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17 Oct 2002 : Column 451continued
Dr. Cable : Does the Minister agree that the present system is extremely attractive to large beet growers and to the company which has a virtual monopoly of processing, but is extremely damaging to consumers, taxpayers and, above all, large numbers of very poor people in low income countries, who are trying to sell into a world market where the price is a third of that in Europe? As the first step to the reform which he
Alun Michael: The UK is a leading advocate of the need for sugar reform, and I acknowledge that the current regime distorts international trade, and that that is to the detriment of many potential developing country suppliers. The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter on a number of occasions and he is right to do so. The specific proposals from Oxfam need to be dealt with by international agreement, and we will continue to press for that agreement and for the change and reform of the system.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): As the Minister is aware, the UK is not self-sufficient in sugar production. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) pointed out, it is not just a matter of rich farmers in East Anglia who are no longer making a profit. The issue affects all the add-on jobs in sugar beet factories, transport, haulage, subcontracting and other service industries, where many jobs are at stake. Will the Minister bear in mind the key point that this country is not self-sufficient in sugar production?
Alun Michael: Of course we are concerned about the sugar industry in this country, but it is unacceptable that the EU prices are currently three or four times the world level of prices. That is why early decisions are needed on the reform, so that all interested parties, including those in this country and in African, Caribbean and Pacific countriesthe preferential suppliersare able to plan ahead. We need the reform to take place as quickly as possible.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is our aim in the current common fisheries policy negotiations to achieve a more sustainable sea fish industry, and that key objective underpins our approach to the negotiations.
Lawrie Quinn : My hon. Friend will be aware that tomorrow the Whitby and district fishing training school will be opened for the first time, allowing 10 new apprentices to get the training onshore that they need for the key skills in the industry. Does he agree with the director of the school, Mr. Tony Hornigold, who said in the Whitby Gazette:
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Why has the Minister so lost the confidence of the fishing industry that industry leaders were forced to describe his performance and that of his Scottish counterpart this week at the European Council as Xsurreal"? What justice, if any, has he secured for distant water fishermen? How can he have taken a decision that could cost thousands of jobs in the fishing industry without any appreciation of the financial consequences to the fishing communities? Why does he accept hook, line and sinker the Commission's proposals without considering the consequences to a mixed fishery? Why has someone of his long experience so taken his eye off the ball? How has he become the David Seaman of the fishing industry?
Mr. Morley: At the recent Council meeting I met representatives of the UK industrythe Scottish, English and Irish sectorsalong with my counterpart from the Scottish Executive, and what we said to the industry was identical. There was not the slightest difference in our approach, which is a common, agreed approach, so what I find surreal is to say that there is a contrast. The reality is that we broadly support the Commission's proposals because many of our fish stocks are in a desperate state and we cannot ignore that. I made it clear to the industry that I do not discount the impact of whatever conservation measure we take, as I have repeatedly said, and I also fully recognise the problems presented by mixed stock fishery management. I am trying to find an effective, long-term and sustainable way of bringing about the recovery of those of our stocks that are under the most stress, particularly North sea cod, and take into account the views of the industry, which will be fully engaged in the process.
Mr. Kirkwood: I think that every informed commentator now accepts that some change in the CAP is necessary, but will the Minister acknowledge that current levels of farm income are unsustainably low and that the uncertainty about the time that it will take to obtain a deal on CAP reform is exacerbating the situation? Obviously, the Secretary of State has urgent business in another place today, but it is vital that the Government keep the House advised of the details of the changing aspects of the policy as they evolve during the coming months. Will the Minister assure us that statements will be made as soon as any details are known, and will he also ensure that whenever CAP reform is secured it will be secured as efficiently and expeditiously as possible and that it will be done in a way that gives the UK farming industry a long-term, stable future?
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman asks a series of detailed questions. We certainly want to keep the industry and the House informed. The Government believe that reform is necessary and, of course, the low level of farm incomes is a matter of concern. We want to help the UK farming industry to reform so that it has a sustainable future that is more linked to the market than to subsidy. With regard to timing, we have argued that the proposals that we welcomed in general terms do not go far enough or fast enough. Speedy reform, so that the industry knows where it is, would have our support, but we cannot determine the speed at which decisions are made.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): During the summer, I met olive producers in Greece who told me about the perverse incentive in the system that encouraged them to store many litres of olive oil at only a couple of euros a barrel, which is then sold in this country at a reduced quantity so keeping prices here artificially high. Do not such perverse incentives militate against the proper production of food of the right quality and quantity and lead to higher prices for British consumers?
Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. She gives an example of perverse incentives that result in higher prices for consumers without particularly helping the sustainability of agriculture in this country or in other parts of Europe. It is important that we deal with these matters, and that reform takes place quickly, in advance of the enlargement of the European Union.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Will the Minister tell us whether there is any truth in the leaked document published in The Guardian, which suggested that the Government had abandoned the issue of the fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy before the extension of the EU, and had said that there would be no changes of significance until at least 2007? As an attempt to explain the seriousness of the situation, will the Minister tell us how
Alun Michael: I shall deal simply with the story to which the hon. Gentleman refers. No, it is not an accurate story, and the Secretary of State has written to the newspaper refuting it. There is no truth in it.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does the Minister accept that the successes to date in reforming the common agricultural policy have been nothing short of pathetic? Does he agree that it is about time that we set British farmers free from welfare dependency, and that it would be in the farmers' interests to have a stable future, free from subsidy? Surely scrapping the CAP and letting British farmers stand on their own feet would be in their interests and in the interests of my constituents, who want cheaper food immediately.
Alun Michael: It is interesting that Conservative Members were cheering some parts of my hon. Friend's question. They clearly want subsidies simply to be removed without anything being put in their place, which is an interesting shift in attitude. There are both domestic and international reasons why we must seize the opportunity to achieve a comprehensive shift in the focus of the common agricultural policy. I agree with my hon. Friend that progress has not been swift enough. It is necessary to meet the challenges of enlargement, to underwrite the EU's position in the World Trade Organisation negotiations, and, more importantly, to make our agriculture more competitive and sustainable, and to ensure that our rural economies can flourish despite the challenges ahead. I agree with my hon. Friend.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): As the Secretary of State has written to The Guardian about this article, will she come and tell the House exactly what she has said? As she is not here today and we have no explanation for her absence, may I wish her a speedy recovery if she is ill? If she is not, may I ask where she is?
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the Secretary of State is at the Environment Council, and has written to the Opposition to tell them that she is there looking after British interests. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not care about British interests, but we do, and the Secretary of State does. It would be ludicrous for Members of the House to ask the Secretary of State to come and answer at the Dispatch Box every time a newspaper gets a report wrong.