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House of Commons

Thursday 23 June 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Commons Registration (East Sussex) Bill [

Lords ] Order for Third Reading read.

Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.

Read the Third time and passed, without amendment.

London Docklands Development Corporation Bill [

Lords ] ( By Order )

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 30 June.

Federation of Street Traders Union (London Local Authorities Act 1990) (Amendment) Bill (

By Order )

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 30 June.

Oral Answers to Questions


Moorlands --

1. Mr. Matthew Banks : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps are being taken to promote the new moorland scheme.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack) : The details of the scheme are under active consideration and we hope to be able to launch the scheme before the end of the year.

Mr. Banks : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Is not the moorland scheme an excellent example of an environmental dimension to farming ? Does not the Government's approach contrast starkly with that of the Labour party, which seems all too obsessed with having councillors in charge of farms in the countryside, rather than the farmers who know something about the subject ?

Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend has been assiduous in his reading of the Opposition's propaganda on the matter, and his interpretation of it is correct. We attach much importance to the environmental dimension in agriculture, but we want farmers to respond to our many schemes positively.

Mr. Bennett : How much extra public access to moorland will there be under the scheme ? Is not it scandalous that vast sums of public money are given to landowners who deny the public access to areas such as the forest of Bowland or the north Yorkshire moors ?

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Mr. Jack : If the hon. Gentleman has studied the vast number of environmental options available he will know that there are two specific schemes aimed at increasing access, particularly to districts such as environmentally sensitive areas--a subject on which he has probed me at the Dispatch Box. The moorlands scheme is designed to help the regeneration of heather moorland, thus making it much more pleasant for the hon. Gentleman and his friends to walk on.

Food Law Deregulation --

2. Mr. Brandreth : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations she has received concerning the food law deregulation plan ; and if she will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames) : Officials in my Departmenhave received a wide range of representations from industry, consumer and enforcement interests regarding the food law deregulation plan.

Mr. Brandreth : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the central purpose of the plan is to protect and inform the British consumer and, at the same time, to ensure that British producers and manufacturers are not disadvantaged by unfair practices ?

Mr. Soames : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who gives the exact extent and nature of the plan, which is to ensure that regulation and enforcement are sensible and pragmatic, and in direct proportion to the risks involved without compromising essential public health standards. My hon. Friend is also right to mention the great importance of not allowing business to be swamped with entirely unnecessary, overweening and over- arching bureaucracy.

Mr. Flynn : Is the Minister aware that, as part of the relaxation of regulations, a genetically engineered virus which is contaminated with scorpion venom is to be released in a wood in Oxford to improve the growth of cabbages by attacking moths that feed on them ? That experiment has greatly upset the Butterfly Conservation Society, which believes that the virus will spread to butterflies. Would not it be safer and more sensible for an experiment to be carried out in which the scorpion venom was fed to members of the Cabinet ? Even if that experiment failed, the country might benefit greatly.

Mr. Soames : I have always considered the hon. Gentleman the first genetically modified organism I ever saw. We would never want to do anything to harm butterflies, let alone their societies.

On a more serious note, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that our rules governing experiments to do with genetic engineering of any sort are probably the strictest in the world. The public can have supreme confidence not only in our regulations but in the fact that they are extremely vigorously enforced.

Pigs --

4. Mr. Martyn Jones : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations she has had concerning the trade in pigs and related products in the United Kingdom.

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Mr. Jack : My right hon. Friend and I are in frequent contact with representatives of the farming industry, including those representing pig producers. Most recently, we have had meetings with representatives of the British Pig Association on 19 April and 9 May and with the National Farmers Union on 19 May. On both occasions a wide range of matters was discussed.

Mr. Jones : When the Minister had those talks he must have heard representations about the illegal state aids paid by the French Government to their pig producers. When can United Kingdom producers expect a level playing field vis-a-vis their French counterparts ?

Mr. Jack : I can assure the hon. Gentleman, who is right to raise that question, that my right hon. Friend has vigorously taken up the matter with the European Commission. It is investigating all the aids that the French Government were paying their pig producers. We await the outcome, but this is an extremely important matter, and we shall take up any examples of what are deemed to be illegal payments in the Community in this or any other sector.

Mr. Hicks : I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Commission's inquiry, but may I emphasise to him the urgency of the situation ? The longer we wait for the outcome of the inquiry--whatever recommendations emerge from it and are subsequently implemented--the longer the United Kingdom pig industry will go on suffering.

Mr. Jack : I certainly understand that. I reiterate that my right hon. Friend has pursued the matter as vigorously as possible. The time that the Commission takes to investigate such matters is always disappointing. Meanwhile, this year we are spending about £14 million on research and development to aid our pig industry.

