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Mrs. Beckett: Of course everyone in the House and, indeed, the country, condemns the defacing of the Cenotaph--there is no doubt about that--and of course careful consideration is being given to the incident. Both the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have made plain how seriously they take it.

I have no doubt that those who make the day-to-day operational decisions will consider how they reached their decision in this instance, and also consider its outcome. I doubt, however, that there is any need for the Home Secretary to make a further statement to the House about that particular inquest, or that there is any point in his doing so. I am certain that the lessons have been learned, and will be taken on board.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Would it be possible to have a debate on policing? Many Members on both sides of the House were very angry about the antics of the mindless thugs who vandalised the Cenotaph and Churchill's statue. May I say how satisfied I am that one of those vandals is now serving a prison sentence?

Many annual events, and one special celebration, will take place this summer. I understand that the anarchists aim to target those events as well. A debate on policing would allow us to support the police, thus ensuring that the families with children, and elderly people, who will

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turn out in their thousands for, in particular, that special celebratory event, will not have their special day tarnished.

Mrs. Beckett: Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about threats to future events--especially threats to peaceful celebrations by ordinary citizens--and of course I accept that it is right for the House to keep matters of policy under review. I think, however, that our best way of expressing support for the police is often to convey that general support and concern, and to encourage the police to take such matters seriously--as they do--while trying to avoid second- guessing the difficult decisions that must be made by those on the front line.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May we have an urgent statement or debate on the alarming admission this week by the Home Office that no fewer than 11 prisoners have been accidentally released into the community without having served the minimum sentence required by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998? Is the right hon. Lady aware that those 11 include people convicted of robbery, drug dealing, drug trafficking and sex with a minor? The latter offender was sentenced to six months, and served only five weeks. Is this not a national scandal, which sends an appalling signal to worried law-abiding folk the length and breadth of the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett: With respect, no. It is not a national scandal; it is a very unfortunate administrative problem. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, recall that there has been a series of difficulties in that area of prison administration. Some people served longer than they were supposed to, and it would appear from the reports to which he drew attention that others have been released a little earlier than they should have been.

The Home Secretary is taking the issue seriously, and is engaged in discussions with the Prison Service to try to ensure that such incidents are not repeated. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to his attention, but I do not think anyone can doubt that he is as determined as anyone else to ensure that offenders are where they properly should be.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will the right hon. Lady reconsider her refusal to allow the House to debate foreign affairs in general and Sierra Leone in particular in the next fortnight? There is widespread anxiety about Sierra Leone. The Government have swamped the House with legislation and have thus created an imbalance. Parliament cannot debate subjects that the public expect us to discuss. It is ridiculous to pretend that some of the legislation that we shall debate in the next fortnight is more important than the actions of our troops in Sierra Leone.

Mrs. Beckett: First, let me clear up a misunderstanding. The hon. Gentleman is right that I have not been able to announce time for a foreign affairs debate in the next two weeks, although I have taken on board the request for such a debate. He will know that I have announced an Opposition day in the next two weeks, although it is perfectly natural that he should seek a debate in Government time.

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The hon. Gentleman claimed that our programme was exceptionally heavy. During this morning's exchange, we have discussed the Liaison Committee report. The table in the report lists the number of Bills and the size of legislative programmes since 1979. If he examines it, he will realise that the Government's legislative programme this year is smaller than those under Governments that he supported.

I have sympathy for one of the hon. Gentleman's points. The Government have had to schedule and provide time for some matters in the legislative programme that are arguably minor and uncontroversial and have enjoyed the support of Conservative Members in the past. He knows that the Government had to do that because of Conservative Members' activities.

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Orders of the Day

Common Agricultural Policy

[Relevant documents: European Union Document No. 9311/99, European Court of Auditors special report 2/99 on the effects of the CAP Reform in the cereals sector; the Seventh Report from the Agriculture Committee of Session 1998-99, Outcome of the CAP Reform Negotiations, HC 442, and the Government's response thereto, HC 825 of Session 1998-99.]

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

1.17 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): I beg to move,


We last debated agriculture on a Government motion in October. A great deal has happened in six months. Ambitious rural development plans have been devised, the Food Standards Agency has been established and considerable extra public aid has been given to farmers. Three important reviews of agricultural red tape have been completed and the Government have established a new direction for agriculture, supported by a 62-point action plan, which was launched during the Prime Minister's summit in March. The annual debate on common agricultural policy price-fixing arrangements is a good opportunity for the House to discuss the current position in agriculture and prospects for the future.

This is the third year of depressed farm incomes. Times are hard for many whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. The causes are well known and have been much discussed. They include the legacy of BSE, the weakness of the euro relative to sterling, and low world commodity prices through over-supply. In 1998-99, there was record pig production in several member states. That led directly to the over-supply of our market. When that was combined with the economic crisis in Russia and the far east, where demand for pigmeat fell, the inevitable result was low market prices.

The market for sheepskins has also recently collapsed as a result of the economic crisis in Russia and the far east. Skins used to add to the value of lamb. However, sheepskins, which were worth between £7 and £8 two years ago, are now worth only 50p.

I am doing everything that I can to help farm businesses to adapt to new market demands and the evolution of agricultural and trade policy. Only by looking to the market will farming become prosperous, forward looking and sustainable.

I shall set the Commission's price-fixing proposals in context by outlining the key points of last year's Agenda 2000 reforms. The outcome was a success for the United Kingdom, and the final deal represents an important step

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in moving the common agricultural policy in the right direction. The reforms will help agriculture to meet the challenges of further liberalisation of world trade. They provide for a significant shift from price support to more transparent direct payments and, for the first time, an integrated European Union rural development policy has been created.

Agenda 2000 was a success for the United Kingdom and for Europe. European agricultural policy has started to move in a new direction. Member states have agreed to increase the market orientation of their agricultural economies. That is absolutely necessary for a viable European agri-food sector.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The right hon. Gentleman clearly speaks with great sincerity, but is not the bitter truth that he, as the British Agriculture Minister, does not set the policy for British agriculture? That is done by the EU. Until this sovereign Parliament can reassert the proposition that British law should prevail when British law and interests conflict with those of Europe, there will be no long-term future for British agriculture--nor, indeed, for the British nation.


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