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House of Commons

Thursday 29 November 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


British Railways (No. 2) Bill

(By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 6 December.

Heathrow Express Railway Bill

[Lords](By Order) Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 December.

Oral Answers to Questions


Farm Subsidies

1. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received about cuts in farm subsidies ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer) : I have received a large number of representations. Negotiations on GATT are due to be brought to a conclusion at a meeting in Brussels next week ; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I will attend.

Mr. Thurnham : Should not we be moving away from the kind of protectionism that the Opposition want, so that Europe's farmers become less dependent on the taxpayer and more sensitive to the needs of consumers, in the widest possible sense?

Mr. Gummer : The Community has already made a considerable offer to the GATT round, which will mean--over a period--a reduction of 30 per cent. in the support that we give. That, however, will have to be done at a pace that the farming industry can accommodate.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is not it true that the figure is not 30 per cent., but a net 15 per cent. from now, and that that in no way meets the demands of the Americans taking part in the GATT negotiations, who want 70 per cent? How does the right hon. Gentleman intend to ensure that a trade war does not break out after the conference that is due next week?

Mr. Gummer : I am not in the House of Commons to meet the demands of the Americans ; I am here to defend the interests of Britain, and the European Community of which we are part. If the hon. Gentleman wants to carry

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out GATT talks on the basis that we give in to mid-western American farmers instead of defending our own interests, it is a good job that it is not his party that is responsible for standing up for Britain, because it would not do so.

Sir Hector Monro : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the increase in the suckler cow subsidy, the advance payment on the sheep premium and the drop in interest rates have been a great help to livestock farmers? Nevertheless, we must accept that prices have been substantially down this autumn and that we have a long way to go to increase profitability.

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is entirely right. In relation to the less-favoured areas, I have done all that I can within the rules of the Community ; but world price levels have none the less fallen, which means that our livestock farmers are having a very difficult time. We shall have to continue to look for ways in which we can help.

Dr. David Clark : Is the Minister not aware that it simply does not make sense to throw good money after bad to subsidise farmers? Will not he go to Europe and press for a fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy, using agri-environmental payments as the core of the policy, as advocated by the Labour party and all reputable conservation and farming lobbies?

Mr. Gummer : If the Labour party began by accepting that we do not "go to Europe", because we are already in Europe, its members might get the geography right before proceeding any further. It is that attitude to the rest of Europe which will make it impossible for us to obtain a reasonable arrangement on agriculture.

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the present Government have obtained a better deal in Europe than any that Labour could possibly hope to obtain. Until he advances propositions that show some understanding of the common agricultural policy, he will continue to be listened to by no one, either in this country or in the rest of Europe.

Rev. Ian Paisley : Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the answer given to me last Thursday on this issue by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Will he assure the farmers of Northern Ireland that their special interests will be kept in mind?

Mr. Gummer : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I have taken a particular interest in the needs of the farmers of Northern Ireland. I have met the Ulster Farmers Union and other farming interests and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland keeps me very fully informed. I shall ensure that in the negotiations we do not forget the particular problems of Ulster.

Hill Farmers

2. Ms. Armstrong : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what effect the recent agreement regarding subsidies to farming will have on small hill farmers.

3. Mr. David Nicholson : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the present position of and future prospects for livestock farmers in the English uplands.

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Mr. Gummer : Any agreement in GATT must provide the opportunity for continued support for farmers in less-favoured areas.

Ms. Armstrong : Is the Minister aware of the desperate plight of many hill farmers in Weardale and many other areas of my constituency who play a critical role in maintaining the enormous beauty of the area? What can he do to guarantee a future for them?

Mr. Gummer : I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that I have already sought to do all that can be done to help the hill farmers of whom she speaks. I hope that she also agrees that I have sought to ensure that they get the extra and special help that they need. I hope, however, that the hon. Lady will mention to them the policies of her own party, which the recent independent report showed would be infinitely damaging to them and would mean a considerable loss in terms of their existing incomes.

Mr. Nicholson : May I pay tribute to the concern about this matter hitherto shown by my right hon. Friend, in contrast with the desultory interest shown by the Labour party, typified by the extraordinary gaffe a moment ago by the Labour spokesman on agriculture, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the problems faced by hill farmers in my constituency--those who farm on Exmoor, the Brendon hills, the Quantocks and the Blackdown hills. Will he do his best to bring forward the hill livestock compensatory allowance payments for 1991 to the earliest possible date?

