Previous SectionIndexHome Page

National Savings Pension

Mr. Frank Field accordingly presented a Bill to make provision in respect of national savings schemes to enable persons to have an income in retirement: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 12 July and to be printed. [Bill 131.]

15 May 1996 : Column 966

Common Agricultural Policy

[Relevant documents: The Fourteenth and Eighteenth Reports of the Select Committee on European Legislation, Session 1995-96 (House of Commons Paper No. 51-xiv and House of Commons Paper No. 51-xviii); European Community Document No. 5215/96, relating to agricultural prices for 1996-97; the unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 3rd May 1996 relating to supplementary premium payable to sheep producers in non-Less Favoured Areas of Ireland and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland; the report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department, the Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture and the Welsh Office on Agriculture in the United Kingdom 1995; European Community Documents Nos. 7015/95, relating to agrimonetary reform; 9061/95, relating to agrimonetary compensation; national aids; 9270/95, relating to controls in the wine sector 1992-94; 10479/95, the Court of Auditors' special report on the sheep and goat regime; 11896/95, the financial report of the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund Guarantee Section for 1994; 12476/95, relating to agrimonetary compensation; and 4322/96, the Court of Auditors' special report on agricultural expenditure in Portugal 1988-93.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Streeter.]

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This morning in Standing Committee A, the eight documents that are now in front of us in relation to the debate were debated, and a motion was carried that will later be brought before the House. An amendment to that will be tabled, upon which we will be able to vote. Will we have the opportunity to vote on that at the end of today's debate, or will a vote be taken tomorrow at 10 o'clock? The minutes of this morning's Committee sitting will eventually be produced, but it would be helpful to have them available for hon. Members tomorrow when today's debate continues.

Madam Speaker: If the Government choose to put down a motion tomorrow, of course it can be disposed of and voted upon, but it is a matter for the Government.

Mr. Barnes: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. There can be nothing further to the point of order. If the Government move a motion tomorrow, the House can vote on it. It can be disposed of tomorrow--if it is moved.

4.16 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg): In past years, the annual debate on agriculture has occupied one day and has focused on the year's price-fixing proposals. This year, because of the surrounding circumstances, the debate will last two days and will be more general. Moreover, on Monday there was a specific opportunity to discuss the cull cow slaughter scheme, and earlier today the details of this year's price-fixing proposals were considered in Standing

15 May 1996 : Column 967

Committee A. I cannot think of a previous occasion on which agricultural issues have been the subject of such extensive parliamentary scrutiny and concern.

In the course of a two-day debate, many subjects will be raised. My hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Parliamentary Secretaries will seek to respond to detailed points in their winding-up and other speeches. In opening, I wish to focus on three subjects: first, our approach to the common agricultural policy; secondly, our view of the price-fixing proposals; and, thirdly, the present state of the beef sector.

Before I develop these themes, I will put the present problems into their proper context. Until eight weeks ago, I was accustomed to saying that now is a particularly fortunate time to be the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That was true, and in most respects it remains true. Over the past four years, British agriculture has seen a 70 per cent. real increase in its prosperity. There are a number of reasons for that increase: currency movements and world commodity prices have played an important part, as have lower interest and inflation rates--both the direct and intended consequence of Government policy. As an industry, British farming is as competitive and prosperous as any in Europe, and it is our duty to help it remain so. One cannot refer to agriculture without speaking about the common agricultural policy.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North): Does the Minister agree that the agricultural industry encompasses people and trades other than those who are purely farmers? I refer to the dire circumstances as a result of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and to the compensation that is being offered.

What does the Minister have to say to people such as John Troup in Aberdeen, who received a fax from the Scottish Office and was told to cease trading forthwith? He trades in ox heads. His business has gone, his employees are unemployed, and he has been told that no compensation will be made available. The Minister cannot speak about agriculture without recognising the different elements involved. When will he discuss compensation for these sorts of people?

Mr. Hogg: I have already said that I will address three matters, the last of which is the present state of the beef sector. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall continue my speech, and address his comments at the appropriate time.

As I was saying, one cannot talk about British agriculture without referring to the common agricultural policy, which most hon. Members will agree is in grave need of reform. The CAP is expensive, it imposes restrictions on production, it is bureaucratic, it hinders the development of new markets, and it stands as an obstacle to the successful enlargement of the European Union. These are powerful arguments for change.

We want a market-driven agricultural policy that involves progressive reductions in price and production-related support and that does not involve quotas on production. In short, we wish to see an agricultural industry that is ready and able to produce what markets want at prices that they can afford.

Such a shift in policy requires gradual introduction, because farmers need time to adjust. Transitional financial assistance will be necessary. However, it is important that

15 May 1996 : Column 968

such payments should be degressive and decoupled from production. Such reform should also address more fully and directly environmental and rural objectives, some of which are clearly reflected in our countryside stewardship scheme.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Will my right hon. and learned Friend add another attribute for which we should be working in the reform of the common agricultural policy--that is, honesty? British farmers are the most honest farmers in Europe, but they have to deal in a market with farmers who are less scrupulous, and with a system that is apparently easy to manipulate and gives rise to a level of unacceptable fraud.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend's comments are of great substance. We should move away from the present systems of support, partly because they give rise to the possibility of fraud. The more market-driven concepts that we envisage expose us to a lower risk of fraud than the present regime.

I have outlined the essential elements that I believe the common agricultural policy should contain. I do not pretend that the majority of Europe's Agriculture Ministers share that view. However, important external pressures will drive the European Union in the direction that I have sketched out. The most notable are the general agreement on tariffs and trade ceilings on subsidised exports, and the World Trade Organisation talks, due to start in only three years, which are bound to result in greater liberalisation of world trade and in further reductions in subsidy payments.

Moreover, the process of enlarging the European Union should present an opportunity for further reform. I do not believe that Europe could afford to apply an unreformed agricultural policy to new entrants, and I do not think that partial application of the existing agricultural policy would be sustainable. Those are uncomfortable facts for many member states, and they will be resisted. However, there is increasing recognition of the need for such change. I welcome the Commission's White Paper of last November. The British Government agree with most of the document's analysis, and we greatly welcome its conclusion that the status quo cannot be maintained.

Progress in securing change will be slow, and it will be attended by procrastination and compromise. However, I have sketched out realistic objectives that are right for both British farmers and the consumers and taxpayers of Europe.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Why must the process be so slow? The Government have been in power for 17 years, and the common agricultural policy remains totally unacceptable to the taxpayers of this country, including many farmers. It is almost as unacceptable as the behaviour of the Secretary of State for Health, who destabilised and destroyed Britain's beef market by running into the Chamber and causing a crisis.

Next Section

IndexHome Page