Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nick Brown: My policy is not very different from the one that the right hon. Lady pursued when she was a Minister.

Mrs. Shephard: The policy that I pursued, which was for an on-going review of the sugar regime, was not threatened by the everything but arms initiative, supported by other branches of the Government of which I was a member. That is the right hon. Gentleman's position.

Mr. Brown: I am sorry that the right hon. Lady does not understand why she pursued that policy as a Minister; but the truth is that, yes, the regime was threatened by market access, regardless of whether that came under a regime specifically tailored to the poorest countries in the world, or whether it came more generally. That is

1 Feb 2001 : Column 529

precisely the reason why she used to argue that the existing sugar regime was not sustainable, and why I argue that now.

Mrs. Shephard: The Minister should use a great deal more force in that case, and perhaps a little more knowledge. Ten days ago the European Commission reported on its website that it had decided to adopt a new timetable for duty and tariffs on imports of cane sugar to start from 2006. I think I am right to say that the original plan for the EBA proposals was that they should begin on 1 January 2001. That news was reported widely in the farming press and welcomed, but Ministers said nothing, so we could be forgiven for thinking that they either had not noticed or did not know.

Last week, therefore, I tabled questions to the Minister and to the Minister for Trade to ask for clarification. After four days, they gave holding replies, so I assume that they did not know that the Commission had changed its mind. If they did know, why did they give holding replies? Why did they refer me to the position before Christmas in their definitive answers?

Mr. Brown: The right hon. Lady could always turn up during oral questions to ask about those matters.

Mrs. Shephard: I do not think the right hon. Gentleman gave any indication of that position during oral questions this morning. Perhaps the Minister of State will give an answer in winding-up the debate. Although she usually answers by saying that she will place a letter in the Library, I shall ask her the questions that she should answer in summing up today. Has the Commission changed its policy? Is the starting date now 2006? Was the farming press right to welcome the change? Did she and her colleagues know about it? If so, why was I not given the correct answer to my question?

The simple conclusion, even from this exchange, is that Ministers have so little understanding of the real issues affecting agriculture, and so little appreciation that agriculture is the cornerstone of the rural economy, that they think the schemes and plans that they put about are helping, whereas they are in fact stifling with regulations the industry's ability to produce the crops that the market needs. It is time for a change in rural Britain, and we will have one.

5.44 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to take part in this debate. I begin by responding to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). It is somewhat cheap to concentrate only on what is apparently a national crisis, although I shall make some points about its British dimension. After my recent visit to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with the Select Committee on Agriculture, it is evident to me that every agricultural system in the developed world is undergoing problems at present.

In the Irish Republic, a huge changeover from full-time to part-time farming is under way, with all the repercussions that one might imagine. We cannot and must not identify the crisis as purely a British problem--although there are problems for which not only the Labour

1 Feb 2001 : Column 530

Government but the previous Conservative Government have responsibility. There is a British dimension; we have additional difficulties that are only too well known--BSE, bovine tuberculosis and the recent floods all add to a legacy of problems that the Government have to do their best to sort out.

I am glad that the problems of the CAP have been mentioned. My political perspective means that I have never been a great fan of the CAP--let alone many aspects of the EU--but at least we are moving in the right direction. The problem is that there have been wild fluctuations in policy: from our own deficiency payment system, to price support systems and sectoral support payments, right up to the type of initiatives that many of us want for agriculture, not only in this country but throughout the western world--support for countryside management and rural development regulations that would ensure that agriculture was genuinely environment-friendly.

Mr. Hayes: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes an assiduous interest in these matters. Agenda 2000 was heralded as the great opportunity to reform the CAP exactly as he describes, yet once it was implemented, it was widely regarded as a damp squib. Surely the changes that he describes may take a generation or more--by which time, there will be precious few farmers left in Britain.

Mr. Drew: I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's argument. Agenda 2000 was a missed opportunity--less in this country than for other EU Governments. They must rue the day they did not make radical and more dramatic changes. We must continue to push them to ensure that they do so in the future.

At present, the most important matter is how to provide support to those farmers who so desperately need it. In the initial exchanges between Front-Bench speakers, we were reminded that for every pound raised in compensatory payments, 69p has to come from our Treasury. Looking back, one sees that it was no great success--to save our budget then could cost us much more money in future. However, we know that and we must build it into our calculations.

None of that would be necessary if we did not have to engage in all the fiddles and fudges of the exchange rate. I blame the CAP in particular; that was bound to lead to disaster. No country can rely indefinitely on a depreciating currency to finance its farmers. The currency began to appreciate under the previous Conservative Government and that continued under Labour, but unfortunately there are repercussions, on top of many other problems.

I hope that we shall debate BSE in a fortnight, so I shall not discuss it at length now. However, we must never underestimate the extent of the problems caused by BSE. They do not affect only farmers in the livestock sector; there is an integrity in agriculture--all the sectors work together. Phillips exposed the problems caused by BSE--not only health problems but income difficulties that farmers continue to face. We must keep revisiting them.

Although I have some comments on regulation, we must get it into our head that, after all the problems and all that we have learned, merely to remove regulation is not the way to rebuild confidence in our food chain. It

1 Feb 2001 : Column 531

would do just the opposite. Although it is schadenfreude to talk about what other countries are going through--we heard the earlier exchanges about those horrible French and those horrible Germans--at least we can give them a few lessons. However, we must never let the idea that we welcome their plight enter our consciousness. British beef farmers will also suffer because there will again be a lack of confidence in beef, and in other meat.

We must consider regulation and take up the arguments of Lord Haskins and the work of the three working parties that were set up by the Government to examine red tape. We must understand that it is possible to gold-plate some sectors, but we can do that only if we take a measured approach and are careful how we reduce the number of regulations. We must also ensure that regulations are enforced in the most appropriate manner.

It concerns me when people talk about investigation as though it can automatically be carried out by people who have the time to do it. However, we put enormous pressure on trading standards officers, environmental health officers and the Meat Hygiene Service. We must support them in whatever way we can, and that often means finding more resources, and not fewer, as those who advocate less regulation sometimes argue.

I know that other Members wish to speak, so it would be wrong if I spoke for my whole 10 minutes. However, it is important to develop a partnership so that those involved with the different elements of the food chain can understand and work more effectively with each other. This debate comes at an important time for my constituency, because Dairy Crest has announced a rationalisation of the dairy processing sector. I declare an interest: my dairy was the biggest winner. Severnside has become the so-called super-dairy, but I do not claim that my lobbying prowess had anything to do with that. I am sad for the dairies that lost out.

However, it has long been argued that there is a need for rationalisation in the sector, and we must accept that. Farmers have always told me that although the price that they receive for milk is not high enough, they want to be in a sector that is more efficient. Such developments are taking place in the processing sector, and it would be nice to see them happening in retailing, so that retailers pay the going price, even though most of us believe that it is too low. If consumers pay a fair price, that will help to keep dairy and other farmers in production.

I have been saddened by the shake-out in the processing industry, so we need to examine how we can bring people together. For the past week or so, farmers from Farmers for Action have been demonstrating outside the Severnside plant, and I gather that there will be a big demonstration tonight. Although I understand their frustration, that is not the way to build bridges.

Next Section

IndexHome Page