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House of Commons

Thursday 29 June 2000

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Wednesday 5 July at Seven o'clock.

Mersey Tunnels Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second Time on Thursday 6 July.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

Common Agricultural Policy

1. Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): What plans he has for reform of the common agricultural policy arable regime. [127030]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): As part of the Agenda 2000 agreement we achieved a substantial narrowing of the gap between European Union and world prices. We also secured a further review of price levels in 2002 and will use this opportunity to further our reform agenda. Arable area payments account for one third of CAP expenditure in the United Kingdom and will amount to about £1 billion this year.

Mr. Twigg: Is there not a better way to use the £1 billion that subsidises large arable farm businesses? The savings being made could be used to conserve the countryside and support business plans to return small farms to profitability.

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend is right to talk in terms of a new direction for agricultural policy, which is precisely what the Government are seeking to bring about through their use of the rural development regulation and in their reform agenda throughout the European Union.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): In the common agricultural policy debate on 11 May the Minister said that he was disappointed that there was no cut in the sugar price, and that the case for the cut was

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strong, because the support was increasingly out of line with that for other crops. Does he not realise that with a harvest price of £60 a tonne for wheat and barley this year, no farmers will make a profit? He is giving the clear impression that the only justification for cutting the sugar price is that because farmers cannot make a profit on any other crop, they should not make one on sugar beet either. What reasons does the Minister have for seeking a cut in the sugar price when sugar is about the only arable crop left that is making any profit whatever?

Ms Quin: I am rather surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman ask that question, because I am sure that he knows the answer. My right hon. Friend the Minister rightly pointed out the difference between some of the prices for arable products, particularly wheat, and the price for sugar, which is about four times the world price. We know that the European Commission is making proposals for changes to the sugar regime, so we need to look at them and act consistently with our drive for agricultural reform in general. The hon. Gentleman should also take into account the fact that many of our food processing industries are damaged by the artificially high EU price for sugar. It is the Government's duty to consider everyone who is affected by the EU regime and find a sensible way forward. We shall certainly consult all parts of the sugar industry, but we are concerned about our responsibilities to consumers and the British economy generally.

GM Crops

2. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): What response he has had to his consultation on separation distances for GM crops. [127031]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Lead responsibility for different aspects of policy on genetically modified crops falls to different Ministers. My responsibilities in this area cover seed purity, agronomic practice and agricultural production, and the implications, other than food safety implications, for different sectors of the food chain.

My hon. Friend asked about the review of separation distances, for which I have lead responsibility. As of this morning, 12 individual responses to the review have been received, expressing a range of views. The deadline for responses is 10 July.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and for his timely consultation. Will he ensure that account is taken of the research into low frequency and high magnitude weather events which transport much larger quantities of pollen over much greater distances? Does he agree that he must take account of that factor as the consultation runs its course? Does he further agree that separation distances to protect seed purity need to be negotiated internationally?

Mr. Brown: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend on the last point, but that does not relieve us of our responsibility to get things right here. That is precisely

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the purpose of the consultation exercise on which we have embarked. I will take what she says about the variations in climatic conditions as representations to the review.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Has the Minister visited America or sent any officials to look at separation distances there, where GM crops have been grown commercially in substantial quantities for more than 10 years?

Mr. Brown: Yes, I have visited the United States and discussed these matters with my counterparts there on a number of occasions. As I think I have already informed the House, I have also sent an official to Canada to liaise with the Canadian authorities over the latest incident involving the contamination of crops with genetically modified seeds in oilseed rape.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Separation distances are also important for small-scale test sites. Has my right hon. Friend had any representations about them? I raise this matter because the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has no information on small-scale test sites as it does for farm-scale trials. Will he consider making representations to the DETR so that farmers and consumers alike can know where all test sites, whether large or small, are?

Mr. Brown: That is an important point; it is necessary to protect the interests of small farmers as well as those of large farmers. My hon. Friend is right to make the point. Officials in MAFF are working closely with officials in the DETR on the review, but the review is being conducted primarily to give security for reasons of agricultural production.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): On 8 June, the Minister told Parliament, as recorded in column 502 of Hansard, that he had put the minutes of the early meetings-- I emphasise the plural--with Advanta in the public domain. As of last night--almost three weeks later--the Library had received a minute only of the meeting of 17 April. Why has the Library not received other minutes? Last month, the Minister told the House that his officials had been in continuous contact with the company. Why will he not come clean and tell the House what advice his officials gave Advanta and when they gave it? Above all, will he tell us why no warning was given to farmers, such as those in Scotland, who were still planting GM-contaminated seed after MAFF knew that contamination was possible?

Mr. Brown: As I carefully explained in my initial response, responsibility for GM issues is shared among several Ministers; I am not the Minister with responsibility for co-ordinating Government policy on the matter. I gave the House an assurance that a note of the meeting of 17 April would be put in the Library; that has been done. What I cannot do--as the hon. Gentleman is well aware--is to share more generally the policy advice given to Ministers.

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Mr. Yeo: In the debate organised by the Opposition on 8 June, the Minister confirmed to the House that

The Minister is reneging on that assurance. Having told the House that the information would be in the public domain, he refuses to put it there. The conclusion drawn by the farmers whose businesses have been damaged, by the company, which is apparently liable for damages, and by the general public, will be that he has much to hide. This smacks of a ministerial cover-up. The House and the public deserve to know what advice was given to the company and when that advice was given. The longer the Minister fails to provide that information, the more his actions directly destroy confidence in the whole technology.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman completely misrepresents what was said in the debate. Earlier, I was careful to qualify what I said. If he reads back a few paragraphs, he will see that--in response, I think, to something said by one of his hon. Friends--I was careful to qualify what I said. The information that I promised is in the Library, where the hon. Gentleman can go and see it--now, if he would like.

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