Mr. Gummer : I assure my hon. Friend that I am still considering the information given to me on the hill livestock compensatory allowance. I shall make the announcement as soon as I possibly can. My hon. Friend was right to point out that, despite remarks of a constituency nature by Opposition Members, the Labour party's policies would very significantly reduce farmers' incomes, as the Savill report shows.

Mr. John D. Taylor : In view of yesterday's statement by the vice- president of the European Community that at the GATT talks he is prepared to negotiate subsidy reductions amounting to more than 30 per cent. if the Community agrees to reductions amounting to more than 30 per cent., will the Secretary of State bring the proposal back to the House for consideration before Her Majesty's Government approve it?

Mr. Gummer : Over the years, I have learnt that leaks during negotiations in Brussels or anywhere else are better not commented upon until we know the realities. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman has found me wanting in defending United Kingdom interests. I shall continue to do so.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : Does my right hon. Friend agree that milk quotas have been an outstanding success in directing taxpayers' money throughout the EEC to the producers rather than to the storers and in preventing subsidies from going to exported surplus commodities? Why can he not see that the same system could be applied universally, thereby preventing the depopulation of the countryside without excess expense to the taxpayer?

Mr. Gummer : There are very grave difficulties about extending quotas to the whole of the agricultural industry. It would cause the end of the growth in new technology, a

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wholly quotaed system would remove the interest in the market and young people would be deterred from entering agriculture. Moreover, agriculture would not change. That would be extremely damaging and I certainly would not propose it.

Mr. Ron Davies : Does the Minister acknowledge the particularly important role that hill livestock compensatory allowances play in the uplands? Is he still alone in the Council of Ministers in resisting the tiering of HLCAs? Does he not accept that if tiering were introduced it would prove to be a particularly effective method of targeting support on the small upland family farms, which are most in need of that help?

Mr. Gummer : Throughout my time as Minister I have shown interest in HLCAs and sought to use them as effectively as possible. Also, Britain has sought to green the HLCAs and has permission from the Community to do that. I hope that we shall be able to spread that elsewhere. The HLCAs are an essential way of keeping people in the hillsides to look after the land. Without them, the land would not be properly cared for.

Small Farmers

4. Mr. Steen : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what proposals he has to protect small farmers from unfair competition.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : We seek to ensure fair competition for all British farmers.

Mr. Steen : It is not just hill farmers who are facing difficulties. Livestock farmers in the lowlands are also facing severe difficulties, many of them to the point of bankruptcy. Can my hon. Friend the Minister see his way to doing something about the cheap imports of meat from eastern Europe which are coming through east Germany? That is having a terrible effect on the meat regimes of the small lowland farmers. Also, will he look again at quotas, because that may be a way of helping small farmers to deal with the most intolerable conditions?

Mr. Curry : I quite understand my hon. Friend's concern about small farmers. As he will recall, we sought to help them when we distributed the extra 1 per cent. of milk. We have to be careful, but any Community policy for small farmers would stand precious little chance of helping the United Kingdom, due to the different sizes. On quotas, we look at all the options, particularly in the light of GATT, but there is a danger of prices being left so high that they are marooned above consumption and we would then have a new crisis. There is the problem of the United Kingdom being pinned down where it has a competitive advantage. We could do with more milk, but we cannot produce it, because of the quota system and there is a major problem of young entrants. We are not aware of meat coming into the United Kingdom from east Germany, but east Germany can circulate products throughout the entire Community and we will exercise the strongest supervision over that.

Mr. Geraint Howells : Does the Minister agree that small hill farmers will not survive without financial aid from the Government? To restore confidence, will the Minister give an assurance that he will do his utmost to

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ensure that no further subsidy cuts will be made in the next four or five years? What immediate plans has he to help farmers in need?

Mr. Curry : I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the hill farmer. I agree also that the hill farmer will not survive without some support from the public purse. We have extended a large addition to the subsidy going to the beef and sheepmeat sector in particular. We keep the matter under review. We have a series of programmes relating to how we can help environmentally, but we cannot reverse what is happening in the marketplace. We will do our best to help and we recognise the importance of those producers.

Mr. Marland : As my hon. Friend is aware, many dairy farmers, both small and large, depend on the purchasing ability of the milk marketing board. Now that the future of the board is in the public domain, will my hon. Friend consider a role for it as a possible buyer of last resort for milk?

