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Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): The hon. Gentleman has twice mentioned reform of the common agricultural policy. He knows as well as everyone in the House that to reform the CAP in any meaningful way requires unanimity among the 15 nations. How is he going to get that?

Mr. Breed: I was just about to suggest why we may get that co-operation.

The European Union must recognise the risks for everyone's economy in current trading conditions; any state--any European country--could be the next to suffer the same crisis as us. That reality will force more Ministers throughout the EU to realise that the CAP needs early reform.

Money in the CAP should be diverted from paying for production to paying for stewardship. Farm businesses must ultimately be self-supporting in their commercial activity, with Government providing only a safety net to weather storms. However, farmers are asked to do so much more--beyond such economic activity--and for that they must be rewarded.

Secondly, we need to recognise the risks of global trading and ensure that there are vigorous inspection procedures at all ports of entry to identify illegal and possibly contaminated food products, carried both commercially and by travellers, with prosecutions where necessary. We need to acknowledge that the rundown in so many sectors--such as port health authorities, Customs, farm inspections and state veterinary services--was a penny-wise, pound-foolish policy, and that greater resources must now be devoted to those important protections and that they must be maintained.

Thirdly, we need a proper labelling scheme to identify country of origin and to bring an end to misleading labels and practices. That, too, can be considered only on a pan-European basis because food has become such an international commodity. However, it can be achieved through firm negotiation.

Fourthly, we must use the existing options open to us to promote sustainable, safe and ethically produced food. That should include a more imaginative use of modulated funds for rural development to support the structure of family farms; an increase in the number of small, local abattoirs; and the creation of new local markets for their produce, recognising the important social, environmental and human health benefits that each can, in turn, provide.

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The larger agribusinesses will, of course, continue, and their trading practices and scale of production will continue to make them best suited to supply the larger food processors and supermarkets. However, by supporting local markets, we will ensure greater consumer choice--not just a choice between Asda and Tesco, but the choice to purchase locally grown food from a range of local shops and markets or to patronise the supermarkets.

Our aim must be to ensure that in this country we grow safe, sustainable and ethically produced food that gives primary producers a fair return on their investment and a proper reward for their labour, after which competition should ensure that the consumer pays the lowest price. However, to achieve both those aims, the balance between supplier and retailer will need to be redressed, and there must be an end to the complex monopolies that were identified in the recent Competition Commission report on the supermarkets.

We need a retail regulator to be appointed, as part of the Office of Fair Trading, to ensure the dominance of one sector cannot be abused, with the consequences that we have seen in recent years.

A cheap food policy, which, every few years, entails massive compensation payments, business failures and the desecration of our environment, is in fact extremely expensive for the taxpayer and consumers, and makes life a misery for many small suppliers. It is, of course, very profitable for supermarket shareholders.

It is also time to review completely the uniform business rate, which now is subject to so many dispensations and anomalies and is so disproportionately unfair to small businesses that only a complete reappraisal of how we raise local business tax will do. The rural economy is made up almost entirely of small businesses, and they have been very hard hit by the UBR.

When this terrible crisis is indeed under control, it will not be enough to learn lessons about its administration and management. To write another report, such as that of 1967, the recommendations of which were observed for a few years and then forgotten, will not be enough. The end of the crisis will present an opportunity to build on a real vision of what the future of agriculture and the rural economy should hold. According to that, through a combination of sensible regulation, deployment of resources and a recognition of the vital part played by a balanced agricultural sector, we can deliver what the consumer wants, in a countryside that is attractive and sustainable, while ensuring that we do not again threaten the lives and livelihoods of those who rely upon this green and pleasant land.

4.57 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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I am sure that today's debate, which is entitled "The Rural Economy", will focus largely on the impact of foot and mouth disease on the rural economy. Indeed, that is reflected in the motion and the amendments that have been tabled. Foot and mouth disease has been an enormous blow to the farming community and the wider rural community.

All hon. Members feel huge sympathy for those farmers who have lost their animals and for all those who are suffering in rural areas and, in some cases, even beyond. Indeed, looking around the Chamber, I can see on both sides Members who represent constituencies that have been devastated by the disease. They have been greatly affected and have maintained regular contact with their constituents and, therefore, know at first hand the difficulties involved.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): As the right hon. Lady looks around the Chamber, she sees Members with urban and rural constituencies, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) made the very good point that the businesses that have suffered are not necessarily in what the Government call rural constituencies. Will she extend the rate relief scheme to all the businesses that are suffering, regardless of the arbitrary authority in which they happen to be?

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who heads the rural taskforce, will respond to the debate. He made a statement in answer to a private notice question earlier in the week, and he will pick up the points made in this debate. However, the rural taskforce is doing a good job not only in the measures that it has already announced, but because it is taking stock of the situation as it develops. One point that has come home to us strongly is that, although some of the earlier predictions have come true, some of them were unfounded. Some attractions have done better than expected while others have done worse. For that reason, it is important continually to monitor the position and to be prepared to take measures as and when appropriate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On that point, will the right hon. Lady clarify the position in Scotland and in England? Is she aware that in Scotland the insane policy of slaughtering the hefted Cheviot flock will result, if it continues at the present rate, in the destruction of the entire flock? It is an irreplaceable asset in the Scottish economy. However, I understand that a different method is being used in, for example, Northumberland. Will she clarify the position and explain whether it is the same north and south of the border?

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman said, "On that point", but his intervention raised an entirely different one. None the less, it is an important issue. As a Northumbrian, I am keen to ensure that the flocks of Cheviots on both sides

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of the border have the best possible chance of survival. That is why I support the measures that the Government have taken. He overstates the differences between north and south of the border. Discussions are taking place between the Administrations to try to ensure that we approach the problem in as co-ordinated a fashion as possible. However, we are conscious of the important issue that he has raised.

There are welcome signs that our efforts to bear down on the disease are achieving results. The continuing downward trend in the daily number of cases is particularly encouraging. It has gone down from an average of 43 per day in the week ending Sunday 1 April to 16 per day in the week ending Sunday 22 April. There were 13 more cases on Monday of this week and 13 yesterday. The House will be aware of some of the more encouraging statements about the course of the disease that were made last week by the Government's chief scientific adviser, Professor King. Following rigorous serological testing of all farms in the relevant areas, we have been able to lift infected area status from nine areas entirely. Others will follow in the days and weeks ahead.

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