Mr. Morley : The whole House will be aware of the public concern about standards of transportation for pigs and other animals. I welcome the Government's opposition to the Greek compromise proposals on welfare standards at the Agriculture Council on Monday, but last week the Minister himself described the proposals as a great step forward. Have the Government been converted on the road to Damascus, or have they found themselves, as usual, isolated in the Council ?

Mr. Jack : Once my right hon. Friend reached the road to Luxembourg, and had listened to what the fellow travellers on that road had to say, she became convinced that, although the proposals represented some improvement, they were not enough of an improvement. Once she had listened to the debate, she found herself unable to support the proposals in the Agriculture Council.

Mr. Nicholls : Will my hon. Friend accept that another reason why pig farmers are disgruntled is that they have been obliged to implement welfare measures which do not have to be implemented in Europe until after the year 2000 ? Is not there a case for saying that, if we are to go hand in hand with Europe, we should move in step with Europe and not substantially disadvantage our pig farmers ?

Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend may recall that the original private Member's Bill would have allowed no transition period in which to phase out the stall and tether system, to which I think he refers. Because the Bill was amended,

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there is now a period for adjustment. Many pig farmers have made representations to us about the financial implications. There could be tax implications, but they are a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor.

Common Agricultural Policy --

5. Sir Thomas Arnold : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when she next expects to meet her EC counterparts to discuss the further reform of the CAP.

Mr. Jack : At this very moment, my right hon. Friend is negotiating in the Council of Ministers on this very subject.

Sir Thomas Arnold : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the proportion of the European Community budget taken up by the common agricultural policy has significantly declined since the late 1980s ? However, is not the cost still far too high and should not it be reduced ?

Mr. Jack : I entirely agree with the line that my hon. Friend takes. The cost has dropped in recent years--from about 80 per cent. to about 54 per cent. of the Community's budget. The United Kingdom is in the vanguard of those seeking further reforms of the agricultural policy and to reduce the costs to Community taxpayers, to increase competition and to bring down food prices.

Mr. Tyler : Is the Minister ready to repeat the pledge given by the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), that the total cost of the common agricultural policy in the current year, next year and the year after will fall progressively, and, if so, by how much ?

Mr. Jack : Once the proposals for reforms have worked through over their three-year period, the cost of the Community's agricultural policy will have dropped by £8 billion--a saving to this country of £1 billion.

Mr. Enright : Will the Minister ensure that the Minister also takes into account the agricultural situation of the Maghreb, the Mashraq and the Lome countries, in reforming the CAP ? He has given half that assurance before and I should be grateful if he would give it fully.

Mr. Jack : I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in those important matters. As far as I understand it, those issues are not on the agenda for this Agriculture Council, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend on her return.

Mr. Dafis : Given that there is a need for the reform of the CAP, and in view of the issues already raised, does the Minister accept that that must take the form not simply of swingeing cuts but of redirection of support ? Does he accept, at the same time, that we need a policy that will strengthen the countryside and at least maintain the present level of the agricultural population ? Does not he see a system of assistance for the entry of young farmers as absolutely integral to that ?

Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman may be interested in the answer to a subsequent question on the entry of young farmers, because it is germane to agricultural tenancy reform. He talks of swingeing cuts, but perhaps he has not looked at exactly what is happening. Under the present

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reform package, there is a shift away from direct payment, through schemes such as the intervention fund, for example, to direct payments to farmers especially, which have an encouraging environmental factor. In response to an earlier question, I alluded to the fact that the United Kingdom Government, with their own agri-environment package, will be spending something like £100 million by the financial year 1995-96.

Agriculture Science --

6. Sir John Gorst : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment she has made of the part science is to play in the future competitiveness of British agriculture.

Mr. Soames : We regularly review our research programme and in February we published a research strategy, which describes how science will contribute to the Ministry's aim of improving the economic performance of the agriculture, food and fishing industries.

Sir John Gorst : Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that everything possible is being done to foster a productive relationship among industry, the Government and the academic world ?

Mr. Soames : I am happy to give my hon. Friend such an assurance and I am grateful to him for the phrasing of his question. We foster that relationship through the adoption of clear and foresighted technology and research, largely through the link programmes--the institution through which we seek to improve relationships between industry, academia and Government. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has seven link programmes--three in food and four in agriculture--involving almost £25 million a year. We take seriously our obligation in that matter and I assure my hon. Friend that the situation is exactly as he would wish it to be.

