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I want to comment on other aspects of agricultural policy. Although it is unclear whether the current World Trade Organisation round is a continuation of the Uruguay round or part of the bigger negotiation, it represents an excellent opportunity for the United Kingdom. I have already expounded to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State the view that the stamp of the United Kingdom's agricultural policy--which has always been reliance on the marketplace, not on subsidies, controls and quotas--at least enables us to communicate with countries from the Cairns group and, to a lesser extent, with the United States, which rely far less on those instruments. We have strong historical links with many members of the Cairns group, especially its key players.
The Government's position is that we must respect the Commission's lead role and defer to its lead in the negotiations. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to give a clearly identifiable UK lead on the philosophical approach to those negotiations. I await an intervention from the Opposition Benches.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): The hon. Gentleman reads my mind. He is making an interesting speech, but does he agree that the Cairns group has been so critical of the CAP because of the damage that has been done, is being done and remains to be done by it to the developing world and the old Commonwealth, and that that is a serious problem not only for agriculture but for foreign policy?
Mr. Todd: Unusually, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, although perhaps it is not so unusual for us to agree on these matters. I have long held the view that the CAP is a potential enemy of the improvement of successful developing countries' agriculture. We should take any possible steps to recognise the need for vibrant and successful agriculture in the third world. That is one of the intellectual bases on which I would urge the United Kingdom to take a leading and active role in the current round of negotiations. Obviously, we also have the opportunity to communicate more closely with the United States than with some other partners. I have argued that, instead of taking the more passive role of accepting the Commission's lead, perhaps we should give greater prominence to the United Kingdom agenda for agriculture.
Even Opposition Members would agree that welcome progress has been made on the goal of lifting the beef ban, although we might argue about how much. Obviously, we must now rely on the courts to achieve an outcome with France, but the Government's approach of engagement and constructive negotiation with our European partners has started to reopen doors for British beef. I urge a continuation of that process and the setting of more ambitious goals. Neither I nor the farmers whom I represent in the sector would be satisfied if we were to agree that we could export only butchered meat. As in the past, there is market for beef livestock from this country and we should explore as soon as possible the opportunities to reopen that market, with appropriate
I have already taken up a great deal of time, so I shall deal with a couple of local concerns that are relevant to the debate. The farmers in my constituency are canny and cautious in many respects, but they are keen to engage in new value-added activity and they are looking for direct assistance with that. Several want to form a co-operative, which would allow them to process various products. Almost anything that can be grown--either animal or vegetable--is grown in South Derbyshire. The farmers have a variety of goals, but they want assistance with the development of their new enterprise. The rural development plan package for processing and market development could provide a basis for that, but I would welcome the Minister's explanation of how that package might be applied and how farmers might apply for that assistance. They do not expect huge Government subsidies, but I agree with them that, as part of the refocusing and modernisation of agriculture, helping them to make that change represents an appropriate public sector investment. I would welcome details of how that might be done.
The second issue, which I have touched on not in the debate but in parliamentary questions, is further scrutiny of how the regulatory burden operates and the related issue of how that impacts on the market for key farming products. I refer to fertilisers, chemicals and drugs used to support the farm sector. [Interruption.] I hope that I can hold Ministers' attention for a moment. Local farmers regularly tell me that they pay significantly more for certain inputs than other farmers--for example, in France. The drugs, fertilisers and chemicals that they need to run their businesses are significantly more expensive in the United Kingdom than in our continental neighbours. That cannot be explained purely on the basis of the differences in currency; it seems to be linked to the slightly different regulatory requirements of member states. The farms are commercial enterprises and they are charged a premium for the products that make them more productive. I ask for that matter to be scrutinised further.
As I have explained to the farmers whom I represent, I have always thought that there is a dynamic and attractive future for agriculture in this country, but there will be differences: agriculture much more clearly focused on markets and business skills than on husbandry and crop development. Identifying relationships with other parts of the food chain is also more important than ever. However, that represents an attractive future and I can already see the signs of change in South Derbyshire.
The packages that the Government have produced recently will certainly assist that change. The critical issue will be engaging the individuals with reform in their minds in the farm sector with the officials and business people who can assist them with that process. I have to say--again, from my outsider's experience of never having worked within the sector--that it can sometimes
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd). I think that, on this occasion, my pleasure was achieved relatively early in his speech. I thought that his contribution earlier this week on the sale of National Air Traffic Services, an even more loyal speech than the one that he has just given, was perhaps more characteristic of his usual brevity.
The question poses itself: do the Government see it as a prime purpose to give industry the means to compete fairly with European Union competitors in the single marketplace? One might say that the answer to that question is so axiomatic that it should not even be asked, but it must be asked because there is a history in the UK--a history under both the present Government and their predecessors--of imposing on industry burdens that competitors do not face, and of imposing them knowing that competitors do not face them.
Two issues flow from that fundamental question. The first relates to the weight and extent of regulation in relation to that imposed on producers in other countries. The second is the cost of that regulation to industry in relation to the cost placed on producers and industries elsewhere.
The Government have renounced gold plating, but Governments consistently do so. The Government speak of minimising regulation. Again, we all say amen to that, but do the Government accept that rules should be applied in what one might broadly term an equivalent way to the way in which rules are applied on the continent? Even more important, do the Government accept that the charges should be no more than those applying in the major competitor countries?
If the answer is yes, it is a fundamental and welcome change in culture. I salute it and am very glad about it. Quite honestly, if the answer is yes, it is a far more important element for farmers than the agri-money compensation that we have spent so much time on today.