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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): There are some outside the House who think that the Government have a secret agenda. My right hon. Friend mentioned BSE, but added to that was the experience of salmonella, E-coli, listeria and foot and mouth. Have the Government any plans now, or in future, to license all farmers?
Margaret Beckett: No, we do not have such plans. However, my hon. Friend identifies an issue that concerned the commission. It said that we should take stepsI cannot remember the exact phraseologyto ensure that high standards are met in terms of food safety and environmental considerations. If I recall correctly, it suggests that while production subsidies are part of the structure of the CAP and continue to be paidit would wish to see them phased outthere should be criteria that relate to standards, including food safety standards. That is an issue that we will consider with great interest.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that we should work out exactly what we want in the way of public good from agriculture, what we are willing to pay for it and how we deliver it? Does she agree also that we must take care that we do not replace one abuse with another and end up with a mountain of schemes that may be of poor quality, however well packaged in green?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify that the commission strongly recommends that we shift resources away from production subsidies and support into support for the wider environment and rural schemes. He is right, too, to say that there will be a need, if we can convince people that it is the right direction to take, for proper structures and monitoring.
I do not disagree with anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, but as he will recall the commission said that it believes that the existence of current subsidies and their structure does practical and real damage both to farming and to the environment. I suspect, although I did not hear anyone put the question this morning, that the commission would argue that there is in any event a good case for phasing out the present subsidies. I believe that it is much of the view, however, that there are other things, in the context of the environment and in other areas, that farming communities undertake that merit public support. I agree that it is not a simple issue and that there needs to be careful consideration.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I also welcome the work done by Don Curry and his colleagues. In taking forward the commission's recommendations, does my right hon. Friend agree that regional development agencies will play an important role in integrating the rural and farming areas that they cover with their overall regional economic strategies? May I encourage her to give strong support to some of the regional food organisations, such as Taste of the West and others? They have been very good at identifying new opportunities for farmers, thereby helping them add value to their products and become more profitable.
Margaret Beckett: As always, my right hon. Friend shows her great experience and expertise in this area. Many will agree with her about the role of the RDAs, and about the need to work with the grain of what has already been happening with local farmers markets, particular schemes regarding local or locality produce, and the regional food organisations. The commission identifies such matters as worthy of interest and support in the future, and I anticipate that that recommendation will receive a considerable welcome too.
Margaret Beckett: The right hon. Gentleman asks which recommendations are likely to lead to a fairer distribution. If he has had time to glance at the report he will be aware already that the commission makes a range of recommendations that it believes will help to keep a fairer proportion of the price with the original producer. Those recommendations cover matters such as marketing techniques, the formation of co-operatives and ways in which people can work together to identify possible opportunities and how they should be addressed. I therefore would not pick out only one or two recommendations, as the commission makes a range of recommendations specifically related to the matter that the right hon. Gentleman raises.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): When it comes to asking questions of my right hon. Friend, it has been very useful to have both the report and the press release. At the weekend, I read about the 105th death from variant CJD. In memory of those who have died, and in consideration of their relatives and of the public at large, does not it behove us to move as quickly as possible to assure people that the food that they buy is safe and wholesome? We should move ahead with that straight away, but opinion surveys continue to show that the public are more interested in the cheapness of food than in its quality. Is not that a problem? The report recommends promoting local food supply chains and the continuation of work to ensure food safety at the national level, but should not work be done to persuade people that they get what they pay for, and that they should want to pay for the quality and safety of their food?
Margaret Beckett: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, and the House will agree about how seriously we must take the appalling consequences of the BSE epidemic. However, such strong moves have been made in this country to tackle the problem that British beef is probably safer than any other country's.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to move ahead, but the surveys to which he referred sometimes give mixed signals. It is true, of course, that price is the main determinant, but my hon. Friend will agree with the commission in identifying that people also have other concerns. Whatever price they pay for food, people have a right to expect that it will meet the basic minimum standards of safety and health. No matter how low the
There could be a marketing advantage, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) referred, in hallmarking some of the quality and traceability of local produce. There are things that we can do. I accept my hon. Friend's point that, as ever, a balance must be struck between the lowest price and the right standards, but we must strive to achieve those standards.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Secretary of State will be aware that, following the outcome of the WTO ministerial conference at Doha, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said of CAP reform:
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Lady, who is experienced in these matters, will know that the mechanism of the common agricultural policy keeps prices highartificially high, if necessary. As a consequence, throughout the history of the CAP, food prices in Europe have been kept much higher than they needed to be on the world market. That, no doubt, was the thinking that lay behind the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
It is true that the commission talks about better value. There will be times when we believe that the pressure on prices could decrease. This is a mixture: we want British farming to produce food of an even higher quality that it can market successfully on that basis, but we do not want it to lose markets unnecessarily because it is undercut by food imports that do not meet the standards that we believe are necessary.
The hon. Lady may have overlooked the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was also part of the Doha delegation dealing with issues of the environment and standards. One of the safeguards that we are beginning to build into international negotiations is the fact that we do not accept that there has to be a trade-off between liberalised, properly free trade and sufficiently high standards. It is part of our responsibility as a developed nation to help raise the standards of others to a level that we find acceptable.
It is not easy; these are difficult issues and choices. However, we must ensure that the choice is not as stark as the hon. Lady says, so that we can be confident that British consumers buy food that they can be safely recommended to eat.