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6.46 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): This has been a very worthwhile debate. It has certainly confirmed the opinion and recommendation of the European Scrutiny Committee that we should have a full-scale debate on the issue, despite the fact that, given the agreements that were made under Agenda 2000, European Union annual price-fixing no longer has the same impact. The Committee quite rightly pointed out that this debate would give us a chance to review changes in the common agricultural policy as a whole, and to review events and developments in our own farming industry and the follow-up to the Prime Minister's summit on 30 March, to which various hon. Members have referred.

The debate has been very thoughtful and has shown a depth of knowledge of agriculture and agriculture-related issues. It has also demonstrated considerable concern for the difficulties of constituents across the country.

For a while, I even thought that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) was going to give us a calm, reasoned speech. Eventually, however, his over-the-top instincts overwhelmed him and proved impossible for him to resist. I should like to correct him on two of his comments. First, he certainly seemed to have forgotten that the previous agriculture debate--an all-day debate--was in Government time, and that, in the previous week, an agriculture debate was introduced by the Liberal Democrats. I remember that debate vividly, as it was my first outing at the Dispatch Box as an Agriculture Minister.

Secondly, the hon. Member for South Suffolk gave the impression that, at the National Farmers Union conference, the Leader of the Opposition was giving a more generous commitment on agri-monetary commitment than we were. However, the Leader of the Opposition was talking about using the savings from the sheep annual premium scheme resulting from currency changes, which amounted to £30 million. The agri-monetary payments that we announced at the summit amounted to £66 million.

Additionally, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food properly pointed out, since coming to office, we have paid about half a billion pounds in agri-monetary payments, despite the constraints to which hon. Members have referred arising from the priorities of public expenditure and the difficulties resulting from the Fontainebleau abatement mechanism.

At one point, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) seemed to suggest that we have not supported arable farmers. I should point out to him that arable farmers receive £1 billion annually in

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direct area aid payments. They have had agri-monetary compensation of £170 million, and another £57 million is due this autumn. That amounts to very substantial support. We are aware of the difficulties that arable farmers are facing, and I am not trying to disguise them. None the less, we need to correct any misapprehension that that particular sector has not received support, because it certainly has done.

A number of hon. Members referred to devolution. One Conservative Member seemed to suggest that the existence of devolved responsibilities made it pointless for my hon. Friends from Scotland and Wales to participate in the debate. I was glad that my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) contradicted that by pointing out that because we are part of a common agricultural policy--that is largely the subject of this debate--the United Kingdom member state has to negotiate. My right hon. Friend the Minister does that in close co-operation with the Ministers in the devolved administrations. It is important to highlight that success story for the Government. The debate has been equally valid for all Members of Parliament.

It is impossible to address all the issues that have been raised in the time available. On a rough calculation, there are three times as many questions and issues as I have minutes available, never mind the points that I wish to make myself. I am glad that there was a general welcome for the package of measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 30 March. My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the 62 points of the action plan and set out how we propose to take forward many of them.

However, I should pick up on some of the points made about the action plan, particularly those that were most frequently the subject of Members' concerns. I fully understand the continuing difficulties in the dairy sector. I am glad that the package included not only devising a programme for agri-monetary payments--the first such payments to the dairy sector--but the removal of hygiene charges, moves to scrap the limits on the over-30-months scheme and important moves on the code of practice, which we hope will help the dairy industry and others. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas), referred to relationships in the food industry.

It has not been pointed out during the debate that we are committed to a campaign for the generic promotion of milk and have passed an order through the House to facilitate that. I hope that the campaign will appear shortly and will be as effective as many well known milk- drinking campaigns of the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West mentioned school milk schemes. We have been active in support of the European Union school milk scheme and have attracted a lot of support from other member states.

Mr. Paterson: If the Minister was in Shropshire tonight and saw a male black-and-white calf born, what would she advise the farmer to do with it?

Ms Quin: The market for calves is strengthening. There are also initiatives on finding future opportunities for the calf market. The Ministry and the National Farmers Union have taken forward some interesting and

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worthwhile initiatives on issues such as ethical veal. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman looks at some of them. We cannot answer all the problems of finding markets in the industry, but we are actively seeking to do what we can.

I very much welcome the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the successors to Milk Marque can get involved in processing. That important point has not been mentioned in the debate.

Many right hon. and hon. Members were concerned about the pig industry. I am glad that some, including the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), welcomed what we had done at the summit and the scheme that we devised to avoid falling foul of European Union state aid rules. Again, that is not all that we have done for the pig sector. As well as the appointment of the verification officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has already had some success in curbing misleading labelling and has persuaded certain supermarkets to change their labelling as a result--

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin: I have only five minutes left to deal with some of the points that have been raised, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way.

We have given guidance to trading standards officers and offered support for the promotion campaign on animal welfare standards. Yesterday I was at the National Agricultural Centre in Stoneleigh, launching the promotion campaign to highlight the animal welfare standards that we have met in the pig industry. The campaign message is simple--to support farmers who look after their animals properly. Right hon. and hon. Members may have already seen advertisements in today's national press. We believe that that will be important in drawing our consumers' attention to the high standards in our industry, and the importance of helping our producers at a difficult time.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who chairs the Select Committee on Agriculture, made a number of interesting points about the importance of tackling red tape. I believe that he has welcomed some of the initiatives that we have taken, particularly in the review of red tape and the fact that MAFF has been so willing to accept the conclusions of the three working groups. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the concept of not gold-plating, and of having a commitment to look at the competitiveness of our industry in relation to other European countries, is at the heart of our approach. He called it a change of policy, but I believe that it is a policy that we have always had. However, I assure him that ours is a deep-seated, determined and purposeful approach.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone welcomed the progress that we have made in Northern Ireland by being granted low BSE incidence status. He is right that there are a number of complexities in that situation. None the less, we believe that Commissioner Byrne, along with Ministers here and in Northern Ireland, are working hard for a successful outcome that gives Northern Ireland that status but does not provoke some of the problems about which certain producers have worried.

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The Government have a long-term, as well as a short-term, approach to agriculture. That was evident in the farming summit, but it has also been evident in earlier pronouncements by MAFF, particularly when my right hon. Friend launched the new direction for agriculture last December.

We are in the vanguard of change in Europe. Many right hon. and hon. Members referred to common agricultural policy reform. The way in which we have chosen to implement the possibilities under the second pillar of the CAP has shown how we can move away from the traditional CAP production support towards a policy of rural development, which helps diversification in agriculture. Indeed, we have been far more active than the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) seemed to give us credit for. The money that has been allocated for marketing under the rural development regulation is dramatically more than that under the agricultural development scheme, which was a beginning.

In terms of reforming the common agricultural policy and moving forward to a new long-term sustainable direction for agriculture, the Government have done more in three years than the previous Government did in 18. We have a long-term strategy, and I believe that the British people will prefer Labour achievement to Tory opportunism on agriculture and the countryside. Therefore, I invite the House to support our motion.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 123, Noes 257.

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