By Order )
Order for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time upon Thursday 12 May.
1. Mr. Enright : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what consideration she has given, in the context of the Lome review, to improvements to the protocols on sugar, bananas and rum ; and if she will make a statement.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack) : I confirm that the United Kingdom would welcomesome improvements in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries' access to European Union markets for rum, sugar and bananas.
Mr. Enright : I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but he will recognise that the general agreement on tariffs and trade negotiations, on which so much praise has been lavished, has been a disaster for many developing countries, particularly those that had special access to the European Community under Lome . When he considers common agricultural policy reform, therefore, will he think laterally as well as longitudinally, and look to the outside as well as the inside to ensure that there is no effect on third world countries ? In particular, will he persuade the rest of the Ministry of that, including his redoubtable Europhile boss ?
Mr. Jack : My boss is a redoubtable person, but the hon. Gentleman's other comments are a matter for another place and another debate. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the various protocols on trade in rum, sugar and bananas between the ACP countries and the European Union are discussed by separate regimes. Difficulties have arisen with the banana regime as a direct consequence of the GATT negotiations, but sugar and rum essentially remain free of that encumbrance. In considering both GATT and the European Union-ACP relationship, we fight hard for producing countries with special interests in rum, bananas and sugar. The hon. Gentleman has a special and
Column 826continuing interest in the matter and I will gladly afford him the opportunity to hold a further meeting to discuss it more fully.
Sir Jerry Wiggin : Is not the situation extremely serious for many of our former colonies which produce bananas ? The banana police, or whoever supervises such matters, have not been sufficiently active. The French are subsidising their former colonies. What does the Minister propose to do to deal with the serious problem faced by the unfortunate people in our former colonies ?
Mr. Jack : With respect, the serious problem with which we had to deal involved a challenge from the banana-producing Latin America countries, which lodged a complaint within GATT. That challenge has been successfully resolved. The resolution of that problem was the inhibiting factor which presented a major challenge to the opportunities available to our Caribbean producers as well as those in Africa and others associated with the European Union. Further opportunities remain for ACP banana producers to expand their commercial chances of selling their bananas in the European Union.
Mrs. Dunwoody : Is the Minister aware that consumers in this country want bananas that taste like bananas ? If we continually import central American bananas, which taste like soap, he will not fulfil his task in relation to the British consumer or to producers in the Caribbean, who are dependent on that crop for their income.
Mr. Jack : We have fought tirelessly for the interests of Caribbean banana producers. We are particularly aware of the acute difficulties of Belize and the Windward Islands in that respect. I take my hat off to those Caribbean states for their attempts to improve the quality of their bananas. The hon. Lady practises an unfortunate discrimination. The consumer must have freedom of choice, in which Conservative Members passionately believe.
Mr. Arnold : My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the excellent Luddesdown Court organic farm in my constituency. In what way will the new scheme assist farmers to bring further acreage into organic farming ?
Mrs. Shephard : I am indeed aware of the excellence of Luddesdown Court in my hon. Friend's constituency. When the scheme is approved, we shall be able to increase the number of organic producers. We plan to increase their number threefold so that the excellence that my hon. Friend describes in his constituency of Gravesham will, we hope, be replicated elsewhere.
3. Mr. Jim Marshall : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will make a statement on the talks between her Department and the milk marketing board on the question of vesting day.
Mr. Marshall : I am a little concerned about the reply that the Minister has just given. She has not yet stated that 1 November is a definite date. In that context, may I remind her that lethargy on the part of her Ministry has delayed vesting day by some six months and that the delay is likely to cost the dairy industry some £60 million or more ? If there is a delay beyond 1 November, will she underwrite any further losses that the dairy industry is likely to suffer as a consequence ?
Mrs. Shephard : I see no reason at present for speculation that the 1 November vesting day will have to be postponed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have just been out to consultation on the board's amended scheme. Obviously, we are considering carefully all the comments that we have received before we decide whether to approve the scheme under the terms of the Agriculture Act 1993. We will make our decision as quickly as we can, within our responsibilities as outlined in the Act. The hon. Gentleman should understand--no doubt he does--that it is vital that the scheme should be right, given the importance and in some cases the vulnerability of the 29,000 milk producers in Britain and the 50 million consumers.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton : First, I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting my constituency of Macclesfield last Friday. During that visit, she met a large number of representatives of the National Farmers Union, many of whom are among the 29,000 milk producers whom she has just mentioned. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is immense support among my farmers for Milk Marque and the wonderful job that the milk marketing board has done ? Is she aware that they want to be reassured that in any future system those farmers who produce milk on hill or marginal land will still be able to have their milk collected daily so that farms continue to be viable in those critical areas ?
