The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. William Waldegrave): The Government have led the way in seeking reform of the common agricultural policy. I shall be continuing to press for further reform at the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg next week.
Mr. Waldegrave: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I should like to see a common agricultural policy which moved nearer to world market prices; which was simpler to administer; and which, as a matter of priority, got rid of such idiocies as the wine regime, under which we pay for the conversion of low-grade Italian wine into industrial fuel which is then sent at a subsidised rate to Brazil to be put into motor cars. That is crazy.
On my hon. Friend's final point, repatriation is not necessarily the way forward. If we are to have a common market in agricultural products, we need a level playing field in terms of support systems. That is the purpose of having the right common agricultural policy.
Mr. Stevenson: Does the Minister recall his predecessor's statement in May 1992 to the effect that the CAP reforms were good for Britain, good for farmers and good for the taxpayer? Is he aware that, between 1992 and next week's estimates, the CAP budget will have increased by £6.3 billion? How can that be good for the taxpayer, the consumer or the average family, who are paying £20 a week more than they should for their food? Does not that mean that the CAP continues to be bad for Britain, bad for the taxpayer and bad for the consumer?
Mr. Waldegrave: No. The reforms relieved the British consumer of something like £1 billion of excess costs. I agree that we want prices to come down further, nearer to the real market prices. However, the reforms were a useful step forward and they have done better than many people predicted in getting rid of surpluses of, for example, cereals and beef. We now have much less beef in intervention than we used to.
Column 408especially the effect of a proposed new directive on nitrates in broadleaf vegetables, which threatens many vegetables grown under glass in Britain? I thank him for taking the matter to the Council of Ministers. Will he assure the House that he will fight as hard as his predecessor for British horticulture?
Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have sent a powerful paper containing evidence from absolutely first-class epidemiologists such as Sir Richard Doll, which proves that there is absolutely no risk from nitrates in lettuce and that the directive is misconceived. I shall fight it. I remember the Leader of the Opposition saying that he will never be isolated in Europe. He says that he will always agree, which means that he will sign up to such directives. One has to be isolated sometimes if one is to fight.
Dr. Strang: May I congratulate the Minister on his appointment? I am sure that his family history, knowledge of agriculture and ministerial experience will be a help to him. Does the new CAP policy group mean that the Minister has spent some of the past three months studying the CAP? Did he note that less than two years ago one of his predecessors presented the latest reform as something of a triumph for Britain? Is not the truth of the matter that during the past 15 years the Government have not mounted a serious attempt to alter a policy that is misusing thousands of millions of pounds of British taxpayers' money?
Mr. Waldegrave: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and congratulate him on his election to the shadow Cabinet. The post-MacSharry reforms were indeed a great improvement on what was there before. Surpluses have been cut, and the level of overpricing has been brought back, but there is far more to do. The entry of central and eastern European countries--towards the end of the century, we hope--will provide not only an opportunity but the necessity for further major reform. We shall take that opportunity and I hope that we shall lead the way.
Mr. Butler: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the common agricultural policy is the uneven nature of compliance and enforcement in the different states within the European Union? Will he consider suggesting to his colleagues in Europe that the officials responsible for inspection, enforcement and compliance might operate on an exchange basis between countries, so that ours could assist other European countries while we could enjoy the regime that those countries have had hitherto?
Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend makes a serious point, but I am not entirely sure that I should like to swap our inspectors for those from some other countries, even if it brought some benefits to our people. There is a real issue, and I shall certainly argue with the Commission that we need proper enforcement throughout the EU. Indeed, the subject will arise at the next Council, in relation to animal welfare.
Mr. Tyler: I, too, welcome the Minister; I also welcome his statement at the Conservative party conference that he is to set up a CAP policy group. Will he take advantage of the developing consensus in the
Column 409House on the need for reform, and on some of the directions that such reform might take? Will he comment on his predecessor's statement that
"Set-aside is here and we must make the most of it"?
Should we take that to mean that set-aside is here to stay on the current scale?
Mr. Waldegrave: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome. Although there is great expertise within my Ministry, I believe that there is no harm in seeking to ensure that we use everybody who can contribute on that important subject, both in this country and more widely. As for set- aside, in the long term we do not like such production control, either through quotas or through set-aside. We would rather move the emphasis towards lower prices, and getting production into balance with consumption. But while we have set-aside, surely we should use it for beneficial purposes. That is why I shall argue, for example, that forestry should be possible on set-aside land.
