Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bercow: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Curry: I shall. Hon. Members will not mind if I sort of half sit.

Mr. Bercow: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, more than 12 months ago, the then junior Cabinet Office Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), told me in a written answer that the Government had not published an annual estimate of the costs of regulation on business and, moreover, that Ministers did not intend to do so? Is that not a worrying sign of complacency?

Mr. Curry: It is a worrying sign of complacency, but it is reassuring that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) is no longer in the Government. If one looks at local election results in Liverpool, one begins to wonder whether that particular appeal of old Labour is pulling many strings in what one might term the heartlands.

The action plan does not answer the questions that I have posed. It allows one to hint at the answer. It suggests that there may be an answer there, but I hope that, in her winding-up speech, the Minister can give a precise answer. I have a specific question for her: have the Government--by which we all mean the Treasury, of course--accepted that the doctrine of full economic cost recovery works massively to the disadvantage of British competitiveness and must be abandoned? I do not pretend that that is easy to do. I realise that there are legislative obligations and cost implications, so I do not pretend it is just a religious notion that can be cast aside. It is fundamental to the way in which we deal not merely with agriculture, but with industry more widely and the British question. It is relevant because on a wide range of issues the Government are--I recognise it--alleviating costs to farmers and related businesses, but is that a temporary relief, or a policy change? If things get better, will we come back to the non-relief, or have we changed our approach fundamentally?

Mr. Nick Brown: I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. He is right that the sector's current difficulties throw the regulatory burden into stark relief because that, in many cases, involves fixed costs that do not move with the agricultural cycle. I believe in deregulation and in keeping regulatory burdens to a necessary minimum. I firmly oppose gold-plating European Union regulations. If the single market is to work, it should work fairly and equally across the whole market. I would hold to that view in good times and bad, although, of course, it is bad times that throw all these things into sharper relief.

Mr. Curry: I am delighted that the Minister has made that intervention. He has given us a benchmark against

11 May 2000 : Column 1057

which we will be able to judge many future actions, so I am grateful for that, but I want to take my argument a little further and to ask him a question that might be slightly more difficult: do the Government accept that they must create a level playing field for English farmers--because he is now responsible only for English farmers in many respects--within the UK?

An illustration is dairy inspection charges, which have never been applied in Scotland, and which the Welsh Assembly is poised to get rid of. I wonder whether that was the spur to removing them in England. We recognise that they are not a massive charge. None the less, they were a symptom of a differential treatment.

There are differentials in some of the allowances that are paid in the particularly disadvantaged areas. Specially high rates of premium are being paid, but it is important to ask that question. I will illustrate why by reference to another regulation: the integrated pollution prevention and control directive for intensive livestock farming. I welcome the action plan's deferral of implementation of the directive in the poultry and pig sectors from 2003-04 to 2007. That implements what the Minister has said--that we would not introduce the regulations in advance of other people. That reflects a recommendation from the Select Committee on Agriculture.

Equally, I welcome cuts in the projected initial permit charge of £12,000 to £18,000--for which the Environment Agency struggled to find any rationale when it appeared in front of the Committee--and in the £7,000 annual charge to less than half that, but the fact remains that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency's proposed charges for Scotland started at half the English charges. My suggestion was that we should ask the agency in Scotland to apply that in England as well, on a contractual basis.

Even if we are dealing with speculative figures in Scotland that come down, there will still be a disequilibrium in the United Kingdom, let alone within the wider European Union. We know that many EU countries will either not charge at all or will do so at a much lower rate. What is the policy implication in the light of the Minister's recent intervention about the level at which charges will finally be settled? Will he say that we should have a look at what is happening in Holland, Denmark, Germany or northern France, which are the competing countries in terms of pigmeat? Will we settle our charges in terms of what is being charged in those areas? They are not cheating. In deciding to impose lower charges, they are availing themselves of a facility that is in the directive.

The groundwater regulations concern my constituency because they apply to the way in which sheep dip is disposed of. The Government have said that they are abolishing the annual charge of £107 for the first four years in favour of a single £85 application charge. We welcome that, but is it a temporary relief? What charges are levied on competitors? Do the Government even know? I am often struck by the paucity of the Government's information about what other countries are doing.

