Examination of Witness (Questions 73 -
MONDAY 11 DECEMBER 2000
73. Minister, welcome again. I hesitate to say
this is your last appearance of the year because you never know
with this game! We are here on pigs on this occasion. Thank you
for coming. We will try and be crisp and to the point. I wonder
if you could begin by outlining what responsibility does government
have for the pig industry? Where do you draw the line in where
you think the government is actively involved, where the government
just tries to be a helpful influence, and where you say, "Sorry,
chaps, that is your business"?
(Ms Quin) That is quite a difficult question to answer;
it is quite a short question to put. Obviously there needs to
be continued dialogue with the industry in order to identify those
areas where government can take action and areas where government
can at least help to try and improve the environment in which
producers are operating. There is a responsibility on government
to ensure that European rules are applied fairly and that our
own pig industry does not suffer disproportionately compared to
the situation regarding the implementation of European rules in
other countries, and there is a responsibility on the government
to look at the possibilities within domestic agricultural policy
to work with and support the industry. However, what the government
cannot do, of itself, is prevent all problems that might affect
the industry from a variety of factors. And, of course, the possibilities
for the pig industry are somewhat more limited than they are for
some other agricultural sectors given that the industry is what
is euphemistically called a "lightly supported" regime
under the Common Agricultural Policy as opposed to other sectors
that get more mainstream support.
74. When you say "make sure the industry
does not suffer disproportionately in comparison with other producers",
does that mean that when it comes to compliance with regulations
and cost of regulations, or in dealing with outbreaks of disease
which may also be an occurrence on the Continent that you want
to try and make sure that your response is broadly of the same
sort of magnitude and at the same sort of level as that received
from their governments by competitive producers?
(Ms Quin) Indeed, and also when aid has either been
proposed or seems to be given by other countries which does not
seem to us to conform with the rules, to be prepared to approach
the European Commission to say so.
75. It has been put to us that other countries
faced with a crisis pay up and then go and ask for permission.
Even if permission is refused the money is paid in any case and
it is all a bit too late. Is this a line of action which has commended
itself to the British Government or does the famous genie of disqualification
make it impossible?
(Ms Quin) Firstly, I do not accept that things are
quite as simple as the picture that would be painted in the words
that you have uttered. I do not believe that things are as simple
as that. I think that most countries are very much closely guided
by European rules. All countries face disqualification if they
disobey those rules and, indeed, sometimes the European Court
of Auditors' reports uncover cases where rules have not been properly
applied and payments have had to be given back as a result. There
are a number of safeguards in the system which would make the
situation you describe an oversimplified one. Nonetheless, we
do have to watch very closely what other countries are doing.
There are a number of ways in which we do that, both through official
contacts and indeed through ministerial contacts, and we need
to do as much as we can to make sure that the conditions of competition
are as fair as possible.
76. Sorry to miss your opening remarks; I am
sure I will pick them up later. If I can move us on to the Government's
responsibility towards the pig industry. Just in outline, Minister,
how would you describe the Government's performance with regard
to both the restructuring but also the swine fever outbreaks?
(Ms Quin) I think we have played an active role and
we have certainly had a great deal of contact with the industry.
Sometimes the negotiations in order to achieve particular results
have taken quite a long time, but there has been no lack of willingness
on the part of the Government to engage with the pig industry
and to work with the pig industry's representatives. I think this
has been particularly true in the fact that we agreed to bring
in the pig industry restructuring scheme and negotiate it in Brussels
even though that tends to be a time-consuming process. I think
also the way we have worked with the industry over the promotion
of their products, particularly through helping in terms of the
meat promotion campaign that was run by the Meat and Livestock
Commission, rather a controversial campaign at the outset but
one that certainly drew attention to the quality of the British
product. I think, too, the work done by our verification officer
and work which has now been taken forward within the Food Standards
Agency on much better controls over misleading labelling have
borne a good deal of fruit and a number of leading retailers have
changed labelling procedures as a result, and I think that consumers
are better informed as a result and are therefore able to exercise
a better choice about what they buy. I think, also, our overall
approach to the Rural Development Regulation is one where we have
shown we are committed to bringing in schemes which benefit those
sectors of agriculture who do not get mainstream Common Agricultural
Policy support. The pig industry, the poultry industry and the
horticultural industry and others are beneficiaries of that new
approach. We are very keen, as you know, to push that approach
forward as part of the overall Common Agricultural Policy Reform.
77. Can I stay on restructuring, and come on
to the swine fever outbreak in a moment. Do you think the 16 per
cent figure for the number of outgoers or the capacity is the
right figure, or is that too high or too low?
(Ms Quin) It is the figure that accords with European
State Aid rules, which is why the figure exists. We certainly
believe that we can meet that in terms of what has already happened
since July 1998, which is the period which is considered as the
starting period for the operation of the restructuring scheme.
Therefore we hope, particularly with the outgoers part of the
scheme, that that will be of benefit to many producers who have
restructured and reduced capacity, sometimes by a great deal more
than that amount, in the last two years.
78. Can you explain to me how you get to the
16 per cent figure, not in terms of what the EU says, but how
you manage the mechanics of that in terms of outgoers and those
who stay but reduce their capacity?
(Ms Quin) In terms of outgoers it is my impression
that the 16 per cent figure would be easily exceeded, there is
no risk of us not being able to comply with the 16 per cent figure,
given the changes that have taken place, with which you are familiar,
in the pig industry since 1998. Our discussions with the industry
have certainly indicated to us that now that the outgoers scheme
is open for business we will receive bids to be able to allocate
the money in that particular budget. In terms of the ongoers I
think the point is much more germane because, in fact, we would
prefer if that requirement of the EU was not there as far as ongoers
are concerned. It has been a difficult issue in the negotiations.
The Commission have said that this is part of a restructuring
programme, and the ongoers element is a restructuring programme.
In terms of the larger scale pig producers they particularly wish
to see that complied with. It will be more difficult to do it
in terms of the ongoers, but given that the ongoers depend on
a business plan being put forward, which has a forward-looking
strategy, we hope that it will be met. It should also be said
that 95 per cent of pig producers will not be subject to that
requirement and they will be able to benefit, we believe, quite
directly from the ongoers scheme.
79. If I can look at swine fever, why did the
Minister of Agriculture refer to the outbreak in its early days
and obviously the cost to the industry as a normal business risk.
Was that the right thing for him to say or was that somewhat risky,
given that now the Government have responded by providing compensation?
One would have thought he has gone back on what he was implying
at that time.
(Ms Quin) It is true that in farming there are disease
risks, and that is something that all farmers, in whatever part
of the industry, are well aware of, whether it is animal disease
or plant disease. However, during the course of the immediate
aftermath of the outbreak of swine fever, and the measures that
were taken to deal with it, it became clear that there certainly
was a welfare problem in those establishments which were subject
to restrictions but were not themselves infected premises. As
a result of that welfare problem, the overcrowding caused by the
fattening of the pigs, this was a possible area which Government
could help to address. Discussions with the industry eventually
reached an agreement, which again, as you know, was modified subsequently
on a number of occasions following suggestions from the industry
to make it a better scheme from the pig producers' point of view.