Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will the hon. Gentleman display his knowledge of agriculture by telling the House which UK industry receives more subsidy than any other? Which UK industry receives a subsidy equivalent in amount to the subsidies given to all others?

Mr. Yeo: I am bound to say that even I, with my extensive knowledge of the way in which Labour has treated agriculture for the past four years, was not aware that it was the Labour Government's policy to cut further the subsidies that are currently paid. We live in a world in which every advanced and wealthy country subsidises its farmers. If Britain alone were to go down the route that is advocated by the hon. Gentleman and perhaps supported by his party, then as night follows day, what remains of a once great British industry would be immediately destroyed.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): Much of what the hon. Gentleman has told the House is myth. We should look at the detail. Does he agree that the detail is what is important? Was not it a Labour Government who introduced a ban on liquid condensate? On a range of issues, the Labour Government have--[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman displays his knowledge by not even knowing what I am talking about. He should look at the record of the previous Conservative Government and at what this Labour Government will do.

Mr. Yeo: It is this Labour Government who have refused to take any action against poultry meat imports from the far east, where growth-promoting drugs are used that have been banned throughout the European Union on health grounds. It is this Labour Government who have refused to take action against French or German beef that contains illegal and dangerous cuts. It is this Labour

26 Jun 2001 : Column 515

Government who deliberately talked out a Bill that was introduced by a Conservative Back Bencher last year which would have introduced honesty in food labelling.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): It would be illegal.

Mr. Yeo: The Under-Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that it would be illegal to introduce honesty in food labelling. That is exactly the problem. The Labour Government refuse to contemplate any action to defend the position of either British consumers or British producers. If they are not willing to take on the bureaucrats in Brussels on that issue, there is no hope that anything remotely resembling a level playing field will ever be introduced for British agriculture. British taxpayers would regard it as a perfectly proper use of their money to fight a legal action to introduce the principle of honesty in food labelling. As soon as there is a Conservative Government, we will put that at the top of our priorities.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What the shadow Minister said earlier is simply incorrect. In the previous Parliament, the Labour Government banned four antibiotic growth promoters, including Virginiamycin. As someone who holds himself up as an expert in agriculture, perhaps he would apologise to the House for getting that wrong.

Mr. Yeo: Again, the hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. This Government are willing to stop those practices in Britain, but they do nothing at all to stop goods that have been produced using the same practices abroad from coming into the British market.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): On the subject of legality and otherwise, does the hon. Gentleman remember the Merchant Shipping Act 1988? The then Conservative Government were warned about the illegality of what they were doing--they were trying to define on grounds of nationality instead of residence. As a result of continuing with that, they ended up having to pay £100 million to Spanish quota hoppers. Is he recommending that course of action again?

Mr. Yeo: I am recommending a course of action that will protect British consumers from dangerous, substandard imported food. I believe that it is perfectly proper for the British Government to consider coming into conflict with the European authorities to protect British consumers. As it happens, both the European treaties and the World Trade Organisation rules contain specific provisions that allow the principle of free trade to be over-ridden where considerations of human or animal health apply. Indeed, all I am suggesting is that the same standards that we apply to every other industry be applied to farming and to food products. We do not allow substandard products that may endanger human life to come into this country--for example, motor cars that do not meet European standards. Why should we allow food that fails precisely the same tests?

I move on to common agricultural policy reform. I hope that the Secretary of State will set out the Government's long-term aims. They should aim, first, to apply the

26 Jun 2001 : Column 516

principle of subsidiarity to the CAP and, secondly, to end discrimination against farmers in member states that are outside the single currency area. That is an urgent issue, given the continuing weakness of the euro and the imminent expiry of the agrimonetary compensation arrangements. Thirdly, the Government should aim to rethink the basis of agri-environment schemes. I hope that the Government will publish a paper on the options for CAP reform and instigate a debate both inside and outside Parliament.

I turn now to foot and mouth disease. I regret to say that the Secretary of State did not get off to a happy start in her answers to questions on the issue last Thursday. Neither the tone nor the content of her replies to very reasonable questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House suggested that she realised the extent of concern in the countryside or the urgency of the measures that are still required. Hon. Members readily understand that after less than three weeks in the job, she will not be on top of all aspects of her brief, but her ignorance of some of the important issues is not, I am afraid, a reason for falling so quickly into the bad habits of her predecessor and making statements that are not true.

The responsibilities of the Secretary of State's new Department are wide ranging, and I trust that there will be another chance to debate foot and mouth disease specifically before the summer recess, but I want to touch briefly on four aspects of the epidemic today. First, a full and independent public inquiry is needed. Last Thursday, the Secretary of State steadfastly refused to countenance an inquiry on that basis--again confirming fears that the Government are hoping for a small, low-level review of the epidemic, conducted in a way that minimises the risk that ministerial blundering will be exposed to public gaze and that will prevent Ministers, including the Prime Minister, and former Ministers from being questioned in public.

The Prime Minister was, by his own account, in personal charge of handling the crisis from late March until, I understand, yesterday. His extraordinary claim that the Government were in the home-straight of defeating foot and mouth disease just before the election clearly owed everything to his wish to deceive voters into thinking that the crisis was over, and nothing to the facts. In the three months that the Prime Minister was in personal charge, he did not once see fit to make a statement on the subject in the House.

The scale of the disaster, the damage to the livestock industry, the countryside, tourism and the whole rural economy, and the enormous cost to the taxpayer clearly justify a full, independent public inquiry. To help that process, I am today publishing and placing in the Library possible draft terms of reference, and I am inviting my counterparts in all other parties to consider them and to suggest any amendments that they feel should be made, with the aim of reaching all-party agreement on this very important issue and about the need for the inquiry and the basis on which it will be conducted. I have also written this morning to the Secretary of State to make it clear that she would be most welcome to join any discussions that take place.

The second aspect of the epidemic is the need for a full recovery plan. Last Thursday, as reported at column 172 of Hansard, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Government would introduce such a plan, but refused to say when. The crisis in the countryside caused by foot

26 Jun 2001 : Column 517

and mouth disease cannot wait until politicians find time to consider the problems at their convenience. Thousands of businesses face imminent collapse, and many need cash help now. It is more than three months since we suggested that interest-free loans should be available to such businesses and repayable only when they return to profitability.

Ministers, whose salaries are paid regularly each month, do not always realise the agony of people whose businesses are running short of cash; they need help today. To back up the interest-free loans, we believe that further measures to increase rate relief are also required. Will the Secretary of State say why England will not match the measures already taken in Wales? Will she ensure that help is available in rural areas hit by the disease, even when those areas happen to fall inside urban local authorities? Will she set out as soon as possible the measures to be taken to deal with the new difficulties that will result from the ban on lamb and sheep exports? Will she announce the withdrawal of the Government's unworkable proposal for a 20-day ban on livestock movements? Will she introduce proposals for the recovery of the tourism industry, to help the livestock sector recover after the loss of valuable breeding stock and to assist other parts of the rural economy, including the important equestrian sector? Will we hear again soon from the rural task force, whose former chairman is, once again, absent from the Chamber?

Next Section

IndexHome Page