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6.20 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The common agricultural policy is an extraordinary invention. It costs European citizens £30 billion a year. The idea was to keep the rural population on the land, but the CAP has failed to do that. It has also failed to deliver cheap food: it costs each family in this country £20 a week, or £1,000 a year. In many ways, it is a parody of central planning in the Soviet Union. It failed there, and it is failing in the European Union today. Its time has passed. Stifling bureaucracies did not work in the Soviet Union, and Britain's farms and food industries must be released from their stranglehold.

What is bizarre is the fact that there is much common ground. In our European Standing Committee debates, the Government often agree with us. Recently, we had a particularly bizarre debate about flax. The subsidies had rocketed from £45 million to £96 million between 1995 and 1999. It is a huge scandal: 80 per cent. of Spanish flax was burnt in strange barn fires. The Minister agreed, but she could not do anything about it. We are always in the minority in negotiations.

The feeling in my part of the country is that the CAP is now skewed against Britain's farmers. My milk producers lost out badly in the milk negotiations last year: Ireland was given an extra 150,000 tonnes, although it is more than self-sufficient in milk production. My farmers lost out when the calf scheme ended. Why are they not allowed to export their calves to Europe? Because the Government flunked negotiations on the reopening of beef exports. French farmers get £150 for a good bull calf. Most of the calves in my constituency go to the kennels for nothing; the best go for £10 or £15.

There is inequity in regulation. The pig industry, for instance, is disappearing from this country. According to a report in the Farmers Guardian last year, 80 per cent. of Dutch pig farmers did not respect Dutch welfare regulations, and 20 per cent. did not know of their existence. That is not being addressed, and we are about to make exactly the same mistake in regard to the eggs directive. This week I spoke to the deputy president of the National Farmers Union, Tim Bennett. He said:

In this country, we are establishing standards that are way above those in any neighbouring countries, and way above those of countries outside the European Union or in America. There are farmers in my constituency with a million hens, and possibly 120 employees, trying to compete with plants in the United States that have 13 million hens and nine employees.

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Let me say something about enlargement. I feel that we have a moral obligation to bring the eastern countries fully into the western trading system, but it is unthinkable that they should be brought into the CAP. I should be interested if the Minister could give us a clue about what is going on in the negotiations. I recently talked to ambassadors from some of those countries, who said that they were looking for derogations banning non-citizens from buying agricultural land for 20 years. That is a non-starter. We need to get rid of the CAP: those countries do not want it, because export-subsidised agricultural products are destroying their rural industries.

Not long ago, the Select Committee on Agriculture went to Washington. The line in America was "If you export-subsidise your products, you create a problem in a third market, and that gives us a big problem in America. If you want to protect your small family farms, we respect the environmental output of agriculture in Europe, and we realise that tourism represents a major output." I understood that payments for that purpose would be acceptable, and I found that very encouraging; but we must eradicate the CAP to get there. We must look to the green box, as it is called, and consider payments for the environment and tourism.

If we had been more radical, we could have included animal welfare in the negotiations. Animal welfare features prominently in public opinion, especially in this country and increasingly in Europe. We have to respect that. However, it is a non-starter in the United States. To use a popular expression, it is not on the screen. The Government must acknowledge that by unilaterally pushing up animal welfare standards--I have already cited the examples of pigs and poultry--we massively reduce the competitiveness of United Kingdom producers. If we do that, we must unilaterally take measures to counter the lack of competitiveness.

Why did the Minister of State talk out the labelling measure that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) promoted? It was a sensible measure, which provided for unilateral action in this country to counter the unilateral action that put our producers in an uncompetitive position.

I am seriously worried that the Government have not taken into account the impact of proposals to establish a European food authority, which was debated in European Standing Committee C. Document No. (1999 719 final) proposes setting up a new food authority. The 84 action points would overrule much current UK legislation on agriculture, food production and local government. Yet when my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Health about the treaty basis for the proposals and when I asked her some basic questions, she could not answer.