Mr. Curry : The future role of the milk marketing board is a matter for the board itself. We are anxious for the board to make proposals for the future of dairy marketing in the United Kingdom. There is no Government -prescribed plan for that. We are obviously discussing various options with it, but it is for the board to decide where it wants to go. It started the debate--not the Government--and now that it has been started it must be carried through to a sensible conclusion.

Research and Development

5. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists to discuss the future of research and development.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean) : December 1989 was the last occasion when the IPMS approached this Department on research and development and the matter was dealt with by correspondence.

Mr. Murphy : Does the Minister accept that public confidence in his Department was severely shaken by the closure of the Institute of Food Research in Bristol? How does he intend to restore public confidence in his Department when he intends to sack 40 food scientists at Norwich and Reading?

Mr. Maclean : Quite simply, by pointing out the full facts. Although Bristol closed, the laboratories at Norwich and Reading are being expanded and there are four other research associations. My Department operates laboratories at Weybridge, Torry and Weymouth. Seventy of the scientists who gave up their posts at Bristol will transfer to Bristol university and we shall increase research expenditure from £13 million to £17 million. Food safety research is being increased, not cut.

Mr. Conway : Does my hon. Friend agree that the level of research in this country is the envy of Europe?

Mr. Maclean : I do. For example, in respect of the jobs at Norwich which were mentioned, we are transferring the £750,000 that was being spent at that laboratory on near-market projects such as robotics, meat handling and

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processing, to diet and nutrition, health and safety, salmonella, listeria and BSE research--which is the right priority for Government.

Mr. Morley : The Minister's answer is not good enough. In a written answer from his Department dated 25 October, he announced a cutback of 38 research projects. Thirteen of them relate to fish refrigeration, shellfish, smoking and safety. The Minister knows that the fishing industry is facing a crisis, so how does he expect it to pick up the vital research projects that he is cutting back, thereby undermining the industry's viability?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman misses the point. Food safety research has increased from £13.2 million to £17.1 million this year. It is right that the taxpayers' money should be spent on basic, strategic and food safety research, and for the industry to concentrate on near-market projects involving food techniques and processing, which it is better able to understand and to fund.


6. Mr. Anthony Coombs : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what arrangements there are in place to monitor his Ministry's voluntary code of practice on protecting farms from rhizomania.

Mr. Curry : Our guidelines to civil engineering contractors on precautions against the spread of animal and plant diseases emphasise the need for the plant health and seeds inspectorate to be consulted from the planning stage of all major works affecting agricultural land.

Mr. Coombs : Given the appalling devastation that rhizomania can mean for sugar beet farmers, because the sterilisation of affected land can last for 25 years, will my hon. Friend listen

sympathetically to the demands of the National Farmers Union, which is seeking a statutory system of compensation for consequential losses for growers of sugar beet affected by rhizomania and a code of practice to protect sugar beet farms from the coercion of contractors, in particular?

Mr. Curry : There is no provision for payment for consequential losses even in the animal sector, let alone the plant sector. If I were to suggest that such compensation would be likely to be introduced, I should be telling my hon. Friend something that is not the case. As to contractors, we plan to reissue our guidelines in the new year. A statutory basis would not make sense and would be bureaucratic and almost impossible to enforce--but we shall certainly be ready to intervene where there are difficulties. I am prepared to review the controls that we impose in respect of rhizomania, to ensure that, within the requirement to be absolutely strict about preventing the spread of the disease, we are as intelligent and flexible as possible.

Hill Farming

7. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he next plans to meet representatives of the National Farmers Union to discuss British hill farming.

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Mr. Gummer : I met representatives of the National Farmers Union on 23 October to discuss the economic conditions in the hills and uplands. I met other representatives of those areas yesterday.

Mr. Griffiths : The Minister mentioned in an earlier reply his defence of the hill livestock compensatory allowance. Can he explain why, since 1987, it has been cut by £12.5 million in real terms? When the Minister met NFU representatives, did he give any indication that he is thinking of restoring the value of the allowance in real terms, perhaps to the 1986 level, as that could prove vital to hill farmers?

Mr. Gummer : I have increased hill livestock compensatory amounts, as the Government have done on several occasions. The hon. Gentleman may like to explain to his hill farmers why the independent Savill report suggests that if Labour party policies were adopted there would be a 17 per cent. drop in the typical farmer's profitability.

Mr. Hunter : What is my right hon. Friend's reaction to the NFU's suggestion that the way forward for hill farming and, indeed, all United Kingdom farming is through the introduction of strict supply management?