Mr. Skinner : Does the Minister agree that, if science is not properly harnessed, it can work both ways ? Is he aware that, this morning, on the M1 near Bolsover, not far from the Coalite factory, once again, a chemical cloud resulted in danger to motorists and problems for the agriculture in the area ? Will he contact the senior inspector of pollution to ensure that he has all the facts and that the incident is dealt with, and that all possible steps are taken to ensure that it does not happen again ? It is not the first time.

Mr. Soames : Of course I will certainly undertake exactly what the hon. Gentleman asks. He and I have already been round this course once together as a result of Coalite and I very much hope, and I am sure, that that incident will not be anything like as serious as the previous one, but I shall report to him as soon as I have made inquiries.

Mr. Paice : Does my hon. Friend agree that British competitiveness is seriously affected by whether decisions are made on the strength of genuine scientific knowledge or on emotional claptrap ? Will he congratulate the Commission on using scientific evidence, correctly, to prevent the Germans taking further their attack on British beef ? Will he encourage it also to use precisely the same scientific approach to such issues as nitrates in lettuce and pesticides in water ?

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Mr. Soames : As we would expect, my hon. Friend goes to the very core of the problem for the future of science in that sector, which is becoming more and more sophisticated and complex. More and more profound ethical and scientific decisions must be taken with clear-headed foresight and by using the clearly laid down rules that have served us and the Community extremely well. If we move away from science and allow politics to hijack the issue, we will be on a rocky road indeed.

Mr. Alton : Will the Minister ask his departmental scientists to reconsider the use of anabolic steroids for cattle, especially as new evidence from gynaecologists and obstetricians shows that the emission of oestrogen from those substances is causing male infertility ? It is one of the major reasons why there has been a 50 per cent. reduction in male fertility over the past 40 years.

Mr. Soames : I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of our scientists. The use of hormones and residues in meat is strictly governed. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, Britain has one of the most sophisticated surveillance programmes in the world. I assure him that, if there is any wrongdoing, we clamp down on it quickly. He has asked a straight scientific question ; we shall investigate his remarks and I shall report back to him.

Mr. Hawkins : Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is contributing to the technology foresight programme ? Will not the partnership among agriculture, industry and the Department be crucial, especially for constituencies such as mine that are heavily involved in both food and confectionary manufacture ? Will he further confirm that his Department is happy to work with the Food and Drink Federation in studying the involvement of science in both agriculture and food production ?

Mr. Soames : I am happy to give my hon. Friend the categorical assurances that he seeks. His constituency includes an impressive array of companies that would be concerned about such research. The link programme is studying food processing sciences and advanced and hygienic food manufacturing techniques, all of which are critical to the competitiveness of the food and farming industries. We should be proud of those industries which do best of all, and in which we are genuinely world leaders.

Beer Imports --

7. Mr. Gapes : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will make a statement on imports of beer from European Union countries and the effect on the British brewing industry.

Mr. Jack : I understand that the industry estimates that commercial imports fell last year.

Mr. Gapes : Why, then, are tens of thousands of bottles of imported French lager on the shelves of Sainsburys and Tescos throughout the country ? People are buying that beer, presumably because the tax level is much lower than it is on our domestically produced beer. Are not British jobs being put at risk by the dual policy that allows a flood of cheap imported beer--which is good for the consumer, something that I generally favour--

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while imposing a regressive tax on domestically produced beer ? Just as the Government impose a VAT increase, they are also clobbering ordinary people through the beer tax.

Mr. Jack : It always amazes me when Labour Members want to indulge in knocking the British brewing industry. The hon. Gentleman did not want to tell the House that United Kingdom beer exports rose by 10 per cent. in 1993.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I cannot think that there would be any difference in the tax levied, at whatever rate it may be, on French, German or whatever beer sold in the United Kingdom--yet that is what he said. In the second part of his question, the hon. Gentleman alluded to some of the arguments about cross-border shopping. The duty and excise matters relating to that are the province of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, the hon. Gentleman should keep the matter in perspective. The total amount of beer involved in that trade is the equivalent of just 3.5 per cent. of total UK consumption.

Sir Ivan Lawrence : As the subject is something in which my hon. Friend is closely concerned, can he say what would be the cost to the Exchequer of reducing the tax differential on alcohol between ourselves and the French and the Germans to the same level as is enjoyed in those two countries ? What realistic chance is there of bringing the two levels of 32p and 4p closer together so that minimum harm is done to the British brewing industry ?

Mr. Jack : My hon. and learned Friend's question touches on a wider issue that is beyond the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, I shall certainly write on his behalf to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General to seek his worldly advice.