It is clear that health is of greater public concern in Europe. The Food and Drug Administration in America is respected, partly because it is so transparent. Any incident in the United States is on the internet. In this country, there was BSE; in France, there was the blood scandal, and its Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, nearly went to jail; in Belgium, there was dioxin. Clearly, there is public anxiety about food safety. However, the answer is not to set up huge new quangos.

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The Food and Veterinary Office in Dublin has increased its numbers from 150 to 600. It can use the new fast-track method, by which the UK was fined £200 million for breaching the fine habitats directive. Direction, interference and regulation of the food industry will not be run from here by the new Food Standards Agency, but by DGXXIV in Brussels.

I wish to consider the problem of unregulated, unaccountable quangos. I am especially worried that, within a month of the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, when all-party colleagues on the Select Committee and I proposed that it should not be the executive agency running the Meat Hygiene Service and the policing agency, a scandal has occurred in Eardisley in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). I have given him notice of the problem.

It is inconceivable that one of our few profitable abattoirs, which produced premium products, has been shut down. It took 350,000 lambs a year from all around the Welsh borders and received high health and safety scores for the past five years. Sixteen different vets inspected it. One new vet joined the Meat Hygiene Service and it closed down. That is a major public scandal. I have written to the Minister, his colleague the Secretary of State for Health and Professor Sir John Krebs, who is head of the Food Standards Agency. I should like an assurance that there will be a full, independent, public tribunal and that all evidence and conclusions will be published on the internet.

Mr. Livsey: I fully support the hon. Gentleman's comments. The abattoir is on the boundary of my constituency. Its closure has hit my livestock farmers badly. An investigation must take place, and its findings must be published soon.

Mr. Paterson: I endorse those comments and thank the hon. Gentleman for his support.

Central planning for food production has failed. We must not allow further regulation from distant quangos in Brussels to interfere and overregulate our food processing industries. The food processors must set their quality standards. They should be judged on their results. There should not be dirigiste interference by officials to impose new levels of European regulation.

6.30 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): As is usual in such debates, I must remind the House of my interest, as declared in the Register of Members' Interests.

The hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), who is not present, was sad that few Members have attended the debate, and I share that view. I am especially concerned that the Labour party, which claims to represent rural areas and has two and a half times as many Members as my party, managed to find only five speakers.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: No, but I may do so in a moment.

Nevertheless, those who spoke made good points; we were not saddled with time-filling speeches made by Members brought to the Chamber by Government Whips.

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I make it absolutely clear that we welcome the action plan that was produced at the summit and the principle of the rural development initiative. The Government have done much to help the industry, and we support that, but we are concerned that they have added more problems to those that are not their responsibility, and introduced delays. When the Minister came to office almost two years ago, he set out to endear himself to farmers. He put a metaphorical arm round their shoulders and expressed his sympathy. He has done that well, but his tenure has been marked by dither and delay: the four-month delay in writing to public purchasers, to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) referred, and the several weeks' delay in banning the import of Belgian products during the dioxin scare--long after other countries had banned it--with the result that the United Kingdom market was flooded with Belgian chicken meat and the price collapsed.

The action plan for farming contains many sensible measures, but they are all long overdue, despite having been demanded by the industry for some time. However, the Minister had the gall to accuse us of not making proposals. We and many others had been calling for the pig industry restructuring proposals for months. After two years of loss making, the Minister waited until the market improved before taking action. He will remove the over-30-months limit; we called for that a year ago. He will change groundwater charges and the charges imposed under the integrated pollution prevention and control directive; we called for that a year ago. The BSE measures are to be reviewed, but everyone called for the review of meat inspection charges. Even the Minister said:

Nothing happened until 30 March 2000.

We called for rate relief on horse establishments two years ago, and we also called for a risk-based approach to meat hygiene. We have been calling for many other changes for some time.

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