Mr. Gummer : I do not believe that supply management is the answer to agriculture's problems. We need to get nearer the market, make our support more environmentally oriented and ensure that we do not overproduce. If we were to quota the whole of agriculture, we should do considerable harm to the industry.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Given that the maintenance of the hill sector is particularly important to ensure the viability of our rural economy and given that in Scotland 90 per cent. of hill farming lies in the less- favoured areas, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when he expects to be able to make a clear statement on the future level of HLCAs? Many of our farmers have reduced incomes because of a drop in the price of calves and lambs.

Mr. Gummer : As I said in answer to an earlier question, I shall make that announcement as soon as possible. I have already extended the suckler cow premium in the LFAs to the maximum amount available. A ewe supplement is to be paid to sheep farmers in the LFAs in 1991. The green pound devaluation will be effective from 7 January. Assistance to the beef and sheep sectors is now worth about £330 million more than in the previous year. There is already a considerable amount of extra help. We are certainly looking at the possibilities of what we should do in terms of the HLCAs, but much has already been done, as I believe that the hon. Lady would acknowledge.

Miss Emma Nicholson : I know that my right hon. Friend has the future of the small family farm in mind. With the freer markets that we expect from within--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The question is about hill farming. The next question is about family farms.

Miss Nicholson : I know that my right hon. Friend has the future of the small family hill farm in mind. Will he make an early statement on term tenancies, which may be the only way in which sons and daughters of small family hill farmers can enter this important industry?

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Mr. Gummer : I have already made it clear that I shall publish a paper on alternatives to deal with tenancies. That paper will protect the rights of present tenants. I very much hope that we shall look for a radical change in the system so that more land comes forward for letting.

Family Farms

8. Mr. Matthew Taylor : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the financial position of family farms at present.

Mr. Curry : It is our policy to foster an efficient and competitive farming industry and to ensure its continued viability.

Mr. Taylor : I am interested to hear that the Minister wants to foster an efficient and competitive farming industry. Does he know how strongly farmers feel about the fact that, as the prices that they receive fall, making them uncompetitive and unviable and forcing them out of business, supermarket prices for the food that they produce continue to climb? How is it that the Government manage to preside over the worst of both worlds?

Mr. Curry : I thought that the hon. Gentleman, who represents a party which is supposed to be in favour of free market economics, would realise that if there is a surplus of supply it is difficult for incomes to rise at the same time. However, we can try to help farmers to overcome the worst of their problems. They will do that by being more competitive. That is our policy and there is no other sensible way of going about it.

Mr. Boscawen : Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to persuade the banks to be more accommodating towards some of our small farmers? When the Labour Government were in office, those farmers were encouraged to produce all that they could at any cost, so they were borrowing--in some cases, overborrowing--from the banks.

Mr. Curry : In general terms, the level of borrowing by British farmers is about 25 per cent., so many have not overborrowed. I recognise that some small farms are in serious difficulties and that is why we try to pay our grants to them as quickly as possible so that we can help the cash flow. I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's suggestion that the banks could be helpful when they consider individual cases.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : The Minister will agree that family farms and the farmers in them make a great contribution to maintaining the fabric of rural life and that one of the main problems resulting from the financial pressures facing them this year is that their way of life is very much under threat. What further plans can the Minister announce to enhance rural society and to ensure that that fabric is maintained into the next century?

Mr. Curry : I am perfectly aware of the part that hill farmers play in maintaining rural life, because my constituency has

characteristics similar to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Government policies cannot maintain farming family life as such, but we can ensure that we give the necessary assistance, especially for the uplands farms, to enable them to get through difficult economic circumstances, which we all understand. Where

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we are able to give further help, especially assistance to farmers who look after the environment as part of their food-producing function, we shall take the initiatives that are open to us.

Mr. Harris : Will my hon. Friend take it from me--and indeed from every hon. Member who represents a rural constituency--that this time round, the farming community and the National Farmers Union are not crying wolf when they speak about the real pressure on farming? My hon. Friend spoke about helping the environment. Will he and my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at the possible extension of the environmentally sensitive areas, especially for Penwith in my constituency?

Mr. Curry : We shall certainly examine the possibility of adding to our policies for helping environmental enhancement. We understand the NFU's point about farmers being in difficulties and our experience is that it would be foolish to deny it. However, I hope that the NFU will not say merely that the answer is yet another multiplication of public subsidy. That is not an answer. If the NFU comes up with sensible proposals that are costed, effective and targeted we shall listen.

