outside the competence of my Department. I shall write to him with a detailed response based as closely as possible on the case that he raised. Primary legislation allows us to pay grant for agricultural investments only, although grants for capital investments, under the environmentally sensitive area project, are available.

Mr. Morley: But only for ESAs.

Mr. Curry: Yes, only for ESAs at the moment. The Government are deciding which direction to take on environmental issues, but I should like to keep my powder dry. 6 With reference to testing to ensure that the rules are observed, an applicant must declare that he meets the conditions and there are selective checks. An evaluation plan for the entire scheme has been agreed with the Treasury, and we shall include surveys to assess the effects of the grants, following precisely the points raised about evaluating performance. With reference to environmental grants in general, we are already moving in the direction that the hon. Gentleman suggests. At the last big structures negotiation in Brussels we ensured that an environmental element was included in the hill livestock compensatory allowances. Environmental requirements are increasingly being added to grant projects to ensure that farmers fulfil certain environmental conditions. We are working on schemes to find out how such requiremnents can best be effected. We shall continue along those lines for the reasons which the hon. Gentleman gave.

10.41 am

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): Regulation 5(3)(b) refers to facilities for camping and caravanning as a qualifying activity of a legitimate agricultural business. For a limited period of the year, a farm may have five caravans on its land without planning permission. Would facilities for water and drainage, for such caravans sites qualify for a grant?

Mr. Curry: I had a horrible feeling that my hon. Friend was going to ask me about the community charge and caravans. The answer to his question is no, not under this scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved. That the Committee has considered the Farm and Conservation Grant (Variation) Scheme 1990.

Committee rose at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Sir John Stradling Thomas (Chairman)

Cash, Mr.

Conway, Mr.

Curry, Mr.

Emery, Sir Peter

Fishburn, Mr.

Jack, Mr.

Morley, Mr.

Wood, Mr.