§ 8. Mr. Shepherd
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the estimated total acreage of marginal land in the United Kingdom.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)
There is no agreed definition of marginal land, but the term has been widely used to refer to land with a poor production potential. Land of this kind is to be found throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, but, if the definition is limited to poor land which is near to the less-favoured areas, in addition to the 7½ million hectares in those areas there may be 1 million hectares of such land.
§ Mr. Hicks
Does not the Minister agree that there is considerable potential for increased agricultural production on marginal land located below the hill farming line? Does he not agree, further, that such areas could well qualify for assistance under the EEC less-favoured-areas directive? Will he make appropriate representations to Brussels to include these areas?
§ Mr. Strang
We agree that there is potential for increased production from these so-called marginal areas, and it is precisely for that reason that we asked 638 officials to prepare a report looking at what might be done to help.
§ Mr. Shepherd
Has the Minister undertaken a survey of all the lands falling within the definition of the less-favoured-areas directive in the Community to see whether there is any land on the Community side which would fall within the definition of our own marginal land, thereby encouraging him to think along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks)? Secondly, is he aware that the NFU reckons that £1 an acre, or about £2.5 million spent on investment in the marginal lands, would prove very beneficial, especially in the light of the withdrawal of the various subsidies? And—
§ Mr. Strang
Certainly we are looking at this whole question, including what happens in other member States. However, I should point out that we operate the less-favoured-areas directive to great advantage in this country. We have an extremely high proportion of total agricultural area in the United Kingdom compared with other member States, and the rate of grant we pay compares favourably with the position in other member States.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells
Does not the Minister agree that there is a great deal of disparity between farming in the less-favoured areas and farming in the marginal hill areas, because the latter have been deprived of their subsidies in the last year or two? What specific plans has he in mind to help those farming in the marginal hill areas?
§ Mr. Strang
I think that the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. The real problem is the enormous differential between the less-favoured areas, which receive generous grants and head-age payments, and the rest, where the marginal farmers are in some respects on exactly the same production level in terms of grant as the more prosperous arable areas. It is precisely for that reason that we are looking hard at the problem at the moment.
§ Mr. Jopling
Does the Parliamentary Secretary appreciate that we welcome his understanding that farmers in the marginal areas have a particularly hard task 639 compared, perhaps, with those higher up the hill? Will he institute an inquiry to satisfy himself that the marginal land in this country is excluded from the less-favoured-area grants, whereas on the Continent similar land is included? For instance, will he remember that, whereas dairying is not permitted within the less-favoured-area grants in this country, in parts of France dairying is carried out with great vigour in these areas?
§ Mr. Strang
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, as I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), we are indeed looking at that question. However, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that France, for example, has tried unsuccessfully to include Brittany in the less-favoured-areas directive.
On the hon. Gentleman's second point, it is important not to forget that dairy farmers in the marginal areas benefit from the significant and important increases in the grants, which we announced in June 1976, geared specifically to dairying and to the grassland sector.