Mrs. Shephard : I greatly enjoyed my visit to Macclesfield and found my conversations with my hon. Friend's farmers of great value. I am aware of the concern among those producers, some of whom are, indeed, very vulnerable and dependent on the arrival of the milk lorry and, equally, on the arrival of the milk cheque, which is just as important. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are sympathetic to the principle of the establishment of a single voluntary body to succeed the MMB, which has done good service for the past 60 years. That is why we are taking so seriously our consideration of the board's proposals before giving our final approval.
Mr. Tyler : In considering at what point to make her statement, will the Minister consider the possibility of obtaining a cast iron guarantee from those organisations that have indulged in delaying tactics--notably the Dairy Trade Federation--that they will not seek to delay the scheme any further after her decision by, for example,
Column 828referring the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or the European Commission or seeking an injunction in the courts ? Will she obtain that guarantee so that milk producers throughout the country can be assured that we can progress towards a successful conclusion of the talks ?
Mr. John Greenway : Is my right hon. Friend aware that milk farmers in my constituency--those who are in favour of Milk Marque as well as those who wish to join some other marketing scheme--are sick and tired of the delays in ending this problem ? Will she take on board not only what has been said in the House today but the many letters that I know she has received from farmers throughout the country ? Does she agree that it would be wrong to put in place a scheme that could suddenly be challenged by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or even by the European Commission and that we want a scheme that will last as long as the milk marketing board has lasted ?
Mrs. Shephard : Of course the delay is unwelcome. It is also very worrying for milk producers and everyone else involved in the milk industry. My hon. Friend was right to underline the importance of getting the scheme right, particularly those aspects that might be of interest to the competition authorities.
Mr. John D. Taylor : As the first vesting date was postponed, there is no reason to assume that the new vesting date of 1 November will not also be postponed. Does the right hon. Lady accept that the longer the delay, the greater the number of producers who will sign up with other creameries ? That will leave a much smaller number of producers to sign up for the revised scheme proposed by the MMB. Therefore, the delay is very damaging. Will the right hon. Lady make the very earliest decision on the revised scheme that has been submitted to her for approval ?
Mrs. Shephard : I stress again that I deplore the delay. It is unsettling and sometimes has the results and effects described by the right hon. Gentleman. I assure him that no unnecessary delay will emanate from the Ministry, but we need to get the scheme right.
Mr. Jack : My right hon. Friend has recently launched four rural economy booklets whose intention is to provide farmers with easy access to information on how to develop, diversify and improve their businesses.
Mr. Lidington : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government's support for diversification is being threatened by an Inland Revenue decision that the various components of a diverse rural enterprise should be treated as discrete entities for tax purposes ? Will he and his colleagues, both in MAFF and in other Departments, take seriously the constructive proposals from the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association on how the problem might be overcome ?
Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend asks his question at an appropriate time because currently £70 million of farm output in England and Wales is accounted for by diversified activity. At the heart of his question lies a report by Sir Michael Bunbury, which has already been the subject of discussion with my colleagues at the Treasury. As a result of that, I understand that Sir Michael has been asked to do further work on the subject. That is where the matter rests, but I will draw my hon. Friend's concern to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury.
Mr. Amess : Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that in the further negotiations on the CAP, Britain and the Commission will do everything possible to put a high priority on combating fraud, which is causing some concern to my constituents in Basildon ?
Mrs. Shephard : I am happy to give that reassurance to my hon. Friend and his constituents. The people of Basildon and elsewhere in the UK feel strongly about this matter and they expect the Government to pursue fraud wherever it occurs. I assure my hon. Friend that I intend to do that with all the force of which I am capable.
Mr. Barnes : As there are now to be four new members of the European Union is it not time to get rid of the sillier features of its arrangements ? The CAP certainly qualifies in that respect. Not one change to the CAP resulted from Maastricht--indeed, the treaty made no reference to agriculture. Surely we now have a great opportunity to get rid of anti- social and anti-democratic measures.