Frankly, one does not have to be a magician to believe the continental agricultural press, or to have our posts overseas make the necessary contacts. There is nothing

11 May 2000 : Column 1058

particularly secret about the information, although it takes some winkling out. There are plenty of English farmers who have established themselves in France who would be perfectly willing to constitute a fifth column in giving practical information to the Government, the posts in Paris or the consulates.

We have seen the deferral of the charges on abattoirs and increases in the meat inspection charges held to the rate of inflation. Where is the policy headed in that field? What is the EU practice? I am sorry to be repetitive, but I emphasise that we have no choice but to see the way in which we apply policy through the optic of the wider application in the EU. Otherwise, we prove our own worst enemy; it is not what our competitors do to us that is the problem, but what we do to ourselves. We must march in step.

There may be intrinsic merit in full economic cost recovery. In many regards, I would say that there is. The Minister is right that it is either a charge on the user or a charge on the taxpayer. However, we must judge that by its impact on the competitive marketplace.

I appeal to the Minister to recognise that it is difficult for a farmer who has just been told that he is to get the non-imposition of a higher charge to interpret that as an additional support for him. If it were an additional support, the Minister would have the most cost-free way of helping farmers imaginable: simply multiplying the charges that he says are necessary, and not applying them. That is monopoly money support.

Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. Friend recall that, some weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House that there would be no further money available to farmers because, frankly, the money was not the there? Then, the Prime Minister went to Devon a few days later and said that the farming industry was not in crisis. Is it not the case that the Government do not know how to resolve the problem, that they cannot help the farmers and that they are not prepared to deal with the common agricultural policy properly?

Mr. Curry: I agree that the CAP reform agreed in Berlin was thin gruel in comparison even with how the Minister had left it. That is an extraordinary role reversal. Normally, Agriculture Ministers agree on reform and everyone else in government says that it is pathetic and that real Ministers, such as Treasury Ministers, could get a much more radical reform. This time, the Minister agreed a reform that the Prime Minister diluted. It is a remarkable achievement to dilute something agreed by Agriculture Ministers. It is rather like gaining a pass degree at one of the better universities; it is much harder to get than a first, if I may put it in those terms.

On the action plan, there are things there with which we have sympathy, but I am trying to find out the policy ideas that lie behind it. The Government talk about the review of food safety measures in relation to BSE and CJD, concerning the over-30 months scheme in cattle and the future of the meat and bonemeal ban and of the removal and disposal of specified risk materials. The Government repeat the word "proportionality", which we have all got used to.

The Government have asked for a review, and have made sure that it is packed with the world and his wife. There is pretty good cover in the review, and almost

11 May 2000 : Column 1059

everyone will be implicated. Do the Government think that the review is necessary because proportionality has been disproportionate in some ways? Is the thought process behind the proposal that the system has not been working, or that circumstances have changed and that it can work differently? Are we looking for a different equilibrium?

The Government do not escape from their responsibility. I accept that with the Food Standards Agency, there has been a redistribution of ministerial responsibility, but there is a Government role and it is important to know the Government's thinking. When they talk about strengthening risk assessment procedures, what has prompted that thought process?

I welcome the review of the Meat Hygiene Service, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) may wish to raise the issue of a plant with high sheep throughput which has been threatened. [Interruption.] To do so, of course, he will have to be in the Chamber. The health rules have a direct impact on costs. The Minister said that he wishes to get EU clearance to use assistants, rather than full vets, in abattoirs. He is reviewing the legislation which relates to the skills of those who work in meat-processing operations. That has a strong cost implication. I hope that he will be successful, because no one has seriously felt that previous practices have led to a food risk in that area.

I agree substantially with what the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said in regard to rural development planning. There will be funding of £1.6 billion over seven years, which will be part-funded by a levy on support, or modulation; I recently had my knee modulated so I know that modulation can be quite painful. That will not get us very far, and the Minister is right that it has to be buttressed with a series of other measures.

It is important to recognise that helping the countryside will not automatically help agriculture. If we are setting out to help agriculture, there is not necessarily a wider spin-off to the countryside. Agriculture is now a small-scale industry, even in large parts of the countryside, and we must not confuse the two terms.

The Minister was right to emphasise the importance of planning rules, but he knows that that is not easy. Most people who come to my surgeries on planning matters do so to ask to get something stopped, not to get something done. It is easy to talk about the use of redundant farm buildings, but a village may not favour that because it is fearful of noise or more traffic. Almost invariably, the argument made against such use is based on the increased traffic flow that will come from it.