Mr. Nigel Evans: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have a good record in emphasising the educational value of reducing tobacco consumption--that that is something to be commended--but that there is an inconsistency between that and the support for tobacco producers in the rest of the European Community?
Mr. Waldegrave: It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that the tobacco regime is the part of the CAP that I, as a former Secretary of State for Health, like least. As well as its objectives being thoroughly unsatisfactory, it has been subject to considerable fraud. It seems entirely mad that we should spend money trying to persuade people not to smoke, while at the same time spending more money to subsidise the growing of tobacco.
responsibilities for land drainage of protecting the environment and the habitat of birds and other wild animals.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack): The powers that MAFF exercises in the relationship between land drainage and environmental protection are fully detailed in the publication "Water Level Management Plans", a copy of which is in the Library.
Mr. Mackinlay: Is the Minister aware of the widespread anxiety among conservation groups and interests that the announcement of a new environmental agency may mean that that agency would have fewer powers than those now residing with the National Rivers Authority? Will he give the House an undertaking that the new agency will have equally robust powers and a duty to promote conservation in water management, rather than merely having "regard to" it, as was spelt out in the publicity?
Mr. Jack: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not directly in my province to comment on the Environmental Protection Agency. That is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, I am aware that concern has been expressed about the word "conservation" in the context of
Column 410that agency, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the information, such as water level management plans and the other guidance given to all authorities with an interest in land drainage, will not change. Their obligations and requirements--as regards the new Land Drainage Act 1994, for example--will remain unaltered under the new arrangements.
Sir Donald Thompson: Will my hon. Friend take an early opportunity to congratulate our right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, whose Bill last night will go a long way towards protecting the environment and habitat of birds and other wild animals, and will curtail the activities of people whose sole intent is to destroy that habitat and to destroy country life?
Mr. Jack: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the novelty of his question. I will certainly pass on his greetings to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. It is always important in countryside and conservation matters to get an appropriate balance between the intrusion of human beings and wildlife.
Mr. Morgan: May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on her promotion? As the Government have been wrong on so many things about BSE--wrong on the numbers forecast, wrong on the time profile forecast, wrong on transmission between generations and wrong on transmission between species--is not it now time for them to close the remaining loophole by which BSE-infected products can get into the food chain, namely spinal cord and brain products from calves less than six months old?
Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman is making allegations that are not supported either in this country or in Europe by any of the scientists who have investigated the matter. I suggest that if he has scientific evidence, on which our decision making is based, he puts it forward. Certainly the time scale in which the number of registered cases has fallen has been longer than originally anticipated. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the fact that in the past year, we have seen a significant drop in reported cases--namely, 43 per cent.
Mr. Gale: In welcoming my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box, may I say how very much we appreciate the candour and openness with which her Department has faced the highly emotive problem of BSE? She will be aware of the very real concern that has been expressed by the British Veterinary Association, by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and by others about the potential for the importation of hitherto eradicated animal diseases from eastern Europe through the European Union. Can she reassure the House and
Column 411those bodies that her Department will take every possible measure to ensure that those diseases are not reintroduced from eastern Europe through the Union by the back door?
Mrs. Browning: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and I can reassure him. He will be aware of the decision and announcement by my right hon. Friend the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who announced earlier this year that there would be a reinstatement of 100 per cent. inspection at all ports of entry.
Ms Eagle: Would the Minister care to comment on some of the theories now coming forward to the effect that the BSE problem may actually be caused by the use of pesticides and other chemicals in agriculture rather than by some of the factors that have been identified to date?
Mr. Whittingdale: I welcome the success of the ESA scheme nationally --I understand that it now covers 10 per cent. of all land in England--but is my hon. Friend aware that, in the Essex coast ESA, which covers my constituency, farmers are unlikely to take up the scheme in large numbers to cover arable land as the payments available are so much lower than those for land put into set-aside?
Mr. Jack: My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue. However, I must remind him that the objective of the Essex coast ESA is effectively to preserve the coastal marsh grazing areas from the River Stour to Canvey island. That is the principal objective and to the extent that such land is the principal objective, it is not in competition for payments from the arable area payment scheme. In terms of reversion from arable land to pasture, I can tell my hon. Friend that we have already achieved 23 per cent. of our target of 1, 000 hectares for reversion.