Mrs. Shephard : The common agricultural policy has a number of unwelcome features. One is that its cost is far too high and is not sustainable. We cannot expect agriculture, which represents 5 per cent. of the Community's gross domestic product, to continue to account for 54 per cent. of the EC budget. That is why the Government constantly argue that the cost of the CAP should be brought down and that some of its other features that distort the market and restrain competitiveness and innovation, such as quotas and supply controls, should be removed.
Dr. Liam Fox : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proportion of the EC budget that has gone to maintain the CAP fell from 70 per cent. in 1988 to 50 per cent. this year ? While that is a welcome move, it is not nearly enough. We must move much further in that direction because, among other things, the CAP charges taxpayers tax so that food can be sold back to them at a higher price than they would otherwise have had to pay.
Column 830the period. Nevertheless, as I said, such a high percentage--54 per cent. to benefit 5 per cent. of EC gross domestic product--is not acceptable or sustainable in the longer term.
Mr. Skinner : Does the Minister agree that it is costing approximately £28 a week for every family in Britain to sustain the CAP ? Since she has the ear of the Prime Minister and speaks up for him on occasion, albeit misguidedly, as she did last weekend, can she tell us whether she has consulted him on the idea that is being floated--that there should be a referendum on Europe to resolve the Common Market problem--and tell me what the answer is ?
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames) : We recently announced newly strengthened measures to monitor imports of live animals to ensure that our very high animal health status is safeguarded.
Mr. Spring : Is my hon. Friend aware of the great dangers posed by the possible importation of warbled cattle from France ? Can he assure the House that the strongest possible representations are being made to French vets to ensure the continuing good health of our livestock ?
Mr. Soames : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is clearly voicing the concerns of farmers in his constituency. That matter is of profound concern to farmers and I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. A number of consignments of warbled cattle from France have been discovered through post-import checks by our vets. Following the most strenuous representations by the chief veterinary officer to his opposite number in France, the cattle have been returned whence they came.
Mr. Martyn Jones : Is the Minister aware that evidence given to me and to the Select Committee on Agriculture suggests that potentially infected imported cattle are being distributed from places other than registered dealers without any checks by Ministry officials ? Will he ensure that all imported cattle can be reliably tracked within the European Union and the United Kingdom, or will we face the prospect of disease epidemics in the UK ?
Mr. Soames : The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the great concern, energy and effort that the Ministry puts into the matter. I am happy to give him the assurances that he seeks. Furthermore, the regime that we have applied includes extensive checks other than those that are statutorily required. We will continue to maintain our high animal health status, which is a very high priority for the Department. I should be happy if the hon. Gentleman would be good enough to send me whatever evidence he has so that we can pursue the matter.
Mr. Marland : Is my hon. Friend aware that Gloucester market is one of those through which many warble-infected cattle have been sold and that my constituents and Gloucestershire farmers will be pleased to hear what he has said on the matter ?
Is he further aware that considerable difficulties are being caused in west Gloucestershire, where cattle have caught tuberculosis from TB-infected badgers ? I know that my hon. Friend is making strenuous efforts to control the infected badger population throughout the west country. Will he have a purge of TB-infected badgers in west Gloucestershire in the interests of farmers and of public health ?
Mr. Soames : My hon. Friend is right to say that TB in badgers is a matter of prime concern to farmers. I know from the representations that he has already made to me of the great concern felt in west Gloucestershire about it. I can assure my hon. Friend
Mr. Soames : I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Ministry will not rest until we have managed to bring the problem under control. Because of the scale and seriousness of the problem, it takes a great deal of time to catch badgers, test them and deal with them in a humane and proper manner. We have a big problem on our hands and we must get on to it. The work of the technicians involved is not helped by those who seek to disrupt it in a fundamentally irresponsible manner.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I will decide whether to approve the board's reorganisation scheme as quickly as our responsibilities under the Agriculture Act 1993 allow.
Mr. Hendry : Is my right hon. Friend aware that farmers in my constituency of High Peak share the concern of other farmers at the delay in announcing the new structure for the milk marketing board ? Can she reassure the House that the final structure will properly reflect the interests of the small dairy farmers and not simply the interests of large commercial milk producers ?
