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World Trade

5. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If he will make a statement on the progress in talks to liberalise world trade in agricultural products. [103776]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Negotiations on the further liberalisation of agricultural trade were mandated by the 1994 World Trade Organisation agreement on agriculture. The negotiations will go ahead this year in spite of the suspension in Seattle of talks on a wider round of trade

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negotiations. The agricultural negotiations are based on article 20 of the agreement on agriculture, which follows the Uruguay round.

Mr. Luff: I thank the Minister for that helpful clarification. Does he agree that trade liberalisation poses many challenges and threats, and offers many opportunities to United Kingdom food and farming industries? That is why the Agriculture Committee has made it one of its major subjects of inquiry in this Session. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a major threat to UK animal welfare standards? Will he give the House a reassurance that he will put at the centre of his negotiating strategy the concerns of British farmers who wish to maintain high standards of animal welfare, but risk being undercut by cheaper imports from countries with much lower standards?

Mr. Brown: As the hon. Gentleman is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture, he will know that I take animal welfare issues very seriously indeed. I have raised the point that he made at the Council of Ministers--formally, on behalf of the UK Government, and separately, in the margins, with the Commission and with other Ministers. There is a view among EU Ministers that animal welfare issues are important, but that we must protect the EU from exporting its industries. As we set higher standards internally, we must put our industries at a competitive advantage. The task for Ministers is to find a way of preserving the animal welfare polices for which we strive and of improving them, but to do so in a non-trade distorting manner.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): When my right hon. Friend holds negotiations on the world trade in agricultural products, will he push for a change in the classification of livestock from agricultural products to sentient beings--as has already been done in the EU? If that change were adopted worldwide, it would not only be a tremendous boost for British farmers, but would be widely supported throughout the whole country.

Mr. Brown: There are several possible ways forward. The important point is to achieve our objectives and to do so in a non-trade distorting way. The danger for the EU is that we increase standards within the EU, but find that we have exported our industries. That would be a defeat for animal welfare as well as for farmers. We are trying to avoid that.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): The right hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that when animal welfare considerations have been raised at previous World Trade Organisation discussions, they have always eventually been used as a trade-off for issues that other people regard as more important. Will he give the House an absolute assurance that animal welfare--to UK standards--is at the top of his agenda, and that it will not be used merely as a bargaining chip for other issues?

Mr. Brown: Animal welfare is an important--indeed integral--part of the UK's agenda for these complex discussions on agricultural reform and trade liberalisations; it most certainly is not a bargaining chip for other pieces of the negotiation.

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Food Standards Agency (EU)

6. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): If he has been consulted on the European Commission's proposals for a food standards agency; and if he will make a statement. [103777]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The European Commission published a White Paper on food safety yesterday, outlining proposals for such a body. The Government support the idea in principle, and will consider the detailed proposals in the White Paper carefully.

Mr. Prentice: That is good. However, over recent years we have all been sickened by stomach churning tales of sewage in animal feedstuffs, dioxins in meat in Belgium, antibiotic growth promoters, salmonella, listeria and BSE--what a catalogue. Following yesterday's announcement, there are suggestions in the press that this new European food standards agency is neither fish nor fowl--[Interruption.] A louder groan please. But seriously, what will be the relationship between the European food standards agency and the domestic Food Standards Agency? Would the Government prefer the European agency to have regulatory powers, or simply to be advisory?

Ms Quin: We need to ensure that European decisions and our national safeguards are complementary. We also need a system whereby European rules--once agreed by all member states--are properly implemented. In introducing his proposals yesterday, Commissioner Byrne expressed confidence that they would deliver a more effective system both as regards consumer confidence and for the operation of the EU market where EU rules had clearly been agreed. We welcome those assurances, but as more detailed proposals will be submitted, which will be discussed by national Governments as well as by the European institutions, it will be important to ensure that the detail is correct.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Yesterday's announcement presages a European food authority. Can the Minister confirm that the initial proposals envisage the appointment of 150 officials in the short term, rising to a total of 600, and that one of their tasks will be to produce something like 84 additional legislative measures, including a new hygiene directive? Does the Minister accept that it is most likely that all of that new legislation from Europe will override national legislation? Is not this another instance of competence passing from this House to the European Community?

Was the launch of our own Food Standards Agency yesterday deliberately timed to coincide with the White Paper launched in Brussels yesterday? Does this explain the acceleration of the progress of the Food Standards Bill through the last Session of Parliament? Is there--

Madam Speaker: Order. I think that those are enough questions to be going on with.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman's comments have left me mystified by the Opposition's policy. Is it a policy of allowing each country to do what it wants, which seems

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to be a recipe for chaos? Or is it one of seeking to have an effective system in the internal market, which the Opposition tell us they support? What the hon. Gentleman says is at enormous variance with what the Conservative party's agriculture spokesmen in the European Parliament seem to be saying. They want a bigger European Union body, not a smaller one.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the improvement of food standards across Europe is of great importance to my constituents, who are concerned about the safety of food coming into this country? Will she assure me that our Food Standards Agency will play an important role in ensuring that the standards across Europe--with or without its own agency--will be improved? I welcome the appointment of Sir John Krebs, as having such an eminent scientist at the head of our FSA will be extremely important in driving up standards across Europe, as well as at home.

Ms Quin: I welcome my hon. Friend's comments, particularly the latter ones. We believe that the appointment of Sir John Krebs--and the rest of the governing body of the FSA--is good news. There is a good balance, and there are people with excellent qualifications to ensure a successful start to the FSA. I recognise the concerns of my hon. Friend's constituents, and I can assure her and the House that we have been proactive in this respect. We have worked with the Commission and given it information about our work on food safety and on the way in which the Government have implemented our manifesto pledge on setting up our own Food Standards Agency.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): At a time when the European Commission cannot even make the single market rules apply to France on the issue of British beef exports, why does the Minister believe that it is sensible to establish a huge new costly and bureaucratic agency, whose advice would no doubt be followed meticulously in Britain at great cost to British producers, but would be ignored by many producers abroad--and thus would reinforce the unlevel playing field that is already doing so much damage to British industry?

Ms Quin: Again, the hon. Gentleman's comments seem to be completely at variance with what Conservative MEPs are saying. They say that they want a bigger and, presumably, more expensive body. We want a system whereby countries which have accepted rules actually respect and implement them. In that respect, I very much welcome some of the ideas in the Commission's White Paper, which will be looked at in detail. For example, there is a proposal that the European Commission be empowered to fine members for breaching EU food standards, without having to wait for a court ruling. That is particularly relevant, given our present dispute with the French.

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