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Flood Prevention Scheme

4. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): If he will make a statement on progress of the flood prevention scheme for Edgware and Burnt Oak. [137135]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I understand that the Environment Agency submitted a planning application for the Silk stream flood alleviation scheme at the end of October and that consideration is currently being given to when the work might commence.

Mr. Dismore: My constituents very much welcome that scheme, but are concerned about the time that it is taking. After the floods in 1992, the previous Government did nothing about trying to sort out the flooding problems in my constituency. My constituents are concerned that

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after planning permission is given, it could take up to nine months for the scheme to be approved by the Ministry, and a further year before construction work can start, with a planned finish date of 2005. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will do all that he can to make sure that that time scale is shortened, if that is practical?

Mr. Morley: The fact that the scheme has been submitted for planning permission is an important milestone in its development. In due course, it will come to the Ministry, where its environmental and technical merits will be evaluated, as I am sure my hon. Friend understands. Following the announcement of an extra £51 million for flood defence, it is possible for the Environment Agency to make decisions on prioritising schemes. Those decisions are made locally in relation to the agency's own programmes.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): May I, on this one occasion, endorse the call of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) for the speediest and most efficacious action on that front? I am making that request and going across party lines to endorse the hon. Gentleman's call because my mother is a constituent of his. Although she lives in Mill Hill, not Edgware or Burnt Oak, she is extremely apprehensive about the matter, which is the one subject on which she is vociferous in her support for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman's mother is fortunate in being so well represented. As we have heard, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who is her Member of Parliament, is assiduous in making sure that the scheme is brought forward.

CAP Dairy Regime

5. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): What his priorities are for the next reform of the common agricultural policy dairy regime. [137136]

8. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): If he will make a statement on his policy for the future of the dairy industry, with special reference to milk quotas. [137140]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): May I tell my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that I regard this as a matter of fundamental importance for the dairy industry and the future of the common agricultural policy? My priority is to bring about an orderly phasing out of the European Union milk quota system on the basis that I and other like-minded EU Agriculture Ministers advanced in the recent Agenda 2000 negotiations. My aim is to ensure that UK milk production should not be unreasonably constrained by quotas, and that through liberalisation UK producers should have the opportunity to participate in high-value export markets.

Ms Taylor: In thanking my right hon. Friend for his answer, may I urge the Government to keep pressing for the orderly and speedy end of milk quotas, as lowering prices will have the most effective benefit for efficient

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dairy farmers. Does my right hon. Friend believe that phasing out those quotas relies heavily on building alliances with European partners?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right, as we will not be able to phase out quotas in the European Union by quarrelling incessantly with the other 14 member states. I am enormously encouraged by the fact that Ministers from other countries who take an interest in the reform proposals advanced by the UK Government and I met recently as guests of the Italian Minister to discuss further reform of the CAP. I set great store by the review clause scheduled for 2003 and the discussions in the EU on whether or not it is possible to pull that clause forward to 2002.

Mr. Robathan: May I remind the Minister that last October he kindly agreed to come to my constituency to see dairy and beef farmers who are struggling? Those who have survived would still like to meet him and I very much hope that he will be able to visit them in the near future. While I agree with his policy, in the unlikely event that he is still Agriculture Minister at the time of the CAP reform--

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): He will be there longer than you.

Mr. Robathan: The Minister may have moved up or down, or even--we hope--across to the Opposition Benches. What will happen if he is still Agriculture Minister at the time of the review in 2003 and is unable to persuade his European partners of the need for the quota system to be withdrawn?

Mr. Brown: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind wishes for my personal future in this post. I would point out that I have outlasted most of my predecessors. I think that I am also the fourth longest-lasting Minister in the Council of Ministers. There seems to be a rapid cull of Agriculture Ministers, as well as some of the animals for which we are responsible.

On the substance of the hon. Gentleman's question, the UK's views are clear and well known and, to be honest, they should not be a matter of party politics. We want to do the best thing for the dairy sector and for our own dairy farmers. The review proposals that we put forward in the Agenda 2000 round were right. I am convinced that the EU will have to return to our proposals or something similar in future. I argued the case vigorously with the other Ministers in the Council of Ministers and I am making progress.

