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Livestock Farmers

9. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): What plans he has to apply for agrimonetary compensation for livestock farmers. [113377]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): A total of £397 million in agrimonetary compensation has already been paid over the past 3 years, of which £227 million has gone to beef and sheep farmers. Up to £132 million will be paid this year and next, of which £93 million will be to beef and sheep farmers. No decision has yet been made on whether to pay further compensation.

Mr. Edwards: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the high level of sterling partly reflects the Government's sound management of the economy, but that it is greatly disadvantaging the farming community, for whom agrimonetary compensation is one of the key measures that could help in the present crisis? Will my right hon. Friend work with the Prime Minister and Ministers at the Treasury and do all that he can to maximise the amount of agrimonetary compensation that can be paid to UK farmers?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right to point to the reasons why the policy instruments are in place. His remarks highlight why the Government have already made such extensive use of them. I cannot announce any further extension today of the use that the Government are making of the agrimonetary regime. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that we are keeping the issue under review.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I fully support the request made by the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards). I met the Macclesfield and district branch of the National Farmers Union on Saturday morning in an extremely well-attended but very sober three-hour meeting. Throughout my time in the House, I have never known livestock farmers to be more depressed. Will the Minister take seriously his hon. Friend's request, which is endorsed in all parties, that agrimonetary compensation should be used to the maximum to help British farmers to overcome a uniquely serious crisis? I make a special plea from the Conservative Benches. Will he and the Prime Minister please respond?

Mr. Brown: The Prime Minister has very carefully not closed the door on making further use of that instrument, of which we have already made extensive use. My meetings with farmers, particularly livestock farmers, have exactly the character that the hon. Gentleman described. He is right to say that the livestock sector is going through difficult times. There are particular problems in the dairy sector, but the agrimonetary regime alone does not provide sufficient money to deal with those current difficulties.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Notwithstanding those comments, does the Minister accept that his Government have made less use of the agrimonetary compensation scheme than have other European Governments, and that there is an opportunity to make

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greater use of it? If the problem is the Fontainebleau agreement, negotiated by the previous Government, does he accept that that should not stand in the way of helping some of the most deprived rural areas, such as my constituency where farm incomes have fallen by nearly 140 per cent. in the last year?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right to make the case for his constituency, but I do not accept what he says about the relative use of the agrimonetary regime. As he correctly points out, we are constrained by the Fontainebleau agreement, negotiated by the last Conservative Government. I can say confidently to the House that we are making more use of the compensatory regime for farmers than the last Government did, because they did not draw down a single penny.


The Solicitor-General was asked--

Ministerial Meetings

28. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): How often the Law Officers meet their counterparts from other countries. [113398]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Ross Cranston): The Attorney-General and I frequently meet our counterparts from other countries, on a bilateral basis and at meetings and conferences. Attorneys-General and Solicitors- General from countries in the Commonwealth and beyond regularly call on us when they are in the UK.

In addition, the Attorney-General and I from time to time represent Her Majesty's Government at meetings and conferences in the UK and elsewhere. In May, the Attorney-General will host a conference in London of presidents of the Supreme Courts and Attorneys-General of the member states of the EU. Later this month, the Attorney-General will attend a conference of Attorneys of the UK overseas territories.

Dr. Iddon: It seems that as the borders come down, we make it much easier for criminals to ply their trades--for example, trafficking drugs. Is it not important that we stay one step ahead of the criminals? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that there is room for more co-operation between the criminal justice and criminal intelligence systems across Europe?

The Solicitor-General: I know that the trade in hard drugs has had serious ramifications in my hon. Friend's constituency. There is always scope for more co-operation, and the Government are dedicated to improving that. At an operational level, the co-operation involves mainly the police and Customs and Excise. As regards the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office, co-operation is crucial and occurs at the level of mutual legal assistance and the provision of evidence. The SFO plays an important role in respect of international fraud.

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Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): When the Law Officers meet their counterparts from other countries, do they talk about the administration of local justice? Is the Minister aware of the growing concern about the closure of magistrates courts in rural areas? What will the Government do about it?

The Solicitor-General: It is a bold move from international matters to magistrates courts. Certainly, we can learn from other countries about local justice and how it is administered. That matter has featured from time to time on the agendas of those meetings.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Given highly mobile capital flows and sophisticated information and communications technology, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is essential for law enforcement agencies to work together internationally to detect and deter serious financial crime, such as money laundering, market manipulation and scams?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The SFO is concerned about international fraud. These days, in such centres as London, fraud is almost by definition international, and the SFO is active in this regard. Money laundering is on the agenda for improvement of the law. The SFO pursues international fraud in other ways, and sometimes comes up against barriers in other countries. Sometimes we find it difficult to get the necessary evidence to prosecute in this country. However, I agree with my hon. Friend.

EU Law

29. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What discussions he has held with the European Commission on matters relating to European Community law. [113401]

The Solicitor-General: I have held no discussions with the European Commission on matters relating to European Community law. However, Government Departments have regular discussions with the Commission on such matters, and I am aware of those discussions. In particular cases, I am asked for legal advice in relation to them. I have also been involved in litigation before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Solicitor-General for that reply. In the context of the intergovernmental conference negotiations, can he give the House an undertaking that criminal law will not form part of the competence of the EU and will remain the jurisdiction and preserve of the national legal systems of England, Wales and Scotland?

The Solicitor-General: Criminal law falls within the competence of member states and will continue to do so. There is scope for co-operation between prosecuting agencies and we have said that we will further that. However, in relation to the wider issue, criminal law remains--as far as we are concerned--a matter for individual states.

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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Does the Solicitor-General have discussions with the European Commission on matters such as legal procedure? Does he believe that cases such as the European Commission v. France, on the ban on British beef, take far too long to resolve? Does he believe that any damages from such proceedings should accrue to those who have suffered--in that case, the hard-pressed British farmer?

The Solicitor-General: There is a case for the procedure of the European Court of Justice to be more flexible and, at present, there is a considerable backlog. On the particular issue of beef, the approach of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was right, and I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would know from experience that it is better to try to effect a non-legal solution than a legal solution. However, the non-legal solution failed, so the Commission began proceedings. We believe that it has a watertight case because freedom of movement is a fundamental aspect of the treaty, and in that sphere member states have no competence because the European Union has taken measures that pre-empt that competence. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. and hon. Friends acted impeccably in the matter.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Solicitor-General recognise that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), in which he said that he had no such meetings or discussions, will be greeted with astonishment well beyond the House? Does he recognise that that is indicative of the supine attitude that the Government have adopted to every pronouncement of Mr. Prodi, Commissioner Kinnock and their ilk? If the Government will not stand up for British sovereignty in beating off the attempt to impose Napoleonic law and corpus iuris, the Opposition must do it, and we shall wish to put pressure on the Commission. I hope that the Solicitor-General will recognise that we will continue to press him and his colleagues and ensure that they are encouraged to fight for Britain.

The Solicitor-General: I am sure that the European Commission will be quaking in its boots after that. I have set out the position clearly. Discussions continue day to day, but they are the responsibility of the policy departments to which we provide legal advice.

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