Mrs. Shephard : One of the reasons why we need to examine the board's proposals so carefully is precisely the need to consider the concerns and interests of 29,000 milk producers, 50 million consumers and those whose business is connected with the milk industry. I greatly regret the delay, but I do not see any reason why we should put off approval after 1 November. Any sort of delaying tactics on the part of any of the parties involved will not be accepted.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is it not true that if Mr. Andrew Dare and his colleagues had submitted the right scheme some time ago there would have been no delay and no need for complaints to be made in Parliament ? May I ask the right hon. Lady a very simple question ? Is the principle of regional crops completely off the agenda ?
Mrs. Shephard : I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that the main thrust of the Agriculture Act 1993 is that there should be a strong voluntary co-operative, which also offers market freedom for other producers to sign up to sell their milk where they find it in their best interest to do so. The first submission from the milk marketing board required a great deal of work and it is true that that has caused some of the delay.
Dr. Strang : Is it not preposterous that earlier this afternoon the right hon. Lady deplored and blamed on others a delay which derives from legislation ? As the Opposition argued during the passage of the 1993 Act, it is absolutely clear that if responsibility for the reorganisation scheme had been given to the Government and not to the milk marketing boards this state of affairs would never have occurred. Does the Minister accept that radical changes are no longer consistent with starting the new arrangements on 1 November ?
Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Gentleman's hostility to a freer market for milk is well known and was well rehearsed during the passage of the 1993 Act. I repeat that no delay has been caused by the Ministry. We want that delay, which is causing so much anxiety to producers, to be brought to a speedy end.
9. Mr. Robathan : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress she has made on reaching a conclusion on the future of woodlands owned by the Forestry Commission in England ; and if she will make a statement.
Mr. Robathan : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Current Forestry Commission policy takes due account of landscape protection, nature conservation and broad-leaved planting. Many of my constituents in Blaby are concerned that any future plans arising from decisions of the Forestry Review Group should take due account of those issues and especially of the so-called freedom to roam and of access to forests. Will my hon. Friend please reassure my constituents on those matters ?
Mr. Jack : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that matter on behalf of his constituents, who enjoy opportunities to roam freely, as he said, in the existing forest environment. We asked the Forestry Review Group to consider that specific issue and have received about 3,600 individual representations, all emphasising people's anxieties about this important matter. Ministers now considering that report will bear fully in mind the representations of my hon. Friend and others.
Mr. Patrick Thompson : Is my hon. Friend aware of representations that we are receiving from our constituents--and, in my case, people living in Norfolk--about access to Forestry Commission woodlands ? Will he reassure my constituents and others who are genuinely worried about that matter ?
Column 833Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)--that this has been one of the central issues that the Forestry Review Group has considered. In addition to the 3,600 individual representations, about 600 organisations have made representations, many of them emphasising their anxieties about the central issue to which my hon. Friend referred. I can say to him unequivocally that the importance of the point is lost neither on the Forestry Review Group nor on Ministers, who are considering it.
Dr. Strang : But surely the Minister understands that hundreds of thousands of people in this country enjoy walking and cycling--indeed, they enjoy doing all sorts of things in our state forests. Surely he also understands that when a state forest is privatised, public access is restricted or totally prohibited. Whether it is in relation to forestry, railways or local government services, is the Minister aware that the vast majority of the people of the country are fed up with privatisation, and that that is only one reason why so many of them will vote against the Conservative party today ?
Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman's question shows that he definitely cannot see the woods for the trees. I shall not comment on what he and his hon. Friends may be doing in the woods, but I repeat that Ministers are considering the conclusions to be reached from the results of the work of the Forestry Review Group. He will know that, in cases where forest land has been sold, a safeguard to access already exists in the form of access agreements reached with local authorities before the sale of that land. Sadly, the opportunities have not been taken up as widely as they might have been. Whatever the results of the review may be--and those results have not yet been decided--those mechanisms exist to protect the important rights of access for the enjoyment of our citizenry.
I think that when members of the public reflect on the broad-based, full exercise that we are conducting in considering forestry arrangements, they will consider supporting us through the ballot box this afternoon.
Mr. Bates : I am grateful for that answer, but does my right hon. Friend accept that the widespread agreement among all interested organisations last December clearly demonstrated that it is widely recognised that there is an urgent need for agricultural tenancy reform--a need to which we should respond ?