Finally, I welcome opportunities to discuss these matters directly with those in the dairy industry and, although I have not been able to do it yet, I would like to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency and meet the dairy farmers and, perhaps, those from neighbouring constituencies as well.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many dairy farmers have seen the price of raw milk fall considerably in recent years as the power of the supermarkets has increased? This matter was seriously looked at by the Competition Commission following the original recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee. Does he agree that, in order to

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re-establish their position in the market, dairy farmers should be encouraged to work in partnership with each other and form co-operatives?

Mr. Brown: As my hon. Friend knows, I agree with that proposition. I think that vertical integration in the industry is part of the way forward. It also means that there has to be much more co-operation between retailers, processors and producers. As people have heard me say time and again, I believe that each sector of the highly integrated supply chain has a vested interest in the well-being--which means the profitability--of other parts of the chain. My hon. Friend is on to a strong point. There is a pressing need for a good study of how the supply chain works, where the strengths and weaknesses are and how power is apportioned. I am reflecting on that and hope to have something further to say soon.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the Minister think it fair that British milk quotas will not go up until 2005, whereas four other EU countries have had their milk quotas increased? Is it fair to our milk producers that we have to rely on French imports into Britain until that time?

Mr. Brown: I do not think that the quota system serves our country well, nor do I think it fair that during the Agenda 2000 negotiations I was saddled with commitments that had been entered into by the previous Government with regard to Ireland's quota dating right back to 1983-84. The solution is not to quarrel over the allocation of quota; it is to remove the instrument altogether. That should not come as a sudden shock to dairy farmers throughout the EU. There should be a progressive phasing out of the instrument. I still think that our proposals to depreciate it over six years are the right way forward.

Organic Farming

6. Angela Smith (Basildon): What assistance is available to farmers wishing to diversify into organic production. [137137]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): Under the England rural development programme, the organic farming scheme provides conversion aid under five-year agreements to farmers in England. The budget for the scheme over a seven-year period up to 2007 is £140 million. In addition, the organic conversion information service--OCIS--which is funded by MAFF, provides free advice to potential organic farmers.

Angela Smith: I warmly thank my hon. Friend for that answer that shows a real commitment to organic farming, that we have not had in this country for many years. One of the problems encountered by people interested in converting to organic farming is that of co-ordinating information, advice and technical assistance. Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is co-ordination of technical assistance and advice, as well as help with marketing?

Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those who choose to convert to organic farming need technical and business support. We provide that through

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our research and development budget, which has been doubled to £2.2 million. There is also a range of R and D projects relating to soil, fertilisers and manure, worth about £8 million a year, which is beneficial to the organic sector. Through OCIS, people get help, support and backing, as they do through the Soil Association and other organisations that back farmers.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister will know that a crucial part of organic farming is crop rotation, to keep the land clean, and that that always means the inclusion of root crops. What are the Government doing to prevent the British sugar industry from being destroyed by the proposals of Commissioner Lamy, which would not only damage our industry but destroy the cane industry in the Caribbean?

Mr. Morley: That was an ingenious way of getting sugar beet into a question on organic farming. These are major issues for our sugar beet sector, which is important in my constituency. We are aware of the concerns and have received representations from sugar beet farmers. We are aware of the proposals and are giving careful thought to the issues.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his great success in constantly getting more funding and resources for organic farming, and I apologise to him because I am constantly asking for more. Will he confirm that the United Kingdom is the only country in the European Union that does not give financial rewards for the environmental benefits of organic farming, and does he plan to do anything about that?

Mr. Morley: Studies have shown that organic farming brings environmental benefits, and we recognise that as a Ministry and as a Government. We have a range of agri- environment schemes, such as countryside stewardship and environmentally sensitive areas, designed to meet different objectives. It may well be that organic farmers can choose to go into countryside stewardship schemes. We are to review our agri-environment programme in 2003. Given the substantial extra sums that will go into the schemes through the rural development programme, it may be opportune to consider organic stewardship schemes for the future, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will give that careful consideration.

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