Small Farmers

9. Mr. Pike : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent representations he has received from small farmers and hill farmers.

Mr. Gummer : I have received a number of representations about the position of small farms and of farms in the hills and uplands. I shall continue to keep the position under review.

Mr. Pike : Does not the Minister recognise that, despite his words this afternoon in reply to similar questions, small farmers and hill farmers will judge the Government not by their words but by their actions? The Minister may find it necessary in the next few weeks to visit Ribble Valley and the Trough of Bowland. If he looks at the balance sheets of the farmers in those areas, he will find that they are now receiving less in real terms for their livestock than they were receiving a few years ago and that they are facing bankruptcy. They expect action from the Government. When will they see it, or will they be allowed to go out of business?

Mr. Gummer : If the hon. Gentleman talks to those farmers, he will hear from them that the suckler cow premium has been increased to the maximum allowable in those areas ; that is action. He will hear that this Government have brought forward the payment of the ewe premium both for the first and for the second instalment ; that means action. He will hear that the Government have done so much for the livestock industry that they are now spending almost £800 million a year in support of that industry ; that means action. The farmers will then turn to the hon. Gentleman and say that all that the Labour party speaks of is to reduce farm incomes by its policies. Labour's only action would be to cut incomes during these difficult times for farmers. The hon. Gentleman must not come to the House as poorly prepared as that.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Although I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's actions for those who farm in

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less-favoured areas, is not he concerned by the letters that I have sent to him from members of the High Peak Livestock Society, representing farmers in the villages of Wildboarclough, Wincle, Langley, Rainow and Kettleshulme? Those farmers are deepy concerned about their future. Does he accept that hill farmers are essential to the maintenance of the countryside, which is a matter of great environmental importance?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend asks a constituency-based question and shows that he understands his farmers' problems. His question stands in sharp contradistinction to the previous one.

My hon. Friend will know that I agree with him entirely. Without farmers, the countryside will not be cared for, and farmers need the support of society to enable them to look after the countryside. They cannot do it unless they earn enough to meet the costs.

Farm Subsidies

10. Mr. Allen : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will list the progress made by his Department in securing a reduction of the European Commission budget spent on agricultural subsidies since 1979 ; and if he will outline any current proposals which the Government have for further reductions.

Mr. Gummer : We have had a sustained and progressive reduction in the real level of agricultural support prices since 1984 and we are committed to achieving a sustained reduction in the level of support in the current GATT negotiations.

Mr. Allen : I do not blame the Minister personally, as he has not been in the job very long, but the Government have had 11 years in which to reduce the level of subsidy, and it still costs the average family about £15 a week throughout the year to sustain high food prices. Now that we have a Prime Minister--

Mr. Speaker : Order. What is the hon. Gentleman's question?

Mr. Allen : We now have a Prime Minister who may be less supportive of the United States, but will he continue to guarantee that the position of the United States in seeking freer trade in agricultural products will be sustained by him and by the Government?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman's figures are utterly wrong ; they simply do not stand up. If there were no subsidies, world food prices would rise considerably and the consumer would have to pay more. The £15 figure that he cited has no basis in any sensible fact. I note that he supports United States farmers against United Kingdom farmers. I hope that his hon. Friends will realise that he would like to reduce farm incomes even further and I hope that farmers in constituencies round his will know exactly how to vote when the time comes.

Mr. Riddick : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the so- called renegotiation under the previous Labour Government, the common agricultural policy was totally out of control when the Conservative party came into government back in 1979? Does he agree that only the resolve and determination of this Government and of my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister brought some sense into the bloated budget?

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Mr. Gummer : The lovely countryside of Nottinghamshire would be destroyed if the policies supported by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) were adopted.

Dr. David Clark : Will the Minister confirm that spending on agricultural surpluses has got out of hand? Will he confirm that there has been a 68-fold increase of skimmed milk powder, a fourfold increase of beef and a doubling of the amount of butter in intervention? Will he further confirm that he will have to spend an extra £1 billion in the next few years to support that? When will the Minister go to Brussels and start fighting for the British consumer?

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman betrays his lack of knowledge both of the common agricultural policy and of the negotiations that are taking place. This Government have fought more effectively than any previous Government for the British consumer and the British farmer and this Minister will continue to do that in the GATT round. It would help considerably if the Opposition would stop slagging off Britain and start supporting its farmers.

Mr. Gill : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever form agricultural subsidies or support for the countryside may take in the future, it is vital that the regime should be universal in the Community so that we may have an open and fair market?

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