Mr. Alan W. Williams: The Minister may be interested to hear that I visited such a scheme in my constituency--the Tir Cymen scheme--during the summer. It is very successful in upland areas in my constituency in sustaining the income of small farmers and in providing work in a rural area. Why is it that within agricultural support generally, only 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. of the agriculture budget is involved in environmental schemes?
Mr. Jack: I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman's commendation of the support that we are giving through environmentally sensitive areas to the role of preserving the important environmental features in the countryside. In talking about numbers, the hon. Gentleman perhaps omits to mention the fact that we hope that, by 1996, with the full range of environmental schemes--not only
Column 412environmentally sensitive areas but countryside access, organic farming, marsh moorland and the whole range of other schemes--we will be spending around £100 million. That, by any standard of imagination, is a very large sum indeed.
5. Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has had with the farming unions about individual base areas for cereal growers; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Kirkwood: I am perfectly prepared to understand and accept that there are legal and perhaps even administrative difficulties in using individual base areas as a way in which to control quotas. There is no such thing as a pain-free quota system. But if the Minister is excluding individual base areas as a way of giving individual farmers the ability to control the penalties that they incur, what plans does he have for dealing with this very real problem, which certainly continues to occur in the cereal-growing areas of Scotland?
Mr. Jack: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his honesty in acknowledging that there are significant problems in administration and farming practice relating to individual farmers having their own base areas. We are very aware of that.
We publish a great deal of information about crop yields--about yield by cereal type. That is backed up by information from the Home-grown Cereals Authority. That is important because farmers study it and make up their own minds in the light of trends in cereal cropping as they affect their individual enterprises. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman has said, I shall certainly have a discussion with the chairman of the Home-grown Cereals Authority to see if we can further improve the promulgation of that information for the better guidance of farmers.
Mr. Jonathan Evans: Is my hon. Friend aware that there is still a prevailing sense of injustice among cereal growers in Wales, especially in the less-favoured areas? Furthermore, the farming unions--in Wales and, I think, nationally--have expressed their concern to the Ministry, first, about the fact that there is not a joint England and Wales base region and, secondly, about the fact that, for the past two years, and until the recent welcome announcement made by the Ministry, severe losses have been incurred by Welsh cereal growers because of the previous base-area designations.
Mr. Jack: I am well aware of the situation that my hon. Friend describes to the House. In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, he has made sterling efforts to try to address the problem. The latest situation--certainly in relation to new yield areas that have been introduced--means that those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all gain. There is a marginal loss of 10 kg per hectare for the English growers but, all told, it is a much better scheme for determining the level of arable area payments made to specialist cereal growers to which my hon. Friend referred.
Mr. Olner: Although I welcome that statement and although we are all grateful that the Government have been forced to do a U-turn on the privatisation of the Forestry Commission as a result of effective public pressure from all parts of the community, does the Minister agree that there is an awful lot of private forestry land that is inaccessible for public use, although all Forestry Commission land is open to public use? Will she therefore seek to prevent any further piecemeal sell-offs of Forestry Commission land and, indeed, ensure that public access is gained to the land which has been sold by the Forestry Commission?
Mrs. Browning: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that access to land-- legitimate access to land--is very important. I hope that he will welcome the fact that, in their reforms, the Government have proposed a £0.9 million budget to enable the Forestry Commission to buy land to which, at the moment, it is difficult to gain public access. That will enable the commission to provide greater access so that people may legitimately use the land.
Mr. Marland: Is my hon. Friend aware that there is legitimate concern about access to woodland in many respects and that most people--I accept that there are a few exceptions on the Opposition Benches--would like that access to be arranged with co-operation rather than confrontation? My constituency contains the royal forest of Dean and other areas of woodland which could, in the fullness of time, be sold off. Will my hon. Friend ensure that, where Forestry Commission land is sold, there are discussions with the purchasers to ensure that, with their co- operation, access to those woods continues?
Mrs. Browning: I can assure my hon. Friend that that is part of the Government's proposal and we shall do all that we can to ensure that it is enforced. As a former chairman of the Rights of Way Review Committee, I can assure my hon. Friend that the way forward in relation to access to land is through co-operation and not just through opening the floodgates for people to roam wherever they wish.