Mrs. Shephard : I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there is real need for reform. He may know that the agricultural valuers produced a survey which demonstrated that, when tenancies end, only 10 per cent. of landlords who have a free choice choose to re-let holdings on full tenancies. In other words, the lack of reform is paralysing that sector of the industry. It was very good news that all the organisations concerned reached agreement last December, which is why we hope to build on that agreement by pressing for parliamentary time.
Mr. Bellingham : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in Norfolk and East Anglia, where many young people want to go into farming, there is a problem with the availability of tenancies ? Does she also agree that, so long as we achieve complete agreement on all sides, there should be complete freedom of contract for all new tenancies ?
Mrs. Shephard : Yes. We do, indeed, need reform to increase lettings. We want to increase opportunities for new entrants and to help the industry to respond to market and policy changes. There is no reason why arrangements between landlords and tenants in that sector should differ substantially from such arrangements in other sectors.
Mr. Soames : A lengthy consultation exercise was held last year on the proposals to implement EC directive 92/102 on the identification and registration of livestock. There were 60 responses to the consultation document, and many meetings with interested organisations. Their views have been taken into consideration.
Mr. Heppell : Have not the present arrangements for tracing animals to control fraud and outbreaks of disease proved to be inadequate ? Has not the Government's mishandling of the new system caused a delay, with the result that the new arrangements will be implemented not on 1 July but on 1 November, four months later than expected ?
Mr. Soames : The hon. Gentleman is right in one respect only : plainly, the scheme is important not only for the prevention of fraud but for the control of disease. Following the consultation exercise with the industry, we have been in close and regular contact with the industry organisations on the detailed arrangements. Our aim is to achieve a smooth transition to the new arrangements. To that end, we have decided to allow an extra three months, between 1 July and 30 September this year, during which calves may be marked with either new or old-style ear tags. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to describe that arrangement as having been a muddle. It has been carried out in an orderly, sensible and proper fashion, allowing people the right amount of time to get organised.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : I welcome the news that EC directive 92/102 is being given more time to be considered, but would point out that it is one of a series of alterations to cattle identification that have taken place in the past few years. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that it will be the last alteration for some time and that the system will be clear when it is altered ?
Mr. Soames : My hon. Friend will agree that the position will be perfectly clear when that regime comes into play. I can reassure him that we take seriously the point that he makes, which is consistent with the fact that, to protect the consumer and prevent fraud, the correct identification of cattle throughout the European Union is a matter of cardinal importance.
Mr. Jim Marshall : Is there evidence to indicate that cattle from English farms are going through the Province of Northern Ireland into the Republic and then being transported to other parts of the European Union ?
Mr. David Nicholson : Will my hon. Friend confirm that something along the lines of this particular scheme, together with the burdensome but necessary integrated administration and control system, is vital to control fraud and assure proper allocation of Community money, as referred to in an earlier question ? As a member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, which has occasionally delivered the odd brickbat against my hon. Friend's Department, may I say how much farmers in my constituency and elsewhere appreciate the help that they received last year and, we hope, will receive this year, from departmental officials in responding to those complex schemes for the evasion of fraud ?
Mr. Soames : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to pay tribute to the work of the regional offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the marvellous staff, who do a tremendous job in assisting farmers with those schemes, which are--as he knows because he has been in close touch with us on those matters--more complicated than we would wish. The schemes are essential and it is our intention to ensure that they are pragmatically, efficiently and sensibly handled. To that end, I am glad to have my hon. Friend's endorsement of the steps that we have taken to introduce the animal identification scheme in a sensible and orderly manner.
Mr. Jack : I am pleased to be able to confirm to the House that six new environmentally sensitive areas were launched on 16 March, bringing the total number in England to 22. Those cover more than 1 million hectares or 10 per cent. of English farmland.
Mr. Taylor : My hon. Friend is aware of the beautiful countryside of Surrey in which my constituency is located and so will appreciate my constituents' great interest in environmental matters. How much is he spending on the new environmentally sensitive areas and how much is he spending on environmental protection generally ?
Mr. Jack : I hope that many of my hon. Friend's constituents will be able to enjoy the delights of the environmentally sensitive areas, particularly those in the upper Thames region. Current expenditure will be £18 million, and, with the enlargement to 22 environmentally sensitive areas, that sum will increase to £43 million in 1995-96. In that financial year, the proposals will take their part in a programme valued at more than £100 million, which covers a wide range of environmental schemes.