Mr. Strang : How complacent can the Government get in respect of personal beer imports ? Can the Minister contemplate the reverse situation, in which French nationals were able to cross the channel to England and buy wine at much-reduced prices ? How long does the Minister think that the French Government would tolerate that ? Is not it time that the Government acted to defend Britain's brewing industry and the thousands of jobs that depend on it, directly or indirectly ?

Mr. Jack : I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should take action to help the British brewing industry, which is precisely why we spent about £2 million on the link programmes to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary referred earlier, which improved the competitiveness of British brewing, increased exports 10 per cent. in 1993 over 1992 and helped to safeguard jobs. As to the tax issues, it is not a question of complacency. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General has dealt with those issues in extenso in public.

Mr. Nigel Evans : My hon. Friend said that the percentage of beer illegally imported into this country is small at present, but it is increasing dramatically. Will my hon. Friend join me in visiting Calais next weekend, to examine that problem ? It appears to be growing and is having an impact on the British brewing industry, and will continue to do so unless immediate action is taken to stem illegal beer imports.

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Mr. Jack : I much appreciate my hon. Friend's generosity in offering a free trip to Calais, but he will understand that the needs of my constituents in Fylde must come first. I have been to Calais in the past 12 months and seen the phenomenon to which my hon. Friend referred. Another trip would not necessarily educate me further in that respect. I say again that we must keep the matter in perspective. It is estimated that cross- border shopping for beer represents the equivalent of only 3.5 per cent. of total UK beer consumption. My Department has done what it can to strengthen the competitiveness of British brewing, in the ways that I outlined earlier.

Mr. Hoon : The Minister sought to pass responsibility to the Paymaster General, but he must surely feel concerned about the impact of the growth of personal imports on British hop farmers and on hop production. If the present rate of increase continues, that will have a dramatic effect on the Minister's responsibilities for hop farming.

Mr. Jack : I am obviously concerned, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports the attempts being made by my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, through the work of Customs and Excise, to ensure that people play by the rules. There have been changes in import arrangements for the personal consumption of beer, wine and spirits. They are sensible easements in terms of the completion of the single European market, but robust action is taken against those who abuse the rules and who are the main cause of the problem at the heart of the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Fabricant : My hon. Friend will be aware that a number of directors and workers of the Bass brewery live in the leafy lanes of Lichfield. They are also most concerned about the amount of imported beer entering the United Kingdom for onward sale, when it should be for personal consumption only. However, will my hon. Friend congratulate my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General on a number of recent successful prosecutions ? My hon. Friend mentioned a 10 per cent. export sales increase, but is he aware that Bass and a number of other breweries are now producing beers specifically for sale in France, with French consumer tastes in mind ?

Mr. Jack : I shall certainly pass on my hon. Friend's congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General on his successful prosecutions. I congratulate Bass, which recently opened a £61 million brewery for the production of premium and export beers. British brewers are hitting back against the competition.

Common Agricultural Policy --

8. Mr. Spellar : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what proposals she has to reduce fraud in the CAP.

Mr. Jack : The Commission has proposed the introduction of sanctions against intervention and export refund fraud. We already have such sanctions for direct payments to farmers. Subject to some clarification and textual changes, we will support this proposal, which aims to penalise fraudsters and reduce fraud.

Mr. Spellar : Has this not taken an inordinately long time, during which thousands of millions of pounds have been ripped off from taxpayers right across the

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Community ? Does the Minister accept that his reply is extremely complacent in the face of enormous problems, particularly in the southern part of Europe ? What does he propose to do about the scandalous behaviour of the tobacco industry, which has produced a product that even I would not smoke and ripped off £500 million a year, a considerable amount of it due to fraud ?

Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman asks what we intend to do about this, but it is a Community matter. If he cares to read the report of a debate in the Scrutiny Committee about the tobacco regime, he will discover that the United Kingdom has been in the lead in proposing measures to deal with the absurdities of that regime. We are in the lead in backing the work of the Court of Auditors and requesting more Community effort to combat fraud. That is why 50 more people are employed at the Department to deal with fraud and why in the past two years the number of frauds and irregularities reported has doubled.

Mr. Garnier : Will my hon. Friend ensure that the 50 people to whom he referred and he and his colleagues give every support to the work of the European Court of Auditors, so that the fraud being noticed throughout the Community is dealt with forcefully and impartially not only at the centre of the Union but by every member of it ?

Mr. Jack : I will certainly do that. One of the important features to note from the work of the Court of Auditors is the role that the Commission can now play in ensuring that member states play by the rules because of the imposition of disallowance--the recovery of moneys which should not have been paid out. That certainly concentrates the minds of member states and we strongly support further action in that area.