Mr. Hardy: Does the Minister's answer mean that the Government admit that they made an historic blunder in privatising Forestry Commission land without providing for public access? In view of that concession, will the Government go further and restore access to many of the thousands of acres to which public access is no longer available?
Mr. Matthew Banks: I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the Dispatch Box. Does she agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who recently said that there should be a right to
Column 414roam, or with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who suggested that there were obviously some parts of the countryside where one could not wander?
Mrs. Browning: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I would not wish to exacerbate the already widening gap on the Opposition Benches, but I certainly think that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) had it right.
Mr. Martyn Jones: Is not much of the land that has been sold by the Forestry Commission very accessible to local people in the sense that it comprises small woodlands which are near human habitation and useful for recreation? Is it not the case that most of those areas do not have access agreements? Access agreements can be drawn up with local authorities, but they need the money to do that. Authorities have many other things on which to spend their money. Will the Minister assure the House that the money will be available for those agreements?
Mr. Waldegrave: I announced on 14 September a new measure to improve protection of the welfare of animals in transit, in particular those for export. This would give us the capacity, if evidence was available, to prosecute in Britain hauliers who had not looked after their animals properly on journeys, even though those journeys were abroad.
Mr. Luff: I welcome that answer, but will my right hon. Friend continue to press for an effective Europe-wide animal transport licensing and enforcement system? Can he give us any assessment of when our European partners, particularly the French, are going to take the matter as seriously as he clearly does?
Mr. Waldegrave: The measures that I have proposed go as far as we can on a national basis within the treaty of Rome. Incidentally, they will enable us to prosecute some of those frightful cases which were investigated--for example, by ITN--if evidence is brought in this country. However, the real task is to obtain Europe-wide licensing of the kind that my hon. Friend mentioned. A group of countries--I am sorry to say a minority--in the Council is in favour and we are a firm part of that group. However, others, including France, have not taken that view. It would be most helpful if they would.
Mr. Beggs: I welcome the steps that the Ministry has already taken to improve the welfare of animals in transit but does the Minister agree that it is preferable that animals be transported to the nearest meat plant for processing and slaughter, but that a blanket ban on the export of livestock could seriously damage our successful trade in exporting pedigree breeding stock?
Mr. Waldegrave: I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right. The greater part of our trade is already in carcase meat. I believe that the steps that are now being taken to ensure that the trade expands are the right steps. They bring jobs, apart from anything else, to the United Kingdom. However, it would be very unfair to British farmers--who already, in most cases, have the highest standards in Europe--if unilateral action against them led to damage to them from pressure groups legitimately targeting standards in other parts of Europe which are very much lower. That is quite apart from the long-standing trade in thoroughbred exports and racehorses, for example, with which nobody is proposing to interfere.
Sir Jerry Wiggin: Is not it a fact that if, for whatever reason, customers are deprived of supplies of live animals from United Kingdom sources, they are likely to turn to other countries whose animal welfare standards are infinitely worse, and that there will be much more suffering for live animals?
Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point. It would be paradoxical if, in order to express anxiety about the subject here, steps were taken that led to a net loss in the standards of animal welfare because of the importation into our previous markets of animals from central Europe. I fear that the conditions in which such animals would have been reared and transported would be likely to be much lower.
Mr. Morley: I add my congratulations to the Minister on his new post. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is widespread public concern about live animal exports for slaughter? Indeed, live animal exports are also exporting British jobs from the meat industry as well. Will the right hon. Gentleman look carefully at some of the more dodgy schemes to beat the ferry ban, such as flying live cows from a Humberside airport in old eastern bloc military transport planes? I hope that the Minister will make available to the House his vets' report on those trial flights. Given that lamb and calf prices since the ferry ban demonstrate that we can have a viable trade in carcases, will the Minister do what he can to support the export of meat from this country, based on quality and price rather than on the misery of live animals?
Mr. Waldegrave: The greater part of our trade, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, is already in carcases. It is wise that that trade should expand. However, I have no power to ban live exports. I have power to ensure that any live exports take place under strict welfare conditions. As for the Hull flight to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I am very happy to send to him, or to place in the Library of the House, the account of the vets from my Department who travelled with it. It was, I am advised, satisfactory. I will not allow--not that I would be able to persuade them to do it--vets in my Department to cut any corners whatsoever in the maintenance of proper standards, but if they are proper standards, that is a legal trade.
