Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brown: I will give way, although there is a lot of pressure from other hon. Members to speak in the debate.

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He mentioned organic farming and the rural White Paper for England. For the first time, there is an acceptance of a target for organic farming buried in the

1 Feb 2001 : Column 519

detail. Will the Minister consider developing that into a more ambitious target and developing the action plan needed to achieve it? Will he consider doing that early in the next Parliament?

Mr. Brown: The figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers are forecast outcomes, not targets. Indeed, the Select Committee has cautioned against setting targets. There might be consensus in the House on that, although perhaps not entirely. I understand that there are similar arrangements in place in other parts of the United Kingdom. In any event, we all envisage an expansion in the amount of farming given over to organic farming, for three good reasons: it is environmentally friendly; it is what consumers want, and it is right that the Government should try to underpin consumer choice; and it is an economically rational way forward for farmers, because of the premium that organically produced goods command in the marketplace. Those are the reasons for providing support for organic farming.

The Government are doing more. On small abattoirs, the Food Standards Agency will be implementing the recommendations of the Maclean report on meat hygiene service charging. We are improving public services such as transport, health care and education in rural areas. We are providing more affordable housing for rural communities, and new funds to revitalise market towns.

Work is under way across Government to make regulation less burdensome for British farmers. I agree that the Government have a duty to bear down on unnecessary red tape in farming, just as they do with other businesses. We have already pledged that there will be no gold-plating or early implementation of European regulations. The Opposition motion claims that British agriculture is disadvantaged by over-regulation. In fact, Lord Haskins' report for the better regulation taskforce found no evidence that regulation creates a competitive disadvantage for British farmers. The taskforce made a wide range of constructive recommendations, and we will soon publish a positive response to the report.

The Government have accepted 98 of the 107 recommendations of the first three industry-led red tape working groups. Further reviews of farm inputs and veterinary medicines are under way. We continue to press ahead with animal disease reduction strategies. We are strengthening our strategy for tackling the spread of bovine TB, and increasing resources for TB testing. We have increased the compensation payments from 75 to 100 per cent. for cattle slaughtered as TB suspects. We are committed to completing the Krebs-Bourne trial. All 10 matched triplets are now in place and we hope for results by 2004, or possibly earlier.

The 2000 spending review provides £115 million for the national plan to get as close as we can to eliminating scrapie from the national sheep flock. We are considering the BSE inquiry report and its 167 wide-ranging recommendations. I hope to present the Government's substantive interim response to the House very soon, and business managers have provisionally scheduled the debate for 15 February.

A lot can be done to help British farmers by improving the way in which the food chain operates. That was the finding of the high level food chain working group that brought together leading figures from the farming, food processing, manufacturing, distribution and retail sectors.

1 Feb 2001 : Column 520

At the heart of the matter is the fact that every part of the food chain has a vested interest in the long-term success of every other part. The working group found the need for more communication and co-operation throughout the food chain, from farm to fork.

The group's work is being put to practical use in the new taskforce that has been brought together to examine the workings of the dairy supply chain. No matter how hard pressed dairy producers are, what the Government can do to help is limited. The real answer to the producer problems in the sector is to be found in the marketplace and in the supply chain.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) rose--

Mr. Brown: I shall give way in a moment.

I warmly welcome the National Farmers Union's new British farm standard tractor mark, which allows shoppers clearly to identify foods produced to British farm assurance standards.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Brown: Of course, and then I shall give way to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith).

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is it true that there are instances of France or other countries sending produce to this country marked with a red tractor, carrying wording that implies that the produce reaches the same standard without making it clear that it is not British? People want to buy British food, but we need an efficient system that enables them to identify it.

Mr. Brown: My understanding of the position is that the answer to my hon. Friend's question must be no. Although it would be possible for any supplier to this country to join the quality assurance mark scheme, it would not be proper for a non-member to use that mark and claim the quality assurance. The red tractor is a British quality assurance mark, not a point of origin mark. If people want to make a point of origin claim, it is perfectly lawful to do so. Suppliers from Germany, France, the United Kingdom and different parts of the United Kingdom can make a point of origin claim provided that it is truthful. They must comply with the trading standards legislation. Enforcement is a matter for the trading standards authorities, just as the lead agency on labelling is now the Food Standards Agency.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) rose--

Mr. Brown: I had promised to give way to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, but with the courtesy that is so common among Liberal Democrats, he allows me to take this intervention.

Mr. Gill: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he really think that it would be wrong to insist on mandatory country of origin labelling? Such labelling would allow the question asked by the hon. Member for

1 Feb 2001 : Column 521

Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) to be answered truthfully, and consumers could see exactly which country produce came from.

Mr. Brown: I believe that consumers have a right to know the origin of product as well a right to a factual description of product. Indeed, on the beef labelling scheme, European Union law is moving in that direction. I shall say more about that, but first I give way to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Minister for giving way. He talks about the medium term, and mentioned marketplaces a while back. For farmers in countries outside the eurozone, what replacement for agrimonetary compensation does he think will develop to deal with the marketplace in the European Union?

Mr. Brown: The development of the agrimonetary regime and the enlargement of the EU are both big questions, but the hon. Gentleman should focus on the fact that as more and more member states join a single currency--indeed, it is a condition of membership for the candidate countries that they will come into the single currency arrangements--the case for agrimonetary compensation, which is, after all, designed to compensate for currency movements, rather recedes. I would not have thought that the agrimonetary regime was among the many concerns that the candidate countries have, but I stand to be corrected.

Sir Robert Smith: The United Kingdom is outside the eurozone, and British farmers are concerned about what will happen to them in future as a result of currency fluctuations in the single market.

Mr. Brown: The point that I am trying to make to the hon. Gentleman is that we are not the only country concerned about that, but we are increasingly becoming the only country for which it is a substantial issue of interest. I cannot stand up today and announce a successor regime.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the payments are made in tranches over three-year periods-- half the total money in the first year, a third in the second year, and a sixth in the third year. When the regime comes to an end, will there be successor arrangements? I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say that there will. I am pointing the hon. Gentleman to substantial factors in the international arrangements for the European Union that rather suggest the opposite.

I do not want to make a definitive statement now, as I am not in a position to do so. However, as I have said before, it would be wrong for British agriculture constantly to look to the supply side of the common agricultural policy, including the agrimonetary arrangements, for its future. The direction, I think, is very different.

We have clamped down on misleading country of origin labelling. It is illegal now to sell imported food as British just because it has been repacked or processed in the UK. As I said in reply to the intervention from my

1 Feb 2001 : Column 522

hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), trading standards officers have the power to undertake prosecutions.

Following the report of the Competition Commission, the Office of Fair Trading is working on a statutory code of practice for the major retailers, governing their relationships with suppliers. That will complement the voluntary code developed by the Institute of Grocery Distribution. I strongly encourage the industry to take that up. In part, that answers the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, who has moved to the Front Bench. It is good to see him there.

Next Section

IndexHome Page