Potato Marketing Board --

10. Mr. Butler : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what progress is being made concerning the future of the potato marketing board ; and if she will make a statement.

Mr. Jack : Following my right hon. Friend's announcement that the potato marketing scheme will end in 1997, the board is pressing ahead with the changes to the scheme which will allow growers to prepare for the free market.

Mr. Butler : Is my hon. Friend aware that a number of growers are seeking a poll under the terms of the Agriculture Marketing Act 1958 to revoke the potato marketing scheme ? Does he view with equanimity the prospect of our being one of the few large potato-growing countries in Europe without an organised market for potatoes and potato products ? Does he have any suggestions that growers might like to consider in terms of how they proceed in this matter ?

Mr. Jack : I view with enthusiasm the change to the potato marketing regime as a result of the Agriculture Act 1993. My right hon. Friend proposed an orderly change in the present arrangements. Some potato growers have said that they want to conduct a poll and there are procedures for that. It is for growers to decide whether they wish to vote. If they vote for the removal of the board, it will go out of existence straight away. If they vote against, there are

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further options for the existing potato marketing board to propose successor schemes to the present arrangement-- for example, a development council for the industry.

Mr. Foulkes : May I tell the Minister that the proposal is not welcomed by the potato growers in Ayrshire in my constituency, who produce some of the finest early potatoes in the shops now ? [Interruption.] The ones grown by the sea come ready salted, which is a great advantage. Since the proposal will not come into effect until 1997, will the Minister give an assurance that nothing irrevocable will be done in the next two years, so that the Labour Government can ensure that the potato marketing board continues as at present ?

Mr. Jack : If that is the best first early that the hon. Gentleman can produce, I suggest that it should stay in the ground. He should realise that the world has moved on and that Britain's potato growers and producers of potato products have been disadvantaged by the existing marketing arrangements. The flexibility that my right hon. Friend the Minister introduced as a result of the Agriculture Act 1993 has shown itself in the way in which potato growers have already modified the area under cultivation this year, in the light of market conditions. They have also taken advantage of the processing contracts available. That reveals the way in which potato consumption is going and such change benefits all those in the potato industry.

Mr. Clifton-Brown : May I urge my hon. Friend to press ahead with the reorganisation of the potato marketing board ? He will be aware of the 500,000 tonnes of processed product that is imported into this country every year, which means that farmers could produce an extra 20,000 acres of potatoes in this country and there could be considerable extra jobs in the processing industry. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend to proceed with the reorganisation as soon as possible.

Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend for his perceptive and commercially based comments. They stand in stark contrast to the views that we have heard from the Opposition, who seem not to be concerned about the interests of farmers or those who work in the industry producing potato products. I endorse strongly what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. John D. Taylor : Is not the reform of potato marketing really preparing the way for the European Union, through the common agricultural policy, to create a new regime and to control potatoes in the European Community ?

Mr. Jack : I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern about that. If there were to be anything at Community level, the most that one could expect would be something dealing with common standards and that is a long way off. We must press on with these reforms for the benefit of the entire potato industry.

Sir Peter Tapsell : Is my hon. Friend aware that it is not only in Ayrshire that the potato growers are keen to keep the potato marketing scheme, but also in Lincolnshire ? Growers there are under the impression that when the scheme comes to an end in 1997 it is likely to be followed by a European potato regime. Is any progress being made in the establishment of that ?

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Mr. Jack : We do not want to see some sort of command economy regime to replace what the potato marketing board represented. If there is not a vote to remove the PMB straight away, the future of the scheme is a matter for members of the potato industry to decide in consultation with the board.

Agriculture (Eastern Europe) --

11. Mr. Dunn : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what effect the development of agriculture in eastern Europe will have on the European Union.

Mr. Soames : Technical improvements, and the development of market- oriented production systems could enable the farming industries of central and eastern European countries to pose a significant competitive challenge. Preferential access to EU markets under the Europe agreements will contribute to this.

Mr. Dunn : Can my hon. Friend confirm that it would be impossible to extend the common agricultural policy as it now stands to eastern and central Europe ? Is that not a further good reason for seeking to reform the CAP so as to bring it nearer to the market ?

Mr. Soames : I agree with my hon. Friend. Enlargement of the European Union to the east would involve unsustainable budgetary costs if the CAP remained in its present form. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the United Kingdom Government are leading efforts within the European Union to continue to bring the CAP closer to real world markets. I think that there is increasingly a more general understanding within the Community that unless those steps are taken, the CAP will disappear up its own fundamental.

Agricultural Exports --

12. Mr. Clappison : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans she has to improve the competitiveness of United Kingdom agricultural exports.

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