Mr. Shepherd: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the beef sector is very important to the farmers of Herefordshire and the marches? What progress has my right hon. Friend been able to make towards relaxation of the rules on trade which were imposed by the European Commission, particularly as they relate to the younger animal?
Mr. Waldegrave: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. With the shape of the BSE epidemic now moving in the way in which it is, it would be fair to take action in relation to young animals. I have raised that matter with the Commissioner and I have some hopes of progress. I will report to my hon. Friend and to the House more widely on how the negotiations go.
Mr. Tony Banks: I add my welcome to the Minister. How appropriate it is to have a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with his own herd of mad cows. Can he give an assurance that he has not been giving any of his home-made beef pies to Baroness Thatcher recently?
Mr. Waldegrave: I regularly meet representatives of all sides of the agriculture industry, including the president of the National Farmers Union, to discuss issues of importance to them, including the dairy sector.
Sir David Knox: Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the arrangements for Milk Marque will not have an adverse effect on dairy farmers' incomes, particularly in the early stages if payments have to be reduced?
Mr. Waldegrave: The new arrangements put the industry in the proper position of negotiating price and supply between the producers and the manufacturers. That is much more satisfactory. If there were to be abuse by anybody within that market, it would be for the competition authorities to sort it out. I was pleased that the courts ruled that the system should be put in place and that there should be no further delay in the vesting day, because it would have thrown the industry into great confusion if there had been. I believe that the new system will bring benefits to the consumer and to producers, although undoubtedly it will take some time to settle down properly.
Dr. Strang: Surely the Minister is aware of the statement by his predecessor that Dairy Crest would definitely be floated before deregulation on 1 November. As we assume that that will not take place, can he give
Column 417us some idea of when flotation will occur? Is it the case that the Director General of Fair Trading is likely to refer Milk Marque to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission before Christmas? What will the Minister do to prevent the new free market arrangements from damaging profitability, investment and jobs in the dairy industry?
Mr. Waldegrave: Any potential reference by the Director General of Fair Trading is entirely a matter for him. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a date for the flotation of Dairy Crest. However, he will have seen stories in the newspaper yesterday of various proposals. Many scare stories have been put about on this matter. The most obvious of them is that anything in these changes is likely to affect the price of a pint of milk on the doorstep. There is no reason for that at all. The price of liquid milk changes by less than half a penny. If we find companies--as some of them have said that they will do--putting up the price of a pint of milk on the doorstep by 3p or 4p, that is nothing to do with these changes.
Mr. Cash: Will my right hon. Friend give an absolute assurance, with regard to the disgraceful fiddling of milk quotas by the Italians, that under no circumstances whatever will we agree to the retrospective legislation proposed by the European Commission, the effect of which would be to relieve the Italians of the penalties that they have incurred? Furthermore, can he ensure that we will not withdraw the legal action in the Court of Justice, especially as the issue on which it largely turns is the insistence by the Italians that in return for all this, they will withdraw their opposition to the veto on the own-resources legislation?
10. Mr. Pike: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has had with his European counterparts about the potential implications for the common agricultural policy of the enlargement of the EU.
Mr. Waldegrave: EFTAn enlargement is unlikely to have major implications for the common agricultural policy. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear to the House, however, fundamental changes to the CAP will be needed before the eastern European countries can join the European Union.
Mr. Pike: Does the Minister accept the concerns of the NFU and many others that accession of eastern European and central European countries to the European Union will not enable the present common agricultural policy to survive? Does he believe that the policy review committee that he announced at the Tory party conference last week will be able to get a deal accepted by Europe which will give a fair deal to consumers and producers in the years ahead?
Mr. Waldegrave: That must be the objective, and there are beginning to be some signs of thinking in the European Commission which runs in the way that the House would like. For example, shortly, a report known as the Munk report will be published. If the Financial
Column 418Times preview of that is correct, the report goes very much in the sort of direction that the hon. Gentleman and I would both like. However, we should not overestimate the difficulties on the way. We have a huge task in persuading the majority of other countries in the present Community of the need for radical reform. That is why it is unwise for Labour Members to talk so much in terms of consensus in the European Union; sometimes, we need to disagree and change attitudes. [Interruption.]