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Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to the second of his four points--greater co-operation with the Government regional offices? Is that a code that means shutting down the existing MAFF regional offices and merging them into the overall Government system? I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that my constituents find the service that they get from Carlisle extremely useful. The people at Carlisle understand Cumbria and can explain the problems to farmers in that area. If the service is transferred to Manchester, my constituents will not be remotely as happy, and they will be much worse served.

Mr. Brown: I am not certain that that would be a good idea. The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no. It is perfectly possible to integrate my Department's policy-making responsibilities more closely with the work of other Government offices, particularly those for the regions, without physically moving every MAFF employee to--to use the hon. Gentleman's example--Manchester. That would be an expensive and unnecessary solution to the problem. The reason why the regional services centres are not located alongside other Government services in the regions is perfectly rational. They have a different, rurally based client group. There is a strong case for paying particular attention to that factor as we consider these matters.

Dr. Godman: When my right hon. Friend discusses closer integration and regional offices, am I right to think that he is talking only about England? It is likely that

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the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive will be reinstituted on or about 22 May. If the Minister in Northern Ireland, who has a lot of catching up to do, seeks an early meeting with my right hon. Friend, will he accede to such a request? Does he intend to follow reinstitution of that Assembly by holding regular meetings with Ministers from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

Mr. Brown: I have regular formal meetings with Ministers from the devolved administrations, the last of which happened only a few days ago. A good working relationship exists among Ministers. When Brid Rodgers was Minister in the devolved administration in Northern Ireland, we developed a good working relationship, and relations between officials are excellent. I am involved in several issues of importance to Northern Ireland. Although the matters that we are discussing at the moment apply only to England, because they affect the regional offices, there is an Intervention Board dimension, which I discuss closely with devolved Ministers, who, like me, are stakeholders in that board.

Mr. Paice: As others have said, the Minister is being extremely courteous and generous in giving way. May I pursue him on the point about the regional offices? His rhetoric of the last few minutes appears to support the importance of contact between his officials and farmers, particularly when, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said, they produce for checking forms that relate to large subsidies. There is widespread concern about the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the future of the offices. It is widely believed in the farming industry that the Minister plans to close some offices. Can he tell us what his response will be to the report, and how he will maintain the interface that he rightly values?

Mr. Brown: I intend to maintain a regional interface with those who look to the Ministry, and to enhance our involvement in Government policy work at regional level. That is perfectly rational, not least because I set great store by the second pillar of the common agricultural policy. Rural development regulation schemes will clearly have a regional interface--it would be odd if they did not.

I will not set out my conclusions today, for the simple reason that I have not come to any yet. I am considering what has been said to me--not the principles, because they seem sound, but their practical application. If we are to have change, we must ensure that it is measured and rational, and delivers clear benefits to public administration and to our client groups. Those are my objectives.

I have received representations from the hon. Gentleman, but have also received representations from the right hon. Gentleman who has the Northallerton office in his constituency. Out of kindness to the hon. Gentleman, I should tell him that they were not the same representations, and he may wish to pause and have a word with the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Does the Minister accept that there is widespread frustration and concern among farmers because when they return forms--particularly integrated administration and control system forms--under present MAFF regulations and systems

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they find it difficult to reach a satisfactory resolution when there is a dispute between them and the Ministry? Does he accept that the farming industry wants, needs and deserves an independent appeals system to deal with the continuing disputes between farmers and MAFF officials? Those disputes remain unresolved, and we need an independent system.

Mr. Brown: That was one of the ideas that came out of the review group; I am giving it active consideration. However, the case against it is that the parameters for independent decision making are not as wide as is commonly believed--because the rules are EU-wide and thus fairly rigid, so as to avoid the exercise of national discretion that could lead to a distortion in the working of the schemes. However, there is a case to be considered, and I am considering it.

Agriculture is going through a deep recession. The Government acknowledge that. We have worked hard to help farmers through to better times. We have done much, but there is much more to do. Ultimately, profitability can be found only in the marketplace. Most farmers accept that--as do most hon. Members--although it sometimes seems that Opposition Front-Bench Members have not grasped the point. They tend to present every problem as though it came from Brussels--[Interruption.] I am sorry--every problem comes either from Brussels or from me--[Laughter.] From that response, I assume that Opposition Members take that as a fair summary.

The Opposition have not learned much from the Conservative Government's petulant and futile "war" on Europe. They accused the European Commission of forcing farmers to grub up hedgerows. They claimed that the use of rams' horns in walking sticks and shepherds' crooks was under threat from Brussels bureaucrats. They warned that lamb chops were going to be outlawed, and that the beef-on-the-bone ban was to be reimposed. The unfortunate fact for the anti-Europeans on the Opposition Benches and elsewhere is that none of that has happened--nor, given the Government's constructive engagement with Europe, was it ever likely to happen.

Conservative spokesmen have repeatedly tried to stir up scares about the safety of imported food. That comes from the party that presided over a succession of food scares, culminating in the national tragedy of BSE. Let me make it clear: the Labour Government will not hesitate to ban any food that is unsafe. The protection of the public comes first. However, we shall not start a Tory trade war with our European partners, thus jeopardising our £10 billion annual food exports and the jobs in the constituencies of almost every Member that depend upon them.

It is truly ironic that the party that claims to care about rural Britain has not made a single constructive contribution to help British farmers through difficult times. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) suggested that we take unilateral action on food labelling. However, that would leave the UK open to legal challenge, with the taxpayer footing the bill for compensation.

The hon. Gentleman suggests banning foreign imports. That would be a breach of our legal obligation to ensure the functioning of the single European market. In case hon. Members think that is merely a theoretical point, I remind the House that a previous Conservative

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Agriculture Minister cost British taxpayers £1.5 million following an unlawful ban on French turkey meat in 1981. It is not even a new idea--it is certainly not a good one. Tory plans for state aids to cover the costs of BSE borne by the pig sector would be ruled unlawful, and any money paid--plus interest--would have to be recovered from farmers.

That is the case against the Conservative proposals. As for the agri-monetary aid promised by the Leader of the Opposition at the annual conference of the National Farmers Union on 2 February, that has been exceeded by the Government's most recent package of agri-monetary aid for dairy, beef and sheep farmers.

The Government understand the problems of British farming, and are doing a lot to help. Over the past few months, I have set out a policy to help agriculture meet the challenges it faces. I have also provided short-term help to the hardest hit: greater market-orientation; a more rational CAP; expanded rural development measures; a joined-up food chain; and regulation that is proportionate to risk. Those are the policies that British farmers are asking for. Those are the policies that will bring much needed profitability back to the industry. I commend them to the House.

2.5 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move, To leave out from "(2000-2001);" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I welcome the debate and I welcomed--at least until the last two minutes--the Minister's characteristically courteous approach. It is possible to admire the style of his speech without agreeing with all its contents. I thought that he lapsed a bit towards the end; he should change the special adviser who inserted the uncharacteristic and entirely inaccurate jibes.

I wish to correct the Minister on a point of fact. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, spoke at the annual conference of the National Farmers Union, he suggested that all the agri-monetary compensation available for grazing livestock should be claimed. I do not believe that that has been done, so the Minister is wrong to say that he has done more than my right hon. Friend suggested at the conference. I shall return to the issue of agri-monetary compensation shortly.

We have had several debates on agriculture in Opposition time in the past two years, but it is a rare event to get a whole day on the subject in Government time. In fact, the last half-day debate, which was held in October, was not, as the Minister suggested, held on a Government motion; it was a Liberal Democrat motion. There was no annual debate on common agricultural policy price fixing last year, so this is a valuable, if unusual, occasion.

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