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Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend has obviously been treated with disgraceful discourtesy by the Minister, and, more important, so has the senior industry figure whose suggestion he relayed. When he winds up the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will point out that several of the proposals about which the Government have boasted today and on recent occasions were contained in the policy document published by the Opposition in April 1999. Far from our not making constructive suggestions, some of those that we have made have happily been picked up. I hope that, by the end of the debate, more of them will be adopted by the Government.
The debate is urgently needed. A year ago the Heads of Government of European Union member states produced an utterly feeble package of CAP reforms. As a result of their failure, the process of European Union enlargement may now be impeded. Meanwhile, the crisis that is destroying Britain's farmers and damaging the British countryside worsens steadily month by month. Farm incomes have fallen by three quarters since the Labour Government came to power and thousands of jobs have been lost.
A year ago, the Agenda 2000 talks offered a chance of fundamental CAP reform--a chance that, regrettably, was thrown away. In its seventh report entitled "Outcome of the CAP Reform Negotiations", the Select Committee on Agriculture said that
Quite apart from the question of enlargement, CAP reform is needed for other reasons. The CAP is failing consumers, taxpayers and farmers. Despite the horrendous cost of its huge spending which, according to the documents that we are considering, is now about £25 billion a year, the income of British farmers is at its lowest in real terms since before the war.
Taxpayers, too, have grounds for complaint. Despite constant promises, the cost of the CAP never seems to fall. Too much money is wasted, and there is the scandal of subsidies for tobacco farmers, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Any policy that pays people to produce a product which is considered so dangerous to human health that it cannot be advertised legally and whose quality is so low that much of the output has to be dumped in the developing world, ought to be condemned as immoral, incompetent and ridiculous. However, such a policy has been part of the CAP for many years.
Consumers, too, have been let down by the CAP. Food sold in EU countries is artificially expensive. Indeed, the total cost to a typical British family of four of higher food prices and taxpayers' expenditure on the CAP is estimated to be £12 to £15 a week. That does not include an extra £1 a week, which is the cost of expenditure on national agricultural policies.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) referred to the dairy sector, an examination of which illustrates just how bad a deal the Government got for Britain last year. At the Heads of Government summit in Berlin last March, the Prime Minister accepted a proposal to freeze mainland Britain's milk quota for six years, but agreed to allow Ireland, a country which is self-sufficient in dairy produce four times over, an immediate increase in its quota.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that he wants quotas to be phased out--indeed, there is nothing between the Government and the Opposition on that--but, given that that process will take many years, it is disgraceful that the Government agreed to a proposal that will give our nearest neighbour a chance to go on undercutting our farmers. That decision dealt a severe, disastrous blow to hard-pressed dairy farmers, who have been denied a chance to supply the demands of the home market, despite having some of the best dairy-producing land in the EU.
As the Minister acknowledged, dairy farmers are still struggling with a farmgate price for milk that leaves many of them trading at a loss. Those are precisely the circumstances in which any responsible Government would have resisted the Berlin proposal. While still on the subject of dairy farming, I reiterate Conservative Members' regret that the Government insisted last
Mr. Brown: Let us be clear about this. I have no direct ministerial responsibility for the matter, which is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Opposition believe that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should set aside the views of the competition authorities?
Mr. Yeo: The Minister should have insisted that the recommendation was made in the light of up-to-date information. The report on which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry based his wrong decision was founded on hopelessly outdated information about the state of the market and Milk Marque's share in it. If the Minister had been doing his job, he would have made sure that proper representations were made to the Department of Trade and Industry, drawing attention to shortcomings in the report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
Mr. Yeo: I entirely agree, which brings me to my final point on the matter. The Minister suggested that dairy farmers were not concerned about such issues, so I would welcome the opportunity to introduce him to some small dairy farmers who are profoundly concerned about them. To be fair to the Minister, he has tried to get around the country and meet farmers. Having done so and listened to many of them, it is astonishing that he should now claim that dairy farmers are not anxious about the matter.
Mr. Yeo: It is not abusive to point out that small dairy farmers have been directly disadvantaged by the decision of the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. The Minister may not welcome that, although I am glad that he has backtracked on comments that he made about half an hour ago. Nevertheless, many small dairy farmers will read our exchanges with dismay.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): The hon. Gentleman said that Milk Marque was a friend of small producers. However, if it was, it was not nearly as good a friend to those people as the Milk Marketing Board. Does he not remember that a Labour Government negotiated arrangements to ensure that the board continued and that a Conservative Government abolished it in the face of Labour opposition?