The Minister will therefore have to persuade Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the matter. DETR Ministers will not only have to be committed to persuading local authorities to make something happen, but prepared for the subsequent letters to surgeries, as planning rules will not be regarded universally as a popular option.

The Minister was of course right to talk about more active business promotion. I should have thought that he might like to talk more about the active promotion of skills. In the uplands of Britain, half the farmers are over 50. Half of them have no recognised heir wanting to take over the operation, and half of them have no recognised skill of any sort. Very few sites are available for industrial development, as transport links have not been built, and

11 May 2000 : Column 1060

there may well be environmental and planning reasons for not developing them. Additionally, with the best will in the world--simply because of the economics of providing private-sector transport--there is a limit on the extent to which sparse public transport can be improved in rural areas.

Concealed in the countryside, often living alongside prosperous areas, there is a significant amount of what we now call social exclusion. Although social exclusion is not easily seen up in the dales of my constituency, it contributes to a lowered quality of life for many of those who are working effectively for pocket money. So although it is important that we treat agriculture, it is equally important that other action should be considered in parallel, and that rural development should be seen in the round.

My final remarks are on the broader subject of common agricultural policy reform. We need to move closer to the marketplace. The problem is that farmers face continuing absolute uncertainty: they seem to live under the permanently provisional.

Various avalanches are sliding slowly down the mountain. We have the avalanche of the World Trade Organisation slipping slowly down the mountain, with various threats of doomsdays that I do not find entirely convincing. The enlargement negotiations are another avalanche that is quietly slipping down the mountain. We have the constant argument about European budgets, which is another landslip coming down the mountain. Farmers feel that they are in their path. Although the avalanches may not move particularly quickly, and some farmers may be able to get out of the way, there is a permanent sense of unease.

The Agenda 2000 package was inadequate not only because it did not meet the needs of the WTO or set the scene effectively for enlargement, but in its own right. Even without those external circumstances, the package was an inadequate response to the needs of the CAP. The CAP is increasingly anomalous as a command system in a world in which the liberal market economy is in the ascendant.

We all argue--the Government more than many--that we want adopted on the continent some of those more liberal economic measures, which are what we think generate employment, wealth and prosperity. I think that farmers are beginning to believe that, having tried some of the alternatives, they should opt for some of the potentially quite hard certainties that would be imposed on them by depending on the marketplace, rather than continue with the constant uncertainty engendered by not knowing what will happen to the support structure on which they depend.

Such a change would of course require vigour in policing the internal market and we would need to promote the schemes to which the Minister--like the rest of us--is committed to help farmers in their maintenance of the environment. Implementation of such a scheme would in itself be difficult. It is much easier to see how we might do that in the Yorkshire dales than in Chelmsford and East Anglia, simply because of the nature of the geography and the landscape.

One should be cautious, however, before assuming that we are present at the death of farming. As the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said, we are certainly present at the institution of quite radical change--which I

11 May 2000 : Column 1061

do not think necessarily relates to size. The key now is whether one owns one's farm and owes no money on it, and whether one employs people. If one owns one's farm, employs no labour and is not in hock to the bank, one will probably be able to batten down the hatches. However, the formula for tenant farmers is even more complex, as they do not have a disposable asset. In my constituency, if tenant farmers want to leave their farms in the dales, there is no way that they can live in the very expensive properties in dales villages.

We shall see a move towards more capital-intensive, larger-scale and perhaps more corporate agriculture. The danger is that, because of amalgamation, we shall also see a move, perhaps necessarily, away from husbandry and towards ranching. Amalgamation will change the nature of agriculture fundamentally.

I hope that, when the Minister reflects on today's debate, he will be able to make it clear--as I think he intended to do in his speech--that he now clearly understands that he has a fundamental duty to ensure that we give our people the best opportunity to compete in the marketplace. Making that change will have financial and regulatory consequences for Government policy. However, if we do not make it, there is no earthly point in complaining about whatever nefarious practices there may be in France or about how continental Governments do things differently. If we do not make it, we shall be the creators of the initial hurdle facing farmers. If the change of culture is upon us, I shall certainly welcome it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page