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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The independent policy commission on the future of farming and food, chaired by Sir Don Curry, delivered its report to the Government this morning. Copies of the report have been placed in the House Libraries and in the Vote Office.

The commission was set up in August of last year in fulfilment of a manifesto commitment, and I would like to offer the Government's sincere thanks to Sir Don and each of the commission members for the very hard work that they have put in over a short but effective period of consultation. Some 1,000 organisations and individuals have offered their views, and to undertake an exercise of this type in five months is indeed a tall order and a considerable achievement.

I very much welcome the report and the valuable ideas that it contains. The commission has delivered what we asked of it: a clear vision of a sustainable, competitive and diverse farming and food sector, playing a dynamic role in the rural economy and delivering effectively and efficiently the environmental outputs that society demands. We wholeheartedly support its broad analysis and conclusions.

The key themes identified in the report seem to us to be the right ones. The year 2001 was a desperately difficult one for farming and rural communities. Foot and mouth was a catastrophe, but, as the commission's report makes clear, farming's problems are wider and of longer standing. To make farming viable again, it is vital that we improve the links between farmers, their markets and their consumers, and reinforce the relationship between farming, the countryside and the environment.

I am sure that the House will understand that, having just received the report, I am not in a position to give a view on each of the many specific and detailed recommendations that it contains, but I shall pick out some of its key proposals.

Reform of the common agricultural policy, which the report advocates, is, of course, our long-standing strategic aim, and I am pleased to see that the report endorses our strategic objectives in that area. The report rightly points out that we already have some mechanisms in the CAP that allow us to transfer CAP moneys out of production subsidies into broader rural land management and environmental directions. Modulation is one such means, and the report makes ambitious recommendations to step up drastically the role of modulation. The Government accept that we should explore the use of such mechanisms, and endorse the need seriously to consider such shifts.

The commission notes the vital role of farming in contributing to a healthy and attractive environment. Under the England rural development programme, we already have many schemes in place to enhance and protect the environment and the countryside. The commission's view

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is that we need to go further. Its proposals for a broad and shallow agri-environment scheme are timely, as we are just embarking on a major review of such schemes.

The report makes it clear that if we are to have a profitable industry that is capable of thriving without production subsidy, the industry needs to take action to improve its own performance—for example, by cutting costs, by adding value, and by diversification—and that the role for Government is as a partner in, and facilitator of, that process. The report states, however, that the impetus must come from the industry itself, working within the food chain as a whole. That is why I am pleased that the report proposes the creation of a food chain centre to bring together all parts of the supply chain, with the aim of monitoring and improving competitiveness.

In other areas covered by the report, such as genetic modification, scrapie eradication, sheep national envelopes and animal disease insurance, the commission appears to have made recommendations that work very much with the grain of what we have been trying to achieve. The report makes it clear that its recommendations apply not just to the Government, or, within the Government, just to my Department, but we stand ready to work with the food and farming industries as they address the challenges that they face, because we need farming to succeed.

We all need time to consider how best to proceed and to assess the report's financial and other implications, but it is our firm intention that ideas such as those advanced by the commission will make a substantial contribution to a new strategy for sustainable, diverse, modern and adaptable farming that is integrated with the rest of the food chain, and which takes into account the needs of the environment and of the rural economy.

We intend to launch such a strategy later this year—perhaps towards the end of the summer—when detailed policy measures have been developed and drawn up. We will engage stakeholders across the country in that process, which will begin in March, when I hope to meet leaders of the farming and food industries, and of environmental, consumer and rural interests, to discover how best to drive forward the commission's agenda. I will announce further details in due course.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the Secretary of State for her response.

Like you, Mr. Speaker, I thought that the Curry report was a report to Government, but it has turned out to be more of a report to the media. Details of its content began appearing in last week's newspapers, and by this morning's departmental press conference, it had been so well trailed that it rather lost the element of surprise. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to express concern at the leaking of much of the report's content, and to assure the House that her Department was in no way responsible? When did she first see the report?

Having said that, I congratulate Sir Don Curry and his team on producing a substantial report against the Secretary of State's near-impossible deadline. Had the Government not been in such an unseemly hurry to divert attention from their miserable handling of the foot and mouth crisis, they might have got a better result. There are certainly aspects of the report that we can all welcome, such as its emphasis on the way in which all countryside activities are linked. We welcome its recommendation for

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major improvements in product labelling, for which the industry and consumer groups have repeatedly called. When will the Government finally act? The report also makes welcome suggestions on encouraging marketing, co-operation between farmers and local consumption of local products. Will the Secretary of State confirm not only that she supports those ideas, but that she intends to make them a reality?

The report also refers to the need for reform of the common agricultural policy, on which the Secretary of State touched. Almost everyone agrees that this discredited, out-of-date and bureaucratic structure, which has failed farmers, the environment and consumers, has had its day. When will the Government stop talking about reform and take a lead in Europe in making the changes that we need? Will she confirm that, under CAP rules, the report's proposal to shift subsidies from food production to environmental schemes could lead to everyone paying more tax—not less—to subsidise farming, while farm incomes continue to fall?

Does the Secretary of State accept that if farm incomes continue to fall, the rural environment and the whole countryside will be dragged down in their wake? Does she agree that, although the report is described as radical, no truly radical changes can be made until the CAP in its present form is swept away? Has she discussed the report's financial implications with her Treasury colleagues? What will she do about the fact that it applies only to England? Is it not a serious weakness that it does not apply to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland?

Has the Secretary of State noted what the report says about the pathetic state of our import controls? Will she confirm that, as matters stand, we could import foot and mouth again tomorrow? Will she take urgent action to address the situation? Will she be cautious in accepting proposals for new regulations? The farming industry is already on its knees, and the last thing that it needs in its fight to return to profitability is more red tape.

Who does the Secretary of State think is responsible for the present state of farming in this country? Well, we know. We know because she touched on it at her press conference this morning. She said—I hope that she will confirm the accuracy of this—

So we are all guilty.

We know that the Government like to shift the blame for everything that goes wrong to someone else, but this is plumbing a new low. Was it society that totally mishandled the foot and mouth epidemic? Has society been responsible for our animal health record, described in the report as "abysmal"? Was society in charge when farm incomes dropped for the fifth year in succession? Was society responsible for bungling the research into BSE in sheep? Has society introduced swathes of new gold-plated regulations?

Is it not the case that it is not society that is to blame, but the Labour Government—a Government who have betrayed the countryside, and lost the confidence of rural Britain?

If change is to happen, it will require trust. If it is to be effective, the Government will need to win back the confidence of rural people. In the medium term, they will be judged by their response to the report. Does the

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Secretary of State agree, however, that in the short term the most positive step she could take to restore the faith of rural Britain is the ordering of a full, independent public inquiry into the miserable handling of the foot and mouth disaster?

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