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12 Dec 2002 : Column 422—continued

Matthew Green: Is not the problem with the Rural Payments Agency that it is acting as judge, jury and executioner and behaves as if farmers are guilty until proved innocent? By contrast, the Inland Revenue would assume that someone was innocent until it found evidence of wrongdoing—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps I am being too kind to the Revenue.

Mr. Lidington: It is part of the problem, but in the Department there is a wider failure to develop information technology systems to make online communication between the Department, its agencies and individual farmers practicable.

Recently, the Government almost unbelievably admitted that DEFRA forgot to apply on time for a share of the European Union's 2003 fund for expenditure on efforts to control animal diseases, notably scrapie and BSE. As a result, the United Kingdom ended up as the only member state to get nothing from the fund, and the right hon. Lady has been reduced to pleading with the Commission to accept a late bid. Above all, British agriculture feels betrayed by the gap between Government promise and Government delivery. In that context, I want to comment on the new strategic plan. Having had a couple of hours to look at the three documents published by the Government today, Conservative Members can give a cautious welcome to many of the proposals. We shall clearly want to study them carefully, and I want to come on to one or two aspects of the plan later.

However, the test of today's announcement will be not the presentation of a document or even the admirable list of policy initiatives, but whether today's statement can be turned into effective action to assist British agriculture, which is in the grip of the deepest and longest-lasting recession to affect that industry in living memory. If there is scepticism in our countryside, it is partly because we have had so many strategy documents before—in December 1999, XA New Direction for Agriculture"; in March 2000, an XAction Plan for Farming"; and in 2001, reports from a hills taskforce and an inputs taskforce, to which the Government have even now failed to respond. In the eyes of many farmers and growers in this country, the Government seem at best indifferent and at worst hostile to their industry, at a time when their businesses are fighting for their very survival.

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That does not always mean that the Government need wait for European and international agreement, important though those aspects of the debate are. Let us consider animal disease. It is shameful that we had to wait for the European Parliament in order to get an independent and public inquiry into that devastating epidemic. The European Parliament's inquiry confirmed many of the messages that came through in the report of Dr. Anderson and others. Paragraph 20 stated:

In paragraph 21, the Parliament commented that the

It is not enough for the Government to argue that that was all in the past and that things have now moved on.

Let us examine today's strategy document and the reference that is tucked away there to disease insurance. There is a clear signal that the Government intend to impose on farmers at least a large part, if not all, of the financial responsibility for ensuring against the risks of future epidemics. The first thing a livestock farmer is likely to say is that not only is he struggling to make a living, but the level of any premium that an insurance company requires of him will be determined in large measure by the assessment that that insurance company makes of the effectiveness of the Government's policies for stopping disease entering this country again in the first place.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Does my hon. Friend feel as unhappy as I do about the Government's efforts to prevent disease from coming into the country? We still do not have the bins necessary for people to throw away their sandwiches at the airport, and the landing cards have still not been amended so that people can read that they should not be bringing illegal meat into the country.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right. It was March when the Government published their action plan. As my hon. Friend says, there are no amnesty bins and there has been no change to landing cards. We had an announcement that Customs and Excise would take over responsibility for enforcing import controls on meat and plant products, but no details of the priority that Customs is to give to that task, nor any details of the budget, resources or manpower that will be available to Customs and Excise to do that important job. The situation was pretty well summed up by the chairman of the Royal Society inquiry, Sir Brian Follett, who when asked by the Select Committee what was missing from the Government's action plan replied with the single word XAction."

The experience of foot and mouth disease and the Government's failure even now to deal with the consequences of that and to take effective precautionary measures for the future could be applied also to the situation as regards bovine tuberculosis. The most recent figures show a further rise in the number of herds infected. We have an epidemic that is spreading way beyond its original hotspots, and there appears on the Government's part to be no strategy beyond waiting for

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the Krebs trials to conclude over a period of many years. We were promised many months ago the introduction of the gamma interferon test. Yet again, action has lagged greatly behind the promises made by the Government.

Let us take another issue on which national action would be possible: food labelling. In its report on the foot and mouth epidemic, the European Parliament called explicitly for country of origin labelling to be introduced on all food and food products to ensure proper transparency and traceability. Even the European Commission seems ready to review the position on that subject. In their document today, the Government make a few lukewarm noises about looking again at food labelling.

We know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) is to introduce a food labelling Bill later this Session, and that will give Ministers the opportunity to demonstrate whether they are serious about the matter, and whether they are prepared to help British agriculture and consumer choice by introducing a statutory labelling system that will make sure that shoppers are able to tell whether the food that they buy was reared or grown in the United Kingdom.

We heard lukewarm words from the Government about competition policy. The Government speak, rightly, about the importance of farmers developing collaborative ventures in order to strengthen their clout in the food chain, but today's strategy document seems a little too satisfied with the current state of UK competition regulations. I am troubled when I see a New Zealand milk co-operative with more than 90 per cent. market share, and similar co-operatives on the continent of Europe with market shares in those countries of well over 70 per cent., and our dairy sector reduced by our competition policy to no more than 40 per cent., if that, of the market.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I have been in the House for quite a long time. Will the hon. Gentleman explain why his Government destroyed the milk marketing board?

Mr. Lidington: I have two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, unlike his Government, I am prepared to learn from experience; I do not feel wedded to decisions taken by previous Governments. I am prepared to look at policy on its merits. Secondly, we are discussing farmers' co-operatives, not state agencies. When we are asking our dairy farmers in particular to go out and compete in a European and, increasingly, in a global market, we must review our competition policy to make sure that it takes account of the realities of global competition that our producers are encountering.

Mr. Curry : As the Minister who took the legislation on the milk marketing board through the House, may I tell my hon. Friend that I have no regrets whatever about that legislation, because the milk marketing board had become an east European-type, top-heavy monopoly based on selling a raw commodity, and was not innovating sufficiently. We needed to bring more market forces into play, and that is now beginning to happen, very sensibly.

Mr. Lidington: We need to find a way to marry the innovation that my right hon. Friend was seeking to

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achieve—it is clear that dairy producers will gain by getting into value-added milk products—with a capacity that enables dairy farmers to market their product collectively, so that they have sufficient influence in the marketplace when they are faced with very large retail buyers.

When one goes round and speaks to farmers and growers, one finds that the single greatest complaint about Government concerns the burden of regulation. At various times in the recent past, the House has debated a number of such measures in some detail. The 20-day rule is putting at risk the survival of livestock markets throughout the country, as well as that of many individual farmers. We know that fallen stock rules will be introduced next April, but we have not yet seen any details about the proposed new collection service. The Environment Agency is saying that new environmental laws due to be introduced in the next few years could cost farms between #25 million and #40 million and involve up to 200,000 separate agency inspections.

I believe that regulation needs to be more selective and risk based, and that we need to involve the industry at a much earlier stage in discussion about regulations, before the final details are set in stone, whether in Brussels or Whitehall. We need to find ways of reducing the duplication of paperwork and the multiplicity of inspections of our farm businesses. As I am sure the Secretary of State knows, the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union recently published a report on environmental regulation and agriculture that made a number of important suggestions in that regard. I hope that the Government will take forward a significant number of those proposals.

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